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.
[Further note: This review covers perhaps a bit more of the foreshadowing for events from within A Storm of Swords that are likely to occur this season than these reviews typically do. So consider this a secondary warning that these are written for the benefit of those who have read the first three books in the series.]
One of the most common complaints about a television season applies to episodes like “Mockingbird.” Whether you prefer “table setting” or “moving pieces into place” as a metaphor, it’s an episode that functions largely to set up events that are likely going to be more exciting or meaningful than the ones within the episode itself.
Such concerns are distinct, however, with Game of Thrones, at least for those of us who’ve read the books (which is most of you, one presumes). Typically, “table setting” episodes are criticized for being too blatant in their machinations, working hard to set up things but resisting pulling the trigger before the stories’ respective climaxes. Personally, I find these episodes interesting when done well, but I will admit that there is something frustrating about an episode that simultaneously feels like a comedown from the episode before and works almost too hard to build anticipation for the episode that follows.
With Game of Thrones, though, we (mostly) know the episode that follows. Although Todd has written in recent weeks—you may have noticed I’m not Todd by this point—that the show is now so far off from the books that it’s tough to keep these reviews from becoming more than a laundry list of changes, the fact is that the end of the fourth season is looking to line up pretty closely with a series of climaxes from A Storm of Swords. The only real change is that the climaxes have all been moved together, with some stories stretched out—Arya and the Hound—and other stories delayed in order to end the season with a chain of events that begins with the conclusion of “Mockingbird” as Petyr makes Lysa fly from the Moon Door (which is, readers know, the conclusion to the final chapter of the book in question).
I’ve found this season of the show to be tremendously effective when considered from the perspective of adaptation, as it has me successfully disjointed without taking away the pleasure of “knowing.” It’s setting the table for events that we know will likely transpire, but it’s doing so with a wink and a nod, as though the writers are—yes, I’m going here—good-naturedly mocking us. When Robin plays with Sansa in the snow and talks about the Moon Door, we know it’s setting the table for Lysa flying to her doom. And when Sansa speaks with Lysa and is nearly thrown into the Moon Door, we know what’s supposed to come next. And yet throughout the scene I found myself thinking that the writers might be playing with our heads and save Lysa’s death until next week. The reason? Because there was no replacement for Marillion, whom the show earlier had tortured by Joffrey, and thus there would be no one for Petyr to blame for Lysa’s death.
In retrospect, such a person is probably not necessary: Petyr can simply say Lysa slipped and fell, and it’s not outside the realm of possibility that people will believe him. And yet the absence of such a character made me question if the table was set for what I thought it was, and if the pieces in place were different from what I was imagining. It meaningfully comes in an episode where characters from Arya’s journey pop up in unexpected places, as Rorge and Biter are the first to take a crack at winning the bounty on the Hound’s head. Biter gets in a quick meal on the Hound’s neck before the Hound kills him, while Arya gets the pleasure of killing Rorge—who was never given a name on the series, and whom Arya gets a name from before Needle does its work—for his crimes. And yet those with strong knowledge of the books or a Wiki of Ice and Fire habit know that Rorge and Biter are supposed to attack Brienne, not the Hound; meanwhile, elsewhere in the episode, Brienne and Podrick run into Hot Pie at an Inn, who tells them of Arya’s survival and sends them in the direction of the Eyrie in search of both Stark daughters, and who has never appeared in the books after being left behind by Arya and Gendry.
These are not significant changes, ultimately, and they’re done for logical reasons. In the case of Brienne, it makes sense to streamline her search, and to move her more quickly toward A Storm of Swords’ epilogue (which I’m guessing will be revealed to Brienne at the same time it’s revealed to the audience). Meanwhile, the extension of Arya and the Hound’s partnership requires a new set of events that put the Hound’s health at risk (which happened at the fight at the Inn in the books), and a festering bite wound from Biter is a nice bit of repurposing to bring everything together. And although Hot Pie and his wolf bread were perhaps not entirely necessary to streamline Brienne’s storyline, he’s one of the few characters who would know the information necessary to shorten Brienne’s search (that Arya is both alive and with the Hound).
