Category Archives: television

Game of Thrones, Episode 7.04: “The Spoils of War”

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Hello hello, everyone! It’s hard to believe, but we’re now on the downslope of the season—episode four of seven marks the precise middle, so now we only have three to go. But what we’re lacking in the number of episodes seems to be made up for in narrative resolutions and culminations. Six and a half seasons in, and stuff we’ve been waiting seven years for is finally happening! So without further ado …

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Christopher: We begin in the immediate aftermath of Jaime’s fraught audience with Lady Olenna, soon enough that he’s still in a pissy mood despite his victory—something noticed by Bronn. Jaime opens up one of their wagons laden with Tyrell gold and hands Bronn a conspicuously heavy bag. “You’ve just won the biggest prize in the world,” Bronn snarks as he attaches the bag to his saddle, “What could you possibly have to be upset about?” Jaime’s silence speaks volumes, more perhaps than he’d like, as Bronn is no idiot: “Queen of Thorns give you one last prick in the balls before saying goodbye?” To which Jaime responds that he’ll save his confessions for the High Septon. “There is no more High Septon!” “No! There isn’t, is there?”

I quite liked this exchange. It offers a subtle glimpse into Jaime’s mindset: still irked by Lady Olenna’s revelation that she murdered Joffrey, but not about to share that detail with Bronn, one suspects that he’s been thinking over all the choices that brought him to this point. And not just his own choices: perhaps just as disturbing as Olenna’s dying words was her piercing insight into Jaime’s devotion to Cersei, and her statement of the now-undeniable fact of her monstrosity. Jaime has never been much of a leader or decision maker, living his life according to the twin goals of staying close to his sister and killing a lot of people with his preternatural sword skills. But now those skills are mostly gone, taken away along with his right hand, and his sister has turned into a grotesque parody of the Mad King. She tells Mycroft Tycho Nestoris that she wants “control of this continent and every person in it.” The first half of that statement is understandable and indeed necessary in order to be a monarch—it is, after all, what Daenerys aims at—but the second half articulates the difference between ruler and despot.

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Meanwhile, Jaime, who has hitched his wagon to Cersei basically since birth, does not have the option Tyrion did of renouncing family and deserting (though, granted, that option was basically forced on him by Cersei too). But if there’s a benefit here, it’s that he is no longer subject to the disapprobation of others. Last episode, he panicked when Cersei let a serving girl see him in her bed; but here, in his sarcastic acknowledgement that yes, the High Septon is dead, he seems to be saying—to himself as much as Bronn—that he no longer answers to a higher authority … any higher authority.

Which makes Bronn’s demand to be paid a little tone-deaf for a man who intuited that Jaime’s meeting with Olenna did not end well. Then again, he is a mercenary, and “getting paid” could well be his house motto when he gets around to it. Jaime patiently points out he has a massive sack of gold now affixed to his saddle; but Bronn will have his castle, dammit, and isn’t Highgarden now in need of a new landlord? Though Jaime is remarkably patient with him, this moment reminded me of the scene in Richard III when Buckingham, having colluded with Richard and put him on the throne, is asked to be complicit in one crime too many: the murder of Richard’s nephews. He asks for “some breath, some little pause, my lord / Before I positively herein” (4.2:26-27), which is totally not what Richard wants to hear. And when he returns to demand what had been promised him, the newly crowned king is less than forthcoming:

BUCKINGHAM: My lord, I claim your gift, my due by promise,
For which your honour and your faith is pawn’d;
The earldom of Hereford and the moveables
The which you promised I should possess. (4.2: 91-94)

To which Richard responds, after basically ignoring him for several minutes, “I am not in the giving vein to-day.”

I somehow doubt that Jaime will treat Bronn in the same way, but he makes his impatience plain by giving him the task of harassing farmers with the point of his sword—and as an extra special fuck you sends him off with Randyll Tarly, whom we can expect to treat a jumped-up lowborn mercenary with all of the contempt the lord of a proud and long-standing house can muster (which, as we saw when Sam stopped in at home, is an awful lot of contempt).

Before I move on to the next scene, I should say that I quite loved the way this episode is bookended: watching that long wagon train of plunder from Highgarden, my first thought was “if only Daenerys could catch them with her dragons!”

The next sequence between Cersei and Tycho made for an interesting contrast with Bronn’s demand for land and titles. Bronn’s desire is for a key element of the feudal system; the Iron Bank represents a distinctly modern understanding of capital and credit, one more or less global in scope. I’ve frequently argued that the comparisons some make between Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings are well-meaning but wrong-headed; Game of Thrones, for all of its classic fantasy tropes, has far more in common with the typical HBO themes seen in The Wire and Deadwood, which have to do with power not as an extrinsic principle, but as fluid and constantly shifting—for which the most potent metaphor is money. “Money don’t got owners,” Omar tells Marlo Stanfield in season three of The Wire, “just spenders.” Tycho’s little joke about how upset some members of the Iron Bank will be to have the Iron Throne’s debt paid in full, because they’ll miss the interest payments, will probably fall flat to anyone with credit card debt of any significance. Like a credit card that raises your limit when you pay it off, Tycho is eager to loan Cersei as much as she needs to win her war—and is more than happy to put her in touch with people who can help (presumably for a small finder’s fee). Of course, such help, financial and otherwise, is contingent on repayment: “You can count on the Iron Bank’s support … as soon as the gold appears.”

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Speaking of Jaime’s poor choices—or at least, actions performed on behalf of Cersei—we get a sharp reminder of the things he does for love as we cut to Winterfell. In the aftermath of his fall, Bran did not remember how it happened; now that he’s the Three-Eyed Raven, has that fog of memory burned away? Does he remember that Jaime pushed him out that window in season one, episode one? Perhaps more importantly, does he care?

What do you think, Nikki?

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Nikki: I assume Bran does know, but as you say, doesn’t care. Pushing a little boy out of a window and making him a paraplegic is the sort of thing that alters lives of the individual and his family, but not necessarily the world around him. Bran’s fall means nothing in the grand scheme of things, and now all Bran can see is the grand scheme of things.

And knowing that Bran is back and this is yet another Stark to be manipulated, good old Bae is back to give him the Valyrian steel dagger and say hey, no hard feelings, eh bub? Because what better gift can you give a long-lost person than the very knife that was once used to try to kill them? Man, Baelish… someone seriously needs to teach you some social conventions.

But let me repeat: Bran knows ALL. And that means all the little conversations and machinations that Baelish has been involved in all along the way. He tells Bran that he would have stopped the dagger that cut his mother’s throat with his own heart (and part of me believes that in his heart he truly believes that, but in the moment Petyr never would have had the guts to do that). Bran simply looks at him and asks where the dagger came from. Littlefinger plays dumb, of course.

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This is the dagger that the cutthroat used when he climbed into Bran’s window and attempted to kill him when the little boy couldn’t move. Catelyn carried it around showing it to everyone, but couldn’t get to the bottom of who would have ordered the hit. Littlefinger eventually pointed the finger at Tyrion, who denied it vehemently, but Catelyn never believed in Tyrion’s innocence. Ned took possession of the dagger when Catelyn headed up to the Riverlands to arrest Tyrion for attempting to murder her son, and later, after Ned was beheaded, Petyr took it.

We saw the dagger briefly in the first episode of this season, as many eagle-eyed fans have pointed out: as Sam Tarly was leafing through the stolen manuscripts, he paused on a particular page that has a clear drawing of the very dagger Petyr gives to Bran in this scene, which suggests it might play a role in stopping the White Walkers. But more interestingly, Bran lets Baelish know very subtly that he knows what he’s been up to when he says calmly, “Chaos is a ladder.”

Now, I’ll admit I looked at my husband and said, “Did he say chaos is Alanna?” We had no idea and backed it up. “No, I think he said chaos is Aladdin.” Turned on the closed-captioning. “Oh, a LADDER!” and then suddenly something pinged in my brain and I knew I’d heard it before, so I looked it up. And sure enough, it’s from an exchange between Varys and Littlefinger from way back in season three:

VARYS: What do we have left when we abandon the lie? Chaos: the gaping pit waiting to swallow us all.
LITTLEFINGER: Chaos isn’t a pit. Chaos is a ladder. Many who try to climb it fail, never get to try again. The fall breaks them. And some, they’re given a chance to climb, but they refuse. The cling to the realm, for the gods, for love. Illusions. Only the ladder is real. The climb is all there is.

This is one of the key moments of season three (the speech turns into a voiceover as we see Joffrey post-massacre of Ros) and shows how Littlefinger exists outside of many of the others, hoping for something else. It could be a foreshadowing of all of the players on the show who are currently climbing the ladder: Daenerys, Cersei, even Littlefinger himself. (Jon Snow isn’t climbing anything; he’s trying to stop impending doom.)

But most importantly, it’s Bran saying, “I know what you do and say when no one else is in the room. And I know what you’ve done, and what you still plan to do.” Apparently Littlefinger memorizes all of his super-deep speeches because the moment Bran utters those words, he looks startled, and leaves the room very quickly.

Meera comes into the room and says she’s leaving, and is upset by the lack of emotion Bran shows, but as I pointed out last week, Bran is really no longer capable of showing anything. She says she’s sacrificed so much to save him, and then says with a pleading voice, “Bran.” And he says, “Not really, not anymore.” Just as Arya said “That’s not you” to Nymeria, Bran is admitting that he’s not Bran anymore. And Meera agrees. “You died in that cave,” she says.

And then we get to Stark Reunion #2. I said with much regret last week that I didn’t think Arya was going to come to Winterfell, but thank goodness I was wrong! First we get her arguing with the bumbling Monty Pythonesque guards (and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one going, “NO YOU IDIOTS!” and worried that Arya would change her mind and we’d have come this close to the reunion only for it to slip through our fingers), but thank goodness that doesn’t happen. She tells the men she wants to see Rodrick and Maester Luwin, and when the guards tell Sansa that, she knows that her sister is in the crypt, visiting these very people along with all the other dead. Just imagine how many people have died since the last time Arya was in that crypt.

But before we get there, I want to pause on that lovely moment of Arya waiting for the guards to deal with things as she glances around the Winterfell courtyard, a small smile playing on her lips. Season seven is definitely the one for retrospection, since, as you pointed out last week, Chris, all of the threads are starting to finally weave themselves together. As she looked around the courtyard I couldn’t help but think of how much of it was the same as when Arya is little, and how much as changed. In a way, she must feel like she’s returned home; in another way, she must feel like a complete stranger in a strange land.

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The reunion between Sansa and Arya is a little less emotional and a little more jokey between Sansa and Bran. When Sansa finds her little sister all grown up in the crypt, Arya says flatly, “Do I have to call you Lady Stark now?” And with little hesitation, Sansa says, “Yes.” They hug, and comment on the statue that was built for Ned and how it doesn’t really look like him. “Everyone who knew his face is dead,” Sansa says sadly. In this one brief scene, you can tell there’s strangeness between them. Sansa looks at Arya like she barely knows her, and chuckles when Arya says she’s keeping a list of people she’s going to kill. (The “no really” look on Arya’s face doesn’t seem to convince her sister at all.)

But Sansa thinks you know what? At least she’s not speaking in a monotone and having visions about me being raped on my wedding night, so… yay? And with that she takes Arya to meet their brother to have a big ol’ happy family re– oh wait, maybe not. George Harrison Bran is sitting out in the weirwood grove (goddammit, Sansa just don’t go near him in the weirwood grove) and Arya smiles as she sees him, but the smile quickly fades as Bran begins to tell her things as well, that he saw her at the crossroads, and knows about her list. He told Sansa he’d seen the worst thing that ever happened to her, perhaps because he didn’t think his sister would understand anything subtle, but it just takes these mentions to let Arya know that he sees all. And also to show her sister that no, she wasn’t joking about that list of people. “Who’s on the list?” Sansa says with incredulity. “Most of them are dead now,” Arya says with a look and Sansa knows without a doubt that her little sister is all grown up and has become someone new. The women see Bran holding the dagger, and Sansa immediately shows that she hasn’t been pulled in unknowingly by Baelish, when she warns her brother that he won’t give anything as a gift unless he thinks he’ll get something back from it, but Bran doesn’t want it, and hands it over to Arya instead. FORESHADOWING.

As the three Starks return to Winterfell, they make a motley crew. Lady Sansa sweeps behind them in a majestic wool coat; Bran stares dead-eyed as his wheelchair is being pushed by his warrior-like sister, who’s lost that childhood giggle and knows more about the world than any one person ever should. And watching from a distance is Brienne and Podrick, who marvel that somehow all of the living Starks ended up back together. Podrick tells Brienne that she kept her word and the two sisters are alive, and despite trying to argue with him, Brienne gives in and just takes the compliment.

And then we’re back at Dragonstone, where Missandei is just about to add TMI to the conversation with Daenerys when Jon Snow appears and has something to show her. What did you think of the scene in the caves, Chris?

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Christopher: Well, I’d be remiss if I didn’t repeat the joke that people started making IMMEDIATELY on Twitter, which has to do with what happened the last time Jon Snow took a woman into a cave …

The look Daenerys exchanges with Missandei doesn’t help things—of course it’s because she was sharing hints about Missandei’s sexytimes with Grey Worm, but the sequence can also serendipitously communicate the sense of, “Oh, that cute emo boy wants to talk to you now.” Given that Jon Snow is ice and Daenerys is fire, and given that the fact that they’re related doesn’t matter in the long history of Targaryen incest, it has long been a fan assumption that these two ultimately get together.

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And it is a measure of the trust Daenerys has developed for Jon Snow that she orders her bloodriders to stay behind—maybe they’re not quite ready to kiss, but at least she’s comfortable in her assumption that he won’t kill her.

The cave drawings illustrate (sorry) an interesting aspect of George R.R. Martin’s worldbuilding that departs from traditional fantasy. The literary critic Farah Mendelsohn, in her book Rhetorics of Fantasy, points out that history as presented in much fantasy is meant to be taken as plain and indeed absolute fact—there’s no hearsay in the “download of legend” as she terms it, whether it’s The Silmarillion’s prehistory of Middle-Earth or the random sage telling the accidental tourist who has fallen through a portal the Story Till Now. But GRRM plays games with the historical record in his novels, giving his world civilizations that evolved from equivalents to our Stone, Bronze, and Iron Ages; and more importantly, there’s no definitive history, but rather a series of competing and contradictory stories and legends. The series hasn’t delved into this particular aspect of the novels all that much—and with Bran’s new talents, we’re getting in both what amounts to an authoritative account—but the cave drawings Jon shows Daenerys carry the symbolic power with which we imbue archaeological traces. “They were standing where we’re standing,” Daenerys says in awe, “before there were Targaryens or Lannisters or Starks. Maybe even before there were men.”

 

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But no: there were people, who were allied with the Children of the Forest against the White Walkers. And, Jon Snow points out, they survived—because they fought together. Now, given the fact that the Children of the Forest created White Walkers (as Bran saw in a vision) in desperation because these interlopers were wiping them out, as well as the fact that they are now all but extinct, Jon’s emotional plea doesn’t perhaps have the strongest historical footing. But hey—he doesn’t know that, and neither does Daenerys, who starts to come around to Jon’s point of view. She pledges that she’ll fight for the North … if he bends the knee.

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Jon is kind of between a rock and a hard place with Daenerys’ demand for fealty. One suspects that, while not a matter of indifference to him, he would still be inclined to bend the knee if it were only up to him. He did not seek the Northern throne, after all, and is far more concerned with defeating the existential threat of the White Walkers than with Westerosi power struggles. That being said, he is still deeply a Northerner and very much Ned Stark’s son (in spirit if not in fact), and he knows too well how little his people would think of a return to Targaryen rule. He is also aware of the technical illegitimacy of his claim, but in a nice bit of rhetorical jiu jitsu Daenerys turns that around on him, pointing out that it is precisely because of his illegitimacy that we know his people trust him: “They chose you to lead them. They chose you to protect them.”

Again, we’re saturated with dramatic irony here, and a man wonders how the truth of Jon’s parentage will be revealed. Actually, it’s less a question of how than when and where, seeing as how the only person who can speak that truth is Bran. He witnessed Jon’s birth in the Tower of Joy, so one has to assume it will be he who drops the bomb. Hence the timing of his arrival, after Jon’s departure for Dragonstone—no overlap there in which Bran could have said, “Oh, say hi to your aunt for me.” So now the question is: what plot twists will the show employ to keep Jon from hearing that news? (Because however unimportant Bran might consider his own injury at the hands of the Lannisters, one assumes that the unification of ice and fire would be as important to him as it was to Melisandre).

The camera plays a little trick on us as Jon and Daenerys exit the cave: perhaps it’s inadvertent, but it really sort of looks like they’re holding hands until we see them from the front (and even then it looks a little like they are until it’s apparent they’re not). There’s a tension building between these two; it’s not a sexual attraction just yet, but it’s obvious she’s coming to trust him. The revelation in the cave makes it seem for just a few moments that Daenerys is convinced—and maybe she is, but she’s not about to drop her claim to all seven of the seven kingdoms.

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They exit the cave to the good news / bad news about Casterly Rock. “Your strategy has lost us Dorne, the Iron Islands, and the Reach,” she snarls are Tyrion, who right now is not looking like quite the master strategist he was just a few episodes ago. “If I have underestimated our enemies—” he starts to say, but she cuts him off. “Our enemies? Your family, you mean! Perhaps you don’t want to hurt them after all.” Ouch. Granted, Tyrion was outmaneuvered by Cersei, which is hurtful enough, but in this moment Daenerys questions not just his competence, but his loyalty. Is this something we can expect to see more of? She challenged Varys’ flexible loyalties in episode two; that appeared to be a fairly cool and calculated interrogation, whereas this one was spoken in the heat of anger, but perhaps we’re starting to see some cracks in Daenerys’ confidence.

It’s a measure of Daenerys’ growing regard for Jon Snow that she asks his advice—turning from her Hand and other trusted advisors to question a Northern bastard. The looks on Varys’ and Missandei’s faces made me laugh out loud: what is she doing? They probably assume he’s going to confirm her worst idea and egg her on to turn King’s Landing to cinders. But no. Check out the wisdom on Jon Snow! I always wondered if he had it in him:

I never thought that dragons would exist again. No one did. The people that follow you know that you made something impossible happen. Maybe that helps them believe you can make other impossible things happen. Build a world that’s different from the shit one they’ve always known. But if you use them to melt castles and burn cities, you’re not different. You’re just more of the same.

Perhaps hearing it from Jon Snow, who, as Tyrion pointed out, has more reason to hate Cersei than anyone, makes the difference here; perhaps it’s just hearing it from a new voice; or perhaps Daenerys is starting to see Jon as something more than just a potential ally.

We shift from Jon laying down a wisdom bomb to Pod once again getting the shit kicked out of him by Brienne. He doesn’t seem to be improving much, does he? But then, as Arya says, perhaps the lesson he should learn is “Don’t fight someone like her in the first place.” Which, of course, Arya will proceed to do, with Sansa and Littlefinger looking on with increasing incredulity.

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There’s always been a running debate over who was the best fighter on Game of Thrones—Jaime Lannister before he lost his hand, Loras Tyrell, Khal Drogo, the Hound, Oberyn Martell, Brienne of Tarth. Given Jaime’s amputation and Oberyn and Drogo’s deaths, Brienne’s defeat of both Loras and the Hound would seem to leave her in the top spot … until she meets Arya, who is simply too quick. The best line of the episode is when Brienne asks her who trained her. “No one,” she replies.

The looks on the faces of Littlefinger and Sansa are interesting: Sansa, perhaps unsurprisingly, looks deeply discomfited—even though her reunion with Arya was warmer than the one with Bran, there is still, as you point out Nikki, the sense that she’s an entirely different person now. Watching her handily fight Brienne to a draw confirms this, and Sansa’s expression is heartbreaking—a reflection of how much her family has lost. Her eyes downcast, she leaves Littlefinger standing at the rail looking down into the courtyard.

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Littlefinger, by contrast, seems oddly pleased with everything he sees below. What is he thinking? We can’t know, but can surmise that he sees in Arya a new piece on the board, one that might work to his advantage if he can gain her trust. He smiles down at them, and Arya, seeing the distasteful expression on Brienne’s face as she looks up, follows her gaze. Littlefinger smiles and makes a little bow before following Sansa; Arya however throws what can only be characterized as some epic shade. Something tells me that it might not be too long before Littlefinger ends up on a certain list.

And then we’re back in Dragonstone. What did you make of Jon’s banter about bastardy with Missandei, Nikki?

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Nikki: Arya brought some serious Buffy moves to that fight. That was definitely one of many highlights of this season so far for me. And, like I said earlier, I couldn’t help but remember us watching Arya in season one, looking down on Bran in the courtyard fighting with his little wooden sword and lamenting that she didn’t get to fight like the boys. And now those boys wish they could fight like her.

Also, I couldn’t help but giggle to myself in the cave scene, wondering if earlier that day Jon Snow was standing in the caves madly etching pictures of the White Walkers and hoping Daenerys didn’t notice how new they looked.

But yes, back to Missandei and Davos’s discussion, summed up in a variation on the Dr. Pepper jingle: “I’m a bastard, you’re a bastard, he’s a bastard, she’s a bastard, wouldn’t you like to be a bastard, too!” Missandei has never considered herself a bastard, simply because in Naath there are no marriages. If you are all born out of wedlock, then no one is a bastard. She explains that she was bought by slavers at a young age (sort of snapping us out of thinking of world as being utopian in any way) but Daenerys freed her. Davos counters by saying that’s all well and good, but haven’t you basically traded one slaver for another? After all, you serve Daenerys. Missandei smiles the smile you give to someone who is intellectually inferior, and says no, that she could leave at any time. Davos smiles the smirk you give to someone who is a naive little lamb, and says, oh really? And you think Daenerys would let you go? Missandei says she would, in a heartbeat. “She’s not our queen because she’s the daughter of some king we never knew,” Missandei says. “She’s our queen because we chose her.” Davos looks over at Jon and mentions casually that he’s about to switch sides. Ha!

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I loved this scene because, as earlier with Missandei and Grey Worm in his chambers, we once again get the perspective from the “common folk.” These aren’t magical people or kings or queens from great houses, these are people who were sold into slavery and have discovered a way to find choice in their lives. But even more importantly, these are two common people who have risen far above their station. Missandei was sold into slavery, and now she’s the most trusted advisor of one of the key players in the game of thrones, a woman who sees herself as the rightful ruler of all of Westeros. Davos still carries that Fleabottom accent with a little bit of shame, and yet he’s the trusted advisor to Jon Snow, the King of the North. And he’s gone from being illiterate to correcting Jon Snow’s grammar, a moment I found hysterically funny (yay, hat tips to the editors like me out there!) Not only is the “less than/fewer than” dichotomy a pet peeve of mine, but this was a nod to an ongoing little joke that the show has looked at before. I’ve pointed out twice before that Stannis Baratheon can’t be all bad because he’s a total grammar Nazi, as he’s corrected Davos on the less/fewer mistake before:

Which is what made Davos now correcting Jon Snow such a clever little full-circle moment. (And notice Davos similarly says, “Nothing,” when Jon asks him what he just said.)

