Hello, my friends, and welcome once again to the ongoing Chris and Nikki co-blog on Game of Thrones, in which I have read the novels since the first was in hardcover, and Nikki comes to this series as a neophyte. Normally it would have been Nikki’s turn to lead us off, but apparently she was in Niagara or some such place one Monday, talking to aspiring writers. So I’m leading us off …
Christopher: Tonight’s episode was really interesting, and not just because of the content. Structurally and narratively it was interesting, because the bulk of it took place in the North—alternating between different story threads, but giving us a geographic preoccupation that (I seem to think) we haven’t seen before. Normally, episodes move the different narrative threads in tandem, often giving us only a few minutes in, say, Castle Black and with whatever road-tripping duo is current, almost as narrative place-holders, while giving over more substantive blocks to King’s Landing, Mereen, or wherever. And then every so often there’s an episode devoted entirely to one storyline—the Battle of the Blackwater, or the assault on the Wall. But normally this show has divvied up its story blocks more or less equally.
Which of course makes sense, as it’s in the show’s interests to remind us of all the balls it has in the air at any given time. But I loved this episode because it served to highlight the interconnections in a group of stories whose geographical proximity makes them more immediate to one another. In a given episode what happens in King’s Landing, the Wall, and Mereen are only vaguely connected; here, we see how events at the Wall concern the denizens of Winterfell (or should), we see Brienne’s view of Winterfell from a local inn, and sending word to Sansa through Stark loyalists, and finally watch Stannis marching south shortly after a scene (that shows what I suspect passes for a touching moment in the Bolton family) where Ramsay pledges to help his father fight.
I loved this because it doesn’t show disparate, parallel storylines—it shows the ferment of proximate events, all of which inform and shape each other.
That this northern narrative is effectively bookended by Daenery’s travails in Mereen (with the Tyrion/Jorah bit functioning almost as a coda or epilogue) makes it that much more interesting, as Daenerys’ story works both by contrast and similarity. That shocking opening scene where she feeds one of the Great Masters to her dragons is followed by one about as far away from Mereen as you can get, where Sam reads news of Daenerys to her sole surviving kin. In the moment when Daenerys leaves the dragons’ lair (well, prison), she looks about as alone as we’ve seen her since her marriage to Drogo; and Maester Aemon laments that very fact, saying “She’s alone. Under siege, no family to guide her or protect her … her last relation thousands of miles away. Useless. Dying. A Targaryen alone in the world … it is a terrible thing.” As both a maester and a brother of the Night’s Watch, Aemon Targaryen gave up his family name and birthright twice over, but we see the pain of that sacrifice here as he contemplates Daenerys’ solitude—which is worse than he probably imagines, not knowing that she has lost two of her most loyal and steadfast allies—banishing Ser Jorah, and bearing witness at the beginning of this episode to Barristan’s lifeless body. Who is left? Grey Worm has been grievously wounded; Daario is loyal but mercurial; Missandei is similarly loyal, but cannot offer the same counsel of her absent knights; and in her grief and anger she makes an example of one of her subjects in a manner that would have made her mad father proud.
The pairing of Mereen with the North makes great thematic sense, especially in the balance of Daenerys and Jon Snow—both face the isolation of command.
What did you think of this episode, Nikki?
Nikki: I agree with your excellent assessment of what made this episode great. On the one hand, it’s not as exciting as the previous four episodes have been — each season must have one or two bridge episodes — but on the other hand, we always love those moments that bring storylines together. I still remember the thrill last season of Bran almost encountering Jon Snow, but not quite. For me, the best moment of this episode was where Tyrion finally saw a dragon. FanTAStic.
In addition to the connections you’ve already pointed out above, there was one I’d been waiting to see — the reunion of Theon and Sansa. Miranda — Ramsay’s girlfriend who is engaged in some sort of ongoing S&M thing that clearly involves him starving her — is deeply jealous with his impending engagement to Sansa. While he, frustrated, tells her that he has no choice in the matter but reassures her that she’ll always be in his life, she still decides to get her revenge. This comes later, when she approaches Sansa in the Winterfell courtyard, cunningly uses a compliment about Sansa’s dress to remind her of her mother’s death at the hand of the Boltons, and then leads her to the kennels, telling her there’s something she’ll want to see at the end. The very comment about Sansa’s proficiency in stitching takes us all the way back to the first episode, where Arya was complaining about having to sit still and learn how to embroider like her older sister, when all she wanted to do was go out and practise archery like her brothers. Just as last week’s feather reminded us of Robert Baratheon in season one, now we get the mention of the stitching, as well as the old woman telling Sansa that the North remembers, and to light a candle in the Broken Tower should she ever need anything. The Broken Tower, of course, being the place where Bran was pushed from a window by Jaime Lannister, the incident that sparked this whole damn thing.
