(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.)
If there’s a thing that’s never been wholly convincing in Game Of Thrones (either the series or the books it’s based on), it would be the romantic relationships. There are a few that are enjoyable enough—the marriage between Ned and Catelyn was deeply felt—but for the most part, the romances are very stately, and stately all too often equals boring. It’s telling that the romances that have worked best onscreen are ones that were mostly off-page, like the doomed love of Renly and Loras or the weird sexual fervor that exists between Stannis and Melisandre (and has only come up a time or two). Tonight, when Jeyne (who really does seem to be from Volantis, which must be making book fans frown in confusion a bit) and Robb finally hooked up, the most I could do was offer a shrug. This is a series that does a lot of things well—everything from war to the class struggle—but it doesn’t have a huge number of fun romances, or at least ones that don’t always have a cloud of doom hanging over them.
The thing is, a tragic romance is really hard to do well, because it’s one of the oldest genres we have. People have been writing about people falling in love and being doomed because of it since we started writing, and it’s hard not to have such stories veer into melodrama nowadays. We’re supposed to be touched by how undeniable the love between Jeyne and Robb is, how they overcome the fact that he’s betrothed to another to be together, but it just seems like one of the rare things in this show that’s there to pad out the runtime (and, presumably, give Richard Madden something to do). When Robb said he didn’t want to marry the Frey girl, and Jeyne said she did not want him to either, it was the first time you could feel palpable passion between them. I’m not sure if it was enough.
Contrast that with Jon and Ygritte, which is one of those things I wasn’t terribly expecting to enjoy, then found myself liking quite a bit. The show’s writers have given Ygritte a bit more fire onscreen than she had on the page, and Rose Leslie has taken that idea and run with it. It’s sexy, and that’s sort of amazing when you consider that one half of this potential couple has sworn a vow of chastity. That sense of earthiness is something the show’s romantic pairings could use more of, considering how much they seem to take from courtly romance. (The less time I have to spend listening to Jorah pine for Dany, the better, as far as I’m concerned. Without much else for her to do in Qarth, the show keeps going to this well, and it just isn’t working.)
Another nice example of a romantic relationship that more or less works is the one between Tyrion and Shae, and the show returns to it tonight with a scene that is taken from the book but works better on screen. When Cersei says that she’s seized Tyrion’s whore, it’s a moment where you’re not quite sure what to expect. Would the show really keep something like that off-screen, just to blindside us as much as it’s blindsided Tyrion? Now, if you’ve read the book, you more or less know what’s coming, but the show goes one better by stretching out the tension until you’re not quite sure if this will all go differently, then releasing it by bringing in someone who’s definitely not Shae. (Indeed, it’s Ros, the show’s longest continuing human embodiment of how the titular game impacts the smallfolk.) Just as when this revelation is made in the book, there’s a gradual sense of relief that descends over everything, but there’s also a nice moment where Tyrion pledges to make sure no harm comes to her, then another when he rushes to Shae and finds her alive and well (and waiting in his chambers, which seems rather careless—but that’s love for you).
It’s a strong episode for Tyrion overall, as our acting Hand attempts to get the city ready for siege warfare by talking things out with Bronn—who’s little help—attempting to persuade Cersei that her son needs to lead his men into battle, and reading a bunch of books. (Why not throw the books at Stannis’ forces, Bronn asks. They don’t have enough, Varys retorts.) The last couple of episodes have been light on Tyrion moments, as the show has pulled back to give us a better look at the scope all of this is taking place on. Now, however, everything is returning to the season’s central plotline of the war of the five kings, and the characters in King’s Landing are preparing for the great horror that is a city under siege.
The show is very smart about using other characters who’ve been in similar situations to fill in what the characters who fear those situations should fear about them. For instance, we hear from Bronn tonight that in a city under siege, the thieves make out the best, but we also get a first-hand account of what it was like to ride out the siege of Storm’s End from Stannis, who held the castle at his brother’s request, then waited to slowly starve to death, eating the horses, then the cats, then the dogs, and then the rats. (Earlier, it’s suggested that in a long enough siege, the poor might start to eat each other, as they can’t afford precious food.) The show is always at its best when it has scenes working to fill multiple purposes like this, and the Stannis and Davos scene not only fills in some key back-story on the Onion Knight (back-story I think the show was rather missing up until this point) but also gives us a peek into Stannis’ bitterness about how everyone holds him in such low regard.
That’s one of the unifying ideas of the episode, in fact. It’s called “The Prince Of Winterfell” for good reason, as Theon, like Stannis, finds himself wanting everyone to fear him and mostly inspires disdain from the Northerners and disregard from his sister, who rides in with a handful of men, eats his food, then leaves, unwilling to help him hold Winterfell and telling him it’s time to report home to his father. A Clash Of Kings didn’t satisfactorily answer why the Greyjoys were so uninterested in Theon’s “triumph” at Winterfell, but the show makes a better go of it, suggesting that the Greyjoys—rightly—understand their place to be at sea, which is where their strength lies. Theon can either let Winterfell go—and presumably destroy it so that no others may hold it—or he can watch any support he has dwindle, before he’s inevitably tracked down by Robb. Once again, we have a character who wants to be regarded in one way but is seen in entirely another, trapped by the fact that he’s just not the person other people would want to follow and he keeps making disastrous mistakes when trying to win the allegiance of his new subjects. Bran and Rickon may be alive in that hidden Winterfell room, but they’re dead in the hearts of the Northerners, and that killed any chance Theon had at winning anybody’s hearts and minds.
