Welcome friends once again to the latest installment of the great Chris and Nikki Game of Thrones co-blog, in which we recap, review, squee, shudder, and throw shade at the Randyll Tarlys and Walder Freys of the world. Well, of that world, anyway. For what felt when I watched it like a middling episode, a lot actually went down this week—including but not limited to the return of a Stark, the origin of Samwell’s insecurity issues, Arya’s possible career change, and an object lesson in how best to deliver rousing speeches (hint: on the back of a dragon).
Christopher: It occurred to me at a certain point during this episode that we need to do a special retrospective blog post when The Winds of Winter comes out, in which we talk about the deviations from GRRM’s story the series has made, but also what aspects of the novel the series has now revealed in advance (I don’t want to say “spoiled,” because that’s not entirely accurate). This week’s episode has revealed a whole bunch of plot twists that may or may not be consonant with the novels, so it will be interesting to see which ones bear out. Do Margaery and Tommen embrace the Faith and side with the High Sparrow against their houses? Does Arya rebel against the Faceless Men and reassert her own sense of self? Will Daenerys turn her and her dragons’ noses toward Westeros after her capture by the Dothraki?
The one twist that rings true, if for no other reason than that it has long been fan speculation, is that Bran’s mysterious benefactor Coldhands (as he is called in the novels) is actually his long-lost Uncle Benjen. We first meet Coldhands in A Storm of Swords as a strange, almost wight-ish figure riding an elk, who aids Sam and Gilly in their escape south from Craster’s Keep. Sam and Gilly make their way south of the Wall through a secret passage under the Nightfort, encountering Bran and his entourage as they do. This of course also happens on the show (episode 3.10), with Sam showing Bran et al the way north and promising not to tell Jon; in the novels, however, Coldhands is there to meet Bran and guide him north.
The absence of this character from the series was broadly assumed to be yet another instance where the show chose to pare down the novels’ ever-increasing ensemble, so his appearance at this late stage makes me wonder if any other elided characters will be making surprise appearances. It also makes me wonder, as I write this, whether or not GRRM intended for Coldhands to be Benjen—might this be an instance of the series listening to fan speculation and deciding that it was expedient to satisfy us on this one point and bring back a character to be this week’s deus ex machina? Did it just happen that the actor in question (Joseph Mawle) was available to step back into the role after a five-year hiatus?
Like I said: we need to do a special Winds of Winter post, which at this point will probably be around 2025.
I think I said something a few posts ago, apropos of the wildling rescue of the Snow loyalists, that the writers need to be more parsimonious with their use of the deus ex machina. Such is the case here: we know that Hodor bought Bran and Meera a few minutes with his heroic sacrifice, but not much more than that. Meera is not Hodor: she is struggling rather desperately to drag Bran’s sledge, but her strength is flagging, and Bran is meanwhile stuck in his visionary stupor. It’s pretty obvious that they’re about to need rescuing, and I have written in my notes “Coldhands?” And lo and behold, here he is, though sadly not riding an elk (perhaps because he was too embarrassed to do so after watching The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies), but armed with a sweet flaming morningstar.
(Can I argue a point of logic here? Meera pauses in mid-flight to desperately try to wake Bran up. Is this really the best use of her energies? Not to sound ableist, but it’s not as though there’s anything more he can do while awake).
