Hello again and welcome to the epic Chris and Nikki co-blog, in which we recap and review the most recent Game of Thrones episode. We apologize for this one going up late, but I have been in Ottawa this past week at the Congress of Humanities, and apparently Ottawa has no reliable wireless anywhere, so it took me awhile before I could watch the episode. Also, I was busy conferencing (by which I mean drinking beer with colleagues I haven’t seen for a while).
But here we are, and wow was this week’s episode a barn-burner. Literally. I think a barn might have been burning in the background at one point. It is Nikki’s turn to kick us off, so I will cede the stage to her …
Nikki: Wow. The last 15 minutes of this episode were so intense that I’m writing this the next day, and my stomach feels like I did 100 crunches.
So, as we always do, let’s start somewhere else and lead up to that moment.
I’ll start at the beginning, with Tyrion and Daenerys. Last week I had high hopes for this moment, and it was as wonderful as I thought it was. Tyrion and Ser Jorah appear before Dany and her guards, and she asks Tyrion why she should believe that he is who he says he is. Using that silver tongue of his, he talks his way through everything, from her questioning why, if he’s from the House that killed her family, she should allow him to live — “I am the greatest Lannister killer of all time,” he replies — or where he finally silences her when he begins telling the story of Daenerys the way he has always heard it. He recounts the story of a baby that was in peril its entire life, who grew up into a young woman who was married off to the Dothraki and he thought that would be the last he’d hear of her, until she rose up and suddenly had armies and respect and people following her. “I thought you were worth meeting at the very least,” he says with his usual wit.
He explains to her that she doesn’t understand the Houses the way he does, and that he could become her advisor. Daenerys is quiet, calm, and listens to him closely throughout this scene, and she’s as smart in her silence as Tyrion is in his loquaciousness. Remember: her longtime advisor betrayed her and was sent away, and the advisor who took over from him has just been slaughtered. She’s been making her own decisions for the past couple of weeks, and trying her best to do the right thing, but her missteps have always happened when she didn’t listen to counsel as closely as she could. Tyrion has always been so good at captivating a listening audience that he naturally commands this scene, and she listens to him.
And… she gives him his first task. He has to advise her on what to do with Ser Jorah, and his advice is spot-on: you can’t murder a man who is devoted to you, because that will deter the devotion of others. And yet, he betrayed her. And yet, he changed his mind about her and would give his life for her now. And yet, he had opportunities to confess his crime to her and he chose not to, so even when he was most devoted to her, he was withholding very important information. Therefore, let him live, but he cannot be at her side. Daenerys looks astonished, and then impressed, and without a moment’s hesitation tells her guards to get Jorah out of the city. As we later see, Jorah will not go quietly into that good night, because with the death sentence growing ever more rapidly on his arm, he feels he’s got nothing to lose.
The next time we see Tyrion and Dany, they’re enjoying some wine (I imagine Tyrion must have been in some serious withdrawal, since he hasn’t had any wine since Jorah kidnapped him) and having a discussion. He begins to explain the Houses and their various loyalties to her, and I loved this scene because it felt like he was summing up The Show So Far. He sets the record straight on the Spider, explaining to Dany that it’s because of Varys that she probably wasn’t killed in her crib a hundred times. He’s still being a tad careful around her, asking if she’s going to lop off his head, and after a few jokes of how close he’s come to losing it before, she finally tells him that he will be her advisor, and no one’s going to be losing their heads today. Amusingly, she says, “You can advise me” then takes the wine goblet from his hand “while you can still speak in complete sentences.” Ha! Perhaps Dany will be the one to help wean Tyrion from his greatest weakness (after women, of course).