That said, though, it would be misleading to dismiss these as logical changes given how excited I was by them. Perhaps it is only I who is giddy when the show solves problems through adaptation, but I was thrilled to see Hot Pie return and talk Brienne’s ear off about Kidney Pie. It may have simply been a way to get Brienne from Point A to Point B, but it was also a case of the show being playful with the adaptation. The same goes for Biter: We know that the wound is necessary, just as we know the dying farmer begging for mercy is very purposeful, but the “how” of it all is playing against expectations in clever and I would argue successful ways. It may all be table setting, but it’s more exciting when Hot Pie’s the one laying out the silverware, and Biter’s carefully folding napkins.
This is not to say that all of the episode’s table setting was quite so exhilarating. Jon’s return to the Wall was a reminder the Wall exists, Mance Rayder is riding to attack it, and no one is listening to Jon’s strategy for how to defend it. It was a scene that would have worked just as efficiently in last week’s episode, as there’s no thematic resonance, and nothing of consequence beyond that reminder of things we realistically should have already known. Such scenes suffer because there’s only one of them. Nothing makes a scene feel more perfunctory than when it struggles to connect with either the scene that came before for that character—which was two episodes ago for Jon—or the scene that comes after for that character (which won’t be until the next episode). The choice to have Jon lead the group to Craster’s Keep has done the work necessary to set up future events, and was as much of a thrill of adaptation as I would expect this storyline to offer this season.
There’s also only one scene for Melisandre and Selyse in this episode, although it doesn’t suffer quite the same for two reasons. The first is that I appreciated the way the scene played off the one before it, in which Daario shows up at Daenerys’ window hoping for a word and ending up in her bed. Daenerys uses his loyalty—or at least his perceived loyalty—for her own uses, pushing back against his love of war but making use of his love of women. It’s a rare scene that focuses on the female gaze in the series, both through the lengthy rear nudity from Daario (probably with a stunt bum, given the framing) and through the way the camera focuses on Daenerys poring over his body while she remains fully clothed. It’s also meaningful given that we immediately cut to Melisandre naked in the tub, and in a scene where her own body is very much the focus of Selyse’s gaze and the gaze of the camera. Her nudity is irrelevant to the scene in the fact that the information being parlayed is mostly exposition—that Shireen is necessary to their pending mission, and thus cannot remain on Dragonstone—but it’s crucial to the subtexts of seduction that unnerve Selyse. The subject of Melisandre’s seduction of Stannis emerges as a result, and I found the scene complex in ways that were meaningful to the series as a whole in a way that Ser Alliser refusing to respect Jon was not.
It also helps, though, that the show is leaving Melisandre’s destination a mystery. It’s a detail I love, because it’s ensuring that the non-readers are going to be as surprised as book readers when Stannis arrives at his destination. It’s admittedly also a case where the show’s somewhat erratic engagement with Dragonstone could be a challenge, as I could imagine some viewers either tuning the scene out entirely or frantically Googling to see if they missed the scene last week where Stannis and Davos talked about their destination. Regardless, it’s nice to see that the show understands what makes a moment I connected with in the books so effective, and is doing the work necessary to build to that moment in a similar way for those who are reading Erik’s review instead of this one.
These are admittedly all subjective responses of one book reader for the table setting: I imagine others might bristle at the delay nonetheless, or find the scenes more perfunctory than exhilarating. However, in the case of Tyrion’s scenes, it’s a case where table setting can also be a key space for quiet character development. Tyrion’s three scenes form the most substantial arc in the episode, a sort of short play in three scenes as Tyrion is visited by three potential champions. The scenes are ultimately building to the point where Oberyn volunteers to be his champion, but each scene is also about exploring Tyrion’s relationship with the character in question. We could read the scenes as a play on the books, with Jaime’s reactions during the discussion about Shae particularly telling. However, we can also read the scenes as a reflection of the show’s adaptation choices, where Tyrion’s discussion with Bronn takes on greater meaning given the more prominent role Bronn has played in the series; we can also consider that Tyrion largely speaks through Kevan in the books, not Jaime. For as much as Jaime and Bronn’s visits are building a picture of hopelessness to be solved by Oberyn’s quest for revenge, they’re also reinforcing relationships that have meant a great deal to Tyrion, and the show, over the past three-and-a-half seasons.