But now, as Sansa slowly moved her way through the kennels, I actually have to admit I didn’t anticipate what was there — instead, I was hoping it was Nymeria, Arya’s direwolf, whom we last saw being chased away by Arya, who feared for her life after she bit Joffrey (because of the stitching comment, my mind was firmly back in season 1 at this point). Though the last mention of Nymeria had her down in the Riverlands, I was half-hoping the Boltons had captured her and brought her here, and that she might work with Sansa somehow.
But instead, what she found was Theon, shivering and chained to the wall. “You shouldn’t be here,” he says the moment he sees her, and Sansa, horrified at what she’s just seen, turns and runs as fast as she can out of that kennel.
The last Sansa had heard about Theon was that he had taken Winterfell, and had killed Bran and Rickon in order to do so. Of course, we know that Theon only meant for people to think that, and in fact he’d killed two other boys and strung them up, skinless (the way the Boltons do in the courtyard every day). But Sansa doesn’t know that. For a moment, I thought she’d feel sorry for him, and then the truth of what she believes has happened came washing back, and I realized she’s horrified not at what’s become of him, but that he’s there at all.
I wondered what was going through her head at the dinner, where Ramsay trots out Reek to stand before Sansa and apologize for what he did to her brothers. What a whirlwind of emotions must be rushing through her head. Ramsay is putting on a show not to torture Reek, but to humiliate Sansa and put her in her place. By making Reek stand there and give her a pat “yeah, sorry ’bout that” apology, and then sit back triumphantly and say, “There, all better now!” Ramsay is not only making fun of Sansa’s pain, but reminding her that there’s nothing that can be done now to bring them back, and a simple “sorry” is all she’ll be getting out of the bargain. As she sits there, looking confused about Reek’s condition, perhaps upset that she didn’t get to do that to him herself, or perhaps concerned about how much of a monster Ramsay Bolton really is, she’s also eminently aware that sitting across from her — not saying sorry — is the man who orchestrated the deaths of her brother, her mother, a sister-in-law that she never met, and a niece/nephew that was never born. And sitting next to him is the daughter of the other man who committed the crimes. It’s a dinner from hell, and Sansa keeps her chin up, letting the wave of emotions wash over her and never betraying any of them for an instant. She smiles, she kowtows, and does exactly what needs to be done to get through the scene. Theon is an example of what happens when you don’t bend to the will of the Boltons. She’ll pretend to do so… for now.
I’ve been watching this show from season one, waiting for Arya’s revenge on everyone who’s wronged her. Now I want to see Sansa’s revenge even more. May it be sweet and painful to those who have killed the ones she’s loved.
After Sansa and Theon leave, Ramsay and Roose talk about Roose’s wife’s pregnancy, and after some particularly cruel comments from Ramsay, it’s clear that he’s worried about his station. If she gives birth to a boy, then that boy will be the trueborn heir. Ramsay has been given the Bolton name for now, but he’ll always be Roose’s bastard son. Roose, on the other hand, after revealing to Ramsay that he’s a child of rape, tells him that he knew from the moment he saw him that he was his son, and he hasn’t forgotten that. Ramsay doesn’t look particularly convinced, and time will tell if Roose will stand by those words.
Time will also tell if Theon is who he’s letting on he is. I’m less certain he’s actually Reek; he immediately recognizes Sansa, knows she shouldn’t be in the kennels, and apologizes. He hasn’t forgotten who he is or what he’s purported to have done, but when Ramsay destroyed Theon to create Reek, he made it clear he was killing the one to create the other. But it’s clear the remnants of Theon are still there.
And killing the one to create the other brings us back around to the title of this episode, which comes from what Maester Aemon tells Jon Snow. What did you think of Snow’s storyline this week, Chris?
Christopher: I can’t figure out whether I think Kit Harrington is a great actor or just lucked into a role that perfectly suits his temperament, but this week’s episode showed him off to his best advantage. It helps that his accent is very similar to Sean Bean’s, but he conveys the gravitas his father did, and takes a similarly sober and unflinching view of his responsibilities and obligations. What I loved about his storyline here was that it perfectly performed—or started to perform—what Maester Aemon told him he must do. He begins by asking the sage old man’s advice; then has a wonderful scene with Tormund, laying the groundwork for his plan; sees precisely the kind of hate and anger he has to deal with when he puts the idea to his men; and in another poignant moment has to tell Ollie that, in the larger scheme of things, the brutal killing of his parents and village matter less than standing united against the enemy—even if it means standing with the very people who killed your family.
