This week's review of HBO's "Game of Thrones" (Sundays at 9 p.m. on HBO) is going to be a little different: It's a combination review of "What Is Dead May Never Die" and an interview with executive producer D.B. Weiss.
I spoke to Weiss on the day that "Game of Thrones" was renewed for a third season, and he shared his thoughts on the renewal and the length of the season.
In this second part of the interview, which is below, Weiss discusses how long he and fellow executive producer David Benioff might need to adapt George R.R. Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" book series, the challenges of the production and what's different about Season 2. He also has some choice words for a certain Marvel superhero movie. (It makes sense in context, I swear.)
But before we get to all that, I'd like to offer a few words about "What Is Dead May Never Die," the third episode of Season 2 of "Game of Thrones." Note: Do not read on if you have not yet seen the episode.
It occurred to me as I watched this well-made hour that a lot of the characters in this episode were simply willing themselves to be blind about certain things. Compelling evidence and new information be damned. They simply didn't want to know what they didn't want to know.
As I've said in past episodic reviews, much of the series turns on questions of adaptation and evolution. Characters are constantly forced to make decisions about what they'll give up, how they'll change, what they can live with and what they can't live with. Can they ignore old ideas about honor and loyalty and perhaps, forge new ones? Or is an extremely changeable nature an indication of moral shallowness and, well, a weaselly soul? Part of the reason this tale is so good is because the characters in the story respond like real human beings would: They make mistakes; they surprise themselves with their courage; they sometimes behave with shocking ruthlessness; and they sometimes adapt and make compromises without entirely losing their moral compass.
Having said all that, sometimes I look at Arya, Jon, Sam and Yoren, and wonder if maybe I'm just overthinking all this. Sam sees the deep wrongs that are tolerated at Craster's and he can't simply act like none of it is happening. He acts like a human being to Gilly -- he doesn't just ignore her and everything else that's going on. Jon tried to go along with Mormont's pragmatism, but his curiosity got the better of him. Jon tried to prevent the death (or "offering") of that baby and learned all about compromise when he realized that Mormont knew about Craster's ways all along. Is Jon a better man for having learned these lessons about practicality?
Arya, Jon and Sam are coming to understand that they don't have two skills their elders have long-since learned: denial and compartmentalization. They can't simply wall off the unpleasant knowledge and get on with their lives. Yoren has this skill, which he tried to teach a quietly suffering Arya, but in the end, he didn't pretend to be what he wasn't. He didn't bend the knee to Joffrey's men and he died for his trouble. It's no more and no less than he expected (and it's the garden-variety decency of bravery of people like Sam and Yoren and Silvio Forel, Arya's "dancing master," who keep this tale from getting too desperately dark).
Theon wishes he could forget what he knows: He wants to forget his bonds with the Stark family; he wants to forget that his father sent him to live with strangers; and he wants to be able to ignore the fact that his father is a cold-hearted bastard, but he can't. That's what's heartbreaking about the character (and Alfie Allen continues to do a terrific job of depicting Theon's confusion and justified resentment). Theon has done and been everything everyone has asked him to do and be and yet he's rejected at every turn. He'll try his best to be his father's loyal son, even though his very existence appears to remind Balon Greyjoy of his biggest regrets and failures. So Theon is fated to cut off everything that meant anything to him, emotionally and personally, in a bid for the approval of an obstinate man who won't listen to his useful advice and will never love him.
Maester Luwin -- like other characters in the story -- doesn't want to see that an old, deep and mysterious magic is stirring on both sides of the Wall. Granted, we know more than Luwin (we've seen the birth of Daenerys' dragons and the weird things moving around beyond the Wall), but Luwin is unwise to ignore the very potent bond that is apparent between Bran and his direwolf. Clearly, the child is tuned in to something real and powerful that is asserting itself in Westeros. But, just as the Black Watch's pleas for help were ignored by the Small Council, Bran's visions are dismissed as something of no importance.
In this saga, it's the women who often see things most clearly. They don't have a choice. They've fewer options and can't usually force their will on anyone; thus they have no time to waste on sentimental daydreams and what-might-have-been. We met Margaery Tyrell (well played by Natalie Dormer) in this hour, and clearly she's a sharp young woman who misses nothing. She realizes that if she doesn't produce Renly's heir and cement the alliance between the houses, her position is extremely precarious. Caitlyn sees Renly's camp for what it is -- a bunch of men playing at war -- which must be tiresome to a woman whose remaining family is in danger every minute. Brienne of Tarth has the simplest and most direct belief system; She loves her king and will serve him every way she can. To her, everything else is irrelevant.
