This Game Of Thrones review is written for those who have read George R.R. Martin’s A Song Of Ice And Fire. It will not explicitly spoil events from those books that have not yet been adapted into the series, but it will address events from the books more broadly in the interest of exploring the process of adapting them into a series. More explicit spoilers for (potential) future events will come in a separate section at the end of the review. All discussion in the comments is valid, up to and including the events of the fifth book, but we ask that you clearly mark spoilers just in case (although we acknowledge that this is less relevant now than it was before the show “caught up.”) For those who have not read the books, you can read if you would like, but proceed with caution following the spoiler warning, and check out our reviews for newbies. Since critics won’t be receiving screeners this season, each week I’ll publish the episode page once the broadcast ends and add my review to the page when I finish (except for this week, clearly, because it didn’t happen. My apologies).
Earlier this week, Laura Bogart published an essay here at The A.V. Club focused on the character of Margaery Tyrell, arguing she “is Westeros’ biggest badass—and the show can’t handle her.” It’s a persuasive argument, although it was difficult not to read Laura’s argument through a different lens as a book reader. The essay never directly poses the question of why Margaery has been marginalized in the larger narrative this season, but if posed the answer is simple: because the writers have never quite solved where to slot the more well-rounded version of Margaery they’ve created into Martin’s larger story.
Margaery’s expansion into a more significant character than in the books is only logical: while Martin’s choice not to make Margaery a point-of-view character limited how fleshed out she could become, the show has no such issues, and Margaery is connected to too many stories for her to be as passive as she seems in the first three books in particular. And so in preparing for when she begins to take on more importance in A Feast For Crows, the writers used that characterization to build Margaery early on: From her introduction in season two, Natalie Dormer has been given a version of Margaery that would never be mistaken for a pawn that the Tyrells use to marry into positions of power within Westeros, which is to the show’s credit.
But Laura’s observation points to the challenges in fleshing out minor characters in an adaptation. The writers have turned Margaery into a more complex and active character in this story, yes, but there are still limits to how active she can be, and how much the show can explore her complexity. And thus while the writers have created someone that fans could see as their favorite character, and want to see become a bigger part of the story, there’s a point at which the canon—which, despite all of the changes made for the TV show, remains a crucial part of the adaptation—will keep Margaery from becoming a central focus of this story.
I raise these points because “Blood Of My Blood” is absolutely focused on Margaery, although in ways that I’m not entirely convinced by, and which speak to her somewhat awkward place in the adaptation. On the one hand, the episode finds a way to take the writers’ more active version of Margaery and place her into a more central role in the ongoing conflict in King’s Landing between the Lannister establishment and the Faith. Having her convince Tommen to create an alliance between the Crown and the Faith refreshes her feud with Cersei, while also speaking to her ability to control Tommen and advance her own agenda. These developments raise the stakes of the battle for control in King’s Landing, create the circumstances to push Jaime off to the Riverlands, and solidify Margaery’s centrality relative to the books (where Margaery, at around the same point, has been shuffled out of sight into the ward of Randyll Tarly).
On the other hand, however, “Blood Of My Blood” also makes a huge leap in Margaery’s characterization with regards to her relationship with the High Sparrow, and I don’t entirely know how to read it. When Margaery first began speaking to Tommen, I thought it was a feint. The last we saw Margaery, she was being lectured to by the High Sparrow, and then watching as her brother began to fade under the pressure of his torture at the hands of the Faith; nothing I had seen in those moments had convinced me she was close to converting, and fully accepting the gospel of the High Sparrow. What she tells Tommen here makes basic sense—that her efforts to appear as a good person in order to gain the moral high ground were false and hollow—but the fact that she would turn herself over to the Faith and so closely align with the High Sparrow strikes me as hasty. The strength of Margaery in this adaptation has been the way she has thought strategically and intelligently (like her pragmatism in her marriage to Renly), and so to see her give that away for blind allegiance is a difficult pill for me to swallow (and it remains possible that she’s still strategizing, although I’d need to rewatch for clearer clues than what I saw at first glance).
