Game of Thrones: “Garden of Bones” Review

So i’ll get it out on the table right now: this was one of the worst Game of Thrones episodes I’ve ever seen.

Let’s keep it in context, however; the worst GoT episode is still eight times better than the best Legend of the Seeker episode, still twice as good as the best episode of Roar (anyone actually remember that show?), and still better than all but a handful of Spartacus offerings.

It was pretty damned cool, and it hurled the story forward with violent gusto. It only holds up badly when compared to other GoT episodes. But that’s where I’m going with this. Call this one my “annual complainer’s post” if you must (because I hope I won’t be writing any more negative critiques for this again), but understand that this is a show I absolutely love.

Declared love does not forgive the need for honesty. And so, as Ser Jorah once sort-of said, “Here we are.”

If “Garden of Bones,” written by Vanessa Taylor and directed by David Petrarca, needs a finger of blame pointed somewhere it will probably fall on them, though surely David Benioff and D.B. Weiss had a hand in some of these missed details. I don’t disparage them in the grand scheme of things; you can’t expect constant and continual greatness, especially in a television series still in its infancy. Even the cutest baby barfs down the front of his mother’s blouse every once in a while.

The good news: most of the errors made in “Garden of Bones” won’t have any sort of lasting negative impact on the show at all. (The Stannis one might. We’ll see in future eps. Read on.) More than likely we’ll be back on track and surging forward by next week, with the farces and fallacies of this one thankfully in our rear-view mirror.

We began with two nerd guards embroiled in a nerd guard debate, arguing the rankings of the realm’s greatest fighters. How geeky is that? It’s more than a little meta, and probably a little too modern-sounding for Westeros; somewhere in the range of “Oh, I just remembered, I don’t care.”

But I guess it’s funny. Who’s the best? The Mountain? Jaime Lannister? Loras Tyrell? Nerdguards heatedly debate!

Annnnnnnd then it becomes a fart joke. I suppose that’s fine, much in the way I suppose Jar Jar Binks stepping in Bantha poo-doo is fine. It entertains a certain demographic.

But people…

“Yeah, don’t even try me. Do you think I’m an idio—AAAAUUGHHH!”

Is Taylor not a fan of horror scripts? Seriously, how many times has that setup been done? It’s so old hat, it’s the meme of a trope, though possibly with a grandfather clause tucked on at the end.

Transition to the next morning, as Robb Stark (Richard Madden) walks amongst the dead and wounded, surveying the field of his latest victory. We are introduced, briefly, to Lord Roose Bolton (Michael McElhatton), whose voice is disturbingly awesome. He sounds sort of like a cross between Ralph Fiennes and Peter Cushing… which basically makes Roose Bolton equal Voldemort—with the full power of the Empire at his fingertips. Proper!

Another introduction is “Talyssa” (Oona Chaplin). Nothing draws a king’s eye quicker than a hot chick sawing off some dude’s leg, am I right? Count that as First Squick Scene of the Night. There will be plenty more.

Who is this mystery woman? Clearly she’s either on the Lannister side of the fight, or purposefully (and wisely) neutral. She says she’s from Volantis.

“Volantis. You’re a far way from home.”

Robb’s eyes tell us he’s more than a little intrigued. Dude, aren’t you supposed to marry a Frey when this whole war is said and done? Eyes forward! (Hey, I like ‘er too though.)

Transitioning to King’s Landing, Lancel Lannister (Eugene Simon), clearly much braver than he was last season, struts and sneers and appears to give King Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) plenty of reason to blame Sansa (Sophie Turner) for Robb’s victories. I love a proper suck-up!

Sansa was saved from a severe flat-side-of-the-sword spanking (squick scene #2) by Tyrion (Peter Dinklage), though I didn’t like the interruption. It felt forced, like there should have been a sharper “STOP!” or something. It looked almost as though Ser Meryn (Ian Beattie) was expecting that to happen. My initial instinct is to blame the actor for telegraphing what is essentially a spit-take with a sword, though this goes back to the script. If Tyrion had yelled something in a louder tone, I could have possibly believed the reaction. As it was, it felt set up and fake, which is not usually a hallmark of this show.

Joffrey traipsed to his bedchambers, where two whores—Ros (Esmé Bianco) and Daisy (Masie Dee, helping fill the show’s “ex-adult film star” quota)—awaited as “name day gifts” from Unca Tyrion. And you just knew this was going to end badly. Squick scene #3 is a go!