Bran himself seems to be stuck in information overload, bombarded by a welter of images from the past—many of which we’ve seen in the course of the show, and some of which he experienced (such as his fall from the broken tower)—but many of which he was not present for, such as the execution of his father. And we see some new scenes: most notably, we get a glimpse of the Mad King Aerys sitting on the Iron Throne, shouting “Burn them all!”, along with images of wildfire being poured into vessels and being detonated. Hopefully this means that in future episodes we’ll be treated to scenes of the last days of the Mad King, whose paranoia and insanity brought down the Targaryen dynasty. Until now, we’ve only had stories: most memorably, the story Jaime told Brienne back in season three. Once again, the embedding on the video is disabled, but it’s worth revisiting. Jaime asks Brienne if she’s familiar with wildfire. “Of course,” she retorts, and he says,
The Mad King was obsessed with it. He loved to watch people burn. Have their skin blackened, burnt, melted off their bones. He burned lords he didn’t like, he burned Hands who disobeyed him, he burned anyone who was against him. Before long half the country was against him. Aerys saw traitors everywhere. So he had his pyromancer place caches of wildfire all over the city. Beneath the Sept of Baelor. The slums of Fleabottom. Under houses, stables, taverns. Underneath the Red Keep itself. Finally, the day of reckoning came. Robert Baratheon marched on the capital after his victory at the Trident. But my father arrived first, the whole Lannister army at his back, promising to defend the city against the rebels. I knew my father better than that. He’s never been one to pick the losing side. I told the Mad King as much. I urged him to surrender peacefully. But the king didn’t listen to me. He didn’t listen to Varys … But he did listen to Grand Maester Pycelle … ‘You can trust the Lannisters,’ he said. ‘The Lannisters have always been true friends of the crown.’ So, he opened the gates. My father sacked the city. Once again, I came to the king, begging him to surrender. He told me to bring him my father’s head. Then he turned to his pyromancer. ‘Burn them all!’ he said. ‘Burn them in their homes! Burn them in their beds!’
Apologies for the lengthy quotation. I transcribed it with the thought of editing it down to its pith, but it occurs to me that this moment is germane to this episode—not just because it calls back to that moment Bran sees in his vision, but because this episode is fairly explicitly about family and blood. “Blood of my Blood” is the title, which references the Dothraki bloodriders’ oath to their khal, and which Daenerys invokes in the episode’s final scene. But blood and family, in all its fraught incarnations, is at the center of this episode: Sam returning to his family home, to his mother’s love and his father’s contempt; Tommen and Margaery taking sides against their families; Arya choosing her own sense of self as a Stark against the Faceless Men; Walder Frey revealing that he means to use his hostage Edmure Tully against the Blackfish; and of course in this moment, Bran being reunited with a long-lost uncle who is not, strictly speaking, the same uncle he last saw five seasons ago.
At any rate, after Coldhands/Benjen lays waste to a slew of wights and has his John Connor moment (seriously, did anyone else hear him say “Come with me” and mouth the words “if you want to live”? Or is that just me?), we segue from the white north to the green south, and catch up with Sam and Gilly. What did you think of Sam’s homecoming, Nikki?
Nikki: As always, Sam and Gilly just have a knack of making me smile every time they’re on screen; they’re just so darn sweet together. He’s bouncing little Samwell on his lap as he talks incessantly about the kinds of trees that grow around his home, what they look like in summer, what the colours look like in the autumn, and Gilly gleans right away that he’s nervous as hell, hence the jabbering. The last he saw of his family, he was being banished to the Night’s Watch as a convenient way for his father, Randyll, to be rid of him. His father, a military man, gave him a choice: go to the Night’s Watch or be put to death. The reason? Because Sam was overweight and loved books, rather than being the muscular military man that his father wanted him to be. There was no way Randyll was going to allow Sam to be his heir, but he couldn’t skip him and give it to his other children, because Sam was the eldest. Banish him to the Night’s Watch, et voila: Sam divests himself of the Tarly name and any claims he has to the household.
And… now he’s back. And his father is furious. But as they approach the ENORMOUS castle (like, seriously, did anyone else gasp aloud and scream some obscenity about the freakin’ city that is their home?!) Sam makes a deal with Gilly: little Sam is his son, and Gilly is most certainly not a wildling. Little Sam will get a good education, and Gilly will have a place to stay while Sam travels to Oldtown to become a Maester. But let’s just go over this again: whatever Gilly does, don’t… mention… the war!! she can NOT say that she’s a wildling!
