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Now that Game of Thrones is done with the business of getting us up to speed with everything, it’s back into world-expanding mode, a daunting task when you consider how much of that it’s already done. But it seems there’s always going to be more to learn about—more places to visit, more characters to meet. The newest and most interesting plot thread in “The Night Lands” is the introduction to Pyke and the Iron Islands, Theon’s true homestead; other than that, everything else inches a little bit forward.
Game of Thrones episodes are so expansive that they don’t really have “themes” per se, but this one does start with Arya peeing (her most vulnerable position, considering that she’s pretending to be a boy), followed immediately by her Night’s Watch protector Yoren aiming a knife at a Lannister man’s crotch. The value (or lack thereof) of having a penis is definitely on this show’s mind. Up at Craster’s house beyond the Wall, there’s something horrible going on with baby boys; over on Pyke, Theon is convinced he’ll be welcomed with open arms as his father’s heir, but finds he’s been replaced by his sister Yara (we’ll get to her in a minute).
We only glimpsed Arya last week, but here we get a better snapshot of her predicament: She’s on the way to the Wall, hopefully with a stop in Winterfell, but people are combing the lands looking for her, so she’s stuck pretending to be a boy. Gendry (whom we remember from last season) is also a marked man, since Joffrey has ordered the slaughter of all his father’s bastards. There’s a cute little spark between Gendry and Arya, though not so much a romantic one (Gendry is horrified that he’s behaved so commonly in front of a noble lady), but everything’s still tinged with the sadness of Ned’s death.
We’ve all acclimatized over the show’s hiatus to the shock of Ned being killed off, but seeing Sansa last week and Arya this week brings us back there pretty quickly, and Maisie Williams, probably the most natural member of this show’s outstanding youth ensemble, does a great job showing us how Arya’s vulnerability and upset are giving her a steelier edge than ever. There’s less here in terms of plot movement, but one imagines that the creepy, soft-spoken prisoner Arya spoke to (named Jaquen H’Ghar—I had to look that one up) is going to play some sort of role in the future.
The revelation of Arya’s identity comes as some surprise to Gendry, but Theon’s really the one who gets a shock this week when the rough-looking lady who takes him up to the castle on Pyke (and whom he instantly treats to some groping, in typical Theon style) turns out to be his sister. That’d be bad enough—a nasty spin on a simple twist that should serve as a lesson for Theon’s gropey ways. But Yara (Gemma Whelan) has also gained the favor of her father Balon (Patrick Malahide) in the intervening years of Theon’s life in Winterfell, and the glorious inheritance he had expected is not coming to pass.
Theon’s back-story was probably one of the most confusing aspects of season one—I’m sure there was more context in the books that got cut both for time purposes and because it’s hard to convey such complicated history through the show’s typical methods (that being, a sex scene with a prostitute). So this is really our first understanding of the Iron Islands, who rebelled against Ned years ago and were quelled, with Theon taken and raised in Winterfell as a kind of insurance. Balon lectures his son about “the iron price,” a.k.a. taking things from people in battle rather than buying them, which seems a bit rich coming from someone who lost his last major battle. His armor must be getting rusty.
But Theon is nonetheless cowed. There have been consistent warning signs that, despite Ned’s surrogate fatherhood, something is not quite right with that kid. He was a little too aggressive toward women and a little too hasty to resort to violence in any circumstance, as if trying a little too hard to prove himself as loyal to Robb. With the introduction of Balon, that chip on his shoulder makes a lot more sense. Yara’s prowess, and favor with her father, comes from her skill as a naval leader—even though Theon’s been fighting alongside Robb, that’s pretty much meaningless to dad. Unfortunately, that seems to put Robb’s plan (get the Iron Islands’ support by promising them independence) right out the window. “I pay the iron price. I will take my crown,” Balon says. And he’s not interested in the Lannisters, either.
Things are even rougher up beyond the Wall and out in the desert, where the narrative is moving the most slowly. We get another one-scene check-in with Daenerys, who loses one of her men to rival Dothraki who don’t like a lady being in charge of things. There’s a little more going on with Jon, but it’s not the most interesting material because it involves him uncovering a mystery that seems pretty obvious. Where are Craster’s male children? Well, considering all the furtive glances and the generally creepy atmosphere, they’re probably killed or abandoned pretty quickly after they’re born. But this is still treated as a revelation for the end of the episode, a bit of a let-down as a twist.