I’ll fly in the face of conventional squick wisdom by saying this was actually a pretty good scene. You see the wheels turning in Joffrey’s head when he asks, “My uncle sent you?” He’s gleeful—not only for the suffering he’s about to inflict, but because he actually has found a good reason to do it: payback against Tyrion! It’s just a big fat excuse to behave badly, but hey, at least he has something to tell his mother if she asks why the corpse of a prostitute was found in his bedchambers.

People complaining this was too gratuitous can go eff themselves. It’s not torture porn if most of the action happens offscreen. The really bad stuff is all audio. And Joffrey’s giddy face is the money shot.

In the Stormlands, Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish (Aiden Gillen) arrives and tries to strike up an alliance with King Renly (Gethin Anthony), who seems more interested in eating fruit than speaking to Littlefinger.

I have no complaint with this scene… other than Renly was eating an apple, not a peach!

(That’s an insider book-reader-only joke, y’all. It’s not a complaint. Jokes, people!)

Littlefinger gets into a conversation with Queen Margaery (Natalie Dormer), who was wearing basically the best dress ever (and probably praying against rain). Really, the dress was the best part of the scene. Tyrell couture is a win. However…

Captain Obvious makes the first of many appearances when Margaery speaks the line, “My husband is my king and my king is my husband.” Really, Marg? Littlefinger, who’s used to Varys’s complex entendres and riddles, is properly dumbfounded.

Later, Littlefinger visits Catelyn in a scene so rife with wince-inducing lack of subtlety it made me cringe on my couch.

“Cat, I’ve—I’ve loved you since I was a boy! It seems to me that fate has given us this chance—“

Seven help me, did he actually reach for her and play the “fate” card three sentences into their conversation?

Look, I get that there’s a lot of shit to get across. I get that the casual viewer might not immediately catch on to the fact that a seemingly immoral man like Littlefinger is actually in love with this woman. But HBO—you’re going the wrong way with this. You’re supposed to leave enough clever hints that may then entice the casual viewer, by now fully intrigued, to go out and buy season one on DVD or Blu-Ray.

Poorly played. I suppose I should be glad they didn’t actually show Ned’s bones. Or maybe I just expect better. Spoilt by weekly doses of awesomesauce, that I am.

We were introduced to the oft-mentioned Harrenhal, a dragon-burnt edifice that looks just bloody horrifying, and I mean that in a good way.

(I have ZERO complaints about the show’s CGI. None. It’s better than the stuff we see in many movies. Harrenhal looked brilliant.)

Captain Obvious made another appearance, returning in the guise of the Dazed Old Woman Who Talked About Her Tortured Son. “He’s dead,” she said, after we clearly (squick #4) heard his muscle tissue and bones ripping on the rack. Thanks, lady!

Arya (Maisie Williams) began her prayer ritual, which was cool. She added “Polliver” and “The Mountain” to her ever-growing list.

Speaking of whom, we met the new Gregor “The Mountain” Clegane, formerly played by Aussie giant Conan Stevens. The Mountain’s sizable boots are now filled by Ian Whyte, who, while certainly tall enough, simply doesn’t have the old Mountain’s gargantuan presence. And yes, I know you can’t change a man’s body type; if dude is gangly he’s gangly. But… damn, I dunno. Pad the armor a little?

Maybe they should have given him the Mountain’s old tournament helmet or something. Lannister helmets were a problem here, because they make everyone look exactly the same. Gregor looks like Amory Lorch (Fintan McKeown), and Polliver (Andy Kellegher) looks just like every other generic Lannister dude that walks past the screen.

We could have used Captain Obvious here! Maybe lose the Lannister helmets next season.

We also met the Tickler (Antony Morris), who “tickles” prisoners to death with rats, ushering in squick #5. His “Where is the Brotherhood” question may lead to some cool stuff in later seasons, as the television audience is getting a word-of-mouth introduction to…

BOOK SPOILER: …the future Brotherhood Without Banners. Glad they’re keeping this in! END BOOK SPOILER!

Probably the most enjoyable scene of the episode was the meeting of King Renly and King Stannis (Stephen Dillane) on a windswept Stormlands cliffside. Renly gets all the good lines:

“Suppose if we use the same [banner], the battle would be terribly confusing. Why is your stag on fire?”

“Now I understand why you found religion in your old age.”

“Born amidst salt and smoke? Is he a ham?”

Excellent scene, and I like that it allowed the actors to just interact! And Brienne (Gwendoline Christie) looked suitably badass in her Baratheon guard helm. No mistaking it was her!

Finally out of the Red Waste, Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) was brought to Qarth, where—quite possibly—the weakest scene I have ever witnessed on Game of Thrones took place:

“Oh, my name is quite long and quite impossible for foreigners to pronounce,” said the rotund Spice King (Nicholas Blane) in a perfect and unmistakable British accent. Really? They couldn’t have cast someone more—I don’t know—foreign? It was filmed in Croatia! If dude’s name is so impossible to pronounce, you’d think they’d at least toss some sort of exotic accent onto him.