That’s one of the great themes of the series: How you want to appear is rarely how you actually appear, and the more you do to chase after what you want to be, the more you doom yourself. All of the characters in the series want something they can’t have, and trying to grab hold of it is almost always disastrous for them. Cat wants her daughters back and her sons released, but the action she takes to get them back—releasing Jaime—turns the one son who remains free against her. (He actually puts an armed guard on her.) Robb wants Jeyne, but he’s stuck having to marry a Frey to maintain the alliance that got him that very important (but not especially beautiful) bridge. Everybody in the series, seemingly, wants the Iron Throne, but the pursuit of it causes it to fall further and further from their reach.
People will always want to be seen as something greater or more powerful than they actually are, of course, but Game Of Thrones makes this attempt seem like a tragic flaw in every single one of its characters, no matter how noble they are. Even poor little Arya asks Jaqen to help her escape from Harrenhal, only to find that he has to kill all of the guards to allow her to exit at midnight as she asks. The cost of what you want is often paid in blood, and it’s usually paid in far more blood than you’re entirely comfortable with. Arya’s just starting to figure that out, but the other characters are all realizing at roughly the same time that the course they’re on is one that sails directly into the heart of war, a place of blood and horror where few of them can hope to survive.
- Jon hooks up with Halfhand again, only to find that his superior has been taken by the Wildlings. Halfhand tries to provoke him into a fight (presumably for show), but Jon isn’t having any of it. Man, Jon’s impossible virtue is starting to piss me off. (Also: When are we going to see Ghost again?)
- Sam and the other Night’s Watch men find a Night’s Watch cloak buried under a marker of the First Men, filled with spearheads made of dragon’s glass (or obsidian). This is a scene Jon had in the book, and it’s one I figured would be excised entirely by this point, but the writers’ willingness to play around with which scenes go where continues. (This is also why I need to stop trying to guess how they will condense the story, since I’m always wrong about it.)
- Though this was a slower episode—and another one filled with two-person scenes—the sense of impending doom was really strong throughout. And in spite of that, so many of the scenes were funny. Obviously, anything involving Tyrion is going to amuse, but I was impressed by how many of the little ancillary bits were hilarious as well. In particular, I liked Joffrey stomping around and ranting about taking on Robb Stark. His impetuous brattiness has really become ridiculous, and that’s fun to watch.
- Summary of Dany subplot: “My dragons!” Repeat ad nauseam. (Emilia Clarke is a terrific actress, but, man, she’s been given one note to play this season.)
- More great acting from Michelle Fairley comes in that scene where Robb puts her under arrest. For a moment, you almost think, “Hey, maybe releasing Jaime wasn’t such a bad idea after… ” and then Robb calmly tells her just why what she did was the worst possible thing she could have done, and you can see the words slice into her heart like a knife, entirely in Fairley’s eyes. Great stuff. I know it’s impossible, since the role’s so unshowy, but I’d love if she was Emmy nominated.
- The Jaime and Brienne scene was fun, and if I know my TV, these two kids are gonna have a will-they/won’t-they happening any time now.
- I really thought the show would sit on the “Bran and Rickon are still alive” reveal a bit longer than it actually did, but I suppose most newbies were like our own David Sims and suspected that the kids were alive, thanks to the obviousness of the “these two corpses are unidentifiable, but believe me when I tell you they’re these two important characters” device. At least Maester Luwin got some great moments out of the whole thing.
- I think I’ve settled on Tywin not knowing who Arya is, though it’s obvious he suspects who she might be. Even though he has no idea she’d escape, I don’t think he’d leave her in a castle with Gregor Clegane if he knew who she was. Littlefinger, however, almost certainly knows. (And where is he, by the by?)
- Back-story corner: Storm’s End, mentioned by Stannis tonight, was the place where Renly met his end a few weeks ago. In the books, Renly doesn’t really spend any time there, instead, entrusting it to the care of a subordinate. The legend of the castle is that it’s the seventh to stand on that spot, with the other six before it being torn down by the vicious winds off the sea. Since the winds couldn’t do anything to this one, you get the name.
- Line of the night goes to Arya for co-opting Jaqen’s “a man” manner of speaking.
- Hey, don’t look for these reviews to be as timely in the next two weeks. HBO wants to keep these last two episodes a surprise even for us critics. It should be a blast.
Here be spoilers!:
- I clearly just need to stop trying to guess what the show is going to do about condensing the storylines, given my certainty about where the show was going with the Jaime storyline last week. That said, I’m surprised the show bumped bits of Jaime and Brienne on the run into this season, though I suppose it makes sense to keep Nikolaj Coster-Waldau on the payroll for another episode or two.
- The biggest change from the book in this episode is that Arya won’t be instrumental to the taking of Harrenhal by the Stark forces, since she presumably won’t even be there. The show has so radically altered this storyline that even I don’t know what’s coming—but, hey, I hope we still get to see Jaqen change his face.
- The Bran reveal is also held for the end of the book. It looks like we’re getting the battle of Blackwater next week, but I wonder if we’re going to get some of Storm Of Swords bumped into episode 10. If so, I wonder what would work there, particularly when considering that the show will want to have cliffhangers of some sort? (Then again, maybe it could just end with the flight of Bran from Winterfell, just as the book does.)
- One scene I do hope makes next week's episode: Sansa and Cersei waiting out the battle with the other high-born ladies. I have always liked that one.
- I reiterate down here that I am not sure what anyone gains from giving Jeyne a Volantis background. Her speech about her brother's near-death was very well-done, and it gave us a great sense of who she is and what she wants, but her back-story in the books has always been compelling enough that I do not know what will be gained by switching it up like this (and for seemingly no reason). We will see.