The Longest Night — Game of Thrones: ‘Cripples, Bastards and Broken Things (1x04)’
“You’re almost a man now, but you are not worthy of my land and title.”
Writer(s): Bryan Cogman
Director: Brian Kirk
Plot: Ned investigates the circumstances behind the death of Jon Arryn; Samwell Tarly arrives at Castle Black, and Jon befriends him; the royal family organise a jousting tournament; Daenerys begins to fight back against her brother.
THREE-EYED-RAVEN’S WARNING: DO NOT READ THE FOLLOWING IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN ALL SEVEN SEASONS OF HBO’S GAME OF THRONES.
By episode four, the nature, tone, and conventions of any television show are usually firmly established. Fun cartoons won’t suddenly switch to intense live action drama; crime thrillers are unlikely to suddenly opt for musical sing-a-longs; and the chances of a medieval political fantasy slipping into detective drama territory are incredibly low. Or so you’d think. But with Ned Stark busy investigating the death of Jon Arryn, scurrying here and there throughout the corridors and alleyways of King’s Landing, and with Catelyn Stark arresting Tyrion Lannister following her own investigation into Bran’s fall, ‘Cripples, Bastards and Broken Things’ is a slightly unbalanced outing for Game of Thrones.
Watching Ned and Cat sleuth their way through proceedings is still an enjoyable ride — but considering this isn’t a show that’s usually concerned with following suspicious trails, their separate investigations are afforded too much of the run-time. And that’s a slight shame, because this is an episode which beautifully introduces characters whose unpreparedness for this uncompromising world leaves them vulnerable and open to attack, and then begins to flesh out their connections with the few Westerosi folk who give a damn about them.
Because despite Game of Thrones’ focus on the many battles and conflicts between Westeros’ privileged few, the audience’s sympathies are frequently guided towards “the grotesques,” as Tyrion Lannister so eloquently describes them in ‘The Kingsroad’. The grotesques are the common folk, the disabled, the downtrodden, the forgotten and the mistreated, the, uh, cripples, bastards and broken things. Ruling would be significantly easier if they were to simply drop dead, at least according to Westeros’ lords and kings. They’re shunned by their parents and sent away from their homes, forced into taking on manual labour jobs, told to keep their heads down and their mouths shut.
Samwell Tarly’s first appearance on this show is soundtracked by taunts concerning his weight and his lack of strength, whilst Gendry Baratheon has grown accustomed to a life working in the shadows of a blacksmith’s shop. In terms of characterisation and plot development, however, these characters allow us to form our opinions on the people who surround them. They function, in a sense, as litmus tests, as a method of separating the other “grotesques” from the characters truly worthy of such a description. We sympathise with their individual plights, we warm to the characters who view them as we would ourselves and, in the process, we exercise caution and keep a watchful eye on those who wish to extend their mistreatment.
Think of the way the Small Council justifies the decadent jousting tournament. During a monologue in season seven, Lord Varys mentions his yearning for the prosperity of the common people, slaves, and their children. Since he freed himself from such oppression, he has taken on the role of representing those who “suffer under despots and prosper under just rule.” But at this early stage of the story, when he’s not using small children for their ears, he’s organising a jousting tournament which is staged as “respite” (read: a distraction) for the common people. This could easily be explained away by Varys’ slithering, indeterminable loyalties and his gift for duplicity, but Ser Jorah Mormont has it right: “The common people pray for rain, health, and a summer that never ends. They don’t care what games the high Lords play.”
For example, whilst Daenerys’ might display flashes of authoritarianism on her quest to seize the Iron Throne for herself, it’s her benevolence and kindness towards the grotesques which draws our affections. She might slip into episodes of delusional arrogance on occasion, too, but she also makes it her mission to grant freedom to slaves, liberate entire cities from unjust rule, and protect children at all costs. The Thrones diehards sympathetic to her cause don’t cheer for her because she has the best claim to the throne, but because she would remove the crown from cruelty’s hands in the process.
The same could be said for Jon Snow, whose entire belief system has been predicated on upholding the good since the very beginning — right up until the moment he’s stabbed to death for daring to see the wildlings as people. He might have had a more privileged childhood than most (“Could have been worse, Jon Snow — you had a family, you had feasts”), but his willingness to empathise with other undesirables comes from his own experience of being raised as Ned Stark’s bastard child, a constant reminder of his father’s broken honour. He’s the first and only person at Castle Black to sympathise with Samwell Tarly upon his arrival.
Their friendship, which still stands strong at the end of season seven, has its origins firmly planted in this episode, but there’s an element of fate contained within their initial interactions atop the Wall. Much like Jon, Sam is a forgotten, unwanted child who, on his eighteenth nameday, is given a choice: join the Night’s Watch, or be killed in an organised hunt. Randyll Tarly’s treatment of Sam is far harsher than the cold shoulder Catelyn gives to Jon, but they see something of themselves in each other: they’re both at Castle Black simply because they don’t belong anywhere else.
· Daenerys has seriously had enough of Viserys’ shit (“The next time you raise a hand to me will be the last time you have hands”), and there’s only two episodes left until he gets his comeuppance. Her storyline feels truly detached from the main thread of action at this stage, but the moment her awful brother has that molten gold poured into his evil skull is drawing ever closer, and that’s when her story will come into focus.
· Welcome, Hodor! Valar dohaeris indeed, and he does serve wonderfully from the moment he’s introduced, immediately connecting with Bran, bowing to pick him up and carry him — from here until the very end of the earth.
· “The dying mind is a demented mind, Lord Stark. For all the weight they’re given, last words are usually as significant as first words.”
· Another star performance from Mark Addy as Robert Baratheon, whose dialogue in this episode remains hugely quotable, even six years after its initial airing: “ I’ll bet you smell of blackberry jam! Let me smell it. Come ‘ere” / “ I’ve been sitting ‘ere for days! Start the damn joust before I piss meself!”