Power games in Game of Thrones
I love the Game of Thrones episode “The Bear and the Maiden Fair”. Why? Let’s take just one scene, between Joffrey Baratheorn, the King, and Tywin Lannister, the Hand. Watch this clip, and ponder before you continue.
1. Joffrey sits on his throne and forces Tywin to come to him. There’s no reason to do so – he could’ve met his grandfather in an office or a garden, instead of the Throne room, which is meant for public gatherings. There’s also no reason he should be sitting on the throne. However, physical height is closely linked to power – a ruler should be “above” his subjects. He’s trying very hard to assert his authority – via the symbol of the Throne – over the Hand.
2. As Tywin walks across the hall, you can’t tell whether he will climb the steps to the throne, facing Joffrey as an equal, or stand at the foot, acknowledging his superior status. Initially he stands at the foot, bends (ever so slightly) and says “Your grace.” He’s playing along.
3. Joffery is the ruler of the Seven Kingdoms, and a prick to boot. He should be dominating everyone. Yet…
4. He cannot talk arrogantly to his grandfather. He is psychologically incapable of it. Compare how he converses with Tywin to how he talks to other people, including his mother. Only Tyrion and Tywin can induce such fear.
5. The King feels the need to give unsolicited excuses for why he hasn’t bothered to attend meetings.
6. We learn that the Hand has shifted meetings to his chambers, because he doesn’t want to waste time walking. That’s a statement – he’s physically shifted the center of control closer to himself and further from the King.
7. He doesn’t feel the need to explain this to the King, who must explicitly say “May I ask why?” before he gets an answer.
8. The King doesn’t have the guts to say “Move the meetings back here.” Instead, he childishly complains about having to walk up a tower.
9. As the King pushes the Hand, Tywin climbs up the steps to the throne. He is now looking down at Joffrey.
10. “We could arrange to have you carried.” Burn.
11. Joffrey is now visibly nervous about trying to assert his authority. He can barely make eye contact. He doesn’t dare order his grandfather back down the steps.
12. Joffrey wants to know about the Targaryen girl and her dragons. Instead of offering information, Tywin asks “Where did you hear about this?”, thus casually declaring that he doesn’t expect Joffrey to know anything.
13. Again, he doesn’t offer any plan of action – which Joffrey is clearly expecting – and Joffrey is forced to say “Don’t you think we ought to do something about it?”
14. The Hand dismisses his Kings’s concerns about “curiosities on the far side of the world.” Can you imagine Ed Stark dismissing Robert like this?
15. But how do we know they aren’t a threat? The scene turns into something out of Yes, Minister:
Tywin: Because we’ve been told as much by the many experts who serve the realm by counselling the King on matterson which he knows nothing.
Joffrey: But I haven’t been counselled.
Tywin: You’re being counselled at this very moment.
Double burn. Triple burn because the reply is so blatantly evasive.
16. The King turns into a child. “I should be consulted,” he pouts.
17. The Hand assure him he will be consulted on “important matters, whenever necessary.” Who defines “important” and “necessary”? The Hand, of course.
18, He doesn’t wait to be dismissed. Instead, with elaborate formality, takes his leave.
There doesn’t seem to be much action in this scene but we quickly realize that power lies with Tywin Lannister, not the King he is “serving”; that Joffrey doesn’t like it, but is incapable of dealing with it; that Tywin has nothing but contempt for his grandson. There are a dozen other things, which I’ll leave as an exercise to the reader. The subtle power play is cinematic genius.
The episode is full of these character-revealing scenes. There are some bad scenes, no doubt (why is it so easy for Arya to run away?) but overall this is the best episode I’ve seen to date.
There are problems that arise when something gets adapted to television from a book. Some scenes sound great in a book (because the reader can mentally fill in details of how Arya’s escape would look like) but look awful on screen. Similarly, television, where actors can express things with their body language instead of dialogue, has scope for scenes that would be impossible in a book or graphic novel. Similarly, the scenes of Robert’s bastards being killed would’ve added too much bulk to the books, but can be shown in a few quick, brutal scenes on television.
I’ve found that, sometimes, when the television series or movie departs from the book(s) or graphic novel(s), the result can be an improvement, such as Fullmetal Alchemist. Game of Thrones is steadily moving away from the novels it was based on, and the direction looks promising.