(This Game Of Thrones post is for people who have read at least the first three 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 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.)
There are episodes of Game Of Thrones where I attempt to tease out some of the themes of George R.R. Martin’s novels, as expressed by his adaptors. There are episodes of Game Of Thrones where I harrumph about the show biting off more than it can chew. There are episodes of Game Of Thrones where I try to pry apart the difficult task of adapting these works and how well-suited to it these writers, directors, and actors are. And then there are episodes of Game Of Thrones where what I most want is to make my review a long string of all-caps gibberish with exclamation points strewn throughout, because I can’t think of a coherent goddamn thought, and YOU NEED TO SEE THIS, YOU GUYS, OH MY GOD!
Needless to say at this point, “And Now His Watch Is Ended” is one of the latter sort of episodes. Varys is keeping a guy in a box! Everybody’s being a dick to Cersei! Diana Rigg is all over the episode and just generally being awesome! Mutiny breaks out among the Night’s Watch, and both Craster and Commander Mormont lose their lives! For a long time, it seems like the episode is just going to consist of people saying biting, sarcastic things to each other, and that seems awesome! And to top it all off, Dany reveals that she actually does speak the language of the slavers (Valyrian), frees the Unsullied to make them love her even more, then burns the main slaver to death via dragon! Yeah!
It’s this last bit that provides a neat mirror to the reveal of Barristan a few weeks ago. Without spoiling, that changed something fairly major in the books, but it did so because it simply wasn’t possible to keep the identity of a particular actor secret from the audience. We were going to figure it out as soon as we saw him on screen again, whereas the book can keep a character’s identity hidden for as long as it wants to, particularly if those he interacts with never met him back in the Seven Kingdoms. On the other hand, the book immediately lets readers know that Dany understands what the slaver is saying, because to not let readers know would be a betrayal of their trust. Since the chapter is firmly situated in Dany’s point-of-view, it would be ridiculous to have her pretend to the reader that she can’t understand what’s being said, in order for a later reveal to be potent.
The TV show, however, can do such a thing, and because it’s already made so many changes to minor events like this in the book, it can also lull book readers into thinking this might be the new status quo. In the back of my head, I was always wondering if the series had abandoned the idea that Dany knew this language (or if, indeed, it was Valyrian at all), and with four episodes under the belt, I figured that had to be the case, even as I knew the plot shape of what was coming, more or less. That made the reveal in the final scene all the more thrilling, and even if you held fast to the idea that Dany understood every word of what was being said, you have to respect the sheer craftsmanship on display of how that twist was revealed. That final scene was terrific, riveting stuff, and it reminded me why I was so keen on Emilia Clarke being Emmy-nominated in season one, as if the show is making it up to Clarke for all those times she had to shout about her dragons last season. In the books, Dany’s adventures in Astapor are depicted almost as her shrugging off everything she was forced to suffer in Qarth, and the series chooses to portray this viscerally. It’s the right call.
The rest of the episode highlights the show’s increased focus on humor this season, with nearly every scene containing a memorable quip or two (or three!), as well as the way that this season continues to build a cascading series of scenes in which shit goes down. The show has yet to really do anything with Bran or Stannis (I don’t think Davos has appeared since being imprisoned), and both Jon and Robb sit tonight’s episode out. (Catelyn only appears in a Bran dream, throwing her son out of a tree, which is nice of her.) But for the most part, all of the other storylines are cooking along, and the show captures the breathless feel of this book quite nicely, when it’s all anyone can do to keep from reading 1,000 more pages before they have to go to sleep.
Don’t get me wrong. There are storylines I’m decidedly less invested in than others. Whatever’s going on with Theon is nice conceptually, as it’s forcing him to deal with what he’s done, at least in regards to murdering those two young boys. But it also feels very much like treading water. No matter how much fun we book readers might be having with some of the secrets we know will come to light in that storyline, having Theon get released from captivity, then chased through the hinterlands, only to escape with the help of the one who released him, before being brought back into captivity by that person is kind of a bland storyline. It’s an up-and-back—a story where a character starts out in one place, then ends up in exactly that place again, without anything really having changed. The show is trying to delve into his psychological pain (and drop big hints about who his “helper”/captor is for those who don’t know), but it’s not really working just yet. The character needs a bridge season, since he sits this book out, but I’m not sure I’m too excited to spend much more time with him.
