Category Archives: Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones 6.07: The Broken Man

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Greetings and valar morghulis, once again dear friends. Welcome as I and the inestimable Nikki Stafford recap, dissect, and expound upon the most recent episode of Game of Thrones.

This week saw the return of everyone’s favourite Scottish breed, the Jon-and-Sansa Tour of the North, an argument for why all of the Seven Kingdoms should be run by ten-year-old girls, and we finally get an answer to that timeless question: what does it take to kill Al Swearengen?

Westeros. You just bring him to Westeros.

It’s Nikki’s turn to lead us off, so …

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Nikki: The episode begins with what we thought was a technical problem: where’s the epic opening credit sequence? We had already zipped past the “Previously On” bit, and suddenly we’re in the episode. We backed it up again, nope, we didn’t appear to have missed it, and just as my husband is asking if they’ve ever had an episode without the credit sequence and we’re watching some Tower of Babel–type building going on, who should come striding towards us but Ian McShane!!

And I swear, in that moment, I heard the loudest squeeeeee, followed by a thunk, from my writing partner Christopher Lockett as he fainted with joy several provinces to the east of me.

Last week we joked about what it would be like if Swearengen played Randyll Tarly, and suddenly, as if we conjured him by wishing very hard, here he is. And the writers didn’t disappoint: in the first full minute of his speech, he says the words “shit” and “fuck,” though I was a little disappointed they didn’t throw in a single gratuitous “cocksucker” for all of us Deadwood fans. But I guess we can’t have everything.
And also last week, when discussing Benjen, I mentioned that if GRRM doesn’t actually show someone die, they probably aren’t dead. And once again, that statement came through this week with the reveal of The Hound. The thing is, we thought we did see him die. Arya sat there and watched him die, as you pointed out in our discussion of the episode at the time, Chris. And only after she watches him die slowly — refusing to give him the mercy of pushing a sword into him herself — she gets up and leaves. She removed him from her list, and moved on.

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And when Brother Ray (McShane) finds him, he thinks he’ll just be there to bury him… and then Sandor coughed. “What kept you goin’?” Brother Ray asks him. “Hate,” Sandor replies. But that hate has turned into shame, and it seems Sandor has been doing his own Walk of Atonement these last few months/years (it’s very hard judging how much time has passed on this show, to be honest…) He doesn’t lie about what happened to him — he could have embellished and said it took an entire army of men to bring him down, but instead he fesses up that it was one… woman. Brother Ray laughs and laughs, and Sandor goes back to chopping wood. Sandor has done terrible things in his time, and he knows it. They talk about religion (Brother Ray appears to be heading up some sort of group of penitents, including himself), and Brother Ray doesn’t subscribe to any one belief — as he says, maybe the Seven are real, maybe they’re not, maybe the Lord of Light is real, who knows. All he knows is whatever god(s) is out there, it has big plans for Sandor Clegane. “If the gods are real,” Sandor asks, “Why haven’t they punished me?” Brother Ray glances over at him. “They have,” he replies, and leaves him alone to continue eating his food.

I couldn’t help but wonder if the “god” who has big plans for Sandor Clegane might have the initials GRRM, and if so, I can’t wait to see what they do with him next. He is clearly the Broken Man of the title of this episode, but he’s going to take that brokenness and turn it into something useful.

While the Hound is going through his own walk of atonement, Margaery continues to brilliantly pull the wool over the High Sparrow’s eyes. I’m actually loving her character in these scenes, because I haven’t fallen for her crap once, and always assumed she’s playing him like a fiddle (I’m just sad to see Tommen caught in the middle of all of it). What did you think of our fair maiden this week, Chris?

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Christopher: I will confess, she actually had me going a bit … last week I observed that her little maneuver with Tommen and the High Sparrow actually left her and House Tyrell in an advantageous position, with the Lannister’s sidelined, Cersei awaiting trial, Jaime sent off to Riverrun, and Tommen effectively functioning as Margaery’s puppet. It seemed unlikely that her conversion was genuine, and yet this week there were one or two moments when I found myself thinking “Wait … she doesn’t really believe any of this, right?” Of course, as soon as she passed her little note with the Tyrell flower on it to Olenna, we knew she’s still the same Margaery, just somewhat more subtle.

Before I go on with the intrigues at King’s Landing, however, I want to acknowledge my squee upon seeing Ian McShane grace the screen. He’s such an amazing actor, and while his turn as Al Swearengen remains my favourite role of his, I have yet to see him be anything less than mesmerizing on the screen.

I should also point out that, while Game of Thrones has certainly been parsimonious with its cold opens, there have been a few down through the seasons, most obviously with the very first episode when we get our first glimpse of the White Walkers. There were also cold opens for episode 3.01, “Valar Doheris,” which features Sam fleeing through a blizzard and attacked by a wight; and 4.01, “Two Swords,” in which Tywin watches as the Stark sword Ice is melted down to make new swords for Jaime and Joffrey. I seem to think there might have been one or two others, but cannot call them to mind.

This episode’s opening was done for dramatic effect, but also to take viewers by surprise, so they saw the resurrected Hound before they saw Rory McCann’s name in the credits.

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But back to Margaery … we come upon her in the High Sparrow’s favoured chapel, apparently deep in study, reading the Book of the Mother—reading a verse whose premise is that it is the woman’s role to smooth out man’s rough and jagged edges. “As water rounds the stones,” the Sparrow begins to recite, but Margaery takes over, “smoothing what was jagged, so does a woman’s love calm a man’s brute nature.” It is a lovely bit of contrast: the Sparrow, didactic and sententious, is pleased when she proves to have memorized the verse herself, while remaining oblivious to the nuances of her words. Here and there in this episode I wondered if the Sparrow has truly been taken in by Margaery’s pretense, or whether he’s playing along for tactical reasons; but in this moment he seems entirely taken with her, and perhaps even a little too pleased with himself for making such a significant convert.

The subtleties of power at play in the room are completely at odds with the simplistic sentiment of the scripture, which is such unreconstructed religious misogyny that it plays to contemporary audiences quite simply as cliché. The metaphor of the water and the rocks rehearses all-too-typical conceptions of gender roles: men are hard, women soft; women’s role is to smooth down men’s jagged edges; men are brutes by nature, and women are obliged to accept that fact and do what they can to soothe their savage tendencies as best they can. Hearing Margaery of all people mouth these platitudes introduces a profound dissonance into ideas that are already (I would devoutly hope) entirely discordant with today’s audiences.

But the scene does not stop there: the Sparrow’s business is to address Margaery’s absence from the marriage bed since her reunion with Tommen. It is her duty, the Sparrow tells her. But Margaery counters by saying that the desires that once drove her are now absence. To which the Sparrow asserts: “Congress does not require desire on the woman’s part … only patience.”

In my mind I imagined a chorus of disgust hurled at millions of television and computer screens around the world in response to the Sparrow’s words. Certainly, there were a handful of scornful harrumphs in my living room at this moment. It was, I thought, a clever gesture by the writers to taint the High Sparrow’s broader message of equality and humility and to undo whatever sympathy he might have garnered by this point. Mind you, if we pull back for a wider-angle view, it’s not as though women have much in the way of rights and agency in Westeros at large; the women of GoT who do are among the privileged elite who either have the ability to play the game (Margaery, Olenna, Cersei), the strength and skill to disrupt social mores (Brienne), the will to persevere with the help of provisional support systems (Arya, Sansa), or in the case of Daenerys, possess a talismanic family name, preternatural charisma … and, well, dragons. The dragons are important.

With this in mind, the argument could be made that the Sparrow’s world-view, while scripturally reinscribing women’s subordinate place in society, nevertheless would eliminate the larger economic inequalities in Westeros. To which I would say: interesting thought, but you don’t think the Sparrow ultimately gets to win, do you? After the show just made us viscerally hate him? This is one of those moments when the possible broader socio-economic implications of the scene are at least somewhat besides the point: more significant here in the way the scene plays thematically is watching Margaery play the penitent and rehearse scriptural words so completely at odds with the character we’ve come to know (and in Nikki’s case, instinctively dislike).

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Margaery’s audience with the Sparrow ends with an implied threat against her grandmother: he speaks admiringly of Lady Olenna’s strength and character, while calling her “an unrepentant sinner.” It is Margaery’s obligation, he says, to teach her the new way, “Or I fear for her safety … body and soul.” In this warning, he makes clear the newfound confidence and audacity of the Faith Militant, with the King and Queen under his sway: confident enough, he implies, to wrest august lords and ladies out of their homes and subject them to the same punishment Cersei, Margaery, and Loras have endured.

Segue to the irascible Queen of Thorns herself, grating against the fact that Margaery is accompanied by an unsmiling, implacable septa, whose expression does not change even when Olenna threatens her with a beating. It is quickly obvious there can be no private conversation, and throughout Margaery maintains her calm and pious demeanour in the face of her grandmother’s ire—even when Loras is mentioned. And Loras’ only recourse makes clear just how much power the Sparrow has arrogated to the faith: he can confess his sins and repent, but as part of his repentance he must surrender his family name and live out his days as a penitent.

This, to Olenna, is madness of course. It is only when Margaery begs her to return to Highgarden, a note of pleading entering her voice, that she seems to listen. Unfolding the paper Margaery slipped into her hand, she sees the charade she has been playing, and hears the true warning in her words.

From the penciled image of a flower to the frozen north, where Tormund pleads Jon’s case to the wildlings. What did you think of the Giantsbane’s speech, Nikki?

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Nikki: I’ve never wished more for Brienne to be present in a scene than I did that one. Maybe she wouldn’t be so disgusted by the guy after all. The various stories in this episode are broken up by Jon Snow, Sansa, and Ser Davos gathering as many pledges of fealty as they can so they can lay a siege upon Winterfell and take back the North. And they begin with the Free Folk, arguably the strongest army they know, and the one with which they have the greatest chance of aligning themselves. At Castle Black, it seemed that the Free Folk were a no-brainer, but now that the battle lines are being drawn and armies are being formed, they’re not so sure. Dim argues with Jon that they were willing to help the Night’s Watch when they were fighting White Walkers and wights, but that’s because it was on their turf, and it was their battle. This, he argues, isn’t their battle.

Tormund steps up and argues that Jon Snow was the one who saved them all, and without him they’d be dead or captured by the king. Dim spreads his arms to show the extent of the wildling army, and says they were once legion, and there’s barely anyone left, so why should they go with Jon? He says if they fight, they’ll be the last of the Free Folk. Jon argues that if they don’t join forces with him, they will definitely be the last of the Free Folk. He agrees: it’s not their fight, they shouldn’t have to join him, but he needs them. “I need you with me, if we’re going to beat them, and we need to beat them if we’re going to survive.” Tormund tells them Jon Snow died for the wildlings because he was sticking up for them. And if they’re not willing to die for him, then they deserve to be the last of the Free Folk.

It’s a fantastic scene, with some of the best courtroom back-and-forth of the episode, and what makes it so great is that everyone is right. Dim is correct — they’ve been decimated because of joining forces with the south, and generations of Free Folk have been wiped out completely. But Jon is correct in saying that it’s in their best interests to help them. And Tormund is correct in his argument that Jon Snow has sacrificed everything for them, so their sacrifices were merely a return favour. This last argument seems to be the most convincing one, and suddenly the giant stands up. Wun Wun looks around, then stares right at the former Lord Commander, and simply says, “SNOW.” And with that vote cast, everyone else falls in line. Jon has secured his wildling army.

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Back at King’s Landing, Olenna is sitting and writing letters, presumably letting her family know she’s coming home. Cersei enters the room with the Mountain, and demands to know why Olenna would leave, when her son is rotting in a jail. “Loras rots in a cell because of you. The High Sparrow rules this city because of you. Our two ancient houses face collapse because of you and your stupidity.” And Cersei… agrees with her. She says she made a mistake, she led an army of fanatics to their doorstep, but now they must fight them together. Olenna looks up. “I wonder if you’re the worst person I’ve ever met,” she says. “At a certain age it’s hard to recall. But the truly VILE do stand out through the years. Do you remember the way you smirked at me when my grandson and granddaughter were dragged off to their cells? I do. I’ll never forget it.” Cersei tries another tactic. She agrees that Olenna loves her grandchildren, just like Cersei loves her own children. “It’s the only truth I know,” she says. She says they must defend them. But Olenna will not be coaxed. She’s leaving King’s Landing before that “shoeless zealot” throws her into a cell, and warns Cersei that if she’s half as smart as she thinks she is, she’ll do the same. Cersei says she’ll never leave. But Olenna says her brother is gone, her family has abandoned her, her people hate her, her enemies are all around her. “You’ve lost, Cersei. It’s the only joy I can find in all this misery.”

I adore whoever writes Olenna’s dialogue. Cersei has an answer for everything. But now Olenna has a new purpose: she knows her granddaughter is planning something, and she knows there will be an end to this torment. She’s received Margaery’s warning, and is leaving, knowing that Cersei will NOT win. Cersei brought the High Sparrow to King’s Landing for the sole purpose of landing Margaery and Loras in jail, and ridding herself of both of them. Now she’s stuck having to fight with the Tyrells to get them out because she must save her son and get the High Sparrow out of the city. But Highgarden is no longer going to be played that way. Two episodes ago, Cersei entered the High Council with her brother and the Mountain, and convinced the Tyrells to join forces with her. That backfired spectacularly when Margaery had other plans, and pulled Tommen over to the side of the High Sparrow whilst planning her own escape from him. And now Cersei is stuck: her son is aligned with the High Sparrow, the Tyrell army is leaving her behind, Margaery is going to leave all of them high and dry while she finds a way out, and Jaime has headed off to Riverrun. She truly is alone, and it’s unclear how she’s going to get out of this one.

Meanwhile, in Riverrun, it’s the Blackfish versus, well, everybody. What did you think of the scenes of Frey’s army coming up against the Lannisters, Christopher?

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Christopher: Can I say how much I loved this scene? Not least because, out of a season where we’ve gone off map, this one scene unfolded almost precisely the way it did in A Feast for Crows, and the series captures it perfectly. The ineptitude of the Freys, Jaime’s towering contempt for them, the towering contempt of the Blackfish for Jaime … yup, it was all good.

One exception to the overall fidelity of this scene to the text is the presence of Bronn—who by this point has more or less faded into the background of the novels. I’m glad the writers have made the obvious choice to keep him around, considering that Jerome Flynn’s portrayal of the cheerfully cynical sellsword has been one of the best performances of the series (and that is saying a LOT). One of the delightful things about the way he’s been written and played is that, unlike his novelistic other, he has developed and evolved. Jaime, like Tyrion, sees his worth—but Jaime, unlike Tyrion, can give him a more significant role to play in the larger affairs of war and peace. “Now that is a sorry attempt at a siege,” Bronn says as he surveys the deportment of Frey forces. “Someone needs to teach those fat twats how to dig trenches.” To which Jaime replies, with a suggestive sidelong look, “Someone certainly does.”

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Bronn’s irritation is hilarious: reminding Jaime of everything he’s been promised, he interrupts him when Jaime begins to repeat the Lannister mantra, re: debts and payment. “Don’t say it,” Bronn says, disgusted. “Don’t even fucking say it.” This would easily be the funniest line of the episode, were it not the episode in which we meet the ten-year-old Lady Mormont of Bear Island. But more on her later.

The little tableau in which the Freys threaten to hang Edmure while the Blackfish looks on plays out almost exactly as it does in the novel, and it serves to cement our sense of the Freys as shrewd and opportunistic, but inconstant and militarily hapless. Oh, and whiny. Did I say whiny? As they shout their threats at the walls of Riverrun, we get our first glimpse of the Blackfish, played with understated strength and gravity by Clive Russell, since season three. He is unmoved by the Freys’ threats to Edmure. “Go on, then,” he says contemptuously. “Cut his throat.”

(I’m using the word “contempt” a lot in describing this scene, aren’t I? Well, I think if we had to identify the dominant emotion expressed between the characters involved, “respect” or “affection” wouldn’t exactly make the list).

Does the Blackfish have the measure of the Freys, or does he just not have much regard for his nephew? Considering the dressing-down he gave Edmure back in season three, and the irritation with which he snatched the longbow out of his hands after Edmure three times missed his shot to ignite Hoster Tully’s funeral boat, I have to imagine he doesn’t think his nephew’s life is a fair exchange for a castle. But as the scene progresses, we come to understand that the Freys in charge of this travesty of a siege don’t exactly grasp the basics of making effective threats. In what would otherwise be my favourite moment of the episode (again, but for Lady Mormont), Jaime calmly says, “Only a fool makes threats he’s not prepared to carry out. Let’s say I threatened to hit you unless you shut your mouth … but you kept talking. What do you think I’d do?”

BAM. Again, precisely as it occurred in the novel, and it was just as satisfying to see it play out on the show as it was to read it.

There aren’t many occasions when Lannister arrogance evokes sympathy, or for that matter fist-pumping exultation, but in the hierarchy of audience hate in the Game of Thrones world, the Freys may rank below Ramsay and Joffrey, but above Lannister entitlement. Watching Jaime and Bronn high-handedly take command of the siege and put the Freys in their place is deeply satisfying—not least because we see the Freys learning something they should have known already, namely, if you ally yourself with House Lannister, don’t ever expect to remain in command.

But even as we’re happy to see Jaime humiliate Catelyn Stark’s murderer, his Lannister arrogance founders on the rock of the Blackfish’s contempt.

Before we get to that charged confrontation, however, we cut to the next stop on the Jon and Sansa tour, and the introduction of the best new character since … well, I’m not sure whom. But before I get to young Lady Mormont, I do want to observe that the pacing and the plotting of this episode is a refreshing change from how this season has been trending. In many past episodes, while we often have a unifying theme, narratively it has felt like the writers have been checking boxes: we get our ten minutes of Sansa, ten minutes of Daenerys, ten minutes of Arya, and so on … with whatever the most important storyline is that week getting two, perhaps three, installments. This week was much tighter, with shorter scenes and more of them. It served the rhythms of the episode well: Jon and Sansa’s attempts to flesh out their army thread their way through like a connective tissue, almost acting as a counterpoint to the four scenes featuring the Hound. The only standalones are Theon and Arya, but the pace of the episode is such that they don’t feel like the writers ticking boxes.

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Now that she’s everyone’s new favourite character, that doesn’t bode well for her life expectancy.

At any rate … Lady Lyanna Mormont! I don’t know where the casting directors of this show go to find their child actors, but they are batting one thousand. I haven’t seen this many talented preteen and tween actors since season four of The Wire. Though but a ten year old girl, she is formidable, and precociously smart. She does not seem inclined to risk her few fighting men, until of course Davos addresses her.

I love Liam Cunningham’s portrayal of Davos for many, many reasons, but one of the biggest has to be his ability to communicate both Davos’ humility and his sharp intelligence. He knows well enough how to treat Lady Mormont—he knows not to talk down to her. He loved Shireen Baratheon like his own child, but he also respected her intelligence, submitting to her tutelage in reading and writing, something a prouder or less self-effacing man would never do. He brings these qualities to the table on Bear Island as he addresses Lyanna:

I’m here because this isn’t someone else’s war. It’s our war … Your uncle, Lord Commander Mormont, made that man his steward. He chose Jon to be his successor because he knew he had the courage to do what was right. Even if it meant giving his life. Because Jeor Mormont and Jon Snow both understood that the real war isn’t between a few squabbling houses—it’s between the living and the dead. And make no mistake, my Lady: the dead are coming.

This isn’t the first time his common sense and simple, no-nonsense demeanour has proved persuasive when others’ aristocratic miens failed to impress. We recall especially his intervention at the Iron Bank of Braavos when Stannis’ prickly pride and sense of royal entitlement fell flat with the pragmatic bankers. I think if I were to assemble a dream team of Game of Thrones characters for the fantasy equivalent of fantasy football (fantasy fantasy?), I’d always be sure to have Davos in my corner.

And from here we switch back to Jaime’s confrontation with the Blackfish … but considering how long I’ve gone on here, I’ll throw that back over to you, Nikki. What did you think of their meeting?

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You know, for a show full of knights and castles, this might be the first time we’ve seen a proper moat and drawbridge.

 

Nikki: First, I wanted to concur that the Lady Lyanna Mormont scene was my favourite one of the season thus far. The actress playing her — Bella Ramsey — is stunning, and I rushed off to google her after the episode to find out who the heck this glorious actress was. And she has only a couple of (impressive) credits to her name, and wasn’t, as I had wrongly suspected, a girl who had played Matilda in the London West End musical. But she is STUNNING. And like you say, Ser Davos is the only one who knows how to talk to her. He doesn’t talk down to her the way Lady Sansa compliments her beauty, and instead treats her as if she were the head of any other house. And it’s only when he does that she pledges her allegiance to them. I love when they go to all the effort to procure her army and then she declares that the army consists of a total of 62 men, each of which, she adds, fights with the strength of 10 men of any other army. To which Ser Davos replies, “If they are half as ferocious as their lady, the Boltons are doomed.” Best line in the episode.

But now, as you say, back over to Jaime and his discussion with the Blackfish. As you pointed out, Chris, the Blackfish has basically given up on Edmure (why wouldn’t you?) and says his nephew’s been marked for death already, so just slit his throat already and be done with it. Jaime tries to bully him into submission, pointing out their forces compared to Brandon’s, and the Blackfish merely smiles and says they have enough provisions to last everyone in the castle two years without ever having to come out, so if the Frey/Lannister armies are simply going to wait to starve them out, they have a long wait ahead of him. Jaime falters, because of all of the responses he’d envisioned, he wasn’t expecting that one. And then the Blackfish delivers the crushing blow, when he leans in and says he really wanted to see Jaime Lannister — the Kingslayer — in person so he could get the measure of him. The result? “I’m disappointed.”

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You know when your parents used to rail and scream and send you to your room or spank you or whatever they did because they were angry? The WORST — absolute WORST — punishment was when they did nothing, and simply said, “I’m disappointed in you.” I don’t think there was a more brutal thing he could have said to Jaime. And with that, he turns on his heel and walks back into the castle.

And we return once again to the Continuing Adventures of Jon Snow and Company, as this time they go to House Glover. What I liked the most about this storyline (aside from Lady Mormont) was that you really got to see the effects of this ongoing war on the other houses. Since season one, we’ve seen the effects on the key houses — the Starks, Lannisters, Boltons — but what about all of the smaller houses. Lyanna Mormont mentions that she lost her mother in battle (a mother who clearly taught her daughter everything she needed to know about being fierce). The Free Folk argue that under Mance Rayder their numbers were legion, and now they’re but a fraction of who they once were. This isn’t their war, Dim argues… until Jon Snow says actually, it is. When they visit Lady Mormont, she echoes Dim’s words: “Why should I sacrifice one more Mormont life for a war that isn’t mine?” she asks. And Davos, as you quoted above, Chris, explains, much like Jon Snow did with the wildlings, that it actually IS their war. It’s everyone’s war. And as with Dim, Lady Mormont agrees and hands over her army.

And now Jon, Sansa, and Davos face the head of House Glover. Like the others, he refuses. As they’ve done before, Jon and Davos argue that this is everyone’s war, and that they should help. And then Sansa steps in and reminds him that his house is pledged to House Stark, and he needs to keep that oath. Robett Glover turns and strides right back over to Sansa, and asks where was King Robb Stark when the Iron Born took his family, imprisoning his wife and children and leaving him all alone? Oh right, he was marrying a foreign “whore,” he spits at her. “I served House Stark once, but House Stark is dead.” And with that, they’ve lost Glover’s army. He’s right: perhaps House Stark no longer shares his values, but considering the alternative — Ramsay Bolton as King of the North — maybe it’s best to just unify the houses to make sure HE doesn’t get in.
Cripes, Game of Thrones is feeling more and more like the U.S. election every day.

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And now we head over to Theon and Yara, where she’s taken him to a brothel because, like many a soldier before her, she wants to get it on with a beautiful woman before heading into battle, and she tells him that she’s not worried about what’s going to happen to them. But Theon is. And that’s when Yara finally has The Talk with her brother. I mentioned earlier that The Hound was the broken man of the title of this episode, but Theon Greyjoy was broken long before The Hound was, and it’s not clear if he will ever be able to put himself back together. The only chance he has is Yara believing in him. She tells him to drink his ale, and he does, and she says he must enjoy himself. She says that she needs the real Theon Greyjoy back, because she wants to sail to Meereen, make a pact with the Dragon Queen, and take back the Iron Islands. And the only way she can do that is with her brother by her side, and not a shell of her brother, but her brother and who he used to be. He looks her in the eye and promises that he will be that person. And then she orders him to drink again.

I really liked this scene because we’ve never really seen much tenderness between Yara and Theon. But what was truly unsettling about the scene is, Yara ends the scene confident that she’s going to get Theon back, and she strides into the brothel with all the confidence in the world. But the Theon she used to know is gone. Watch how, throughout this scene, every time she orders him to “DRINK” he immediately picks up the cup of ale and does so, just like Reek would have followed every order Ramsay gave him. He’s a shivering mess of a man, not the confident jerk he used to be. The old Theon would have pushed Yara out of the way to get to the brothel and would have already drunk most of a keg of ale before even getting there. And then he would have been too shit-faced the next day to actually engage in battle. That was the old Theon. And to be honest, despite what she says, she does NOT want the old Theon at her side.

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For now we have the new Theon. The guy who has been humbled, who knows the dangers of being overly confident, who has had his own arrogance stripped away to the point where he no longer thinks of himself at all. He worries about everyone around him. He takes orders from her, and she’s an excellent leader. His focus is on their future, the battles ahead of them, and their uncle who is coming to get both of them. He is not distracted by the beautiful women around him, or by the ale in his cup. He is entirely focused on the obstacles all around them. His recovery will be a slow and long one, and he’ll never truly be healed emotionally, but Theon was a despicable character in the early part of the series, and now he’s one of the most sympathetic characters on the series. That’s not because Ramsay did something wonderful; it’s because Theon’s true character has been able to come to the fore in the face of the atrocities that Ramsay foisted upon him. And I’m really intrigued about what’s in store for him.

And now it’s back over to Jon in the North once again, before we head back to the Hound and a scene involving something Dead hanging from the Wood. (Didja see what I did there?!) Jon, Sansa, and Davos have time to go over what they’ve achieved and what they’ve lost in their campaign. What did you think of their conversation and what Sansa does next, Chris? Any thoughts on who she’s writing to?

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Christopher: Two things before I answer that: while I was watching the scene with Robett Glover, I kept thinking, “Who is that actor?” He looked so familiar … and then it came to me. Tim McInnerny! A venerable British actor with a ton of dramatic roles under his belt, but whom I most fondly remember in the recurring role of Lord Darling in Blackadder. Robett Glover has somewhat more gravitas than Darling ever did, but he doesn’t seem to have much of a sense of humour.

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“Darling, you’ve aged horribly!”

Second thing: what the hell kind of ships did Yara and Theon steal? They’re in Volantis already? That must have been one hell of a following wind. The show has often fudged the geography of GRRM’s world, which would be more forgivable if the opening credits weren’t a FREAKING MAP. To give the casual viewer a sense of the distance traveled:

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If their ships were US Navy frigates, that still would have been an amazingly fast journey.

Ahem. But to get back to your question, Nikki …

Having made camp in the same location as Stannis once did seems to have spooked Jon. Davos is sanguine about it, pointing out its defensibility and practicality; but Jon can only think of Stannis’ failures, and worry about the threat of a winter storm. “Aye,” Davos admits. “The snows defeated Stannis as much as the Boltons did.” (Well, that, and the fact that half his men deserted him for burning his daughter at the stake). Sansa is naturally concerned about their numbers; Jon is naturally concerned about time, and has obviously come to the conclusion that continuing to woo the smaller northern houses would take too long for too little return.

We see the anxiety in Sansa’s face as Davos and Jon storm off to intercede in a fight—anxiety, and the fact that she traded away an army in her rage at Littlefinger. Not that she wasn’t totally justified in hating the man who sold her to the Boltons, but she was still uneasy in her dishonesty to Jon in not telling him, as emerged in her answers to Brienne’s questions a few episodes back. The most obvious answer to the question of whom she has addressed her letter to is Littlefinger—swallowing her pride and anger in the name of taking back her ancestral home. I honestly can’t imagine who else it could be, and I’m dying of curiosity to see how this plays out.

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We move from Sansa’s letter-writing back to where Brother Ray preaches to his flock, confessing his war crimes from his days as a soldier. There was a lot of speculation within A Song of Ice and Fire fandom that we would hear the now-famous “broken man” speech that appears in A Feast for Crows. In the early stages of Brienne’s search for Sansa, she falls in with an assortment of other travelers, one of whom is a mendicant septon named Meribald. It is the aftermath of the War of the Five Kings; the countryside has been ravaged, and outlaws and broken men prey on unwary travelers. When Podrik asks the difference between broken men and outlaws, Septon Meribald says that while outlaws “are evil men, driven by greed, soured by malice, despairing of the gods, and caring only for themselves.” Broken men, by contrast, “are more deserving of out pity, though they may be just as dangerous.” The speech is lengthy, so I won’t quote it all, but the gist is this: broken men are almost always commoners, called to arms by their liege lord, for whom the thought of war at first is attractive, “a fine adventure, the greatest most of them will ever know.”

But when they taste battle, it changes for them as they experience its blood and horror. Some men break right away, others are worn down by countless battles, new wounds taken before the old ones heal. And one day, a man breaks.

He turns and runs, or crawls off afterward after the corpses of the slain, or steals away in the black of night, and he finds some place to hide. All thought of home is gone by then, and kings and lords and gods mean less to him than a haunch of spoiled meat that will let him live another day, or a skin of bad wine that might drown his fear for a few hours. The broken man lives from day to day, from meal to meal, more beast than man.

The title of this episode made many assume and/or hope that we would be treated to this speech. But while the writers acknowledge it, and Brother Ray’s speech gestures toward it, they have tailored his words to be, not about the trauma of violence inflicted, but the violence one inflicts—in other words, sentiments more specific to the Hound. “It’s never too late to come back,” Brother Ray says, looking directly at him. Brother Ray confesses his own atrocities; and if we only get Ian McShane for one episode, I’m glad they gave him a character worthy of his talents. As we’ve observed, he would have made a particularly terrifying Randyll Tarly, but there is something particularly poignant and nuanced in his portrayal of a man hollowed out by war and blood. His words are powerful, but it is his haunted eyes that speak volumes.

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It is a particularly clever bit of casting, too, because those of us who loved Deadwood see the tortured soul of Al Swearengen lurking beneath this surface, and Brother Ray’s confession of a brutal past is that much more present.