BUT ENOUGH GRAMMAR, THEON JUST SHOWED UP.

Cripes, I thought. Three awkward Stark reunions in the span of two episodes?! While Jon is a Targar– ahem, I mean… Snow, and Theon is a Greyjoy, both of them were actually raised at Winterfell by Ned Stark, with Jon being the bastard son and Theon being the ward he took on as a prize. They were raised as brothers, but this is the first time they’ve been face to face since Theon went nuts and took Winterfell by storm (and pretended to kill Bran and Rickon). Jon grabs him by the collar and snarls into his face that if Theon hadn’t saved Sansa, he would kill him now. Theon doesn’t even argue, since he doesn’t disagree with anyone anymore. He just quietly says he has come to see if Daenerys will help him get his sister back.

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It’s interesting: Jon Snow has made some mistakes and is constantly being picked on for “knowing nothing,” and Theon has made major mistakes and has paid for it in massive ways and is essentially a broken man, but here are two men who stand as the eldest sons of their houses, neither of which is actually looking to gain the throne. Both of them are on quests to save their loved ones: Theon knows he screwed up yet again and was unable to save Yara’s life, and Jon wants to save all of humanity. Daenerys tells Jon to bend the knee so she knows she has his loyalty, but all these two care about is staying alive. I love these little moments where you can see that everyone is on a desperate mission, but all for very different reasons.

But Daenerys isn’t there right now so Theon can’t talk to her. Why? Where did she go?

Cut to the Lannister army in a deep valley and me grabbing my hair and going, “Oooooh SHIT!!!!!” and knowing any second now, THERE BE DRAGONS.

And honest to GOD I wish the writers and directors on this show (in this case the director is Matt Shakman) would direct every single battle scene ever because as I’ve said many times before, NO ONE does battle scenes like Game of Thrones. SO FREAKIN’ GOOD!!

But I’ll let you get us started on this one, Chris!

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Christopher: It’s battle scenes like this one that speak to the huge success of Game of Thrones. No longer is money quite the concern it was: in season one, the great climactic battles between the Lannisters and the Starks happened off-screen; the first real sense of scale we got was toward the end of season two with “Blackwater,” and even then they tweaked the details of that battle (principally, doing it at night so they didn’t have to pay for huge CGI armies and navies) to make it more economical. But as the popularity of the show has grown, so too have the purse strings at HBO loosened, to the point where we reliably get spectacles like Hardhome, the final battle of Meereen, the Battle of the Bastards, Euron’s assault on Yara’s fleet, and now this: really, what we’ve been waiting seven seasons for, which is Daenerys and her dragons laying waste to the Lannisters.

Granted, it’s just the one dragon this time (which, frankly, might have been a tactical error), but it has the sense of a teaser: if this is what one dragon can do, along with just one of Daenerys’ armies, the Seven Kingdoms better sit up and take notice.

Because this is Game of Thrones, we can’t have an unequivocal victory: everything is always tainted with loss. Tyrion won the Battle of the Blackwater, but suffered grievous wounds and was then humiliated by his father. Hardhome was at best a pyrrhic victory. Daenerys won the battle of Meereen, but only after much hardship and loss; ditto Jon and Sansa at The Battle of the Bastards, which claimed the life of Rickon and could only happen because of Sansa’s Faustian bargain with Littlefinger. Here, the Lannisters accomplished the principal mission of delivering Tyrell gold to the Iron Bank, and Qyburn’s weapon showed that Daenerys’ dragons are vulnerable.

In addition to which, there’s the queasy fact that we sympathize with the bad guys. Jaime is no longer the black hat he once was, and I think we’d all mourn Bronn. The more I think of the episode’s final shot, the more I appreciate it. I would be very surprised if Jaime dies, but then this is a show that defies such narrative certainties. I think Bronn’s survival is even money: he saves Jaime, but it wouldn’t be beyond the pale for this show to sacrifice him—especially after that shot we get of his blood money spilled on the ground when his horse goes down.

But I’m getting ahead of things. One thing I want to mention before I pass it over to you, Nikki, is how this sequence gets military tactics right … mostly. A friend of mine who is both a fellow GoT nerd and military history nerd sent me a message saying “Thought you’d be interested to know that Drogon (subbing for artillery) and the Dothraki were an absolutely textbook example of how to ‘break’ an infantry square in the Napoleonic Era, which was super cool to see,” along with this link. By way of explanation: ever since we’ve had cavalry vs. infantry, the infantry learned that horses are generally smarter than people, and will not charge a wall of shields bristling with spears, pikes, and/or bayonets. So as long as infantry had the discipline to hold firm against a cavalry charge and not break and run in a panic, the cavalry was helpless to hurt them. Unless, of course, they could outflank them—which gave rise to the “square” formation, in which the infantry would form into a square that presented spears or bayonets on all sides.

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Game of Thrones has been pretty good with its realistic depiction of medieval military formations—the Battle of the Bastards a case in point—so I was pleased to see that they (mostly) hewed to realism in this scene. “Realism” here is, of course, dragon-adjusted … though as my friend points out, Drogon plays the role of artillery: once armies graduated from steel to gunpowder, the logic of the square formation remained, but now there was the possibility of blasting a hole in the line with cannons—a hole through which the cavalry could charge. When Jaime tells Bronn, “We can hold them,” he’s hewing to his certainty as a career soldier that a well-disciplined shield wall can hold off cavalry indefinitely. Of course, as soon as he says that, we hear Drogon’s screech … and, really, that’s the ball game. It’s basically how World War One would have proceeded if the Allies had had even a single squadron of Spitfires (pun intended: for my fellow military history nerds, the more appropriate planes to mention would be fighter-bombers like the Typhoon or Tempest, or American planes like the P-38 Lightning or P-47 Thunderbolt).

Drogon’s first blast of fire blows a hole in the Lannister line through which the Dothraki charge, and anyone who knows their military history knows that the battle ended right then. There are, however, a few other moments when the Dothraki charge is not dismayed by the shield wall, but plunges through. The argument could be made that the soldiers were panicked by the sight of their fellows being immolated, and thus had lost their discipline; or perhaps that they were pretty much panicked from the moment the Dothraki crested the rise. Perhaps.

One way or another, it was so deeply satisfying after six and a half seasons to see dragons in Westeros again. It was worth the wait. What do you think, Nikki?

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Nikki: You’re right: after six and a half seasons, this is the moment we have ALL been waiting for. (Along with Daenerys and Jon finally meeting [check], the Stark siblings being reunited [check], and Daenerys having her showdown with Cersei [TBD].) This battle sequence was so spectacular that as soon as it was done, we backed up the show by 15 minutes and just watched it again. (And not just for Bronn laughing at the way Jaime’s soldier says “Dick-on,” which was hilarious.)

I love that link you just posted: it doesn’t surprise me that they followed actual military tactics to the letter. That’s another reason why Game of Thrones is so successful: the writers and directors are so smart they do their research. The opening of the battle sequence actually made me think of the American Revolution. From what I remember of this war’s tactics when I took it in high school history class, it was military style versus guerilla warfare that won that one: the Redcoats all lined up in style and marched the way they were supposed to, while the rebels hid in the woods, jumped them from behind, and simply followed very few rules whatsoever, which helped them beat their enemy who was too busy towing the line to realize that every man for himself warfare might actually fare better. And then of course George Washington called in his dragon and the war was won. (I believe it’s a deleted track on the Hamilton soundtrack…)

I talked a few weeks ago about the lousy Ed Sheeran cameo and how it was too distracting, but this time there was actually a cameo in this sequence that worked EXACTLY how a cameo should work. I knew in advance that NY Mets pitcher Noah Syndergaard (a favourite of my son’s, who has a framed jersey card of his) was going to be in the episode, but in the midst of the battle, I completely forgot and didn’t even see him when he showed up. His cameo is very quick, he’s barely recognizable, and he’s immediately immolated by Drogon (which will no doubt keep him on the DL even longer than he’s been this season). Now that is how you do a cameo.

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But Easter eggs aside, this scene is just astounding. From the rumble in the distance and the fear as the Lannister soldiers quickly try to get themselves in line while we wait for what seems like an eternity for the Dothraki to show up on the crest of the hill; to the burning anticipation of the dragon — which is SO AMAZING when it does happen that I couldn’t help but shriek with delight — to the incredible moment where you discover Daenerys is riding on his back; to the look on Jaime’s face as he tries to keep his cool while panicking inside; to the stoic and ambivalent look on Tyrion’s face as he watches his Queen destroy her enemies while recognizing that these were once his own men, and that despite everything he loves his brother and doesn’t want to see him fail outright; to the revelation that the Lannister army brought along the Dragon Killer with them (I don’t remember the last time I was this scared in a scene)… this entire sequence is simply not for the faint of heart and is thrilling on every level.

And what did the Dragon Killer achieve? Well, it brought a dragon out of the sky and down to Earth. The dragon can still breathe fire (and it turned Bronn’s weapon to ashes and smashed it with its tail in one fell swoop) but just imagine what a thousand of those machines will do. And we know Cersei is already starting the production line right this second. Drogon has been hit in the shoulder, and he’ll survive and be fine, but if Bronn’s aim had been just a little bit better, and he’d gotten it right in Drogon’s mouth and through the back of his skull, that would have been the end of both the dragon and its mother.

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Daenerys’s surprise attack is amazing for so many reasons, not least of all because of the karma she doles out: you put a sneak attack on Highgarden, kill the old woman and strip an old, barren castle of its gold; I’ll find your entire army and reduce it to ashes on a hillside and leave Cersei with nothing. But it also speaks to Jon Snow’s wisdom earlier in the episode: he said if you come at the Red Keep with your dragons and kill the queen, burn the castle, and kill innocent civilians in a bid for the throne you’re no better than your own father. And so she instead attacked the army when it’s nothing but the army: no queen, no castle, no civilians.

And what of Jaime? As he sank to the bottom of the water (where you could see a strange structure sticking up from the bottom that might be an old ship, but it wasn’t clear), my husband said, “And that’s the end of Jaime,” but I don’t think so. Because I just don’t think we’re done with his story. He’s the only one who knows the truth about who killed Joffrey, and I believe it’ll be an important plot point for him to tell Cersei that. I’d love to see him be reunited with Brienne one last time.

But also, I’d love to see him and Tyrion have one final scene together. I really wanted him to look up and see the imp standing on the hill, but it was Tyrion watching Jaime throughout, not the other way around. And Tyrion knows his brother well enough to know what’s running through his mind as he sees Daenerys trying to pull the spear out of Drogon, her back to him. Tyrion mutters under his breath, “Flee, you idiot,” as he sees Jaime pause on the midst of the burned-out battlefield. As Jaime instead grabs a nearby spear and begins charging towards Daenerys like he’s at a jousting tournament, Tyrion’s face turns to dread as he mutters, “You fucking idiot,” and we all hold our collective breaths as Drogon pulls his head down over his mother’s, and opens his mouth and you get to see exactly what it looks like to anyone just before they’re immolated… and then Bronn grabs Jaime and pulls him into the water. The weight of the armour is going to pull Jaime to the very bottom, but I don’t believe that’s the end of him.

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What a show. We thought they had too much ground to cover for a mere 13 final episodes but now they have nine of them left and I’m thrilled, thinking they can do so much more but they’ve already given us some of the very things we’ve waited years to see. This week is going to feel like an eternity… I cannot wait for next week’s episode!!
Thank you to everyone who has read this far, and for continuing to read and leave comments. I love reading your feedback and your thoughts on every episode. Until next week!

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Game of Thrones, Episode 7.03: “The Queen’s Justice”

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Hello fellow Game of Thrones enthusiasts, and welcome to the great Chris and Nikki co-blog, now in its seventh iteration! I think it’s safe to say this was one of the BEST EPISODES EVER. And what’s even more remarkable about that is that there was no massive set-piece battle (though there was, sort of), no shocking death of a beloved character (um, though there kind of was), and no tearful reunion of beloved characters long separated (except that … OK, you know what? It was TOTALLY like every other mind-blowingly good episode, EXCEPT THAT IT WASN’T. FUCK OFF).

Ahem. Nikki?

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Nikki: What an episode! We got two reunions, one moment of two seven-season leads sharing the screen for the first time, we watched the Westerosian chess pieces move around the board yet again, and saw the best chugging of wine in TV history (followed by one of the greatest moments ever on this series).

Throughout this episode, the recurring theme seemed to be monstrosity: who/what are the true monsters in Westeros? What constitutes monstrosity? And what should the Westerosians be afraid of — should the strongest armies be engaged in a battle amongst themselves, or should they be joining forces to fight the dead that will end them all, regardless of the outcome of the game of thrones?

After the credits (where I keep meaning to mention: despite Pyke not being shown this season, they keep showing it in the credits because it’s the Greyjoy stronghold, and I love the way the two bridges swing wildly when the three towers rise and lock into place at the beginning of each episode), we immediately open with Jon Snow arriving with Davos at Dragonstone as Tyrion and Missandei await his arrival on the shore. This is the first time Jon Snow and Tyrion Lannister have been reunited since Tyrion left the Wall in season one. They glare for a moment, acknowledging each other, with Tyrion addressing him as “the bastard of Winterfell” and Jon calling him “the dwarf of Casterly Rock,” before each man’s face breaks into a sly smile.

It’s an fun moment for fans that calls back to the very first episode, when the Lannisters arrived at Winterfell and Tyrion noticed that bastard son standing apart from the others:

TYRION: Let me tell you something, bastard. Never forget what you are — the rest of the world will not. Wear it like armor and it can never be used to hurt you.
JON: What the hell do you know about being a bastard?
TYRION: All dwarfs are bastards in their fathers’ eyes.

In this moment the two men find a connection: each one is the son of a man who doesn’t acknowledge them as a rightful son. In Jon’s case it’s a wee bit more complicated (since Ned isn’t actually his father), but Jon doesn’t realize that. And now, seven seasons later, Jon is on his own but has risen above Ned’s achievements, and has been deemed the King of the North, while Tyrion has murdered his own father and has been ousted by his siblings, who would kill him on sight if given the chance. He has become the Hand of the Queen of the Seven Kingdoms, and now that he seems to have put his alcoholism to the side, has become a trusted advisor to Cersei. As Tyrion acknowledges to Jon, “It’s ben a long road, but we’re both still here.”

After Jon and Davos are stripped of their weapons, they begin the ascent to Daenerys’s throne room, with Jon being dwarfed by the Dothraki soldiers as he chats with Tyrion. Davos tries to make small talk with Missandei, but doesn’t get very far, simply muttering to Jon that things have changed around here.

Tyrion asks about Sansa, anticipating Jon’s questions or comments before Jon has the chance to ask them (which we know he wouldn’t have done in any case). He tells him it was a sham marriage, and unconsummated. He tells Jon that Sansa is smarter than she lets on, to which Jon amusingly replies, “She’s starting to let on.” Ha! Jon is actually less interested in hearing about the marriage his sister was forced into, and more interested to find out how Tyrion became the Hand of the Queen, but Tyrion just waves it off, saying it was a long and blessed ceremony, and adding, “To be honest I was drunk for most of it.”

If Jon weren’t there to try to save all of humanity against the white walkers, and Tyrion weren’t dodging deeper questions of what really has happened to him over the past seven years, this scene would have looked like two old friends catching up after a long absence. But there’s a deep gravity to the situation, and Jon has to remind himself that he’s there to see Daenerys. The reminder comes quickly when one of her dragons swoops low overhead, knocking both Jon and Davos to the ground in abject fear. I couldn’t help but remember the look on Tyrion’s face as he stood on that boat and saw Drogon for the first time. I assume one never forgets their first dragon, and the looks on Davos and Jon’s faces are priceless… and pretty much what Tyrion looked like a couple of seasons ago. Tyrion holds out a hand to help up Jon, and reassures him, “I’d say you get used to them, but you really don’t.”

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And then before the big meeting between Jon and Daenerys — for which we’ve been waiting SEVEN YEARS — we flash up to Melisandre and Varys chatting in a tower. “I’ve brought fire and ice together,” she says, but he’s sussed out that she’s afraid of something.

Melisandre: My time whispering in the ears of kings has come to an end.
Varys: Oh, I doubt that. Give us commonfolk one taste of power, we’re like the lion who tasted man. Nothing is ever so sweet again.

Melisandre isn’t scared of Varys, and she’ll have none of his chit-chat, reminding him instead that neither one of them is commonfolk anymore. She knows that Davos has sworn to kill her if he ever lays eyes on her again, and she won’t taunt him by letting him know she’s there. As you and I have said many, many times before, Christopher, Davos is one of the best characters on the show simply because he’s possibly the most honourable. He has intense loyalty, but knows when something is morally wrong. He is one of the most trustworthy characters on the show, and when he says he’ll do something, he’ll do it. And Melisandre knows that.

And then we cut to the moment we’ve been waiting for. Missandei introduces her leader to Jon and Davos: “You stand in the presence of Daenerys Stormborn of House Targaryen, rightful heir to the Iron Throne, rightful Queen of the Andals and the First Men, protector of the Seven Kingdoms, the Mother of Dragons, the Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, the Unburnt, the Breaker of Chains.”

There’s a pause as Jon and Davos stand there in awe for a moment, before Davos realizes he’s supposed to do the same, and he says, “This is Jon Snow…” Beat. “He’s King of the North.” It doesn’t exactly trumpet in Jon with a parade and bagpipes, but it’s all they’ve got right now.

What did you think of this meeting we’ve all been waiting for for so long, Chris?

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Christopher: It was brilliant. As was this entire episode. Before I talk about the long-awaited encounter between Jon and Daenerys, however, let me say just how much I loved this episode. It is one of the best ones of the series, but unlike some of the great episodes that function almost as standalones and rely upon epic spectacle (“Blackwater” comes to mind, as does “The Battle of the Bastards”), “The Queen’s Justice” is brilliant specifically because of the cumulative power of this series. We’re seven seasons in, and narrative threads initially spun out at the very beginning are starting to resolve into tapestry. We’ve lived with these characters for so long now—especially Jon, Daenerys, and Sansa, as well as Jaime and Cersei—that seeing these events unfold carries such emotional weight.

But that in and of itself is only half the story here—the other half is just how good the writing is, and how beautiful this episode is to look at. All of the dialogue has a kinetic energy that is reminiscent of Aaron Sorkin at his best—not sententious, speechifying Sorkin, but dynamic, rhythmic Sorkin, in which the cadences of conversation reflect the intelligence and intensity of the characters. How many amazing interchanges do we experience? Tyrion and Jon, Jon and Daenerys, Varys and Melisandre, Mycroft Tycho Nestoris and Cersei, Ebrose and Sam, and of course—the cherry on the cake of this brilliant episode—Jaime and Olenna. And as I say above, so much of these exchanges is based in our familiarity with these characters. Seeing Tyrion and Jon meet again was worth the price of admission; Jon sparring with Daenerys was what we’ve been waiting six seasons for; but then those moments of humour, like when Tyrion complains that he can’t brood in the vicinity of Jon Snow because he’d feel like an amateur, are similarly payoffs that come from the slow burn of a long, well-tended narrative. Ditto for the moment you mention, Nikki, when Davos’ best response to Daenerys’ lengthy CV is to simply say “This is Jon Snow.” It’s a hilarious fish out of water moment, reflective of both Jon Snow and Davos’ discomfort with the trappings of rank, but also manages to communicate something about Jon Snow’s simplicity of purpose, and simplicity of self.

And before I get into Jon’s encounter with Daenerys, let me rhapsodize a moment longer on just how beautiful this episode looked. Mark Mylod, who directed this episode, made extraordinary use of the natural landscapes in which they shot:

 

I’ll let those stills speak for themselves.

Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen. This is the classic definition of dramatic irony, no? At this point we all know, when Daenerys says, “I am the last Targaryen,” that NO, no you’re not! Dude standing in front of you? Your nephew! Which is weird in a variety of ways and ever so slightly creepy (especially with all the Daenerys-Jon ‘shipping that has already begun), but it makes all this maneuvering and negotiation at least somewhat moot.

That being said, what I loved most about this scene was the weight of history lying upon it, something that has been a common trope for this season so far. Tyrion observes that, had he been Jon’s advisor, he’d have argued vigorously against meeting Daenerys—as he says, Starks have not fared well when they travel south, a point raised by pretty much every other person at Winterfell. When Daenerys demands that Jon Snow bend the knee, he reminds her of precisely what Sansa reminded him, that their grandfather and uncle had been burned alive by the Mad King. And while Daenerys has the good grace to ask his forgiveness for her father’s transgressions, she still expects him to honour the oaths sworn by his forbearers.

I think one of the things I loved most about this scene is the way it shows the weakness of Daenerys’ claim. Yes, she is (excepting Jon Snow) the last scion of the Targaryens; by the laws of patrilineal descent, she has a claim on the throne, but that claim was, for all intents and purposes, obviated by Robert Baratheon’s usurpation of her father. I kept wanting Jon to say, “The Targaryens ruled for three hundred years! That’s, like, thirty seconds in the history of Westeros!” (Fun historical fact: given that GRRM based his novels in part on the Wars of the Roses, it’s worth noting that the Plantagenets—the royal family that features in Shakespeare’s history plays—essentially ruled England from Henry II’s coronation in 1154 until the death of Richard III in 1485, a span of 331 years. So the Targaryen dynasty syncs up with that history a little). Daenerys believes herself the rightful ruler of the Seven Kingdoms by law, but her ancestor Aegon took the Iron Throne by right of conquest. He forced the kings of Westeros—including Jon’s ancestor Torrhen Stark—to swear fealty, or else be turned into cinders by the same dragonfire that forged the Iron Throne.

Which is an option that Daenerys has at her disposal, but one which, as Jon Snow points out, she is reluctant to deploy. “You haven’t stormed King’s Landing,” he says. “Why not? The only reason I can see is you don’t want to kill thousands of innocent people.” A point that we know is true, because we heard Daenerys say as much in last week’s episode—and an indication that she grasps the weakness of her position from a legal and historical perspective. She learned hard lessons in Meereen, a city in which her only authority, ultimately, came from the people themselves. Though she might claim her family name gives her rights to Westeros, she knows a wise ruler wins the people.