The entire situation at King’s Landing remains a bit of a mystery to me, in terms of how we’re supposed to be reading it. In the books, this story was told almost exclusively through Cersei’s perspective: there was no Tommen or Margaery points-of-view to explore, and thus the story served primarily as a way to explore Cersei’s psyche in the wake of all she’d been through. But onscreen, the story has spread much more widely, and become a much larger war between Cersei and Jaime and the High Sparrow for control of King’s Landing. The show has accomplished this by rewriting the books’ schism between Jaime and Cersei (who are given a romantic final moment before he’s dispatched to the Riverlands), and drawing clear battle lines between the Lannister and Tyrell families and their children, a new generation who have embraced faith as their path forward (whether earnestly or as part of some type of plan). And while this might in fact be by design, I have zero idea who or what exactly I’m supposed to be rooting for—the High Sparrow may be right about privilege, but he’s also deeply judgmental, and an extremist, which makes Margaery’s decision reckless and short-sighted if she is in fact genuinely convinced by his doctrine (or even if she’s temporarily siding with him). But then it’s hard to root for the Lannisters when their motivations seem so far removed from any larger good (the future of Westeros, the stability of King’s Landing) and more just personal vengeance and retribution. I may not need someone to root for, but the show has made rooting for anyone compromising in ways that have King’s Landing floating off in its own bubble at a time when the rest of the story is starting to reconvene around more important issues.
There will soon be no more bubbles left in Westeros. Sam’s brief detour to Horn Hill serves a function for the character: embarrassed by his father and inspired by Gilly’s willingness to stand up for him, Sam decides they should stick together, and takes Heartsbane (Chekhov’s Valyrian Steel Sword) on his way out for good measure. It’s a good moment for the character, but the time at Horn Hill mainly serves to give us a rare glimpse into the halls of Westeros that have been more or less untouched by the conflicts of the series. Horn Hill is not braced for combat, nor is it forced into preparations for winter: the summer leaves have yet to turn autumnal, and their news is of their latest hunt rather than the hunt for a cure to Greyscale. Sam and Gilly burst that bubble: she is a wildling, Sam saved her from a White Walker, and the Wildlings and the people of Westeros are now very much on the same side of a larger war. We don’t stay long enough to know exactly how Horn Hill will or will not be changed by the knowledge gained from Sam and Gilly’s presence at dinner, but the sequence serves as a precursor to the challenge any of our heroes will face in angling the entirety of Westeros toward the larger conflict at hand.
We can see a similar conflict playing out in Arya’s storyline, which appears to finally be approaching its climax after a very slow build over two seasons. Arya is being asked to place herself into a bubble and forget about Westeros and what she left behind, and so having her final “test” involve the play detailing the political events of the series in King’s Landing is a really deft story choice. Here, we get the wonderfully poetic moment where an actress portraying a woman who Arya has vowed to kill makes Arya realize that she and Cersei have something in common: that they are not the type of people who are willing to do nothing after something has been taken away from them. I like the line it draws between Arya and Cersei—and the show’s female characters in general—and how the play seeks to constrain the role women played in those conflicts. Cersei is left largely to grieve over those she’s lost, Margaery doesn’t even speak, and it’s Tyrion who gets credit for Joffrey’s death even though it was the Queen of Thorns who arranged it. But while it may make for a dramatically satisfying moment of awakening for Arya as she abandons her mission, saves Lady Crane’s life, and then rescues Needle from its stone hiding place, it can’t help but feel a bit unfinished when we’re left hanging with regards to the promised showdown between Arya and the Waif that is necessary to bring the arc to a complete close.
“Blood Of My Blood” is the most inconclusive episode of the season to date, with only the King’s Landing story having a clear structure of rising action, climax, and denouement. Writer Bryan Cogman is tasked with a great deal of exposition in the Riverlands, smartly killing two birds with one stone by having Walder Frey remind us how much we hate him while also recounting the events and aftermath of the Red Wedding as he chews out his sons. But Cogman can’t hide the fact that nothing can actually happen in the Riverlands in this episode: until your average viewer is reminded that Edmure exists, and the role the Freys now play in the region, they can’t just jump into that story. The show chose to allow that story to remain dormant while other priorities took over in the subsequent seasons, and “Blood Of My Blood” unavoidably feels hampered by the amount of time it takes to restart this particular narrative engine after two seasons out in the cold in the garage out back.