They arrive at the castle and Sam’s mother Melessa is over the moon to see him, and one minute with this character and you realize where Sam gets all of his goodness from. His little sister Talia is also standing there, immediately complaining about the fact that she’s going to be married off to some horrible man that she hates, before her mother lovingly shushes her. Melessa addresses Gilly as if she’s wearing a royal gown — not the animal skin she has thrown over her — and welcomes her and little Sam into the castle. Melessa is that rare character in Game of Thrones who seems to be nothing but goodness. How she ended up with Randyll is utterly baffling.
Except not really, not in this world. Talia complaining about her impending arranged marriage is still echoing in our heads as we move to King’s Landing. Tommen is now friendly with the High Sparrow, and rather than condemning him for forcing Margaery to do the Walk of Atonement, Tommen is explaining that he doesn’t quite know how to deal with it. The High Sparrow allows Tommen to finally see Margaery, and I wrote in my notes, “Margaery is pretending to be pious.” We saw her in Loras’s cell, where she explained that they can’t let the Sparrows see them broken. Loras, on the other hand, said, “Just give them what they want, and make my pain end.” At the time I took the look on Margaery’s face to be one that suggested she was giving up on her brother, but now I see it as a light going on in the attic, where she suddenly thought wait, that’s the answer. Give them what they want. If I let them think I’ve atoned and have become one of them, they’ll let Loras go. And so, she’s doing exactly that. And she’s doing a damn good job of it.
I’m often hard on Margaery (she can be a rather annoying character), but she’s also a woman in this world, and as we’ve seen with Daenerys, and Brienne, and Yara, and Sansa, and Arya, and Cersei, and even Melessa… it’s not easy being a woman in this world. You have to fight hard to rise up, but the thing is: the women ARE rising up. Brienne and Sansa have joined forces; Arya is proving she will not be controlled by the Faceless Men; Daenerys has won over the Dothraki, Yara has stolen all of her uncle’s ships and might be heading for Daenerys right now to see if she could join her; Cersei has another trick up her sleeve; and Melessa maintains her goodness in spite of her husband being a complete and utter boob. Margaery is a manipulator, but clearly she learned at a very early age that it was her only choice in this world. Go along with everything and reap the rewards. She married Renly, who was gay, and allowed her gay brother into their bedroom so he could fulfill her husband’s needs while she got to wear the crown. Not ideal, but better than many women have fared in Westeros. Then she ended up betrothed to Joffrey, but Olenna took care of things there — Olenna probably did the same things Margaery did to rise up, and she wasn’t about to let a monster destroy her granddaughter. And now she’s with Tommen, and that’s not going so well, but she’s going to figure out a way out of this mess just like she has every other time.
As she speaks with Tommen, there isn’t an ounce of anger or vengeance in her voice, despite the fact that he’s been utterly ineffectual at getting her out of her predicament, and instead she smiles sweetly at him and makes him believe 100% that she’s a convert. She tells him that Loras needs to atone, and comes off as completely legit. She’s learned quickly that Tommen is about as malleable as a ball of play-doh, and she knows this will be an easy one. What she intends to do with him only becomes clearer later in the episode.
And then we’re back with the Tarlys at a friendly dinner party, where Gilly tries to use cutlery and everyone is staring at her. It made me remember the first time I visited the UK in my late twenties, and I was at dinner with my friend’s family, and I suddenly became aware that someone was staring at me. I looked up, and there was my friend’s grandmother staring at me, horrified, and she said, “You… hold your fork like… an… AMERICAN.” I immediately looked around the table and noticed I was holding my cutlery slightly differently than everyone else, and immediately amended what I was doing, cheeks bright red and feeling like I’d just been disciplined like a child. So I know how Gilly felt in that moment. (The next day, by the way, the family ordered Chinese takeout and it turns out they’d never done so before. As they sat around poking at the chicken balls not knowing what to do with them, and one of them went to smash a fortune cookie with his fist because he wasn’t sure how else to get to the piece of paper inside, I was relieved that, as it turned out, I wasn’t the only barbarian at their table.)