This does not, however, prevent her from telling Jon Snow that, however batshit her dad was, her family name gives her rights to Westeros, and she is annoyed that he is reluctant to swear fealty.

(Just as an aside, was anyone else remembering Daenerys’ willingness last season to entertain the idea of letting the Iron Islands be a separate kingdom in exchange for Yara’s allegiance and her fleet? Where’s that open-mindedness with Jon Snow?)

If we realize in this scene how tenuous Daenerys’ legal claim to the throne is, we also realize how ludicrous Jon Snow’s warning about White Walkers is. One wonders if Daenerys would have tolerated his apparent gibberings had Melisandre not primed her that (1) Jon Snow was someone of substance, and (2) she needed to listen to what he said.

One way or another, Jon’s impassioned plea is cut short by the bad news of Yara’s fleet being waylaid, and we segue to Theon being fished out of the drink. And from there, we go to Euron making his triumphant way through the streets of King’s Landing, with his prisoners in tow. What did you think of his presentation to Cersei, Nikki? And perhaps more importantly, what did you think of Cersei’s long monologue to Ellaria?

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Nikki: Excellent summation of a scene we’ve been waiting to see for years, my friend, and I agree: it’s episodes like this one that make long-form television worth watching. I wanted to add three things: one, I couldn’t help but think while watching it… Jon Snow is standing before Daenerys talking of the dead coming back to life and walking south, and tells her he’s seen it. That Ice has defied all logic, all laws of nature, and is resurrecting the dead and they will vanquish the living. And she looks at him like he’s some nutjob who just climbed down from the crazy tree. And yet… Daenerys Targaryen cannot be burned by fire. He has seen Ice defy logic, but with Daenerys, Fire defies all logic. She has emerged unburned from several fiery moments, and oh, by the way, she owns three motherfreakin’ DRAGONS that she hatched from the funeral pyre of her husband from which she emerged not only alive and unburned, but with a full head of hair when technically she should have been bald as a cueball.

So I thought it was interesting that she thought of his account as a bunch of “myths” when her entire life story sounds like some jacked-up Brothers Grimm tale.

Secondly, I loved the moment where Davos starts to talk about Jon Snow’s resurrection and Jon leans in like, “Hush-hush-hush-zipit!!” It reminded me of Basil Fawlty marching around Fawlty Towers and saying loudly around the Germans, “DON’T MENTION THE WAR!!!

And thirdly, one of our readers, Audrey, wondered on my FB wall if, when the dragon swooped down at Jon on his walk up to the castle, is it possible the dragons can sense another Targaryen in their midst? HMMM…

But on to King’s Landing! Yes, let’s gloss quickly over Euron’s triumphant return and Yara and the Sand Snakes having to a do a walk of shame similar to Cersei’s and then him being a dick to Jaime. I can’t wait to see terrible things happen to Euron (and yet, as I mentioned two weeks ago, I kind of love watching him at the same time because he’s just so slimy!) He will be the naval captain and Jaime will be the army captain… and both men want Cersei. But let’s get to the meat of what happens next.

My husband thought that when Ellaria and Tyene got there, Cersei would go to town on Ellaria. But I said to him, no, that’ll never happen: she’ll go to town on Tyene, and make Ellaria watch. It’s the kind of revenge any mom would enact on another mom if the argument involved one of their children being hurt. And that’s exactly what Cersei does.

Lena Headey is extraordinary in this scene — I don’t think she’s been better in this entire series. She’s angry, vengeful, but about to see her deepest fantasy come true. Yet she can’t help but betray how broken she still is over the death of her daughter through the waver in her voice, the bitterness of her words, the jabs she takes at Ellaria’s expense. She’s matched in this scene only by Indira Varma, who has an even more difficult task as she must convey all of those same things — anger and brokenness over the death of Oberyn, fear for her daughter’s life, pleading — all without saying a word. Her eyes brim with tears throughout the scene, her forehead has veins pulsing out of them in terror, and she strains at her chains in an effort to gouge out Cersei’s eyes one minute, plead for any shred of sympathy the next. The two actresses are remarkable.

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The best way to go through this scene is to actually quote Cersei’s words, because her monologue is brilliant, and as you point out, Chris, the dialogue is SO well written in this episode. This is probably my new favourite monologue of a series that has featured so many: “When my daughter was taken from me — my only daughter — well, you can’t imagine how that feels unless you’ve lost a child,” she begins. This one sentence contains so much. We know she’s about to be brutally honest with Ellaria and tell her how Ellaria’s actions affected her. We hear the resentment in the way she says “only,” and there’s also taunting there — she says the sentence in a way that indicates Ellaria couldn’t possibly know what this feels like, despite the fact Ellaria’s other daughters were killed just hours earlier. It’s vicious and heartbreaking. And then Cersei continues:

I fed her at my own breast even though they told me to give her to the wet nurse. I couldn’t bear to see her in another woman’s arms. I never got to have a mother, but Myrcella did. She was mine and you took her from me. Why did you do that?!

At this moment Cersei’s voice wavers for the one and only time in her monologue. She’s never gotten over the pain of losing Myrcella, who was clearly her favourite. She was devastated after Joffrey’s death, yet there was a part of her that was perhaps relieved — even his own mother knew he’d turned into a monster. Myrcella was innocent and good and kind, and was pulled into this as an innocent casualty. Cersei has never gotten past that. Tommen was similarly sweet and kind, but he took his own life, which Cersei has taken to be a judgment on her actions, and a betrayal by him that he would leave her in such a way. Myrcella’s death is the one that resonates the deepest for her. But then she composes herself and talks about Tyene’s Dornish beauty, and how she guesses Tyene is actually Ellaria’s favourite, too. She says we shouldn’t choose favourites, but sometimes the heart just wants what it wants. “We all make our choices,” she says. “You chose to murder my daughter. You must have felt powerful after you made that choice. Do you feel powerful now?”

Ellaria knows what’s coming. She doesn’t know when, and she doesn’t know how, but she knows something terrible is about to befall Tyene. And then Cersei actually, unknowingly, aligns herself with Arya by saying she doesn’t sleep well at night, instead imagining how she will hurt the enemies who have hurt her. Turns out, much like Arya (for whom Cersei is at the top of the list), Cersei has a kill list as well. Probably every character does. She tells Ellaria she imagined crushing her skull the way the Mountain crushed Oberyn’s, but that would be too quick. She imagined him crushing Tyene’s skull instead, but that would be a terrible waste of her beauty.

And then… she kisses Tyene on the lips, and the horror of what Cersei has just done washes over Ellaria. Her eyes bulge in terror, her body goes rigid, and her mind must be travelling at a million miles a second. In that moment she probably regrets everything she’s done to get to this moment, nothing more than the death kiss she herself planted on Myrcella’s lips. Cersei quietly wipes her own lips and takes the antidote as Qyburn explains it could take hours or days to die, but death will be certain. And then Cersei deals the final blow, which even I didn’t see coming:

Your daughter will die here in this cell. You will be here watching when she does. You’ll be here the rest of your days. If you refuse to eat, we’ll force food down your throat. You will live to watch your daughter rot, to watch that beautiful face collapse to bone and dust, all the while contemplating the choices you’ve made. [to the Mountain] Make sure the guards change the torches every few hours — I don’t want her to miss a thing.

And with that, Cersei sweeps out of the room. Tyene’s fate is sealed, and Ellaria doesn’t just have the burden of watching her daughter die, but of watching (and smelling) her daughter’s body as it rots. The rest of her (possibly many) days and years will be spent watching her daughter disintegrate, and they will be filled with unspeakable torture. It’s the worst revenge anyone could have on a mother, and Cersei’s done it.

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And here’s the part where I go dark: it felt deserved. Yes, I said it. I despise Cersei, but Myrcella had no role to play in any of this other than to be the pawn that Ellaria drew in to the battle. Ellaria killed a little girl, and destroyed her mother. Yes, Ellaria believes that Cersei is responsible for Oberyn’s death, but as Chris and I both pointed out in that episode, and as Cersei mentions at the top of her monologue in this scene, Oberyn COULD have won that battle. He had the upper hand, but he had to prance around the ring, sucking up the accolades, giving Clegane the opportunity to get back up and crush his head like a melon. Cersei didn’t kill Oberyn: his own pride did. And Ellaria killed Myrcella out of revenge. If someone had killed my child, I would want the worst possible thing to happen to that person, and I can’t think of anything worse than what Cersei has put on Ellaria (I wouldn’t be able to actually do it, but one has to admire Cersei for being able to do it… when you have nothing to lose, you can do anything). As Cersei leaves the room, my heart went out to Ellaria and Tyene, straining at their chains, their mouths gagged, able to see each other but not hug each other for comfort or touch each other in any way. But another part of me felt, Ellaria deserves this.

A Lannister always pays her debts, indeed.

And then we cut to Cersei walking into Jaime’s chambers and kissing him full on the mouth, and all I could think was, “OMG I hope she really wiped off that Long Farewell from her lips!” She and Jaime sleep together for the first time since Myrcella’s death because for once, Cersei feels like she might be on the path to becoming whole again. They’re awakened by a page (who shares Cersei’s haircut for some reason, though hers looks better than that shaggy mess on Cersei’s head), telling her the man from Braavos has arrived.

And then Mycroft shows up, and basically explains that the Bank of Braavos places its bets on the side that they believe will win, and the Lannisters owe a huge debt to Braavos that has never been paid back (a debt that goes back to her spendthrift husband, Robert Baratheon). Cersei has an answer for everything, reminding him that the Bank of Braavos has put a lot of money into the slave trade, and how’s that working out for them now that Daenerys has freed the slaves? Mycroft pauses and says, “The slave trade has seen a… downturn.” She tells him Daenerys isn’t a queen so much as a revolutionary, and revolutionaries aren’t worth banking on because they’re not about the money. Cersei, on the other hand, will show him who’s worth banking on. Cersei explains that she needs two weeks to prove him wrong, that the Lannisters will be the stronger party, and that she will pay off what she owes because “A Lannister always pays his debts.” Mycroft smiles and remarks that Cersei is definitely her father’s daughter.

And now it’s time for Tyrion and Jon Snow to brood on the same cliff. What did you think about their conversation post–Daenerys/Jon meeting, Christopher?

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Christopher: I know that I’m supposed to be super stoked that Jon Snow and Daenerys have finally met—and I am—but I think my favourite parts of this episode were Tyrion and Jon reuniting. Tyrion is whom Jon needed these past six seasons—he needed that voice of pragmatic wisdom guiding him, correcting all the bad instincts he learned from Ned Stark. These two characters have incredible chemistry, something we’re reminded of when, after their stilted greetings on the beach, they both smile. A “sly smile,” as you say, Nikki—a less restrained pair of actors might have broken into grins and laughter and embraced, but here we have a world of respect communicated subtly.

As I say above, I love the bit of humour that begins this scene. “I came down here to brood over my failure to predict the Greyjoy attack,” Tyrion tells Jon Snow. “You’re making it difficult. You look a lot better brooding than I do. You make me feel like I’m failing at brooding.” Well, of course he feels that way: Jon Snow is an Olympic-level brooder. If brooding were a Nobel category, he’d be a laureate yesterday. He could give Angel a run for his Byronic money. If Springsteen ever recorded a single titled “Born to Brood,” it would have Jon Snow on the cover. This we all know, because we’ve been watching for six seasons, so Tyrion’s little gibe is at once a vintage Tyrion bon mot and a lovely shout out to the audience. It’s also a subtle little preamble to the wisdom the Dwarf of Casterly Rock will be laying down on the King in the North. Brooding is certainly aesthetically pleasing when done by the likes of Jon Snow, but there’s a metric fuck-tonne of practical considerations with which Game of Thrones, as a fantasy series, is almost fetishistically obsessed. Logistics, money, politics, and of course the great grey area between good and evil into which pretty much every character on this show falls.

Jon Snow is a character who would have fared so much better in Narnia or Middle-Earth—virtuous and pure of purpose, he’s a Peter Pevensie or an Aragorn, but in Westeros such people don’t tend to do well. They need a Tyrion to guide them.

In our first post of the new season, I compared Jon Snow to a climate change activist beset by deniers and people who don’t see the severity of the threat. That comes through in this episode as well, especially in terms of Jon’s frustration with everyone. And frankly, his frustration is not entirely reasonable: when he says “it’s hard for me to fathom, it really is—if someone told me about the White Walkers and the Night King …” he trails off, as if suddenly recognizing that, well, he’d probably not believe it either. Tyrion puts it in perspective, saying “People’s minds aren’t made for problems that large.” There’s a great line in Ian McEwan’s novel Solar, in which one character says she can’t let herself think about climate change, because if she did, she wouldn’t be able to think about anything else. As Tyrion says, people can deal with concrete and understandable monstrosity more than they can with something enormous but abstract: “The White Walkers, the Night King, the army of the dead … it’s almost a relief to confront a comfortably familiar monster like my sister.” But “conventional wisdom” necessarily gives way to evidence, and a wise person knows to trust the trustworthy. “It was nonsense, and everybody knew it,” he tells Jon. “But then Mormont saw them. You saw them. And I trust the eyes of an honest man more than I trust what everybody knows.”

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The other key theme in this scene is patrimony, and the mistakes and sins of parents carried by their offspring. When Jon Snow laments that perhaps he’s just repeating his father’s mistakes, Tyrion tells him “Children are not their fathers … luckily for all of us.” This is an episode preoccupied with fathers: I said above that the weight of history lies upon the action, and it makes itself most poignantly present in the memories of fathers no longer present, but whose actions in life still affect the behaviour and expectations of the living. Tyene will die in Ellaria’s presence because of Ellaria’s revenge for the death of Tyene’s father; both Cersei and Jaime are compared to Tywin, while Tyrion orchestrates the Unsullied’s sack of Casterly Rock by way of a task Tywin once gave him to humiliate him; Daenerys must struggle upstream against the trauma inflicted by her father on an entire kingdom; Jon Snow sees himself repeating his father and grandfather’s mistakes; but in the episode’s great dramatic irony, we know who his true father was.

But Tyrion, perhaps because at this point he has little more than contempt for the memory of his father, is having none of it: telling Jon Snow, basically, not to be an idiot—that it is entirely unreasonable to expect Daenerys to accept the words of a man she’d never met after a single meeting, a meeting in which he has all but rejected her claim to the throne. People are rarely what they seem, that there is more to “Northern fools than meets the eye,” and, by the same token, that Jon would do well to familiarize himself with what Daenerys has done and why. “She protects people from monsters,” he tells Jon, “just as you do.” As you say in your opening comments, Nikki, this is an episode about monstrosity and the forms it takes, and the question of which monsters are worse. Tyrion’s point here is to raise that very question to Jon Snow: he protects his people from monsters, but sometimes the human ones—like Ramsay Bolton—are at least as bad as the non-human ones.

I hope when they make their submission for Peter Dinklage’s Emmy nomination this year that they include this episode, because he’s so damn good in this scene. Tyrion lays it all out for Jon Snow; it’s such a great contrast between the single-minded ideologue living in frustration because nobody sees his simple, glaring Truth, and the talented political operative who knows how to get shit done. Tyrion believes Jon, but is also very aware of what is possible and what is not. Jon is ready to decamp almost immediately because Daenerys is unreceptive to his pleas; Tyrion puts him in his place, pointing out “It’s not a reasonable thing to ask,” but then saying, “So, do you have anything reasonable to ask?”

As it turns out? Yes. Yes, he does. “Dragonglass?” Daenerys asks incredulously, and Tyrion finds himself patiently explaining to his queen—who chooses at this moment to be as obtuse as her nephew—why they should grant this request. “We just lost two of our allies!” she says petulantly. “Which is why,” Tyrion responds slowly, almost as if he’s sounding out the words for a dunce, “I was meeting with Jon Snow—a potential ally.” When she asks if he believes Jon’s tales, Tyrion makes a pretty commonsensical point—that he wouldn’t have come if he wasn’t under great duress, and that letting him mine the dragonglass earns Daenerys a potential ally in exchange for a resource that is worthless to her and which she was unaware of anyway.

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While I’m irked by the fact that this will be a short season, I have to admit that it seems to be making for a much brisker narrative progression. I had more or less assumed that the long-awaited meeting of Daenerys and Jon Snow would come at the very end of the episode, frustrating viewers by drawing this particular drama out. But no: not only do they meet at the start, but we get TWO tête-a-têtes between the characters that have become, for all intents and purposes, the main characters in this sprawling ensemble.

Their second scene together, however brief, is powerful, and we begin to see the first stirring of an alliance based in trust. She tells him that she named two of her dragons for her brothers, and then notes that he lost two brothers as well. I have to imagine Jon is being polite when he doesn’t correct that number—as far as he knows, he’s lost three brothers, as he doesn’t yet know Bran is still alive, as Sam swore to keep Bran’s secret. (Wait … did he? I know he did in the novels, but now I can’t remember if he did in the series).

And speaking of Bran … what did you think of the latest Stark reunion, Nikki?

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Nikki: Oh man, you ask a good question at the end there, and I’m sure our readers will let us know the real answer, but I’m pretty sure Theon told Sansa that he didn’t, in fact, kill Rickon and Bran, and so she knows they’re alive at that point (I’m thinking that was end of season five? Damn, I need a rewatch). So she would have told Jon that, but they would also know that Rickon is now dead because Jon watched him die at the Battle of the Bastards when Rickon wouldn’t frickin’ zig-zag. So my thinking is, they know he lived, but they don’t know if he’s still alive because he’s out there on his own and is crippled. For the time being, Jon isn’t going to count him among the dead until he knows for sure.

But yes, speaking of Bran, onto that… awkward… reunion. I’ve been dying to see the Starks actually get a bit of happy news, and knowing how close-knit the family is, and how devastated they’ve been over the deaths of Ned, Catelyn, Robb, and Rickon, finding anyone who shares their DNA would be a happy moment right now. So when there’s a knock at the gate and Sansa is called, I thought, “OMG I WAS WRONG IT’S ARYA!” And… it wasn’t Arya. Last week I suggested that after seeing Nymeria, perhaps Arya realizes she doesn’t actually belong at Winterfell and was turning to go south instead. And if that’s the case, maybe we’ll never get that long-awaited reunion between her and her family. Instead, we get Bran. Dead-eyed, robot-sounding, George-Harrison-looking, prominent-Adam’s-apple, three-eyed-raven Bran. The best part of this scene is the look on Sansa’s face, the swirl of emotions that rises up in her, the fact that her brother was just a tiny little thing the last time she saw him, crippled, and that she’s already mourned his death once and here he is, finally back from the dead. All of those things pass over her face in an instant (Sophie Turner does a beautiful job in this scene) and she rushes to his side and grips him in a huge bear hug. And Bran… doesn’t hug back. Um… I thought he was a paraplegic? What the heck happened to his arms?!

Anyway.

You and I have lamented throughout the series, Chris, that the Bran sections are the snoozefests, and the show is best when we don’t have to deal with Bran (remember that joyous season five?) And he should be an interesting character: he’s a Stark, he’s the unfortunate victim of Jaime and Cersei’s canoodling way back in season one, he’s the breathing example of why we can never 100% forgive Jaime Lannister, he’s a warg, he is one of their best hopes in the war against the white walkers. But there’s just something so unsettling about this kid. He’s gone away a boy and come back some mystical guru changed by a cult, and Sansa has to sit there going, “Ehhh… yeah, I’m gonna be over there now bye” after spending a whole two minutes with him.

The gist of the conversation is basically:

Sansa: You’re the lord of Winterfell now.
Bran: I can’t be the lord of anything, I’m the three-eyed raven.
Sansa: WTF is that?
Bran: Sorry, you wouldn’t understand.
Sansa: Uh, try me?
Bran: I can see everything, past, present, future, all in weird little bits, but I need to train more so I can see the picture more clearly. I know all of this because the three-eyed raven told me.
Sansa: I… thought… YOU were the three-eyed raven?
Bran: I told you it would be too complicated, and by the way, you looked so beautiful that night Ramsay violently raped you on your wedding night.

Jesus Christ, Bran!!! First he mansplains the teachings of the three-eyed raven the way Kellyanne Conway would explain the tweeting of the small-handed man, and then of all the moments he could touch upon to let Sansa know he can see all, he points out the single most traumatic moment of her life?

This is How Not to Reunite With Family 101.

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But now… Bran’s defense, because I’ve thought about this a lot and I believe this is the only way these scenes could have gone. If you could see everything that’s ever happened, and everything that will happen, but only in bits and pieces you could barely put together, there are several ways you could handle this. Most people would simply go stark raving mad, screaming and screaming whilst clutching their heads in agony. Or you would kill yourself because NO ONE wants to live with the pain of the history of the universe in their heads. Or you could adopt this Zen-like attitude, shutting down all emotions because emotions will kill you. And Bran has done exactly that. He can’t experience human emotions anymore because the moment he feels pain over seeing his sister get raped, he’ll feel pain over Rickon’s death, he’ll watch Ned’s head get chopped off in an endless loop, he’ll see his mother’s throat slit, his brother’s unborn baby stabbed… he’ll see every Stark ancestor, every person in the history of Winterfell be raped and killed and mutilated throughout history. He needs to shut down emotions and simply read this information the way a computer would. Bran simply cannot hug Sansa: that would express happiness or gratitude or relief over seeing his sister, and he can no longer feel those things. He can’t feel sympathy or empathy in any way. He’s an automaton. He is one of their greatest weapons in the fight against the white walkers (as long as he can figure out how to control his powers) but he can no longer feel anything emotionally.

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He has given up his very soul in order to give himself over to the cause. In a way, Bran IS dead, because this is not Bran anymore. Of all the Starks, he is the one who no longer bears even the slightest resemblance to his former self, not physically, emotionally, or personality-wise. And as Sansa walks away from him, she knows it. He’s now an ally, but he’s no longer her brother. There will be no more family chats in the weirwood tree grove.

Now I skipped past the scene that preceded this one, so I’ll touch on it briefly, but just before the knock at the gate, Sansa is talking to Baelish and showing that while the boys are entirely focused on war, the women can get down to the practical matters of how to stay alive during the war. She sets about filling their grain stores, contacting local Houses, setting up alliances as they head into the long winter. Meanwhile Littlefinger is yip-yip-yipping into her ear telling her that he knows Cersei better than anyone (to which she briskly and curtly replies, “No, you don’t” and then points out, ooh, you think it’s a revelation that the woman who killed my mother, brother, and father is evil? OLD NEWS, BUDDY) but he tells her that the best way to live from this point on is to imagine every single possibility, every outcome, is happening at once, so she will never be surprised.