But after Tyrion begins his new vocation by suggesting that perhaps the Iron Throne is overrated, and Dany might be better here, in Meereen, where she’s running the place, where she’s loved and respected and finally has things under control, she waves him off, and tells him that Meereen isn’t her home — King’s Landing is (which is so interesting to us viewers, since we’ve never seen her in that place, and yet she’s right). He explains the tumultuous conditions over in Westeros, with the Houses all at war and stabbing each other in the back, so intent on grabbing the throne for themselves that no one will actually help her. She simply retorts that the Houses are spokes on a wheel, and Tyrion sits back like he’s looking at a naive little girl, and says stopping the wheel is nothing but a beautiful dream and she’s not the first person to have it. Daenerys turns to him with confidence and says, “I’m not going to stop the wheel; I’m going to break the wheel.”
Now it’s Tyrion’s turn to look impressed.
These opening scenes set up a recurring motif in this episode, which is the power of language. Tyrion saves his own life — and that of Jorah’s — through his words. In fact, he’s made it this far on words alone (and is the only Lannister not dead or imprisoned at the moment). If only Cersei would confess — she doesn’t have to mean it, she just has the say the words — they say they’d let her out of her prison. Ramsay undercuts Roose’s plans to have a giant army by suggesting that strategy would work more than numbers. The discussion between Sam and Ollie — and the words Sam uses without realizing the effect they have on the boy — could spell doom in the future. And the speeches that Tormund and Jon Snow give at the end of the episode are the ones that ring out throughout the battle that follows.
If it’s intelligence and words over sheer military might that will win the Iron Throne, Daenerys and Tyrion have the best chance of all of them at this point.
One of the most fascinating scenes follows the opening one, where Arya reinvents herself using only speech and a new backstory, as Jaqen gives her an initial mission. What did you think of the House of Black and White storyline this week, Chris?
Christopher: Considering how much the show is now diverting from the source material, it is an odd comfort to have one storyline at least hew closely to the novels. Arya’s story continues to fall out much as GRRM wrote it, with a handful of changes for the sake of economy. What I liked about her story in this episode is that, in an episode largely—as you observe—about talking, Arya’s bit is very much about seeing, both in terms of Arya seeing and at the same time not being seen. As Lana the oyster-girl, she is all but invisible, and from this position is able to observe very astutely and acutely.
One thing I should point out is that in A Feast for Crows, her apprenticeship as oyster-girl is more protracted and more literally an apprenticeship, as she is instructed to work for and live with a family who harvest and sell shellfish (and who take her in from the Faceless Men without question). The slight change the show makes in not drawing this out is an obvious one, but it is worth pointing out the novel’s treatment because it helps highlight the way in which our understanding of the faceless men has evolved.
The Faceless Men are a remarkable invention by GRRM, a society of assassins that ultimately comes to eschew all the clichés that usually attach to such characters. In A Game of Thrones, we first hear of them when Robert Baratheon demands that the newly pregnant Daenerys be killed, and the Faceless Men are floated as a possible means to this end—only to be ruled out by Littlefinger on the grounds that their services are monumentally expensive. Littlefinger later placates a furious Ned Stark, saying that in offering a general reward for her death (as he had suggested), it was unlikely that anyone would succeed in killing her—whereas, had they hired the Faceless Men, she’d be as good as dead.
Then we meet Jaqen H’ghar in season two and in A Clash of Kings, who seems to embody some of the aforementioned assassin clichés: suave, mysterious, preternaturally capable of dealing death. But this season he bears more resemblance to Yoda than anyone else, and the further we go into the House of Black and white (literally and figuratively), the more we come to understand the Faceless Men as a religious order rather than a mysterious order of assassins, who do not exist in isolation from society but in continuity with it. How they choose their victims remains a little mysterious, as does the precise method of remuneration. Littlefinger laments how expensive they are, but a man begins to wonder if that is perhaps the going rate for the rich and powerful, for whom assassination isn’t about giving the gift of death but a calculated move—whereas vengeance against a cynical insurance adjuster by an impoverished widow, who certainly could not afford the Littlefinger rate, would cost something more commensurate with the man’s crime and the widow’s means.