Obvious Spice King carefully and clearly introduces us to Xaro Xhoan Daxos (Nonso Anozie), “a savage from the Summer Isles” said in obvious obviousness, since (clearly) Qarth is extremely British. Milk Men indeed.

And here we encounter a problem that some of the more recent A Song of Ice and Fire books actually have: the issue with Essosi names! Honestly, I’m buggered about how to combat it, other than by NOT saying names in full and going with something shorter, maybe affixing a title or honorific to it instead of an elongated name almost no one will be able to remember. Hard enough reading it on paper!

Another issue: Dany butchers the pronunciation of Qarth, even though in a previous scene (when she is told about the city for the first time by Kovarro), she pronounces it properly. In fact, Qarth has only been spoken of verbally, and more than once—so why would she suddenly botch it? It may as well be spelled KARTH, as far as she’s concerned.

This was basically realism being sacrificed in order to instigate Dany becoming flustered, helping to lead to her meltdown.

Some people complained that Emilia Clarke overacted in in her oft-repeated “We will lay waste to armies and burn cities to the ground” speech, but I don’t see it as overdone at all. If those gates shut, they will die. She’s playing her final card and is at the end of her rope. I get it.

“Ah. You are a true Targaryen,” purred the Spice King, which was a pretty succinct line. I think the biggest problem here was the casting. I’m sure Nicholas Blane is fine in other roles. Hell, I think he would have made a spot-on Illyrio (I didn’t like Roger Allam in the role at all). But this Spice King character clearly called for someone with at least some sort of an ethnic accent.

Mr. You-Can’t-Pronounce-My-Name. Because Nigel from Coventry is so difficult.

Again, I loved the CGI visual of Qarth; it truly looks like The greatest city that ever was or will be, bringing to mind a fantastical Babylon. I did see hanging gardens in the distance!

Back at Harrenhal, Lord Tywin (Charles Dance) arrived and basically saved the day. I was almost expecting trumpets. I’m intrigued to see what will happen with Arya playing at being Tywin’s cupbearer. It’s a slight but very interesting change from the books.

The episode’s finale was cool. The CGI in the “birthing of the Shadow-Baby” was extremely badass, with Melisandre sort of hearkening to Helen Mirren’s Moragana in Excalibur. I loved it. And I really liked Carice van Houten in this episode. She says “The night is dark and full of terrors” nearly the same way every time, as rote, with only the slightest tip of inflection depending on the circumstances. It’s kind of mesmerizing.

But up rose a rather troublesome problem, story-wise. Davos Seaworth (Liam Cunningham) is told by Stannis he will have to play the role of smuggler once more, all secretive like, which implies Stannis has at least some inkling of what’s to come. But can he really? Is this the son you were expecting, Stannis? Surely not! The books never had the lure of an heir for Stannis as part of his motivation to lay with Melisandre. So this could be a BIG issue in the future, depending on what, exactly, they do with Shadow-Baby.

Another issue: “These [bars] weren’t here before. They’ve barred our passage.”

What? A mobile army took the time to bar a cave’s passage? I knew King Renly’s forces were moving slowly, but… that’s basically slower than a crawl when you bother to have some poor fool set bars in a cave’s tunnel you may be passing by.

Now in the books there were actually two shadow-babies—one birthed somewhere in secret, and the second beneath a castle’s dungeons, where the passage was barred. And it seems as though they’ve decided to combine the two scenes…

But unless they establish Renly as staying in some castle or keep (and I’m pretty sure dude is still sleeping in his Uber Huge Tent of Worldly Comforts), the tunnel being barred makes little sense. Like why would they even need to do this in a cave in the first place? Just row until you find a lonely stretch of beach.

I could be completely wrong. Maybe the Shadow-Baby is visiting a nearby neighbor (though you’d think they’d set something like that up). But if things play out the way the book says they do, the bars in the cave don’t make one bit of sense.

Anyway. Of course I love Game of Thrones. It’s still the best show on television. But I found more than a few problems with this episode, and I think I’m just going to chalk it up to a new-to-the-series writer and director. I hope Petrarca does a better job with next week’s episode, “The Ghost of Harrenhal,” and hope Vanessa Taylor just improves, period.

She is slated to write for season 3, after all.

One sour apple does not spoil the bunch! Onward!

If you want to become impregnated by shadow-babies, follow me on Twitter! That’s @Axechucker!