And then along comes a brother who tells her he can see everything that’s ever happened and will happen all at once. Excellent timing, dude!

But now we move over to Sam and Sir Jorah. The Maester inspects the wounds and says it’s like someone peeled off the greyscale and put some sort of ointment on them. Sam tries to play dumb and Jorah says nope, he just happened to wake up this way. The scene is really funny just for their ridiculous attempts to put one over on the Maester, who clearly knows he’s dealing with a couple of clowns who have figured out how to conquer greyscale. The triumph that Jorah Mormont will actually live and will once again see his Khaleesi is undercut by the hilarity of the scene, which then cuts to Sam in the Maester’s office. Archmaester Ebrose knows exactly what Sam has done, and Sam sees a future of nothing but fecal duty from this point on, until the Maester expresses how impressed he is that Sam did that. And he asks how he did it. How in a place where they’ve all been trying to figure out a cure did he just figure one out that quickly? Sam says, simply, “I read the books and followed the instructions.” Ha! The Citadel is crammed full of books, it’s built on books, it’s surrounded by books, and they spend all day looking at books. And yet, somehow, it never seemed to have occurred to anyone to, you know, check the bloody books. And so he says Sam has proven himself well, and we have this moment of thinking OMG Sam just fast-tracked himself to a quick grad school graduation and will be given a class to teach… but no. He’s basically sent to the photocopier room and told to make copies of the old, musty books sitting there.

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I know we’re supposed to regard this as a funny outcome, that them’s the breaks and Sam is not going to be able to leapfrog over someone with more seniority, but I also read the scene as pointing out everything that’s wrong in situations like that, whether it be academia or other institutions. In a place where people are in agony and dying of a disease, one man found a cure (whoa, that sentence sounded like the opening of a movie trailer…) and used it to save the life of a man who seemed beyond saving. And instead of immediately setting to work to save every other person in the place, he’s sent off to yet another menial task as everyone else gets back to whatever useless task they were doing before. Sam proved that the answers can lie in books — not only did he figure out the cure for Ser Jorah, but he discovered where Jon could find copious amounts of dragonglass — but the other scholars say no, you’re moving too fast, young buck, let’s just slow down and spend the next 200 years searching through these books slowly to find the very things you found in a week, shall we? Sam will have to continue to be a rebel if the Citadel is going to be any help at all against the white walkers, because the other scholars are clearly too blinded by their own hierarchies and traditions to see when someone has a better way of doing things. Here’s hoping there’s a dazzling answer to everything somewhere in those scrolls (I’m hoping for the Roman numeral 42 to be at the top of one of them!)

And from here we move back to the war room (“You can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!”) and Daenerys and Tyrion enacting their very important plan to trick Cersei. And I’ll let you take this one to the end, my friend!

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Christopher: Before I carry on to the end of the episode, one more aesthetic observation: the stills from this episode could fill an art gallery, and they seem evenly divided between the kind of epic landscape shots I cited above, and people in rooms bathed in light from a window. We’re back in the war room, as you say, and Daenerys and her chief advisors are framed in a nimbus of light behind them. But throughout this episode, we have similar shots, from Ser Jorah’s deeply symbolic moment of salvation after Ebrose’s diagnosis, to the low-angle show of Tycho Nestoris, to the first glimpse we have of Lady Olenna in her room, brooding as she awaits her fate.

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tycho

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I have little doubt that if one went back and combed through the series from the start, we’d see lots of such shots—after all, it is set in a world sans electricity, so the directors and cinematographers have to be inventive with torchlight and candlelight and sun streaming through windows. But it does seem to me that this episode was particularly invested in this strategy, perhaps as a visual balance to the proliferation of epic landscape mise-en-scène.

But to the war room! Daenerys wishes to chase down Euron’s fleet personally and burn them to their waterlines with her dragons—which, I must confess, I think is the best response. Yes, it puts the queen at risk, but … dragons! How better to wipe that smug grin off Euron’s face than with fire as hot as the sun? Fortunately for her advisors, who are not keen on the idea, she allows herself to be distracted by Tyrion’s battle plan.

And we’re back to fathers and sons. “Interesting thing about my father,” says Tyrion, “He built our house up from near ruin. He built our army, he built Casterly Rock as we know it … but he didn’t build the sewers.” No, he gave Tyrion that job to punish him for being Tyrion—and Tyrion took advantage of his father’s arrogance to build a back door into an otherwise impregnable castle in order to better continue his nocturnal debauches.

(Just as an aside: why is Tyrion just telling Daenerys et al about this plan now? Would this not have been a conversation they had when he first proposed sacking Casterly Rock? “But it’s impregnable!” someone says. “You might think so,” he replies, “but listen to this amusing anecdote about my father’s self-destructive need to humiliate me!” But no, apparently he just convinced Daenerys to throw the Unsullied against the seat of Lannister power on the strength of “Don’t worry, I’ll tell you my plan later”).

We get a Bronn echo in this monologue: “Casterly Rock is an impregnable fortress,” Tyrion admits, “but as a good friend of mine once said, ‘Give me ten good men and I’ll impregnate the bitch.’” That was Bronn’s boast in season one in response to Tyrion’s comment that the Eyrie was impregnable. The fact that these lines are spoken in voice-over as the Unsullied run through the main gates like a flood of sperm is … well, on one hand, a bit overdone; on another hand, at least a little ironic.

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(Not included here: Lockett’s tedious professorial lecture on the semantic significance of “impregnable” as having the same root as “impregnate” and the fact that in Shakespeare un-sacked cities are referred to as “maidens” and that the military conquest of towns and fortresses is explicitly figured as sexual violation. See Henry V and The Rape of Lucrece if interested).

Oh, the bait-and-switch of these episodes—we watch with increasing glee as Daenerys’ forces overcome the Lannisters, our feelings stoked by Tyrion’s “why we fight” voice-over … only to realize our heroes have been out-maneuvered again. Grey Worm suddenly realizes that Casterly Rock is manned by, essentially, a skeleton crew; and he mounts the battlements to see Daenerys’ fleet again surprised and routed by Euron Greyjoy. “Where are they?” Grey Worm demands of a dying Lannister soldier. “Where are the rest of the Lannisters?”

Cut to Jaime riding through the serried ranks of soldiers the Unsullied had expected to rout. And we see who his allies are …

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Earlier in this post I commented on the symbolic role of the absent father, so it’s interesting to note that the one father who is present in the episode is Randyll Tarly—having obviously decided to betray House Tyrell and throw in his lot with the Lannisters, we see him riding alongside Bronn as the Lannister army marches on Highgarden. It’s an interesting little reveal: Randyll Tarly, however much of an asshole he is to his son Samwell, has a reputation for honour rivaling Ned Stark’s, something we caught a glimpse of in the last episode. But here he is: though Jaime was technically correct last week in saying that his loyalty to the throne supersedes his loyalty to House Tyrell, the state of the throne is such that Cersei’s legitimacy is hardly a done deal. More certain is the legitimacy of the Tyrells, but Randyll has obviously rationalized his betrayal and his elevation to Warden. Meanwhile, his disinherited son has embraced that fate and found an almost equally censorious father figure—though one that at least recognizes his talents.

But more poignantly, we see the approaching army from the perspective of the Queen of Thorns. Looking down at the attacking army from her perch, she turns away and waits for the inevitable. Jaime strides through Highgarden, passing heaps of Tyrell dead. The sequence is actually quite unusual for the show: mostly a camera following Jaime from behind, with jump cuts between different parts of the castle as, once again, “The Rains of Castemere” plays. “It’s done?” Olenna asks Jaime when he enters her chambers. On hearing the affirmative, she says, with a touch of mockery at her sentimentality, “And now the rains weep o’er our halls,” citing the very song playing. (“And so he spoke, and so he spoke, / That lord of Castamere, / But now the rains weep o’er his hall, / With no one there to hear).

Fighting, Olenna says, “was never our forte,” a line that echoes her season three excoriation of House Tyrell’s motto “Growing Strong,” and its choice of a rose as a sigil. She seems unsurprised, somehow, to be in this position—as if in her long life she has learned not to rely too heavily on hopeful expectations. Tyrion’s gambit, it turns out, did not work, at least in part because he did not know how precipitously Lannister fortunes had declined. Jaime makes clear to Olenna that he values Casterly Rock—for purely sentimental reasons, and will eventually take it back … but for the moment, it has no real value. There’s a sad bit of symbolism there for our episode’s theme of patrimony: Tyrion wanted Casterly Rock, had in fact demanded it of his father, and been rebuffed in insulting fashion. That he makes this error now—committing Daenrys’ precious Unsullied to taking a fortress that no longer has any strategic value—feels entirely like Tywin has checkmated him from beyond the grave.

But for all of our heroes’ frustrations at being outmaneuvered, there is at least one gleam of satisfaction in Olenna’s final barb. Jaime the Merciful will allow her to die without pain, in spite of all of Cersei’s baroque torture and execution fantasies. Poisoned wine—a poetic end, and she herself acknowledges.

But before I get into that, let me just say that in a brilliant episode whose brilliance was the writing and dialogue, this final scene was just. So. Good. I’m sad to bid farewell to Olenna Tyrell, but happy that she left this world delivering the barbs (or thorns) she dealt while in it. She drinks her poisoned wine quickly, so Jaime cannot change his mind about the method of her execution, but then explains why a painless poison is so very different from the way she murdered his son. “Not at all what I intended,” she says, having gulped down her death. “Tell Cersei. I want her to know it was me.”

There are two great moments of face acting in this episode: Ellaria, when she realizes that Cersei has killed Tyene, and Jaime, when Olenna’s words land.

And with the latter, the episode ends. That it ends not with a huge spectacle or plot twist, but with the revelation of a truth we already knew speaks to the power of this episode’s writing. Things are coming together; Jon Snow meets Daenerys, but secrets like Olenna’s murder of Joffrey are coming to light. We don’t necessarily need Bran to be the Three-Eyed Raven to tell us what’s what—shit’s getting real one way or another.

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“You should know, I spent the last few years building up an immunity to iocane powder.”

And with that, we’re done with another week of Game of Thrones! Thank you all, and we’ll see you next week. In the meantime, call you dads and tell them you love them … you have no idea what might happen otherwise.

 

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Game of Thrones, Episode 7.02: “Stormborn”

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Hello again, and welcome to episode two of the penultimate season of Game of Thrones! My apologies for the lateness of this posting–entirely my fault–but here we are with our weekly recap/review/analysis. And by “we,” of course, I mean myself and the incomparable Nikki Stafford.

Lots to get through, so let’s just jump in …

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Christopher: Well, we’re in it now! We begin with Daenerys’ first major war council, and end with her first major setback, as Yara’s fleet is waylaid by Euron’s while en route to Dorne. So much for the best laid plans.

Remember last week when I said the brooding gloom of Stannis’ Dragonstone scenes had been replaced with the sun and blue skies of Daenerys’ homecoming? Well, that didn’t last long. We open on Daenerys’ new seat of power barely visible through the sheeting rain and dark—we might be on the island of Dragonstone, but the castle feels like Otranto. It’s such a wonderfully gothic intro, I couldn’t help wondering if Qyburn had relocated his cadaver reanimation lab to one of these towers, along with a supercilious hunchback assistant.

If ever I need to define pathetic fallacy to classes of mine in the future, I think I will just show them this scene: the hope of triumph of last week has given way to the stormclouds of distrust (yes, I just wrote that sentence), in a suitably portentous way. As Tyrion observes, it was on Dragonstone on just such a tempestuous night that Daenerys was born. (A quick recap of Thrones history: Daenerys was still in her mother’s belly when the queen was forced to flee King’s Landing with her young son Viserys and a handful of loyal followers, just before the Lannister army sacked the city. They sailed for Dragonstone, and it was in the throes of a terrible storm that she was born. Her mother died soon after). Daenerys, however, does not seem particularly happy. “I always imagined this would be a homecoming,” she says. “It doesn’t feel like a homecoming.” Whether it’s the foul weather or the dawning awareness of the enormity of the task she’s taken on, the Mother Dragons seems to be in a bit of a mood—and less inclined than usual to deal with anyone’s bullshit. When Varys speaks encouragingly of how disliked Cersei is by any measure, suggesting that Daenerys’ arrival will erode even more support for the newly crowed queen, she’s having none of it. Flatterers and knaves had long pumped up Viserys’ dreams with lies about how the common people of Westeros drank secret toasts to him and prayed for his return; and all the while, aggrandized by such illusions, he’d abused and demeaned his little sister and his enablers facilitated her sale to Khal Drogo.

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I will admit, Daenerys’ castigation of Varys seemed to come from nowhere; and it felt entirely unfair, but only because Varys has come to be one of my favourite characters. At first I was affronted on his behalf, but as Daenerys added to the list of charges, I couldn’t help but think … well, yes—he has been playing all sides. He was complicit in essentially enslaving her to the Dothraki. She navigated herself through that magnificently, as Varys points out, but that doesn’t really negate his willingness to use a helpless girl as a pawn on his board, and to assist a cruel and capricious fool in his quest for power.

So where do Varys’ loyalties lie? His response is one of my favourite Varys moments yet, and it is a speech I kind of want to send to every Republican in Congress cynically working with Trump:

Incompetence should not be rewarded with blind loyalty. As long as I have my eyes I’ll use them. I wasn’t born into a great house. I came from nothing. I was sold as a slave, and carved up as an offering. When I was a child, I lived in alleys, gutters, abandoned houses. You wish to know where my true loyalties lie? Not with any king or queen, but with the people, the people who suffer under despots and prosper under just rule. The people whose hearts you aim to win.

Daenerys comes around to his perspective, making him swear he’ll tell her if she forsakes her duty to the people. It’s an interesting moment, and an interesting question for a fantasy series that has, for all intents and purposes, progressive politics: how to square a contemporary, democratic worldview with a neo-medieval narrative? One thing Game of Thrones has done well—both the novels and the series—is complicate the traditional regressive tendencies of fantasy, which as a genre is nostalgic about rather emphatically undemocratic politics, i.e. hereditary monarchy. As a rule, the genre cheats: employing the trope of fate or destiny, the suggestion is always that the person or people destined to rule will always be great rulers simply by dint of being destined (Aragorn, King Arthur, the Pevensie siblings, e.g.). One thing Thrones has made clear is that hereditary kings and queens—and the absolute power they wield—are pretty much a nightmare, and the best you can hope for is a ruler that isn’t actually sociopathic.

But then we shift from Varys’ quasi-egalitarian and vaguely humanist manifesto to an audience with someone who is all about the destiny. What did you make of Melissandre’s return, Nikki?

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Nikki: I’m a huge fan of the complexities of Melisandre, and I think the actress playing her is astounding, so I was thrilled when she showed up. And it’s so interesting to think, in a way, that she’s literally back where she started when we first saw her: at Dragonstone, where she was with Stannis Baratheon in the season two premiere. And as Dany points out, her timing is rather fortuitous. Just moments earlier Tyrion stood between Daenerys and Varys as they went back and forth, and watched the two of them like a tennis match, occasionally interjecting with support for Varys. You could tell he was nervous: the Mother of Dragons seemed suddenly pissed, and, you know, she has dragons so all the little birds in the world weren’t going to help The Spider in that moment. And now we have Melisandre, standing before Daenerys and telling her that she needs to ally herself with Jon Snow, King of the North (cough your nephew cough), to stop the White Walkers. Once again Daenerys begins to challenge the person standing before her, and once again Tyrion jumps in to stick up for Jon Snow. He seems A) surprised to hear that Jon Snow is still alive, and B) impressed at how far he’s come, and happy to advise Dany to align herself with him because he knows Jon Snow is a man of honor. Daenerys replies that she will allow Jon Snow to come and talk to her directly, but under one condition: he needs to bend the knee to her. As I’ve often said, the main difference between Daenerys and Jon Snow in the game of thrones is that she actually wants it; he does not. But all I could think of at the end of this scene is, “EEEEE, we’re finally going to see Daenerys and Jon Snow in the same scene!!”

I love your summary of Varys’s scene above: I mentioned to you in one of my emails last week, Chris, that I was this close to mentioning politics in my post last week but decided against it. But now, two weeks in a row, much like you I can’t help but mention how easy it is to read the insane politics of the real world into the insane politics of this show. It’s not that Game of Thrones has changed — I mean, this has always been a show about politics, and we’ve been discussing and analyzing the different political stances of the characters for years now — it’s that Western politics have changed so drastically in the past year that now we’re seeing real parallels between our world and Westeros. No more having to reach back through history to talk about parallels between this show and real leaders: we just have to check yesterday’s Twitter feed to do that.

Last week we had Sansa and Jon going toe to toe, with Jon taking more of the position of the left — yes these Houses may have been against us but we are willing to forgive to keep our promises and to keep the government moving forward — versus Sansa’s more right-wing strategy — they betrayed us, and this is every man for himself and if betray us, we leave them behind. Neither side took an extreme position, but it was an excellent demonstration of how each side has its positives and negatives. Jon comes off looking weak in his pursuit to keep things moving, and Sansa comes off looking heartless and filibustering in her pursuit to deter others from making the same move. And yet Jon also looks like he has a heart, whereas Sansa looks like she’s got a good point: if we let anyone betray us and we forgive them, won’t more people betray us?

And then we had the discussion between Samwell Tarly and Archmaester Ebrose during the autopsy last week. As Sam is lamenting the white walkers coming and the world descending into madness and wondering how they’ll ever get out of this one, the Archmaester reassures him that actually, the world was descending into this terrible place before, and they survived it once. Sam is like, “But but but the white walkers are different, and they’re carrying banners saying they’re going to make Westeros great again!” but the Archmaester waves off his concerns and says that the white walkers used to carry banners with swastikas on them and we survived that.

And now we have Lord Varys being brutally honest in the opening that it’s not that he’s disloyal, but he will call out any leader who is no longer leading the people in the manner they deserve. In a monarchist system, he’s the one imposing a measure of democracy.

What’s really interesting is that you and I read the scene the same way, Chris, because we’re both pretty entrenched on the left. I imagine a viewer who supports Trump probably read it entirely differently, cheering equally loudly, thinking that Varys would be the one to unseat a despot like Obama and make sure the people’s voices are heard through Trump. (But even if Varys ever DID think something like this, six months into this presidency I would assume he would be infiltrating the Russians just to figure out a way to burn down Trump Tower.)

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And from this scene we move to Cersei, sitting on the Iron Throne and twisting the truth about Daenerys so far it’s screaming for mercy when she makes up a bunch of lies. She tells them that as the Mad King’s daughter, she’ll similarly destroy all of Westeros. She’ll destroy the castles, and her Dothraki will butcher small children. They are the foreigners who will invade their free land and rape and pillage their people (I half-expected her to propose a wall). Daenerys will open a pizza parlour in Dorne and traffic children through it in the basement (despite the fact it has no basement) and by the way this bullshit about winter coming being blamed on the environment is crap because climate change isn’t real!!!! Cersei is charismatic, and has every person hanging on her every word. She takes real things and twists them into what she knows her people want to hear. She whips her people into a frothy angry mess until they’re all willing to go after the Dragon Queen, while certain viewers at home (like me) are yelling, “FAKE NEWS!!” the whole time. And it seems that she’s got them all in the palm of her hand until Lord Randyll Tarly steps forward (yes, that would be Samwell Tarly’s cruel and horrible father) and wants to know exactly how they plan to stop three full-grown dragons. Qyburn says don’t worry, we have a solution.

While Cersei sits on the throne waving her small hands around and shouting epithets, Jaime takes Lord Tarly aside to try to woo him. He knows Tarly is powerful, as is his House. He also knows that the Tarlys’ strongest allegiance is to the Tyrells, who are now their worst enemy after Cersei managed to blow up Olenna’s grandchildren real good. Tarly is hesitant: once you swear an oath, you should stick to it, but Jaime reminds him that Olenna Tyrell was the one who brought the Dothraki to their shores. (If you’ll recall, at the end of season six, Ellaria Sand talked Olenna into joining forces with her, and then Varys stepped out of the shadows to offer revenge in return for the Tyrell ships, and it’s those ships that carried Daenerys and the Dothraki army and the Unsullied to the shores of Westeros.) Jaime tells Tarly that if he switches his allegiance from the Tyrells to the Lannisters, he will make him ward of the South. And you can see in Tarly’s eyes that his allegiance just changed.

From there we’re back over to Oldtown (now with far fewer scenes involving fecal matter!). What did you think of the scene in the Citadel and Jorah Mormont’s diagnosis, Chris?

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Christopher: I’m loving Sam’s continuing education, what few scraps of it we’re party to—it’s become obvious that Archmaester Ebrose is his mentor, or advisor, or however they designate that relationship in the Citadel. Sam shadows him, and apparently acts as his research assistant as well (more on that in a moment). And in the course of such duties, he’s present for the Archmaester’s diagnosis of Ser Jorah, who is now well and truly afflicted by greyscale (though, fortunately, leaving his ruggedly handsome face untouched).

One of the things I loved about this episode was the serendipitous intersections that occur—after six seasons, one has the sense of things starting to come together. Tyrion’s moment of surprise on hearing Jon Snow is King in the North; Arya encountering Hot Pie again, and hearing from him the same news; and of course the heartbreaking scene in which Arya is briefly reunited with her direwolf Nymeria. But for me it was so affecting to see Sam’s expression when Ser Jorah tells Sam his last name. “Mormont?” Sam repeats the name, almost incredulously.

Is it the knowledge that Jorah is related to his belated, beloved Lord Commander that inspires Sam to attempt a desperate cure? One assumes so, though before he goes rogue he has to run the idea past Ebrose—who is far more preoccupied with his own research project, which is a “chronicle of the wars following the death of King Robert I.” As he leads Sam through the labyrinth of the stacks, loading him up with an increasingly vertiginous pile of books, he lectures him pedantically about the need to split the difference between conscientious research and an engaging writing style.

I like this moment because it makes clear the fact that the Citadel is basically a medieval / early modern university. It may seem odd to contemporary sensibilities that a physician would also be engaged in writing history, not as a hobby but as part of his scholarly pursuits; but the model of scholarship outlined by GRRM is one in which maesters earn their chain of office by mastering different disciplines, with each link in their chain forged from a different metal symbolizing a specific area of expertise. Given that we live in an age of hyperspecialization, it’s worth remembering that, once upon a time, the premise of the university was built into that very word—i.e., universality. The last vestiges of that philosophy are present in the way we make students take representative courses in humanities, social science, and science … the holdover of a time when one could actually become an expert in most things.