If only poor Sansa had it that easy. The elder Stark daughter sees her position clearly: She's a hostage who must mime affection for the family that is holding her captive, and that's an untenable, terrifying situation that causes her to lash out at Shae, the one person in her orbit who is less powerful than her. Cersei sees the Stark girl's situation very clearly: She knows that Sansa wants to marry Joffrey about as much as she herself wanted to marry Robert Baratheon. Cersei's clarity on that score isn't keeping her up at night, but then, she learned better than anyone to defend herself against unwelcome and inconvenient knowledge.
But is having that skill really a good thing? Cersei can be too blind in some respects. She must know that her children will be pawns in the game of thrones, yet she resists Tyrion's pragmatic moves regarding Myrcella. And as I said last week in my recap of "The Night Lands," Tyrion could help her reign in the disastrous rule of Joffrey, but she'd rather hate her brother than accept his help. Her ability to compartmentalize plus her stubbornness make her a tenacious player in the palace games. But will she be willing to change her game -- and her loyalties -- when she needs to? Without that ability to evolve, she could lose a lot.
There are a lot of reasons people love Tyrion as a character. They're too numerous to go into here, but one reason people respond to him is because he quite often sees the truth, but his motives are not utterly cynical. From his perspective as a hated, marginal figure, he's been able to see a lot, and because he's so smart, he's thought a lot about everything he's seen. And yet, he tries, as far as he's able, to not simply look out for his own interests, but to be thoughtful and even occasionally compassionate. He'll put an old man in a black cell, but not without cause, and along the way, he'll throw not one but two coins to the prostitute who had to service the doddering fool. In that moment, despite his many concerns, he saw her as a person, and responded accordingly. He's not a monster, he's just a smart man trying to balance a lot of competing interests, and he retains his sense of humor and a sense of humanity through it all.
One thing Tyrion doesn't see all that well is the bigger picture, but Varys was there to school him on that. What a wonderful scene between them. (Conleth Hill, as I've said, can do no wrong.) The very wise Varys went to the heart of the perception issue I've been discussing here with his speech about the nature of power. How does one harness people's willingness to be fooled? Or, to put it more kindly, many people are quite willing to be guided in their perceptions, so how does one harness that malleability long enough to take and keep control of a whole country? Tyrion's only beginning to learn that kind of statecraft, but he's certainly an apt pupil.
At least he's more on the ball than the previous Hands. The "don't tell the queen" sequence, in which scenes with Maester Pycelle, Varys and Tyrion were intercut in a rather light-hearted way, was the wonderful heart of the episode. One of the reasons I loved it was because it showed how far "Game of Thrones" has come since the early days of its first season. The show is able to mix moods, tones and pacing and yet, it feels more cohesive and assured than ever. That's really been a treat to see.
And given that those issues come up in my interview with D.B. Weiss, this seems like a good place to segue to the interview with him.
Please note that the interview below has been edited and slightly condensed.
Here is Part 1 of our conversation, and look for the third portion of this interview soon. "Game of Thrones" fans will also want to check out HuffPost TV's interviews with Kit Harington (Jon Snow) and Richard Madden (Robb Stark).
Someone pointed out to me that HBO shows typically don’t run for 10 or 12 seasons. My response was, but this is a somewhat anomalous show for HBO in a few ways. So to me, that wasn't an area of concern -- whether the show would ultimately get the number of seasons it would need to tell the full story. I guess I just assume that given the upward trajectory of the ratings and the show's media buzz, it's not a huge issue at this point. But is it ever an area of concern for you and David Benioff [co-executive producer]? Do you ever think that it would really need 10 or 12 seasons and that's a long time for HBO to commit to a show?
Well, I guess typical HBO shows don’t involve dragons or ice demons either. [Laughs.] So in some ways, this is clearly not a typical HBO show, and in other ways, we think it is very much a typical HBO show. Yeah, we realize if it all goes well, it could potentially be quite a long commitment, but we realized that going in. We'd read the books, same as anyone, and we had spoken to George about where things were going, and we went in with eyes open, knowing that if all went well, we would end up with a very, very long, coherent story that spanned several seasons of television. That was the attraction for us, really. I mean, I just I feel like that’s something new. Maybe with the exception of "The Wire," which has that overarching, novelistic feeling to it, there are few examples of that kind of truly long-form, consistent storytelling out there, especially in this genre, which seems so tailor-made for it. It seems to be a feature of this genre -- building a world of this size and playing [the story] out over many, many years. George has done a better job of that than anyone that I know of. That was really what it was all about for us.
If you thought things were looking dicey for the show at any point, would that ever tempt you to change the story to kind of leave things in a more conclusive place at the end of a particular season?
No. It's always seemed like an all-or-nothing, damn-the-torpedoes kind of enterprise. It's something that you're either going to do right or you're not going to do at all. So to the best of our ability, we're going to keep trying to do it right and not make any emergency/contingency plans because I don't think fear is going to help make the show be what it should be. I mean, George’s series is a bold series in many ways and we hope to emulate that and really go for broke on it.
