(This Game Of Thrones post is for people who have read at least the first two books in the book series. It is written from the point-of-view of someone who has read those books and for the benefit of fans of the books. All discussion points are valid, up to and including the events of the fifth book. However, we would ask that you clearly mark spoilers from the third, fourth, and fifth books. The review itself will be non-spoilery, and talk of how events here portend future events will be clearly marked with a spoiler warning in the section following Stray Observations. If you would still like to read the review but haven’t read the book, thus, you can, but you should proceed with caution after the spoiler warning and in comments. Those of you who haven’t read the books can also check out our reviews for newbies.)
With three episodes to go in this season, the Game Of Thrones gang decided to take a little bit of a breather before plunging into what’s coming next. Of course, that “breather” also involved Theon unveiling the burned bodies of two young boys that appear to be Bran and Rickon, so it’s not like the whole thing was the characters sitting around and talking about their feelings. But a lot of it was! The thing is, I liked most of these scenes where the characters talked to each other, and I rather liked them more than some of the plot-based scenes, like the magician and Xaro launching their weird coup and overthrowing the government of Qarth. (I can honestly say I have no idea what this Dany storyline is trying to do, though Emilia Clarke and all involved are giving it their damnedest.) The scenes in this show where the characters are just allowed to be human beings and talk to each other on that level are among my favorites, and this episode was chock full of ’em.
But let’s talk about magic first.
George R.R. Martin’s books make the very conscious choice to keep magic off-page for all but the last page of the first book. Even then, the only sign that magic exists in this world are Dany’s three dragons. The world is clearly suffering from some sort of magical catastrophe in the past—or at least that’s my theory for why the seasons seem all askew. But for the most part, the characters spend the first book (and much of the second one) talking about how magic has long left the world behind, and the humans who live in Westeros are forced to fend for themselves. By the time we’re introduced to characters like Melisandre—and her shadow baby—the books have successfully lulled us into the feeling that we’re reading something closer to historical fiction. That makes the appearance of magic as disorienting for us as it is for characters like Davos.
It’s harder to create that sense of disorientation on film, because film has a tendency to literalize everything. When we saw Melisandre giving birth to the shadow baby, for instance, it was certainly weird, but it mostly just suggested that, yeah, the woman everybody said was a witch actually had some amount of magical power (though how much wasn’t immediately clear). On the page, that scene plays out from the point-of-view of an increasingly horrified Davos; the TV show tries to capture some of that same strangeness but doesn’t quite measure up to the page. (The assassination of Renly by the shadow is even more matter-of-fact, especially compared to how weird it looks to Cat in the book.) Making magic seem properly magical onscreen is a hard, hard thing to do, because it too often gets presented as just another thing that’s happening.
That’s why I kind of liked the scene where Dany watches the magician and Xaro launch their coup, even if I’m not terribly invested in the politics of Qarth. The bit where the camera slowly moves in on the magician, and you realize things are about to get seriously fucked up, is the one scene where magic feels appropriately unsettling, like it might actually appear to someone like Dany, who’s heard stories about this sort of thing but hasn’t actually seen it. It feels like a cliché to point to the films of David Lynch when talking about scenes like this, but the weird camera angles and haziness of this scene really do feel Lynchian, in very subtle ways. By the time there are multiple copies of the magician wandering around and Jorah comes in to save the day—only to realize he’s confronting a puff of smoke—the whole thing has gotten nice and weird. And where are the dragons? Why, they’re in the House of the Undying, which sounds like a good time.
The rest of the episode primarily consists of two-person scenes. Two-person scenes are the bread and butter of TV drama, and the better the two-person scenes are in a show, the better the show tends to be. It’s easy to write a big setpiece, but it’s incredibly hard to write a scene where two people just sit around and talk and make that dramatically interesting. Yet this episode was crowded with lots of great little two-person scenes, some of which were largely taken from the book—that scene between Cersei and Sansa about womanhood—and some of which were mostly invented—that scene between Jaime and his distant cousin, in which the two talked about the glory of being a squire.
Within the episode, we had basically every possible iteration of the two-person scene, too. That Jaime one was all about two of the characters seeming to connect, then a last second twist showing how little they actually had. The Cersei and Sansa one is about two people who should be enemies having a sort of brief trust grow between them, thanks to a shared experience. The Jon and Ygritte scenes were vintage will-they/won’t-they flirtatious stuff, while the Arya and Tywin scene was about one person nearly guessing the other’s big secret. (My wife thinks that Tywin knows who Arya is; I’m not so sure, but he probably has at least an inkling of an idea.) You’ve got scenes where one person wants to accomplish a goal, and another stands in the way (Cat facing off with the man whose son Jaime killed) and scenes where one tries to repress their considerable anger at another (Cat’s “interrogation” of Jaime).
Now, strictly speaking, not all of these are two-person scenes. Brienne’s in the background of that scene between Cat and Jaime, and we’ll often have the members of Robb’s camp in the background of some of these other scenes. But for the most part, these are tiny units of drama, things that are more about character interaction and growth than anything else. Indeed, outside of the Dany plotline—where the city of Qarth falls to Xaro’s rule—and the Theon plotline—where he realizes how thoroughly everything will fall apart if he doesn’t find Bran and Rickon—this is an episode where not a lot happens. The plot is always lurking just offscreen, be it in Stannis’ fleet making its way toward King’s Landing or in the war that’s just over the horizon. This is an episode full of moments between, of characters coming together while waiting for something else to happen. Like the last episode, it takes place in a fairly compressed timeframe (just a couple of days, if that), and it has the feeling of building toward larger things.
