“The Climb” opens and closes on scenes of our (nominally celibate) Crows making time with their best gals, which should make for one of the sweetest episodes of this generally unsentimental series. Unfortunately, Joffrey exists. And so even though he’s only on screen for five total seconds, it actually winds up being one of the more disturbing hours of a show that has heaped abuse and despair upon its characters from the opening episode. Fucking Joffrey.
But we’ll come back to that. This is possibly the first time since…ever, probably, that Jon Snow material wound up being the most memorable parts of an episode, mostly due to how spectacular the Wall climbing scenes are. HBO has budgets that most cable shows would kill for, but we only get a couple of these epic sequences each year, and I didn’t expect to get one so close on the heels of the destruction of Astapor. But the scenes aren’t just spectacle, they also develop the relationship with Ygritte into something more real than before. It’s good to get some clarity on where exactly she really stands when it comes to Jon, and it helps that while her feelings are sincere, she is not foolish about any of it. She’s not dumb enough to think that the boy completely flipped sides the moment he was captured, but she’s also pragmatic enough to see that loyalty to Mance isn’t necessarily in her interests either, so what the hell. She sits the know-nothing down and basically spells out to him that they’re going steady now, and certain pretenses can be dropped. And also threatens to chop off his manhood and wear it as jewelry, lest we think she’s gone soft. It’s kind of sweet all the same.
While Jon and Ygritte are climbing the Wall, Sam and Bran are heading towards it from different sides. Sam just appears long enough to wave a piece of dragonglass at the camera and tell us to remember for later that he’s got it, while Bran has to broker peace between Osha and Meera, who are on the verge of either murdering each other or sleeping together (with this show, it could really go either way). We also learn that the magical visions he is developing come with seizures sometimes, though that doesn’t seem terribly significant to anything yet. I just want something to happen in this plotline already. It feels weird that we’re over halfway through the season and they are still just somewhere in some woods, and we’ve learned practically nothing new about the characters since their introduction five hours ago.
But somehow that does not even qualify as the slowest-moving storyline. Theon is still being tortured, and he/we still don’t know why or by whom. Sure, it’s looking increasingly obvious that Iwan Rheon is Lord Bolton’s bastard, what with literally flaying him on an X in an exact replica of their sigil. But it really is starting to feel like sadism for sadism’s sake, which is of course precisely how he presents it to Theon. Still, it’s getting draining to watch.
But I’m not turning on the show or anything, because these two sluggish plots only take up two scenes between them, and the rest of the episode is pretty great. We only get a brief look in on Jaime and Brienne, but just seeing her scowling in a frilly dress would’ve made up for a lot of filler. It also appears that Roose Bolton has lost faith in Robb’s war, as he is hedging his bets and preparing to deliver Jaime back to his father. I do wonder if there is more to this play, though, as he never struck me as the sort whose allegiances swayed in the wind. Not like Walder Frey, who comes back to Robb’s side a little too easily at the promise of Lord Edmure (who appears to be pushing 40 as nobleman bachelor, though no one seems to find that unusual) marrying one of his daughters. Something tells me there’s more complications in store on that front too.
Back in King’s Landing, Tywin and Olenna haggle over their families’ marital destinies, and it as delicious as we could hope that watching the two legendary Brits face off would be. Between cheerfully acknowledging that her grandson is a “sword-swallower”, needling Tywin about his own sexual history, and the old man backing her into a corner by threatening to do to Loras what the Mad King did to Jaime (appointing him to the “honored” Kingsguard, and denying him children and inheritance in the process), this was a real treat. Even the old lady seemed happy to find someone who could actually keep up with her.
Less thrilled with the proceedings are any of the four new fiancees. Tyrion and Cersei ponder who has it worst of them, but the answer is pretty clearly Sansa, who finds herself cruelly thrust back into the Lannister fold after so nearly escaping Joffrey and the capital. She even cries to see Littlefinger sailing off, though we have just seen that she is immensely better off with Tyrion than that vicious twat. I mean, yes, any of the players of the Game would punish a betrayal like Roz’s with murder, but he takes a relish in informing Varys about it, and we see from the aftermath how hellish her last minutes must have been. Baelish has never been a sympathetic character, but this is a new level of villainy for the little rodent. Which on this show probably means he’s about to become king for the next 3 years.
On a…well, not pleasant but at least less stomach-churning note, we also get some time with Arya and the Brotherhood. A Melisandre/Arya confrontation is something I never thought to wish for, but is great to see, even without the tantalizing hints as to the corpses she will make in her future. The witch has, as expected, come for Gendry, in order to use his Baratheon blood to somehow raise Stannis’s stock back up. Seeing as how there’s been nothing in the least bit nasty or ominous about her and the Lord of Light thus far, I’m sure that will go perfectly well for the smith.
What I like about these scenes is that there’s a cutting-through-the-bullshit vibe to them, even as they are neck deep in the most mystical bullshit of the series. Arya won’t let the Brotherhood pretend that their motives for handing over Gendry are religious rather than financial, Thoros won’t pretend that he understands the power he wields over life and death or what he could’ve done to merit it, and Berric is quick to disabuse Melisandre of the notion that the Lord of Light draws his followers to his bosom upon their death.
Part of what I like about this is that it doesn’t run too far afoul of my own less than spiritual nature, but I also think it’s important that the fantastical bits, as they ramp up, are not allowed to completely drown out the human element. Westeros is a more compelling place because it is closer to medieval England than it is to Narnia, and as much as I’d like to see dragons going at it with giants and zombies, I’m much more interested to see Tyrion butt heads with his father, or Arya lay bloody siege to Stannis’s castle to free Gendry, or Jaime and Brienne figure out what they are to each other, or how Marge is going to try to bring her shithead husband to heel, or how Varys’s next move against Littlefinger will go, or what Olenna…
Jesus, is it next Sunday yet? Oh, come on!