On the other hand, the writers have completely invented something like 60 percent of the scenes in this episode, and they continue to be among the most intriguing things on the show. The scene between Cersei and Tywin, for instance, is one of my favorite things in the episode, and I love every time the show delves into Lannister family dynamics. (Here, it’s sort of interesting that Cersei assumes that Tywin loves Tyrion more than her, when nothing could be further from the truth; Cersei is just limited by her gender in a patriarchal country.) Also, we’ve got a good bit of action with the Tyrells, who are turning into the heroes of the season, so far as I’m concerned. Margaery’s motivations are fascinating and complex, while her grandmother is giving us a good sense of just where Margaery’s cunning comes from. It doesn’t hurt that Natalie Dormer and Diana Rigg are turning in rich, juicy performances, and that scene where Margaery getting Joffrey to step out on the balcony and wave to his subjects was intercut with the one where Cersei and Olenna parried back and forth was rich, juicy stuff. Also good? Varys and Olenna talking about making Sansa a match, because the former is terrified of Littlefinger—someone he quite likes—ending up with control of the north. (His line about Littlefinger watching the country burn just to be king of the ashes was one of the episode’s better ones.)
The writers also continue to be smart about shifting around stuff from the earlier books into this season. Varys’ monologue about how he came to be a eunuch, for instance, was something I very much missed last season, but here it is, all ready for us to have a visceral reaction to. I’ve always felt that Varys’ hatred of all things magical is building toward something big in the final two books, and I loved the way that episode director Alex Graves chose to frame much of this, particularly when we see Varys looking at himself in a mirror as he talks about becoming a free man but also a powerful man, in the wake of the sorcerer tossing him out into the streets. Varys’ words carry one truth—he’s among the most powerful men in the Seven Kingdoms—but the image carries another. Because we see his face tightly constrained by the box of the mirror, he reads almost as imprisoned. This is a man who has been made powerful by his secrets, but he’s also trapped by them, forced to keep living this life of deceit and suspicion for as long as he’s alive and/or residing in King’s Landing. It also provides a neat visual link with the sorcerer, whom Varys is keeping in a box, literally trapping him. I honestly don’t know how I feel about this development, but for now, I’m going to say it’s so awesomely over-the-top that it works. Anyway, the whole thing contributes to an episode that feels like the best the character has had in the whole series, and Conleth Hill more than rises to the task.
As if all of that weren’t enough, the episode also works in the mutiny of the Night’s Watch at Craster’s Keep. It’s, again, an example of how the show can keep certain things from the viewers that the books were unable to keep from readers. (I also think it’s a touch easier to understand in the show than in the book, where it’s all a little too chaotic because we’re limited to Sam’s point of view.) There are some switch-ups here that confuse me—which we’ll deal with down in spoilers—but the sequence at once captures the chaos of a mutiny while also making abundantly clear just what goes down. It feels like a fight that sprawls out of control, but the whole thing is tightly filmed and perfectly edited. That’s tough to do, and it’s a great credit to Graves, who was one of the more interesting directors in network television before making the jump over to HBO last summer with The Newsroom (run by his old boss, Aaron Sorkin). Game Of Thrones is substantially more complex than anything he’s done before, but he keeps things nicely modulated, and he throws in the occasional visual flourish. It all really comes together.
