(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.)
The third season of Game Of Thrones seems to be roughly following how Storm Of Swords proceeds overall. The first two episodes each adapted about 100 pages of the book—give or take a few incidents from earlier or later that got collapsed into the present narrative. Storm Of Swords starts a little slowly. There are things happening, sure, but the overall arc seems to have gotten ground down just a little bit in the wake of the gigantic battle that closed out book two. Indeed, when I saw how quickly David Benioff and D.B. Weiss were adapting the book, I wondered how they could possibly split this one into two seasons.
Well, I shouldn’t have wondered, because what my brain conveniently misplaced is that a metric fuckton of things happen in Storm Of Swords, and once you get about a quarter of the way into the book, it becomes an unrelenting stream of shit happening. As such, “Walk Of Punishment” doesn’t just seem to have a steadier pace than the first two episodes of the season. It seems to start sprinting from what had previously been a pleasant enough jog. It’s not a spoiler to say that this is the pace you can expect from the rest of the season. There’s just going to be that much to get to, and so much of it is going to be a good time. Fortunately, Game Of Thrones almost always works best when its pace is “breathless.”
It might seem odd to describe an episode that opens with the funeral of Cat’s father, Hoster Tully, as “breathless,” but even in that little scene, the show indicates its intent to make this a rollicking ride. Edmure picks up a bow to fire the flaming arrow into the midst of Hoster’s floating funeral pyre, but he can’t make the shot, as Hoster floats farther and farther away. Irritated, the Blackfish takes the bow from his nephew and completes the shot in one go, even though the little boat is almost around the bend in the river. It’s a handy way to introduce these dynamics: Edmure may mean well, but he isn’t always the smartest or most capable guy; the Blackfish isn’t always the man you want for the job, but he’s almost always the man you need. The Tullys have gotten rather short shrift in the series, compared to the elaborations we get on their family dynamics in the books, but the series is almost always good at finding a visual way to portray these complicated family relationships, and this is one of the better ones.
Or take a later moment, when Tyrion is called to a meeting of the small council by his father. Tywin sits at the head of the table, smug and secure in his place there. Littlefinger, Varys, and Pycelle line up along the right side of the table. Cersei, not content to sit down near the end, carries a chair over that she may sit at her father’s right hand (our left), in the place where his heir might sit. Tyrion, observing this power play by his sister, simply raises an eyebrow and drags his own chair down to the very end of the table. He’s still a Lannister, and he’s still bound to his family and the crown. But he’s also trapped in a position where he can feel himself being actively ostracized by the family that’s meant to love and care for him. His father rejected his claim to Casterly Rock—even though it was the only legal claim—and Tyrion’s love for his family has curdled. The show demonstrates this visually through Tyrion’s choice of chair placement, and that visual underlines what comes next: Tywin makes Tyrion the Master of Coin, a job he doesn’t really know how to do and has no use for.
These clever bits of staging underline the show’s character dynamics, sure, but they also make it a lot more fun to watch. Week after week, Game Of Thrones is stealthily one of the best directed shows on TV, not because it calls attention to itself in a flashy way but because it simply settles in and figures out the best shot compositions and cutting to tell the story as elegantly and as visually as it can. I praised the words of the show last week, the way that Benioff and Weiss (and their writers) feel at ease with skipping flashbacks in favor of letting the actors sell the emotions of the past with their expressions or in lengthy monologues. But the show’s team of directors—here, it’s Benioff himself—find ways to lay out the story as much via visuals as anything else. To be honest, I haven’t read enough about the show’s production process to know how each director handles the many multiple locations in a shoot, since no one director could be in all of those locations over the course of the shoot. I suspect a team approach is used, with credit then being spread out over the 10 episodes. If that’s the case, the fact that every shot of every scene feels of a piece with everything else is a testament to how thoroughly the show understands what it’s going for.
Structurally speaking, this is another “checking in with everybody to see what’s up” episode, one of those things that’s necessary to have about every other episode in this show. But this one moves so much more confidently than the season première did, if only because the story is boiling up all over the place. The most significant moment comes at the end of the episode (and I’ll get to that in a moment), but Things Are Happening all over. Jon’s getting dragged south to the Wall along with Mance’s invading force, and the gravity of what they’re trying to escape from is underlined via a giant spiral pattern of horse parts. (Incidentally, this episode? Full of horses!) Sam ends up back at Craster’s keep, where Craster takes great pleasure in mocking the Night’s Watch in general and Sam in particular. He then sees Gilly give birth to a son (and here’s another moment where a lesser show would have had someone answer Gilly’s constant questions of what her baby was, rather than trusting the actors to convey that information and the audience to get it), and he knows what that means. Cat delivers a heartbreaking monologue—since that’s what she does this season—about watching her father go as a small child. Arya taunts the Hound and says goodbye to Hot Pie. Theon escapes with the help of his sister’s man, then is nearly recaptured before being helped out again by said man. (Book readers may nod sagely at the line, “You bastard!”) And, in the most important development of them all, Podrick Payne loses his virginity.
At its best, Game Of Thrones is like this elaborate game of three-card monte. It’s always keeping things shuffling along, that you’ll never quite notice what’s happening. A great episode of the show will cut between storyline and storyline, location and location, character and character, without the whole thing feeling like a disorganized mess. In the lesser episodes of the show, it can be tempting to wonder, say, where Dany is, or what’s up somewhere else. The best episodes of the show give you just a taste of a character before skirting along to something else. It’s a tricky balance to manage, one I’m sure even the show’s creative personnel would admit they don’t nail from week to week, but when an episode manages it, it’s like nothing else on TV, surprisingly addictive and enthralling.