Kill the boy, indeed.
As I said above, I think the symmetry of this week’s episode lies in the parallel between Jon and Daenerys as they both face what are effectively impossible situations. Everything Jon Snow argues for is valid: it makes total sense to bring the wildlings south of the Wall for the simple reason that they then won’t come south as a massive army of ice zombies. But of course he’s fighting upstream against millennia of hatred and enmity, to say nothing of recent bleak memories. And the mistrust goes both ways: “You sure seemed like my enemy when you were killing my friends,” Tormund scoffs at Jon’s overtures.
Both Jon and Daenerys are looking at a much bigger picture than their subjects and followers can apprehend. That’s what makes them good leaders; it’s also what isolates them.
Can I pause for a moment and say how much I loved Stannis’ little grammar lesson? During the meeting when Jon Snow makes his case for protecting the wildlings, one of his men advocates leaving them and letting them die. “Less enemies for us!” he says, to much acclaim in the room. We then cut to Stannis, who corrects the man under his breath. “Fewer.” HA! I love that the man who would be king is as strict about grammar as he is about everything else.
A few points here about divergences from the novels. The Jon Snow scenes are more or less consonant with the GRRM storyline, from Jon Snow’s hugely unpopular decision to allow the wildlings south of the Wall, to the expedition to Hardhome to rescue them. The principal difference is that in this version Jon Snow is leading the expedition. In the novel, he sends Tormund and a handful of men with the ships, and gets sporadic messages by raven (mostly bad news). So the fact that he is going himself at Tormund’s insistence represents a significant change … it will be interesting to see what happens out there. (Episode Eight, according to IMDb.com, is titled “Hardhome”).
This show has been so wonderfully cast that I find it difficult to pin down precisely which performances are my favourites—but the person most consistently in the top three is Gwendolyn Christie as Brienne. Every time she is on screen it makes me happy, and here she is, doggedly clinging to her vow even though she was spurned by Sansa. What did you think of her continued attempts to help her, Nikki?
Nikki: Stannis’s upbraiding of that man’s grammar was one of the episode highlights for me. (Incidentally, I watched Mad Men the same night and Don Draper ALSO corrected a kid’s grammar — not once, but twice — making me think I’d missed some wonderful announcement that it was National Editor Appreciation Day on cable networks…)
But back to Brienne. Game of Thrones is a show about people trying to claw their way to the top to get the Iron Throne, in the case of Stannis, Daenerys, Cersei, Margaery, the Boltons, or Baelish. Or it’s about people plotting revenge for those who have done them wrong, like Ellaria and the Sand Snakes, or Arya, Sansa, possibly Theon. And in the midst of the power plays and plots for revenge, we have a few folks who are simply trying to do the right thing. Among those would be Jon Snow, or Sam and Gilly. You have Jaime trying to right a wrong, Varys hoping for a kingdom of peace, and Tyrion escaping a wrongful accusation while no doubt becoming a key player in someone else’s climb to the Throne.
And then there’s Brienne. Of all these people, she lives by a moral code that is unwavering, like Omar Little on The Wire (minus the drug dealing and petty theft). She made a vow to Catelyn Stark, and she will follow through on that vow. The only reason she’s not still chasing after Arya is because Arya escaped and she couldn’t find her, and Brienne has been beating herself up over that ever since. But she’s found Sansa, and despite being rejected by her, she has tracked her to Winterfell and will continue to keep watch over her.
In some ways, Brienne is like a viewer of the show: she’s an outsider to all these families, and therefore can see things objectively and clearly. When Podrick says that Sansa is back at home away from the Lannisters, and perhaps they should leave her alone because she’s safe and better off here, Brienne turns to him and says, “Better off with the Boltons? Who murdered her mother and brother? Sansa’s in danger even if she doesn’t realize it.” We’ve been talking a lot over the past two seasons how Sansa has come into her own and is so much stronger than we ever would have thought that character would become, and yet during the Bolton dinner scene it was clear their manipulations surpass even Littlefinger’s, and perhaps she’s underestimated just how much danger she’s in.