This is of course highly speculative, but it makes sense with regards to everything we have seen thus far. Arya’s apprenticeship to Jaqen has been about the dissolution of ego and concomitant ability to dissolve oneself into the world at large, to swim in its currents without being noticed, and above all to be able to see people for what they are.
In this respect, Arya’s story stands in stark (ha!) contrast to Cersei’s, who currently suffers the consequences of her blindness. All her life she has had two weapons: her beauty and her name, and they have never failed her before. As a result, she has been able to delude herself into believing herself a shrewd player in the game of thrones, whereas in reality she has been little more than a bungler. She now finds herself in a position where all she can do is rail and threaten, for she has put power in the hands of the one body that trumps the crown, and she did so in the mistaken belief that the High Sparrow understood the process as a transaction, as a quid pro quo. “I made him,” she tells Qyburn when he suggests that confession is one way out of her quandary. “I rose him up from nothing. I will not kneel before some barefooted commoner and beg his forgiveness.” This assertion reveals more about Cersei than her stubborn pride: it betrays the fact that she still just doesn’t get it, that she has arrived at a place and time where the Lannister name is not a get out of jail free card, does not entitle her to others’ fear and respect, and does not grant her authority.
There’s a nice little resonance here with Tyrion’s speech to Daenerys in which he enumerates why the various great houses will oppose her. Tyrion, though far smarter and shrewder than his sister, is nevertheless still captive to the same fallacy as Cersei, one that Daenerys is determined to upend. Daenerys understands one of the central truths of The Wire—“the game is rigged.” But she does not mean to play by the usual rules.
It will be interesting to see how Littlefinger fares.
Meanwhile, in the North, Sansa hears the first good news she’s had in a very, very long time. What did you think of the Winterfell story in this episode, Nikki?
Nikki: Oh, I’ve been waiting so long for Sansa to hear anything good about her family, and this moment was wonderful. It’s a quiet one, hidden in the middle of the episode and certainly overshadowed by the high drama happening in the King’s Landing prisons (for which I must give major kudos to Lena Headey, who is brilliant as Cersei this week) and the beyond spectacular battle scene at the end. As you called it last week (and I bungled as badly as Cersei has screwed up with the Sparrows), Reek did indeed turn to his master rather than try to help Sansa. But in this episode he pleads with her that in not trying to carry out her plan, he was helping her. She thinks because she’s somehow escaped the clutches of Joffrey she’s seen the worst Westeros has to offer. Turns out a bastard Bolton is far more dangerous than an inbred Lannister. (The Westerosians need to make bumper stickers with that motto just to spread the word.)
Reek tries to explain his motives to Sansa, but she won’t have any of it. He’s utterly broken; sadly, he’s not rising up to fight Ramsay the way I thought he might. I’m still not ruling it out, but it’s going to take something major to switch the Theon in him back on. In this episode he speaks of Theon in the third person, and says he’s absolutely not him any longer (which renders him answering to Theon two episodes ago a bit of a continuity error, in my eyes). He tells Sansa, “Theon Greygoy tried to escape.” He explains that “the master” knew, and “he cut away piece after piece until there was no Theon left.” Sansa simply looks at him and says, “Good.” She says if Ramsay hadn’t done those things to him, she would have done all of them and worse, or at least wished she had. She’s getting no argument from Reek, who tells her that he deserved everything he got.