The Hound hasn’t quite got religion yet, however. When Ray tells him, “Violence is a disease. You don’t kill a disease by spreading it to more people,” he replies with a fairly unavoidable truth. “You don’t cure it by dying, either,” he says. We assume that the Hound is the broken man of the title, but in another sense he is one of many: Brother Ray, the brigands from the Brotherhood Without Banners, and perhaps to a lesser extent … Arya.

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Arya is not broken, though one could argue that the process of dissolving her sense of self into “no one” was precisely about breaking her. How do you come to kill indiscriminately? By losing yourself, by detaching from your humanity. “We weren’t animals,” says Brother Ray. “Animals are true to their nature, and we had betrayed ours.” Arya might have learned to kill, out of anger and vengeance and the need to survive—but she balks at killing someone whose only crime is being a better actor. And in the waif, we see someone who, though she has apparently passed all of the Faceless Men’s tests, is not so “faceless” that she has transcended petty hatred and jealousy. Her dislike of Arya has been palpable, and the delight she takes in shanking her on the bridge too obvious for anyone to believe she’s genuinely dispassionate (especially considering she has ignored Jaqen’s directive that Arya should not suffer). In this moment she is not an assassin but a straight-up killer who gives the lie to the Faceless Men’s ethos.

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Arya escapes, albeit with a grievous wound, and the last we see of her, she disappears into the crowds of Braavos. Does she find her way to the theatre troupe? Does she make her ship’s dawn departure? Is there a doctor in the house? Stay tuned.

We end with the (mercifully) offscreen massacre of Brother Ray and his followers while the Hound is far enough away that he can only return for the aftermath. The perpetrators, we assume, were the Brotherhood Without Banners, which raises at least one pertinent question: what the hell has happened to these guys? The last we saw of them, they were genuinely the protectors of the common folk, and had a reasonable sense of justice. What has happened in the interim? Have they become such fanatical devotees of the Lord of Light that they will cheerfully kill nonbelievers? Or have they, in the process of fighting endless battles and skirmishes, themselves become broken men?

Perhaps we will learn as much in the next few episodes, but for now it is enough to note that they would seem to have interrupted the Hound’s process of atonement. The last shot of the episode is him striding purposefully off, only pausing to grab an axe—a symbolic moment in which a tool of peace becomes a weapon of war.

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Phew. That one went on a bit long, but in our defense, there was an awful lot going on in this episode. Thanks for reading, and we’ll see you again next week!

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Game of Thrones 6.06: Blood of My Blood

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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).

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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.

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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.

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Thranduil kind of ruined elks for everyone else. Thanks a lot, dude.

(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!’

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He seems like a nice man.

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?

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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Yup. Never get tired of this part of the story.

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.

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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!!)

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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.

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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?

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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?

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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.

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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.

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And that’s it for another week! We will see you next time, in Riverrun.

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Game of Thrones 6.05: The Door

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Hello hello once again friends, and welcome to this installment of the Chris and Nikki co-blog of Game of Thrones. This week, believe it or not, brings us to the mid-point of this season. Halfway! And episode five is easily on the best so far–though as we all know, Game of Thrones is a fickle mistress, and is not about to deliver an excellent episode without also ripping us apart inside.

Hold the door. That’s all I have to say. Nikki?

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Nikki: The first thing that must be pointed out about this fantastic episode is who directed it. You should have seen the look on my face when “Directed by Jack Bender” flashed across the screen. For those of you who didn’t obsess over every moment of Lost (in which case, how, exactly, did you come to read my blog?!), Jack Bender was the lead director and one of the executive producers of the show. He’s responsible for most of the best episodes of that series, and the images that we remember most vividly from it. He directed the series finale, as well as every season finale that preceded it. He directed 30 other episodes, including “Walkabout” and “The Constant” — in other words, when you have a key episode that could change everything, you bring in Jack Bender.

And considering the revelations, lies, and that devastating ending, this was definitely a key episode.

We begin with Sansa and Brienne as they face Littlefinger, who has sent Sansa a raven to meet up with him in Mole’s Town. We last saw this place when the wildlings, led by Tormund and Styr, attacked the town and killed everyone in it. Gilly has been hiding out in the brothel with Sam, and she huddled in the back where Ygritte found her and told her to stay quiet. She survived (obviously) and escaped back to Castle Black.

Now Sansa, Brienne, and Baelish stand amidst the wreckage left behind, and she gets to confront him in a glorious scene of retribution we’ve been waiting for. With Brienne having her back, Sansa glares at Littlefinger and dares him to tell her if he knew what he was getting her into by leaving her there. Of course, Baelish wants to skip by the answer, so he stammers his way through a round of shrugging before Brienne holds her sword and says menacingly, “Lady Sansa asked you a question.” Sansa then helps him out: “If you didn’t know, you’re an idiot,” she says, “And if you did know, then you’re my enemy.” We watch Baelish staring at Sansa, knowing he betrayed the daughter of the woman he’s loved his entire life, a girl who is the spitting image of her mother. Despite the fact Littlefinger’s heart is made of stone now, in this moment we catch a glimpse of him actually appearing to feel a tiny ounce of remorse for what he put her through.

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She tells him she can still feel what Ramsay did to her, not just in her heart but in her physical body. She tells him over and over again to imagine exactly what Ramsay did to her: mind, body, and soul. He didn’t touch her face, because he needed that, but he destroyed every other part of her body that could be covered up. Sansa stands like stone, as Brienne looks more enraged by the second yet maintains that cold glare.

“I’m… so… sorry,” Baelish says with phony empathy, and says he had wanted to protect her, and will do anything to protect her now. “You wouldn’t even be able to protect yourself if I told Lady Brienne to cut you down right now,” she spits back.

“You freed me from the monsters who murdered my family, and you gave me to other monsters who murdered my family.” And in that one sentence, she sums up exactly the hell she has lived through for years. The Starks were just a quiet family living in the North who had the misfortune of being chosen to be the Hand of the King, and in doing so became the target for every other family jostling for position. Baelish saved Sansa from the Lannisters, who had murdered her father, and he handed her off to the Boltons, who had murdered her mother, brother, and a sister-in-law she’d never met. He tells her that he will do anything to undo what’s been done to her, but you can tell from the look on Sansa’s face, there is no undoing what’s been done to her. But what it HAS done is made her stronger, willing to fight. She’s a strategist now, now some girl doing embroidery in the background while the men do the real fighting.

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And as he leaves, realizing she’s not going to come with him (not that he ever thought that — I always feel like Baelish is 10 steps ahead of everyone) he tells her that he’s been in contact with her uncle, Bryndan the Blackfish, and that he’s gathered an army that would be willing to fight with her. She says, “I have an army.” Oh right, he says sarcastically as he passes her in the doorway, “Your brother’s army…” and then he corrects himself, “Half brother.”

Someone needs to push this guy through the moon door.

Sansa was my hero in this episode. Of course, what she does with Littlefinger’s information is suspect, and I can’t help but picture Admiral Ackbar jumping out of a doorway and yelling, “It’s a TRAP!!” but let’s give her a round of applause for making Baelish pause for even three seconds to actually consider what he’s done to Catelyn’s daughter.

And from there we move over to Arya, where she’s forced to watch a rather difficult reel of “Previously, on Game of Thrones.” In verse. What did you think of our Arya this week, Chris, and that very brief but squee-inducing cameo?

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Christopher: To be honest, I completely missed Withnail on my first viewing—it was indeed very brief, and I must have been looking at my notes. When I rewatched the scene, I was thinking “what cameo?” … and then I saw him. Good old Richard E. Grant—he never disappoints.

I loved the Arya scenes this week. She hasn’t had very much to do this season yet, so it was great to see her story moving along. What was interesting was the way in which her identity as a Stark continues to stick to her, however much she might protest that she is “no one.” What precipitates this uncertainty is her poor showing against the Waif in their fight training; indeed, the Waif is so superior to Arya that one wonders if she was feeling ill on the day when Arya bested her in spite of her blindness. Plot inconsistencies aside, however, the Waif’s insistence that “You’ll never be one of us … Lady Stark” segues into Jaqen’s acknowledgement that this might, in fact, be the case. “She has a point,” Jaqen says, and proceeds to expound on the history of the Faceless Men: that they were a society founded by former slaves, who fled Valyria after—he seems to suggest—they killed all their masters and overseers. “Where did they go?” Arya asks, and Jaqen reveals that the free city of Braavos was in fact founded by the Faceless Men.

Arya’s struggle to lose herself has become an interesting reflection of the significance of naming and names, especially when her scene is juxtaposed with Sansa’s determination to win back the North, and Littlefinger’s snide observation that Jon Snow is only Sansa’s half brother. It’s a seemingly throwaway aside that cuts as only Littlefinger knows how: at once reminding Sansa of how she mistreated Jon in the past because she didn’t consider him a true Stark, while also pointing to the issue of his legitimacy: he might putatively be Ned Stark’s son, but as a bastard he lacks the legal rights of a trueborn, and unlike Ramsay was never legitimized by his father or by a reigning monarch. While Sansa and Jon will struggle to assert the rightfulness of the Stark name in the North, Arya struggles to set her legacy aside, but it clings to her like a burr.

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All of which is made even more glaring by the play she attends. Did Jaqen know what the play was about when he sent Arya off to reconnoiter her assignment? If so, it’s a cruel little twist of the knife and, I would assume, one more test for Arya. The recapitulation of the events of season one calls to mind Karl Marx’s assertion that history repeats itself first as tragedy, then as farce: the tragedy that Arya experienced first hand is repeated for her as a crude pantomime replete with farts, slapstick, and gratuitous nudity (all right, so that bit was accurate). It would appear that the Lannister propaganda machine has worked well: Cersei and Joffrey are depicted as fair and generous, Ned Stark as an oafish usurper, and Tyrion as the ultimate villain of the piece who arranges for Ned’s execution in spite of Joffrey’s leniency, humiliates Sansa, and slaps the new king (which, I must admit, is still deeply satisfying to watch even though it’s a fake Tyrion and Joffrey).

Maisie Williams does some lovely face-acting throughout the play, communicating that, however much she has committed herself to the Faceless Men, she is in fact still Arya Stark—and seeing her father misrepresented on stage obviously pains and angers her. These events are still very much a part of her, and she is a product of her personal history. Shucking all that to become “no one” is not easy.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, this season is doing a lot of calling back to the first season, giving us echoes of where all of this started. “Don’t you wish we could go back to the day we left?” Sansa asked Jon last week. “I want to scream at myself, ‘Don’t go, you idiot!’” Unbeknownst to Sansa, her brother Bran has been doing something close to that, momentarily distracting young Ned Stark as he starts to climb the Tower of Joy. It’s hard not to read Arya experience of this pantomime as thematically parallel to Bran’s astral travelling, especially considering the way in which the play shows history as fungible: it distorts the facts of Robert Baratheon’s death, Ned’s execution, and the Lannister seizure of power, but for all intents and purposes that has become the standard narrative as it is popularly understood. By the same token, we get confirmation this week of something only suggested previously: that Bran’s virtual travels are not merely passive viewership, but can and do affect and change the past and therefore the present. The broken-telephone telling and retelling of Ned’s execution that produces a comic play broadly correct in the narrative but profoundly wrong on the details presages the way in which an imperative given to Hodor in his youth transforms into his only word and, as it turns out, his one mission in life.

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But I’m getting ahead of myself. The pantomime Arya watches is the most overt call-back of the season so far, and as anyone who has done Theatre Studies 101 knows, any time you see a play-with-a-play (or in this case, a play within a TV show), it’s a meta-theatrical gesture calling attention to the play’s very theatrical framing and artifice. And much like “The Murder of Gonzago” in Hamlet, this pantomime catches the conscience—not of a king, of course, and not just of Arya in her desire to dissolve herself into no one, but also that of the audience. I might be alone in this, but watching the play as Arya watches it, and seeing the distortions time and distance lend to the story, made me think of the increasing disparities between the novels and the series, and the ways in which the viewing experience is transformed for me now that we’re past the point where I, as an avid reader of the novels, had a narrative roadmap.

This sense was only heightened by the fact that this episode offers a handful of revelations, and a man wonders whether these will be consonant with the novels, or whether the showrunners are taking liberties. The first of these revelations happens after Arya’s scenes. What did you think of the fact that the White Walkers were created by the Children of the Forest as a weapon to fight humans, Nikki?

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Nikki: That was certainly a shock. The Children of the Forest are far more fleshed out in the books, and have only been touched on in the show, occasionally mentioned by others as a race that had died out and has been forgotten. Now that Bran is with them, we see some of them survived.

I saw some confusion on social media the day after this episode aired, and some of it was directed at the Children of the Forest. Who are these tree women, and where did they come from? The Children of the Forest, according to the legend depicted on the show, were the first inhabitants of Westeros, and lived in harmony with the weirwood trees… until man came along. The legend that has been told to us so far is that they engaged in battle with the White Walkers, and were killed off, with this small handful of Children driven north to where Bran is. The White Walkers not only slaughtered the Children of the Forest, but the giants. The key figure you see with Bran is Leaf, and she seems to act as a de facto leader of the Children of the Forest. So when she reveals that the White Walkers — the enemies of the Children — were created by the Children themselves, it’s a shock. Think back to when Sam Tarly killed one of the White Walkers with that piece of dragonglass. He says in that episode that the Children of the Forest used to carry dragonglass daggers. Now his anecdote comes full circle and we discover that they are created by dragonglass, and it is dragonglass that destroys them.

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I remember once visiting Barbados, and a local man was telling me a story of how settlers first arrived in Barbados and brought rats with them. Soon the island was overrun with rats so they brought in snakes to eat the rats. When the snakes got the rat population under control, the island suddenly had a snake problem. So they brought in green monkeys to rid of them of the snakes, but the green monkeys multiplied so quickly they were soon everywhere. They have yet to figure out how to get rid of the monkeys.

I thought of that anecdote when I was watching this scene last night. The Children of the Forest were living in relative harmony until man came along and destroyed that peace (typical). So they created a monster to eradicate the humans, but that monster ended up killing the Children of the Forest instead, then the giants, and then turned on man. It was a shock to learn, but in retrospect, it made total sense.

We shall return to Leaf, Bran, and Hodor. (sniffle… Hodor…) But now we turn to the Iron Islands, and Yara making a play for the throne. These men will not follow her, they say. They’ve never had a queen and they don’t plan to start now. She rolls her eyes and says no one pays attention to them anymore, and she will bring attention to them on a world stage. But they argue that they shouldn’t have to follow her as long as Balon Greyjoy’s male heir has returned.

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Cue camera on Theon, who was gorging himself on the canape table and didn’t realize everyone was about to look at him — “ye mean me?!”… OK, not really, it’s more like Theon standing there hoping they weren’t going to look at him, because he knows what they must be thinking about him, and how it must look that Balon’s son has returned, and yet it’s his daughter who is vying for the throne. The newly shorn Theon steps up, clears his throat, and addresses them. “I am Theon Greyjoy, last living son of Balon Greyjoy… and she is the rightful ruler.” He tells them she is a leader, a warrior, and iron born. “This is our queen,” he says, on the verge of tears. Theon wanted to rule the Iron Islands, and Ramsay has taken away his dignity (among other things) and he can barely show his face here, but at least pushing his sister to the forefront might make up for his misdeeds.

And… then the dickhead shows up. Euron Greyjoy steps forward and says HE is the rightful ruler of the Iron Islands, and through his travels he has learned everything about this world and will help them rule it. Yara is shocked; the moment she sees him she knows he was her father’s murderer, and announces it in front of everyone — to which Euron basically says, “Yeah, what of it.” He points out how useless Balon was (no argument here) and that he was leading them nowhere. Theon speaks up and says Euron was gallivanting around the world while Yara and Balon were here ruling the Iron Islands and led them thus far. But Euron knows exactly what’s happened to Theon, and tells everyone, including the loss of Theon’s member. It’s a devastating moment — Theon is only just barely holding it together throughout this scene just with the thought that they might know something of what happened to him when he was Reek, but now there’s no doubt that they all know. The laughter and hissing from the crowd is like another finger being removed, and Theon winces at it. Euron turns to the crowd and says he will build a fleet of a thousand ships, and tells them of Daenerys. He says he will sail across the channel and give her the fleet, along with something else (he grabs his crotch) and in that moment I thought, “Ah. You are not long for this world, my friend.” If this show has taught us anything about women, and especially Daenerys, a cock who shows up waving his cock is swept away before you can sing the theme song (which, granted, is about half an hour long, but you catch my drift…)

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And so, they make him king, baptizing him by killing him (this is clearly not a very advanced people) and chanting, “What is dead may never die” while Yara and Theon sneak off with Pyke’s best ships. Euron puts on his crown — which appears to be a piece of driftwood? — and announces that his first act as king is to murder his niece and nephew, before he realizes they’re already gone. And so he orders them all to build him those thousand ships, because he has some vengeance he needs to wreak.

I loved that Yara and Theon are now sticking together; we’ve seen them at each other’s throats so much, but if one tiny good thing came out of Ramsay’s abuse of Theon, it’s that Theon has been humbled by everything, and is finally following the right person. Though I do feel like Professor Marvel at the beginning of the Wizard of Oz film, looking off into the distance as the storm brews and saying, “Poor kid… I hope she’s all right.”

Before we move to the next scene, I just wanted to mention that the casting director for this episode was brilliant, especially with matching characters with their relatives. Euron looked like a dead ringer for an older Alfie Allen (Theon) — I couldn’t believe how much they looked alike. And when you see the flash of Ned Stark’s father, it looked so much like Sean Bean it was uncanny.

From the Iron Islands we sail to Vaes Dothrak, where Daenerys has a quiet and lovely scene of reconciliation that made me very happy. What did you think of the scene with her and Ser Jorah, Chris?

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Christopher: It was a very sweet and powerful scene right up to the moment when Daenerys commanded Jorah to find a cure for his disease. And that last moment was made even more annoying by just how touching the preceding moments were: Daenerys’ affectionate frustration with Jorah’s stubbornness (“I banished you. Twice. You came back. Twice.”), giving way to concern and grief when he shows her his greyscale. “I’m so sorry,” she says, and we hear the tears in her voice. “Don’t be,” he replies. “All I’ve ever wanted to do was serve you.” At this moment in Jorah’s face we see regret eclipsed by a momentary happiness that shows the truth of his words: faced with certain death, he can take comfort in the fact that he has in fact served Daenerys, and served her well—and here, facing his end, he can admit that he loves her. He is ready to head off and face his fate. “Goodbye, Khaleesi.”

But she calls him back, refusing to release him from his vow to serve and obey her. Except, not really—he must still go, but with her command to find a cure and return to serve her.

Seriously? She is a queen with a whole host of new subjects, as well as her people in Meereen, and—I’ve got to assume—hundreds of message ravens they can send to all corners of the continent. What about, “We will send for the finest doctors in all the land to tend to you!” And yes, greyscale is contagious, but what about giving him a comfortable apartment in a remote part of the pyramid while healers are brought in to help him? She’s sending him off—alone!—in an inhospitable wilderness with what I’m assuming is not very much money, in an attempt to find a brilliant physician who can cure a deadly disease. And even if he finds it, the doctor will help him out of an overdeveloped sense of charity?

Nope. That didn’t work for me, and it was made worse by the fact that it was the one weak point in an otherwise wonderful espisode.

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“Well … fuck.”

We shift from Daenerys riding from Vaes Dothrak, presumably toward Meereen, to Meereen itself, where Varys asks Grey Worm to recount the instances of violence in the city since their pact with the Masters. A fragile peace has taken hold, he observes with some satisfaction. “For now,” says Grey Worm darkly. “For now is the best we get in our profession,” Varys points out, but Tyrion is not satisfied: “It’s not enough for Meereen to have peace,” he argues, “They need to know Daenerys is responsible for it.”

What it boils down to for Tyrion is a question of story—the Sons of the Harpy have a good story, he says, a simple and straightforward one: resist the foreign invader. Daenerys’ is even better, more heroic and grandiose. But in and of itself, it is not enough. “The people know who brought them freedom,” says Missandei, obviously a little offended at Tyrion’s perceived slight to her queen. Tyrion, however, is more pragmatic: freedom needs to be coupled with security, and the newfound peace has to be indelibly associated with Daenerys. As we have seen, and as we have commented over the past few episodes, Daenerys is far better on the campaign trail than actually holding office—as a ruler she tends toward a top-down managerial style and is given to authoritarian tendencies at times. She makes for spectacular symbolism; Tyrion would like to see her associated with a few more humble but profound accomplishments, something best accomplished by someone perceived as honest and incorruptible.

There’s a lovely echo from last season when Tyrion is able to repeat Varys’ line—“Who said anything about him?”—and we shortly learn that he means to employ the red priests and priestesses of R’Hllor as his propaganda outfit.

His decision to ally them with the Red Priestess Kinvara is shrewd, but risky. Kinvara is only too eager to take up Daenerys’ banner, as Tyrion knew she would be, having overheard (as she cannily observes) the street sermons being delivered in Volantis. Her speech about Daenerys, her accomplishments, and her dragons makes it clear that the red priests and priestesses of R’Hllor see in Daenerys everything they could desire in a Chosen One: freer of slaves, born in fire, dragons at her (sort of) command to immolate unbelievers.

Her evangelicism, however, makes Tyrion somewhat nervous.

KINVARA: The dragons will purify nonbelievers by the thousands. They will burn their sins and flesh away.
TYRION: Ideally, we’d like to avoid purifying too many nonbelievers. The Mother of Dragons has followers of many different faiths.

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Kinvara promises to send for her most eloquent priests, but Varys is skeptical. He reminds her of Stannis, of his failure at King’s Landing, and his most recent defeat in which he was killed. “It’s most hard for a fanatic to admit a mistake,” he says. “Isn’t that the whole point of being a fanatic? You’re always right. Everything is the Lord’s will.” I loved this little speech of Varys’—not least because it very pithily sums up my own dislike of fanatics, religious or otherwise—but Kinvara’s response reminds us that there is more at work here than mere power politics. There is also magic, ancient magic at that, and her offer to tell Varys who spoke from the fire that fateful day a sorcerer mutilated him says that there is more on heaven and earth than is dreamt of in Varys’ philosophy.

A point that is brought home rather powerfully when Bran decides to go astral surfing without his guide. What did you make of his encounter with the Night King and his army of ice zombies, Nikki?

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Nikki: I mentioned earlier that the casting in this episode was particularly excellent, and that includes Kinvara (or, as I think of her, Idina Menzel… or, as John Travolta thinks of her, Adelle Dazeem), who carried herself very much like Melisandre, right down to that very specific accent she uses when she speaks. I noticed Kinvara was also wearing the same necklace that Melisandre wears, so presumably she is also much older than she appears to be.

But now over to Bran, who wargs alone, and somehow turns into Carl on The Walking Dead (and should have just stayed in the fucking cave). This time, without his guide, winter has come. At first, as has been the case in his other warg adventures, he appears to be unseen, moving among the wights as they stand like statues and pay him no attention… until, in one terrifying moment, the Night King spots him, and then suddenly, all of the wights turn around and can see him. The scene abruptly transforms into the “Thriller” video, with the camera swirling around him as he turns back to the Night King, who’s now standing right beside him and grabs his arm. Bran screams, and wakes up.

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It’s too late. He has the silvery mark on his wrist, and they have seen him. The three-eyed raven tells Bran that the Night King knows they’re here, and the mark on Bran’s arm is their entry pass to the cave, which, until now, has magically kept them out. He, Meera, and Hodor must leave. Meera begins frantically packing, while Hodor sits, immobilized, just muttering, “Hodor,” over and over again, quietly. The three-eyed raven tells Bran that it’s time he become him, and when Bran looks at him and says, “Am I ready?” the raven looks at him, and quite matter-of-factly says, “No.” And with that, Bran wargs one more time.

I’m going to let Chris take that final scene when we get there, but I wanted to bring things back around to my opening bit, and say this episode felt more like a Lost episode than any other before it, not least because Bender is directing. In season 5, when the Losties travelled back in time to the mid-70s, it took a while for Hurley to come to grips with the basic concept of time travel that diverged from what he thought he knew in Back to the Future — when time travelling, anything that happens back then always happened. Keep that in mind when watching that final scene: on Lost, the Losties learned that they had always gone back in time, and that their actions always happened. They weren’t changing the past — they has always gone back to the past and had been a part of it. Lost was always about love, loss, connections with people, and a general WTFness pervaded every episode, and this episode of Game of Thrones carried with it that same sense of an emotional rollercoaster.

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Is this really the best time to play Risk, guys?

But before I sent Chris into the fray to dissect that moment (I don’t think I’d be capable of doing it without dissolving into tears), let’s stop over at Castle Black for a second, where Jon has a map on the table and says they must take Winterfell and they need more men. The Umbers and the Karstarks have aligned themselves with Ramsay, he says, and he also mentions the Mormonts and the Tullys. The Tullys are Catelyn’s family (who would certainly help Sansa, but it’s unclear if they would help Jon) but I was more intrigued by the mention of the Mormonts. Could this be the tie between Jon and Daenerys that I’ve been waiting for?

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Because none of these posts is ever going to be complete again with a picture of Tormund making googly-eyes at Brienne.

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…or without one of Brienne making her WTF face.

Sansa tells the table that her uncle, the Blackfish, has an army, and then lies about where she got the information. Brienne immediately shifts in her seat and looks uncomfortable (it won’t be the last time in this episode that Brienne makes that face), because she knows exactly who gave them the information, and she doesn’t trust him as far as she could throw Tormund. Brienne confronts Sansa outside, and Sansa sends Brienne to Riverrun so she can check things out.

But Sansa

 

 

Sigh. Brienne isn’t worried about her own safety, but is more concerned about leaving Sansa behind. “With Jon?” asks Sansa. “Not him. I think he’s trustworthy. A bit… brooding, perhaps.” It’s Davos and Melisandre she’s concerned about. We can’t forget that for as much as we love Davos, she saw him help Stannis cut down Renly, whom she loved as a knight and perhaps as a woman. She cut down Stannis herself, but he was alone, already abandoned by Melisandre.

“And that wildling fellow with the beard…!!!” she adds, with a look of disgust on her face.

But Sansa knows Jon, and she reassures Brienne that he will keep her safe. “Then why did you lie to him when he asked how you learned about Riverrun?” she asks. Sansa has no answer. Out in the courtyard, the sister gives her brother a coat that was modelled after the one Ned used to wear, while Tormund gives Brienne the eye in an instantly gifable moment that is equal parts hilarity and awesomeness.

And as they all leave — Brienne to Riverrun, and the others to find Houses that will pledge fealty to the Starks — Edd realizes he’s suddenly the de facto Lord Commander, and immediately embraces the task.

And with that, we go back to Bran and the others at the cave, and the part you’ve all been waiting for. And with a gentle “Hodor,” I pass the reins over to you, my friend.

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Christopher: You night have had your Lost moment with this episode, but afterward I couldn’t help imagining the whining, grinding noise of the TARDIS appearing, either back at Winterfell, or as Meera runs with Bran off into the winter storm … because at this point in my life, anything involving time travel invariably makes me think of the Doctor. “Can we go back … and save Hodor?” “Fixed point in time and space. Nothing I can do. I am. So. Sorry.”

I’ll get to Hodor’s final act of heroism in a moment, but first I want to just run through a few details from this final scene.

First: knowing that the Night King is on his way, why are Bran and the Raven lost in visions of Winterfell past? (Possible answer below).

Second, I can’t say I’m entirely down with the Children of the Forest’s weaponry. They made for some impressive explosions, but I couldn’t stop thinking of them as Holy Hand Grenades. Also: while they were only moderately effective against the ice zombies (and totally useless against the Walkers), they would have been devastating against the bronze age humans they were ostensibly fighting when they created the White Walkers to begin with. Or was this weapons technology they devised in the interim years?

Third: R.I.P. Summer. Barring some unseen deus ex machina, this episode saw the death of yet another Stark direwolf. This means that, of the original six, there are only two left—and of those two, only one, Ghost, is still with his human (Arya having chased Nymeria off to spare her Lady’s fate).

Now onto the main event.

I rewatched this scene about five times (and cried each time) just to make sure I got the sequence of things right:

  1. After seeing the Night King and his hordes, Meera tries to wake Bran from his reverie, saying “We need Hodor!”, as Hodor has fallen into a panicked, very nearly fetal paralysis of hodors.
  2. Bran hears her voice in this midst of his vision of Winterfell, and the Three-Eyed Raven says “Listen to your friend.”
  3. Bran looks over at young Hodor; in the cave, present-day Hodor’s eyes go briefly milky.
  4. Hodor stands and grabs Bran’s sledge, and they start to make their escape.
  5. The Night King walks up to the Raven and swings his scythe; at Winterfell, Bran sees the Raven’s demise as him shattering into a thousand dark shards and swirling into nothing (at a certain point, it becomes hard not to start making analogies to The Matrix).
  6. Hodor, Meera, and Leaf—with Bran in tow—are now basically in the midst of a zombie chase, replete with sound effects that sound like they were lifted from The Walking Dead.
  7. Hodor, Meera, and Bran escape through the back door (Leaf having sacrificed herself), and Hodor hauls it shut. As she runs off with Bran, Meera cries repeatedly, “Hold the door!”
  8. At Winterfell, Bran hears Meera’s entreaties. Looking over at young Hodor, he sees his eyes roll back and he falls into a seizure, all the while crying desperately “Hold the door!” Which becomes … well, you know the rest.

The main question, as I ask above, is why were Bran and the Raven warging right then, when they knew full well the Night King was on his way? And why were they in so deep that Bran couldn’t bring himself out, even after he’d been parted from the tree roots? Why didn’t the Raven send him back before he died?

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I wasn’t being entirely glib when I brought up the Doctor Who chestnut of a “fixed point in time and space,” as it strikes me that a possible answer to this question is that it was necessary for Bran to be virtually at Winterfell as all this went down. What becomes painfully, heart-wrenchingly obvious in the final moments of this episode is that Hodor’s entire self has been focused on this one act of heroism: that the hijacking of his mind, his agency, his very capacity for speech—and as we saw in Bran’s earlier visions, though he is big and humble, he had a nimble mind and a wry sense of humour—occurred so that one day he could save Bran Stark.

It is a heartbreaking moment, not least because Hodor has always been the embodiment of the gentle giant, guided by little other than simple love and loyalty. The two instances of him being possessed in this episode—in the present and in the past—made me think of season four, episode five, “First of His Name,” which featured Jon Snow’s attack on the mutinous watchmen, who had killed the Lord Commander and taken over Craster’s Keep. If you’ll recall, the mutineers had also taken Bran, Meera, Jojen, and Hodor captive—and while Jon’s men carried out their attack, Bran warged into Hodor when Locke (Roose Bolton’s agent) tried to carry him off. (There’s a link here to the video—unfortunately, embedding was disabled). Possessed by Bran, Hodor breaks his bonds and gives chase, running down Locke and killing him with his bare hands. He then comes to, seeing the dead body at his feet and the blood on his hands; as you put it in our post, Nikki, “Bran turns Hodor into a killer, which resonates so deeply as Hodor stares at the blood on his hands in confusion and heartbreak.” It resonates so deeply because we know too well what a gentle soul Hodor is, and in that moment the liberty taken by Bran in possessing him is deeply discomforting.

