Programming Note: These reviews are written from the perspective of someone who has not read books. They contain liberal speculation as to future developments, but these are based only on what has aired on the show so far (not even including the Next Week On trailers), and thus are intended to be safe for the spoiler-averse. That means NO MENTIONS OF THE BOOKS WHATSOEVER IN THE COMMENTS. DOESN’T MATTER IF IT IS THINGS THAT HAVE ALREADY OCCURRED OR CAN NO LONGER OCCUR AT THIS POINT IN THE SHOW, OR PREDICTIONS I MAKE THAT ARE DEMONSTRABLY WRONG. IF YOUR COMMENT INCLUDES THE WORDS “IN THE BOOKS”, DON’T POST IT.
Prior recaps can be found in here.
I love Lena Headey’s performance as Cersei. Like many of the characters on the show, she seems to be a prototypical fantasy construction – the Evil Queen/Stepmother to Sansa’s Disney princess – but is gradually shown to have more going on beneath the surface. But I think Headey in particular does a lot to bring things that aren’t even on the script page (don’t know what’s on the book pages, and once again this is not the place to talk about that) to the performance, painting a picture of a damaged woman straining at confines of her gilded prison. Someone who is constantly reminded what a position of power she nominally holds, but also stymied from wielding that power against any of the people that do the most to subjugate her. This creates an enormous, believable well of bitterness within her, but Headey never tries to mine this unhappiness for sympathy. It’s important that we understand Cersei, not so much that we like her. But of course I like her anyway.
It doesn’t hurt that she gets the best lines in this episode. Her conversation with Marge manages to be both icy and conciliatory in a way that is unique to the character (the delivery of “Do you think I am easily shocked?” was particularly great), and the scene with Tywin shows him backtracking on his previous admonitions against getting too many ideas in her head. It’s hard to say whether this is because he’s feeling sympathy for her grief, or just that she has become a more viable confidant with Jamie refusing to contribute and Tyrion (whose intellect Tywin can’t help but acknowledge, no matter how much he loathes him overall) on the chopping block. It could easily be both. Regardless, he lets her in on the secret that the Lannisters have been living on credit cards for years, which would probably register as a bigger shock if it weren’t placed right next to some of the things we learn at the Eyrie this week.
But Cersei’s best scene is with Oberyn, who has rapidly leap-frogged the ranks to become one of my favorite characters, and whose outsider status brings a new energy to the scenes in King’s Landing. While the Lannisters needed a new House to threaten and keep them on their toes following the collapse of the Starks, I appreciate that the Viper and his paramour represent as complete a personality shift as is possible from the austere nobility of Ned and Robb. Which is not to say Oberyn is without notions of honor, just propriety. He takes some pride in telling Cersei that they do not hurt innocent girls in Dorne. Which prompts Headey’s finest moment, as she quietly notes that “Everywhere in the world, they hurt little girls.” That’s one of those sum-up-the-series lines that would open the episode as an epigraph if this was done like The Wire.
Speaking of, I think with this episode my friends and I may officially stop calling Aidan Gillen “Carcetti from The Wire” and start using just referring to him as “Litttlefinger”. After an extended absence, Lord Baelish comes roaring back into the narrative with the jaw-dropper that not only did he murder Joffrey (boo hoo) out of sheer deviousness, but he also pulled the strings that set this whole rigamarole in motion by conspiring to murder Jon Arryn with his wife, the loopy widow Lysa. That was the catalyst that set the entire series in motion, you’ll recall, which reframes the last four seasons as all part of Littlefinger’s grand, if nebulous (best I can tell, he’s sort of generally sowing discord in order to manipulate the major Houses into sapping each others’ strength, allowing him to worm his way into new lands and titles along the way) plan. It seems as though even the Lannisters were his patsies, although I really thought it had been established that Jaime and Cersei were behind Arryn’s poisoning, such that I was totally blindsided by the reveal. I hadn’t even been thinking of that as being a mystery that still required “solving”.
Somehow in the shuffle of reframing Littlefinger as the show’s primary villain, it’s Sansa that once again comes out with the worst of it. Poor girl just keeps moving from frying pan to frying pan. It certainly seemed like she had avoided the worst possible fate when the Joffrey broke off the engagement, but now she’s somehow managed to end up in line to marry another demented elfin noble, with a closer blood relation to her and (somehow) even bigger mommy issues than her original intended. And her aunt is a raving lunatic, who is even more jealous of her youth and beauty than Cersei was (though rightly so, given the way her beau creeps on the girl). On the I-guess-up-side?, I can’t imagine Baelish intends to let Aunt Lysa live to a ripe old age once he’s cemented his position as Lord Of The Vale. Between him, her, and young Lord Robin, I expect someone to be taking a trip out the Moon Door before the end of the season.