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It occurred to me that Ebrose is basically writing the story we’re living—again, “a chronicle of the wars following the death of King Robert I.” “What?” he says to Sam. “You don’t like the title? What would you call it then?” As tactfully as he can, Sam replies, “Possibly something a bit more … poetic?” Something, perhaps, about thrones? And the games people play to get them?

I’m just spitballing here.

But Sam has been doing some research of his own, and thinks he’s found a way to cure Ser Jorah. And of course, his advisor quashes the idea, as advisors have been doing since the dawn of academe. But Sam is undeterred: we fade to Ser Jorah writing what we assume is his final missive to Daenerys (all that is legible is “Khaleesi, I came to the Citadel” before the text blurs into unintelligibility); as in a brief moment earlier, when Ebrose said he’d give him an extra day “to use as he wished,” Jorah pauses to look at his sword—the rather obvious suggestion being that he intends suicide rather than be sent to Valyria to live among the stone men. But enter the Samwell ex machina! Who tells Jorah he knew his father, and was there when he died, and that Jorah will not be dying today.

A very poignant and touching moment—followed by one of the more excruciating sequences since Ramsay’s torture of Theon. Yikes. “Have you ever done this before?” Jorah asks. The expression on his face when Sam says no is such a lovely bit of wordless acting by Iain Glenn: communicating, even before Sam says as much, that this is his only choice, and that there’s no question that he’ll suffer whatever he’s subjected to.

The less said about the cut to Arya’s scene the better. Suffice to say, I won’t be eating chicken pot pie any time soon.

But in skipping to the possible cure for greyscale, I’ve leapfrogged some key scenes. What did you think of Daenerys’ meeting with the allies, of Tyrion’s war plan, and Olenna’s advice? And what did you think of the consummation of Grey Worm and Missandei’s love?

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Nikki: Yeah, I’m with you on that one. I just bought a bunch of meat pies and they’re in my freezer. They might be there for a while now.

In the midst of Sam dealing with Jorah’s greyscale, we see Cersei descend into the caves with Qyburn where he shows her his device, the very thing he believes will give her an edge over the Mother of Dragons. They stare at the skull of a dragon that once belonged to Aegon, a dragon even bigger and fiercer than Drogon, Daenerys’s largest and most beloved “child.” Qyburn leads Cersei to a giant crossbow armed with a spear, and tells Cersei that in a recent battle one of the dragons had been hurt by a much smaller spear. He allows her the honour of pulling the lever of the crossbow, and this massive iron spear pierces the dragon’s skull, taking out the eye cavity and back of its head. Cersei stands there smiling slyly.

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It’s interesting how many times revenge has been wreaked on Cersei’s offspring. When Cersei had Oberon killed, Ellaria got her revenge by killing Myrcella. When Olenna Tyrell had had enough of the Lannister sister, she killed her son, Joffrey. And when Tommen had had enough of his mother, he killed himself. So now that Cersei is faced with possibly the biggest challenge to her Iron Throne, she decides to go after Daenerys’s three children the same way people came at hers. I can’t even begin to imagine what Dany would do if Cersei hurts her dragons. But knowing this show, we’re gonna find out.

Meanwhile, at Dragonstone, Dany is meeting with her allies — Yara Greyjoy (with her brother Theon standing silently behind her), Ellaria Sand (with the Sand Snakes backing her), and Olenna Tyrell, who needs no entourage. They’re skeptical at first, and Olenna looks upon Dany as one who is too young and inexperienced to possibly go up against Cersei. They believe the only way to win this is to lay a siege upon King’s Landing. When Daenerys declares that she will not be queen of the ashes, Olenna explains that Margaery was the most beloved queen of all time (whitewashing that history just a wee bit) and now she’s nothing but ashes. But Daenerys holds strong: she won’t attack King’s Landing. And that’s when Tyrion steps up and states his plan: the Tyrell and Dorne armies will surround King’s Landing and starve out Cersei. And meanwhile, the Unsullied will attack and take Casterly Rock, the ancestral home of the Lannisters. Olenna smiles, and gives her permission for the attack to take place, as do the rest. But when the others leave the room, Olenna cautions Daenerys that Tyrion is a clever man, but that doesn’t mean she needs to follow everything he tells her to do. “You’re a dragon, not a sheep,” she tells her, and reminds her that she’s a powerful woman going up against a powerful woman (and listening to the advice of a powerful woman). Westeros is not the sort of place where women heed men. All of the power on the show currently resides in the hands of women. And while it seems like a good plan, let’s not forget that the one place Tyrion would want more than any other would be Casterly Rock. What better way to return to the world in blazing glory than to take his father’s home from the conniving siblings who have ousted him from everything he’s owed?

BUT… I think Tyrion’s plan is sound. We saw the way Cersei was twisting who Daenerys is, and portraying her and her armies as the foreigners who were going to come into their land and sully everything by destroying King’s Landing. Tyrion knows his sister, and knows this is the sort of thing she’s going to say, and so by going to Casterly Rock they make it personal, and don’t alienate all of the people who live in King’s Landing. They’re looking to take out Cersei while keeping the civilian casualties to a minimum.

And then we get the moment of boom chicka bow bow with Grey Worm and Missandei. I shouldn’t actually minimize it, because it was a beautiful moment between two people who have been tortured and treated like animals their entire lives, who have had their freedoms and sense of agency stripped from them, and in this one moment they finally do something both of them want to do, and it involves the wishes or desires of no one but them. Though I couldn’t help but think the scene went on for a long time, and when we have only eleven episodes left after this one — ELEVEN! — there’s a part of me that feels like we don’t have time for this!!! But then again, maybe that’s the point: we’re so caught up in the giant politics and the Houses and the chess pieces moving all over the huge map of Westeros that we’re forgetting about the little people, the ones who don’t belong to great houses, the ones whose lives won’t fundamentally be changed by whoever is sitting on that throne, who are focusing on the things they could gain and the things they could lose in this war. We spend so much time on the key families — the Lannisters, Starks, Targaryens, Greyjoys, Tyrells, Mormonts, Tarlys, Baratheons… and several bastards — that we never actually see anyone outside of them. And it’s lovely to see them. BUT LET’S GET BACK TO THE ACTION.

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I actually loved the camera cut here again, Chris. Just as earlier they did the oogy camera cut from the pussy scab to the oozing pot pie (NOOOOOOO), here they cut from Grey Worm about to put his head between Missandei’s legs to… Ebrose sliding his hand sideways between two books. I laughed right out loud.

And now over to Arya, who, as you mentioned, is reunited with Hot Pie. I was so happy to see him again! I think he last saw Arya in season three when she left him at this inn and he gave her a lumpy little loaf of bread sort of shaped like a direwolf. When Brienne returned to the inn (a meeting he mentions here), he gives her another one, and this is a very highly skilled shape of a direwolf. Now it seems his cooking skills have improved once again as Arya tucks hungrily into his food. I loved watching the way she eats, all messy and constantly wiping her hand across her face. I couldn’t help but once again remember her back in season one, with Sansa complaining that she’s not ladylike and Arya complaining that that’s simply not who she is. I hope the reunion with Sansa includes Sansa sitting there slightly disgusted while Arya slurps up her stew.

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But after he gives Sansa the shocking news that Jon Snow has won the Battle of the Bastards and Ramsay Bolton is dead, she goes outside and changes direction. No longer is she heading for revenge on Cersei; she’s realized being with her family is what she really wants, and she’s been alone for far too long.

And that’s when we get the scene I’ve been waiting for since season one. We’ve both maintained that that direwolf is out there somewhere, and when Arya is at first surrounded by wolves I thought, but she’s from House Stark; would wolves automatically stand down knowing that she used to have a— and just then, the giant direwolf steps up. I leapt right off the couch when it happened, stammering through my words as my husband said, “Is that a direwolf?” “It’s HER direwolf oh my GOD it’s Lady NO WAIT that was Sansa’s it’s the one she let go when she thought Joffrey was going to have it killed it’s NYMERIA!!!” This scene was BEAUTIFULLY done. There’s no way anyone else would have walked away from that moment alive, but Arya recognizes her direwolf right away. She walks up to it tentatively, and after a few moments of baring her teeth, Nymeria recognizes her human and steps back to look at her for a moment. Arya tries to coax her to come with her, to tell her that she’s returning to Winterfell… but the direwolf makes eye contact, they have their moment, and then it’s over. Arya says, “That’s not you,” as Nymeria leaves her, and all of the other wolves from her pack follow her. I took the line to mean that Arya was speaking for both of them in that moment. Just as I mentioned the rough eating reminded me of Arya saying she’s not meant to be ladylike, and now, all these years later she’s proven that’s exactly the case, Nymeria, too, wasn’t meant to be someone’s direwolf. We can’t imagine the things she’s been through or seen, but being by Arya’s side is no longer her place. She has her own life now, and it’s not with Arya. She acknowledges that she remembers her human by looking right at Arya and leaving her intact, but she’s going to return to her pack now, and go on with her life. And, perhaps, Arya’s life no longer requires a direwolf to be at her side, either. I can’t stress how gorgeous I thought this scene was. It played out exactly the opposite of how we wanted it to, and yet it seemed perfect. The last time Nymeria saw Arya, Arya hugged her and then shooed her away into the woods, and despite Nymeria constantly looking back, pleading with her eyes to return to her, Arya continued to shoo her away. She can’t just ask the direwolf to return now: she has her own life, and it doesn’t include Arya.

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And that’s when I couldn’t help but think… does Arya even belong with the Starks? I joke about the eating scene with Sansa, but could you imagine the two sisters actually living together beyond that initial reunion? I can think of so many characters Arya would be better suited to hang out with than Sansa — hell, the Hound comes to mind — and it’s unclear now if Arya will continue on to Winterfell, or turn that horse around yet again and head back to where she was originally going.

But speaking of people coming together that I cannot WAIT to see happen, Jon Snow has gotten Dany’s raven, and he insists he’s going to see her. And we get a reprise of the government scene from last week. What did you think of Jon Snow’s performance before the Houses of the North this week, Chris?

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Christopher: Well, first it begins with a brief scene in which Jon pores over a map, which seems to be becoming a key motif this season. The solitude of power: here he is, alone, weighing his, and the North’s, options. His maester arrives with Sam’s message about dragonglass on Dragonstone, and whatever question he had about responding to Tyrion’s message is suddenly resolved.

As I said last week, Jon is a single-issue leader: the threat from the Night’s King consumes him, and whatever qualms he might have had about meeting Daenerys in person are overruled by the prospect of access to the weapons he needs to win that war. In the earlier scene when Davos points out that dragonfire would be a great asset against the wights, I wrote in my notes “Davos gets it!” Which is of course unsurprising—Davos has proven himself to be one of the smartest and most astute characters on the show. The fact that Jon means to travel to Dragonstone with him speaks both to this fact, and to Jon’s own occasional bout of common sense.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. How did he do with the northern houses? Like last time we had this scene, he has to deal with Sansa’s objections; unlike last time, he has to deal with the unanimity of opinion against his decision. The houses, it seemed, could go both ways on the question of who should get the traitorous houses’ castles; but they’re all pretty united in the idea that Jon needs to stay put. Even Lyanna Mormont, usually the reliable voice of dissent, says “Winter is here, Your Grace—we need the King in the North in the North.”

We feel the weight of history in this scene: “A Targaryen cannot be trusted,” Yohn Royce tells Jon. “Nor can a Lannister.” The spectre of the Mad King lies over Daenerys—whatever his actually crimes, the intervening years have augmented them and the Targaryen name by association. The weight of recent history pervades as well. Lord Glover reminds Jon that his brother Robb died when he went south, not on the field of battle, but in a craven trap set by the Lannisters. Why would he willingly put his head in the lion’s mouth, as it were, knowing everything that has happened before?

I think it’s safe to say we’ve all smacked our heads in the past at Jon’s poor judgment. At least here we, as the audience, have the gods’-eye view that lets us know this is the right choice—his instincts about Tyrion are correct (and vice versa), and we know Daenerys is not her father. So it’s an odd turn on dramatic irony to watch this scene and want to scream at the people trying to dissuade Jon as opposed to the other way around. Plus, we’re all just SO FUCKING STOKED to finally have Daenerys meet the only other living Targaryen (even if both are oblivious to the fact).

But of course, he still needs to convince his people that he’s making a good decision, or at the very least that he’s not leaving them in the lurch. “You’re abandoning your people!” Sansa accuses him. “You’re abandoning your home!” Jon’s declaration that the North will be Sansa’s until he returns seems to satisfy the room, including Sansa—whose expression (Sophie Turner is so good in this moment) is a beautiful mélange of surprise, happiness, and anxiety. Of course, the expression we then cut to is Littlefinger’s, which is somewhat less confused—Sansa will be in charge? How delightful! We can see the gears turning right away.

(Speaking of conflicted expressions, both Brienne and Davos look at best ambivalent, possibly because both have the same misgivings about Littlefinger as EVERY HALFWAY INTELLIGENT PERSON IN THE WORLD).

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Speaking of Littlefinger, I can only imagine it’s because he was emboldened by Jon’s declared intention to (1) transfer power to Sansa and (2) leave Winterfell for an indeterminate time, that he felt compelled to join Jon in the crypts and tell him lies about his relationship to Ned. And then—and this is where he gets brazen—tell truths about his love for Catelyn and now Sansa. Jon reacts predictably, in fact reacts precisely the same way as Ned did in season one when Littlefinger, promising to bring Ned to Catelyn, brings him to a brothel. You’d think the man would get weary of being choked by Starks, but here we are …

“Touch my sister,” Jon growls, “ and I’ll kill you myself.” He stalks off, leaving Littlefinger to catch his breath and smirk.

Right now I’m hoping Littlefinger dies a particularly gruesome death before all is done, and I hope Varys presides over it.

Which brings us to the final spectacular scene of the episode, which unfortunately begins with the Sand Snakes squabbling and with what qualifies as some of the worst pre-coital chat I’ve heard outside of “Yeah, I’m here to fix the cable?” What did you make of this episode’s ship-burning finale, Nikki?

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Nikki: No one does fiery battles like Game of Thrones. The special effects are spectacular and jaw-dropping… this show can’t be topped when it comes to scenes like this one. It hearkened back to the Battle of the Blackwater: ships on the water, fire floating atop it, major characters’ lives at stake. And with us coming down to the final episodes of the series, there’s so much at stake now the tension seemed to be fraught the entire time.

The scene began below decks with Yara coming on to Ellaria, who immediately takes the bait and moves over to the other side of the table to have her way with the Greyjoy daughter… although I couldn’t help but wonder if Ellaria was pulling her into a Sand trap in that moment and was going to stab her in the back for reasons I hadn’t yet figured out and didn’t need to because OMG what is happening above decks?!

And sure enough, good ol’ Uncle Euron has shown up to the Thanksgiving dinner pissed again, and everyone’s going to pay for it this time. I won’t go into detail on the battle itself — it just needs to be watched, and I simply stopped taking notes because I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen — but the Sand Snakes immediately jump to the decks to protect their mother… and don’t fare so well.

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Before I say anymore, I must admit that I’ve been a little disappointed by the Sand Snakes. They were built up so much by the readers of the books that I feel that they were more well-rounded in GRRM’s version, because over here they talk a tough talk, but we rarely see them actually do anything. It’s like I’ve spent the entire time they’ve existed on the show just waiting for the moment they’ll be truly spectacular, and that moment has never come.

And so, when Obara is killed first (my favourite Sand Snake, but only because Keisha Castle-Hughes plays her and Whale Rider is one of my all-time favourite movies), I was actually quite upset. Not because we’ve lost someone who was a great character, but because we’d lost someone who had the potential to be a great character and I was still waiting for her moment.

The next one to go was Nymeria — how strange that one episode showed the reappearance of Nymeria the direwolf, and the death of Nymeria the Sand Snake — who is strangled by her own whip. My husband was quick to call both of the now-deceased Sand Snakes “useless” in this moment, but I will say they fought a hell of a lot harder and longer than I would have done. Again, I think they had the potential to be formidable foes, but in a story that so far has featured 27,741 main characters, there just wasn’t a lot of room for three more.

But speaking of how useless I would have been in a fight, we now come back around to Theon. Or, should I say… Reek. For yes, he’s back, and in a poignant moment that actually made my chest hurt, the show didn’t shy away from Theon’s inability to perform in this moment to save his sister. Nor did it hang on to the fiction that he was going to be just fine. As I’ve maintained before, he will now always be Reek, because he’s broken. He will never be whole again.

Yara fights brilliantly, but her uncle overpowers her. As Euron grabs Yara and holds his axe to her throat, he begins to goad “little Theon” to come and save her. And for a brief moment Theon doesn’t hesitate, and moves to do exactly that… until he hears the screams of the men around him. He looks down, and sees Euron’s men torturing the Ironborn army, and you can see the PTSD flash through his brain and return in an instant. His face takes on a different look, and he begins to jerk his head with that strange tic he developed when he became Ramsay’s dog. And as Yara looks on, the hope fades from her eyes as she sees her brother disappear and Reek pop up in his place, and she knows she’s a dead woman. Moments before she’d been telling Ellaria that Theon would become her bodyguard and advisor, but she had tricked herself into thinking her brother was somehow better.

I loved this moment, because in the midst of a spectacular battle scene, we have this small moment where the show deigns to touch on a severe mental illness that’s been brought on by the torture of a man, and that one moment changes the course of the entire battle. The Theon Greyjoy of old might have had a shot against Euron Greyjoy (might) but Theon left the building a few years ago. Reek can do nothing but jump overboard as Yara resigns herself to her fate, tears of anger and hopelessness running down her face.

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As the episode ends, Theon floats on some driftwood in the water looking at the ships on fire around him. He can’t board any of them, he’s let down his sister and his leader, and he watches Euron Greyjoy’s boat sail away with Obara and Nymeria impaled and hanging on the prow of the ship, like human figureheads. Theon has nowhere to go now.

And Euron Greyjoy sails back to King’s Landing, with Ellaria, Yara, and Ellaria’s daughter… and now he’s got his gift for Cersei. Last week I said, “I wonder who’s head it will be?” but he’s not bringing back heads — he’s going to let Cersei do the torturing. I’m thinking he hands her Ellaria and Tyene and keeps Yara for himself. And Cersei is going to make Ellaria watch as she tortures Tyene. Ugh.

This was such a packed episode — deaths, a great battle, small moments, political movements forward, and lots of old faces. But it definitely had a recurring theme as we come to the end of this incredible series, and that is that people have been changed fundamentally. Just as Arya says, “That’s not you” to Nymeria, recognizing that the direwolf has changed, and so has she, we look at so many of the characters on this show and realize they’ve changed, too. Theon Greyjoy will never be the same because of the events of the last few years. Arya has changed, Sansa has changed and become much tougher politically… Sam Tarly never would have had the guts to do what he’s doing right now before he’d fought in the Night’s Watch and saved Gilly and her baby… Cersei has become even colder and more heartless than she used to be. And yet Daenerys and Jon Snow seem to be moving along in the same course they always were, never wavering from their original beliefs. They’ve both been changed forever, and yet intrinsically they remain the same. I can’t wait to see them on the screen at the same time next week.
And that concludes yet another week of our Game of Thrones chat. Thanks for reading this far, and we’ll see you next week!

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Game of Thrones, Episode 7.01: “Dragonstone”

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Welcome back one and all to season seven of Game of Thrones and, along with it, the great Chris and Nikki co-blog—in which we dissect, debate, recap, and just generally dork out on an episode by episode basis.

In the season seven premiere, we watch the dissolution of House Frey, see Euron Greyjoy go all emo, sow the seeds of a Stark sibling rivalry, suffer through bad, bad celebrity casting, and suffer also alongside Sam as he learns that grad school isn’t what the brochure said. Oh, and Daenerys returns home.

Seeing as how Nikki played us out at the end of last season, she gets the first word. Nikki?

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Nikki: The episode opens not with its trademark credits, but at a party that looks suspiciously like the Red Wedding. Walder Frey is holding court in front of the people who aided him with the Red Wedding, which happened ages ago… or, wait, no, maybe this is a flashback, since we all saw Arya feed Frey some beautiful finger food (snort) in the previous episode before slicing his throat in the same way her own mother’s throat had been sliced at the wedding. So… if he’s alive and chatting, maybe we’re seeing a flashback to shortly after the wedding happened. But wait, there’s that frumpy wife of his who just became his wife recently, I think. He’s got his harem/daughters/who knows anymore pouring wine for all of his soldiers, thanking them for their work at the Red Wedding, and adding that they did a good job killing a bunch of innocent people (cue WTF looks being passed around by the soldiers) but they didn’t actually kill all of the Starks. “Leave one wolf alive, and the sheep are never safe,” he says.

And then the men start dropping, which we knew would happen. They die in horrific ways, much the same way Joffrey died at his own wedding. (Might I say that the wine murders are highly effective on this show.) And then, just as viewers are starting to catch on — if they hadn’t when Frey was talking — Frey pulls a Scooby-Doo, yanks off his face, and it’s our beloved Arya Stark. She turns to Frey’s shocked wife and says that if anyone asks what happened here, “Tell them the North remembers. Tell them winter came for House Frey.”

YES!!! And with that, cue credits. What a wicked opening.

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For the last time, people, it isn’t Wun Wun!

Because the writers have to cover a ton of territory from this point on, we get a flash of The Walking Dead: Northern Exposure as the white walkers come in a swirl of blizzard, moving southward while bringing the storms with them. Then there’s a quick cut to Bran arriving at the Wall with Meera (Eeee! Reunions are coming!). And then we cut to Jon Snow and return to the main story.

What I really loved about this episode is that at the end of season six we were left with a few “certainties”: Sam Tarly had the best job ever, Jon Snow and Sansa were aligned in their leadership in the North, Jaime was going to probably kill Cersei for what happened, Euron was going to take a while to get to King’s Landing… and many of those expectations were undermined in this first episode.

What did you think of Jon Snow’s meeting when we see him for the first time this episode, Chris?

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Christopher: Well, first, let me just say it’s amazing to be back discussing this show with you, Nikki, especially after having to wait two and a half months longer than usual. Worth the wait, though—that cold open was, to my mind, the best the series has given us (not that it has much competition—there’s only been a few in the entire run of the show). And I had the same Scooby-Doo vibe when Arya pulled off her Walder Frey mask, though it occurred to me that it was a reverse Scooby-Doo—in which the werewolf / ghost / vampire pulls off his own mask at the end to reveal Old Man Jones, who laughs at the success of his evil plan while the gang all lie dead at his feet.

Yeah, my mind takes dark turns at times.

Sansa is right when she later tells Jon “You’re good at this.” He is—he carries authority well, and commands the room, no thanks to Sansa herself. But more on that in a moment.