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As it is in this episode—but even more, by a magnitude more, because it isn’t just a few moments of possession in this instance but the better part of a lifetime. One of the things I love about Game of Thrones and its source material, as I love about other contemporary fantasists like Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, and Lev Grossman, is that the standard fantasy trope of fate and destiny tends to get upended. And in those cases where we see a certain determinism at work, as in Hodor’s death, it upsets the apple cart. We see Hodor’s end not so much as a grand fate, as his subjugation to forces we might otherwise consider benign—in this case, Bran’s fledgling flights of vision, which accidentally appropriate young Willas’ life and turn him into Hodor.

None of which detracts from Hodor’s final act of heroism, or the sorrow with which we bid him adieu.

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So that’s it for this week, friends. Be well, stay warm, and hold that door.

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Game of Thrones 6.04: Book of the Stranger

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Greetings and welcome dear friends to episode four! This week was all about brothers and sisters, with three reunions: one joyful, one painful, and one angry and tearful. We also had some great eye-rolling action from the Queen of Thorns, a parable of wealth and sin from the High Sparrow, some creative use of fire by Daenerys, and we wonder if Natalie Tena has now gone to her agent and demanded a role in a franchise where her character doesn’t get horribly killed. I once again have the pleasure of sharing the stage here with my good friend Nikki Stafford. It’s my turn to lead us off, so without further ado …

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Christopher: While there have been a handful of gasp-worthy and/or fist-pumping moments in the first three episodes, the consensus thus far on the interwebs seems to have been that this season started slowly. More than a few reviews I’ve read have been chomping at the bit for some of Game of Thrones’ patented operatic moments.

Well, now we know. The last three episodes have been building to this one.

Or not entirely. But mostly. Or at least, that’s how it felt watching this episode.

Am I not making sense? That might be because I’m writing this mere moments after watching that final, climactic scene. Let me take a deep breath and focus.

I had a couple of friends over to watch tonight’s episode, and we were speculating about what might transpire based on the trailer, which suggested strongly that Brienne and Sansa would arrive this week at Castle Black. As we’ll recall, last week’s episode ended with Jon Snow handing over the mantle of Lord Commander to Edd Tollett, saying “My watch has ended,” and seeming to walk out through the main gates. Did that mean he has departed? Would Sansa come looking for sanctuary from her half-brother, only to find he had deserted? It was, we decided, precisely the kind of thing Game of Thrones would throw at us.

With that in mind, the first shot had me confused: Jon’s sword Longclaw, given to him by his predecessor Jeor Mormont, sitting in the foreground. It is picked up by Edd Tollett. My first thought was that Jon had been wearing the sword as he seemed to leave Castle Black, but seeing Edd holding the sword made me wonder for just a second whether Jon had left it with Edd as part of the Lord Commander’s outfit. But no—a moment later we see Jon, and Edd grills him about what he means to do, and where he means to go. Jon’s answer is at once glib and heartfelt—he means to go south, so he can get warm again—but Edd is having none of it. He reminds him about Hardhome, saying, “You know what’s out there. You know what’s coming here. How can you leave us now?”

It’s a powerful question, as it goes right to the heart of Jon’s reasoning behind the very actions that got him murdered, that is, granting passage south of the Wall for the wildlings. Everything he did in the final episodes of last season was in the name of drawing a line between whom he saw as the true combatants in the wars to come: between the living and the dead.

It strikes me that this episode is very much about the drawing of battle lines. Later we see an uneasy truce between Cersei and Olenna, drawing a line between their houses and the High Sparrow; Theon pledges himself to his sister in her bid for the Iron Islands’ throne; and the spectacular ending of this episode is essentially Daenerys drawing a line between herself and the world.

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Jon Snow, by contrast, is initially reluctant to re-enter the fray. When Edd asks him, “How can you leave us now?” Jon reminds him that he was murdered by his brothers. “You want me to stay here after that?” he demands, but once again Castle Black offers up a very timely knock at the door—though instead of a furious giant this time, it is a horn announcing the arrival of visitors, as my and my friends’ dour speculations are very happily proven wrong. For Brienne and Sansa (and Pod, of course) have arrived, and they ride into Castle Black’s courtyard to stares of consternation—some, we assume, directed at Sansa, but most at the tall and imposing figure of Brienne. Tormund in particular seems quite gobsmacked, something that will be played to comic effect later in the episode.

Like a cracker given to a starving man, the scene of Jon and Sansa’s reunion is overwhelming. Game of Thrones consistently offers action, thrills, triumph, and not a little bit of humour mixed in with what is more often than not an onerous and cripplingly dire set of circumstances. Tyrion and Varys’ banter leavens the mix; Brienne riding to the rescue makes us cheer; and sometimes there are dragons, and sometimes Joffrey dies. But there are precious few moments of genuine love and joy: the moment of recognition when Sansa looks up to see Jon, and their subsequent desperate embrace, was a balm to the soul of this show that, at this point, I didn’t realize it needed—so inured was I to the bleakness. And full credit to the actors: Sophie Turner and Kit Harrington so inhabit Sansa and Jon now, that their reunion is genuinely a thing of joy on the screen.

But to return to Edd’s question: “How can you leave us now?” he asks, and Sansa is, if not the answer, certainly an answer. “Where will you go?” she asks Jon, and he corrects her, “Where will we go?” They are family, they are reunited, and the argument that ensues—in which Jon professes his battle fatigue and unwillingness to fight any more—is understandable but perhaps somewhat disingenuous in the circumstances. We can certainly empathize with Jon’s fatigue, but Sansa—who, incidentally, in spite of not dying, arguably suffered far more than Jon—sees things more pragmatically. She tells him that Winterfell is their only home, and that she will take it with or without him, but the gist of what she says is plain: there simply is no way forward without fighting.

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And as we sense battle lines being drawn, we begin to see factions emerging. Melissandre, we are utterly unsurprised to learn, will follow wherever Jon Snow goes. As will Davos, probably, but he has some questions he wants answered. What happened to Stannis? It seems odd that he has waited this long to ask her, but then perhaps her prior moping precluded such discussions. What happened to Stannis? He was defeated, she replies. What happened to Shireen? he then demands, a somewhat trickier question for her to answer … and she receives the mixed blessing of an interruption from Brienne. “I saw what happened,” she says, in a little moment of misdirection, as what she has to say is about Stannis and the battle, and not Shireen. But really, Brienne is there to say that she served in Renly’s Kingsguard and saw him killed at the hands of “blood magic.”

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Uncomfortable silence. “That’s … in the past now,” says Davos. “Doesn’t mean I forget,” Brienne replies. “Or forgive.”

BRIENNE: He admitted it, you know.
DAVOS: Who did?
BRIENNE: Stannis. Just before I executed him.

Brienne turns and walks away, and in my notes I wrote MIC DROP. Battle lines are being drawn, but on this front we’re looking at some strange bedfellows. Jon and Sansa are now together one way or another, but Brienne, sworn to Sansa, has more or less thrown down the gauntlet to Melissandre, who will walk into fire for Jon (perhaps literally). I suspect we will see some tension in this northern alliance down the road.

But then we turn to the Vale and—finally!—the return of everyone’s favourite sleaze, Littlefinger. Were you happy to see Mayor Carcetti again, Nikki?

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Nikki: Ha! I loved your opening because I thought Jon had walked out on Castle Black, too, and was confused about that opening. It’s like having a huge argument with a boyfriend and going, “That’s IT! I am OUT OF HERE!!” and slamming the door and leaving the house dramatically… only to realize you left your shoes, coat, and car keys inside. And for a second I thought, Did Jon just storm out of the place and then go, “Oh crap, forgot me clothes” and have to sneak back? It was definitely a bit of misdirection at the end of last week’s ep. I also thought it was very strange when Davos asked after Stannis and Shireen. Wha?! How is it bloody possible that the ravens deliver news of everything from imprisonments to the latest euchre results in King’s Landing and yet he hasn’t yet heard what happened to Stannis and Shireen? What the hell did he think Melisandre was all mopey about? It seemed a bit of a blunder on the part of the writers.

And now over to Brave Sir Robin, the sweet little inbred imbecile who runs the Vale. Throughout his scenes I was thinking he reminded me of someone. And then, dear readers, our Christopher went and posted something on Facebook that had me HOWLING with laughter, and 100% nailed exactly whom I’d been thinking about:

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It’s the Shpleen!

HAHAHA!!

Anyway, Lord Baelish is back and showing that just as Tywin stepped in, put his arm around Tommen and immediately began teaching him how to be a king, Littlefinger has shown up, handed Brave Sir Robin a falcon, and won him over. On a whim I googled, “Falcon symbolism,” and got this back: “In Christian symbolism, the wild falcon represents the unconverted, materialistic soul and its sinful thoughts and deeds. The tamed bird symbolizes the Christian convert pursuing his lofty thoughts, hopes, and aspirations with courage.”

And from what we know of Brave Sir Robin and Littlefinger, they would definitely fall under the second category.

Cough.

So! A wild falcon, then. Ahem.

Littlefinger’s arrival interrupts an archery lesson Robin is having with Lord Royce, where Robin is showing some keen marksmanship… if his target had actually been the ant in the grass about three feet in front of him. If so? NAILED IT. As Baelish begins immediately manipulating the stupid creature, Royce instantly gleans what is happening. He wants to know where Sansa is, and Baelish plays dumb, saying they’d been attacked on their way by Bolton’s people and no matter what he did, Littlefinger simply couldn’t stop it. Royce immediately adopts a “Dude, I’m not Sir Robin so you can cut the bullshit” look on his face and tells him that sounds about as plausible as Brave Sir Robin being a Rhodes scholar, but Baelish doesn’t back down. He says actually, only one person knew exactly where they were going, and that was Lord Royce. Then he stands back and twirls his evil villain mustache while a couple of neurons spark in Sir Robin’s head, and a dim lightbulb switches on (before immediately cutting out again) registering with Robin, “Waaaaitaminute, you is traitor?!” and Baelish helps the poor creature out a bit more, and says, “My goodness, Robin, what shall we do with someone like this?” Robin, whose maturity hasn’t inched forward one iota since his mom was still breastfeeding him (which, granted, was when he was like 17 or something, but anyway…), repeats the same mantra he did back then: “Shall we throw him through the moon door?”

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Despite the underlying hilarity of the scene, it’s actually quite serious and ominous. Baelish can’t control the Lannisters or the Starks, so he’s come at this a different way. Make Brave Sir Robin an orphan, and then control the poor idiot boy and essentially take the Vale. Meanwhile you see the look on Royce’s face, where he realizes his life of fidelity to the Arryns will end in betrayal. But that would be too easy for Baelish, so instead he says to Robin that if they could trust Royce’s loyalty, he would make a capable commander, and maybe they should give him a second chance. Robin agrees.

Baelish is officially ruling the Vale now. Surmising that Sansa is heading to Castle Black, he declares, “Gather the knights of the Vale — the time has come to join the fray!”

Meanwhile, over in Slaver’s Bay, Tyrion is negotiating with the slavers, something that has made Grey Worm and Missandei very uneasy. The slavers want their old lives back, and they explain Daenerys is no different than they are; she’s simply the new master of Meereen, and slavery will never end. Tyrion lobs back that he’s not here to change the world, but that, interestingly, there haven’t been slaves in Westeros for hundreds of years. So he comes up with his compromise: slavery will cease effective immediately in Meereen, but will be allowed to carry on for seven more years as they gradually end the practice in other areas. The slaveholders will be compensated, and need to cut off ties with the Sons of the Harpy.

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Grey Worm and Missandei are saddened by the turn of events, but when challenged by the former slaves in the Hall, Grey Worm simply says he wants peace, and Missandei quotes Tyrion: “A wise man once said, ‘We make peace with our enemies, not our friends.’” Tyrion smiles to think they both have his back, but as they walk away from the slaves, they tell him what they really think: that seven years might not seem like a long time to him, but it’s an eternity to a person in chains. Grey Worm explains, “When they look at me, they see a weapon. They look at her, they see a whore.” Tyrion counters, “They look at me and they see a misshapen little beast. Their contempt is their weakness.” Tyrion is confident that once again, his intelligence will get them through this. But Missandei and Grey Worm have been enslaved their entire lives, and they see it very differently. Tyrion thinks he has the upper hand, but Grey Worm warns him, “You will not use them: they will use you.” Tyrion was able to use his knowledge to trick his own family and throw all of King’s Landing into turmoil, but that’s because he understood the politics of the Lannisters. This is a very different situation altogether.

And then it’s off to Jorah and Daario, who actually seemed like a more entertaining duo this week. What did you think of their discussion in the hills overlooking Vaes Dothrak, Chris?

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Christopher: I think the most telling line in this scene is Daario’s resigned, “We’ll all disappoint her before long.” I found his fairly constant needling of Jorah about his age revealing; he doesn’t want to fight him, because he loses either way, either the guy who kills an old man or is killed by one; and he taunts Jorah over the fact that he has slept with Daenerys, suggesting that, however much Jorah loves and desires her, that the sheer exertion of her carnal attentions would likely overwhelm him. “It was hard enough for me,” he says, “and I’m a young man.” There has always been a rivalry between these two men, but Daario’s need to taunt Jorah, to constantly point out the disparity in their age, and to remind him that he’s known Daenerys’ bed, gives the lie to his cockiness—and shows the pathos of a man who loves a woman he knows has limited use for him. It’s less a matter that he’ll disappoint her than that she’ll ultimately need something far greater than he can offer.

His macho braggadocio thus comes across as somewhat pathetic, and when the time comes to surrender his weapons, the knife hilt carved in the shape of a wanton, naked woman has an adolescent quality to it. I cannot remember now if we’ve seen that dagger hilt before so clearly, or if such attention has been drawn to it. Certainly, the Daario of the novels frequently has his sword hilts described, but there they are very much of a piece with a character who is far more flamboyant, dangerous, and mercurial. Michael Huisman’s Daario retains elements of the novel Daario’s audacity and recklessness, but is ultimately more muted, and actually rather more nuanced.

We also have a moment in which Daario sees Jorah’s greyscale, which I thought was handled with a deft hand—very few words, and the expression on Huisman’s face was a lovely, subtle recognition of the fact that his cracks about Jorah’s age were perhaps a bit close to the bone, as the older man’s days were numbered.

I wonder, too, if they’re making Jorah more vulnerable and fragile as a function of his affliction: we open the scene with him panting and wheezing, only keeping up to Daario with difficulty; and in his fight with the Dothraki, at no point does he have the upper hand, ultimately needing rescue from Daario and the dagger he decided to bring after all.

Adding insult to injury (for Jorah, at least), is the fact that their “rescue” of their queen was, if not strictly unnecessary, was at least redundant, as once again Daenerys demonstrates her own ingenuity. I don’t want to steal your thunder, Nikki, as you’ll be playing us out this post with your discussion of the final scene, but I do want to raise one of the show’s more problematic issues, which starts to show itself in the Dosh Khaleen scene: namely, its racial politics. Sitting with the other widows, Daenerys listens to the elder who had been so stern with her on her arrival, now speaking in more conciliatory and friendly tones, trying to make her feel welcome by dismissing the belief of some that Dothraki should only marry Dothraki. She suggests a sort of melting pot view of their history, though hardly in utopian or even positive terms. She introduces her to a Lhazareen girl who survived the slaughter of her village only to be taken by a khal at twelve, who then a year later gave birth and was beaten for the sin of having a girl. Moments later, Daenerys finds out the girl was widowed at sixteen—not soon enough, Daenerys observes, eliciting a sad laugh from her.

In contrast, the elder tells her, the widows of the Dosh Khaleen have a better and more meaningful life than many, as their wisdom is valued. Here, we might surmise, is where Daenerys has the first stirrings of her plan: acknowledging that their lot is better than most, but with the unspoken sentiment that (a) their lot is still pretty dire, as they are literally prisoners to a patriarchal tradition, and (b) that this speaks to the brutal injustice experienced by the vast majority. “That is more than most have,” Daenerys agrees with the elder, though the word she elides in this sentence is “women.” The Dosh Khaleen are afforded respect and something resembling a comfortable life, but only within very strict parameters, and only as the widows of powerful men, and only in the service of powerful men. Daenerys is a revolutionary: as she said last season, she wants to “break the wheel,” to destroy the set of assumptions and practices on which life in the Dosh Khaleen can be seen as an honour and privilege.

In this, her motivations are admirable. But here also is where it gets somewhat cringe-worthy, in that she steps into the all-too-familiar role of the white saviour: the hero who not only liberates people of colour from their chains, but also from their ignorance, who tells them that there is another way to live because they cannot be expected to arrive at such thoughts on their own. The story told by the Lhazareen girl reminds Daenerys of her revolutionary instincts, but also serves to characterize the khals as essentially bestial and savage, the better to prime us for Daenerys’ fiery retribution in the end.

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There is a degree to which both the novels and the series work to undermine this mythos, by having Daenerys play the role of the white saviour with lofty ideals and high-handed tactics only to become mired in the practical imperatives of ruling in the aftermath of her conquests, in which arrogance and ignorance of local nuances prove pernicious. But this episode feels a little like the showrunners are hitting the reset button: while Tyrion, Varys, Grey Worm, and Missandei struggle to deal with the mess that is Meereen, Daenerys gets to start over with a new mass of non-white people in yet another spectacular display. The apt analogy of the moment would be to say that she campaigns brilliantly, but is utterly unsuited to ruling.

I think that in some ways, Game of Thrones—both the novels and the series—has become something of a victim of its own success. When he started writing the novels, GRRM was actually doing a number of innovative and progressive things in the context of the fantasy genre, which by the late 1980s had become somewhat moribund and regressive. A Song of Ice and Fire introduced a far more nuanced conception of power and politics into a genre that, as I commented in a previous post, tended to equate virtue with birthright and depict monarchy as a perfectly fine system provided the right arse is on the throne. Further to that, he broke down a lot of the genre’s clichés, and peppered the voluminous character roster with complex, strong, three-dimensional female characters. If the books had been merely successful, their more regressive tendencies would not, perhaps, have rankled quite so much. But in becoming an international phenomenon—coupled with the fact that the television show’s visuals make the racial dynamic that much starker—these elements become inescapable.

I’ll throw that particular ball high in the air for you to dunk, Nikki, when you deal with the episode’s final scene. For the time being, what did you make of the King’s Landing scenes this week?

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Nikki: You commented last week on how beautifully the High Sparrow’s dialogue is always written, and this week was no exception. Margaery is taken before him, where she sits at his feet as he tells her the story (which may be true, may be a parable, it’s never clear with him) of how he had once been a shoemaker, creating the most beautiful pairs of shoes for the highborn. He explains that people are always in pursuit of finery, money, and power — and that by saying she wants to see her brother and family, she’s pursuing exactly those things — but the real precious commodity each of us has is time. And it took so much time to make a single pair of shoes, and then the highborn wore his time on their feet. They wore someone else’s time on their backs, drank the wine of another’s time. It’s a beautiful conceit, and beautifully told, and one that makes you seriously think about what your time is worth, and is anyone taking advantage of it? And then he tells her how he had wine and pretty girls, and one night was with friends at a rather bacchanalian gathering, where they all ended up naked and drunk, lying amongst one another, next to the fine clothes that represented the time and hardship of someone else. And in that moment, he saw all of them naked, and realized without our clothes, without our fine shoes and robes, without the time of others that we wear, we are no different than they are. And with that he turned and walked out of the place, barefoot, and has remained so ever since.

He took on the mantle of the beggar, realizing that beggars are closer to the truth than he was. And with that, he offers his hand to Margaery and says he will take her to see Loras. She has listened to his story, interjecting only once to demonstrate an understanding of the stories the High Sparrow and his followers believe (and then explaining that it’s because Septa Unella likes to read them at her), but when he proffers his hand, she looks at it with astonishment. For all the ways she thought the story was going to end, finally going to see Loras — the pinnacle of decadence and depravity, as far as the Sparrows are concerned — was not one of them.

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Not surprisingly, Loras is broken, an empty shell that has been no doubt mistreated and tortured, his immorality questioned and dissected for weeks, his very character degraded over and over again. If Margaery had to put up with Septa Unella reading at her, one can only imagine what Unella did to Loras, what she said to him, told him. In many scenes with Cersei and Margaery, the Sparrows have said they should be ashamed of themselves chiefly for caring about Loras.

And by the looks of it, it’s worked. Margaery remains strong and determined to cut down this new obstacle, but Loras has nothing left. He begs her to just give in to them, make it all stop, just let them win, take what they want, and let him go. She reasons with him and tells him that he’s the future of the family, and he says no, he just wants it to stop. As she embraces her brother — the only person for whom I believe she has ever felt even a modicum of fondness — there’s a look on her face much like the one Melisandre has been wearing all season long. Maybe she’s been going about this all wrong, and protecting Loras to help further her own cause, when in fact, if proving that she no longer has any fidelity to Loras will help her position with the High Sparrow…

Meanwhile, Pycelle continues to not die, which is surprising in itself (I swear he will outlive everyone on this show) and is attempting to windbaggingly advise Tommen. As usual, he gets caught talking about Cersei just as Cersei enters the room, and she tells him to leave. He takes three years to finally get out of there, and then Cersei turns to her last remaining child, who tells her that they must be careful around the High Sparrow and confesses that he’s spoken to him, and that he told her something. He asks if she even likes Margaery, and Cersei tells the truth: that it doesn’t matter whether or not she likes Margaery, all that matters is getting rid of this infestation that she herself brought to King’s Landing. As the mournful cello sounds of “The Rains of Castamere” begin to sound, Cersei tells him that whatever the High Sparrow told him, he can tell her: “I am your mother — you can always trust me.”

Cut to Cersei marching into the Small Council, where Olenna rolls her eyes as only Olenna can do, where she has finally figured out the card she needs to play to win over the head of House Tyrell: Margaery. She tells them all that while they might have been rather thrilled by Cersei’s own Walk of Atonement, Margaery is set to do the same, and they are scheduling the walk to happen immediately. And like that, Olenna forgets how much she despises Cersei and the Lannisters and says NO, she will not. She orders the Tyrell army to King’s Landing, and will join forces with the king. Ser Kevan (Cersei’s uncle, Tywin’s brother, for those keeping score at home), says the Kingsguard cannot be seen entering the fray with the Sparrows, and Cersei, like she just did with Olenna, appeals to his own filial ties. “Don’t you want to save Lancel?” she asks (Lancel being his son, Cersei’s cousin that she was sleeping with in season one — as one does in this family — and the one who administered the wine who killed Robert Baratheon… and now one of the High Sparrow’s chief Sparrows). She explains that the king can’t do anything against the Sparrows, but he can do nothing. He can let the Tyrell army overrun King’s Landing and take out the Sparrows. As she speaks and Kevan listens and Olenna agrees to support her, the strains of “The Rains of Castamere” get louder and louder, until it’s almost overpowering the scene. Once again, Cersei proves she won’t stay down for long.

And speaking of families coming together to find strength, Theon has made his way back to the Iron Islands and to his sister. What did you think of the scenes in Pyke this week, Chris?

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Christopher: This episode was a whole lot of brothers and sisters, wasn’t it? Jon and Sansa, Margaery and Loras, and then Theon and Yara—three very, very different reunions, to be sure, but a persistent enough motif that it puts family at the heart of the story.

The Pyke scene wasn’t much in itself, beyond being a setup for what is to come—namely, the Kingsmoot at which the Ironborn elect their king (which is a very progressive political system for a society whose economy seems largely based on looting and pillaging). But I appreciated the way it worked thematically with the other two scenes that come before our return to Daenerys. All that really happens here is Theon apologizing, Yara telling him to stop apologizing, Theon crying, Yara telling him to stop crying, Yara being suspicious of Theon’s motives and the serendipity of his return on the eve of the Kingsmoot, and Theon finally pledging himself to her cause. But the callback in this scene to Yara’s failed rescue attempt—which failed because Theon was too broken to go with her—and all that Theon suffered at Ramsay’s hands gives a thematic bridge into the next scene, at Winterfell.

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From the moment we saw Osha and Rickon unhooded last week, we knew their lives were about to get really shitty really quickly. My stomach sank when I saw Osha ushered into Ramsay’s presence; to be honest, my stomach sinks whenever Ramsay’s on screen, but the dread he evokes is vastly worse when he’s in the company of a sympathetic character.

The scene begins well for Osha, as she actually seems to give Ramsay momentary pause:

RAMSAY: You’ve seen my banners?
OSHA: The flayed man.
RAMSAY: Does that worry you at all?
OSHA: Do you eat them after?
RAMSAY: [pause] No.
OSHA: Then I’ve seen worse.

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Both of them are putting on a show here: Ramsay mentions his banners as he peels an apple, a bit of business meant to be intimidatingly suggestive. Osha’s no fool and most likely sees through it, but she makes a mistake in thinking she has the upper hand. Ramsay puts down the knife and the apple. Is the knife a deliberate temptation for Osha? One way or another, her eyes briefly flit to it before she begins her attempt to seduce Ramsay.

OSHA: I can give you what you want.
RAMSAY: And you’re sure you know what that is?
OSHA: Same thing men always want.

Oh, Osha. You should have listened more carefully to the rumours about this monster.

The way these scenes are linked provides a subtle and cruel irony. We have just come from hearing Theon talk about Ramsay’s torments; we know Osha is willing to strategically seduce men, because we have seen her do it before—with Theon, as a means of distracting him so that she, Bran, Rickon, and Hodor could escape. Theon was an easy mark back then, easier than most because of his preening vanity. But Ramsay, as we know all too well by now, is not so simple. He has set a trap: he knows that Osha was instrumental in Bran and Rickon’s escape and that her pretense of self-interested cynicism is a façade, precisely because he broke Theon and learned these details from him.

And with that, Osha joins the ranks of GoT’s butcher’s bill—a mercy, in some respects, as a quick death under the Bolton roof is preferable to the alternatives (in my notes, I’ve written “Tonks had to die AGAIN?”). It was still shocking and had the same feel as the Sand Snakes’ murder of Doran and Areoh—that is, that the writers are seeking to cull the flock somewhat.

At the same time, Ramsay’s casual brutality and his mention of his banners links to the episode’s penultimate scene, as we see the Bolton sigil on the back of a messenger arriving at Castle Black under a flag of parley—an ominous sign, though before the message is received we are granted a few moments of levity. Sansa and Brienne appear mildly unimpressed (which is to say, revolted) by the food before them and the table manners of the wildlings and Night’s Watch, but make a herculean effort to be polite. This effort is not made easier for Brienne by the scrutiny of Tormund, who if we remember was visibly gobsmacked at the sight of her in the episode’s opening moments.

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“How YOU doin’?”

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“Um …”

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“This is exactly why I don’t want Jon’s gig.”

If this episode provided a close-to-tears moment with the reunion of Jon and Sansa, it also provided my biggest belly laugh of the season so far with the image of Tormund the Giantsbane making googly-eyes at Brienne of Tarth. I’m not the only one to think so, as GoT fandom has already started ‘shipping these two, speculating about whether they’ll get together and make huge babies.

Of course Tormund would be rapt at the sight of Brienne. All of her qualities that make her undesirable among genteel Westerosi—her height, her strength, her refusal to play the lady, her ability to take you apart with her bare hands and put you back together like a deformed Voltron—would be catnip to this dude, who in the novels is constantly bragging about once having slept with a bear.

I do so hope we have a scene of Brienne handing his ass to him in the training yard, and him falling ever more deeply in love because of it.

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Our moment of levity is broken however by the arrival of Ramsay’s letter to Jon Snow, and it is just as awful as we all assumed it would be. Its tone is taunting and arrogant, but is also literally apocalyptic. The refrain “come and see” is a direct allusion to Revelations 6:1-8 in the King James Bible, in which the four seals are opened and St. John the Divine sees the four horsemen of the apocalypse emerge:

And I saw when the Lamb opened one of the seals, and I heard, as it were the noise of thunder, one of the four beasts saying, Come and see.
And I saw, and behold a white horse: and he that sat on him had a bow; and a crown was given unto him: and he went forth conquering, and to conquer.
And when he had opened the second seal, I heard the second beast say, Come and see.
And there went out another horse that was red: and power was given to him that sat thereon to take peace from the earth, and that they should kill one another: and there was given unto him a great sword.
And when he had opened the third seal, I heard the third beast say, Come and see.
And I beheld, and lo a black horse; and he that sat on him had a pair of balances in his hand.
And I heard a voice in the midst of the four beasts say, A measure of wheat for a penny, and three measures of barley for a penny; and see thou hurt not the oil and the wine.
And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth beast say, Come and see.
And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him.

Whatever Jon Snow’s reluctance prior to receiving Ramsay’s missive, he is now committed to the fight—not least because Ramsays arrogation of the titles of Lord of Winterfell and Warden of the North to himself.

As I said before, this is an episode of battle lines. Before you get into the episode’s final scene, Nikki, what did you think of this moment at Castle Black?

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Nikki: First, this — her height, her strength, her refusal to play the lady, her ability to take you apart with her bare hands and put you back together like a deformed Voltron—would be catnip to this dude, who in the novels is constantly bragging about once having slept with a bear — might be my favourite thing you have ever written.

The scene of Tormund looking at Brienne like she was a juicy steak after years of porridge was hysterical, made better only by the WTF look on Brienne’s face the entire time. She looked like she’d just smelled a bad smell (and considering the conditions at Castle Black and the fact these are all a bunch of bachelors with no actual showering area, that could very well be the case) but I was instantly shipping them in my head, too. Brimund? Thorienne? THIS NEEDS TO HAPPEN. Mostly just so we can watch her utterly dominate him to the point where he has little Looney Tune pink hearts in his eyes.

And now back to Vaes Dothrak, where Daenerys is about to stand trial and they’ll decide what to do with her. They keep saying the best-case scenario would be for her to live out her days with the other khaleesis in the temple, and haven’t exactly articulated the worst-case scenario: until now.

And then it’s a whirl of insanity for the next few minutes, the Cliff’s notes version being: blonde hair, Dothraki talk, angry guys, macho threats, fire fire fire, people bowing, boobs.