And what did you think of this happy family gathering, Chris?
Christopher: Aside from being utterly painful to watch, it was a beautifully executed scene—not least because we see all of Sam’s personal growth and development completely negated by simply being in his tyrannical, contemptuous father’s presence again. I’ve had a small handful of friends in my life who are ebullient, outgoing, the life of the party, and the biggest personality in the room, but who crumple into mouselike diffidence in the presence of a certain parent for whom nothing they do can ever be good enough. On such occasions when I saw it happen, it was always baffling and disheartening—but it always drove home the power that parents can wield, especially for people who crave approval or affirmation. Watching Sam—who was never, of course, the biggest personality in the room, but who earned the respect of his Brothers on the Wall, to say nothing of finding courage in the face of foes who would (literally) freeze the souls of most people—crumble in such a manner before Randyll Tarly was like a kick in the gut.
We haven’t gotten to this point in the novels (if we ever do), but we have met Randyll Tarly: Brienne meets him in A Feast for Crows as she searches for Sansa, at a town Tarly had “liberated” from the Northerners, where he now sits and dispenses harsh judgment on petty crimes. Randyll has, as we would expect, little more than contempt for her: “You never should have donned mail, nor buckled on a sword,” he sneers at her. “You never should have left your father’s hall. This is a war, not a harvest ball. By all the gods, I ought to ship you back to Tarth.”
Except that Brienne has a writ from Jaime Lannister to carry out “the King’s business.” She tells him she is searching for Sansa Stark, and means to go to the Vale to speak with Lysa Arryn.
Lord Randyll gave her an contemptuous look. ‘Lady Lysa is dead. Some singer pushed her off a mountain. Littlefinger hold the Eyrie now … though not for long. The lords of the Vale are not the sort to bend their knees to some upjumped jackanapes whose only skill is counting coppers.’ He handed her back her letter. ‘Go where you want and do as you will … but when you’re raped don’t look to me for justice. You will have earned it with your unjust folly.’
Aside from this one encounter (he does appear once or twice more, but this is the clearest picture we get of him), he has a reputation as one of the best soldiers in the Seven Kingdoms, and for being iron-willed and uncompromising. It is also generally known that he is responsible for all of House Tyrell’s military successes, though Mace Tyrell (shown in this episode in all his self-important oafish glory) has always been happy to take credit.
As always, the casting here is spot on. When the announcement was made that Ian McShane would be appearing in a brief but significant role this season, all of the good money was that he would be playing Lord Randyll. And seriously: can you just imagine how terrifying Al Swearengen would have been in this scene?
But that being said, the actor they did cast—James Faulkner—is simply perfect, capturing Randyll’s taciturn, unyielding contempt for anyone who doesn’t live up to his martial, masculine code, as well as the way in which he weds that code to the feudal system of class and status. He would accept a “Moletown whore” for the simple reason that it means his son acted at least once “like a man,” but a wildling is simply beyond the pale—and this from a man who has lived his life in the warm and fecund south, with no experience or knowledge of wildlings besides his conviction that they are barely human. “Is this your way of getting back at me, boy? Bringing that to my table,” he snarls, “and making me dine with it?” In Randyll’s eyes she is barely more than an animal, to the point where young Sam is “a half-breed bastard!”
(One can only imagine what he’d think if he knew that Sam’s ostensible bastard is in fact Craster’s son.)
One of the other things Faulkner captures is Randyll’s brute intelligence. He may loathe the idea of his son with his nose in books, “reading about the achievements of better men,” and the less-than-manly career of a maester (in the novels, Sam reveals that once, when he had voiced his desire to be a maester, his father had said “If it’s chains you want, then come with me,” and manacled him in the Tarly dungeon for three days, declaring that no son of his would don the maester’s chain, a symbol of servitude); but Randyll misses nothing, watching and listening carefully, and instantly picking up on Gilly’s slip. “Your way down to Castle Black?” he says, and we know the game is up.