As always, Lyanna Mormont is the star—this time telling off one of Jon’s lords when he scoffs at the notion that he should put a sword in the hand of his granddaughter. It was a wonderful speech, but it also left me thinking “would this hard-bitten Northman really cede authority to a woman, much less a girl, so meekly?” Don’t get me wrong, I’m totally team Lyanna in this; and the look on Brienne’s face as she’s speaking is worth the price of admission. But for a fantasy series that invests so much of its capital in a certain amount of historical realism, I found the lord’s diffidence a bit of a stretch. To be certain, the larger portion of the ass-kicking that has happened on this show (literally and figuratively) has been doled out by women, but I hardly expect Lord Wossname from the remote North to have internalized such a fact. At least a little truculence or annoyance on his part would have made the scene more believable (and would have set us up for a deeply satisfying moment at a later date when Lady Lyanna saves his ass).

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That look you get just before you file adoption papers.

Most significantly, of course, what this scene sets up is what will likely be one of the sticking-points of the season: a conflict between Jon and Sansa, aggravated by Littlefinger’s whispers. We saw that coming a mile off at the end of last season; Jon is stubborn and doesn’t recognize that Sansa has a subtler mind than him (“So I should listen to you?” he asks. “Would that be so bad?” she responds); after several seasons of being by turns passive, victimized, and abused, Sansa has come to recognize her own abilities, and is clearly frustrated to be sidelined. Jon would do himself a great favour by in fact listening to her, but I did more or less agree with him that it’s a bad idea for her to undermine him in front of the lords. Their argument about the castles could really go either way for me—rewarding loyalty with land elevates those you trust; on the other hand, Northerners are deeply invested in tradition, and Jon’s reluctance to disenfranchise families with centuries of fidelity because of the actions of a few just recently likely resonated with many of the people in the room—but Sansa’s opposition on a potentially very divisive question could have the effect of sowing dissension at a dangerous time.

But again, to be clear: Jon needs to listen to Sansa. I have a sinking feeling I’m going to be spending much of this season smacking my head over the bloody-mindedness of Jon Snow.

(Incidentally, Sansa throwing “Joffrey never let anyone question his authority” in Jon’s face totally effaces any moral standing she might have had here, which she seems to recognize a few minutes later when she has to admit that Jon “is as far from Joffrey as anyone I’ve ever met.” Yet that comes to be a bit of a backhanded compliment, as she makes clear that the kind of pure virtue that is the antithesis of Joffrey—which Jon embodies—is its own detriment. “You need to be smarter than Father,” she says. “You need to be smarter than Robb”).

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However this division develops, I do hope they don’t make it about jealousy or resentment. It was clear in this episode that Jon and Sansa have what might prove to be incommensurably different worldviews, which each arrived at by way of how they learned hard lessons over the previous six seasons. Sansa’s maturation occurred in the stew of King’s Landing intrigues, and her personal experience of just how cruel people can be to one another; when she tells Jon she “learned a lot” from Cersei, that’s shorthand for learning not to trust other people and looking out for oneself. Her concern at this point is worldly politics: the Lannisters are a threat, she thinks it folly not to disenfranchise formerly disloyal houses, and is generally preoccupied with her own survival and the survival of those closest to her. Too much honour, she tries to tell Jon, got their father and brother killed.

Jon, by contrast, is preoccupied with otherworldly concerns, and I don’t just mean the supernatural threat from the North. Though we now know he wasn’t Ned Stark’s son, he’s nevertheless very much Ned Stark’s son, if by temperament rather than birth. And he has internalized the North’s deep obsession with tradition and honour, and its long, long history. The idea of disenfranchising families with centuries of loyalty to the Starks, however they might have acted in recent days, in nonsensical to him … as, probably, is the notion that he can have “too much” honour. With regard to the White Walkers and the threat they pose, he sees the big picture—or rather, having been confronted by the big picture north of the Wall, he’s disinclined or simply unable to see anything but. “I’m consumed with the Night’s King because I’ve seen him,” he says. “And believe me, you’d think of little else if you had too.” As far as he’s concerned, the squabbles of warring houses are all but irrelevant in the face of the White Walkers; unless everyone can get on the same page, they’re all going to die anyway.

And while, as I said, I do more or less agree with Jon that undermining each other in public is a bad idea, he needs to listen to Sansa. She’s the pragmatic one; he’s the wide-angle guy. I came away from their argument thinking that he’s the equivalent of someone who recognizes climate change as an existential threat. Everyone else, including Sansa and Archmaester Quincy, Medical Examiner, seems inclined to downplay the threat: “the wall has always stood” is the Westeros equivalent, it seems, of recycling and buying a hybrid car. And that’s not even getting to all those White Walker Deniers. But at the same time, arriving at a solution requires a certain amount of political savvy, which is increasingly looking to be Sansa’s forte. Together, they could be a pretty formidable team, if only Jon would listen and Brienne could relieve Littlefinger of his head.

What do you think, Nikki?

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Nikki: Agree with you as usual, my friend, and I love how close our notes are at times. I’ve written down that awesome throwdown line from Lyanna — “I don’t plan on knitting by the fire while men fight for me” [under her watch the TARDIS would have never allowed a man inside yet] — and then beside it I have written “OMG Brienne’s FACE.” Every season you and I mention what spinoff road-trip-show pairings we want, and my new one is Lyanna and Brienne. With Tormund bringing up the rear.

The scene was very well played, as you point out, with Jon saying one thing, Sansa another, viewers trying not to reach into the TV to smack Jon in the head, but then realizing well, ok, he’s got a point, and then Sansa saying something else, Jon contradicting her, Sansa posting angry emojis under Jon’s comments on Facebook, Jon blocking her from his feed… and all the while Baelish smiling to himself in the corner while all our stress levels rise steadily. The Karstarks and Umbers will keep their family castles, but the only people left in those families are children (and I can’t be the only one who thought Alice Karstark was Sansa’s younger double). Now, when it comes to Lyanna, we certainly can’t undermine children in any way, but this also isn’t Lord of the Flies: will they be able to fight the White Walkers?

Though, you know, something tells me Lyanna could have them turning tail and running.

Like you, I’m hoping I don’t spend the season flipping out over Jon and Sansa. They must get on the same page, and I don’t want to see Littlefinger smiling smugly in the corner anymore.

But then Jon gets a raven from Cersei demanding fealty, and as he says to Sansa, he was so caught up in the enemy of the North, he forgot the one in the South. Just as Sansa had made the Joffrey comment earlier — almost making it sound like Jon fell short of that little bastard by not being like him — now Sansa tells Jon not to mess with the Lannister queen, because she’ll murder anyone who gets in her way. “You almost sound as if you admire her,” he says. “Learned a great deal from her,” Sansa replies.

Like you said, Chris, just because Sansa is listening to whispers from Littlefinger and making comments about Joffrey and Cersei that are… questionable… doesn’t mean we should not listen to her. Cersei and Baelish might be the bad guys but they also know a thing or two about power. And with Sansa’s knowledge of how they work, funnelled through Jon Snow’s inherent goodness, they might have something here. Together I would think these two could be nearly unstoppable, he just needs to pay attention to her and give her the respect she’s more than earned.

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This episode’s lesson: if you want to be queen, you need a sweet map.

But now let’s to King’s Landing, where Cersei is drinking (natch) while walking on a giant map on the ground, since apparently a small one drawn in a book wouldn’t have been good enough (listen closely and you hear a very quiet version of “Rains of Castamere” playing in the background… it’s like Cersei’s personal breakup music or something). Dragonstone might have a wooden slab with little people on it that Stannis could move around, but Cersei’s going to have a goddamn map drawn on the floor, to scale, by someone she will no doubt kill as soon as he’s done. It’s a beautiful visual, though, when the camera peers down from the ceiling: Cersei, standing mighty over the kingdoms of Westeros, in the centre, and as she walks around she talks about how Daenerys is going to land at Dragonstone to the east, that Ellaria and her Sand Snakes threaten her from the south, the Tyrells are in the west, and the Starks are in the north. She’s surrounded, but unfazed. In her new black get-up, she stands over these kingdoms and proclaims she will prevail.

Jaime, standing off to the side, quiet, wonders why they’re bothering. They’ve lost everything — all three of their children they’ve created together — all for this, and yet, without them, what does it mean? Cersei is saying she wants to have a dynasty — not one with Joan Collins and Linda Evans, that’s a DIE-nesty, and Cersei quite Britishly calls this one a dinnesty — but as Jaime adeptly points out, a dynasty suggests it’s being passed down to future generations, and does he have to repeat himself that they no longer have any children?? Cersei then basically says she’s going to do it for their own honour, that they’re the last of the Lannisters “who count” and that she will win this bloody war, dammit.

But then again, her army consists of an orange-haired musician who can’t bloody well act so WHAT DOES SHE KNOW. #whenstuntcastinggoeswrong

ANYWAY… and while Daenerys was already on her way over to Dragonstone at the end of the previous episode, but Euron had to build a thousand ships in order to get to Cersei, somehow he beat her there and here he is on Cersei’s steps pledging himself to her. (And yes, I know people are going to say that the ships are probably being built and he headed over there on a single ship but I found some of the way these storylines lined up seemed a little odd timewise.) There’s something about Euron I kinda love, I don’t know why. I tend to hate the Greyjoys on principle, and he’s a complete dick, but I love that he shows up looking totally different from when we last saw him with this new rock star appearance: shirt opened at front, hair shorn closer to his head… still giving off a distinct Oliver-Reed-as-Bill-Sykes vibe but now with a distinct Noel Gallagher swagger about him. And he has the nerve to show up at the steps of what is probably the most powerful woman currently in Westeros and say, “So, yeah, whaddya say: you, me, few goblets of wine, we could spend the rest of our days plotting the deaths of our family members, amirite?!” like he’s somehow the greatest catch in the land. In fact, this gave me the one big laugh-out-loud moment of the episode when he proclaimed himself the greatest captain of the 14 seas, and Cersei mumbles, “But not the most humble.” Ha!

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I don’t know how seriously I can take anyone who looks like an emo version of Pacey from Dawson’s Creek.

Cersei, to her credit, declines. She knows if he could stab his own brother in the back, what the hell would he do to his wife? “You murdered your own brother,” she says to him. “You should try it, feels wonderful,” he responds with a sneer. Jaime shuffles and hopes this isn’t foreshadowing. But Euron’s not giving up, and says he’s going to come back with a gift. Whose head will it be, I wonder…

And then… the montage from HELL. As I said on Facebook, at the end of the previous season, when we saw that spectacular library of the maesters, I said if I could be one character on the show, it would be Samwell Tarly. I take that back now. What did you think of this, um, shitty symphony that was Sam’s new life, Chris?

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Christopher: Well, first I just want to add how much I loved Pilou Asbæk’s performance in that scene—I was underwhelmed by his turn as Euron last season, but he’s definitely upped his game. And he has one of the two best burns of the episode: “Here I am with a thousand ships and two good hands!” he leers, as Jaime looks on angrily (the other best burn being Sansa’s elegant “No need to seize the last word, Lord Baelish—I’ll assume it was something clever.” Ouch!).

As for Sam … well, about halfway through the oddly rhythmic books/bedpans/food montage, I said “Ah! Sam’s a grad student now!” Considering that at least half the people with whom I watched the episode are former and/or recovering grad students, it got a big laugh. But of course, such drudgery is something we should have expected; though both you and I ended last season in a Sam-like state of bibliophilic bliss looking at the Citadel’s unearthly library (both of us, as I recall, likened it to our own first visits to U of T’s Robarts Library Rare Book Collection), the truth of any apprenticeship (academic or otherwise) is one of tedium and drudgery punctuated by moments of epiphany. (I can’t possibly be the only person who saw Sam sneaking by night into the restricted area and thought of Hermione’s forays into the forbidden sections of the Hogwarts Library). Sam is training to be a maester, which is not exactly something one can fast-track. His exchange with Archmaester Ebrose, aka Quincy, was a few moments of quiet brilliance in the way it articulated both the virtue and drawback of the scholarly mindset. The Archmaester employs the Westrosi equivalent of Occam’s Razor to Sam’s claims: “The simplest explanation for your grating obsession with the White Walkers,” he says, “is that you’re telling the truth. And that you saw what you say you saw.” Not that that means he’s about to aid Sam in his quest. “In the Citadel, we lead different lives,” he tells Sam. “We are this world’s memory.” And as the world’s memory, they stand aloof from the occasionally catastrophic events of the realm, always enduring. He echoes Sansa’s assertion that the Wall has always stood, and that winter always ends.

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His speech is a paean to knowledge and scholarship, and hearkens—for the real world—back to the role played by monasteries in the dark and middle ages of Europe in archiving books and knowledge. For me, however, his words resonate with the ostensible role of the university, whose oft-maligned “ivory towers” maintain spaces of inquiry and research free from the pressures and incursions of quotidian politics. Of course, this characterization bears little resemblance to the reality, but the Archmaester’s words strike a chord because the inertia of the academy is at once its greatest virtue and its greatest flaw. In the context of Game of Thrones, we know that his complacency is foolishness; in the present moment, we in the university environment with the privilege of full-time positions are being shaken out of our institutional torpor by the pressures of austerity economics and the push toward corporatization. And yet that torpor is slow to slough off—too many of us assume the Wall will always stand.

Ahem. Sorry. Sometimes these university analogues strike too close to home.

On a lighter note: Twitter was ablaze after this episode with the Ed Sheeran cameo, and I can tell you have some, er, rather strong thoughts on the subject. Tell you what, Nikki: considering I wouldn’t know an Ed Sheeran song if it walked up and bit me in the arse, I leave commentary on that bit of casting to you. I will however say that my fangasm came during the autopsy scene when I realized that the archmaester was played by Jim Broadbent. Not sure what that says about me, but here we are.

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We shift from Oldtown back to Winterfell, and witness the next stage in Tormund’s courtship of Brienne. Gotta say—dude has to up his game. If all he’s going to do is make googly eyes and waggle his eyebrows, the Lady of Tarth is going to remain resolutely unimpressed. Though given his wistful observation that Pod is “a lucky man”—just after the poor boy has been made to faceplant into a snowdrift—it might be that he’d be happy just receiving arse-kickings from Brienne. I hear some men like that sort of thing.

What did you think of Sansa’s wintry conversation with Littlefinger, Nikki? It’s obvious he means to stir the pot, and just as obvious that we’re being primed for conflict between Jon and Sansa, but she seems about done with his shit. “He wants something,” says Brienne in her role as Captain Obvious. “I know precisely what he wants,” Sansa replies.

What gives? Is Sansa seriously ready to kick him to the curb, or is she just playing it close to the vest?

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Nikki: I loved Sansa in this scene, because there are moments in Game of Thrones where you glance at a character and can’t help but think of how far they’ve come in the past seven years. This was one of those moments. In season one, Sansa was an insufferable girly-girl who needed Arya to start acting girlier, who giggled and flirted with any boy who looked in her direction, and who left the real thinking to the men. And look at where we are now. She’s strong, she never even looks at Baelish once in this scene the entire time he’s talking to her, and she just stares off into the fighting grounds with her eyelids heavy, as if his very presence bores the hell out of her. Baelish remarks that Brienne is “an impressive woman” and Sansa’s face looks like she’s fighting back an eyeroll, as if to counter, “Brienne isn’t an impressive woman, you twerp, she’s an impressive fighter, period. For god’s sakes the Ghostbusters are women, Wonder Woman has the best superhero film out there, and the main hero of Star Wars is Rey, get with the effing program, you twat.” Instead, she just holds back that eyeroll.

Baelish asks her why she’s not happy, and what will make her happy, and she simply says peace and quiet in a bid to get rid of him. But I couldn’t help but look at her in that moment and think, in the past six years she’s lost her parents, her siblings, and she believes she’s the last Stark standing. The only one left is her bastard brother who is currently at odds with her on how to lead, and despite the leaps and bounds she’s made in her life she’s still struggling to earn anyone’s ear or respect. As Littlefinger leaves in his rather Cersei-ish gown (did anyone else sense a weird flip of gender stereotypes between Sansa and Baelish’s body language?), Sansa mutters to Brienne that they do actually owe him their lives, and that without the Vale the battle would have been lost.

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And then we cut to Sansa’s sister, who was having a nice, peaceful ride through the woods until she heard the voice of an angel breaking through the trees. Arya pauses for a moment, thinking, “Oh wow, I feel like I know this voice but usually his songs are so bland and boring and yet this is intriguing and…” and… yes it’s Ed Sheeran, member of the the Lannister army (as IF, worst casting ever) singing “Hands of Gold.” I had to look it up to see if this was a song that actually existed in the books, and turns out it does. (Chris can probably elaborate more for context in his next bit.) Apparently a singer in book three finds out about Tyrion and Shae and writes this song about them, threatening to tell everyone. Tyrion pays him blackmail money but eventually orders Bronn to kill him, and as Tyrion kills Shae with the golden chain around her neck, he sings one of the lines of the song:

He rode through the streets of the city,
Down from his hill on high.
O’er the winds and the steps and the cobbles,
He rode to a woman’s sigh.
For she was his secret treasure,
She was his shame and his bliss.
And a chain and a keep are nothing,
Compared to a woman’s kiss.
For hands of gold are always cold,
But a woman’s hands are warm!
For hands of gold are always cold,
But a woman’s hands are warm!

Of course, during the song I couldn’t help but think that the lyrics seemed to fit Jaime: his hand is made of gold, and it’s even referenced earlier by Euron, as Chris pointed out. And he does ride and sail to get to the woman who is both his shame and his bliss.

But back to the horrible stunt casting of Ed Sheeran. And, a wee bit of behind-the-scenesery here. As many of you know, Chris and I write this in stages. I write my bit, send it to him for his pass, he lobs it back to me, etc. It usually takes a few days, and during that time I avoid other reviews of the show and try to avoid anyone’s comments on social media because I don’t want anyone else shaping my opinions. I assumed I was going to be in the minority on Ed Sheeran because he’s a hugely popular singer whose popularity has always surprised me, because his music is sooooo boring to me. But then I saw an article that showed I was actually in the majority, and that people didn’t just hate his cameo, they loathed it. So much so that he’s been getting a ton of hate mail via Twitter and as of Tuesday, actually deleted his account.

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While he was deleting his Twitter account, I was writing a vicious takedown of his appearance in this scene. And then I found out that happened, and I’ve deleted it. Because here’s the thing: I don’t actually hate Ed Sheeran. I don’t even think of Ed Sheeran. He’s just not my thing and I find his immense popularity kind of baffling.

But he was cast in this role as a surprise to Maisie Williams, who is a huge fan. Which… is cute, but… seriously? This is the biggest show on television and they’re now basing their casting decisions on what would make their young stars giddy? We all love Maisie, but that seems a bit much.

Now, for those who are Sheeran fans, I know what you might be thinking: you were jumping up and down when members of the National appeared at the Red Wedding. You were squeeing with delight when Sigur Ros played the troubadours at the Purple Wedding. But the thing is, they were cast to play musicians and then disappeared from the scene. The problem here isn’t Ed Sheeran. The problem is the writers who thought it would be fun to keep him in the scene, having him sit next to his biggest fan, and then give him NOTHING to do. My original takedown talked about how he just sat there like a big grinning idiot with a brain injury. But that’s the thing: what else was he supposed to do? They didn’t give him any lines, they just made him sing and then he was forced to sit there. And he’s ED SHEERAN, meaning many, many, many people were going to recognize him. Even Sigur Ros fans don’t know what Sigur Ros look like, so when they were fumbling on the ground for the money Joffrey nonchalantly tossed at them, they just looked like three extras. But Ed Sheeran is a massive star, and instantly recognizable to a lot of people, and for that entire scene we were taken out of Westeros and it was made abundantly clear that this is Ed Sheeran sitting next to Maisie Williams, who is trying desperately not to make eye contact with him. She ceased being Arya, he was never a soldier, it was just two stars sitting on a log with her giggling and him giggling and viewers taking to Twitter to tell Ed Sheeran he’s the worst actor in the world.

My daughter begged me to take her to Pitch Perfect 2 last year. Aside from being two hours of my life I’ll never get back, the movie had an Ed Sheeran cameo that was actually kind of funny. Now, he was playing himself, and he wasn’t in Westeros, so it worked. Making him a Lannister soldier with no lines who has to sit through a scene that now feels SO MUCH LONGER than it should have been, didn’t work. The fault isn’t with Sheeran: who among us would say NO to Benioff and Weiss if they asked us to appear in an episode of Game of Thrones? Not one of us. It’s the fault of the writers for doing this. They could have found a way to use him in a funny way, perhaps even just having him sing to himself in a ditch as Arya was passing by, maybe even have her make a comment about how grating she finds his singing to be ironic, and we would have all found that amusing. Yes, for that one brief moment it would have been Maisie and Ed, but it still would have been funny. This scene simply didn’t work, and now I’m actually sad to know that Sheeran has deleted Twitter, is probably having one of the worst weeks of his life, and will probably never be able to watch the show ever again.

I remember being infuriated when Ashanti was cast in an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and yet, oddly, they made it work. The gal could actually act. But the writers just couldn’t make this scene work at all.

But enough about terrible stunt casting and back to the episode (see, Game of Thrones? You pulled me so far out of the world of Westeros I’m talking about Buffy again… but I won’t get into that time Oberyn was on Buffy or we’ll be here all day).

So Sheeran and his fellow troubadours soldiers have been sent up from King’s Landing to the Riverlands because they heard there were problems at Frey’s. Arya keeps her poker face the whole time and then flatly tells them she’s going to kill the queen. There’s silence, they all stare at each other, and then they start laughing. Because of course I’m not going to kill the queen I mean OH MY GOD did I just say that out loud hahahaha!

And then we cut away to the next scene. I assume that she gets on her horse and travels away from them and they head off to Frey’s where Ed Sheeran’s character contracts dysentery. A girl can dream.

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And we’re back to the Hound, making fun of a guy’s man bun (HA!) in a scene that harkens back to a scene from season four, when the Hound and Arya came upon a little house with a man and his daughter. The farmer was kind to both of them, and offers to give them some money, but when the Hound realizes the man has a bag of silver he takes it from him, leaving the man hurt and the little girl tending to him. Arya is angry, but the Hound argues that they’ll be dead by winter anyway. And now, in the present, the Hound is back at that farmhouse and he sees their corpses, but enough of their bodies remain that he can see the agony on their faces, and knows what he’s done to them. In the midst of starving to death — probably due to a lack of funds to buy any seeds or food — the farmer killed his daughter for her own good, before taking his own life. We all know the Hound is not one to show sentiment, but we know he feels it. He was fond of Arya, and he cares about people. Unlike his brother he’s not an automaton that was put on this earth to bring misery, so when he actually does, he atones for it.