But if our readers know anything about us, it’s that we don’t resort to Cliff’s notes (as much as they probably would like us to at times). I really liked your assessment of the issues with the scene at the end, Chris, where you talked about how there’s this sense of colonialism that we can’t exactly avoid when watching or discussing it. On the surface one can read it as: white person comes in, kills the bad brown men, tells the other brown people they will from now on be ruled by the white person.

But in another sense, I don’t read this scene that way. This isn’t about colour, this is about gender. Daenerys, despite her very white skin, is an outsider, alone, the last of her kind. Her people have been conquered and wiped out, and now she walks among the other races and people, other languages and customs. She has seen the worst that the world has to give to people — she has seen Grey Worm and Missandei mistreated by slavers who have whiter skin than they do. But more than that, she has seen what the world does to women. She has seen them beaten down, raped, dismissed, killed. She knows that Sansa could be the head of her household, but that’s not going to stop some bastard from raping her. She knows that Brienne could knock down any wildling, and yet even she is now seen as a piece of ass. Jaime Lannister will never be stripped down, beaten, and forced to walk in shame down the street: that honour is reserved for his sister. She was nothing but a bartering chip to her brother, and the books of legend and history are filled with the names of men, not women. She knows that she will have to work twice as hard to earn half as much, and she’s pretty pissed that Hollywood actresses aren’t being paid as much as their male counterparts. She is woman, and you will fucking hear her roar.

And roar she does.

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She reminds them of the great plans her husband once had, and how he was going to do the things she’s now doing. She reminds them that while the world is in turmoil, and evil people are on the throne, the “Great Khals” all sit together talking about what little villages they will raid, what women they will rape, and what horses they will plunder. “You are small men,” she says to them, standing confidently among the firepits as they stare at her, gobsmacked that this little girl is actually trying to take on an entire room of men. Every word she says to them is true, and true not only of this series but everywhere. How dare these men decide the fates of the women? How dare they suggest the wives of these great leaders — wives who are every bit as brave and strong as their male counterparts — get shoved into a temple to live out the rest of their days? Why should the world of men continue to decide the fates of the world of women? She holds up a mirror so they can all see exactly how small they are. “None of you are fit to lead the Dothraki,” she says. “But I am.”

She smiles. “So I will.”

And they laugh. And he tells her that the Khals will take turns raping her, and the bloodriders will rape her, and then when they’re all finished, they’ll let the horses have a turn.

And Daenerys’s smile just gets wider and wider. Look at these little men, she thinks. I’m showing them that they need to start thinking with their heads and not their dicks, and they respond by telling her how they will think, act, and live by their dicks. You can just see it in her eyes. They are so puny, so insignificant, and yet have somehow convinced everyone that they are the leaders and they must be obeyed. He tells her he will not serve her.

“You will not serve,” she says. “You will die.” And with that, she turns the firepits over, setting the temple on fire. The Khals all run, screaming, trying to escape, but the doors have been locked from the outside. Daenerys stands, unharmed, in the centre of the fire, and turns the last of the firepits over to incinerate all of them.

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Outside the temple, as the bloodriders and their long-suffering women all rush to see the carnage, the door caves in, and Daenerys emerges, naked and unharmed. Even her silver hair is inflammable. The Dothraki all fall to their knees, as well as the widows, and she stands there, nose in the air, staring at all of them as they worship her. As Daario and Jorah approach, her face doesn’t change. Daario looks at her, mouth agape. He’s heard the stories, but now he sees it. He thought he’d been sleeping with a queen, but now he realizes she’s a god.

It’s a glorious scene, beautifully filmed and scored. On the one hand, Daenerys has pretty much proven 100% that she’s not one of the people, that she stands above all mortals and is not killed by fire, by cleansed by it. But on a symbolic level, she’s done it as a woman. She’s shown them that women are to be honoured and respected as much as the men, if not more. They are the bringers of life, they weather emotional and physical storms that the khals can’t even imagine, and they are the mothers of dragons. Some dragons literally fly and breathe fire; other dragons have so many soccer, baseball, and fastball practices that they make Mom late on her blog post every week. But on a show where we have seen women beaten, raped, degraded, and murdered, Daenerys is that woman who shows it doesn’t have to be that way. And she stands there before men, fully naked, as if daring them to suggest there’s something wrong with doing so, the way women have been told that since the dawn of time.

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And now that we’ve written a post longer than all of the scripts this season put together, I shall stop here and thank you very much for having read so far! We will see you next week!

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Game of Thrones 6.03: Oathbreaker

gameofthrones_teaser02_screencap10

Hello all, and welcome once again to the great Game of Thrones co-blog, in which I and my friend and boon companion Nikki Stafford recap and review the latest offering from the old gods and the new. We apologize for being up a little later than usual this week. Nikki wants me to tell you it’s her fault. And, well, it is … but lately her schedule is more insane than that of a character on your average Aaron Sorkin show, and I frankly don’t know how she manages to write anything at all, never mind her brilliant insights into the beautiful clusterfuck that is Westeros.

On the other hand, she finally has HBO up and running again, so she leads us off. What did you think of this week’s episode, Nikki?

 

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Yeah. I’ve had mornings like that.

Nikki: After the one-two-three punch of last week’s episode, it stood to reason that this week’s would be a bit slower, and it definitely was. With the exception of a couple of gasps, it was pretty much a bridge episode, but it still had some great stuff. In an episode called “Oathbreaker,” I thought Brienne would play a larger role, but she didn’t even appear.

We’ve been waiting all week to see what the reaction will be at Castle Black to the Christ-like resurrection of Jon Snow. And it was one of my favourite moments of the episode. First we see the awakening of Jon, as he gasps for air before sitting up, and then gaping with shock and horror at his Saint Sebastian–like wounds. He doesn’t know why he’s alive, and while the Red Woman has brought him back to life, she clearly hasn’t taken the pain of the wounds away. Davos’s eyes are saucer-like as he slowly, carefully, makes his way back over to Jon Snow’s side, unsure of what rough beast has just awakened on the table. Even Ghost isn’t so sure about things, as he whimpers in the corner and stares at the person who should be Jon Snow, but couldn’t possibly be Jon Snow.

And yet, it is Jon Snow. This isn’t some creation of Victor Frankenstein, cobbled together with pieces of flesh and organs, this is the same man who was stabbed to death by his traitorous men, and the first thing he says to Davos is, “Ollie, he put a knife in my heart.” It’s the boy who’s hurt him the most, the boy he thought he was helping, the boy he wasn’t noticing seething in the corner at every turn. And the fact that Jon pinpoints this as the worst part of the incident told me that that, without doubt, was still Jon.

Melisandre comes rushing back into the room and, like a light switch, her faith instantly reignites. She wants to know what he saw, and you can see her eyes shining with hope. Moments ago, she was staring despondently into a fire, mourning the loss of her faith and coming to terms with a world in which the Lord of Light does not exist. But now that Jon is sitting there, impossibly back from the dead through the power of the Lord of Light, she has her proof. And she asks him what he saw. You can tell she wants to hear that he saw the Lord’s face, or a beautiful world shining where it was no longer dark and full of terror. But he disappoints her. “Nothing. Nothing at all,” he says. But she’s undaunted. “The Lord let you come back for a reason,” she says, her resolve strengthening by the second. She declares she was wrong about Stannis, that he wasn’t the prince: it was Jon.

But Jon doesn’t have time for this. To him, no time has passed: moments ago he was being stabbed to death and now he’s sitting here. “I did what I thought was right, and I got murdered for it. Now I’m back. Why?” While Davos still isn’t clinging to any Lord of Light crap — he knows a miracle has happened, but he’s not about to attribute it to some unseen god — he does agree with Melisandre that perhaps Jon is some sort of Chosen One who is destined to save them all. Davos sits with him and tells Jon, “Fight for as long as you can. Clean up as much shit as you can.” But Jon says he’s failed.

Davos: “Good. Now go fail again.”

I love the idea of Davos teaming up with Jon Snow, and I hope, despite the end of this episode, that that will be the case. Davos has always been one of my favourite characters, marred only by the fact that he aligned himself with someone like Stannis Baratheon. Now that both he and Melisandre have switched gears and are backing Jon instead, it promises to be a much more interesting group.

But now Jon has to show his face to everyone else, and he steps out onto the wooden staircase in front of the courtyard of wildlings, who stare at him in utter silence and disbelief. As Jon slowly and painfully walks through the group, they part, staring at him as if he’s a ghost, until he reaches Thormund, who had been in the room when Melisandre was working her mojo. Thormund tells him that they all think he’s some kind of god now. “I’m not a god,” says Jon bluntly. “I know,” Thormund reassures him. “I saw your pecker. What kind of god would have a pecker that small?”

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He then moves to Eddison, who stares at Jon with apprehension and awe, and asks if it’s really him. Jon reassures him that it is, and jokes, “Hold off on burning my body for now.” “That’s funny,” Edd retorts. “Are you sure that’s still you in there?” And then he gives him a bear hug, one that clearly hurts a LOT by the look on Jon’s face.

It’s a great opening, where all signs point to the man before us as Jon Snow. Of course, the end of the episode will take away that certainty.

And from here it’s off to Sam and Gilly, sailing for the Citadel. It’s lovely to see them again, and clearly the sea air is good for Gilly, since she looked brighter and happier than I think I’ve ever seen her. Sam, on the other hand, is not handling the waves well, and hangs his face over a bucket (I know I’ve said it before, but my #1 pet peeve of TVs and movies is showing someone vomiting. I cannot handle it AT ALL. Blergh.) It’s a brief scene, where he tells her she can’t go into the Citadel so instead he’s taking her to his mother and sister, who will take care of her. And she, in turn, refers to him as the father of her son. It’s a lovely little moment before we move back to the past once again.

Christopher, did your jaw equally hit the ground when you saw the actor playing a young Ned Stark? WOW! I feel like I had gone back in time!

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Christopher: Unfortunately, no, given that that scene has had the life promo-ed out of it, and has further been painstakingly dissected by fandom … one of the unfortunate results of which is that it was something of a disappointment.

Let me back up: one of the key mysteries of A Song of Ice and Fire, as we know, is that of Jon Snow’s parentage. Was he really Ned Stark’s bastard, or the product of some other union? I don’t think it’s a spoiler any more to say that the good money for a long while now has been on Jon being the son of Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark—the latter of whom’s ostensible abduction and rape by the former was the spark that lit the powderkeg of Robert Baratheon’s rebellion. There are innumerable clues scattered throughout the novels suggesting that Rhaegar did not abduct Lyanna, but that she was in love with him and went willingly.

By the same token, Ned Stark has a number of dreams and flashbacks in A Game of Thrones, in which he remembers holding a dying Lyanna in his arms as she pleads “Promise me, Ned …” He further has memories of facing down Ser Arthur Dayne and another member of the Kingsguard; he has six men with him against their two, but in the end only Howland Reed (Jojen and Meera’s father) survives with him. These memories are fragmentary and unspecific, but hint powerfully that the “official” narrative of Robert’s Rebellion, in which Rhaegar is a monstrous figure and Lyanna a tragic victim, is not entirely—or even remotely—true.

All this is by way of saying that, five seasons and five novels into this series, fans have arrived at the firm belief that “R+L=J,” and so the snippets of this scene shown in the trailers have evoked more than a little excitement … and the speculation was that this episode was going to reveal Jon Snow’s true parentage.

I admit to hoping as much myself, but really we all should have known better. Of course the show is going to tease this out over several episodes, if not in fact the entire season. I just wish this scene hadn’t been so prominent in the trailers—it would have been amazing to watch it unfold without having been forewarned.

All that being said, the scene was well done: tense and kinetic, with some nice fight choreography. And the actor playing young Ned (Robert Aramayo) is a great bit of casting—not only does he look like Sean Bean, but he gets the inflections of Bean’s Yorkshire accent precisely right. If I have a quibble, it’s that <nerd voice> while Ser Arthur Dayne, the “Sword of the Morning,” was famous for being the greatest swordsman of his age, he was just as famous for his Valyrian steel greatsword Dawn. He would not have fought with two swords, but with his single, two-handed sword. </nerd voice> Lack of fidelity to the books notwithstanding, watching Dayne dispatch Ned’s men in quick succession, it’s easy to believe his (dead) comrade’s boast that if they had been at the Battle of the Trident, where Rhaegar met his doom, it would have been Robert Baratheon pushing up the daisies. There’s a nice moment as young Ned finds himself facing Dayne alone, and his expression is a fine little bit of face-acting: a mingling of determination and the recognition that he will not survive this fight.

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Though of course he does, but only through the dishonourable action of Howland Reed, who stabs Dayne in the back, much to Bran’s shock and confusion. “I’ve heard the story a hundred times,” he had said just moments before, and the expression on his face calls to mind so many of Sansa’s in seasons one and two, as she repeatedly learned the hard lesson that stories and reality often bear little resemblance. Ned then deals the finishing blow, an action whose motivation is ambiguous at best: was he dealing Arthur Dayne a merciful end? Was it a moment of vengeful rage, as his expression might suggest? Did he do it so when he claims in the future that he killed Arthur Dayne, there will be a germ of truth in the tale?

Whatever his motive, his brief reverie is broken by the sound of a woman’s agonized cry, whom we assume to be Lyanna. Bran of course wants to follow and see what is in the tower, ignoring at first the Three-Eyed Raven’s admonitions. He calls out to Ned, and for a moment it seems as though he is heard: Ned pauses, and turns to look at nothing. Back under the tree, Bran insists that his father heard him, and the Raven appears to grant the possibility, though he insists that “The past is already written. The ink is dry.” But is it? His warning to Bran that “Stay too long where you don’t belong, and you will never return,” suggests that their astral voyaging into the past is rather more involved than merely screening scenes from some magical archive, that Bran is more than a passive observer when he travels to these remotes times and places.

What is Bran? He is a warg, able to inhabit Summer’s body (and sometimes Hodor’s); he has apparently sorcerous abilities, and seems to be turning into that ubiquitous fantasy trope, the Chosen One: one thousand years the Raven has endured his solitary, static existence, because he’s been waiting for Bran. Not because Bran is the heir apparent, his replacement to operate the Tree of Seeing Things—no, Bran will ultimately leave and return to the world, though for what purpose we do not know. And heavens forbid the crusty old mentor should ever speak in anything other than stern and cryptic riddles.

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Speaking of Chosen Ones, we’re now up to three of them in one episode: Jon Snow, Bran, and of course Daenerys, though her status as a former Khaleesi apparently earns her no respect. She is not granted the dignity of a horse, and is kicked and told to move her ass. Here we are again in Vaes Dothrak, which we saw in season one, when she came here with Khal Drogo to consecrate her marriage by eating a raw horse’s heart, and Drogo finally gave Viserys a golden crown—though one that sat somewhat more uncomfortably on his head than he’d hoped.

(There’s a lot of full-circle moments so far this season, by which I mean there’s been two—last week’s echo of the opening scenes in Winterfell, and now Daenerys’ own déjà vu at being back in the Dothraki “city.” I don’t having anything insightful to say about this, just that it will be interesting, going forward, to see whether we continue getting echoes of season one).

Her humiliations continue at the hands of the other Khals’ widows, stripping her of her queenly garb and dressing her in simple leathers. She is sternly reminded of the fact that she broke Dothraki custom in going out into the world rather than immediately returning to the Dosh Khaleen, and that for this transgression her fate might be more dire than living our her days with the other widows.

I admit that, when this episode ended, I was momentarily at a loss as to why it was titled “Oathbreaker.” Like you, I thought it might have something to do with Brienne and her sword, but I think it’s a more general descriptor: in this case to Daenerys’ failure to conform to Dothraki law (for which we can hardly blame her), but also to her apparent abandonment of Meereen. What did you think of the Meereen scenes in this episode, Nikki?

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Nikki: Just to jump back a bit, yes, I’ve been in the R+L=J camp for quite some time, which is why Jon Snow’s death at the end of last season felt like such a kick in the head. Everything I believed, the direction I thought the story had been going the whole time, had just been destroyed and now I had to start over. (I guess I understand a bit how Melisandre felt…) However, I’m a spoilerphobe of such epic proportions I’m only realizing now that I am apparently a complete master of it, because I knew nothing about what was happening this season. I didn’t know about the casting of young Ned, didn’t know about this scene in particular, and I don’t even watch the “Next Week On” previews at the end of the episodes, so I guess I shall happily sit alone as the single Unsullied Game of Thrones fan. Publicity is great, but man, surprise can be SO much better.

Meanwhile, in Meereen, Varys wonders how the guards can stand all that leather while he waits for Vala to arrive. This is the prostitute who lured White Rat into her chambers before he was massacred by the Sons of the Harpy in the last season. Vala is clever, refusing to speak: she tells Varys that Daenerys has come in to Meereen and is destroying their history, and ruining everything. But Varys is cleverer, and he knows her weak spot: her son, Dom. He tells her that her perspective is a valid one, and he will try to see things her way, but then he mentions her son… “Dom, is it?” And the smug look on her face suddenly disappears. Her eyes widen, and Varys knows he’s once again caught a poor fly in his web. He explains that he’s not exactly threatening her son, but she conspired against Daenerys’s soldiers, and there’s really only one way that can play out. How will poor Dom get on without his mother, he wonders aloud, “especially with that breathing problem.” Suddenly she’s begging him, explaining that she can’t talk or they’ll kill her, and Varys once again arranges for a ship to take her away with some silver. And suddenly, she’s singing like one of Varys’s favourite birds.

Meanwhile, waiting in the next room is Tyrion, Missandei, and Grey Worm, having the world’s most boring conversation, if one could even call it a conversation. As Tyrion realizes that every icebreaker he’s ever tried involves heavy drinking or sex games, and he’s looking at two non-drinkers who aren’t interested in the latter, he has nothing to talk about. So he asks Grey Worm to spark a conversation, and he says he could talk about his patrol, what he sees on patrol, people on patrol, what he learned on patrol, and one thinks wow… he and Missandei need a television. “A wise man once said a true history of the world is a history of great conversations in elegant rooms,” Tyrion tells them. “Who said this?” they ask. “Me, just now,” he answers, pouring himself another drink.

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It’s a very funny moment in the episode, and a chance for the writers to give Tyrion a witty throwaway line, but it also shows just how different they all are. Tyrion comes from a world so far removed from that of Missandei and Grey Worm that he can’t even talk to them for 10 seconds without getting bored. There’s no common ground here, and their conversation is simply a microcosm of the much bigger problem in Meereen: that Daenerys has come in to give the people what she thinks is best for them, without really knowing them at all.

And then Varys enters and tells them that the Sons of the Harpy have been bankrolled by the masters of Astapor, Yunkai, and Volantis — Astapor was the city of the Unsullied; Yunkai was the city Daenerys conquered where all of the slaves called her Mhysa, and Volantis is a city with Valyrian ties: Aegon Targaryen invaded the city with his dragons. All three of these cities rely heavily on slave labour and the divide between haves and have-nots, and as such, they see Daenerys as a major threat. Knowing where the threat is, the group can now figure out a way to fight against it. “Men can be fickle, but birds I always trust,” Varys says, and with that we’re back over in King’s Landing with the creepy Victor Frankenstein guy himself.

What did you think of Cersei adopting one of Varys’s best methods of spywork, Chris?

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Christopher: Ha! In Cersei’s hands it becomes rather more dystopian than when Varys was the spymaster … Varys, while always more or less inscrutable in the early seasons, at least communicated a sense of balance, and loyalty to something greater than himself—especially in contrast to Littlefinger, beside whom Varys was a model of civic responsibility. On one hand, Cersei’s use of Varys’ former network (by way of Qyburn) marks an evolution in her character, an acknowledgement that subtlety can be preferable to blunt force; but then, her checklist of information she wants makes clear that she’s more interested in punishing slights against her and her family than in building a genuinely useful intelligence dossier. If Varys was always a charming but vaguely creepy snooper, Cersei makes it clear she wants to be the NSA.

I do have to say, I think my favourite little moment in this scene is where Jaime tries to goad the Mountain—in the process making it clear that he never had much esteem or respect for the hulking thug even before he was a reanimated Frankenstein’s monster.

We move from Cersei’s audience with Qyburn to the Small Council, and the welcome reappearance of the Queen of Thorns. Grand Maester Pycelle is in the process of holding forth (at length) about the iniquities of Qyburn and the monstrosity he has created (interesting to note that they’re just calling him Ser Gregor now, as opposed to his AKA “Ser Robert Strong”—I guess reanimating a man whose moniker “the Mountain” was an understatement doesn’t leave much room for disguises), which of course dictates that the object of his scorn will enter while he blathers on obliviously.

Here is a rare moment of Cersei and Jaime being the most reasonable people in the room: the most pressing matter at hand is the declaration of war by Dorne in the form of Myrcella’s murder. “Do you consider the murder of your own blood a ‘troublesome issue’?” Cersei asks her uncle, and Jaime points out that Dorne has essentially undergone a coup d’etat by a cabal that would cheerfully murder all Lannisters. But Ser Kevan is having none of it, and walks out with the rest of the Council, leaving Jaime and Cersei alone with the Mountain.

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The person to watch in this scene—which should surprise no one—is Lady Olenna. She has little to say beyond the barbs she trades with Cersei, and yet is the most dominant presence in the room. The camera cuts to her reaction shots at a few key moments, and the expression she wears is one of interested evaluation—however much she might loathe Cersei, we get the distinct sense she sees more in her assertions than in anything Kevan or Pycelle have to say (and has a few lovely eye-rolls when her son speaks). She departs with the Council when they go, but I suspect there will be an uneasy truce between her and Cersei soon (and I’d think that even if I hadn’t watched the trailer for next week’s episode).

Next up is Tommen accosting the High Sparrow at his prayers, and demanding that Cersei be allowed to see Mycella’s resting place. After rewatching this scene several times, I have decided that it is my favourite of the episode. It makes me want to know what the dynamic of the GoT writers’ room is like: is there someone, or a handful of someones, who consistently write the High Sparrow scenes? Because while I have had much cause to praise Jonathan Pryce’s acting and the gravitas he brings to this character, he’s hardly had to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. The lines they give him have a depth and subtlety that stand out in a show that so often distinguishes itself for its writing. And as so frequently happens with him, we are treated to a discourse that is simultaneously inspiring and deeply manipulative … which I suppose is fair enough coming from an inspiring religious leader.

I also want to know if there was any consideration given to the timing: did someone, way back when this episode was being scripted, say “Hey! Do you think this might air on Mother’s Day?” Between the Sparrow’s disquisition on motherhood and the hint that Lyanna was in the Tower of Joy birthing Jon Snow, this was something of a mother-centric episode.

But back to Tommen and the Sparrow: last week we saw Tommen despairing of the fact that he wanted to be strong but wasn’t, and this week we see him desperately trying to present a tough visage to the High Sparrow. And, well, failing … he’s still a little kid, after all, and so his attempts to be commanding are by turns adorable and pathetic. His main problem, of course, is that he lacks a subtle enough mind to match the Sparrow’s preaching; one could easily imagine Tyrion at that age doing a much better job (and indeed, in my notes I wrote “Octavian from Rome would totally outclass this dude”).

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There were two elements in this scene at war with each other for me as I watched it: the first was my growing irritation with the Sparrow’s arrogation of the gods’ will to himself, his blithe insistence that he knows their minds, which with the backup of his armed thugs trumps (apparently) any royal decree. The revolt of the poor should be a galvanizing and cathartic narrative for us the viewers; I can only speak for myself of course, but the fact that it is grounded in an explicitly patriarchal and misogynist (and fundamentalist) religious movement makes it decidedly dystopian, something emphasized by the High Sparrow’s sententious pronouncements.

The second element, however, is the fact that the Sparrow’s faith is rooted in a conception of humanity’s good nature, even as he deploys it in manipulative fashion. He deflects Tommen’s anger about his treatment of Cersei with a powerful disquisition on mother’s love. “There’s a great deal of falsehood in Cersei,” he says, “but when she speaks of you, the mother’s love outshines it all. Her love for you is more real than anything in this world, because it doesn’t come from this world. But you know that. You’ve felt it.” Tommen agrees, and the Sparrow notes that he did not himself ever know a comparable mother’s love. “Envy,” he says, wistfully. “One more sin to atone for.” At which point, citing the pain in his knees, he begs the king’s leave to sit. One can well imagine Tywin Lannister or Daenerys denying him, forcing him to acknowledge their authority, but Tommen of course grants his wish … and at the Sparrow’s behest, also sits, and cedes whatever last vestige of kingly presence he’d brought.

What did you think of Tommen’s attempt to cow the Sparrow, Nikki?

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Nikki: I agree with you 100%. In my notes for this scene, I wrote, “If conquest of King’s Landing fails, High Sparrow has future writing Mother’s Day cards for Hallmark.” As you say, this is a brilliantly written scene, crackling with energy and power plays, where Tommen has arrived to wield his kingly power, but the High Sparrow knows dealing with a young and inexperienced king is basically swatting away a pesky fly. When he sat on the bench and patted the seat beside him, I was mumbling, “Don’t sit… don’t sit…” and… he sat. In doing so, he not only acquiesced that they were equal, but that the High Sparrow now had the upper hand, in that the king obeyed his request. Poor Tommen. His brother was a sadistic little shit, his sister has been murdered, his uncle has murdered his grandfather and chief advisor and is now on the run, and his other uncle is actually his father, and deep down he knows it. His wife is being tortured and he can’t stop it and knows that should he ever get her back, she will neither love nor respect him, and his mother is the one who brought this evil into his city in the first place. How can this kid possibly win?

From our brave but ineffective little king we return to Arya, where the waif is slowly turning her into Daredevil. Blind but now able to anticipate the next blow, Arya has proven herself to be a willing fighter, but has also consistently refers to “Arya” in the third person, in the past, as someone who perhaps was once her, but is no longer. We hear her speak dispassionately about the very people who had enraged her before. We see her speaking to the waif, answering each of her questions, and she lists off the people on her list: Cersei Lannister, the Hound, Ser Gregor, Walder Frey. We know that list is much longer than that, although names like Joffrey and Meryn Trant have disappeared because they are dead. But Melisandre is not there, nor is Ilyn Payne. The waif notices the list seems short now, and asks her about the missing names. “Which name would you like a girl to speak?” she replies, rather than simply telling the waif what she wants to know. And the waif looks slightly taken aback, as if knowing Arya has figured out the game, mastered it, and is beginning to regain control. In the fighting ring she stands up again where before she’d fallen quickly. And by the end of the training, she’s smelling the various powders and mixing them properly; she’s able to anticipate the waif’s blows and return them in kind… and she seems to have removed all of Arya Stark from her person. Then, and only then, does Jaqen restore her sight.

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One of our readers pointed out last week that it would be a shame if we ultimately DO get the reunion of the Starks, but Arya remains hidden and watches her remaining siblings pass her by. But we’ve already seen one person — Theon — be apparently stripped of everything he is, tested by Ramsay, and proven himself to be Reek, a physical shell of who he once was with no Theon Greyjoy left. And after months of proving that to both Ramsay and the viewers at home, Theon suddenly shifted and showed that no, he could not erase who he was, and that Theon Greyjoy will always reside in there. When it came to his “sister” Sansa, Theon returned and did what he could to save her. I believe Arya is in there, too, and always will be. She can trick the Faceless Men, but doesn’t need to become one of them.

Speaking of Ramsay, he begins looking for loyalists, and comes up against something he’s not used to: resistance. Times change, and the loyalties are beginning to change, and when Smalljon Umber shows up, he’s not willing to give in to the bullshit ceremonies that have proven useless in the past. As Ramsay waxes on about his “beloved father,” Jon cuts him off, saying, “Your father was a cunt, and that’s why you killed him. I might have done the same to my father if he had not done me the favor of dying on his own.” It’s a fantastic moment where the camera flips back to the WTF expression on Ramsay’s face. Smalljon refuses to bend his knee before Ramsay, and tells him straight up that he hates House Bolton and had sided with the Starks. But now, out of necessity, he needs to align with House Bolton to protect the North against the wildlings. His castle, Last Hearth, is the one closest to the Wall, and the first one attacked should the wildlings come south. He wants Ramsay’s help, but will not swear fealty to House Bolton, nor will he perform any of the other redundant rituals that would be traditional in this sense. No, he won’t give in to that, because it has proved meaningless, as other people have gone down on bended knees before houses and then turned traitor on them later.

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No, instead he’ll give Ramsay what he really wants: Rickon Stark. And with that, he brings him in with Osha, and Ramsay just stares in shock (as did I: we haven’t seen this kid since season 3! He’s, uh… grown.) When we last saw Rickon, he had ben sent away by Bran for his own protection, with Osha leaving to help protect him. They said they were headed for Last Hearth, a place that, as Smalljon says in this meeting, had remained loyal to the Starks, and was therefore a safe haven. But Greatjon Umber is dead, and his son clearly doesn’t have the same fealty to the Starks, and so he simply offers these two refugees up as bait. It’s a shocking moment that suddenly turns heartbreaking when, to prove to Ramsay that this is indeed Rickon, they bring in the head of Rickon’s direwolf, Shaggydog, on a spike.

I swear the deaths of the direwolves is as upsetting to me as the deaths of the people. They were one of my favourite aspects of the early seasons, and we’ve seen so many of them die. Sansa’s wolf was killed first, by the orders of Robert Baratheon. Robb’s was killed at the Red Wedding. And now we see the head of Shaggydog. The only wolves left are Ghost, who accompanies Jon, Summer, who is with Bran Stark, and Nymeria, Arya’s wolf, whom she let go back in the first season after Nymeria bit Joffrey.

God help Rickon, is all I can say now.

And that brings us to the final scene of the episode, and I’ll let you handle that one, Chris.

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Christopher: For the past year, since we saw the life drain out of Jon Snow in the final seconds of last season’s final episode, there has been rampant speculation about how Jon Snow might be resurrected. Few people (understandably) seemed willing to accept his death, but the mechanics of him coming back were speculated upon endlessly. Would he live on in Ghost’s consciousness? Would he come back as a wight, or a White Walker? Would Melissandre revive him, as Thoros of Myr did with Beric Dondarrion? And now that he has been brought back, in perhaps the most predictable fashion, the question has become an echo of Edd Tollett’s: is that really Jon? What can we expect from someone who has looked into the abyss?

It is worth looking back at season three, and Arya’s encounter with Ser Beric Dondarrion and Thoros of Myr (unfortunately, the embedding on the clip has been disabled). Ser Beric lost his life six times, each time being revived by the dissolute red priest Thoros. But it was not something that happened without a cost. “Every time I come back,” Beric tells Arya, “I’m a bit less. Pieces of you get chipped away.” What aspects of Jon Snow have been “chipped away”? There has been speculation that perhaps Jon will become harsher, crueler; perhaps even that he will turn evil. The former seems more likely than the latter, and not necessarily as a by-product of soul erosion: his despairing words to Davos in this episode’s opening scene may come to seem like an epiphany in the days to come. One wonders if whether Ned Stark, if he could have been brought back (as Arya wistfully imagines in the Beric scene) would have continued to be the same bastion of honour, or whether he would have adopted a more cynical outlook. Jon may well be making that very sort of change, considering that for all his attempts to do right, he was murdered by his own people.