Also, can I take a moment to laud Hannah Murray’s performance as Gilly in this scene? She is wonderful as she stands up to Randyll on Sam’s behalf, even though she does inadvertently give the game away; but I was impressed with how well she communicated her discomfort and awkwardness in the finery she’s given to wear. She does it without the clumsier expedient of an ill-fitting dress. The colours aren’t particularly flattering, but the dress fits her well. She is, as Sam gushes, beautiful—but what this fish-out-of-water moment manages to say is that she was actually more beautiful before, dressed in her shapeless woolens and with her hair unstyled. When you see images of Hannah Murray rocking the red carpet, it’s clear that the actress is no stranger to finery, but Gilly most certainly is.
Sam’s ultimate decision to leave with Gilly is stirring and lovely, though I confess I balked at him taking the Tarly sword. “It’s my family sword,” he tells Gilly, and defiantly says his father can bloody well come and get it … but I’m reasonably sure he has no legal leg to stand on here. It is his family sword, and ownership passes to the next Lord of Horn Hill—which, because joining the Night’s Watch entails surrendering one’s birthrights and family name, means it will never be him. And there’s also the fact that his father is still alive. Presumably, Randyll won’t care that Sam has fled with Gilly and the baby—no wildling and bastard to take care of any more—but somehow I imagine the theft of the sword will upset him. Just a little.
And with that we cut from Sam sheathing an ancient and priceless Valyrian steel sword, to a stage prop sword being swung by the actor playing Joffrey, and we get to relive the events of the Purple Wedding. Which, if I recall correctly, Nikki, you greeted two years ago with a squee and a variation on “Ding-dong, the witch is dead!” What did you think of The Ongoing Story of Westeros (Redux), as told by Richard E. Grant and friends?
Nikki: That was an excellent recap of that scene, Chris, and thank you for linking it back to the book. I could totally picture this actor delivering those lines to Brienne — I agree with you that it’s pitch-perfect casting. (Though, if Ian McShane had been cast as Randyll, it would have upped the “cocksucker” quotient in that scene.)
And now we move over to the play and get to relive the Purple Wedding and Tywin’s Death Whilst Dumping scenes. The Girl Who Has No Name watches the show and, at Joffrey’s death, is the only one laughing while the others watch solemnly. Even though everyone seems to know that Joffrey is the result of incest, that the Lannisters are generally terrible people, and that Joffrey was a wretched king, it’s interesting that they still show gravitas and some respect at his death scene and look at The Girl With No Name with such scorn for giggling through it. The events in Game of Thrones are meant to hearken back to some sort of medieval time, when news was passed orally by town criers, and yet this scene still felt very much like a comment on who we are today. The town criers are the people on Facebook who post stories, or the people who comment on them. They’re the first ones on Twitter with RIP announcements when celebrities die. It’s CNN having to fill a 24-hour news cycle and giving you bare bones and wrong information before they have time to fact-check it. When celebrities break up, we say, “Ooh, it’s because he cheated with the nanny,” or “Ooh, she’s a gold-digger and that’s why she’s making these allegations,” or “How DARE you say that, she said she was abused and therefore she was abused,” or “The only reason he cheated with the nanny is because I heard she refused to have sex with him anymore.” How much of this is true? Probably less than zero percent, but hey, if everyone is saying it and it’s been verified on Wikipedia and Twitter, then it MUST be true.
And the same goes for this audience. We have seen everything happening behind the scenes, but these people see a deformed imp and they assume he’s the killer of Joffrey, the molester of Sansa, and has no moral centre whatsoever. We watch Tyrion and we see an intellect, a man who is braver than he seems, a man who has a kind and gentle side, but those who simply see him in royal portraits see a monstrosity, and therefore he MUST be blamed for everyone.
But the Girl With No Name knows the truth. She knows Joffrey was scum, and she questions Tyrion’s guilt, and for god’s sakes I hope she and Sansa are reunited at some point soon because I would love for them to be able to catch up the way Sansa has with Jon.