Clegane snidely refers to the “fire worshippers” who make up the Brotherhood Without Banners with whom he’s now travelling, and he comments that he distinctly remembers seeing Beric at the tournament at King’s Landing, Beric being the man who keeps dying and is brought back to life by Thoros of Myr. Thoros tells Sandor to come and look at the fire. If there’s one thing the Hound is afraid of, it’s flames (it’s how he lost one side of his face) but he very carefully comes close to the fire… and sees something. And in a moment that surprises everyone in the room — most of all, Clegane — he sees an image of the Wall, the castle, and the dead marching towards that castle. The show has had so much destruction on it, but with fewer than two seasons left now, we’re going to start seeing solutions. If Beric was brought back to life, could there be an answer coming soon as to how?

We know that the Hound will never become an acolyte, it’s simply not in his nature. Later he buries the bodies of the dead farmer and his daughter, and Thoros comes out to find him there and help him. Sandor begins to say a prayer to the Seven, but forgets how it actually goes and says some pithy words that they deserved better than to die like this. Thoros ascertains that the Hound actually knew the people, and that’s why he’s burying them, but the Hound brushes him off. This isn’t going to be a guy dressed in robes and chanting around a fire, but perhaps his skepticism has been shaken a wee bit now.

What did you make of the Hound’s vision in the fire, Chris?

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Christopher: I didn’t love it. It makes a certain perverse sense that the flame-phobic Hound should be the one to see a crucial vision in the fire, but the whole scene was played without any affect. I find it difficult to believe that someone as cynical and skeptical as Sandor Clegane could suddenly find himself having a vision, and be so blasé about it. Where’s his incredulity? His anger and resistance to the whole thing? It was a little too pat for me, which is unfortunate, because Rory McCann is otherwise so brilliant in this episode. He does such an amazing job of bringing a sense of humanity to a person who has otherwise only known brutality, violence, and cynical self-preservation his entire life. His atonement and redemption narrative is subtle and nuanced precisely because we understand just how little use he has for the ideas of atonement and redemption while desiring them in spite of himself.

When he tells Thoros that he’s “burying the dead,” it occurred to me that this is the Hound’s raison d’etre from here on in: burying the dead of his past both literally and metaphorically.

From there we move to Sam and Gilly and Little Sam, where Sam is forcing himself to read in spite of his exhaustion and Gilly’s remonstrance. Once again, overtones of grad school! He pores over his ill-gotten texts, finally coming to a map of Dragonstone with the island’s wealth of dragonglass clearly marked.

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Did you notice how maps are a crucial motif in this episode? We see Circe plotting her next move as she paces around an unfinished map of Westeros, the episode ends with Daenerys entering the map room of Dragonstone (more on that in a moment), and Sam discovers what will presumably be a key plot point in episodes to come almost literally marked off like a treasure map. Two maps that represent dreams of conquest, and a third that promises salvation: we begin every episode with a reminder of Westeros’ geography in the opening credits, and it seems to me that, as we move toward the endgame, the show is intent on hewing to the “game” metaphor by giving us maps on which the players will place and move their pieces.

Sam’s discovery of the Dragonstone map sets us up for Daenerys’ arrival—finally!—at the island itself, but there’s a brief, poignant scene in between that acts almost as a connection between Sam and Dany. In yet another tedious task, Sam takes empty food bowls away from what look like prison cells. But as we realize, it’s more of a sanitarium, in which people infected with greyscale are kept quarantined. Including, as it turns out, Ser Jorah Mormont, who begs Sam for news of the Dragon Queen. Sam of course knows nothing, but presumably that will change as news of her landing spreads.

The last we saw Jorah, he’d been sent away with orders from his Queen to find a cure for his disease—a quest that seems to have led him to the Citadel. Judging by the progression of the disease and the quality of his voice, Jorah’s in a bad way. Will the Citadel be able to cure him?

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The reminder of his plight tempers the triumph of Daenerys’ long-awaited return home—as she is rowed up to the beach, it is hard not to think of Jorah’s despair and what he would be feeling if he could be there with her. That being said, it is a deeply affecting scene: beautifully shot, and done without words until the final moment. (I couldn’t help thinking as we see the craggy spur of land to Daenerys’ right as she approaches the beach, that there’s where the dragonglass is).

When last we saw Dragonstone, it was inhabited by Stannis Baratheon and his forces, and it was invariably dark and brooding—most of the scenes took place at night, and we never really saw the castle in all its glory. Here it is the precise opposite: seen in beautiful and sunny weather, the oppressive castle of Stannis’ days is breathtaking in its architecture and the rugged cliffs from which it rises. Though the symbolism is not overt, the suggestion is the dawning of a new day.

Walking through the throne room (pausing to tear down a Baratheon banner on the way), she passes into the room with the ornate table carved into a map of Westeros by her ancestor Aegon the Conqueror, who plotted his Westrosi campaign in that room. Again, the set design here is stunning, especially the dragons carved in bas-relief into the walls. I loved Tyrion’s quiet awe—one senses in Peter Dinklage’s expression Tyrion’s sudden apprehension of the enormity of what they are about to attempt.

And then: “Shall we begin?”

Yes. Yes we shall.

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That’s all for this week, friends and neighbours! It kind of sucks that we’re only getting seven episodes this time around, but we’ll make the best of it for you. Once again, Nikki, it is a delight to team up with you on this ride. For everyone else, stay warm and beware of stingy old men who suddenly want to give you wine.

 

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American Gods Episode 1.01: “The Bone Orchard”

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Whenever a beloved work of fiction gets adapted to film or television these days, one can almost hear the prayer murmured in unison by fans: please don’t suck, please don’t suck. As someone more or less indifferent to the Marvel and DC universes, I have been spared the worst of pop culture’s sins on this front in recent years, and have in fact been rewarded with Game of Thrones and The Expanse (the less said about the three Hobbit films the better, however).

When I first heard that Neil Gaiman’s American Gods was going to be adapted by Starz, however, I was more than a little concerned—Starz not being known for high-quality drama on par with, say, HBO, AMC, or Showtime. (I will admit that my attitude about Starz is largely coloured by my experience of watching the first few episodes of Spartacus shortly after finishing HBO’s Rome. Where Rome is a beautifully written and acted show, watching Spartacus was not unlike having a DVD of 300 taped to a brick, wrapped in a 1970s Penthouse, and flung at your head). But as we learned more, some of my anxieties lessened—especially after learning it would be co-produced by Bryan Fuller (late of Hannibal), and that Mr. Wednesday would be played by Ian McShane.

Still … you just don’t know until it airs. The early reviews were positively orgasmic, which could be a good or bad sign. But then I watched the first episode “The Bone Orchard,” and I have to agree with the reviews.

So given that Game of Thrones will not be airing until mid-July and thus you’ll have to wait several months for my co-blogs with Nikki, I think I will endeavor to post about American Gods episode by episode. I won’t do recaps: ideally, I’ll find something intriguing in each episode that I can tease out into a discussion related to the original novel. So without further ado, here’s my take on episode one.

somewhere in america

First, a review.

I have now watched “The Bone Orchard” twice; my first viewing was largely suffused with delight and relief at how good the show is. Ricky Whittle is powerful and compelling as the laconic, brooding, watchful Shadow; Jonathan Tucker is a minor revelation in the role of Shadow’s cellmate Low-Key (especially considering what we’ll learn about him in later episodes); the scene with Bilquis was startling in that it was precisely how I pictured it unfolding in the novel (which, I presume, inspired a good number of “WTF?” moments among those who haven’t read it); I’m always stoked to see Pablo Schreiber, whether as Nick Sobotka in The Wire or Pornstache in Orange is the New Black—and he’s amazing here as the leprechaun Mad Sweeney (“Okay, you’re a little tall for a leprechaun.” “That’s a stereotype. Represents a very narrow view of the world”); and of course, Ian McShane steals every scene he’s in, bringing a hint of the old Al Swearenegen darkness, but embroidering it with an outrageous, loquacious, and audacious charm. Already there’s a substantial amount of Gaiman’s text making it into the show more or less verbatim, but I have a sneaking suspicion that the balance of it will be coming out of Mr. Wednesday’s mouth over the course of the series.

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Demore Barnes as Mr. Ibis.

There were a number of near-squee moments in this episode, the first one coming when we open, not on Shadow in his cell (as in the novel) but on Mr. Ibis in his study, writing out the history of mendicant gods brought to America in his elegant script. Opening with the story of Vikings touching American soil a century before Leif Eriksson—and the sacrifices they made to flee—is a very smart framing device for reasons I’ll get into momentarily. Visually, however, it signaled its aesthetic kinship to Hannibal: the gouts of blood thrown up into the air as the Norsemen engage in ritual combat, would, in other contexts, be comically excessive—and indeed they are here, but we soon see how consonant they are with the saturated colours of the rest of the episode. The palette on display is a mark of how Bryan Fuller and Michael Green take visual ownership of Gaiman’s text. When I read American Gods, the visuals in my mind (and this is a purely subjective reading) are pale and washed out, as if filmed through a blue filter. The rich and vibrant world on display here is not dissonant, just a different interpretation: one that will, as I will hopefully discuss in this post and the ones to follow, tease out elements of Gaiman’s text not immediately apparent.

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Ricky Whittle as Shadow Moon.

Second, my thoughts.

On my second viewing of “The Bone Orchard,” I was struck by the way in which the episode starts laying thematic groundwork for a story about “foreign” or immigrant gods—brought to the continental U.S. by immigrants, refugees, indentured servants, and slaves, and then more or less forgotten by their erstwhile worshippers—in the context of American history. In this episode the striking motif is that of hanging, which bookends the story.

In the novel, Shadow is presented as racially ambiguous, described as having “coffee and cream skin.” In the early pages of the novel, one of the prison guards quizzes him on his ethnicity, suggesting that he might have black blood in him (except he doesn’t say “black”). Shadow’s indeterminate ethnicity and race, coupled with his tendency to be quiet and watchful and aloof, establish him as a liminal figure in a nation preoccupied—both historically and presently—with assigning explicit identities to anyone not falling under the broad rubric of whiteness. In this respect, with his indeterminate origins, Gaiman’s Shadow comprises a sort of symbolic mongrelization, one that allows those around him to project their assumptions upon him, while also functioning as a walking metaphor for the melting pot. (It occurred to me on my most recent re-read that if the showrunners wished to hew to this description of Shadow, they could have done worse than to cast Jason Momoa in the role).

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Shadow meets the leprechaun, Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schreiber).

In casting Ricky Whittle, the series makes Shadow unambiguously African-American, a decision that mercifully occurred—to the best of my knowledge—without the kind of racist carping that accompanied the casting of Rue in The Hunger Games (who was explicitly described as black in the novel, a fact that eluded the carpers) or Hermione in the stage production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. And as I said above, based on the first episode, Whittle perfectly captures Shadow’s quietly observant, slightly brooding mien, something occasionally disrupted with a cutting and sarcastic sensibility. In making Shadow racially unambiguous, however, the show commits him to an overdetermined identity within U.S. culture and history.

This is not, I should be clear, a mistake or a bad thing: on the contrary, “The Bone Orchard” leans right into what I suppose we have to call, for lack of a better expression, the “racial politics” of American Gods. I hesitate to use that phrase because it is inadequate to the history of violence wordlessly presented moments after we meet Shadow: a knot of tattooed neo-nazis glaring daggers at him from across the prison yard, one of whom threateningly holds up a small noose. Later, when a guard leads Shadow to the warden’s office, another Aryan makes a hanging gesture as he passes.

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There are, I would hazard to say, few symbols quite as fraught for African-Americans as the noose, evoking as it does the bloody history of lynching and violent suppression. Nor does the episode leave the hanging rope in the realm of symbolism, as Shadow is subjected to a brutal beating and lynching by the “new god” Technical Boy’s drones at the very end of the episode. It is important to note that this scene is a creation of the show: in the novel, Shadow gets picked up by Technical Boy on his way back to the motel, and their conversation is repeated in this episode very nearly verbatim. But it ends in the novel with Technical Boy dropping Shadow off a few hundred yards away from the motel. Here, he orders his drones to kill Shadow, and what follows is a terrifying and bloody scene in which the drones brutally beat Shadow in the pouring rain and then hang him from a lonely tree in the midst of flat fields. That the drones are then killed in spectacular fashion by an unseen assailant and Shadow is cut down does not detract from the nauseating imagery of lynching.

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Taken in and of itself, this scene retrospectively looks back to the neo-nazi’s noose as foreshadowing, and plays out as a literal realization of white supremacist violence—perpetrated, in the end, not by incarcerated Aryans, but by a petulant and privileged white guy angered by Shadow’s snark (“Then why the fuck am I wasting my time sitting her talking to you?” Technical Boy asks, to which Shadow—in a line not from the novel—responds, “You know, I was curious myself, how long you were going to go on sucking your own dick?”). The violence is more than strictly allegorical, as the new gods against whom Mr. Wednesday and his cohort set themselves are essentially the embodiment and vehicles of hegemonic, cultural power in the contemporary U.S. (technology, media, wealth, celebrity, conspiracy, and so forth). One review I read of the episode said “If a black character is going to get lynched, American Gods better have a good reason for bringing that disturbing act to the screen.” I would argue that the most basic reason is the one I’ve outlined here: that these power structures are even more deeply rooted in white supremacy than the facile and simplistic hatred of the incarcerated Aryans. But I would also further argue that this episode grounds that understanding of power in a more complex, mythic history.

Aesthetically, American Gods shares DNA with Hannibal; thematically however, the series that suggests itself most persistently in this episode is Deadwood—and not just because of the presence of Ian McShane and Mr. Wednesday’s subtle echoes of Al Swearengen. The gritty neo-realism of David Milch’s western might seem completely at odds with Neil Gaiman’s mythopoeic American fantasy—and in many respects it is—but they do share a crucial commonality, which is an understanding of national mythology born in blood. Deadwood is about democracy and civil society emerging from lawlessness and violence (“improvised order” in the words of David Milch), and is an unsentimental critique of the delusion that civilization can be rooted in anything other than brutality. The series is, in part, a dramatization of Walter Benjamin’s assertion that “There is no document of civilization that is not at the same time a document of barbarism.”

American Gods is fundamentally about sacrifice. Gods in Gaiman’s legendarium are the product of worship and belief, and do not exist prior to human invention (I have written at some length about the novel previously), but are sustained by belief—but even more powerfully by sacrifice (something vividly illustrated by Bilquis’ rejuvenation after she consumes her would-be lover). What Deadwood tells us about democracy, American Gods tells us about religion: that it emerges from blood. The noose that taunts Shadow in the prison-yard foreshadows the lynching, but it is not the first noose to appear in the episode. The opening sequence depicting Vikings landing on an inhospitable strip of North American shore sets the stage for what is to come: denied egress from the strand by hostile natives and becalmed, the Norsemen carve an effigy of Odin and perform a series of ritual sacrifices: first, in emulation of the one-eyed god, they all put out an eye; when that does not work, they burn one of their own alive; and finally, in order to get the god’s attention, they stage a real and very bloody battle. Finally, Odin grants them wind enough to set sail, but their sacrifice brings an avatar of the god to the strange shore. “Over one hundred years later,” Mr. Ibis narrates, “when Leif the Fortunate, son of Erik the Red, would rediscover that land, he found his god waiting.”

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Just in case you forgot that one of the producers was also responsible for Hannibal

Odin, among his many names, is known as the Gallows God, because he hanged himself in order to gain wisdom. As Neil Gaiman writes in his recent book Norse Mythology,

He hung from the world-tree, Yggdrasil, hung there for nine nights. His side was pierced by the point of a spear, which wounded him gravely. The winds clutched at him, buffeted his body as it hung. Nothing did he eat for nine days or nine nights, nothing did he drink. He was alone there, in pain, the light of his life slowly going out.

He was cold, in agony, and on the point of death when his sacrifice bore dark fruit: in the ecstasy of his agony he looked down, and the runes were revealed to him. He knew them, and understood them and their power. The rope broke then, and he fell, screaming, from the tree.

Now he understood magic. Now the world was his to control.

The Vikings hang Odin’s effigy from a noose in the episode’s opening sequence, in honour of the god’s sacrifice, and then proceed through their own ever more brutal sacrifices.

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When we cut to the present day where Shadow lifts weights in the prison yard, his manic cell-mate Low-Key is riffing on the word “gallows,” speculating on the relief of receiving a death sentence: “You get a few days to let it sink in, and then you’re riding the cart on your way to do a dance on nothing.” Leaving aside for the moment that this is a rather nineteenth-century understanding of a death sentence, Low-Key’s evocation of the death penalty—while standing in the midst of a prison’s carceral space—draws a thematic line from the Vikings’ sacrificial violence, to the violence enacted on the bodies of citizens by the penal system, to the history of systemic violence perpetrated against African Americans. Human sacrifice, American Gods comes to suggest, was not merely the barbaric practice of premodern peoples, but is in fact the unspoken and necessary cornerstone of “civilization.”

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Ian McShane as Mr. Wednesday.

Low-Key continues to say, “This country went to hell when they stopped hangin’ folks; no gallows dirt, no gallows deals!” To which Shadow wearily rejoins, “No gallows humour.” It is an ironic little throwaway line, considering that Shadow’s association with Mr. Wednesday will provide a great deal in the way of gallows humour going forward.

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Game of Thrones 6.10: The Winds of Winter

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Greetings all! Welcome to the final recap/review/exegesis on Game of Thrones season six, as executed by myself and my wonderful friend Nikki Stafford. It’s hard to believe, but the season is now over … how quickly it flew. The finale did not disappoint, however, and it gives us a whole lot to look forward to in season seven.

It was a long episode—the longest yet aired—so we have a lot to get through. So, without further ado …

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Christopher: Game of Thrones has gotten us used to having a pretty spectacular penultimate episode, followed by a finale that is more about housekeeping than anything else, with perhaps one or two “Holy shit!” moments to prime us for the next season (see: Jon Snow, murder of). But I think it’s safe to say that this finale was wall-to-wall holy shit moments. To wit: Cersei blows up EVERYBODY real good; Tommen offs himself; Varys shows up in Dorne; Jon Snow’s lineage is CONFIRMED, and he’s named King in the North (much to Littlefinger’s, and possibly Sansa’s, dismay); Arya, having presumably left Braavos with a bunch of spare faces in her carry-on, feeds Walder Frey’s sons to him and cuts his throat; Daenerys finally sets sail for Westeros; and Cersei, dressed like every evil sorceress from every 80s fantasy film, is crowned the MOTHERFUCKING QUEEN OF WESTEROS.

All I can say is: enjoy it while you can, Cersei. Dragons a-comin’.

We begin with a rather lovely view of King’s Landing, as Cersei looks down from her rooms over the city, peering specifically at the Sept of Baelor. Then follows an interesting musical montage of several key individuals dressing (or in the case of everyone but the Sparrow, being dressed). Knowing as we do that Cersei and Loras’ trials are nigh, this sequence feels not unlike the sequence in a sports film when the athletes don their gear. It is, in essence, a pre-battle scene, except that two of the four people pictured do not show up: only the Sparrow (clad in what I assume is his formal burlap) and Margaery go to the sept. Tommen remains broodingly in his chambers, and Cersei is well into her morning wine.

I loved the use of music in this sequence. It was just this side of verging on overdone, but the rather anachronistic piano score lent the scenes a melancholic, almost dirge-like quality—especially when, as Lancel is stabbed, it changes from piano to pipe organ. And it’s worth noting that there was a lot more cutting between scenes than this show tends to employ: usually we have little parlor dramas that go on for five to ten minutes before cutting away to a different story. In this case however, we get the scene in the sept, Cersei in her chambers, Tommen in his, Pycelle’s murder, and Lancel’s discovery of the wildfire. All of which is brought together as we watch Cersei watch the Sept of Baelor go up in flames.

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I should note that there is an interestingly tangential intersection with A Dance With Dragons in terms of Qyburn’s use of murderous children to do away with both Lancel and Pycelle. Two episodes ago, Varys departed from Meereen for unspoken reasons, referring cryptically to a “mission” he was undertaking. I, and presumably everyone else who has read the novels, speculated that perhaps he was heading to King’s Landing to stir the pot. Dance’s epilogue has Ser Kevan Lannister (who is a far more sympathetic character in the novels) cautiously optimistic: having done her walk of shame, Cersei seems properly contrite and sedate, and unlikely to rock the boat; and after a long period of unrest, things seem to be settling down in King’s Landing, and in the Seven Kingdoms more generally. He receives a message from Grand Maester Pycelle asking to see him, but when he arrives at his chambers he finds him dead. He is himself shot with a crossbow … shot by Varys, in the eunuch’s first appearance since he abetted Tyrion’s escape in A Storm of Swords, two novels ago.

Why has he killed Kevan? Because he was “threatening to undo all the queen’s good work,” by which he means Cersei’s catastrophic misrule that has continued the chaos of the war. In bringing stability, Kevan threatens to undermine Varys’ ultimate goal—the re-installation of Targaryen rule in Westeros. And while Varys has shot him with a crossbow, it is not the eunuch that deals the killing blow:

Ser Kevan was cold as ice, and every labored breath sent a fresh stab of pain through him. He glimpsed movement, heard the soft scuffling sound of slippered feet on stone. A child emerged from a pool of darkness, a pale boy in a ragged robe, no more than nine or ten. Another rose up behind the Grand Maester’s chair. The girl who had opened the door for him was there as well. They were all around him, half a dozen of them, white-faced children with dark eyes, boys and girls together. And in their hands, the daggers.

But as it turns out, Varys has gone to Dorne, to stir the pot in an entirely other fashion. More on that later.

Meanwhile, the children with daggers are in the employ of Qyburn, and visit death first upon Pycelle in a manner that very closely mirrors Ser Kevan’s death in Dance. Qybrurn’s apology, indeed, is almost identical to Varys’ in the novel. And one of the children lures Lancel away into the vaults in what is, unfortunately, a rather contrived sequence. Why does he follow the child? What does he care if some urchin runs down the cathedral steps? His task, after all, is to go and bring Cersei, kicking and screaming if necessary, to her own trial. I have to imagine this is a task he relishes. But no, he follows the kid down into the basement of the sept, only to discover that part of Bran’s wildfire vision was not of the past, but the future.

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Margaery, meanwhile, gets the screaming heebie-jeebies when Cersei doesn’t show, and when she attempts to share her fears with the Sparrow, is condescendingly mansplained to. It is unthinkable to him to end or postpone the trial—this, after all, is his moment of triumph. He has cowed and humbled two great houses, robbing one of its heir; he makes it clear that he’s entirely prepared to level judgment on Cersei whether she shows up or not.