But then she demands to know why, and how, could he have done what he did with her little brothers. He grew up with Rickon and Bran, how could he do those terrible things to them? And for a split second, Theon returns, and he says it wasn’t— and then stops short. Sansa catches him, though, and won’t let him walk away. She pushes and pushes until he finally admits he never killed her brothers, he couldn’t find them. He killed two innocent farmboys. The look on Sansa’s face was worth the price of admission. Just imagine this news for her. She watched her father be beheaded by the man to whom she was betrothed. She heard that her mother, brother, sister-in-law, and their unborn child were slaughtered by the Boltons. Arya has gone missing and is presumed dead. And then she hears that her two little brothers have been burned alive by a man who was raised like one of her brothers. The only relation she believes she has left is Jon Snow, and he’s been banished to the Wall and isn’t a Stark. She’s gone from having a family of eight, including Theon the ward, to it just being her. Even the Theon she knew is gone. And now it’s as if two of the dead have come back to life. She doesn’t know where they are, but they’re out there somewhere, and she might see them again one day. It’s a wonderful, wonderful moment, filmed with the two faces in profile, silhouetted against a grated window, as Sansa clutches the sides of Reek’s face, trying to catch her breath. I absolutely loved the art direction of this moment.
This scene moves to the Boltons planning their strategy against Stannis Baratheon’s army. Roose says he’s prepared for the siege and Stannis’s men are outnumbered. They simply hold out, wait for Stannis’s men to starve or mutiny, et voila, they win. But Ramsay’s got another idea up his sleeve. Or, as he says in an obvious shout-out to the title of the fourth book, he believes they need to take an offensive strategy and force Stannis’s army to become a Feast for the Crows. Roose (whose profile made me realize for the first time that his nose has clearly been broken at some point, for it has absolutely no curve to it whatsoever) argues that if you have the clear defensive advantage, why would you go on the offensive with an army, especially considering how deep the snow will be? Ramsay says he can do this with 20 good men. Whatever he’s up to, I’m assuming it’s not what any good military man would expect. And probably involves the removal of fingernails at some point.
Meanwhile, at the Wall, Sam is recovering from his injuries with Gilly (whose baby, as someone commented to us last week, is still a baby, despite the fact it was born three years ago, something that never occurred to me!) and is visited by Ollie. This is the second scene where Ollie has argued with a man of the Night’s Watch about the plan, and it feels ominous to me. What did you think of Sam and Gilly’s conversation, and then Ollie’s?
Christopher: I think this was a very tight little scene that speaks to the truth of Sam’s words: here we are in the heart of Castle Black, and Sam feels compelled to grab a blade when someone knocks at the door. “Wildling are people,” he tells Ollie. “Just like us, there are good ones and bad ones.” Given that Sam has had a recent run-in with some of the bad ones who are supposedly on his side, who would have beaten him to death and raped Gilly were it not for Ghost, he has a better sense of this than does Ollie. Ollie can hardly be faulted for hating the wildlings, and Tormund in particular, but it is worth noting that if his village had been north of the wall it might well have suffered a similar fate at the hands of Karl Tanner and his renegade crows.
Not that Sam makes this point, or that Ollie would accept it. The tensions and the conflicts in the Castle Black storyline this season are very much about hatreds and enmities so deeply rooted than many people simply cannot see past them, even if it’s a matter of their own survival.
Which is what makes Sam’s well-meaning words—as you say—so very ominous. “Sometimes, a man has to make hard choices,” he says, “choices that might look wrong to others, but you know are right in the long run.” It’s obvious that while Sam is talking about Jon Snow, Ollie is thinking about what he thinks is right, and what hard choice he might make in the future. “Try not to worry, Ollie,” Sam says. “I’ve been worrying about Jon for years. He always comes back.” Not quite what’s on Ollie’s mind, Samwell—a man suspects that Ollie is hoping he won’t come back with ships stuffed with wildlings.
Cue Jon Snow’s crossing the Delaware moment, as his men row him into the docks at Hardhome, where he’s greeted by a wall of faces all wearing expressions not dissimilar to Ollie’s.
I think it’s fair to say that the ending of this episode is one of the most spectacular sequences Game of Thrones has given us … and that’s saying a lot. What did you think of it, Nikki?
Nikki: Oh wow, you’re right! I’d completely forgotten about this ending. NOT.
