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Game Of Thrones uses any chance it gets to bring the world of Westeros back down to size. In earlier seasons, the show could depend upon its various families and noble houses to do that trick, but season four is a time of great discord, strife, imprisonment, and death for those central groups, fractured or scrambled by public executions (take your pick) or narrative concerns. The Starks are either dead or in hiding; the Lannisters (the important ones, at least) were all together at King’s Landing until a little poison found its way into King Joffrey’s wine glass. These dependable casts-within-a-cast have been shattered, as much a symbol of an evolving Game Of Thrones as the victims in the bloody race toward the Iron Throne.
Remaining at the show’s disposal, however, are the many, many character pairings that the show has established over time—smaller, more precise testing grounds for ideas about loyalty, virtue, and trust among the Westerosi. These are duos that have come together by circumstance, choice, or some combination of the two, but I can’t think of another Game Of Thrones that used so many of them so effectively. They are, in essence, manifestations of the mockingbird Lord Baelish has adopted as his personal emblem: indications that the people in each duo are more faithful to one another than they are any ancient sigil.
Fitting to this setup, “Mockingbird” is obsessed with binaries. “There’s good and evil on both sides in every war ever fought,” Jorah tells Daenerys, alluding to gray areas that don’t exist this week. You either are or you aren’t—and if you wind up presenting wishy-washy evidence without any serious back up, you’re going to wind up pulling late-night watch duties with Jon Snow and Samwell Tarly. Things could always shift or change, but at the end of this week’s episode, it feels like plenty of character dynamics within this new Westeros are cemented. Dany draws the line in the sand herself: “They can live in my new world or they can die in their old one.” One sneak preview of this new world of hers: Daario Naharis gets boinked in order to make sure Yunkai stays out of the hands of the masters (all the while giving Michel Huisman enough free time to continue his guest stint on Orphan Black).
In light of the game-changing turbulence—dead king, wildling advances, the confirmed survival of Hot Pie—in season four, “Mockingbird” gives the viewer some important moorings in its Daenerys-Jorah and Arya-Hound scenes. Their surroundings are unfamiliar, but in the case of the first pair, their dynamic is one of the few remaining that dates all the way back to the beginning of the series. Emilia Clarke and Iain Glen show as much in their interactions this week: There’s a snappy, lived-in feel to the way their characters address each other once Jorah enters the Khaleesi’s chambers, like the old married couple he’d so like them to be. They’re written to have that kind of grudging respect for one another, at least, and there’s an honest sweetness in Dany telling Jorah that it was he who changed her mind about her planned treatment of the Yunkai masters—a welcome reminder that there’s still some humanity within the imperious leader she’s become.
There’s an equally well-observed, curiously theatrical feel to “Mockingbird”’s first check-in with Arya and The Hound. They share the scene with the dying man and his burning homestead, but it may as well just be the two of them: The air’s heavy with metaphor, the dying man eventually a symbol of The Hound’s sense of mercy, Arya’s maturation, and the bond between the two characters. The man is a font of philosophical meandering, he may as well be offering omniscient narration of Arya and The Hound’s situation (and Westeros at large) for the way he’s pulled out of the shot prior to receiving a knife between the ribs. There’s a swords-drawn attack planting us firmly in Game Of Thrones territory following that death, but before that, the three characters talk about mortality (“Nothing is just nothing”) and fairness like they’re on a blank stage.
In the episode’s immediate wake, “Mockingbird” feels like a daring step outside of the box for Game Of Thrones—and for that, I fear that I might be overrating the episode. But it’s a valuable respite after the courtroom fireworks of “The Laws Of Gods And Men,” a reinvestment and advancement of a new core of characters. For an episode that only makes fleeting mention of all the show’s fallen protagonists and antagonists, “Mockingbird” makes the full impact of those deaths count. New alliances are forming all over the place because the show now follows remote bands of survivors; defensive maneuvers weigh on the minds of those survivors so heavily that Jon Snow’s talking about sealing the tunnel into Castle Black while his sister constructs a model of their old, fortified home surrounded by the high courtyard walls of her new residence.
Sansa Stark and her husband are separated by distance (and the fact that they were never particularly close in their arranged marriage), but they’re united in their captive states. They each say a difficult farewell tonight, too, though the difficulty of Sansa’s is mitigated by the fact that Lysa came pretty close to tossing her niece out of the Moon Door. There’s a satisfying structure to the way Tyrion cycles through potential champions in “Mockingbird,” a little three-act play about allegiance with the knife-twisting second act of Bronn’s engagement to Lollys Stokeworth. Tyrion has said farewell so many times this season, Bronn’s departure being the latest example of Cersei’s ongoing campaign to isolate her brother at every turn. That makes it all the more delicious that Oberyn ultimately volunteers to be Tyrion’s champion, not only giving him the chance to avenge his sister by killing The Mountain, but also giving him the chance to disappoint and embarrass the Lannisters on a grand scale. The men don’t say as much, but after the last few weeks that Tyrion has had, he and Oberyn share the desire to see the lion endure a public humiliation.
They make a swiftly delightful team, much like that of Lady Brienne and Podrick, who stare down a baldly metaphorical fork in the road and decided to go Pod’s way, for once. If I have any misgivings about “Mockingbird,” it’s the way in which the subtext of the script sits at the center of scenes like this one one, frantically waving its arms as Brienne accepts that her squire knows more than he lets on. Gwendoline Christie appears to be the series’ character-pairing MVP: Podrick is getting an overhaul similar to the one Jaime received from Brienne last year—though Pod began the journey as a likeable character. Theirs is a representation of Game Of Thrones’ continued ability to draw compelling relationships between its dwindling reserves of character. Three episodes away from its fourth-season finale, Game Of Thrones is a lot like the two riders perched at the split in the road: One toward the big, loud excitement of last week’s courtroom scene or one toward “Mockingbird”’s character-driven, dialogue-centric proceedings. This week, the show took the road less traveled, and that made all the difference—but I wouldn’t want it to make all the difference on a weekly basis. Fortunately, whatever happens next will have a firm foundation to build off of.
- I’m really taken by Game Of Thrones’ concept of Meereen, an Egyptian-inspired look that doesn’t try to be Egypt. I especially love the upper level windows in the screenshot below, which retain just enough of their influences without tripping over any anachronistic lines and ending up looking Art Deco.
- “They’ll be talking about it for days to come”—Jaime Lannister correctly essays the online response to Tyrion’s declaration of “TRIAL BY COMBAT.” It feels unfair to promise that confrontation at the end of “The Laws Of Gods And Men” and then hold off on it for another two weeks, but Game Of Thrones is a TV show that prefers to take its time in these matters. After all, there was no rush to get Tyrion out of that prison cell in the first place.