It can also make even minor shifts in characters seem monumental. Remember back in season one, when Daenerys was just this bargaining chip used by her brother to negotiate with Khal Drogo? Remember that? Well, she’s starting to look more and more like good queen material. Granted, she was by the end of season one, but it seems as if her time in Astapor is going to open her eyes up more to the suffering of those around her. Her stroll down the titular walk of punishment shows her all of the slaves trapped and bound for even minor offenses like lying, and it seems as if it’s opened her eyes to some of the truths of what those who’ve truly lived difficult lives go through. Emilia Clarke, who became a punchline for not getting much to do last season, conveys Dany’s journey almost entirely through her eyes, and it’s a stark reminder of what a vivid actress she can be with the right material. Dany’s gambling everything on whatever plan she’s got hatching away in her head right now, to the degree that she’s giving away one of her dragons, but she’s got the queenly mien down, silencing Jorah with a single look and acquiring for herself a new slave friend to talk shop with. Plus, she’s got Barristan Selmy in her entourage! What could go wrong?
Well, as Jaime finds out, plenty can go wrong when you assume that your role as a nobleman entitles you to more than you actually deserve. He thinks he can parlay with the Boltons by convincing them that the war is lost for the North (probably true at this point), but he doesn’t count on just how much hatred there is for him in the ranks. He saves Brienne from being brutally raped, so far as it goes, by dangling the promise of riches, but even riches aren’t enough to keep his hand attached to his body (and the maiming of Jaime is as visceral and pulse-pounding as any book reader might have hoped it would be). His screams to close the episode end up making for one of the best cut-to-credits in recent memory, particularly when accompanied by the raucous rendition of “The Bear And The Maiden Fair” by The Hold Steady.
The Walk of Punishment is set up in Astapor to remind slaves of their status, of their role in the world of Astapor society. Yet the world of Game Of Thrones—of any Middle Ages society, really—is set up to constantly remind even those who aren’t slaves exactly who’s got a boot grinding their faces into the muck. The Lannisters, like the Targaryens before them, count on money and power being enough to keep them from being thrown low, but the right combination of events can always result in things going topsy-turvy on those in power. The Walk of Punishment is a reminder, yes, but it’s also a tinderbox, something that could very easily start a rebellion that destroys a grand city if the right spark is lit. In the episode named after that walk, the characters at all stations of life learn just how easy it is for that spark to be set off in times of war, just how easy it is for the highborn to be laid low by an overzealous man with a carving knife.
- I cannot stress enough how perfect the choice of The Hold Steady is for “The Bear And The Maiden Fair.” I don’t know how many more songs of Westeros there are to record, but your suggestions for Westeros tunes, paired with the indie rock bands who should cover them, are welcome below.
- Jaime’s pride at using the word unbesmirched properly very well should have lost him that hand, and he’s generally one of my favorite characters. (Also, his banter with Brienne continues to be a highlight of this season.)
- Oh, Hot Pie! I think I’ll miss you most of all!
- Adaptation choice I like: Splitting the chapter where Tyrion becomes Master of Coin in two. The other major event in that chapter (which I’ll move to the spoiler section for obvious reasons) will have more weight if it’s on its own, and that event needs some space from everything else, which it doesn’t really have in the book.
- Adaptation choice I’m less sure about: I understand why it wasn’t brought into the series, but Cat sitting at the side of her dying father made for some moving scenes in the book. I’m not sure how that could have been conveyed on screen, but I would have liked to have seen one scene of it, I guess.
- That was a really nice scene between Talisa and Martin Lannister, in which she smirks about how, yes, her husband turns into a wolf at night and devours the flesh of his enemies. She’s more playful than she was last season, and for that, I’m thankful.
- Arya asks the Hound if he remembers the inn they’re at. He doesn’t, of course, because he’s been to so many inns in his time. It’s, for those of you who may have forgotten, the inn where he killed the baker’s boy, and it’s almost certainly seared into her memory.
- The Jon storyline seems to be getting weirdly short shrift, with most of his scenes just feeling like quick check-ins beyond the Wall. Here’s hoping we get more in that department soon.
- I loved that Pod is apparently a master lover and that Tyrion and Bronn want nothing more than to hear about his encounter in the most intimate of detail.
- Clarification to last week (bolstered by this week): Robb thinks Bran and Rickon are alive; Cat’s pretty sure that’s not the case.
- As the Blackfish, Clive Russell makes an immediate impression. More of this guy, please!
Here Be Spoilers!:
- One thing the book conveys quite well that the series hasn’t just yet—though I’m sure it will be in a later episode—is just how fucked Robb is at this point. We get some of it in the scene where he lashes out at Edmure, but in the book, every Cat chapter makes me queasy, as she realizes just how thoroughly Robb’s marriage and her release of the Kingslayer have screwed his side over. We’re not really getting that here just yet.
- Have we just skipped past Sam’s encounter with the Other—er, White Walker—he kills with the dragonglass entirely? I keep assuming that will be moved elsewhere (perhaps to his flight with Gilly?), but the further we get from it, the less likely that is, I suppose.
- As mentioned above, I like the choice to give Tyrion’s match to Sansa a bit of breathing room. That scene will need as much room as it can get to make sure that it makes sense that Tyrion eventually agrees to it, and I’m not sure it would have gotten that here.