The scenes at Castle Black bookending this episode are about faith: not religious faith per se, but people’s beliefs in the world, in what is right and wrong, in what actions will be virtuous and beneficial. Alliser Thorne is given a moment of dignity before his death. “I had a choice, Lord Commander. Betray you, or betray the Night’s Watch,” he tells Jon. “If I had to do it all over, knowing where I’d end up, I pray I’d make the right choice again.” He is confident in his principles. Melissandre very nearly had her faith broken by Stannis’ defeat and death, and then Jon’s; his return breaths new, if desperate, hope back into her. But Jon’s own faith has been sorely shaken.

It is Davos who offers the most pragmatic way forward—Davos, whom we would not fault for saying “Fuck this shit” and taking the fastest horse south. His sons have been killed, his king shows himself to be as monstrous as those he fights before he himself gets killed, and the cause to which he committed himself is in tatters. His stoicism reaches existentialist levels:

DAVOS: You go on. You fight for as long as you can. You clean up as much of the shit as you can.
JON: I don’t know how to do that. I thought I did, but … I failed.
DAVOS: Good. Now go fail again.

When Davos said this, my friend and I immediately quoted Samuel Beckett to each other. “Fail again! Fail better!” This line, which has (so, so very ironically) been adopted as a mantra by billionaires everywhere, comes from the novella Worstward Ho!, one of the very last works Beckett penned before his death: “All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” I have no idea whether this was a deliberate allusion, but it is weirdly apposite. Leaving aside for the moment that Castle Black and the Wall would be ideal for staging a Samuel Beckett theatre festival, “Oathbreaker” is at least in part about its characters’ existential crises.

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I said earlier in this post that I wasn’t certain what the episode’s title referred to, but that it possibly resided in Daenerys’ lack of fidelity to Dothraki tradition and her apparent abandoning of Meereen. I think that still holds, but that we can also read a more subtle allusion to the Castle Black scenes. In the final moments, Jon abdicates not only the position of Lord Commander, but also his role as a sworn brother of the Night’s Watch. Does this constitute the breaking of his oath? Considering that the second sentence of that oath is “It shall not end until my death,” perhaps we can assume Jon is on solid, if unprecedented, legal ground. But oaths are tenuous things anyway, grounded as they are in the character and honour of those swearing the oaths to begin with. In so much classic fantasy, individual honour stands in for such modern notions as jurisprudence (which, before my medievalist friends go all Alliser Thorne on me for saying so, I hasten to add is a conceit of fantasy that ignores the very real judicial systems of the Middle Ages); and honour is an absolute quality in the Aragorns of the fantasy world, but in GRRM’s retread of such tropes, honour is a more fickle beast—and the breaking of oaths is what drives so much of the action in Westeros. Robert Baratheon rising up against his liege lord, Jaime Lannister killing that same king, Roose Bolton and Walder Frey betraying Robb Stark. If Smalljon Umber’s refusal to bend the knee to Ramsay is an acknowledgement of this fact, is Jon Snow’s departure at the end a progression or regression for his character? I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

Well, that’s all for us this week—until next episode, my friends, stay warm and don’t let your direwolves talk to strangers.

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Game of Thrones 6.02: Home

gameofthrones_teaser02_screencap10

Greetings once again, my fellow Westrosi, and welcome to the great Chris and Nikki Game of Thrones co-blog™. This episode was quite the ride, replete with time travel, skull smashing, deus ex wildlings, a pretty profound display of filial disrespect, and Tyrion providing about the pithiest professorial CV I’ve yet encountered.

And something to do with Jon Snow.

Normally Nikki would lead us off here, as I went first last week, but she’s been having some issues with Bell getting her HBO up and running (there may have to be some skull smashing on that front), so I took the first pass while she yelled at them over the phone … Ned&amp;Rodrik

Christopher: The general consensus about last week’s premiere has been that it was a decent enough episode, but a slow start—which really shouldn’t surprise anyone who has been watching Game of Thrones since the beginning. Season openers have tended to be a little lugubrious, as their main job is usually to resituate us in this world after ten months away. But they always end with a bang, with a shock or a revelation: season one saw Jaime push Bran out the window, season two was the massacre of Robert Baratheon’s bastards and the realization that Gendry is one of them; in season three, Barristan the Bold saves Daenerys from assassination, Arya kills Polliver with Needle in season four, and last season saw Mance Rayder burned at the stake—and mercifully killed with an arrow by Jon Snow. And of course last week was the Melissandre reveal.

After which, we’re usually off to the races, and this week’s episode should have satisfied people’s need for action and surprise: the wildling rescue of the Jon Snow loyalists, Ser Robert Strong’s showing what happens to those who tell tales about Cersei, the appearance of Euron Greyjoy and sudden dispatch of Balon … to say nothing of everything that went down among the Boltons.

Oh, and that little ending bit.

There were also a lot of lovely moments that were by turns quiet or tense, like Tommen’s reconciliation with Cersei or Tyrion freeing the dragons. But I think I most loved where this episode began. After an entire season plus one episode away, we finally meet up with Bran & co. again, more or less where we left them, in the caves under the weirwood tree of Bran’s visions. There are any number of questions left unanswered about the timeline, though the unavoidable fact that Bran has grown since last we saw him suggests that he has spent however long last season was supposed to have lasted underground, training with the Three-Eyed Raven. (Who, we should point out, is being played now by legendary actor Max von Sydow). And whatever training he has had seems to have paid off, as he can now travel through time.

His vision of Winterfell past lends the start of this episode a sense of déjà vu, as this was where the series effectively began: with Bran in this same yard practicing his archery with the encouragement of his brothers and his father. Here he sees his father at around the age he was when the series began, sparring with Benjen. “They were all so happy,” Bran says with something like wonder in his voice. “So were you, once,” the Three-Eyed Raven reminds him, and we recall that brief moment of peace with which the series opened, shattered along with Bran’s spine at the end of episode one.

Bran_Raven

Ned&amp;Catelyn

Little bit of deja vu.

We also see the infamous Lyanna, whose abduction at the hands of Rhaegar Targaryen precipitated the end of the Dragons’ dynasty, show here young and wild and obviously more confident in the saddle than her brothers (“Stop showin’ off!” young Ned says petulantly); we see the young version of Rodrik Cassel, already rocking the mutton chops; and most touchingly and surprisingly we see Hodor when he was still called Willas and capable of speech. I love how obvious it is that, even back then, he was a gentle soul, and obviously well-loved by the Starks.

But just as we, along with Bran, become sentimental for the past, it is time to return to the troubled present. Ignoring his plea to stay longer, the Raven brings Bran back to the cold cave and his useless legs, admonishing him that such journeying is like swimming under the sea, in that “if you stay too long, you drown.”

“I wasn’t drowning,” retorts Bran. “I was home.” This episode is titled “Home,” so it’s interesting to think of the ways that motif wends its way through the story. What is home for these displaced characters? Bran has a vision of Winterfell, but all of the surviving Starks are scattered around the world, and Winterfell itself has been stolen by the Boltons. Theon decides that he must needs return to his home in the Iron Islands, Tyrion is doing his level best to adopt Meereen, and Tommen has the realization that without his mother he is missing the better part of himself. Home is a safe space, but there are vanishingly few of them in this world.

What did you think of this episode, Nikki?

Davos et al

Nikki: Well, now that I’ve been able to sit for a moment after dancing merrily around my house for hours, I can say this episode was a spectacular return to the action we’ve come to know and love with Game of Thrones, and as you beautifully pointed out, it does so right from the very beginning. The Bran material was well handled, and for a moment, as you mentioned, I actually thought we were back in the beginning of episode 1 of the series. I expected to see a very young and surly Arya looking out the window as she longed to be wielding a sword and not wasting her time in embroidery lessons. I loved it, and especially loved seeing a young Hodor, who reminded me of Samwell Tarly.

But then we’re back at Castle Black, and a still dead Jon Snow, with Davos behind the door as Thorne, lying through his teeth, stands outside and promises him safe passage if they simply come out with their hands up. Even Ghost isn’t buying that one. As they all unsheathe their swords as a not-so-subtle message to Thorne that they will not, in fact, go quietly into that good night, and Ghost braces himself between all of them, teeth bared and growling, Thorne has one of his men begin to break down the door. And just as I started to wonder if this might be the end of Davos (please no!) while at the same time REALLY looking forward to watching Ghost go straight for Ser Alliser’s throat, there’s a second banging that stops the current action and pivots everyone’s attention to the outside walls. I fist-pumped. “Wildliiiiiiiiings!” I sang quietly from the couch, tense with anticipation. And then it was even better: Wildlings + giant. And when the wiener on the parapet decided to shoot his tiny, tiny arrow that bounced off the giant’s neck with a wee little *ping* sound, what the giant did next made the Hulk’s throttling of Loki in The Avengers look amateur in comparison. And the rest of Thorne’s army dropped their weapons quickly, eliciting an almost whiny “Oh COME ON, GUYS!” from Thorne that was hilarious in its frustration and expression of broken dreams. Off to prison with Thorne and the Annoying One (Buffy reference) and… it’s over to King’s Landing.

And we open on King’s Landing with this Eric Idle type standing in the street doing his version of Monty Python’s “nudge nudge wink wink” sketch involving an unlikely story about Cersei giving him the eye, a little monologue that causes the Mountain to smash the Facebook angry dislike button so hard that even I made a noise of disgust. (“Say no more!!”) This is the most we’ve seen of the Mountain since he was raised from the dead and has turned into nothing more than a meat-based killing machine (which, granted, is only a sidestep from what he was before he died), and that thick neck, grey face, and deadened eyes behind the mask lend a particularly horrifying element to him. I hope he never takes off that mask, because it’ll give me nightmares for life. But the appearance of the Mountain and what he does here looms large over the rest of the episode, so by the time we get to the events at the end, we’re not quite so sure about this whole raising from the dead thing.

Mountain

One does not merely piss on the Mountain’s feet.

As Cersei descends from the Red Keep with the Mountain at her back, she’s stopped by King Tommen’s guards, who stand before her in a YOU SHALL NOT PASS manner and explain, heads bowed, that despite her being the king’s mother and despite her destination being the funeral of her daughter, she is not allowed to leave the Red Keep. This is possibly the lowest we ever see Cersei, and despite everything she has done, you can’t help but feel badly for a mother who cannot say goodbye to her own daughter.

The show then takes us to Jaime and Tommen, standing at Myrcella’s side. Those creepy rocks with the wide-open eyes painted on them are lying on her face, and we remember that less than two years ago, they were standing in the same spot. Only when it was Joffrey on the slab, Cersei was standing at his side, cursing Tyrion’s name and convincing her twin brother that the imp had been behind it, as Tywin put his arm around Tommen’s shoulders and led the young boy away, establishing himself as Tommen’s chief advisor. How the times have changed: Cersei has been humbled to the point where she can’t even attend the funeral, Jaime has calmed down and it’s uncertain whether he still thinks Tyrion killed Joffrey, Tommen is a reasonable king who listened to the advice given him and is still making his way through everything, and Tywin is dead, by Tyrion’s hand.

Tommen confesses to Jaime that the reason he has yet to visit his mother is simple: shame. He should have stopped what the High Sparrow did to her, he should be stopping what they’re doing to Margaery now, and he doesn’t know how to face either woman when he’s let them down so colossally. And right on cue, the High Sparrow emerges from his perch and begins to descend to where Myrcella’s cold body lay on a slab, as Jaime sends Tommen away to speak to his mother.

What did you think of the conversation between the High Sparrow and Jaime, Chris?

Sparrow

Christopher: As always, I am in awe of certain actors on this show, and Jonathan Pryce is a prime example. Jaime, we can see, is coming close to a breaking point: reunited with Cersei, having seen his daughter die and his family under siege, he seems ready to return to his violent tendencies and familial retrenchment. His fury at the High Sparrow is chilling in how cold and controlled it is, but for all intents and purposes the High Sparrow calls his bluff.

Not that Jaime doesn’t call out his hypocrisies. “Your sister,” says the Sparrow, “sought the gods’ mercy and atoned for her sins.” “What about my sins?” Jaime demands, and provides a litany of his misdeeds, from the killing of the Mad King to setting Tyrion free. “What atonement do I deserve?” It is the one moment in which the High Sparrow has no answer—for what could he say to that? The subtext of this conversation is the uneven dolling out of punishment, which disproportionally hurts women, and which is more preoccupied with sexual transgression. Cersei and Margaery suffer torture and humiliation, and we’re not certain of what is being inflicted on Loras. But Jaime’s laundry-list of sins has not garnered him anything more than the label Kingslayer.

Jaime’s mistake is overplaying his hand: he should have let the silence deepen, and let the High Sparrow attempt an answer that would have further shown his hypocrisy. But Jaime is not Tyrion, and so before the High Sparrow can become properly discomfited by his question, he grasps his dagger in a threatening manner, allowing the High Sparrow to deflect his words. “You would spill blood in this holy place?” he asks. Jaime’s response, that the gods are bloodier than all mortals put together, is a nice piece of rhetoric but comes off, ultimately, as empty bravado. Better to have pointed out that he has spilled blood in the throne room of King’s Landing and bring the question back around to what atonement he deserves.

faith-militant

One way or another, Jaime’s implied threat effectively summons the High Sparrow’s muscle, who array themselves around the sept but do not approach. And it is here that the High Sparrow stares down the Kingslayer, daring him to kill him. The face acting between these two is on point here: Coster-Waldau has a wonderful look of surprise and consternation when he’s invited to kill his foe; and Pryce very subtly communicates an instant of trepidation in making the challenge, replaced by his mounting confidence as he looks over Jaime’s shoulder to see that his Faith Militant have arrived. The Sparrow is still in danger from Jaime Lannister, should the latter choose to roll the dice and wager that he could fight his way out of the sept; but he knows that the calculus has changed, and it is far more likely that the Kingslayer will choose to fight another day.

And more importantly, it gives him fodder for one of his speeches: “No doubt many of us would fall,” he says of the prospect of Jaime cutting his way out. “But who are we? We have no names, no family … every one of us is poor and powerless. And yet, together? We can overthrow an empire.” The look he gives Jaime as he takes his leave falls short of open disdain, but it’s clear he knows he’s just owned the Kingslayer—and Jaime knows it too.

It does seem, however, that the High Sparrow’s estimation of his nameless, poor legions of the Faith Militant will be put to the test. Heeding Jaime’s advice, Tommen visits his mother to make his own atonement. He apologizes, and in the substance of his words we see a Lannister-in-training: “I should have executed all of them. I should have pulled down the sept onto the High Sparrow’s head before I let them do that to you.” Certainly, that would have been the path taken by the late-not-quite-lamented Lord Tywin; hearing the words from Tommen emphasizes again the familial retrenchment of the Lannisters, and the danger this could pose both to themselves and to the kingdom at large. “You raised me to be strong,” he continues. “I wasn’t. But I want to be.” In this moment, Cersei gets something resembling recompense for all her humiliations, but it does raise a few questions, re: Margaery. They’re still married, after all; she is still, in fact, the queen. If Tommen is returning to his mother’s tutelage, what kind of relationship can we expect him to have with his wife, assuming he manages to break her out? Cersei’s plotting late in last season effectively turned Margaery into her devoted enemy, and Margaery is hardly someone who will humbly accept the role of submissive wife. What role does House Tyrell have in the context of the Lannister wagon-circling?

We then segue to Meereen, where Tyrion’s alcoholism elicits Varys’ disapproval, which itself provokes Tyrion to make eunuch jokes, and banter ensues. As so often happens, Tyrion has my favourite lines of the episode, the first of which I’m seriously thinking of putting on my business cards. When Missandei asks him how he knows so much about dragons, he replies, “That’s what I do. I drink, and I know things.”

But as it turns out, he does more than just drink, venturing into the dungeon to unchain the dragons … presumably because no one else was willing to do so. What did you think of our time in Meereen, Nikki?

 

Tyrion-Varys

Yes. This is a GOOD idea, Tyrion.

Nikki: Tyrion and Varys were a highlight in an episode full of highlights. Just when you think you’re starting to know Tyrion, he surprises everyone with a lot of talk about dragons. He’s certainly expressed his awe of them before — witness the look on his face when he first saw Drogon flying overhead when he was in the boat with Ser Jorah. But now we discover he knows far more about them than the myths and legends: he knows how to actually take care of them. He explains that, like many animals in our world, in the wild dragons are massive creatures, but in captivity they can be quite small — he says in the great time of dragons, when they were all in captivity, they were the size of cats. (Cats!! I want a cat dragon!) And his explanation makes perfect sense. Our family actually has a pet bearded dragon. When he was little, we had to keep increasing the size of his cage or he would actually stop growing so he would never exceed his environment. I’m happy to report that at some point they do stop growing, but last year my son and I went to a reptile show, and there was a bearded dragon there from the wild that was four times the size of ours, and ours was considered full-grown. So the writers have actually culled this little fact from real-world creatures.

As Missandei, Grey Worm, and Varys look on, stunned, Tyrion explains to them that the dragons must be unchained, or they will die, and he will be the one to do it. “I am their friend!” he proclaims. “Do they know that?” Varys understandably replies.

The scene in the dungeon was so tense I could barely blink. Tyrion slowly descends the staircase as Varys stays safely by the door, and confronts the two dragons who have been left behind. Drogon, Daenerys’s favourite (and the largest of the three) is the one that’s out on the loose, and Tyrion slowly walks up to Rhaegal and Viserion. It’s interesting, in a sense, that there were three dragon siblings: Rhaegal are the smaller and more contemplative of the three, whereas Drogon is the largest and most aggressive. Tyrion’s family was the opposite: the two older ones were larger and more aggressive, while he was the smaller and more thoughtful of the three. Where Drogon, the large one, has left the nest, Tyrion, the smallest, is the one that’s been banished. And now he approaches the dragons. First we see four glowing eyes in the darkness, followed by a large head and a furnace burning brighter in the back of one of the throats… but the pilot light quickly goes out, as the dragons don’t have the energy to breathe fire at the moment. Tyrion, wide-eyed, is like a little boy coming face to face with the creatures of his wildest imagination, as he bows his head and begins speaking to them with great reverence. He is at once terrified, yet astonished to be in their presence. “I’m friends with your mother,” he tells them. “I’m here to help. Don’t eat the help.”

He explains that the only thing he ever asked for on his name day was a dragon, but everyone laughed at him. “My father told me the last dragon had died a century ago. I cried myself to sleep that night… but here you are.” He reaches out a hand and oh-so-tentatively touches its head before suddenly reaching out and grabbing the nail holding the chain together. At which point the other dragon bends its head forward, extending it so Tyrion can do the same. And the moment they are freed, the dragons lumber to the back of the cave. Tyrion stands, amazed, for one moment, before hustling it back to Varys. “Next time I have an idea like that,” he says, “punch me in the face.” It’s a brilliant, beautiful scene, where our favourite character meets our favourite creatures. Wow, what a combination they could make.

Jaqen

And speaking of punching in the face, a girl with no name is attacked once again by the waif, and this time the girl formerly known as Arya is pissed. She grabs that staff and swings in every direction, screaming and yelping… until the staff is suddenly stilled by the hand of Jaqen. I was thrilled to see him (I thought we’d seen the last of him) and in a very biblical moment, he tempts her with shelter, food, and even her sight if she’ll just tell him her name. “A girl has no name,” she replies, and then he leads her away. Will Arya see again? I can only imagine what Jaqen has in store for her next (but I hope she gets a good knock or two at the waif beforehand…) 😉

And then we get to the Boltons, the most depraved lot on a show filled with depravity. Once again Ramsay wants to do something drastic — in this case, storm Castle Black — because he’s thinking ahead and knows that’s where Sansa is going (and he’s right). Clearly no one has sent out a raven yet, and word that Jon Snow is dead has not been sent out as quickly as word like that usually moves (I swear the ravens in Westeros are faster than Twitter) but Roose, as usual, is cautious, and thinks moving on Castle Black is neither the right nor the politically astute choice at the moment. And just then it’s announced that Lady Walda has just given birth to a baby… boy. The child who will take the throne away from Ramsay, for a legitimate child always trumps a bastard, even if that bastard has been given his father’s last name. Roose looks to Ramsay, and embraces him, saying, “You’ll always be my first-born,” in a surprisingly touching moment… which is immediately cut down by Ramsay plunging a dagger into his father’s chest and killing him on the spot. This moment was definitely one of the most shocking I’ve seen on the show — I didn’t see that coming at all, despite everything that had happened leading up to it. And when Ramsay calls for Lady Walda and the baby, it just gets worse. We know what he’s done to Theon, and we know what he’s done to Sansa. We know how he uses those hounds, and when he lures Lady Walda into the kennel, it’s so much worse than the fate his father endured. I couldn’t move as I watched this scene, at once horrified and hoping against hope in my mind that this one time might be the moment Ramsay lets someone go (seriously, Nikki, do you ever learn??) I imagined standing there in the same way, and how, knowing how this would play out, it would probably be more merciful to smother the child on the spot than let the hounds take him. And in the final moment we see on screen, it looks like that might be exactly what she does. Notice how she turns away from the camera and falls forward, and you never hear a baby’s scream in that scene. I was incredibly thankful the directors didn’t show us that moment.

What did you think of what happened at Winterfell, Chris? Was it a complete surprise or were you suspicious it was going to move in this direction?

 

Roose_Ramsay

Ramsay being sentimental should always raise a red flag.

Christopher: I had a brief moment of confusion when Ramsay stabbed Roose, thinking at first it was the other way around—that with the birth of a son, Roose had no need for his bastard any more. That would have been shocking, but of course it would have ended Ramsay’s storyline, and I have a slight suspicion the showrunners want him around for some time yet, and will presumably (hopefully) give him a properly gruesome death. Perhaps we can start taking odds on who gets to kill him in the end? I’m saying Jon Snow 10:1, Brienne 5:1, his own hounds 3:1. Sansa? Even money.

But no, it’s too early in the season for Ramsay to go, but not too soon for Roose. It was still a surprise, though to quote a Buffyism, as justice goes it’s not unpoetic. In the world of GoT, certain things are sacrosanct, among them the laws of hospitality and the taboo against kinslaying. In aiding and abetting the Red Wedding, Roose violated the former—and one of the reasons the Boltons’ hold on the North is precarious at best is that many of the other houses look upon the Boltons as cursed for that transgression (a point emphasized more in the novels than in the series). That Roose loses his life to the monster he has cultivated, and who—as the rest of the scene demonstrates—is quite happy to kill his kin, is about as close to justice as we’re likely to get in Westeros.

And as we have seen, things in Westeros always get worse before they get better (wait—do they ever get better?). It is doubtful that the psychotic Ramsay can hold together the alliance he will need to win the North (and potentially defend against a Lannister army), but he can do a whole lot of damage in the meantime.

Meanwhile, Brienne, Sansa, et al seem to be in a bit of a holding pattern: of all the scenes in this episode, this one feels like the most extraneous, as its main purpose seems to be for Brienne to tall Sansa about her encounter with Arya, and for Theon to announce that he’ll be leaving them. The logic behind his reasoning isn’t entirely clear, but then I don’t know that logic is necessarily going to obtain with Theon at this stage. The only thing that is clear is that after all he has done, there is only one place left for him.

Balon_Yara

When he says “Home,” we then cut to the castles of Pyke, the seat of power in the Iron Islands, where Balon Greyjoy is in the midst of an argument with Yara, Theon’s sister. The gist of their dispute is Yara’s pragmatism in the face of Balon’s stubbornness, with her pointing out that islanders are ill-equipped to take and hold mainland fortresses. He will have none of it, storming out (ha!) onto what seems to me to be a rather rickety bridge between buildings. And here we meet a new character, Balon’s younger brother Euron, whom we glean has been away for many years, sailing to the ends of the earth. His time away seems to have … well, affected him somewhat. Which is to say he’s batshit, referring to himself as both the Drowned God and the storm itself before committing this episode’s second instance of kinslaying.

I’m not sure what I think of this new story line. In the fourth novel of the series, A Feast for Crows, GRRM introduces both the Iron Islands and the Dorne subplots. Given that Feast eschewed the Jon Snow and Daenerys storylines (thus making it the least favourite of the books among fans), these new dimensions in the Ice & Fire world could be presented with an economy of storytelling (or what passes for economy of storytelling in this series); but they came to complicate book five, A Dance With Dragons, making it the most shambolic of the books so far. Reading Dance, a friend of mine said in an apt analogy, was like pulling taffy. Given the difficulty of teasing out all these threads in a novel meant that the television show was ill-suited to take all of them on, and there was a general assumption when we undertook the Dorne plot last season that the series would ignore the Iron Islands.

Balon_funeral

Is it just me, or are Iron Islands funerals really lame? I mean, won’t that just wash up on shore somewhere else?

But here we are, and I’m worried—in part because the Dorne storyline was so clumsily mishandled, and we’re still stuck with it. And now the Iron Islands on top of it? Fingers crossed, but I’m worried we’re hitting Peak Narrative right now.

On the bright side, they will likely be mining A Feast for Crows for content, so at least there will be one storyline I’ll have an inkling about this season.

Which brings us to this episode’s final scenes, which I assume you have one or two thoughts about, Nikki. But before that, a few final thoughts on this episode:

  • Davos apologizing to the others for what they’re about to see as he draws Jon’s sword is classic, and a perfect line for that character.
  • The showrunners really want to be a bit more sparing with their deus ex machinas. Brienne riding to the rescue last week was great, but the wildlings’ appearance at Castle Black was so utterly predictable you could have set your watch to it. I found myself thinking “I wonder how many blows they’ll get on that door before Edd returns with Tormund?” Which isn’t to say it wasn’t a thrilling sequence, just that it’s not necessarily a good pattern to fall into.
  • It’s official: crushing skulls is the Mountain’s preferred method of killing. Dude doesn’t even need a sword.
  • “Next time I have an idea like that, punch me in the face” is my other favourite Tyrion line of the episode, though “Don’t eat the help!” is pretty good too.
  • I’m REALLY happy they cut away from Walda when the hounds attack, but the sound effects were almost as bad as seeing it.

That’s it for me. What did you think of the episode’s ending, Nikki?

Melissandre_Jon

Nikki: I’m sure there were a lot of people out there who thought the final three seconds of the episode were as predictable as it gets, but I’m not one of them. This show has thwarted hopes and expectations more often than not, and because it was so drawn out, with Melisandre making numerous attempts to raise Jon and failing every time, I thought there was a possibility that we would end with a quiet camera hold on Jon, fade to black.

Of course, that was while I was in the moment. In retrospect, fans would have stormed the HBO studios over it, and they knew that. They couldn’t have possibly gone in that direction, and so of course it had to end the way it did, but in that moment, I just wasn’t sure if they were going to go for it or not.

The final scene began with Melisandre sitting gloomily in her room listening to country music — the music of pain. (Dude, that’s three Buffy references in a single recap, this is some kind of record for us!!) Fans have been up and down with Melisandre from the beginning. I think she’s the most stunning looking person in the entire series, and I absolutely love the way the actress carries herself and speaks. Some other viwers find her grating. I found her rather unsettling in the beginning, when we first found her with Stannis, and she’s been utterly unpredictable in her actions every step of the way except in one aspect: her unwavering belief that her convictions are correct. She never questioned that the Lord of Light was leading the way, and that Stannis was his vessel on earth, and that he’d lead them all to glory. And when Stannis died, she stumbled, and went to Castle Black and said, “OK now I’ve got it right, it’s… Jon Snow!” and then Jon Snow was killed, and she doesn’t know what to believe anymore. She’s wasted so much of her life having faith in one thing that when it collapses, she has nothing more to live for. (To the point where last week, one of our readers wondered if Melisandre removed the necklace so she could lie down and die, a notion I confessed I’d also considered when I saw that scene.)

Many of us have had that feeling, whether it’s in a relationship or a job or anything you’ve been involved in for several years. But it’s one thing to say, “Aw, man, I worked at that company for 12 years and I should have moved on years ago”; it’s quite another to have devoted your entire being to worshiping a god for centuries, only to realize you were a wee bit incorrect on that one. She’s utterly despondent as she sits in her room, and the old, confident Melisandre has turned to ashes in the fire. “I assume you know why I’m here,” Davos says. “I will after you tell me,” she replies. The old Melisandre would have chided him for even questioning what she knows, and of course she would always know why he’s there.

But Davos won’t let her wallow, and he pushes her. He wants to know if she knows any magic that can bring back the dead, and she tells him that she met a man once who came back from the dead, but it shouldn’t have been possible. She knows the implications of this (anyone who’s seen any genre TV or movies knows the consequences are never good). She stares ahead, unblinking. “Everything I believed, the great victory I saw in the flames, were lies.”

Davos will have none of it. He steps forward, and tells her you know what? He’s not looking for the bloody Lord of Light, master of nothing, he’s asking for help from the woman who showed him that miracles do exist. The Lord of Light might be a lie, but she’s not. And she is pretty incredible. And with that, Melisandre finds the tiniest glimmer of hope within her, and follows him to Jon’s side. She cleans all of his wounds, like Mary washing the body of Christ, until they are just red half-moons all over his body. She cuts his hair (I’ll admit to wincing through that, like, I know you’re trying to bring him back from the dead and all, but do you really have to cut his hair?) and throws it into the fire, along with some of his blood. Ghost sleeps through the entire process, which I found a little odd: you’d think the direwolf would be standing at the ready, even knowing that Jon was dead. (And at one point I was yelling, “Put some of Ghost’s fur into the fire!”) She lays her hands upon him, and says the incantation, and… nothing. She tries it again, nothing. We watch the hope fade from her face as she tries it again and again. Tormund turns and walks out of the room, waving them off like he couldn’t believe he’d gotten caught up in this stupid charade in the first place, but Davos’s face remains steadfast. He doesn’t take his eyes off Jon, waiting for something to happen. Melisandre’s chant becomes more and more feeble, with less and less conviction, until finally she just gives up. Head hanging, shoulders low, she turns and leaves the room, as one by one they all leave. And only Jon and Ghost are left behind.

And then, Ghost stirs. And, I will admit, I went, “Oh my god, his spirit went into GHOST!!” but as soon as the words were out of my mouth I thought wait, no, that would just be weird. Even weirder than this show usually is. And as the camera closes in on Jon as Ghost begins making noises, we all know what’s going to happen, and it does.