Brienne hasn’t. You can tell as she’s staring out the window that her mind is trying to formulate a plan, and when the innkeeper brings her some water, she spots an opportunity. What’s so remarkable about what happens next is… just how unremarkable the conversation is. He asks a question, she gives him a straight answer. He asks another one, she gives another straight answer. I am here for Sansa Stark, I need to get a message to her, I swore a vow to her mother. “Her mother’s dead,” he sneers, and she replies, “That doesn’t release me from my oath.” Almost any other character would have lied about their true intentions, manipulated the situation to trick the innkeeper into helping them, and then probably killed the innkeeper somewhere along the way to dispose of the witness. And you can tell by the wary look on the innkeeper’s face that he knows that’s exactly how this works, and can’t figure out who this woman is who is… telling the truth. She explains to him with so much conviction that she served Lady Catelyn, and serves her still. “Who do you serve?” she asks. And for the first time, the innkeeper lifts his head and looks straight at her.
As Brienne continues on her single-minded conviction to save Sansa Stark, Ser Jorah Mormont pushes into Valyria in what Gay of Thrones referred to as the “worst Disneyland Jungle Cruise ride EVER.” I thought the production design on these scenes was extraordinary, creating Valyria from GRRM’s words in much the same way Peter Jackson created Middle Earth from Tolkien’s description. We know from previous episodes what happens to people with extreme greyscale (Gilly recalls two of her sisters turning into animals) and Stannis mentioned to Shireen in the previous episode that when the greyscale began on her, he was told to send her to Valyria but he didn’t.
What did you think of the Tyrion/Jorah/Stone Men scenes in Valyria, Chris? Was it similar to what happened in the books?
Christopher: Yes and no. In A Dance With Dragons, Tyrion’s journey is far more protracted: he is taken by litter with Illyrio (not Varys) to the head of the Rhoyne River, where he joins a group of Targaryen loyalists on a river barge. They travel down the river for many chapters. Many chapters. In the novel, the Stone Men are not sent to Valyria, but an old city that bestrides the river, now known as the Sorrows. It is there that they are attacked by the Stone Men. Tyrion survives after falling in the water, as happened in this episode.
It is after this encounter that the group arrives at Volantis, and Tyrion makes his way to a brothel only to be captured and taken by Ser Jorah.
I’m finding the pruning the series has been doing to be quite ingenious at times: they have completely dispatched the river-journey narrative, along with the handful of extra characters it brought to an already overstuffed list of dramatis personae. And we get to see Valyria! The fact that Jorah can steer them through it and survive is another change from the novel: the ruins of Valyria are notoriously dangerous, and no traveler that anyone knows of has ever returned. Here they seem to be suggesting that the fear surrounding Valyria is mostly superstition, and because pirates steer clear of it, Jorah uses it as both a short cut and a route safe from brigands.
But not Stone Men, apparently. More on them in a moment.
The memory and myth of Valyria haunts A Song of Ice and Fire, much as the memory of Rome haunted medieval Europe. “How many centuries before we learn how to build cities like this again?” Tyrion wonders. “For thousands of years the Valyrians were best in the world at almost everything.” This moment reminds me of Bernard Cornwell’s trilogy The Warlord Chronicles, in which he reimagines the Arthurian stories from a rigorously historical perspective: in 500 CE or so, the Romans would have been gone from Britain for a generation, but the memory of them lingered, as did all of their feats of engineering. Roads, manses, baths, fortresses … all of which are slowly crumbling, but none of which the Britons have the expertise, tools, and technology to repair or replicate. In GRRM’s books, we get fragments of stories about Valyria’s Doom, stories that hint at hubris and arrogance that led to their ultimate destruction. In this episode what we get is a sense of brutal finality. The Valyrians were the best in the world at almost everything, Tyrion says, “And then …” “And then they weren’t,” Jorah finishes for him, and Tyrion quotes from a poem about a pair of doomed lovers in Valyria:
They held each other close,
And turned their backs upon the end,
The hills that split asunder,
And the black that ate the skies,
The flames that shot so high and hot,
That even dragons burned,
Would never be the final sights,
That fell upon their eyes,
A fly upon a wall,
The waves the sea wind,
Whipped and churned,
The city of a thousand years,
And all that men had learned,
The Doom consumed them all alike,
And neither of them turned.
The poetry is original to the series: we hear about this song being sung by a Tyroshi singer named Collio Quaynis in A Storm of Swords, but get no lyrics. “A haunting ballad of two dying lovers amidst the Doom of Valyria might have pleased the hall more,” Tyrion reflects, “if Collio had not sung it in High Valyrian, which most of the guests could not speak.” But here Tyrion recites it, only to discover that Jorah knows a bit of poetry too.
