Chatter about the confidence of Game of Thrones has been transposed most recently by an increased volume of talk about the show’s depiction of violence, particularly sexual violence towards its female characters, which is sure to get its share of attention in the coming week once again after the Craster’s Keep scene in tonight’s episode. What I hope doesn’t go unnoticed, or under-appreciated, is that quality that is becoming more markedly unique to this series, which is usually described in the shorthand term of “confidence.”
This episode, “Oathkeeper,” provides two examples of this quality as its bookends. Put simply, the way I understand people’s use of this term, or rather one dimension of the show that warrants this vague descriptor, is through its willingness to present us with sounds and images that we don’t fully understand, while maintaining and controlling our level of curiosity in what they could be.
So for instance, our episode tonight (directed by the televisual master, Michelle MacLaren) opens in another disorienting fashion, visually and aurally, as we see nothing but fire and obscured closeups of what are soon revealed as two relatively minor characters, Missandei and Grey Worm. It becomes clear that she is teaching him to read and speak in the Common Tongue (which, to our ears, is represented by English), and that becomes an immediate hook for the scene: two characters who have been intriguing since their introduction getting some screen time. We learn about each of them as they discuss their respective histories that have led them to their current state, an intimate moment we’re tossed into, which would give the feeling of a cold open if not for the warm tones of the scene. It’s as rich and interesting as a scene involving major characters, and foreshadows not only the events of Daenerys’ plot this episode, but also the implications of her quest for justice. Few other TV shows can make a scene with just two side characters this interesting (although Mad Men had a nice one last week).
Then to skip ahead to the episode’s conclusion, most impressively its final five minutes, we have what one might refer to as pure cinema: a mysterious, chilling, and weirdly yet immensely compelling glimpse into the kingdom of the White Walkers. It’s wordless, obviously, since these frozen characters (as of yet) don’t really speak, and contains these perfect visual reveals: that it’s the same horseback character to which we’ve previously been introduced; that this figure does indeed accept Craster’s offerings of infants (that dude is crazy but apparently this bit was semi-legit); and that there’s an entire world of these things that remains completely alien to us, a hinted-at hierarchy that preserves the idea that the best reveals in television often stir up a host of brand new questions to keep the audience wanting more. That haunting final shot of the baby’s face is the epitome of this.
Perhaps more impressive, or at least noteworthy, than the concluding scene, which was as strange and new to fans of the books as to anyone else, is the show’s apparent decision to take the storylines of the northern characters into a completely different direction from their literary trajectories.
Personally, I like when the show does this. It keeps the smug book nerds on their toes and levels the playing field among the audience members (Daenerys would be proud. Kill the masters!). I am one of those special folk who have read the books (after watching two seasons of the series) and proceeded to forget nearly everything that was in the books, so in other words, not the most reliable source of identifiable departures from the source material, but my prose-nosed friends assure me that the plots involving Bran and Jon, which seem to be on a collision course, are unique to Game of Thrones the series. Such departures are often criticized, but so far, I find this one to possess a great amount of potential for the visual bias of televised storytelling, especially the character of Locke, who is hot on the trail for Stark heir blood and brought to the most sinister life by the brilliant Noah Taylor.