Didn’t stop me from fist-pumping the air and going, “YAAAAAAAAASSSS!!” And my joy was so full that I didn’t turn to the person beside me and say, “YOU were wrong and I was right because I never wavered in my conviction that he was coming back and HA-ha ha-hahaha.” Oh wait, no… that’s totally what I did.

Thanks again for reading, and I look forward to chatting again next week!

resurrection

 

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Game of Thrones 6.01: The Red Woman

gameofthrones_teaser02_screencap10

Greetings all, valar morghulis, and welcome back for season six of the great Chris and Nikki Game of Thrones co-blog, in which we recap/review the episodes as they air!

This promises to be an interesting season for us: when we first started this five years ago, I was one of those smug arseholes who had read all the novels in A Song of Ice and Fire, and so had a reasonably good idea of what was coming next; and Nikki had not read the books at all. And so we thought that would make a good dynamic, bouncing between a veteran and a neophyte as we discussed the way the series adapted the novels.

But no more! George R.R. Martin, the “great bearded glacier” (to borrow an epithet from Paul and Storm), has done what everyone has feared and let the series catch up to the novels … which means I have no more idea what this season will hold than Nikki. So here we are to hold hands and leap into the unknown, much as if we were jumping from a castle’s ramparts … but don’t worry, if this episode is any indication, doing so won’t hurt at all.

So without further ado …

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Christopher: Well, we begin precisely where we left off last season, with the lifeless body of Jon Snow in the courtyard of Castle Black. We’re treated to an artful overhead shot skimming the edge of the Wall and craning down into the yard, coming in close on Jon’s lifeless face. Wolves howl in the distance, and the silent emptiness of the yard is broken by the rattling of a locked door. And then we see Ghost: locked in a room, in answer to your question, Nikki, in our last post of season five. Where was Jon’s direwolf as he was stabbed to death? Safely imprisoned, apparently.

As openings go, this was pretty deftly done: not least because every single fan of this show ended last season in a state of either trauma, denial, or rage (or all of the above) at the thought that Jon Snow was to be added to Game of Thrones’ butcher’s bill. If they’d been cute and started this episode anywhere else, I have to imagine that rage would have been volcanic. But no … we close in on Jon, deserted by his assassins who, we will shortly glean, have scarpered to the mess hall in order to justify their mutiny to their fellows.

Leaving poor Jon to be discovered by … Davos. There, the Onion Knight is joined by Jon’s friends, and together they carry the body indoors. That it is Davos who first finds him and takes command in short order is significant. Here is a man who has quite literally lost everything: his sons killed at the Battle of Blackwater, himself sidelined by his king to stay at Castle Black, and subsequently left without a king or an army after Stannis’ calamitous defeat at the hands of the Boltons. Yet here he is, siding with a small handful of Jon Snow loyalists. I have had many occasions to praise the casting on this show, and I can think of few actors who have better inhabited GRRM’s characters than Liam Cunningham as Davos Seaworth. He radiates gravitas, and so beautifully and subtly communicates the pathos of a man whose loyalty and service were undeserved by the object of his devotion, Stannis Baratheon.

All of which is at least a little beside the question that everyone waiting breathlessly since last year has been asking: is Jon Snow really dead? Well, yes. Quite dead. But will he remain dead? Will he become a wight? Had he thrown his consciousness into Ghost? Will Melissandre resurrect him? This last question will rebound on us when we discuss this episode’s final moments, but for now we can safely say: Jon Snow is dead. At least for the entirety of this episode.

What’s interesting is the possible battle lines that have been drawn: Dolorous Edd Tollett has been dispatched, presumably, to recruit the wildlings to the cause of Jon Snow’s friends. Davos makes it clear that he has no truck with Jon’s assassins. Ghost is seriously pissed. Meanwhile, Alliser Thorne and his co-conspirators paraphrase Brutus’ post-assassination speech from Julius Caesar in the mess hall, apparently successfully. The stage has been set for some serious shit to go down at the Wall, with or without a live Jon Snow.

What did you think of this season’s opening salvo, Nikki?

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Nikki: I loved it (all except that part where Jon Snow didn’t magically come back to life, of course). But I’m also glad they’ve kept it a secret. Season 5 ended with the death of Jon Snow; perhaps season 6 will end with him coming back to life. It would be really interesting if they draw it out, either to keep our hopes up or to divert our attention elsewhere. The thought of Tollett returning with a band of wildlings is exciting — as Davos says, “You’re not the only ones who owe your lives to Jon Snow” — and I wonder if this might be where Bran could re-enter the picture this season.

Meanwhile, over in the Super Happy Fun Times Castle, Ramsay strokes the face of his dead lover before declaring that she’s “good meat” that should be fed to the hounds (we all, um, grieve in our own way, I suppose?) before Roose takes him out into the hallway to chastise him for the way he handled his ragtag battle. He’s lost Sansa and Theon, and he says the North will never back them if they don’t have Sansa Stark, and they’ve lost the heir to the Iron Islands. And then he hints that perhaps the newest Lady Bolton is carrying a son, which once again reminds Ramsay that he’ll be once again relegated to bastard status: heir of nothing.

Meanwhile, Sansa and Reek have been running from Ramsay Bolton’s castle and forge an icy stream (where Sansa, for some reason, doesn’t remove the 100-pound cloak from her back and hold it over her head so they can use it later as a blanket) before finding solace under a felled tree. I LOVED the scene where we saw another glimmer of Theon, where Sansa is both so physically and emotionally numb she can’t move, and he embraces her, rubbing her back to keep her warm, but also to let her know that her “brother” is back. And when Ramsay’s hunters catch up to them, Theon throws himself in their path as a sacrifice, trying to save the girl who was raised as his sister and right all the wrongs he’s done to the Starks. It doesn’t work, however, and juuuuuust when you think oh NO, they have to head back to that bastard’s castle… along comes Brienne and Pod.

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You know a show is great when you’re cheering for joy on the couch and it’s less than 15 minutes into the premiere episode. The fight scene was fantastic, where Brienne holds her own, but not without some trouble. She’s large, she’s strong, and she’s an excellent fighter, but these men have horses, and — not to put too fine a point on it — they’re men. And she still manages to better them, with the help of Podrick and Theon, who guts one of them. She ignores their cries for mercy because she has one goal and one goal only: to save Lady Stark, whose life she has pledged to keep safe. And when she kneels before Sansa and once again gives her that pledge — and I was half expecting her to say, “NOW will you come with me, you jerk?!” — and Sansa accepts it (with some help from Podrick when she can’t remember the formal language), it’s a joyous moment. And to be honest, I couldn’t help but think to myself, I would love a Brienne:

“See that woman over there, Brienne? She told me off at the PTAmeeting, and is one of those moms who volunteers for everything and lords it over the rest of us. And her daughter’s a bully who made my daughter cry last week. Deal with her.”

“Yes, m’lady!”

Sssshhhhhink!!

Ah.

OK, back to reality.

From here we move to King’s Landing and the Lannisters. What did you think of the reunion of Jamie and Cersei, Chris?

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Christopher: On a purely emotional level, it was my favourite scene of the episode. I too was fist-pumping as Brienne rode to the rescue, was aghast at the events in Dorne, loved the buddy comedies unfolding in and adjacent to Meereen, and was gobsmacked by the episode’s final moments … but in this reunion I think we got some of the finest acting we’ve seen from Lena Headey and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau yet—which is saying a lot, as neither of them have exactly been slouches in the previous five seasons.

If there’s something this show does well, it’s making us sympathize with otherwise hateful characters, and making us cringe when the supposedly likable characters do hateful things (the obvious exceptions being the requisite sociopaths like Joffrey and Ramsay, whom we just loathe unreservedly and with the white-hot intensity of a thousand suns). We know what’s coming—we know as soon as Cersei receives word that her twin has returned that her joy at the prospect of seeing him and her daughter will turn to ash. And while she’s a character for whom we would be well justified for indulging in some schadenfreude, the scene is instead heartbreaking, for reasons Cersei herself identifies. “She was good,” she weeps. “From her first breath, she was so sweet. I don’t know where she came from. She was nothing like me. No meanness, no jealousy. Just good … I thought if I could make something so good, so pure … maybe I’m not a monster.” Her grief in this moment is wildly different from her grief for Joffrey, which was almost feral in its rage and fear. We might interpret that as Cersei valuing her male child over the female, but I think not—it was, I’m inclined to believe, her unspoken recognition of her son’s monstrosity, seeing herself reflected in it, and her visceral reaction to being attacked.

Her grief for Myrcella is quieter, more fatalistic, the shock at the death of innocence. It is a moment of rare self-reflection on Cersei’s part, in which she sees her own machinations and ruthlessness rebound upon her. Except that we know her well enough to know she would not be surprised to have the revenge of her numerous enemies visited upon her: Myrcella’s death at the hands of the Sand Snakes is yet one more innocent lost in the larger war, and we soon see her erstwhile fiancée similarly dispatched back in Dorne—dead for the sin of having the wrong parents. It was a moment that called to mind the murder of all Robert Baratheon’s bastards in season one.

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As I’ve mentioned many times in the past five years, Lena Headey as Cersei was always one of the few bits of casting that never entirely sat right with me—not because she’s not a good actor, but because her portrayal is dramatically at odds with how Cersei is described in the novels, and for that reason she’s had more of an uphill battle in this role than almost everyone else in the show. But I must say, she has come to own this role, and in moments like this brings more nuance to the character than GRRM gives her in the books.

And she’s well matched in this scene by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, whose impassioned “Fuck prophecy! Fuck fate, fuck everyone who isn’t us!” is one of the more eloquent employments of the f-bomb I’ve seen since Deadwood ended. A point I raised several times last season is the way in which this show depicts radicalization: the way in which circumstances drive certain characters and groups of characters to extremes. The rise of the sparrows is the most obvious example, but we see it also in the scenes in Mereen, where the red priests look to be getting traction with the disenfranchised ex-slaves. Jaime’s “fuck everyone who isn’t us!” mirrors such sentiments on a smaller and more intimate scale, a reactionary clenching in the face of fear and loss.

Speaking of the sparrows, we segue from Cersei and Jaime to where Margaery remains imprisoned, subjected to the shaming of a septa who seems to take a little too much pleasure in her duties. What think you of the fortunes of House Tyrell, Nikki?

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Nikki: Oh, Margaery. Just as you said with Cersei, there’s a part of me that wants to see her suffer for everything she’s done to the people around her. But then you see her on the ground being badgered by a nun, and… actually, yeah, I’m still OK with her suffering at this point. When the High Sparrow enters the room after Sister Ratchet has been ordering her to confess, Margaery once again tells him that she has nothing to confess. “You believe you are pure, perfect, wholly without sin?” he says to her. “None of us are,” she replies, and despite the cringe-worthy grammatical error in that line (move on, Nikki, MOVE ON) it’s one that sums up every person on this show. Everyone is seeking revenge on someone else for harms that person has done to them, all the while harming other people. Margaery was justified in the actions she took against the House of Lannister, but she’s been so awful and bitchy that I just couldn’t stand her anymore. Meanwhile, Cersei and Jaime in the previous scene are lamenting what’s been done to them by everyone, and yet Cersei is the one who brought the High Sparrow to King’s Landing in the first place, and she’s also the one who had Oberyn killed, which led to the murder of her daughter.

And the Sand Snakes aren’t stopping there. Now that they’ve gotten to Cersei through her daughter, they turn their sights to the House Martell. Prince Oberyn’s brother Doran, the ruler of Dorne, is a quiet, pensive leader who is a lot calmer and more calculating than his younger brother, whose head was smooshed like a cantaloupe when he got too cocky in the midst of battling the Mountain. When Ellaria Sand raced to Dorne to tell Doran what had happened to her lover, Doran did not rush to exact revenge on the House of Lannister — he knew doing so would simply start a war that he wanted to avoid. And so he said no, let’s wait, come up with a plan, and find a way to fix all of this. The problem is, this isn’t the first time the Lannisters — and, specifically, the Mountain — had torn their family apart. Remember that before the events of the series, Rhaegar Targaryen — Daenerys’s beloved older brother — had been married to Elia Dorne, and when Robert Baratheon’s army moved on Rhaegar, with Baratheon himself killing the Targaryen, Tywin Lannister then moved his army into Rhaegar’s castle, and the Mountain not only killed Elia’s older child, followed by her infant son, before her very eyes, but then raped her violently before killing her, too.

The effect this would have had on Oberyn was immense, as he was very close to his sister, and Ellaria vowed revenge on that day, but Prince Doran refused to move against the Lannisters. Now that they’ve killed both his brother and his sister and he still refuses to move, Ellaria can no longer wait for something to happen. “Your son is weak, just like you, and weak men will never rule Dorne again.” And as Doran lies on the ground, gasping for breath after Ellaria has stabbed him through the lung, his last thought is that his son is next.

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And he is. In one of the gorier moments on Game of Thrones — and one most viewers probably saw coming, since A) no one turns their back on Obara and gets away with it, and B) Obara would like nothing more than to take a satisfying kill away from Nymeria — Obara pushes her spear diagonally through Trystane’s back and up through his face. Thus endeth the House of Martell.

And from there we move to Meereen, where Tyrion and Varys return (and there was much rejoicing… yaay…) and Varys stops Tyrion from a potentially embarrassing baby-eating incident. What did you think of the return of our favourite twosome, and the rumblings of rebellion in Meereen?

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Christopher: I would be happy with a Game of Thrones spin-off that was just Tyrion and Varys on a road trip. To say that these two actors have amazing chemistry might suggest that they don’t have great chemistry with everyone else in the cast, which they do; but there’s a particularly good match between these characters that the series has exploited to much greater effect than the novels. They are both marginalized figures who more than compensate for their outsider status with their shrewd intellects; and both work for a greater good in spite of the fact that they receive no gratitude for it. I’m reminded of the moment in season two’s final episode, after the Battle of the Blackwater, when Varys sits beside the gravely wounded Tyrion’s bed and informs him that he cannot expect any commendations for his valiant defense of the city. “There are many who know that, without you, the city would have faced certain defeat,” Varys says sadly. “The king won’t give you any honours, the histories won’t mention you … but we will not forget.” That “we” is vague, but suggestive, hinting at a silent majority—the people themselves, the forgotten, who are so often crushed by the great wheel Daenerys spoke about last season.

This little scene is one of the subtler bits of writing we’ve seen: one of the things this show is good at is depicting the monumental difficulty of ruling in a just and equitable manner. Nothing is easy, and this in a genre that has so frequently figured the difference between bloody war and utopian peace as merely a matter of sitting the right arse on the throne: whether it’s Aragorn’s coronation at the end of Lord of the Rings, the Pevensie children ascending to Cair Paravel in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, or young Arthur pulling the sword from the stone, ruling is a matter of destiny rather than statesmanship and diplomacy. Game of Thrones dispenses with this trope almost entirely.

Almost—there is still the vague sense of destiny floating in the air, especially in terms of Daenerys’ ostensibly inevitable return to Westeros, but the sojourn in Meereen has proved such a catastrophe so far that the mere rightness (or what seems like rightness) of Daenerys’ motives falls far short of what is needed to actually run a kingdom.

Tyrion’s first line in this scene—“We’re never going to fix what’s wrong with this city from the top of an eight hundred foot pyramid”—sums this point up rather pithily. Daenerys arrived in Meereen with noble intentions, but ruled in a literally top-down fashion that ignored nuance. Tyrion brings Varys down to ground level, but his drab merchant’s garb can’t efface his privileged background: “You walk like a rich person,” Varys says, skeptical. “You walk as though the paving stones were your personal property.” Tyrion may have excommunicated himself from his family and fortune and been subjected last season to a host of indignities, but he is still a Lannister. The bit of comic business in which Tyrion inadvertently offers to eat the destitute woman’s baby is emblematic of the serial miscommunications that marred Daenerys’ reign, and as he and Varys continue through the city, there is a palpable sense of imminent danger. The red priest urges the people to take things in their own hands rather than wait for the queen’s return; graffiti highlights Daenerys’ own conflicted status, and the disillusionment of the people she sought to save; and as Tyrion and Varys enter what appears to be a deserted part of the city, the apparent absence of people is belied by their unseen watcher lurking in the shadows. The sense of a city holding its breath is broken by tolling bells and the screams and cries of people in flight, and we see what appears to be the Sons of the Harpy’s next attack: the burning of the fleet in the harbor. “We won’t be sailing to Westeros anytime soon,” Tyrion grimly observes. Given that Daenerys’ absence and the city’s chaos mean that her return to the Seven Kingdoms was a ways off in the future, the burning of the ships is more significant for the fact that it obviates the possibility for escape.

Which brings us to a somewhat more awkward buddy narrative as Jorah and Daario find the site of Daenerys’ capture, and Jorah finds the ring she left behind. Of course, we also get a requisite glance at Jorah’s forearm to remind us of his creeping greyscale, whose progress says tempus fugit—his days are numbered, and the time he has to find Dany is limited.

Speaking of the erstwhile Mother of Dragons, she is back in the familiar context of a khalasar, except this time as a captive and slave. What did you think of Daenerys’ scenes in this episode, Nikki?

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Nikki: Agreed on that scene being one to rush over. I like Daario, but I like him more when he’s in Clone Club.

The scenes with Daenerys were fantastic. First, as she’s being pulled along in the dust and desert while the two riders speak Dothraki in front of her, assuming she can’t understand a word (all the while with her face showing the “as soon as I get the upper hand again, you two asshats will be the first to be flame-broiled by my dragon” look), and then when we get to the tent where Khal Moro unwittingly enters a Spanish Inquisition sketch.

Moro: The absolute BEST thing in life is seeing a naked woman for the first time. Seeing a naked woman and killing another Khal okay the TWO best things in life are seeing a naked woman for the first time… and killing another Khal.

Moron #1: And conquering a city and taking people as slaves.

Moron #2: And removing the idols back to Vaes Dothrak…

Moro: OK THE FOUR, FOUR best things in life are seeing a naked woman for the first time, killing another Khal, conquering a city and taking the people as slaves, AND taking her idols back to Vaes Dothrak. And breaking a wild horse and forcing it to submit to your will OK AMONG THE BEST THINGS IN LIFE… is seeing a naked woman for the first time.

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Actor Joe Naufahu is brilliant in this scene, simply by tilting his head and looking off into the distance while his yahoos try to outwit him and prevent him from making a very brief and terrifying point to his prisoner, and it’s hilarious. And completely unexpected in the midst of a Dothraki scene. Meanwhile Daenerys has this “are… you… kidding… me…” look on her face the entire time that makes the scene even better.

But on a more serious note, throughout this scene we can’t help but move back in our memories to a very similar scene in season one, when she was first trotted out to Khal Drogo, who similarly looked at her like another possession, was taunted by his fellow riders and women sitting nearby, and was terrified. Her brother Viserys had put her up to it back then, but this is a very different Daenerys who is facing them this time. This one is a queen, a mother of dragons, a woman who not only conquered Viserys, but made Khal Drogo worship her, who has loved and lost and risen above everything, who commands armies and who has a very serious shot at taking back the throne of Westeros. This isn’t the young girl from season one (only 13 years old in the books when it happens). This is a powerful woman. And it’s no surprise when he suddenly steps back, cuts her bonds, asks her forgiveness, and acquiesces to the power of Daenerys…

…except that’s not exactly what happens. Instead of being let go, she’s told that as a widow, she will be forced to live out her days in the Temple of Dosh Khaleen, a place where widowed khaleesis go to live out the rest of their days. (And… apparently as he was dying a horrible, painful death, Khal Drogo didn’t think to mention this to his wife? Yeesh. Men.)

Things are about to get interesting.

Meanwhile, as the show continues in its quite anti–Happily Ever After vein, Arya is now blind and begging for coins on the streets when she’s met with her old roomie from the House of Black and White, who beats the utter living snot out of her with a staff in what appears to be the beginning of a truly violent series of lessons that will teach Arya to see in a very different way (think blindfolded Luke in lightsaber training as he tried to block the shots coming from the Marksman-H… only imagine it if Luke missed every shot and came away half-dead). Just as Daenerys’s scene reminded us of how far she’s come since season one, this scene reminds us of a young Arya as she had her “dancing” lessons with Syrio Forel… all these years later, the training is far more vicious, and Arya is no longer the little girl she was back then.

What did you think of the “training” scene with Arya, Chris?

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Christopher: I think one of the best lines of this episode was when Daario says he hopes to live a long life, because he wants to see what the world looks like when Daenerys is done conquering it. That’s a sentiment that resonates on a host of levels with this series, both the macro and the micro. What will Westeros look like after it gets the Daenerys treatment? But on the micro level, what will survival of these tempestuous, indeed catastrophic times mean for all of these characters?

It’s a question I find myself asking at each stage in Arya’s evolution—from tomboy daughter of a noble house, to a fugitive cutpurse, to a girl suddenly faced with the fact of her family’s destruction, to an assassin-in-training required to surrender her sense of self in the name of becoming Faceless. What is being required of her in the House of Black and White is nothing less than the dissolution of her selfhood, to truly become “no one” in order that she can assume myriad identities. That loss of self is chilling enough a prospect to consider in the abstract, but even more so when it is a character so compelling and complex as Arya. I don’t want her to become no one! I always want her to be Arya Stark in all of her stubborn idiosyncrasies.

And it is difficult to watch her broken down and humiliated in this way. On one hand, it is reminiscent of every kung fu movie ever made in which an apprentice suffers at the hands of a master, and perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that entry into the most elite society of assassins is slightly more brutal than becoming a Navy SEAL. On the other hand, a man wonders what will be left of Arya when all is said and done (assuming she survives).

One way or another, the writers aren’t really giving us any room to sympathize with “the waif” (which is apparently what we’re calling that tween girl version of R. Lee Ermey).

But speaking of loathsome characters, we haven’t yet talked at any length about Ser Alliser Thorne doing his very best Brutus-addressing-the-mob impersonation back at the Wall. A quick note of correction: you suggested that perhaps Edd Tollett’s mission to go bring the wildlings back might bring Bran back into the picture, but the point is that the wildlings are now south of the Wall—that was the mutineers’ main quarrel with Jon, that he let the Night Watch’s traditional enemy through to settle the lands that they had always raped and pillaged in the past.

“He forced a choice on us, and we made it,” thunders Thorne, at once acknowledging that he broke his oath in killing Jon, and justifying that act as Jon’s own fault. Here as elsewhere in this world, there is a tension between tradition and revolution, between the way things have been and what they have to be. Jon Snow recognized that the enmity between the Watch and the wildlings was small beer compared to the imminent war between the living and the dead, but Thorne and his ilk are too stuck in old hatreds to remember that the Wall was not built to keep wildlings out, but to defend against a far more profound threat.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it takes an outsider to recognize as much. Davos sees what Jon Snow saw, and what Alliser Thorne cannot. But the battle lines have been drawn, with Davos and his fellow loyalists given an ultimatum that they all recognize as false: “In my learned opinion, if we open that door,” Davos begins, and one of Jon’s friends finishes, “And they’ll slaughter us all.” Their only hope is with the wildlings—or is it? “There’s always the red woman,” Davos counters, and is met with skepticism. But, “You haven’t see her do what I’ve seen her do.”

Cut to a despondent Melissandre in her chamber: all the bets she’s staked seemed to have failed. Stannis is dead; Jon, whom she saw in the flames “fighting at Winterfell,” is dead. She stands before her stained mirror and—surprise!—opens her dress. My friend with whom I watched this episode snarked with mock surprise that it had taken them a whole fifty minutes to get to their first boob flash of the season.

But then … well, I’ll leave it to you, Nikki, to play us out with this episode’s closing shocker.

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Nikki: Ha!! Sounds like your friends and I were on exactly the same page. As Melisandre stood looking at her mirror, completely bereft, I said out loud, “Undo the dress, Melisandre… there’s no way HBO would have greenlit this episode without at least one boob.” And she complied. To which I said to my husband, “Man, no matter how many seasons this show is on, that woman’s breasts are spectacular and perky.”

And then she removed her necklace.

And I immediately said, “Ohmygod I take that back.” Because, turns out, Melisandre is old. Like, beyond elderly… we’re talking fairy tale witch old. That gorgeous ubiquitous ruby necklace has actually had a purpose in keeping Melisandre looking young, but in fact, she looks like she could be quite ancient, give or take a century or two.

And of course the mind begins to run back to her seduction of Stannis and Jon Snow, of the fact that her way of speaking is always slow and measured, wise and mature. She speaks like someone who not only believes in the Lord of Light, but knew the guy personally at one time. And now that we see her remove the necklace to go to bed, I wonder if she has to do this every night? What magic beyond the necklace creates the illusion that Melisandre is indeed a young, beautiful woman? Does it take an enormous amount of strength? Where did she get the necklace? Who created it for her? How many years has she been doing this, and why?

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Regardless, this episode left me with only one really major thought: please tell me there’s some sort of WesterEtsy shop where I can buy one for myself…

Thanks for reading, everyone, and please join us again next week!

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Game of Thrones 5.10: Mother’s Mercy

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Hello friends, and valar morghulis. All men must die, and all television seasons must come to an end. It has been four years and five seasons of Game of Thrones that the beautiful and talented Nikki Stafford and I have reviewed and recapped, and I couldn’t ask for a better writing partner in this endeavor. So thanks to you, Nikki, for your forbearance and your insight, as we once more put a season of Starks, Lannisters, Targaryens, and everyone in between to bed.

I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that every dedicated watcher of the show who has not read the novels is still lying on the floor in the fetal position after this episode. I know this because I have read the novels, and I’m lying on the floor in the fetal position. It makes typing extremely difficult though, so perhaps you should begin, Nikki.

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Nikki: I have begun this first pass 15 different times… I don’t even know where to begin. (I even tried one that was simply, “Wow, that was quite the episode, what did you think, Chris?” just to avoid having to go first…)

We’ll get to the ending of this episode in good time, although I can’t promise that I won’t mention it once or twice. I mean, for god’s sakes, I’d invested so much in that character! I thought everything was going to come down to him!! It’s one thing to kill off Ned Stark after one season as a big shocking ending, but to build up Jon Snow as this man of mystery with a big secret in his past and then… ah, we were just kidding folks, sorry you took so much time theorizing who his real parents were: he was just a red herring. Run along, now. I honestly thought he was the son of Lyanna Stark, Ned’s sister, with Rhaegar Targaryen. I thought he was the last male Targaryen, with lineage leading to the Starks after all.

Bah.

But more on that later. Let’s open with the fallout of What Stannis Did last week to Shireen. I don’t have to remind you of the horrific action he took in the name of becoming even more powerful than he already was. And even as we were watching it, you couldn’t help but see the look of disgust and horror on the faces of Stannis’s followers. So, despite the episode opening with a triumphant Melisandre, noting that the ice is beginning to melt and that must be a sign from the Lord of Light that Stannis’s sacrifice was a worthy one, he can’t exactly do much fighting if half his army has deserted him. Without sellswords — or horses, for that matter — Stannis isn’t exactly going to be a formidable foe on the battlefield. When Stannis gets the news and darts a look at Melisandre, she looks confused, then closes her eyes as if wondering if she might have made a wee error in judgment last week. When another soldier approaches Stannis with news — “It can’t be worse than a mutiny,” says Stannis naively — he’s led to Selyse’s body, where she’s hanged herself either out of agony of losing her daughter to her husband’s ambition, or to avoid having to tell him that whoopsie, she wasn’t actually your baby and therefore had no king’s blood… or both. AND THEN, while he’s watching his wife’s lifeless corpse get chopped down from a tree, a third messenger informs Stannis that Melisandre has apparently decided she hitched her cart to the wrong horse and has abandoned him, too.

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Well THIS is turning out to be a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day for Stannis, now, isn’t it? (Maybe you shouldn’t have tied your daughter to a fucking wooden stake and burned her, you dickhead.)

And so, like the Monty Python knights, Stannis’s army marches on Winterfell sans horses — though, sadly, no one thought to click some coconut shells together for mere effect — and think they’ll somehow scare the Boltons into surrendering. Stannis has given up at this point: you can see the look of resignation on his face, the lack of determination as he practically shrugs before drawing a sword to run to his inevitable death.

A few minutes and several thousand deaths later, the Boltons are victorious, but Stannis has somehow persevered, and we watch how, if he just hadn’t been taken in by Melisandre and her Lord of Light voodoo, he could have been unstoppable. But after getting stabbed in the gut and the leg, he’s unable to go any further, and falls against a tree.

And that’s where Brienne finds him.

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I’ve been waiting for most of the season for Brienne of Tarth to play a more major role in the goings-on, and instead she’s spent most of the season leaning against a wall, staring at a window for any sign of a distress light (I found it rather cheesy that the very moment she turns her back, the window lights up with Sansa’s candle…) but in this incredible scene, she shows that the name of her sword — Oathkeeper — is an apt one indeed. For not only has she found herself on the edge of Winterfell to keep an oath she made to a woman who is now dead, but she kills Stannis Baratheon in the name of Renly Baratheon, to whom she made an oath that predated the one she made to Catelyn, and she now gets to follow through. Stannis looks up at her, and one can only imagine what is running through his head — My seat on the throne was compromised by that blonde harpy in King’s Landing whose bastard son is now sitting on it. My main foe is a silver-haired mother of dragons in Meereen. I gave up everything I had, everything I loved, for a redheaded madwoman who promised me everything. And now I’m about to be killed by a giant woman in a suit of armour. Well colour me thrilled.

But he no longer has anything to live for; if anything, the sudden arrival of Brienne is merciful for Stannis; his only other option was to lie there bleeding out, or, more likely, to be captured and tortured by the horrific Boltons. With the knowledge of the unforgiveable thing he did to his daughter — her screams still echoing in his head — and the desertion of his men, his wife, and his god, he has been reduced to nothing.

Now, with Stannis gone, there’s one less person in line for the Throne, and the puzzle pieces once again realign. My money would have been on Jon Snow except for ONE LITTLE THING. Later, later.

Meanwhile, over in Winterfell, we finally get the return of Theon and a hint that he just might have some balls after all. What did you think of these scenes, Chris?

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Christopher: Like you, I thought it more than a little contrived that Brienne would desert her post just seconds before Sansa’s candle became visible. Of course, once Podrick sees Stannis’ army on the march, you know exactly what is about to happen. Quite frequently the writing on this show has been surperb … this was not one of those moments, but was rather totally hackneyed and hamfisted. I would have preferred Brienne seeing Sansa’s candle just as Podrick brought the news, and having her make a painful choice between oaths—for after all, which one is more sacred to her? Her oath to Catelyn, or her oath to Renly’s memory? How much more dramatic tension would ensue if we’d seen her struggle and then say “She’ll still be there,” and run off to kill Stannis? For a show that, at its best, is often about impossible choices, they missed a great chance to put one to Brienne.