It is a fittingly elegiac moment, and poignantly done, and serves as a wonderful ramp-up to what has to be the most amazing moment of this episode: when Tyrion sees Drogon flying overhead. Even if the rest of this episode had been crap, the expression on Peter Dinklage’s face is would be worth the price of admission. The ruins of Valyria, replete with a dragon … both Dinklage and Iain Glenn have some great face-acting here: the mix of awe and shock as the abstraction of the “mother of dragons” becomes suddenly very real; and Jorah’s pained, lost expression. He’s looking at Drogon, but we know he is thinking of Daenerys.
And then the Stone Men, for this show’s usual dramatic ending. I thought for a moment that they would end it with Tyrion being pulled down into the depths. There’s always a long moment of black screen before the credits role, but this time they head-faked us, and we get Tyrion’s perspective as he wakes up to see Jorah’s concerned face above him. There’s no more pretense about captor and prisoner: after Valyria, there’s no point. Jorah cuts Tyrion’s bonds and goes off to scrounge some firewood … but not before he reveals to us that he’s been infected with greyscale.
In the novel, the leader of the river-barge group gets infected. But with that storyline dispensed with, we instead have a death sentence levied on Ser Jorah. A death sentence and a ticking clock: he now has to fulfill whatever mission he has assigned himself before the disease overtakes him.
What did you think of the Tyrion/Jorah scene, Nikki? And what did you make of Daenerys’ decision to make a power marriage?
Nikki: I knew Tyrion wasn’t going to drown (GRRM can kill just about anyone, but I feel like Tyrion is one of the Untouchables), but like you, I thought they were going to cut to credits as he was going down. Brilliant use of the long black screen — the last time I saw a screen stay black that long was at the end of The Sopranos series finale. I’m saddened to see Ser Jorah affected by greyscale, but wonder if there’s any way he could beat it, too? It seems unlikely; Stannis was able to save his daughter by employing everyone in the country that he could. Mormont doesn’t exactly have Stannis’s standing, so I’m thinking his days are numbered.
As for Daenerys, however, I think she’s finally figured out how to use those dragons. Back in the season premiere, Daario told her that she’s the mother of dragons, and needed to show the world what that meant. She went down into the dungeons but it felt hopeless — her children were lost to her.
Not anymore. That scene of the nobleman being immolated and then ripped in two by the dragons might be the single most graphic effect on the show so far, and it was spectacular. She put the fear of dragons into those noblemen for sure, before taking the remaining ones and putting them into jail cells. But what to do with them? As she explains to Missandei, Ser Barristan wanted mercy for them; Daario wants them all killed. Without a single advisor, Daenerys has many voices ringing in her head, and unlike Brienne, simply cannot see a single correct path, and keeps changing her mind. Now she turns to Missandei, but of all Daenerys’s advisors, Missandei is the one who tells her she needs to make this decision. She has seen advisors tell Daenerys many things, and she’s seen Dany listen to them… or ignore them when she knows there’s a better choice out there. In this scene Missandei becomes Daenerys’s conscience and voice of reason, and suddenly, with an absence of male advisors, Dany makes a decision for herself. She heads down to the jail cell where Hizdahr Zo Loraq is being held, and finally acknowledges what I’ve been thinking all along — that of all the people who have been talking to her these past months, he’s always come off as the most reasonable, the one who calmly tells her the way things are and gives her the advice she needs to keep her citizens happy.
Advice, by the way, she’s completely ignored until now.
She tells him that she agrees with him that he’s been right, and she was wrong, and she apologizes for ignoring him for so long. She will once again open the fighting pits, but it will be only free men who will fight in them, not slaves. Loraq looks pleased, but remains on his knees before her. Then she tells him that she’ll go one step further — she will marry the head of a noble family in Meereen. “Thankfully,” she adds, “a suitor is already on his knees.” And she walks out, leaving him still sitting on the floor, probably thinking, “Did… she just tell me I’m marrying her?”
Yes she did, my friend. Because that’s how Dany rolls.
I hope this is the right decision. But at the very least, we know Tyrion’s on his way to her side to help strengthen her even further… with or without Ser Jorah.
And that’s it for this week’s Game of Thrones! Join us next week, where I hope we drop in to check up on the Sand Snakes and Arya, and perhaps Tyrion and Jorah have some more upbeat poetry they could recite for us. See you then!