Honestly, outside of an episode or two where the pace seemed a little frenetic, I think this season of the show has been just about perfectly paced. It was good for tonight’s episode to give us a bit of a breather, especially when you consider how it opens with the desperate searching of Theon, a man who’s scrambling to hold on to what he has and slowly losing himself in the midst of it. I’m sure there will be some complaining that this episode was boring or that it didn’t move enough of the story forward, but without episodes like this, the characters just become pieces that the writers are moving around on the board. How much better do we know Jaime—who’s sat out most of the season, remember—after his little talk with his cousin than we did before? And how much better do we know him when that talk is combined with the action of killing his cellmate after that heartfelt talk? Game Of Thrones is an action-packed series, but it’s also always been a show in love with language, and that language was particularly beautiful tonight. It’s so much easier to lose yourself in that talk when these actors are delivering it, too.
The episode also continued the season’s interest in what makes a good and fit ruler. Ygritte speaks well of the ways of the Free Peoples, while Xaro decides to take matters into his own hands in Qarth. Plus, there’s lots of discussion of just when Joffrey turned so terrible. Was he always like this? Cersei seems to suggest as such to Sansa, and she later tells Tyrion that she fears his behavior is her punishment for her sins. (It’s the only scene for Tyrion, but it’s a good one, as he mulls over just how he’s going to get everyone out of this alive.) When Ygritte asks if Jon can serve someone who’s king just because his father was king, it almost seems like the series itself questioning the very idea of what it means to rule in a monarchy. The season hasn’t always been subtle about how it’s built its themes of power and governance, but it doesn’t always need to be. These are things the characters would really be pondering, and having them state such ideas directly works, especially when the ideas are treated with complexity.
This is not to say that there wasn’t anything happening here in terms of the actual plot and not just character and/or thematic development—after all, as mentioned, those two tiny corpses turned up—but the episode itself seemed to be poised on the edge of something that’s coming, be it war or Jon Snow’s imprisonment or Theon’s continuing meltdown. This is a bridge between what has been and what’s coming, and it was about as well-constructed as such a bridge can be. The question now is whether what’s to come will possibly match up to the buildup. Somehow, knowing where almost all of this is going, I have a feeling we’re in good hands.
- The perils of aging the characters up: Sansa is so obviously older than a girl who would have her first period, but it’s a vital plot point that needs to be depicted (since it backs the girl even more into a corner). On the other hand, it let her bond even more with Shae, something that she probably needed to do before last week’s episode when they were abruptly best friends.
- After I wasted a whole back-story corner on the history of Harrenhal, there’s Tywin to tell Arya all about it anyway. And how great was that little scene and Arya’s growing ability to think on her feet? On the other hand, the little bits where she seems to contemplate killing Tywin, only to decide against it, are far from the show at its best. It’s like a soap opera jerking us around on two characters almost kissing.
- The continuing adventures of Robb and Oona Chaplin involve him taking her along on a trip to meet about a surrender, that she might raid the larders of the maesters there. I wonder if any more sparks will fly?
- The little farm where Theon searches for the boys looks fairly idyllic, but it also looks weirdly modern (or, at the least, like it only dates back 100 years or so).
- I’m enjoying Rose Leslie as Ygritte. That’s a character I didn’t always like in the books, and yet I’m finding her banter with Jon fairly entertaining. I like that she almost talked him into losing his virginity on the ground in the middle of the pouring rain.
- Another odd thing about the Dany storyline: I know that Jorah’s attraction to her is something that has to come up, but it feels pretty stiff here. There’s no real chemistry between the actors. Maybe that’s for the best.
- Line of the night goes to Jaime, and it’s a pleasure to have him back: “There’s only one fat Lannister. If she was your mother, you’d know it.”
- Back-story corner: Actually, the show did a damn good job of reminding me of the back-story of the Targaryens’ conquest of Westeros. I had forgotten Aegon’s sisters rode with him, and having Arya find them exciting figures makes sense.
- I rather think keeping Stannis, Davos, and Melisandre offscreen these last couple of episodes was a mistake. We need to feel the threat of them closing in on King’s Landing. On the other hand, the last two episodes have been so jam-packed that I don’t know where those scenes would have fit.
Here be spoilers!:
- I like the way that the show keeps awkwardly inserting Roose Bolton into scenes with Jeyne Westerling and Robb. “Oh, hello. I’m just here because of how important I’ll be to your demise. Don’t mind me.”
- Also nice: Jaime mentions Barristan Selmy so when he returns, we’ll presumably remember, “Oh, yes. He’s alive.”
- Okay, I mean, obviously, Bran and Rickon aren’t dead, but I figured the show would try and play that a little closer to the vest. Once you see those charred corpses, it’s so obvious that they’re still alive somewhere, if you’ve ever watched another TV show before. On the other hand, we only see the miller’s sons for a couple of seconds, so that’s a nice little bit of misdirection.
- I can only assume that the Jon Snow storyline has been somewhat switched around. Not really sure what to make of him being held captive just yet.
- I presume that what follows Cat asking Brienne for her sword is Jaime’s hand being removed, which means we’re beginning one of the books’ strongest character arcs (and the show did a good job of letting you know just how much this man defines himself by his ability to fight in that scene with his cousin).