Sam also strikes up a friendship with a nervous-looking pregnant gal called Gilly (Hannah Murray, from the early days of Skins), who unsurprisingly wants out of the whole Craster situation. If she has a girl, Craster will end up marrying her; a boy will meet a quicker, but not worse, fate. That all makes sense. But this plot seems like trouble, because it has to do with Sam, whose defining characteristic is how sweet and naïve he is. Jon looks very hardened and sure of himself next to silly old Sam, but still doesn’t manage to keep his nose out of Craster’s beeswax. Baby steps, I suppose: At least he tells Sam not to take in Gilly. He’s still learning (maybe Mormont’s little pep talk from last week will sink in at some point).
Continuing with the world-building, we get a better picture of new character Davos this week, after he was introduced mostly looking grim in Stannis’ background last week. Apparently he’s a former smuggler, and a friend to a pirate (Lucian Msamati) whom he recruits to Stannis’ cause. He also has a pious true believer of a son, very much in the Stannis mold. Now, the pirate (named Salladhor Saan) is obviously a less-than-honorable type who goes on about how he’s going to fuck Cersei when he takes King’s Landing for Stannis. “I’m not going to rape her; I’m going to fuck her,” he makes it clear, in case we were wondering.
Davos seems to serve as a symbol of Stannis’ past style—this was a guy who allied with a smuggler and made him a knight. That doesn’t seem to gel with the Stannis we’ve met, but that makes it all the more useful as contextual information. For all of Stannis’ piousness—he thinks he deserves the crown not just by royal succession, but as Melisandre’s messiah—there is definitely more color to him than we’ve seen so far.
You could say that’s further revealed in his sex scene with the priestess, which seems at odds with his vows but in line with his intense bond to Melisandre. That scene is a bit too on the nose—the little wooden ships falling beneath them perhaps a metaphor for how she’s hurting him from a military standpoint. Last week, Stannis was defiant about allying with Renley or Rob, but in private with Melisandre, he’s obviously worried that his brother can summon a bigger army. As enticing as Melisandre’s words about the Lord of Light are, he won’t be completely convinced until it translates into victory for him, it seems. “I’ve said the words, damn you, I’ve burnt the idols,” he moans. Apparently cheating on his (supposedly sickly) wife is part three of that. But, down to her wardrobe, Melisandre just screams “red flag.”
I think the most satisfying part of this episode was watching Tyrion take care of business. Not only does he know what he’s doing, but he does it with panache—dispatching of Janos Slynt, leader of the corrupt city watch, in the night when no one will notice him being transported up to the Wall. But the show is quick to remind us that putting Bronn in charge is only an improvement in that Bronn has a fondness for Tyrion. Otherwise, he’s a man who will do things for a certain price—and isn’t that what prompted Ned’s downfall last season?
Last week, while he was taking her down a peg, Tyrion also showed a hint of sympathy for his sister. There’s more of that this week as he realizes her utter lack of control over her son. For all of Cersei’s assurances last week that “power is power,” that’s not entirely the case when someone as nutty as Joffrey is in charge. He gave the order to kill Robert’s children, and he’ll keep doing things like that no matter what his mother or uncle say. The key for Tyrion, clearly, is to get everyone else on his side, which really lent charge to his conversation with Varys at the top of the episode.
“The Night Lands” is a nastier, broodier episode than the table-setting of “The North Remembers,” and it doesn’t have quite the same epic feel, but things are moving along slowly but surely. Hopefully, there’ll be more from Daenerys and Jon in the weeks to come, but the intrigue at King’s Landing and the excitement of the war are more than enough to keep things interesting.
- “You should taste her fish pie.” “I don’t think Lord Varys likes fish pie.” “How can you tell?” Oh, eunuch jokes, they never get old.
- Cersei tears up Robb’s offer of peace. “You’ve perfected the art of tearing up papers,” Tyrion notes.
- Petyr gets one big scene this week, dressing down Ros in a creepy, but effective manner that seemed disconnected from the episode as a whole.
- Tyrion is the king of burns. “I’m not questioning your honor, Lord Janos. I’m denying its existence.”