And here I am, having gone on for 1,700 words already, and I haven’t even gotten to a bunch of other stuff that happens in the episode. (I’ll move most of ‘em to the strays, so we have something to talk about there.) When Game Of Thrones doesn’t work, it can feel cluttered and messy and all over the place. When it does work, though, it lands every climax it begins, and it creates a sense of rolling story, of the scenes piling on top of each other so breathlessly that it’s all you can do to keep from watching the next episode (which is too bad, because I don’t have the next episode at this point, and I’m in the same boat as all of you). TV shows and novels are very different beasts, but in episodes like this one, Game Of Thrones so perfectly captures the feeling of needing to keep reading, even though you have other stuff to do, that it feels so much more exciting and vital than it probably has any right to. I can’t tell you why this episode works as well as it does, but, man, is it awesome.
- I just need to reiterate that that Dany scene is… I mean, goddamn.
- Libby’s fashion corner: My wife would like you to know she’s really liked how they’re dressing Emilia Clarke this season. She also thinks a dress over jeans can be a good look for a woman.
- Arya runs into Beric Dondarrion, who challenges The Hound to trial by combat. I would tell you more about Beric, who’s a more important figure in the books than in the show (at least so far), but I suspect that would spoil some things going forward. Suffice to say that he is, indeed, more or less who he says he is here, and he was, indeed, given a task by Ned himself. Also great: The Hound saying that Ned and Robert are dead but “My brother is alive!” followed by an angry spit.
- Sansa pops up just long enough for Margaery to propose a match between her and Loras, about which more in the spoilers section.
- After making for so much fun in the last two episodes, Jaime and Brienne are a little less exciting this week, primarily because, well, Jaime’s still all mopey about losing his hand. I do like how this voyage is forcing the two of them to become faster friends than you’d have expected them to be, even though that’s more or less exactly what you’d expect, given the genre. Brienne revealing that her father has no sapphires at all was a lovely little moment between the two, as was her concern when he fell off his horse.
- Look, I just watched this episode, and even I can’t remember what the fuck happened to Bran. This storyline was always going to be difficult to adapt, but it’s really showing.
- Line reading of the episode goes to Charles Dance, who gets every bit of humor and menace out of the word “contribute.”
- Okay, I also liked Diana Rigg admitting that, no, Sansa’s not a very interesting conversationalist.
- Adaptation change I like: There’s much less focus on Dany’s reawakened sexuality than there was in the book. I just don’t know if there’s a way to depict this onscreen in a way that will be at all interesting.
- Adaptation change I don’t really like: In the book, we more or less know there are people plotting the Night’s Watch mutiny. Here, it rather arrives out of nowhere, and while I can see thinking that’s a strong choice, I ultimately wonder if it didn’t make everything a little too chaotic for non-readers.
Here be spoilers:
- The Arya Stark honorary award for minor changes to the book that add up to something surprisingly different goes to Sam this season. I’m moving this down here because I suspect that we’re going to get the scene where Commander Mormont tells Sam to go back and tell his son to take the black as well as tell the other Night’s Watch members about the powers of dragonglass in a future episode. But, realistically, how can we get that? Sam still hasn’t killed an Other, and I don’t imagine Mormont’s long for this world. And does he even have any Dragonglass? It’s all very weird.
- In the books, of course, Sansa can’t be matched with Loras because he’s in the Kingsguard. So, instead, she’s matched with his older brother, Willas, who’s disabled but apparently very smart and sweet. (Sansa immediately begins talking herself into loving him, which is a very Sansa thing to do.) In the show, I don’t think we’ve gotten anything about Loras joining the Kingsguard, nor have we gotten as much emphasis on the chastity vows of any brotherhood that’s not the Night’s Watch. My wife suspects the show is setting us up for a double reversal, with Loras joining the Kingsguard, just as the Lannisters propose marriage between Sansa and Tyrion, and I suspect the show just didn’t want to deal with introducing a character we’d likely never see. But it’s still the change I expect all of you to be complaining about the most, even though I ended up liking it a bit.
- I wonder if we’re going to get some information on how Beric has been killed and unkilled a bunch of times when he inevitably falls to The Hound’s sword, or if it’s going to be treated as a brand new thing to have him be resurrected. Also: I reread some of the Arya chapters this week, and I rather miss that weird Dwarf Witch.