Game of Thrones Review: The Old Gods and the New

I do what I have to to stay alive.”

Game of Thrones

I figured it was time to get back on the Game of Thrones wagon, since the internet is determined to furnish me with spoilers for the recent fifth-series finale, and since I have very little else to do at the moment.

The Old Gods and the New is the sixth episode of the second series (I know, I’m a long way behind), and, as its title implies, it’s a tale of shifting alliances and strange allegiances, the first breaths of the winds of change. Out upon the cold wastes north of the Wall, Jon Snow finds himself unable to kill a wildling woman; in Winterfell, Theon Greyjoy turns on his old friends and takes the citadel for his own; Arya finds herself having a nice cosy chat with Tywin Lannister, and picks up some useful intelligence, too; Danaerys discovers that shouting histrionically at rich merchants doesn’t make them any more likely to fund her expedition to Westeros; and rebellion begins to stir in King’s Landing.

While this fluidity, this sense that the old must pass into the new, is potentially interesting territory, and in some plotlines makes rather good drama – the confrontation between Danaerys’ Dothraki-born strength of will and the Qarth merchants’ matter-of-fact logic is especially well-handled, as is Tyrion’s tentative compassion for Sansa Stark – the concentration of so many points of shift in the same forty minutes makes for an episode that feels more cliche-ridden than most. The fact that every single character is making some unlikely alliance reduces the emotional affect of each single alliance: we might just be able to believe in Jon’s inability to kill a woman (and of course it’s totally reasonable for the Night’s Watch to leave him alone in the mountains to do this) but when we see Tywin the tyrant actually being nice to Arya in the very next scene (oh the irony) – well, it feels a little engineered, a little inorganic. Which is a shame, because Game of Thrones is generally good at feeling true.

It’s interesting, though, that despite all the blood and gore on show here, the episode apparently buys into an idea of humanity as fundamentally unwarlike. As fundamentally honest. The head of the Lannister family shares nostalgic reminiscences with his servant. The Hand of the King is nice to the king’s enemies because it makes political sense. The wildling captive chooses loyalty to her captor’s family. There’s a suggestion here that if we could let go of motives like greed and jealousy and ambition we could all actually get along quite well; because politics is transient, but human niceness – human honour – is a universal. (Unless, of course, you are Joffrey Baratheon.)

I’m not sure about this message: it feels deeply conservative for a fantasy world in which there is obviously much to be improved. It suggests that the hunger of those in King’s Landing could be alleviated if only their ruler was slightly nicer; that the warped, misogynistic form of mercy which Jon Snow shows to the wildling Ygritte is somehow an ideal or desirable baseline; that, in fact, everyone everywhere should just be happy with their lot.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that this episode just felt clumsy to me: oddly paced and weakly plotted, relying on old cinematic cliches that don’t really say anything new or interesting. This is exactly the kind of fantasy that I don’t want on my screen, in fact: reactionary, conservative, complacent and lazy. It may well pick up next time – I hope it does – but The Old Gods and the New is, primarily, forgettable.

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