Wow… every year the production crew of Game of Thrones is faced with some insane battle in the books, and they have to try to up the ante of what they did the year before. And as I immediately said on Twitter at the end of this one, this episode = Rome + The Walking Dead. We saw the spectacular battle at Castle Black last season, which followed the Battle of Blackwater, the Red Wedding, the mutiny at Craster’s… they’ve all been beautifully choreographed and the budgets are so big, you can just imagine hundred-dollar bills shooting out of a cannon in the background. This battle resembles the Red Wedding more than Blackwater or Castle Black, simply because it’s less a battle and more a full-on slaughter. First we have wildlings and Thenns vs. Tormund and Jon Snow, then wildling on wildling (those who agree with Tormund, and those who are on the side of the Thenns), then the wights show up, the skeletal zombies of the wildling dead, and then the white walkers show up (thanks, by the way, GRRM for calling them wights and white walkers, because THAT is not confusing when we’re hearing it and not reading it)… it’s just a madhouse. The CGI on the skelezombies was terrifying, and they move so fast they made The Walking Dead look like a rom-com in comparison.
I loved Karsi (whose name I had to look up because I never caught anyone calling her by name on the show), the wildling who actually listens to John and Tormund and trusts them enough to hand over her children to them. She’s played by Birgitte Hjort Sørenson, whom I immediately recognized as a Danish actress, though I couldn’t put my finger on what I knew her from. And yet, as I kept saying to my husband, I swear I saw her in something recently where she wasn’t playing a Dane. And then IMDb tells me she was the German Kommissar in Pitch Perfect 2, which I’d just seen the day before with my daughter.
Sadly, there were no a capella battles in this episode (I bet she and Jon Snow could have done a mean “Islands in the Stream”) and instead in the melée it becomes an every man for himself situation. The moment Karsi handed off her children, my husband and I assumed she was a goner. Then she became a formidable comrade on the battlefield and I was excited that she might actually live and become a great new female character in the North. And then… she faces off against the child wights. Since they were only in beginning stage of decomposition it would seem they’ve been killed recently, and the shocked look on Karsi’s face led me to believe they may have been her children. Paralyzed in the moment, and unable to hurt them, she dies in battle, eaten alive by the kinderskelezombies.
As if the politics and wars going on in Westeros and beyond aren’t unsettling enough, by the end of this episode it’s clear that no matter where they go, men will die — Valar Morghulis, after all. And when those men die, they will be reanimated by the white walkers and become wights, forced to obey the wishes of the Night’s King — the spiky-headed dude who brought them all to life at the end — and become an unstoppable army. Which suddenly begs the question in that horrible eerie silence at the end of the episode: what’s the point of anything else? The Baratheons, Lannisters, Targaryens, Boltons, Tyrells, and Martells can fight all they damn well please, but in the end, the white walkers will win because nothing can stop them. Or… can something stop them?
Did Jon Snow just become the single most important character of the series? As someone who hasn’t read the books, I read this ending as a twist that might have changed the direction of the entire series to this point. Jon has Valyrian steel. Valyrian steel can kill a white walker. Ned Stark’s Ice sword was made of Valyrian steel, and it was melted down into two swords — one given to Jaime, the other to Joffrey. Joffrey did dick-all with his sword — he was too busy being poisoned to death right after — and then his was given to Tommen, while Jaime gave his sword to Brienne. The Targaryens would have had Valyrian steel swords, but Daenerys wouldn’t still have those. There was that dagger way back near the beginning of the series that was apparently made of Valyrian steel and was used to try to kill Bran and then blamed on Tyrion, but I don’t know where that dagger ended up.
So. If some of the Houses have Valyrian steel — and I’m assuming more, just ones I either don’t remember or they haven’t been brought up — what if the white walkers become the thing that actually unites Westeros? They all have to get together with their swords and stop these things, and that’s the only thing that will do it.
Hm… now I’m thinking too far ahead, but the white walkers just made me forget every other battle that’s either currently being planned, because they all pale in comparison to the scope of what Jon Snow just saw at the very end.