Backstage, The Girl With No Name puts the poison into “Queen Cersei’s” cup and then waits for things to happen… until “Queen Cersei,” actually Lady Crane (played by Essie Davis from The Babadook and Miss Fisher’s Mysteries), begins to talk to her, and she realizes she is human. When Richard E. Grant’s character, Izembaro, begins badmouthing her and treating her like crap, while Fake Sansa is a young thing who sees Lady Crane as standing in the way of her getting bigger roles, it’s clear that the backstage politics of a travelling acting troupe are no different than the main stage backstabbing going on throughout Westeros. Men keep the women under their boots, no matter how smart and capable those women are, while younger women do their best to push the older women out of the way, stomping on them on their way to the top… a top that includes being beaten back down by the men. The theatre troupe simply acts as a microcosm for the very people they’re parodying on stage.
And it’s when The Girl With No Name sees this, she snaps, knocks the cup out of Lady Crane’s hand (as the Waif watches), and once again becomes our Arya. She goes back to the waterfront and fishes Needle back out of its hiding place (YES!!!!) before returning to a hiding place, where she sits and waits for the Waif to come. And the Waif hasn’t hesitated in rushing back to Jaqen and telling him what she’s seen, getting permission to kill Arya. He betrays that he does have some (limited) tenderness for Arya when he asks that the Waif do it quickly without pain. I think we all know it’ll be the Waif who feels the pain in this match-up.
And now it’s back over to King’s Landing, where Margaery is NOT going to do that Walk of Atonement if the Mayor of Munchkinland has anything to say about it!! What did you make of the scene with the Tyrell army facing off against the Sparrows, Chris? (And also, I’m pretty sure that was actually Nikolaj Coster-Waldau riding the horse up the stairs for that stunt, and if so, IMPRESSIVE!!)
Christopher: HA! Mace Tyrell DOES look like he represents the Lollypop Guild, doesn’t he?
My thoughts on this scene are pretty consonant with yours, re: Margaery and her shrewd maneuverings. Even though Olenna bitterly says “He’s beaten us, that’s what’s happening!” to her clueless son, I wonder if perhaps she isn’t giving Margaery credit. Do we really think she’s had a come-to-Jesus moment, or is she playing the hand she thought she had? Her expression as she watches the Tyrell army arrive is interesting: surprise, with a little intake of breath, and then a glance at where the Sparrow stands a few steps in front and beside her. It’s hard to tell the meaning of that look, but my guess is that Margaery had (1) given up on being rescued, and (2) given up on her brother, disappointed by this weakness; and faced with the humiliation of the Walk of Atonement, she plays the one card she has—Tommen. I think your read on their earlier scene together was spot-on, Nikki; she plays the young king like a cheap banjo.
Is that expression on her face as her father’s soldiers file into the square a moment of thinking, “Oh, crap—they did come for me after all!” Even if it is, she can’t be too displeased with the way she’s moved the pieces on the board. Even if Lady Olenna isn’t pleased with the prospect of a born-again granddaughter, she’ll have to recognize the fact that Margaery has effectively empowered the Tyrells while marginalizing the Lannisters—all without bloodshed. Next week’s episode will (hopefully) tell, but for now it seems that Tommen is disinclined to blame his wife’s family for the confrontation in front of the sept and instead punishes his uncle, ejecting him from the Kingsguard and sending him away from King’s Landing to retake Riverrun from the Blackfish.
It is worth noting in this scene that the Lannisters aren’t entirely marginalized: Kevan Lannister apparently remains Hand of the King, and stands at Tommen’s right. He does not seem particularly sympathetic to Jaime, however, and we know the amount of contempt he has for Cersei. Even with him advising the king, however, Lannister power looks completely fractured.