It’s funny that you took so many tries to get started on this post—my principal thought when the credits rolled was “well, thank the gods Nikki has to lead us off.” The one thing that did occur to me as I reflected on everything that happened was that, aside from Tyrion and Varys’ muted but happy reunion, the happiest ending in this episode was Cersei’s. Think about that: though she endured unspeakable humiliation and indeed torture as she made her naked walk from the sept to the Red Keep, she was welcomed with an embrace, the relief in knowing that she wouldn’t have to endure another moment in her cell, and hope. Whereas Daenerys ends up surrounded by a circling Dothraki horde, Arya pays for her assassination with blindness, Sansa and Theon leap off a very tall wall, Jaime Lannister watches his daughter die in his arms, Stannis watches his ambitions crumble before him, Brienne has her revenge at the expense of losing Sansa, and Jon Snow …

Yeah, you’re right—we’ll come to that last one in a little bit.

For a show that has never hesitated to leave us with our stomachs in our mouths and the prospect of spending nine and a half months waiting for the next season in the fetal position, they’ve pretty much outdone themselves. By a magnitude. The number of people in my Facebook feed saying “Fuck you, Game of Thrones!” or something to that effect was quite amazing (if unsurprising).

That being said, I don’t think all things are quite as dire as we may imagine. But I will come back to that thought.

I’m reasonably certain that people will agree when I say that one of the most satisfying moments in this episode was when Theon knocks Myranda off the walkway to her death. In an episode with somewhat uneven writing, I thought they hit all the right notes here. The question until now has been what would shock Reek out of his stupor and let him be Theon again? We’ve seen some of Theon burble up to the surface here and there this season, such as when he’s required to name himself properly at Sansa’s wedding and, more importantly, when he confesses to her that her brothers are actually alive. But these moments have been ephemeral, overshadowed by his betrayals.

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But Myranda’s gloating speech to Sansa detailing how dire her future would be once she tattled on her was too. “If I’m going to die,” Sansa says, looking over Myranda’s shoulder at Theon, “let it happen while there’s still some of me left.” But no, Myranda says: Sansa’s father was Warden of the North; Ramsay needs her. “Though I suppose he doesn’t need all of you. Just the parts he’ll use to make his heir—until you’ve given him a boy or two, and he’s finished using them. Then, he’s got incredible plans for those parts.”

If anything was to break Reek out of his reverie and bring back Theon, it was this threat. In her moment of sadistic triumph, Myranda inadvertently said the very words necessary to re-masculate Theon, rehearsing for Sansa the very hell he endured at Ramsay’s hands and finally cracking the façade of Reek. After throwing her down to the distant ground below, he and Sansa take hands and make their own leap on the other side of the wall—but theirs is a leap of faith. And though he dispensed with Myranda’s threat, it isn’t a heroic rescue: they jump together, hands entwined, siblings once more.

One only hopes that there is a big-ass snowdrift beneath.

If Myranda’s death was one of the satisfying moments of the show, Arya’s dispatching of Meryn Trant has to be another. This scene was not what I was expecting, not exactly—certainly it was bloodier and more brutal than I’d thought, and it was followed by Arya’s punishment for taking a life she had no sanction to take. Here it squares up with the novel: after killing someone on her own whim, she is rendered blind. But in A Feast for Crows, she merely wakes up without sight. Here, the scene—as she rips face after face off the corpse at her feet, finally coming upon her own—is far more fraught (and indeed terrifying). What did you think of Arya’s scenes in this episode, Nikki?

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Nikki: And even if you DON’T subscribe to the idea that Jon Snow is a Targaryen, wouldn’t those black locks insinuate he’s perhaps Robert Baratheon’s son? Maybe Robert consummated his love with Lyanna after all? I mean… come on.

Now, I will admit, as soon as it happened, my husband immediately said, “Welp. There goes Jon Snow,” and I simply would have none of it. I said no, there’s no way there goes Jon Snow, he’s going to live through this one because he is too damn important. And then Olly — the one I knew was trouble as soon as first Jon and then Sam dismissed him with a chuckle and a ruffle of his hair when he was trying to explain to them what it’s like to watch his parents be slaughtered in front of him — stuck that dagger right in Jon’s heart (the appropriate spot for it, coming from a boy Jon has come to care about) and my husband went, “Nope. Jon Snow is deader than dead.” I still can’t accept it.

Anyway… let’s not discuss that just yet, of course. (Ahem.)

Arya’s scenes were stunning. First you see the despicable Meryn Trant whipping the little girls while planning to do unspeakable things with them, and the third one doesn’t even flinch. With her head down, her hair swirled around her face, it was clear they were hiding her identity, and I said to my husband, “Heeeeere’s Arya!” in my best Shining impression. And then she looked up, and he said, “Nope.” And I was confused but then at the same time we were like, “Ooh, ooh, what if she’s a faceless person now??” and sure enough… theeeeeere’s Arya! The swiftness with which she leapt on Trant, stabbing him in the eye (which was awesome), before pulling out the knife and stabbing him in the other eye (HAHAHAHA!) and then stabbing him everywhere made me wonder if this was actually a dream sequence, because how often on Game of Thrones does something actually happen that you WANT to happen? But the scene kept going, not pausing to cut to Arya sitting up in bed, covered in sweat. Instead, she continues stabbing Meryn before finally pulling an Inigo Montoya, pausing to tell him, “My name is Arya Stark. You killed my dance instructor. Prepare to die” and then slicing his throat. Wow. Five years of promise that Arya’s character has had, from her lessons in swordfighting to the way she somehow stayed alive all this time despite all the odds, paid off in this one scene.

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Not that Jaqen was thrilled about it. She owes the Many-Faced God a debt for Jaqen having been her saviour all the way back in season two, and she’s here in the House of Black and White to pay that off. She wants to become a Faceless Person (is it Man? I’m confused by the gendering of this term when the only other person there besides Jaqen is a female) but as long as she has hatred for someone because of what that someone did to Arya Stark, she cannot be No One. And so he takes away the one person to whom Arya still has a tie in this world — himself. (Me: “NOOOOOOOO!!!”) Or so she thinks. As Arya begins flipping the faces off the corpse, one by one — in a brilliant effect that is one of the more startling things I’ve seen on this show — it runs through the people she’s washed, the people whose faces she’s seen, until finally resting on her own. And in that moment she discovers what Jaqen means when he says a debt must be paid — an eye for an eye. She stabbed Meryn Trant in the eyes so he was blind in his final moments, and now she’s afflicted with blindness for the rest of her life. It was horrifying, and something I didn’t see coming. How will Arya survive now? Is it possible she’d have any of the abilities of her brother Bran, who can “see” in a way other than using his eyes?

OK, so. Selyse is dead, Stannis is dead, Myranda is dead, and Arya is blinded. And somehow these are footnotes compared to what happened at the end. So let’s continue this Happy Fun Parade of Death by moving over to Dorne. What did you think of what happened there? Was it consistent with the books?

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Christopher: In no way whatsoever. At this point, the Dorne story bears about as much resemblance to the books as Tyrion does to the Mountain.

Last week I suggested that those saying the Dorne storyline was pointless were likely mistaken—that it looked as though, with Trystane and Myrcella’s engagement firm and him promised a place on the Small Council, that Dorne had secured a not-insignificant niche in the story to come. Well … one way or another, I think Dorne has a substantive role to play in seasons to come, but for obviously very different reasons now. Unless Myrcella makes a surprising recovery in season six, the marriage pact between Lannister and Martell is just so much dust; and I doubt it would take a genius to deduce that Myrcella’s poisoning was the fault of Ellaria (certainly not if they’ve ever watched the episode of Firefly when Saffron uses her drugged lipstick to knock out Mal). One way or another, I suspect war between Lannister and Martell is imminent.

And once again, Weiss and Benioff appear determined to one-up their source material in terms of giving and taking away. Last week, Stannis betrayed the loving conversation he’d had with Shireen several episodes earlier. This week, Jaime has all of seconds to rejoice in his daughter’s recognition and acknowledgement of his paternity. It really is a poignant scene, made all the more so by Jaime’s bumbling attempts to preface his revelation. But Myrcella stops him mid-bumble: she knows, she tells him; she’s known for some time. “I’m glad that you’re my father,” she tells him, and the look on Jaime’s face is heartbreaking … or rather, it shortly becomes heartbreaking as Ellaria’s poison takes effect, and she collapses into his arms.

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Cut back to the dock where Ellaria and the Sand Snakes silently watch the boat recede in the distance. Ellaria’s own nose starts to bleed, and is impassively tended to by her daughter. Last week we pondered whether Ellaria’s comments to Jaime—in which she said that Dorne cared not a whit that he and Cersei were lovers—signaled a détente or hinted at a deeper threat. Well, now we know … and I have to wonder now if Myrcella’s certainty of her parentage was cemented in Dorne, by Ellaria or similar people who told her in the guise of open-mindedness of her mother’s incestuous relationship.

One way or another: I really, really want to see these characters in future seasons.

After Dorne we move to a dejected throne room in Meereen, where Tyrion, Daario, and Jorah engage in a collective mope. “You love her, don’t you?” Tyrion asks, and it is obvious the question is directed at both of them. “How could you not? Of course, it is hopeless for the both of you—a sellsword from the fighting pits, and a disgraced knight? Neither one of you is a fit consort for a queen.” They are joined by Missandei and a still-wounded Grey Worm, and after a bit more comic banter (my favourite line from this episode is “My Valyrian is a bit nostril”), they get down to the big question, the elephant in the room—what to do with Daenerys gone? How to run the city?

Well, at least they’ll have Varys with them. What did you make of the Meereen scenes, Nikki?

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Nikki: Haha! I was texting a friend today and we were both like, “Our Mrs. Reynolds!!” regarding the lipstick scene. I wonder how many other fans noted the Firefly moment there.

Speaking of fiery redheads (didja see what I did there??), I can’t help but think a certain redhead on this show might be the one to change the fate of our poor dead friend at the end of the episode. It can’t be a coincidence that she showed up at Castle Black hours before the guy was killed. (Yes, this is what absolute denial looks like.)

But anyway, as you mentioned, the Meereen scenes were the short moments of humour we got in an episode that didn’t otherwise have much of it. We have here the man who loved her but it was unrequited, the one who bedded her, and the one who wants to help her topple his own family. As they stand up and begin to bicker, it’s like watching a Three Stooges routine. Tyrion’s the only one who doesn’t have a torch for Daenerys, and therefore the other two vote him off their road trip. At first Tyrion looks shocked, until Daario asks him if he’s ever tracked animals (no), can he fight (not really), is he good on a horse (middling). “So… mainly you talk,” Daario concludes. Tyrion nods his head, “…and drink. I’ve survived so far!” Daario illustrates for everyone present that Tyrion simply wouldn’t be an asset to the search party. But he would be useful as someone left behind to govern Meereen in Dany’s place, since, among all of them, he’s the only one who knows anything about actually governing a people. And he’s proven himself to be good and fair (Mormont is pissed that Tyrion had him exiled once again, but seems to have forgotten that he successfully negotiated for Jorah’s life to be spared).

Jorah disagrees at first — “He’s a foreign dwarf that barely speaks the language, why would anyone listen to him?!” — but Daario proves he’s more than just muscle when he continues to convince everyone that this is the right thing to do. He assures them that Grey Worm is the one whom the Meereenese people will listen to. (I agree that the “nostril” line is hilarious, but my favourite line of the episode is Daario saying that Grey Worm is the “toughest man with no balls I’ve ever met.”) Missandei is the woman Daenerys trusts above all others, so she completes the new triumvirate.

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I thought at first this was how we were going to leave our favourite imp, until he walks outside and sees the beginning of the Daario and Mormont road show beginning on the road below. And then the line, from behind Tyrion, in an unmistakable voice, “Hello, old friend.” You know, I didn’t know how much I missed Varys until I heard his voice. I squeed very loudly when that happened. Remember: the last time we saw Varys this season was in episode 3, right before Tyrion was captured by Ser Jorah and taken away. When he’s on screen, he’s scintillating, but because he’s not a major player in the game of thrones, we can forget him when he’s not there. Now, I realized the only thing better than Daenerys ruling with Tyrion by her side would be Tyrion ruling with Varys by his side. Tyrion asks for his advice on the spot, and Varys says basically, know the difference between your friends and your enemies. “If only I knew someone with a vast network of spies,” Tyrion jokes. “If only,” Varys echoes, his head tilted comically.

“A grand old city, choking on violence, corruption, and deceit. Who could possibly have any experience managing such a massive, ungainly beast?” says Varys with a twinkle in his eye. Tyrion looks at him, and back out over the city with a smirk. “I did miss you,” he says. And so did we. I think seeing these two manage Meereen might be the thing I’m most looking forward to in season six. (Aside from the resurrection of Jon Snow, of course…)

And from there, we see where Dany ended up, and I must admit, her story left me with a ton of questions: were those Dothraki who surrounded her? And why did she drop Khal’s ring on the ground? Was it to hide the fact that she was the Khaleesi in case these were enemies of his, or was she leaving a signal to someone else on how to find her?

Either way, I’m thinking she’ll need some bleach for that dress.

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Christopher: They’ve ended Daenerys’ story on a slightly different note than in the novel. In A Dance With Dragons, she’s just sort of along for the ride as Drogon wanders around the countryside. The first indication of the approaching khalasar is a herd of wild horses preceding the riders, one of which Drogon burns and proceeds to eat. Daenerys, at this point starving (she’s been gone from the city for at least two days) helps herself to some of the charred horseflesh. It is in this way, with her dragon beside her, that the Khal and his men find her.

In the novel, the Khal in question is Jhaqo, who was one of Khal Drogo’s lieutenants, and who claimed a sizable chunk of Drogo’s people after he died. Here, we’re not certain: the Dothraki come on Daenerys suddenly, catching her alone. I have to imagine she drops Drogo’s ring so they do not identify her, though it could also be a signal to whoever searches for her. One of the things we learned about Dothraki culture in A Game of Thrones was that a khaleesi was expected, on the death of the khal, to go and live out her years in the Dothraki city Vaes Dothrak as part of the dosh khaleen, a group of widows who also function as seers. That Daenerys refused to do so was a great point of contention with her bloodriders … until she survived the fire and found herself with three dragons, which kind of changed the calculus.

Finding her out in the middle of the Dothraki Sea, rather than in her proper place, Khal Jhaqo will undoubtedly be confused and angry, but then with Drogon beside her, he can hardly complain. But that’s the novel: in the show, they’ve separated Daenerys from her dragon (who has gone from being a fearsome beast to a sulky cat), and we don’t know who the leader of these Dothraki is … or whether any of them are from Drogo’s fractured khalasar and will recognize her. I don’t know where they plan to go from here. I suppose the obvious thing will be that the Dothraki abduct her and ride off, and we’ll have an episode or two that plays out like the chase scene in The Two Towers, with Jorah and Daario playing the parts of Aragorn et al to Daenerys’ Merry and Pippin; during which, presumably, Drogon will be conveniently absent, and they will find Drogo’s ring in much the same way Aragorn finds Pippin’s brooch (if Jorah says something that’s a variation on “Not idly do the leaves of Lorien fall!” my head might actually explode).

Or … maybe she’s recognized and something else happens entirely. I’m just spitballing here.

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We have, however, come definitively to the end of Daenerys’ story in the novels. Similarly, we’re more or less at the end of Cersei’s as well. Her long, humiliating walk from Baelor’s Sept to the Red Keep is depicted almost precisely as it is described in the novel. And once again the show demonstrates that it is able to shift our sympathies quite deftly: for many episodes we waited eagerly to see if Cersei would get her comeuppance, and it was deeply satisfying to see that smug smirk of hers wiped off. But somewhere early on in her walk of shame, it is difficult not to feel sorry for her and to hate the self-righteousness of the Sparrows (well, hate it even more than we already did).

And kudos to Lena Headey for going the full monty, especially considering that there was nothing sexual about her nudity in this scene. Indeed, this was one of the rare sequences on this show where nudity is employed not to titillate but to engage our sympathy. We’ve written previously about how Cersei has lost everything: her beauty and her name were her weapons in the past, but here she is literally stripped of everything, and however beautiful she is, her exposure before the hateful mob is appalling to watch.

What did you think of Cersei’s ritual humiliation, Nikki?

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Nikki: This is a scene that’s really tough for me to write about, actually. The internet exploded in outrage over Sansa’s rape, and you and I tried to write a reasonable piece about how the camera was used brilliantly, not actually showing things but making us realize what was happening, and that it was a representation of a very real thing that still happens today. When Shireen was killed the internet exploded with outrage and once again the cries of “I am never watching this show again!” rang out across the land, and you and I discussed how this was horrifying to watch and changes our view entirely of Stannis, and clearly it set up the massive one-fell-swoop downfall he underwent in this week’s episode.

And then we come to this moment. What a moment it was. It was like something out of Ken Russell’s The Devils, so over the top and almost surreal. The camera angles were different than anything else on the show, right from the moment we join Cersei in her cell and that horrible nun-like woman comes in once again to tell her to CONFESS. (I can’t even count how many films and TV shows I’ve seen where there’s a scene of someone representing the Catholic church or some sort of religious order meant to evoke it, screaming “Confess!” where it’s played out like a horror film.) And Cersei does. (Mostly.) As she prostrates herself before the High Sparrow, there’s a moment, as you said Chris, where we as viewers start to think of everything this horrible woman has done to people around her, and we smirk, happy that she’s finally being brought down off that high horse of hers. In season one she ordered Jaime to push Bran out the window and he did. Then she tried to have Bran killed. She arranged the murder of her husband, then convinced Joffrey to kill Ned Stark, then was absolutely horrible to Sansa. She knew her son was a psychopath, and encouraged his behaviour at every turn. She tried to have her little brother killed, and now she’s stupidly put a religious cult in charge so she can nail Margaery and the Tyrells.

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And now it’s come back to bite her in the ass.

There’s another side to Cersei. The woman may have been part of one of the most powerful families in the kingdom, but where her twin brother was lauded as a great knight and her little brother allowed to be a drunken lout, she was married off to a despicable man who never loved her, who pined after Lyanna Stark and openly caroused right in front of her. The man she loved was her own brother, and she’s kept this dark secret close to her chest, having to watch her children grow up and be called bastards by everyone who knows how to add two and two together. And when she finally stands up and gets rid of that drunken, whoring husband of hers and puts her beloved son on the throne, her father arranges for her to marry a man that everyone knows is gay. She loves her children more than anything, and her son is killed in a political manoeuvre, her daughter shipped off to marry an enemy just as she’d been forced to do (and she’s about to get the terrible news of how THAT ended).

And so we come to the long walk of shame. After we see Cersei “confess,” we can’t help but snigger that she thought she was going to shame Margaery and Loras for his homosexuality when what she’s done in her life — murder, conspiracy to murder, attempted fratricide, incest — makes Loras look like the High Sparrow. But we can’t help but think that Cersei has been used and abused by a thoughtless father and culture that doesn’t exactly uphold women, and it’s not surprising that in those few moments where she doesn’t feel powerless, she takes advantage of them to rise up over the others.

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And here she is, hoist by her own petard, brought out before the people of King’s Landing, the very fleabags stuck in Fleabottom, who’ve despised her and her family for years as they lorded over them, as Cersei would always hold her hankie over her nose when having to walk amongst them, living her excessive and depraved life while these people are desperate for food and water. Now they get the chance to show the Lannisters what they really think of them — who can blame them for what they end up doing to her? Her beloved golden locks, which have always been such a big part of her character, have been nastily shorn from her head, and then her potato sack is yanked off her and she stands before them, naked.

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The walk itself was hard for me to watch. Oddly, it was harder for me than watching the Sansa rape or even… no, actually, I don’t think anything could be harder than watching Shireen’s death. But in a way, it was. Because in both of those instances, the people were acting. The camera pulls away from Sansa so she doesn’t have to actually be in a rape scene. Shireen wasn’t actually burning at a stake. But Lena Headey had to parade down a street filled with extras who were told to throw things at her, and had to do it over and over and over for hours on end. And the scene goes on forever, as Cersei first walks with her head held high, as if to say, “Fuck all of you. Check out my hotness.” And it’s utterly silent, except for that witch behind her ringing the bell and chanting, “Shame! Shame! Shame!” Cersei continues along the cobblestone streets, the jagged rocks slowly cutting into her feet, and then finally one person has the balls to yell a pejorative term at her that I just can’t bring myself to type (there are, like, three words in the English language I just can’t say, and that’s one of them, though my British friends are brilliant at using it), and the rest of the crowd unleashes on her. They call her a whore, and a bitch, and a slut. Someone spits on her, then mud comes flying, then various bits of rotten food. By the next street people are dumping their chamber pots on her, and Cersei can no longer hold her head high. She falls at one point, the rocks having cut her feet to shreds. Suddenly her back is slouching, her head dropped, as she tries not to cry but can no longer keep from doing so. This is humiliation beyond anything she could have imagined, and how the High Sparrows and his fucking legions somehow think they’re better than the people they shame is beyond me, but what’s done is done.

Did the scene have to go on so long? I was saying to my husband that by the time it’s in its third minute, I was very uncomfortable. I imagined Headey having to film the same areas over and over. Having to wash off and start over, having to descend those steps. It seemed to be veering into the territory of a Lars von Trier film, the director who’s known for treating his actresses so badly that Björk accused him of sucking out her very soul. What made this scene so vastly uncomfortable was that, unlike Sansa’s rape and Shireen’s death, this was moving from fiction into non-fiction. Sophie Turner wasn’t acually raped; Kerry Ingram wasn’t burned at the stake. But in this scene, we were watching an actress who was actually completely naked, having things thrown at her, people spitting in her face and shouting nasty things at her. And we watched her do it for what seemed like an eternity. Yes, they were abusing a fictional construct called Cersei, but the actress herself had to actually go through the agony of filming the scene.

Now, I should probably say here (because I know 10 people will say so in the comments if I don’t) that I noticed a moment — just a glimmer — at one point as Cersei was coming down the street where it looked like her head moved in a strange way. So I checked online, and sure enough . . . turns out that wasn’t Lena Headey. She has a no-nudity clause in her contract, and refused to do the scene. So a body double was brought in, and that’s who you see from behind and above. When you see her in front, they’ve CGI’d Headey’s head onto her body. And now that I’ve gone back and watched the scene one more time, I think they did a rather brilliant job. With the exception of that one moment where the head bobbed in a funny way that wasn’t consistent with the neck, which was the tip-off for me, you wouldn’t have known if you hadn’t, um, been staring at her head. (When I was chatting with a friend, he said he knew it definitely wasn’t her from behind because apparently Headey has a large tattoo on her back.)

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So does that make it easier to take? Headey was able to do the scene over and over, probably wearing a nude-coloured bathing suit like the one Maddie Ziegler wears in Sia’s “Chandelier” video. But the body double? She was naked. And that still means, whether it was Headey or someone else, a woman had to actually go through that to ensure that the scene was caught on video for all of us to watch and be reviled by it. So I found the scene very unsettling.

But… there’s always a but… just as I argued with Sansa, it’s because of how difficult it is for us to watch that this scene is just so damn effective. They paraded the High Septon through the streets and he kept his bits covered with his hands, even if they kept whacking his hands away, and his scene lasts only a few seconds. Cersei’s scene, on the other hand — she’s disrobed at the 45-minute mark, when they wash her body (watch how the body double keeps Cersei’s hair in her face the entire time), then her hair is chopped, and then she’s brought out before the people and walks to the Red Keep. When she finally arrives and has a blanket thrown over her, we’re at 53:30. Eight and a half minutes. That’s a really, really, long time. Cersei keeps her head up and never covers herself with her hands because that’s who Cersei is. She believes she has nothing to hide and shows it in her very body language. We, the audience, must endure this scene because we’ve reviled her for so long, but we need to watch the slow destruction of this character. In eight and a half minutes, she’s brought from Cersei Lannister to someone lower than the lowest peasant in Fleabottom. We need to watch her shoulders begin to slump, her feet bleed, the way she begins to trip and fall. Her cries of pain, her whimpering, the constant call of “Shame!” and the bell ringing. Our sniggers turn to sympathy, and we’re made to feel the way Cersei is feeling. And we watch the extraordinary depths of the sadism of the Sparrows. You just wouldn’t get that if they’d shown her descending the steps, going through the first street, and then cutting to her arriving at the Red Keep covered in shit and bleeding. We needed to watch every painful step.

Were they turning Cersei into a Christ figure? Perhaps; there’s certainly something about the way she bears her cross through the streets. The difference is, Cersei never gets a Simon. No one ever comes out of the crowd to help lift her up and carry her the rest of the way. No one in King’s Landing feels a smidge of sympathy for Madame Lannister.

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And when she arrives at the Red Keep, she’s a shadow of her former self. Bowed, bleeding, and weeping, she falls into the arms of Doctor Frankenstein, who introduces her to the resurrected Mountain, who doesn’t have much to say, as creepy Qyburn admits, but is dressed all in armour, picks up Cersei effortlessly, and carries her to safety. And the look on her face suddenly transforms to peace and determination. They tried to shame her and break her, but despite it all, she’s just seen a way out, and I have a feeling Fleabottom is about to burn.

Which brings us to the credits. Yay! Thanks for reading our recaps each week and OK FINE. Dammit.

Which brings us back to the Wall, to Jon Snow. Last week when I was sending the last pass over to Chris I mentioned offhandedly that we hadn’t mentioned Jon Snow, but nothing much happened there. He didn’t even respond. I had no idea that’s because he knew something massive was coming and I didn’t know. Thanks for sparing my feelings, Chris, but I can’t remember being so distraught, shocked, and betrayed by a death. Which is why, unlike those who have declared they’re jumping ship and will never watch again, I instead live with my denial that he’s only mostly dead, and he’ll be back. Entertainment Weekly posted an interview immediately following the broadcast where Kit Harington declared Jon Snow was deader than dead, and wasn’t coming back. But he’s also a prankster who’s being paid to say that wherever he goes, so I don’t believe that for one second. You know nothing, Jon Snow!!

So Chris… take it away. I’m leaving this scene for you to dissect while I go off and sob some more.

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Christopher: Well, I think it’s pretty obvious that Jon Snow is dead; the question, rather, is whether he’ll stay dead. If he does, well, that’s par for the Game of Thrones course (your husband is a golfer, Nikki—would he play a Game of Thrones course?). I find it difficult to imagine, however, especially if the most prominent fan theory about his parentage is correct.

You’re right that I knew this was coming, as did everyone who read A Dance With Dragons. But unlike all the other shocking deaths, I was never convinced that this one would stick. Because Melisandre. We’ve seen the red priest Thoros of Myr resurrect Beric Dondarrion, which apparently he’d done half a dozen times previously. And there are other instances of this particular magic in the novels. Given Melisandre’s particular interest in Jon Snow, I have to imagine she’ll be on hand to breathe life back into him.

Again, this is just speculation, but this episode went a long way to making me more confident in this prediction. In the novel, Melisandre stays behind at Castle Black when Stannis marches. When instead, on the show, she goes with Stannis, part of me wondered “Oh, crap—how’s she going to save Jon?” But instead she deserts her would-be hero and rides back to Castle Black. Why she chose there instead of, well, anywhere else is puzzling … or perhaps not. Perhaps she wants to be on the front lines when the Walkers come; perhaps, losing faith in Stannis, she sees Jon Snow now as the vehicle of destiny. But the fact that she came back just in time for Jon to get all Caesar-on-the-capitol-steps, seems to suggest that she’ll be the one to bring him back.

Anyway … that’s my theory. So sob no more for Lord Snow … weep and wail instead for the fact that we now have to wait nine and a half months to see whether my prediction holds true.

The scene, I must say, was well done—and I think I speak for those of us who knew it was coming when I say knowing made it almost worse. Because it is far more obviously a conspiracy than in the novel. In the novel, a handful of knights stay behind with the queen, Shireen, and Melisandre, and for some reason one of them attacks the giant Wun Wun (and is literally torn to pieces for his efforts). During the commotion, while Jon attempts to cool everyone down and prevent the other knights from provoking the giant further, he is set upon by a handful of the more querulous watchmen, men who have been antsy about the wildlings from the start.

Here, it’s a set-up from start to finish. The scene begins with Jon in his study reading messages sent by ravens, discarding them one by one in a discouraged manner that suggests they’re all negative replies to his requests for more men and supplies. Then Olly bursts in excitedly with a piece of news that is guaranteed to bring Jon running: one of the wildlings can tell him about his Uncle Benjen, who disappeared early in the first season. Outside, they are joined by Alliser Thorne, who says the wildling “saw your uncle at Hardhome at the last full moon.” He leads Jon to a cluster of men with torches, and when Jon shoulders his way through he finds not a wildling, but what looks like a grave marker with “traitor” written on it.

And then Act Three, Scene One of Julius Caesar, complete with Jon’s “Et tu, Brute?” moment as a stricken-looking Olly delivers the final blow.

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So: Jon Snow is assassinated, which is consonant with the novel; the difference between how it happens in the book and on the show, however, has huge implications (assuming, of course, that Melisandre resurrects him—always allowing for the Ned Stark factor, in which case I might have to burn down GRRM’s house personally). In the novel his assassins appear to be a handful of panicking wimps who just can’t even with the wildlings. Here, however, it looks as those most of the Night’s Watch are in on the plot—including Ser Alliser, who is effectively the Watch’s second in command. In the first scenario, a resurrected Jon would just have to deal with a few conspirators. In the show’s version, however, what happens if he comes back? How does he face a unified front of antagonists? Does this mean he’s still part of the Night’s Watch? After all, the oath enjoins you to remain in the Watch until you die—does the assassination mean his watch is now ended? Is this the get-out-of-jail card that frees Jon Snow up for a new destiny, one more in line with the most common theory about his parentage? (Sorry to be coy on this front, but I’m not sure if it’s kosher yet to say it out loud).

Again, we must now wait nine and a half months to find all this out.

Just a few more random thoughts before I close things out on my end:

  • I’m not convinced that Stannis is dead. I watched that scene a few times, and I find it suspicious they don’t show him die, but instead cut from Brienne’s downstroke to Ramsay’s as he kills someone. Why would she spare him? Where did her sword go? I don’t know, but killing Stannis at this point is either (1) a MASSIVE deviation from the novels, or (2) a MASSIVE spoiler for what we can expect in The Winds of Winter. Both are eminently possible, but I’m remaining skeptical until the novel comes out or the next season of the show … whatever comes first.
  • I had assumed that the show was simply dispensing with Sam’s journey to the Citadel. It’s one of the main story threads in A Feast for Crows, with Jon sending Maester Aemon along to keep the oldest living Targaryen away from Melisandre and her hankering for king’s blood. Aemon dies on the journey, but Sam makes it to Oldtown, the city at the southeastern end of Westeros, where the Citadel is located. Jon’s premier reason is so Sam can take up the maester’s duties at the Wall. Sam makes the same argument, but the timing at this point is a bit off: one assumes training to be a maester takes several years, but we got pretty powerful evidence two episodes ago that the Walkers’ attack on the Wall will be sooner rather than later. Still, it at least indicates that Sam’s travails at the Citadel will be a significant enough storyline to keep in the show.