When John and Tormund first arrive at Hardhome, they’re met by a group of hostile people who see Tormund as a traitor and Jon as the one who killed their leader, and yet they find a way not to be killed on the spot. The battle itself was spectacular, but it’s these scenes in the huts that everything else rested upon. What did you think of those, Chris, and could you tell us something more about the giants? I still don’t follow where their loyalties lie or how many of them are even left.
Christopher: Kinderskelezombies. That is awesome.
Well, the first thing I should say is that this whole scene is a major departure from the books … so in some ways I’m as at sea as you. In A Dance With Dragons, Jon Snow sends an expedition to rescue the wildlings at Hardhome, but does not go himself. The fleet of ships he sends runs into bad weather, and a number of them are lost. The ships’ captain sends a message by raven to Jon, begging for help. Jon at first plans to lead an overland rescue, then ends up sending it under Tormund’s command.
Hence, the action and events in the second half of this episode are wholly the invention of the show.
I’m wracking my brain to try and remember whether the anti-walker qualities of Valyrian steel are known or not … I think yes? Or perhaps it’s suspected? (I’m writing this post on the road, and so don’t have access to my copies of the books to consult). I seem to think that because of its origins as steel forged with magic by dragonlords, that it was assumed to be the natural enemy of the White Walkers.
We’re given to understand in the books that there are a few hundred blades forged of Valyrian steel in Westeros, and that they are mostly prized heirlooms among families of note. We learn at one point that the Lannisters, in spite of their wealth, never possessed a Valyrian sword until Tywin “appropriates” Ice—that in fact he had long attempted to acquire one, offering large sums of money to impoverished houses, but that however much they might need the cash, no one would ever part with their Valyrian steel. So theoretically, if you could ever get those people in possession of such weapons to fight together, you could have a pretty effective shock unit to face off against the Walkers. Of course, based on what we saw in this episode, their strategy seems to be to hang back and let their undead hordes do all the dirty work for them, and then add the newly dead to their ever-growing army. Which at this point is very formidable indeed.
I really loved the council of elders scene, especially Tormund’s line re: Jon Snow, “Well, he’s prettier than my two daughters …” If I have a quibble with it all, it’s what you mentioned above: that it was obvious from the outset that Karsi was marked for death. I suspected as much when she made her presence at the meeting known so overtly, and was inclined to trust Tormund and join her people to Jon’s cause. When she promises her children that she’ll be along shortly, I wrote in my notes, “She might as well be wearing a red shirt.” I was a little annoyed that the writers chose to go with the cliché of the disposable character—confounding expectations by letting her escape with Jon would have given us a new and compelling character.
That being said, her death was heartrending, especially as, as you suggest Nikki, the sense is that she sees a child of her own among the child-wights. It’s a chilling moment, if you’ll pardon the pun. And it’s worth noting that one of them bears more that a passing resemblance to the child-wight we saw in the very first episode of this show four years ago and eight weeks ago.
Overall, this entire sequence was brilliant. I’m not sure what the deal with the giants is, Nikki, or how many of them there are. The books say that the giants are a dying race, and there are very few of them left. Wun Wun might well be the last of his kind, as far as the show is concerned—though now that the wildlings are allies rather than enemies, that’s too bad. He shows pretty clearly that having a giant on your side is somewhat advantageous. I loved watching him stomping the wights and pulling them off him like mere irritants.
The final moments as Jon Snow’s boat drifts away from the docks and the Night King was haunting. I think you put your finger on it, Nikki: in that few seconds as the Night King defiantly brings hundreds, perhaps thousands of the dead back to reanimated “life,” the look on Jon Snow’s face is one of stupefaction and despair. How indeed do they fight that enemy?
I’m going to go out on a limb and wager that dragons will be involved.
Well, that’s it for us for another week, sports fans. We’ll see you soon when we do our review of the penultimate episode. In the meantime, stay warm, keep your Valyrian steel close, make sure that palisade will withstand zombie attack, and keep Carl in the goddamn house.