One small detail: when Tommen emerged from the sept, surrounded by members of the Kingsguard, all of them are now wearing cuirasses bearing the seven-pointed star of the Faith; Jaime, by contrast, wears the former sigil, a crown. This as much as anything signals the substantive shift of power: Tommen has essentially merged the Faith and the crown, something further communicated by the smug look of triumph the Sparrow gives Jaime.
So, if we’re right and Margaery is making a power move, things will get interesting: let’s not forget that the High Sparrow and the Faith Militant were initially empowered by Cersei in her mistaken belief that she could manipulate them to her own ends. Now Margaery seems to want to ride that tiger. Will she learn from Cersei’s errors? Will the Sparrow outmaneuver her as well? He is, after all, no fool—does he believe her conversion to be genuine, or is he playing her?
We shift from Jaime’s (literal) dressing-down in the throne room to Walder Frey, whom we haven’t seen in some time, dressing down his sons over the loss of Riverrun. Casual viewers of the show might be forgiven for asking “Wait, didn’t he get thrown off a bridge?”, as there’s not a lot of daylight between Balon Greyjoy and Walder Frey in how they’re depicted on the show. Frey is somewhat more petulant, but no less unreasonable in his demands. Yes, losing Riverrun was something of a gaffe, but it’s not as though Frey seems to have done anything beside sit at his high table, drink, enumerate his grudges, and terrify his child bride. This scene didn’t do much besides set up next week’s confrontation at Riverrun and the return of the Blackfish, and reintroduce the hapless Edmure into the mix (he’ll always be Brutus from Rome to me), who has evidently spent the last three seasons rotting in a Frey dungeon.
But given the fact that the Freys are not strong enough to retake Riverrun themselves, they appeal to the Lannisters, giving Tommen a convenient way to effectively exile Jaime. I should point out that with Jaime heading out to the Riverlands with an army, the series squares up again with the novels. Jaime’s entire storyline from the moment he frees Tyrion has been a deviation from the books: in the novels, he does not voyage to Dorne, nor does he have a romantic reconciliation with Cersei in King’s Landing. He basically spends the second half of A Feast for Crows at the head of a Lannister army tying up the war’s loose ends—including the siege of Riverrun, which has been held by the Blackfish under Stark banners. It will be interesting to see if the siege plays out as it does in the novels.
Before we get to the climactic scene of the episode and Daenerys’ St. Crispin’s Day speech, we’re treated to something that this season seems to be specializing in: a Stark that isn’t actually dead! What did you think of the return of Uncle Benjen, Nikki?
Nikki: So many older characters are being reintroduced it’s enough to make a viewer’s head spin. Viewers will remember Edmure Tully, the nitwit brought in before Walder Frey, as Catelyn’s brother, who, at their father’s funeral was supposed to shoot the flaming arrow to light his father’s funeral pyre on fire. After three failed shots that simply kerplunked into the river, his uncle — the Blackfish — pushed him aside and lit it up with one clean shot. We last saw Edmure at the Red Wedding — which was actually his wedding — when Walder Frey married him off to one of his daughters. If you’ll recall, Walder wanted to marry one of his daughters to Robb Stark in order for him to join his house to that of House Stark. Robb was already married, so he offered up Edmure, his uncle, who immediately assumed Walder was going to marry him off to one of his, erm, less attractive daughters. But at the wedding he was pleasantly surprised to see that she was, in fact a beauty, and he happily married her… only to be taken away and thrown into a dungeon on his wedding night, where he has remained for three seasons. I’ve often thought that House Tully isn’t exactly bursting with promise: between Edmure and his sister Lysa (whom we last saw sailing through the moon door), Catelyn’s siblings are pretty ineffectual.
I swear that casting Tobias Menzies in a role is simply casting director shorthand for “this guy is a sleazebag.” See Rome, Outlander, The Night Manager… I swear the moment he shows up on screen in any series or movie, I think, “Ah… and here is the villain, then.”