And there we have it. What did everyone think of this season? Nikki? Myself, I thought it was, with the exception of a few hiccups (the Sand Snakes’ hackneyed conspiracy, for example), about the best we’ve seen so far. Certainly it pushed the envelope more than any previous season, and almost certainly caused more viewers to wash their hands of the show than ever before. But the flip side of that was its audacity, both in terms of going off script in a host of creative ways, and in the execution of most of the storylines.

And now we wait. Valar morghulis.

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Nikki: And here’s my final expression of bafflement over Jon Snow: where the hell was Ghost? That dog has always been there when Jon needed him to be, and he’s gone. I’m concerned that Ghost jumped the men who were trying to hurt Gilly, and they knew enough to imprison him somewhere… or at least they’d better make that part of the storyline because otherwise it makes no sense that Jon’s direwolf would abandon him when he needed it the most. (And he’s not dead.)

I agree with you on this season. The way the characters have finally begun coming together — Daenerys and Tyrion, in particular — and storylines are crossing over and converging is something we’ve been waiting for for a very long time. I hate to admit it, but I haven’t missed Bran and his merry band one whit, but it’ll be nice to check in with them next season, which I assume we’ll be doing. Arya’s story just took a dark turn; I’ll be interested in how Cersei takes revenge on the Sparrows, and what will be the future of King’s Landing, including Tommen, Loras, and Margaery. I’m intrigued by your suggestion that Stannis isn’t dead! Strange how that never occurred to me, and usually if it happens off-screen, I don’t believe it happened. Now I’m very intrigued by the possibilities of Stannis and Brienne together, and what that could mean.

But perhaps I’m most excited about the Tyrion and Varys Show coming back.

This has been a rollercoaster of a season filled with our typically VERY long posts, and I wanted to thank our readers for hanging in there with us, and a huge thank-you to Christopher Lockett, who manages to do this year after year and lure me back to a blog that otherwise seems to have tumbleweeds blowing through it. Thank you, sir, and here’s to the long nine-and-a-half-month wait! Ours is the fury, indeed.

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Game of Thrones 5.09: The Dance of Dragons

gameofthrones_teaser02_screencap10

Greetings once again, and welcome to the great Chris and Nikki co-blog on Game of Thrones. We’re almost through another season, if you can believe it—this was the second-to-last, and we’ll be tying up season five with a bow this time next week.

Well, the showrunners have established the precedent of ending the penultimate episodes with something shocking, spectacular, or both … and in this case it’s definitely both as fiery death is visited on a lot of characters—both those who deserve it, and one who most definitely does not.

It’s my turn to lead us off, but a word of warning—hic sunt draconis.

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Christopher: The past two episodes have really ratcheted up the stakes, haven’t they? It feels like a payoff moment—after almost five seasons of hearing that “winter is coming” and the promise of the “mother of dragons,” finally we’re starting to see the significance of those coinages. Last week, speculating on what if anything could realistically defeat the implacable force of the Night King and his vast undead army, I said—with my tongue only slightly in my cheek—that it would probably involve dragons. Now that Daenerys has fulfilled a crucial element of being a Targaryen and ridden Drogon into the clouds, that does not seem like such a distant possibility.

Or to put it another way, let’s remember that GRRM’s series is called “A Song of Ice and Fire.” Last week we got the ice. This week we got the fire.

Unfortunately, we got fire in a number of different ways. First, Ramsay’s guerrilla attack on Stannis’ camp was terribly effective, burning tents, supplies, and horses (the image of a panicked horse entirely aflame was particularly affecting). Secondly …

In my notes for a specific scene in this episode, I’ve written “it’s like the showrunners are trying to turn off viewers.” Several episodes ago, Nikki, we saved discussion of a controversial scene until the end. I think this time we should address it at the beginning. I’m speaking, of course, of the horrific death of Shireen Baratheon, sacrificed by her father at Melisandre’s behest.

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Predictably, a lot of reviews and commentaries on this episode have asked the same question they did with Sansa’s rape: Why? Why include this awful, deeply distressing plot twist, especially considering it doesn’t appear in the novels? Why, especially after we were treated to a scene several episodes ago in which Stannis expressed his love for Shireen in terms that humanized him far more than he ever is in the novels?

As my comments on the Sansa scene might indicate, I tend to find this particular line of questioning wrong-headed. The “what ifs” of storytelling can make for interesting speculations on how it all might have fallen out otherwise, or considerations of the authors’ intentions, but it doesn’t make for good criticism. Like it or loathe it (and based on my casual perusal of reactions to this episode, there are many in the latter camp), Stannis has sacrificed a crucial element of his humanity on the altar of his ambition, in the belief that being king is his destiny. And once again we see that the show is playing the long game, that in fact his touching scene with his daughter a few episodes back was not a matter of humanizing Stannis, but humanizing him enough that we are even more shocked and horrified than we would have been otherwise. We really ought to know by now to be on our guard when Game of Thrones gives us moments of sentiment and warmth.

And as with Sansa’s wedding night, the show layers on the dread by signaling what is to come. As soon as Stannis refuses the very possibility of returning to Castle Black, we know something is off. “Forgive me, Your Grace,” says Davos, “I never claimed to be an expert in military matters, but if we can’t march forward and we won’t march back—” He cuts himself off to follow Stannis gaze behind him and sees Melisandre and Queen Selyse standing there. A look then passes between him and his king, who curtly orders him to butcher the dead horses for meat and walks away, followed by the two women. Later, he orders Davos to return to Castle Black for supplies over Davos’ objections, and further refuses to send Shireen with him. We begin to discern Stannis’ design here: remove the one man with conscience and standing enough to protect Shireen.

What is doubly heartbreaking is the sense that Davos knows this—that he has an inkling of the king’s mind, but is perhaps in denial about it. His scene with Shireen, in which he gives her the carved stag and thanks her for helping him grow up, has a certain finality to it. Is he in denial about Stannis’ intentions? Are his feelings too vague for him to act on them? Or is he that steadfast in his loyalty that he willingly absents himself from camp?

Whatever the case, he is now complicit. Stannis’ crime thus compromises more than just his own soul, but those of every one of his followers.

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Sansa’s rape was devastating for many viewers because she was perceived as the last innocent. That may be true, but at least Sansa agreed to her marriage pact with her eyes open. She might not have known the abject depths of Ramsay’s depravity, but she knew the Boltons well enough to know she was agreeing to something humiliating and unpleasant. Shireen is genuinely the last innocent of the show, and she has no idea what her father plans when she tells him she’ll do anything to help.

Stephen Dillane is one of the unsung heroes of this show, playing one of the more thankless roles—Stannis is rigid and uncompromising, with an iron sense of right and wrong. His rationale is simple and straightforward: his older brother was king, Robert’s children are illegitimate, and therefore he is the true king. He cannot step away from that fact any more than he could cut off his own limb. “If a man knows what he is and remains true to himself, the choice is no choice at all,” he tells Shireen. “He must fulfill his destiny and become who he is meant to be … however much he may hate it.”

Fantasy has traditionally had a deep investment in the power of prophecy and destiny; unsurprisingly then, GRRM undercuts its logic. Melisandre, in proclaiming Stannis a prophesied hero—Azor Ahai the Lightbringer reborn—marries her religious fervor to Stannis’ sense of his own destiny. But having come so far only to court defeat in the Northern winter, Stannis does not see any other choice. Not even when his fanatical wife breaks down and tries to save Shireen does he waver, though her breakdown goes a long way to expose the hollowness of his reasoning. It was Selyse who brought Stannis to the worship of the Lord of Light, and if anyone would cheerfully sacrifice Shireen to him, we’d expect it to be her. From a simple, eminently logical starting point of his drive to be king, he has arrived at a place of profound irrationality and indeed madness.

What did you think, Nikki?

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Nikki: The television shows I watch always seem to be rife with shitty parents: Lost was a show about a bunch of people on an island with serious mommy and daddy issues. On Buffy one of the greatest characters on the show was Giles, who for all intents and purposes was a father to Buffy after her own father abandoned her and her mother for his secretary. Fairytales are filled with absentee or dead parents and evil, horrid, stepmothers.

And then there’s Game of Thrones. Where one son kills his father while Dad’s taking a crap; where the best mother on the show is the mother of dragons and slaves, not children; where the strong and determined Catelyn Stark still can’t find it in her heart to love an innocent baby who’s her husband’s bastard; where Craster kills his sons and lets his daughters reach an age where they’re old enough to rape for more daughters and sons;… and where Stannis Baratheon, who gave the most moving speech about the lengths a father will go to save his only child, just had her burned alive at the stake to feed his own ambition.

I hope he and Selyse are haunted by those screams for the rest of their days.

I’ve always seen Selyse as a cold, heartless woman, and at first, when she steps out, she has that same callous face that she’s always had. Interestingly, she seems to be completely on board with everything that’s happening until Stannis says that she has the blood of a king in her, and therefore this must be done. Only then does this look of horror cross her face, and she rushes at the stake. And I couldn’t help but think… is it possible Shireen does not have king’s blood in her? Has Selyse been keeping some secret from her husband all these years and only now does she realize her daughter’s about to be sacrificed for no reason?

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The thought was only a fleeting one, however, as Selyse rushes forward and begs for mercy for her daughter. It was a shocking moment — Stannis is the one who’s always treated his daughter like she was worth more than others did, while his wife had nothing but cold words for her, and now he stares at her burning to death and screaming in abject pain and does nothing, while his wife begs for it to stop. Melisandre, on the other hand, is a cold-hearted bitch who doesn’t seem to have an ounce of humanity in her whatsoever, and she stands nearby with that same smug look on her face that she wore when Mance Rayder was being burned alive. But at least someone showed Mance some mercy by shooting him with an arrow. No one was there to save this little girl from the feeling of flames burning her flesh as her heart fell to pieces within her, knowing what her parents were allowing to happen to her.

We can’t forget that Stannis has gone along with hiding this child away all these years; in a dungeon, in an old library in the basement. And even in that scene where he proclaims what he did to save her life, she throws her arms around him with unbridled love, and he stands there, stiff, like he can’t embrace her back. And when he does, he looks like he means it.

But his love for her is no match for his ambition.

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Before her horrifying death — the thought of which fills me with so much grief as a mother that I wanted to push my way through the flames just to embrace her as she burned to death, just so she wouldn’t have to die alone — she was reading the Dance of the Dragons, the story of the Targaryen wars, which not only is the second time in as many weeks that the title of a George RR Martin book has been referenced — last week Ramsay said Stannis’s army would become a feast for the crows — but it’s a line that came full circle by the end of the episode. But let’s hold off on talking about THAT moment for a bit.

I wanted to add that when the tents in Stannis’s camp catch fire — fulfilling the “Fire” half of the saga that this episode represents as you demonstrated so well in your commentary, Chris — it’s carrying out the plan that Ramsay Bolton had in the previous episode. Roose Bolton is a formidable military man, and he saw that Stannis’s army had no way of winning with it being so cold, so he figured he could just starve them out. Ramsay, on the other hand, requested 20 men, and with those men he somehow found a way to sneak into their camp with ninja-like precision and light several tents — and people and horses — on fire. It’s a brilliant strategy on so many levels: Roose’s plan would have taken ages, and Ramsay would rather end this now so they don’t have to waste precious time looking over their shoulder in the direction of the Baratheon sigil any longer than they have to. But it also seems to take the very thing that Stannis bows to — the Lord of Light — and throws it back in his face. The night is dark and full of terrors indeed, dude. Ramsay Bolton is a loathsome character in so many ways, but in this moment, he showed that he’s a cunning strategist, which should raise his profile in his dad’s eyes several notches.

Now let’s move over to Braavos, where Arya is playing the oyster girl and about to fulfill the task asked of her by Jaqen when she spots none other than Mace Tyrell… or the Mayor of Munchkinland, as I like to think of him. Oh wait, no, she’s not looking at Mace… she’s looking at Meryn Trant standing behind him. If you’re like my husband, who went, “Who he?” when she started focusing on him and following him through the square, Meryn is one of the people on Arya’s Kill List, and was the man who killed her “dance instructor” all the way back in season 1.

I can’t believe that when Cersei assigned Meryn to follow Mace to Braavos to meet with Mycroft that I didn’t figure out he’d cross paths with Arya. Duh. What did you think of this scene, Chris?

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Christopher: I think it confirms what we pretty much knew all along, namely that Arya has a long way to go before she can put aside her identity as Arya Stark and honestly say she is “no one.” One of the things we can surmise from her training thus far is that a girl cannot truly be a Faceless Man if a girl still clings to her own loves and hates, and especially not if a girl still nurses vengeance in her heart. The Many-Faced God dispenses death with equanimity, and his servants must have the same even-handedness.

This is presumably why they seem to hate pronouns so much.

It is something of a relief, however, to know Arya’s still there: the thought of losing her rather distinct personality is distressing, even though it probably means she’s in for some punishment from Jaqen—it’s obvious from his expression he knows she’s lying when she says the thin man wasn’t hungry.

They’ve telegraphed where this is going pretty clearly: Meryn Trant likes his girls young, so I’m guessing Arya will pose as a prostitute in order to kill him. This storyline actually follows one of the sample chapters from The Winds of Winter that GRRM has posted on his website. Unfortunately it has been replaced by another sample chapter, so I can’t link to it, but here is the synopsis on the Song of Ice and Fire Wiki. In it Arya is posing as a girl named Mercy in a theatre troupe, which is about to stage a play loosely modeled on the events of King’s Landing. They have a special guest: an envoy from the Iron Throne in Braavos to negotiate with the Iron Bank (not Mace Tyrell), and Arya sees that one of his guards is a man on her kill list (not Meryn Trant, but a fellow named Raff the Sweetling, who doesn’t appear in the TV show). She tempts him into a secluded alcove with the promise of sex and kills him.

Again, this was pretty clearly telegraphed in the show. The question will be: what will be her punishment? I have a pretty clear idea, as she transgresses in a similar way in A Feast for Crows, so it will be interesting to see if her story continues to hew more or less closely to the novel.

Also, it’s a delight to see Mycroft Tycho Nestoris again, especially in contrast to the buffoonish Mace Tyrell.

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Meanwhile, things all seem very civilized in Dorne, compared to the rest of Westeros. I quite enjoyed these scenes, as we’re finally getting a more nuanced sense of the characters involved here. I do still think they’ve done it back-asswards: a fuller understanding of the personalities at work, and the underlying tensions and enmities and loyalties would have improved the Sand Snakes’ story immeasurably and invested us in the fate of their plot more deeply. Instead, we’re getting after-the-fact exposition—still engrossing, but it makes me wonder where they’re going with the Dorne narrative. I’ve read a few commentaries on the episode opining that the Dorne storyline has been pointless, simply a side-journey to give Jaime Lannister something to do, far away from his sister’s plight.

I’m not so sure. With Trystane returning to King’s Landing with Myrcella, their engagement intact, It may be that Benioff and Weiss have some ideas for how to use their Dornish characters in ways that will now necessarily deviate dramatically from the novels.

I particularly liked Prince Doran in these scenes. As I’ve said before, I think Alexander Siddig is a great actor, and it doesn’t hurt that he has ST:DS9 geek cred. But I love the way he plays this character, in such stark contrast to Ellaria and the hot-headed Sand Snakes. He is calm and measured, thoughtful, but radiates command. Not someone I’d want to face across a poker table. His brief moment of ire as Ellaria attempts to storm from the room is more dangerous than all of Cersei’s threats to her captors, as is his later comment that “I believe in second chances; I don’t believe in third chances.” I think we can add him to the running list of characters whose actors endow them with extraordinary gravitas, alongside Tywin, Mance, Olenna, and the High Sparrow.

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Perhaps most interesting in this Dorne sequence is Ellaria’s apparent rapprochement with Jaime, in which she tells him she knows the truth of his relationship with Cersei, and the fact that in Dorne “no one blinked an eye.” Social mores about who we’re allowed to love, she says, are constantly changing, but “the only thing that stays the same is we want who we want.”

It’s an odd and interesting moment, considering her previously implacable hatred for all things Lannister. Is she signaling a détente? Or is she reminding Jaime that the man she wants is now dead, at least in part due to Lannister scheming?

What do you think, Nikki?

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Nikki: I found it a strange scene indeed; she seems to be almost setting up an alliance with Jaime in a sense of, “Hey, bro, don’t fret. You had sex with your sister, gave her a bunch of kids; I’m a bastard daughter of a nobleman and had five bastard daughters of my own with Oberyn, whom I loved to watch have sex with other people. It’s like we were made to work together.” Back in season four, Ellaria and Oberyn were a breath of fresh air, I thought; these people who sweep in from Dorne and seek pleasure where they can get it, who don’t judge others for any sexual proclivities because they’ve tried it all — let’s just say in Dorne, the High Sparrow would have been beheaded by now and Loras upheld as a hero. What is normal to Ellaria and her people is loathed and judged in King’s Landing, a place where Jaime and Cersei have to lie about their children, and where Loras and Margaery are in a jail because one is a homosexual and the other one knew about it.

Jaime is the brother/lover of Cersei, the woman who got Oberyn killed by the Mountain. Ellaria loathes her. What better way to come at Cersei than to bed the man she loves? Things haven’t exactly been hunky dory in Lannister land lately, as we know. The last time Jaime was intimate with Cersei was when he raped her on the floor next to their son’s corpse — not exactly candlelight and roses — and Cersei has shown him nothing but disdain ever since he arrived with one hand fewer than before. But we know that despite Cersei pushing him away, she’s not going to let anyone else come near him. If she found out that Jaime had been intimate with Ellaria, she would fly into a rage of epic proportions.

I’m starting to think Ellaria’s simply moved on to a Plan B.

I agree with you that the Sand Snakes had a spectacular entrance when we first saw them on the beach, and then in their next scene, when they’re summarily beaten by Doran’s guards, I pretty much just heard this:

But since then, as you say, we’ve been watching them develop almost backwards, and perhaps that’s a sneaky way of making them explode onto the scene enveloped by their own legend, only to break down that legend and build them back up again. One thing that I must say I actually like about them — but I know a lot of fans might be up in arms about it — is that they use their bodies and physical attractiveness for their own means. I suspect Ellaria is trying to lure Jaime into a sexual tryst. I could be completely wrong, and, as you say, she’s just telling him this as a frame story to send the real message: I know about you and your sister, and that your children are illegitimate, and by the way your lover killed mine, and I WILL have my revenge.” But it seemed more intimate than that, especially the way she was slinking around the room as she talked to him.

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Similarly, Tyene believes she’s conquered Bronn by forcing him to tell her that she’s the most beautiful woman in the world, again using her body and sexual wiles to dominate him. In the slapping fight we see in the jail cell, the girls have a lot of sibling rivalry, whether it’s physical, where Tyene smacks Nymeria in the face right after Nymeria brags that Tyene’s reaction time is too short, or verbal, where Obara — the one who seems to have no time for either one of them — simply rolls over to face the wall, muttering “slut” under her breath at her younger sibling. These women will stand together to fight, despite their infighting, because they all believe in a common cause. And, interestingly, when they watch Ellaria groveling before Doran, kissing his hand and begging his forgiveness, they’re united in their repulsion at watching her do so. The question is, watching their reaction to her in this scene, will they continue to follow her commands?

But now it’s time to talk about the scene we’ve both been waiting to discuss: DRAGONS!! I, for one, had no idea that dragon-riding was going to enter into this show, and jokingly said to my husband near the end, “She should just climb on Drogon’s back and get the hell out of there.” And then OH MY GOD SHE DID.

But you must have known this scene was coming, and once again the readers haven’t spoiled dragon-riding for the rest of us! Tell me about your thoughts of the final scenes in Meereen.

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Christopher: I don’t think you needed to be a reader of the books to suspect, once the odds looked hopeless, that there was about to be a deus ex draconis. As our heroes grew increasingly outnumbered and pressed back into the defensive circle, I was muttering under my breath “Any time now, Drogon …” And when Daenerys closes her eyes, waiting for the end, and we suddenly hear the dragon’s distinctive squawk in the distance … and as he makes his spectacular entrance in a ball of flame … well, let’s just say there was some fist-pumping happening on my end. I may or may not have shouted “Boom!”

Ahem. Before I get too excited about the final sequence to lose the capacity for speech, I suppose I should outline the differences and similarities with the novel. Toward the end of A Dance With Dragons, Daenerys has married the unctuous Hizdahr zo Loraq and agreed to re-open the fighting pits. There is a great celebration on the first day—much as we see in this episode—with much food and drink in the royal box. Daenerys is unimpressed with the displays in the pit, and after a fight between a female gladiator and a huge boar—which the fighter loses—decides she’s had enough. As she attempts to leave, Hizdahr protests. Meanwhile, one of her men (a former pit fighter named Strong Belwas, who does not make it onto the show) has eaten too many honeyed locusts and is noisily sick on the floor. As it turns out, the locusts were poisoned, likely intended for Daenerys. While Daenerys argues with Hizdahr, Drogon makes his appearance, descending on the dead pit fighter and live boar, and proceeds to eat them both. Spearmen converge on the dragon, with Hizdahr exhorting them to kill the beast. Daenerys leaps into the pit without thinking, and for a moment it is touch and go—she does not know whether he’ll immolate her as well. But of course he doesn’t, and she rides him out of the city.

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So … some similarities, but the show has played up Drogon as her rescuer rather than uninvited guest.

There’s a lot going on in the final sequence, which I want to unpack in a moment. But first, a few random points and observations:

  • I love how Daario just doesn’t give a fuck. He’s the honey badger of third wheels, gleefully insinuating himself between his lover and her new fiancée.
  • The next time I find myself talking about ideology and privilege in one of my classes, I am totally going to quote Tyrion’s brilliant line “It’s easy to confuse ‘what is’ with ‘what ought to be,’ especially when ‘what is’ has worked out in your favour.”
  • The Unsullied don’t really seem to be living up to their reputation, do they? The last time the Harpies attacked them in force, they were hardly indomitable, and once again they’re dying in large numbers here. Lestways, this is a complaint I have read in a bunch of other reviews … which I don’t think is entirely fair. The Unsullied were billed as a formidable fighting force, as soldiers who subsume everything to standing in an unbreakable shield wall. Certainly in the novels their prowess has far more to do with standing firm on the battlefield than in individual combat. In both this sequence and the one where we lost Ser Barristan (sob!), the Unsullied are outnumbered and outflanked. They do pretty well, considering.
  • My first thought on watching this scene was “Holy crap, how many Harpies are there?” It seems like half the city owns sinister gold masks, but on rewatching, it occurred to me that this is an illusion created by the relatively small numbers of people present (compared to the city at large). I suppose it’s possible that this is all of them, thinking that if they come out in force at this one event they can overwhelm the queen’s bodyguard. Well played, Harpies … too bad about the dragon.
  • Did you notice that the lineup of fighters with Jorah looked like a model U.N.? There was a Mereenese champion, a Braavosi water dancer (who nearly defeated Jorah), a Dothraki, a bare-chested barbarian type whose origin I can’t guess; and the first person Jorah fights is a black man wielding a weapon very similar to that of Prince Doran’s bodyguard Areo Hotah—which, based on Areo’s heritage in the novel, would indicate that this fellow comes from the Free City of Norvos.

But on to the most interesting stuff: what I liked best about this sequence, aside from DragonRescue 911, was Hizdahr’s rhetorical question, “What great thing has ever been accomplished without killing or cruelty?” It is a question that underwrites this series, and the books on which it is based. Hizdahr’s question made me think immediately of Orson Welles’ iconic performance as the amoral Harry Lime in The Third Man, in which he famously makes a similar claim:

You asked the question a few posts ago, Nikki, about why Daenerys seemed so queasy about men killing each other in gladiatorial combat when she’d witnessed—and caused—so much death herself. I think Tyrion’s observation that “There’s always been more than enough death in the world for my taste. I can do without it during my leisure time,” serves as at least a partial answer to that. The question of what is unavoidable or necessary violence versus what is cruelty is one of the things that animates this show, not least because we start to become queasy when characters we love, like Arya, start to take pleasure in killing; in contrast, we grow more sympathetic to a character like Jaime Lannister as he sheds his killer’s glee and appears to develop (or reveal) a conscience. And as we see in this episode, what is right may not be the smartest course. “You have a good heart, Jon Snow,” Ser Alliser says as they watch the wildlings pass through the gate. “It will get us all killed.”

Stannis also does what he believes is right, or at the very least necessary in order to attain what he believes is his right. Daenerys negotiates the same fraught landscape. But this show does not reward those who hew to an abstract sense of right or justified, more often than not rewarding the opportunists and schemers like Littlefinger or the Boltons. Whatever good intentions Daenerys has had, she still finds herself surrounded by enemies in the middle of a fighting pit, dead but for the timely intervention of Drogon.

What did you think of this episode’s final scene, Nikki?

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Nikki: After this episode was finished, it’s the first time in a long time my husband immediately said, “Back that up; let’s watch that scene again.” We were both freaking out and cheering when she climbed onto Drogon’s back.

Although my favourite Twitter comment was this one:

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But let’s back up. My notes, not surprisingly, stop just as the Harpy ambush begins, because even though I’ve watched this scene several times now, I just can’t take my eyes off the screen. I think Hizdahr is — oh no wait, was, heh — a condescending prick. Until now he’s always been a groveler who tries to maintain reason in every scene by explaining to Daenerys the way things were (mostly because he wants things to return to the way things were) but now that she’s betrothed to him, he turns into a holier-than-thou asshat. He scoffs at Tyrion, who he may have recognized is a far more reasonable advisor than he’ll ever be, making comments about how large men will always triumph over smaller men (camera zoom on Tyrion’s unamused face), and pushing his own Machiavellian agenda so much throughout the conversation that Tyrion finally wearies of him and simply says, “My father would have liked you.”

I found it strange that Hizdahr just happened to show up late, then made no move to protect Daenerys, and seemed completely unsurprised when the Sons of the Harpy showed up. But then he got killed in the attack. Did he set it up? Perhaps. And then they realized, “Yeah, Hizdahr may have set up this whole thing and helped us get rid of that silver-haired bitch, but he’s a d-bag, so let’s kill him while we’re at it.”

(That right there is Reason #741 why I’ll never be allowed to write dialogue for Game of Thrones.)

I agree with you on Daario, Chris — you are right on the money by calling him the honey badger of Meereen, haha!! I loved the way he just kept sticking his face between Daenerys and Hizdahr and making his snide remarks, even if he did turn out to be wrong in the moment. But we know that in the long run, comments like where he says large people tend to have nothing but muscle in their heads, and the smaller man has intelligence, will prove to be true.

And I also agree on the Unsullied. As I said in that post for episode 4, the Unsullied are trained to fight in perfect lines in battle, much like the British were. That’s why, when the British were fighting in the American Revolution, they were so outweighed by a bunch of people hiding in the woods with muskets — they were not trained for an ambush. The Sons of the Harpy fight like they’re in a gladiator ring, and perhaps some of them were (though that would suggest they were slaves, and why would slaves want a return to slavery?) It’s not exactly clear how these noblemen became such admirable street fighters, but let’s just suspend our disbelief on that one for a bit, and say there’s a reason the Unsullied always seem to be outnumbered in these instances: it’s because they are.

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But now on to Drogon. The last time Daenerys saw him was when he perched above her on her balcony. She reached out a hand to him tentatively, and there was a moment where he seemed to acknowledge her with his eyes before suddenly taking to the air and leaving again. Then Tyrion saw him sailing over Valyria, and it’s the first time he actually sees a dragon. Drogon is the largest of the three, and has always been Dany’s favourite. In the terrible moment where they are surrounded by the Harpies and it appears there’s no way out, Daenerys suddenly closes her eyes, using that telepathic messaging service she used when the dragons were babies, and to her shock — and ours — it actually works. As you said, Chris, that faraway screech is SO exciting that I was literally — and that, kids, is the correct use of that word — sitting on the edge of my seat, gasping and screaming throughout the rest of it. My husband was cheering… it was a glorious moment. From immolating dozens of Sons of the Harpy in one go, to grabbing a man and shaking him the way a dog shakes a stuffy just to get the squeaker out (and, similarly, Drogon makes the man’s stuffing come out), to simply crawling around menacingly and hissing at them the way my cats do when they’re around each other, he was fantastic. When the spears began flying through the air I was worried — if the Sons of the Harpy all began throwing spears at once, could that kill a dragon? My husband was confident that Drogon would be OK. He kept saying there was no way spears could kill a dragon, that their hides are probably like rocks and they are probably nearly indestructible. But Daenerys is still devastated when it happens, because she knows there must be some pain. As he slinks around the ring in a fury, barbequing some of the people while eating others, she walks up to him and pulls the spear out of his side. The looks on the faces of Daario, Tyrion, and Jorah at that point are priceless. They’ve all seen the dragons, but they’ve seen just how wild they’ve become.

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In his rage, Drogon could have just as easily turned to her and accidentally set her on fire (though it wouldn’t have actually hurt her at all) but instead he simply screams in her face, turning the fire off momentarily. And then he stops. He tilts his head, and like a wild horse being tamed, sits quietly as an idea suddenly comes to her, and she walks around and mounts his back. The CGI as he lifts her off the ground isn’t so hot — you can instantly tell that was all green-screened and done so badly — but once he gets into the air it’s spectacular.

Though, just like the dude on Twitter, I couldn’t help but think, “Uh, Dany? You, um, forgot three people back there. The Sons of the Harpy aren’t all dead, you know…”

But something tells me they’ll be fine.

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Thanks once again for reading all of this! Next week we shall return with the finale! Wherein Sansa lops off Ramsay’s penis and feeds it to Arya’s direwolf, which she happens to find in the woods behind Winterfell; where Daenerys takes Drogon to see Viserion and Rhaegal and the three dragons are reunited and forgive Mama and head off to burn some White Walkers; where Jon Snow rises up to rule the North after the giant stomps on Ser Alliser’s head and Sam and Gilly kill Stannis and Melisandre; and where the Starks are all reunited and rule King’s Landing when Cersei is pecked to death by a crow.*

(*Nik at Nite cannot guarantee any of the above will happen.)

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Game of Thrones 5.08: Hardhome

gameofthrones_teaser02_screencap10Hello 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 …

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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