When Sansa tells Littlefinger that she expects she’ll never return to Winterfell, he tells her that “A lot can happen between now and never.” “Mockingbird” suffers at times because it’s sort of trapped in between, knowing that it is largely laying the groundwork for the parts of storylines that both reader and non-reader audiences are most anticipating. However, from the reader perspective, the episode is helped by the fact that “never” isn’t exactly a precise word. On the one hand, we know lots of things that happen in the future, which means that the “in between” can take on greater meanings as bits of foreshadowing make their way into the storytelling. However, on the other hand, we can never be entirely certain that things will play out the way they did before, as is seen with the entirely new storyline for Daario and his journey to Yunkai. The certainty of some of the season’s climaxes made “Mockingbird” a thrilling piece of table setting, while the uncertainty of where the show goes from there continues to escalate in a season that has effectively disarmed the reader perspective.
- How do you read Dany’s insistence that Jorah inform Daario that it was Jorah who changed her mind, as opposed to Dany changing her own? I read it as Dany wanting to make Daario jealous (and thus increasing her power over him), while simultaneously ensuring Jorah’s own loyalty, and it was an interesting move where Dany strategically obscures her sense of power in favor of long-term control over her advisors. It was also the kind of move that the book Daenerys could have never managed, a product of the aging up of the character.
- Speaking of aging up: You could age up Sansa all you want, but Littlefinger kissing her is still creepy. No way around it.
- The show has done a really great job rendering Bronn as a realist, so his decision to choose stability with Lollys Stokeworth instead of dying for Tyrion connected really nicely, and Jerome Flynn and Peter Dinklage did some great work in that scene.
- The Hound opening up to Arya about his scar and his relationship with Gregor works both to further remind us of the Mountain’s crimes ahead of next week’s duel and works to reframe the Clegane family as one of the many cases of complex family relationships, a central theme of the series where just about every episode touches on daddy issues of some kind.
- “I hope to hear them sing it one day”—Don’t lie and say you didn’t get emotional at this too. I bet it’ll go over big on Tumblr.
- If a casual viewer of the show realizes that the Mountain has been played by three completely different actors, I owe them two cookies. Anyone who thinks he’s only been played by two gets one cookie. I did enjoy how, in lieu of a “Previously On” reminder that would have pointed out the consistent recasting, we got a gratuitous “The Mountain hacks up a bunch of prisoners” scene in the episode itself.
- Todd will be back in two weeks (the show is taking Memorial Day weekend off)—my thanks to him for letting me shift my writing about the show into this space in his absence.
Here be spoilers (Do not read if you haven’t read the books):
- The boilerplate about spoilers above was sort of vague about whether or not I should be flagrantly spoiling Book Three details in the review, so I chose not to, but I’m hoping my vagueness was such that book readers understood my intentions.
- It seems a bit off that Braavos remains in the opening credits, but I guess they’re still seeding the fact we’ll be returning there. I got a huge thrill last week when that beautiful CGI wide shot of the city and the opening credits city were revealed, as it’s the building blocks for Arya’s arrival.
- The dying man the Hound puts out of his misery works as a bit of foreshadowing, but the on-the-nose thematics of the dialogue about balance and fair exchange was perhaps a bit too obvious for book readers. There’s a fine line between excitement they’re foreshadowing and “Duh, we get it, Arya is going to deny the Hound mercy, and then she’s going to make an exchange.”
- Speaking of which: If Arya chooses to give the Hound mercy, something that seems like a probable change, it would avoid some of the “Is the Hound really dead?” theorizing the books’ vagueness inspired.
- We’re now in completely new territory in Meereen: Where once Daario was sent to Yunkai as a prisoner, now he’s being sent there as an envoy to the new ambassador. The show is playing in the same thematic territory with the storytelling, but with a smaller cast of characters, and with more focus. I will be curious to see how the downfall will unfold accordingly.
- Given that Rorge and Biter are off the table, I will be curious to see how Brienne’s interaction with the Brotherhood changes, and whether or not we’ll see the return of Gendry before the season’s end. Regardless, I think Brienne will be introduced to Lady Stoneheart by season’s end.