Heck, at this rate, it could be Arya that tosses the little lord lactose down the hole. While she and the Hound make their way slooowly to the Vale, her list of names grows longer than ever, even accounting for the guy she shanked in the inn, and that Littlefinger has crossed off the biggest one for her. There isn’t much new here, outside of Maisie Williams getting to show off some pretty slick dance moves. Arya asserts that she knows how to fight, the Hound growls that the world is even worse than she thinks (and actually smacks her to punctuate the point), rinse, repeat. As much fun as this pairing has been, I think it’s time for them to actually get somewhere, or for her to find a new mentor figure. Brienne is heading north on the eye for Stark girls, after all. And as much as the lady-warrior would be a natural role model for the little sparkplug, I think what she could use more than swordplay tips is a reminder that trying to comport yourself with honor is not the immediate death sentence that her recent family history would suggest.
Indeed, while I realize that it is a primary thematic raison d’etre for the series, I think after a few years the show may be hammering too hard on the “honor is useless and will only get you killed” button. It’s not that I don’t take the point, it’s that when it gets repeated ad nauseum in so many storylines, it starts to feel simplistic. And the series’ is strongest when it is reveling in the messiness and relativity of any particular ethos.
I don’t think, as the show can sometimes seem to, that notions of chivalry and honor were completely nonsensical liabilities even in medieval times. Rather, they developed out of certain practical necessities, as a sort of primitive check on the abuse of power by those with “armor and a big fucking sword,” and a social adhesive that allows for a family like the “stupid” Starks to rule the largest, roughest of the kingdoms for thousands of years on end. Meanwhile, Targaryens and Joffreys are cut down left and right in King’s Landing, and a thug like Karl Tanner’s reign over even a small, pathetic harem goes down in flames at the first real challenge. It’s fitting that Jon Snow, the most resolutely honorable “Stark” left, is the one to bring that reign to an end. He continues to grow into his role as a legitimate badass and leader of men, and Kit Harrington even manages to look the part when he stalks in to duel with Karl.
It’s a nicely choreographed bit of action, shot with clarity and immediacy by Michelle MacLaren*, and the difference in the combatants’ weaponry makes it feel different and interesting to watch even though the outcome is never a question. The only thing to wonder about is how gruesomely Karl is going to get his – and that answer does not disappoint. But it’s not even the most satisfying kill of the sequence. It probably ranks a smidge ahead of Rast getting Ghost-ed offscreen, but it doesn’t have Hodor on Hodor showing Locke how little he’d like Hodor when he’s Hodor. Game Of Thrones is not a show that makes me smile wide very often, but damn if I wasn’t beaming ear-to-ear when the giant’s eyes took on a new focus and he started straining against his chains with purpose. Kristian Nairn is obviously confined to one basic note in this performance most of the time, but that look showed just how scary he could be under slightly different circumstances. Like say, if he were to end up as a giant frozen zom-….no, no, we mustn’t even think about that.
Anyway, he snaps the sadistic creep’s head nearly off his shoulders, and it’s pretty awesome, sad look afterward notwithstanding. Bran decides not to reunite with Jon, and outside of Jojen not seeming very long for this world (I briefly thought the vision of the fiery hand might just be symbolic of a fever, but knowing this show it’s probably a much more literal representation of that character’s end), everything is much as it was before this interlude. Which makes sense, as I have been told (much as I try to avoid any info about the books) that this entire storyline at Craster’s was invented for the show.
Which is great, I think. The show seems to have been going out of its way this year to give us viscerally satisfying comeuppances for some of its nastiest characters, and fist-pumping smackdowns of the type it had previously reserved for one-dimensional villains over in Dany’s storyline – the death of Joffrey most prominently, but also Arya’s shanking the shitheel in the inn, and now the graphic ends of Locke and the mutineers. It’s almost like Martin/Benioff/Wise realized that after the Red Wedding, they had reached a saturation point as far as the punishment the audience could possibly stand, and decided that we had earned some pudding now that we’d finished our meat. And I do feel like I’ve earned it, and or at least that I need to see that the wicked can have it as hard as the good guys from time to time. I intend to savor it while I can, before the end of the season arrives to heap more tragedy to my favorite characters. I’m just petrified that it will be Tyrion who ends up taking the loss come episode 9…
But in the meantime, if the scene with Tywin and the preseason trailers are to be believed, we have another fist-pumper to look forward to in an Oberyn vs the Mountain showdown, which seems ancillary enough to the main plot that the Bad Guy can lose without disrupting the show’s MO. Maybe that’ll even be next week.
So, is it next week yet? Oh, come on!!
*whom I called in my Breaking Bad reviews “the best director working in TV today” – she’s still up there, but if we count ringers from the feature film world like Cary Fukunaga (True Detective) and Vincenzo Natali (Hannibal), the competition gets a lot more fierce