But now off to Benjen. You did an excellent job of bringing us up to speed on him in your opening, Chris, so I don’t have much more to add to what you said. Benjen was always that quiet hero in the background of the show. In season one, when Ned beheads that man for abandoning his post (and accuses him of lying by saying he’d seen a White Walker), it’s Benjen who shows up at Winterfell and says actually, the man wasn’t lying, and Ned had killed a good man. He’s the one who suggests Jon Snow join the Night’s Watch, and accompanies him north to the Wall. Benjen heads north of the Wall on a ranger expedition, but only his horse comes back, and later his two men are found dead. But no Benjen. Since then we’ve only heard his name a couple of times, but with no hard evidence that he was dead, many fans have speculated he’s still up there somewhere (when GRRM kills someone, he SHOWS you that he’s killed someone).
We saw little Benjen in one of the visions that Bran had with the Three-eyed Raven, when he was swordfighting with little Ned, so that was an early hint that we were going to see him again, since they were putting his name back into our heads in those scenes.
And now he’s back. And he looks, um, a little worse for the wear. But his story is incredible: he’d been attacked by White Walkers, and one of them had impaled him on an ice sword, but before he could turn into a wight he was found by the Children of the Forest, who pushed a piece of dragonglass into his chest. Once again reminding us of the name of GRRM’s book series, and that the end of this story is going to come down to a war between Ice and Fire.
And speaking of fire, Daenerys and Daario are riding from Meereen to go to Westeros (FINALLY) because, as she insists, she’s going to take back what is hers. Daario isn’t sure this is the best use of her time. “You weren’t made to sit on a chair,” he tells her. “You’re a conqueror, Daenerys Stormborn.” And he’s right. So many long to capture the Iron Throne, but once you have it, it’s one hell of an uncomfortable hunk of metal and wood, and after only a few days of listening to people gripe, you’re probably wishing you’d just stayed at home the day of the Conquering. There must have been something good on TV that day, right?
But she wants what is hers, and then she shows the blood riders exactly how she’s going to get it when she disappears into the canyon and comes back riding a truly ENORMOUS Drogon. Man, when Tyrion talked about how much more the dragons grow when they’re not in captivity, I had no idea he meant THAT big. He must be three times bigger than he was when we last saw him saving Daenerys from the gladiator ring.
The blood riders have never followed a woman in their history, so their immediate and wholehearted pledge of fealty to Daenerys seems a little disingenuous, but then again, she IS on the back of a dragon, so… I’m sure High Sparrow would be bowing and scraping by now, too. But as much as I loved the reappearance of Drogon, and the fact that we’re another step closer to House Targaryen taking back the throne, I wasn’t a huge fan of this ending of the episode. SO MANY episodes end with some spectacular, epic scene of Daenerys — usually accompanied by a dragon — giving some epic speech and being loved by all around her, that it’s really losing its flavour for me. Season one ended with her stepping out of the fire with dragons on her shoulder, and THAT was freakin’ cool. Season three ended with her being carried on the shoulders of the Yunkish people as they shouted “Mhysa!” over and over. We’ve had her epic speeches to the Unsullied, her epic speeches to the Yunkai people, her epic speeches to the people of Meereen. One episode ended with Drogon swooping in and taking her away from the gladiator ring. Another ended with her naked before a fiery temple that she’d just burned down. I love Daenerys, and I find this focus on her seems to be hinting to her right as the head of Westeros (which I think she’ll share with Jon Snow, fulfilling the Ice and Fire quotient of the book’s promise) but she always has to be standing in the midst of some epic moment, with that stalwart look on her face as fire rages around her and the dragons swoop in as some sort of deus ex machina, and for the first time, I found Drogon swooping in to be a little anticlimactic. And her speech even more so. And the fealty of the bloodriders even more so. Mostly because I’ve seen it all before: slightly different speech with the same tone; different race but same loyalty; same dragon who was larger than the last time I saw him. So as much as I loved seeing ginormous Drogon, I hope they can come up with a new shtick for Daenerys before she becomes Queen.
And that’s it for another week! We will see you next time, in Riverrun.