As far as the adaptation itself goes, I feel like the show has gained a lot of confidence.
Thank you. It means a lot to us to hear you say so.
Oh, well, as I said in my Season 2 review, I really I did love so many aspects of Season 1, especially towards the end of the season. And over the course of it, I really felt there had been this growth and this momentum that developed. But Season 2 -- it seems to have taken a great leap forward. And I hope that doesn’t sound like a backwards insult of some kind.
No, I think in every aspect of the production, it just felt like ["Game of Thrones"] kind of found its groove in the second season [in a lot of ways and] in terms of just the voice of the show. It’s an overused term, but I can’t think of a better one. In terms of the tone of the show and what fit in the show and what didn’t fit in the show, we felt like we had a better sense of that this year than we did the first year. So it's just good to hear that somebody else thought so too, because sometimes, you think those things and you're completely wrong.
Well, to me, it was a sense of feeling like there was this greater confidence in many arenas, like you said -- knowing what works and what doesn't from a visual standpoint, from a tonal standpoint, from an adaptation standpoint. Is that a good word to use -- confidence?
Yeah. Sometimes it's a confidence to violate the letter of the books to do better service to the spirit of the books, which is something we did in the first season ... It really is about the show finding its own legs. I do think it really is about just being willing to take the risks that are necessary to do justice to the show as a show.
Were there any sort of staffing changes that you made or certain production things that you can point to in terms of the Season 2 leap forward? I know you brought Alan Taylor on board as a producer and director.
Yeah, I think there were, probably. It's so hard to think about. There are so many people who are such integral parts of the show and the machinery of the show [is vast]. Alan certainly is one of [the key players]. By the time Season 2 is finished, he'll have directed 6 of the 20 episodes. It's almost a third of the show. We feel like his look in many ways epitomizes the way we want the show to look. The way he directs is just something we've had so much love and admiration for, and now, so much jealousy since he's been stolen away to go do "Thor 2." So we love you, Alan. And fuck you, "Thor"!
You just broke my heart, sir. I'm going to go in the corner and cry.
I know. I makes me sad, but everyone is happy for him obviously and jealous and greedy. We want to keep him for ourselves.
But two people who have just been completely instrumental who don't see a whole lot of media because they're too busy actually toiling away on the nitty-gritty of getting things done are [producer Bernadette] Caulfield and [co-producer] Chris Newman. Bernie came on for Season 2, and the show is an immensely complicated and ambitious thing to achieve on a television schedule: shooting 10 hours of drama and trying to make it as cinematic and as epic as you possibly can, but in the amount of time you would usually spend on a two-and-half-hour movie. You have to do four times that much, and it shoots in many different countries with an immense cast of characters and lots of production challenges surrounding the action and the horses and the visual effects and the elaborate sets. There are just so many moving pieces to it, if we didn’t have Bernie and Chris keeping those moving pieces in order and well-oiled and constantly going forward, the whole thing would collapse under its own weight in the space of a week.
What's been rewarding for me as a viewer is that it’s not just that these are beautiful pictures and the visuals are epic or even really down-and-dirty and gritty. It's that when all of these things come together -- the feeling, the tone, the visuals, the writing and acting -- you get so many different nuances that it's as if it was 100 pages of the book that were condensed in a scene or a sequence.
That's always the goal. All you can do is work as hard as you can and have everybody around you working as hard as they can and [you] hope that you can achieve what you just summarized. I think that really is the idea. You want it to be something that will withstand multiple viewings and something that will invite multiple viewings and something that people can really lose themselves in in the way we lost ourselves in George’s books the first and second and third times we read them. The immersiveness of the experience is really is one of the big draws of the project for us and it remains one of our goals with the show: to just have something that every Sunday night, people can turn on and disappear into.
It seems, as you said, there are perhaps more scenes that maybe didn’t necessary occur in the books, at least not the way we see them on the show, but these scenes draw upon information that is in the books or convey information that we need to know. Do you and David feel more confident and more sure of yourselves when you take on things like that? Is it happening more this season, do you think?
Yeah, I think it does happen more this season. It's episode to episode -- there is no blueprint for it. [Through the post-production process], you watch each episode many, many times, and you realize as you're watching them that some of them have a great deal of new material and some of them are weighted in favor of the scenes that appear in the books.
It really is a question of: What’s the best way to get the characters where they’re going? What’s the best way to unfold [their lives] dramatically? What’s going to be the most satisfying way? Sometimes, the dramatic necessity pulls you away from the book. If the book deals with a piece of character information in a expositional way, where you [learn] a backstory way that's very hard to dramatize, maybe you come into that element of a character from a different direction.
Look for the final part of the D.B. Weiss interview this week.
"Game of Thrones" airs on Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.