Bran’s story is no more conclusive than the rest of the episode, but it feels designed as a way to make up for the lack of resolution elsewhere by both delivering a pivotal reveal for book readers and by creating ample space for speculation. From the moment a rider appears to rescue Meera and Bran, I did what most book readers would do: I scanned his face for any resemblance to Benjen Stark. The reveal of Coldhands’ identity is not a surprise: it has been the prevailing theory, and was supported by the fact the show bothered to place Benjen in Bran’s flashbacks this season. But it anchors a story that builds from last week’s reveal with Hodor to place Bran—as the new Three-Eyed Raven—at the heart of Westeros’ past and the mythology of the series more broadly. Benjen’s reveal is satisfying in its way, but it’s the perspective gained from Bran’s flashes—especially his glimpses of Aerys’ final days—that offers a better guide to what the show wants Bran’s story to be. While Sam struggles to get his father to understand his role in a greater struggle, Bran is the one character who can readily access the history of Westeros and understand how everything and everyone connect to one another. There will be collateral damage—like Hodor—that comes with this power, but it is the tool Westeros needs in order for the larger war to become the focus instead of small struggles of limited significance, and one the show will put to use as it starts narrowing its focus in preparation for its final act.
- A reminder that while this does indeed fit the bill of a “table-setting” episode, that is not nor will it ever be a pejorative. Tables need to be set—such episodes are only problematic if they do a bad job at setting the table, which we won’t know until we see how the meal plays out. Cogman wrote both this week’s and next week’s episodes, and so it’s hard to judge the episode fully knowing that the “second half” (or something approximate to it, with some stories) is forthcoming. This makes “grading” it hard, so consider that B+ capable of changing depending on how this plays out.
- I honestly have nothing to say about Daenerys’ story here, which wasn’t even a story: it was just the latest in a series of power moves by Dany, here aided by being on Drogon’s back. There’s just not enough meat there to say anything new, and so other than reaffirming the conqueror/leader conflict the character will continue to face, it mostly just helped explain why Dany will be able to get back to Meereen a bit faster? That scene kind of felt left hanging here.
- Nice that Tobias Menzies was able to return, after having since moved onto another prestige drama in Outlander. Edmure is a character that the show had even less time for than the books did, so what they intend to do with him is anyone’s guess.
- “He’s beaten us, that’s what’s happening”—not sure how I feel about the Queen of Thorns, who orchestrated Joffrey’s murder, being completely caught unawares by the High Sparrow’s power trip here. I get Jaime being blind to it, and Mace is an imbecile (I loved Jaime’s incredulity at his pomposity), but Olenna? Olenna should’ve known better.
- Yes, that was UnREAL’s Freddie Stroma as Dickon Tarly, which makes me wonder if he’ll be the one sent to retrieve Heartsbane from Sam at Oldtown. Because why else do you cast someone I would recognize?
- That having been said: lots of people recognized Richard E. Grant as the lead actor—and, it turns out, control freak—of the traveling theater troupe, but that role doesn’t ultimately seem overly consequential. So maybe casting notoriety isn’t a fair indicator with Game Of Thrones.
- Using Little Sam as a way to gauge how much time has passed in the show is dangerous, I know, but dude seemed to age pretty rapidly during that boat journey, no?
- First and foremost, one of the dominant fan theories that emerged from last week’s reveal with Bran was whether or not he had anything to do with Aerys going mad, and so the fact that our first glimpse of the Mad King was part of Bran’s vision is a meaningful question. I had actually forgotten on some level that the events of Aerys’ final days had never been clearly established on the show, so we’ll see how much more we get of that story as the series wears on. I was talking to a critic who hasn’t read the books, and they didn’t even realize why Jaime might have been on the Iron Throne, so we’ll see how that story resurfaces in his Riverlands journey as well.
- Speaking of which, however, I am about to do something I swore not to do, but I can’t ignore cold hard evidence. Thus, it’s time for the return of…
- Lady Stoneheart Truther Corner: Okay, I am still skeptical, but the evidence is here. First, you have Brienne heading to the Riverlands, and it seems a little pointless to send her just to reunite with Jaime. Second, you have the show doubling back to Coldhands, demonstrating a willingness to return to characters the show “skipped” in adapting the books. And third, you have Walder Frey mentioning the Brotherhood Without Banners in his exposition rant. Am I wholly convinced? No. Does it seem more possible now than it did when the season began? Yes.
- CleganeBowl Watch: As for our other ongoing concern, the show has absolutely set up trial by combat now, so we’re getting one Clegane at least. But if we are indeed getting the second, I have many questions. If the Hound is truly fighting for the Faith in this battle, are we supposed to root for him to win? Because while I am deeply ambivalent about who between the Lannisters and the High Sparrow I want to “win” in this conflict, I absolutely have an opinion on the Hound and the Mountain, and thus the two conflicts don’t seem well matched to me. However, given that Arya’s awakening could theoretically be linked back to the Hound as well, I do think that the seeds are there for this to go down.