And then … BOOM.

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

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Nikki: I’ve often referred to episodes of television that cause one to feel all kinds of emotions (sorry, I can’t bring myself to use the term “all the feels”) as the best kinds of rollercoasters. But if other TV episodes are rollercoasters, this is the Leviathan. I don’t recall ever screaming, gasping, and throwing my hands up in the air as often as I did with this one. There were no tears, so I guess that would be the only thing it was lacking, but to use the word “lacking” with any part of this episode would be nitpicking in the extreme. I think the episode was damn near perfect.

In the previous episode, as Daenerys talked about burning her city down, Tyrion calmly reminded her that her father had once stuffed all of King’s Landing’s underground tunnels with wildfire, and that the reason her father was truly the Mad King is that he was willing to burn to death every man, woman, and child, every innocent person in the way, just to get to the few people he wanted to kill. Only a truly mad person would do such a thing. I wondered why they were repeating this story — just last season he told the same story to Daenerys as the two of them sat across a table and he explained what her father was really like, and how in her quest to become queen she must never, ever be like him. And now I realized they needed that story fresh in our minds, because as Tyrion is warning Daenerys about her father planting the explosives in the first place, it never even occurs to him that his own sister might be the one to use it.

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And use it she does. My GOD when Lancel looked up and I saw the glowing green goop on the ground I dropped my pen and gasped aloud. “WILDFIRE!!!” And immediately the consequences of the action — before it had even been set off — were in my head. She’s going to kill everyone in the Sept of Baelor.

Now, I will admit to some, um, stupidity on my part. It never occurred to me that the sept and the castle were in two completely different locations — for some reason I always pictured them as adjacent to one another. They always seem to be in their chambers, then say, “Walk with me” in an Aaron Sorkin sort of way and then… they’re in the sept. I thought the buildings were pretty much attached. And yet now I realize well DUH, Cersei had to have done her walk of atonement from the sept to the castle, and therefore they must be in two different spots. But I never realized they were THAT far apart. That was one long walk of atonement.

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I also had a horrifying moment when the Mountain stopped Tommen in his doorway that Cersei — bedecked in her black dress as if vying for the role of Evil Queen in some King’s Landing Disney musical production — had actually ordered her own son’s death in retaliation for him removing her right to choose a champion and have a trial by combat. And I was baffled: no matter what Tommen would do, she would NEVER kill one of her children. They mean everything to her. Of course, she wasn’t going to kill Tommen — she was just going to destroy him emotionally and psychologically, and kill everyone he ever loved. No big.

We go from the wildfire killing everyone and everything to Cersei waterboarding a nun (or maybe “wineboarding” would be the more accurate word), and I couldn’t help but think, “Cersei, seriously, you’re OK with wasting all that wine?” The only person worse than Cersei in this scene is Septa Unella, who has been a hateful, horrible character from the moment we first saw her. Despite everything Cersei had done, watching Unella ring that bell and shouting, “Shame!” in that holier-than-thou voice of hers put our sympathies with a Lannister, and for that alone, she should be punished. Cersei tells her to confess that she enjoyed torturing Cersei, before Cersei happily lists all of her favourite things. And no, they don’t include whiskers on kittens or snowflakes that stay on her nose and eyelashes.

I drink because it feels good to be drinking
I killed my husband because he was stinking
I fucked my brother and clipped Sparrow’s wings,
These are a few of my favourite things!

But she can’t reach Unella and her piousness. The nun just looks at her smugly and says she’s ready to meet her god. To which Cersei has a hearty chuckle, and in lumbers Ser Gregor Clegane. I was chatting about what to expect in this week’s episode with another parent at my son’s soccer game last week, and both of us thought they were going to show the Mountain’s face this week. I didn’t want to see it; he totally did. “This is Ser Gregor Clegane,” says Cersei as she walks out, leaving Septa Unella to untold amounts of torture. “He is your god now.” And with the tiniest bit of joy she can muster, Cersei begins chanting, “Shame! Shame! Shame!” as she shuts the door.

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If I must be tortured, I would choose wineboarding.

And we cut to Tommen looking out over the city. You mentioned the gorgeous score in this episode, Chris, and because it’s so different than the music we heard before, you’re right in that it stands out a lot. It was gorgeous. But in this scene, there’s no music whatsoever — the only score is the screaming coming from the streets below as green smoke billows out of the Sept of Baelor. Which is why no one was prepared for what happened next. When Tommen removes his crown and turns to leave, the camera holds on the window for what seems like too long a time, I suddenly gasped in horror about two seconds before Tommen came back into view, realizing exactly what was going to happen. It’s a horrifying moment, and he acts quickly before he can think his way out of it. And there’s no heightened drama in the moment at all — no music, no sound effects, no opening of his arms and screaming, nothing. He simply walks back to the window, steps up onto the windowsill, and falls forward silently, like a log.

His mother has just killed his wife without a second thought. And his wife’s father and brother. And the High Sparrow and the acolytes — to which Tommen had just pledged his fealty. He loved Margaery, even if she didn’t love him, and he was willing to change his entire belief system to match hers. And now he realizes his mother is a monster. That his personal happiness doesn’t mean anything to her because if she doesn’t like someone, she will have them killed. It doesn’t matter if it happens to be Tommen’s beloved wife.

And with that, Cersei has lost all three of her children. Joffrey died because he was a sadistic tit, but he had always been that way, urged on by Cersei, who never said no to him and who encouraged his evil ways. Myrcella died because Cersei made the ill-fated decision to have the Mountain squash Oberyn’s head like a melon, and it forced Ellaria to wreak her revenge on Cersei in the most painful way. And now Tommen, her youngest, who was just a kindergartner when this whole story began, is gone. All their deaths were caused by her desire for power, but we know she would do anything for her children. They’re all gone. How does a mother continue after this? What is there left to even live for? Any piece of humanity that Cersei had left in her body went out the window with Tommen, and her heart is nothing but a sliver of flint now. She wept and screamed and raged at Joffrey’s death. She cried quietly when Myrcella died and wondered if she’d just lost the only thing that reminded her she was a good person. And now, with Tommen’s death, she bears it without even changing her demeanour. “Burn him and bury his ashes where the sept once stood,” she says.

And all of THAT, our dear readers, was just the opening of the episode. Jeepers. The only downside to all of this? Now we’ll never know what Margaery had been planning all this time. But one thing’s for sure: Grandma Tyrell is gonna be pissed.

And now we’re back over to Riverrun and Walder Frey, who is aligned with the Lannisters. (Snicker.) What did you think of Jaime and Bronn’s verbal sparring here, Chris?

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Christopher: It was a lot different on rewatching as I realized that the girl Bronn’s initially ogling, whom he assumes is all hot and bothered for Jaime, is actually Arya in disguise. The first time around, the scene was just vaguely annoying—I love Bronn as a character except when he goes all frat-boy—but the second time around the coy look the serving girl gives Jaime is vaguely chilling. Knowing that’s Arya, in my head I was imagining her calculation: “Can I kill Walder Frey AND the Kingslayer? Nah, best to stick with Frey. Jaime was never on my list.” That little shiver up Jaime’s back is his lizard brain being suddenly grateful that Arya doesn’t know he shoved Bran out a window.

I’m beginning to think that the worst fate in Westeros is to be born a Frey, as it seems to entail being congenitally petty, incompetent, and jealous of other people’s successes. Walder Frey’s little speech at the beginning of this scene is quite possibly the most insufferable bit of oration we’ve heard in this series, and I’m including all of Joffrey’s pronouncements. His suggestion that from this day forth, everyone in that room should accompany killing blows to their enemies with the words “The Freys and the Lannisters send their regards!” is a bit of piggybacking self-aggrandizement that would make Erlich from Silicon Valley blush.

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(Walder Frey is one of those characters I can insult just because of whom he played in another fantasy franchise. During his speech I kept thinking, “Oh, just shut the fuck up Argus Filch, you fucking squib wizard wannabe”).

Jaime is quite obviously unimpressed. Wait, did I say unimpressed? I think I mean he would sooner cut off his other hand and use it to gouge out his eyes than listen to another word from Walder Frey. But these are the tasks nobility drops on the 1%, I suppose. His indifference to Bronn’s frat-boy banter is one indicator of his desire to be Anywhere But Here. He manages to divest himself of Bronn by being wing-man extraordinaire, but must immediately regret his helpfulness when Bronn’s seat is immediately taken by none other than Frey the Elder himself.

I loved Nikolaj Coster-Waldau in this scene. I think he’s done a fantastic job of realizing Jaime Lannister anyway, but in this moment he’s the audience’s proxy, radiating contempt for this useless cocknapkin of a lord, and finally expressing what we’re all thinking throughout the scene: precisely what fucking use ARE you, Walder Frey? The expression on his face as Frey tries to equate himself with Jaime is priceless. “Here we are now. Two kingslayers! We know what it’s like to have them grovel to our faces, and snigger behind our backs. We don’t mind, do we? Fear! It’s a marvelous thing.” If we recall Jaime’s account of what led him to kill the Mad King, it’s a bit of miraculous self-control that he doesn’t just beat Frey to death with his golden hand. Instead, he settles for pointing out that no one fears the Freys—they fear the Lannisters, and if the Lannisters have to ride north to recapture the Riverlands every time the Freys lose them, “then why do we need you?”

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We cut from a discomfited Walder Frey to Sam, Gilly, and Little Sam as they arrive at Oldtown—which is a moment probably somewhat more poignant for readers of the novels, as this ancient southern city has been imbued with so much myth and legend and significance. It is the site of the Citadel, the university (basically) that trains maesters, as well as being one of the oldest cities in all of Westeros. It’s worth noting that as Sam and Gilly arrive, they see a flight of white birds leaving the city—one of which we later see gliding into Winterfell. Theses are the white ravens, which in the GoT world are sent from the Citadel when the Maesters agree that yes, in fact, winter has arrived.

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I loved this scene, as Sam’s first view of the Citadel’s library is essentially book lovers’ porn. I remember having a similar expression to Sam’s the first time I walked into the Robarts Library Rare Books Collection at U of T … except that the stacks there are far less impressive than what CGI has done for the Citadel. I also loved that Sam’s nascent feminism founders on the shoals of books. “No women or children!” the functionary at the desk thunders at Gilly, and Sam’s expression—in which apology wars with excitement—is priceless. “Sorry, babe. I’d express solidarity with you, but … BOOKS!”

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I hope that next season we just cut from whatever momentous events are happening to Sam reading an ever-growing stack of books. Just for a few seconds. DRAGONS LAYING WASTE TO LANNISTERS! Sam reading. WHITE WALKERS ASSAULTING THE WALL! Sam reading. CERSEI DRINKING WINE! Sam reading.

Repeat as necessary, GoT writing room. You’re welcome.

We then cut to one of those white ravens Sam and Gilly see (Jeebus, these birds fly as fast as Yara’s ships can sail) gliding down to Winterfell. Jon is having a bit of difficulty adjusting to his new position, observing to Melisandre that he was never permitted to sit at the high table during feasts. “It could have been worse, Jon Snow,” she points out. “You had a family. You had feasts.” Good observation, murderous red woman! It’s that kind of common-sense advice we’ll miss because you thought it was a good idea to burn the innocent child of the would-be king whom you thought, erroneously, was the child of prophecy.

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How awesome was Liam Cunningham in this scene? Twelve years ago I saw Much Ado About Nothing at Shakespeare in the Park in New York, with Sam Waterston as Leonato. The speech he delivers to Claudio, in which he accuses Claudio of essentially killing his daughter, Hero, from grief, was spoken with such spitting, shuddering, barely contained rage that even sitting in the back row I felt it in my bones. That’s what I thought of while watching Davos put Melisandre on the spot. “If he commands you to burn children, your lord is evil!” You know what? That’s a fantastic rule of thumb when it comes to choosing your deity. “I loved that girl!” Davos thunders. “Like she was my own! She was good, she was kind, and you KILLED her!” Honestly, my heart was breaking in these moments. Davos has lost everything—his sons, his family, the man he believed should be king. And he’s lost Shireen, the little girl who taught him to read and who might have given Lyanna Mormont a run for her precocious money.

In a promising moment of wise compromise, Jon Snow sends her south. He can’t ignore the fact that he’s only alive because of Melisandre, but he also cannot ignore the enormity of her trespass. I doubt Davos thinks it sufficient, but it’s a good first gesture for the man who’ll become the King in the North by the end of the episode.

Jon watches her ride away from the battlements, and is joined by Sansa, who addresses the fact that she hadn’t shared her communications with Littlefinger with him. In our last post, I said that Sansa’s omission was bad writing; others have suggested that Sansa is actually far more savvy and ruthless than I was giving her credit for. What did you think of her apology, re: Knights of the Vale, Nikki?

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Nikki: First I just have to concur that Sam walking into that room of infinite books almost made me forget every other moment of the entire series. If you get to choose your heaven where you will spend all of eternity, the showrunners just gave everyone a glimpse of mine. I pictured Gilly and little Sam sitting out in the waiting room for YEARS as little Sam grows up, hits puberty, moves out of the Citadel, all while Sam Tarly just stood in that same spot, mouth agape, staring at the wonder and beauty that surrounded him. And Chris, I thought EXACTLY the same thing when I saw it: I had the same reaction you did when I walked into the Robarts Rare Book room (maybe you and I were in the same bibliography class?) and when they pulled out the original Shakespeare folio I thought I was going to faint. I remember putting on the gloves to slowly turn the pages of a first edition of Dickens, and my eyes kept glancing upwards at all of the stacks of books around me all the time. GLORIOUS.

People always imagine what character they’d want to be on Game of Thrones. In that moment, it was clear to me: I want to be Samwell Tarly.

But now back over to our Sansa. Yes, you said Sansa’s omission was bad writing, others said it was just more evidence of Sansa’s stupidity and that Rickon’s death was on her head, while I held my ground that we all know Littlefinger is a complete dick so why are we assuming that Sansa knew he was coming and that she is the bad guy? And of course this scene didn’t really answer anything. All she said is that she’s sorry she didn’t tell him, but she didn’t elaborate what there was to tell: that she’d sent the raven to Littlefinger? That she’d gotten a raven back saying he was coming? That she knew all along or that it was a mere possibility? Either way, Jon is clearly far more forgiving than the fans, and has a much longer memory and knows they’re stronger as a family than breaking apart. He knows what his sister has been through, and he knows that where he was shuffled off to the Wall, she was betrothed to Joffrey, mocked by the court, ridiculed by Cersei, watched her own father’s execution, became a prisoner, thought she would die at the Battle of Blackwater, heard of the deaths of her mother and brother, assumed Arya was dead, was married to a monster against her own will, escaped at the last minute before she could be executed for standing nearby while Joffrey died, was brought to the Eyrie and was there when her aunt died, had creepy Uncle Baelish come on to her, then was shuffled off to House Bolton where she discovered what a REAL monster was and where her memories of Winterfell would forever be tarnished, thought her two brothers had been murdered, was raped and beaten repeatedly before finding the fortitude to escape, found out what her ward/brother had gone through at the hands of Ramsay, escaped through the snow chased by Ramsay’s dogs, and THEN was reunited with Jon. So yeah, she’s been through some stuff, and while the men have been trained in weaponry and war from the moment they were big enough to pick up a wooden sword, she was trained in embroidery and how to curtsey, and yet by osmosis this little girl has grown into a woman who can help strategize against the enemy.

In that moment he realized the fault was as much his as it was hers — she didn’t tell him about Littlefinger, and he didn’t listen to her when he should have. He tells her they have to trust each other, because right now, they’re all the other one has. He tells her that he’s going to have the lord’s room made up for her — she should have the chamber that had previously been occupied by Ned and Catelyn. She says he should have the room, because he’s the lord. (It wasn’t clear to me if their chamber was the same one in which Ramsay had repeatedly raped her — if it was, I can imagine it’s not a room she’s keen on having.) He shakes his head and says no, he can’t, because he’s not a Stark. “You are to me,” she says, and for all they know, she’s the last surviving Stark, and if she says he’s a Stark, he’s a Stark. (Even though we know he’s also something else, but more on that later.) She tells him that a white raven has come from the Citadel: “Winter is here.”

I don’t know about you, but that line elicited a gasp from me that was as loud as anything else in the episode. For SIX YEARS we’ve heard that “Winter is coming,” which was something Ned Stark said all the time. And it seemed like it would never come — it was just that thing that everyone warned about, but I started to wonder if the show would end with winter still on the horizon. Here come the white walkers.

But as the snowflakes swirl in the air above Winterfell, we now move to Dorne, where Lady Olenna is dressed all in black, showing us that she knows, and she is FURIOUS. And she’s gone to the one place where she knows she has a bunch of women with a SERIOUS beef against the Lannisters, and most importantly, Cersei. Olenna has never hidden her disdain for Cersei Lannister, as if she knew if House Tyrell ever had a downfall, it would be at Cersei’s hand. But of all the Tyrells Cersei killed, she left the most powerful one still standing, which is her biggest mistake. As I said earlier, everything that has happened to Cersei happened because of her own mistakes — the deaths of her children, the rise of the High Sparrow — and two of the three children died because someone took revenge on them to get back at Cersei. And in the case of the first child, it was Lady Olenna who did it. And now she’s back. She can’t come at Cersei through her children, so she needs to think bigger. Cersei took away her future — she killed her son and both grandchildren. What does Cersei have left? King’s Landing and Westeros. OK, let’s take that from her. Ellaria looks at Olenna (who is not threatened one bit by the Sand Snakes, telling them to shut the hell up and telling Elbara she looks like an angry little boy) and tells her that she will give Olenna her heart’s desire. “And what is my heart’s desire?” asks Olenna, with an eyeroll and a pfft. “Vengeance,” says Ellaria.

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“Justice.”

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Varys.

Last week the soccer dad and I were discussing where Varys could have gone, and we both agreed it was Dorne. If he basically lives to see Daenerys Stormborn take back Westeros, who are the people who hate Cersei the most? Who are powerful enough to topple empires like they did in Dorne? Who are, like Daenerys, women? (Her alliances now are with the Sand Snakes and Yara Greyjoy.)

“Fire and blood,” he says as he emerges from the shadows, all Doctor Evil–like. And…

We cut to the fire: Daenerys Targaryen. Guys, it is ALL COMING TOGETHER!!! Daenerys is making her plans to go to Westeros, and tells Daario that he has to stay to keep peace in Meereen, but he’s having none of it. And she’s having none of him having none of it. She holds her ground and tells him she needs to think politically now, and needs to marry someone with power to gain power, but Daario loves her fiercely, and won’t let her go. She just stares at him coolly and tells him his instructions are awaiting him, there shall be no more dalliances with this dragon. It’s a heartbreaking scene, mostly because of the lack of emotion she shows and Daario having nothing but emotion. He blames Tyrion, and she says this isn’t Tyrion, it’s her decision (it’s Tyrion’s) and Daario pleads with her. “Let me fight for you,” he says. But Tyrion knows Daenerys really does have a single-minded purpose, and Cersei didn’t: Cersei wanted the power, but she loved her children so much she allowed her enemies to get at her through them. When you love someone, they will become your greatest weakness. And Daenerys can’t afford any weaknesses right now. “You’ll get the throne,” says Daario. “I hope it brings you happiness.” He tells her that he pities the lords of Westeros right now, for they have no idea what’s coming for them.

She shows far more emotion with Tyrion, and tells him that she just said goodbye to a man she loved and felt nothing. And we realize what she just didn’t wasn’t some tough love act to save Daario’s life — she truly never loved him the way he loved her. Tyrion says this is all happening right now: all she’s ever wanted are ships, armies, and dragons, and now she has all of them. “You’re in the great game now,” he tells her. “And the great game is terrifying.”

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And then, like Spike to Buffy in the penultimate episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, he looks at her and tells that he’s never believed in anything in his life. He was taught to believe in certain gods, in family, in power, in the monarchy, in the military, in his father, in his brother and sister, even in himself, and believing in any of those things never got him anywhere. “And yet, here I am,” he says. “I believe in you. It’s embarrassing, really… I’d swear you my sword, but… I don’t actually have a sword.” And with that she makes him the Hand of the Queen, even pinning the brooch on him that Ned Stark wore back in season one. The pin didn’t get Ned anywhere positive. And when Tyrion himself wore it as Joffrey’s Hand, things were just as bad. But he’s not following Robert Baratheon, or Joffrey Baratheon — he’s the Hand of Daenerys Stormborn, a woman who has shown herself to be an excellent leader, and who has learned to listen to her advisors, which is something no other monarch in Westeros has done in recent memory. He looks genuinely touched, and bows before her.

And from there we cut to Walder Frey eating what looks to be a delicious pie! How much were you squeeing in this scene, Chris??

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Christopher: Squeeing and throwing up a little in my mouth. That finger in the pie didn’t look like it had been washed. That’s how you end up with the Norwalk virus, you know.

It occurs to me that Arya’s actually done a pretty impressive job of checking the names off her death list. A man wonders if she’ll be the one to finally take Cersei off the board? Wouldn’t that piss off Olenna and the Dorne women!

There isn’t much to say about this scene aside from how perfect it is. As revenge killings go, it’s almost as satisfying and poetic as Ramsay’s. Walder Frey spent his long life obsessed with the status of his family, creating many Freys with his succession of young wives, to the point where he’s not sure if the serving girl is his daughter. And when he is assured that she is not, he proceeds to be gross and gropey. Ick. That just kind of puts the cherry on the vengeance cake, though, as the random girl he feels so entitled to take liberties with fools him into literally eating his family legacy before revealing the face of a Stark Who Got Away. It’s particularly satisfying that he dies while sitting in the very same seat from which he presided over the Red Wedding.

A lot of viewers have expressed dissatisfaction with Arya’s sojourn in Braavos. Two seasons worth of apprenticeship to the Faceless Men, only to finally reject them and head home? Isn’t that just a whole lot of wasted storyline? I must admit, I felt a little like this myself … until this moment. If the payoff of the Braavos storyline is that Arya becomes an uber-assassin who starts knocking off Stark enemies, starting with the man who killed her mother and brother, then I say that was time well spent. It’s almost a little sad that Joffrey is no longer around for her to kill.

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From one Stark daughter to the other, we cut from Arya’s satisfied smile to the Winterfell godswood, where Littlefinger finds Sansa hanging out under the weirwood tree, reflecting on all the times as a child she’s prayed to be elsewhere. She’s come full circle, returning to one of the sites of her childhood, and in this moment we see how much she has grown, learned, and matured. She has certainly learned enough not to trust Littlefinger. “What do you want?” she asks him, and he responds with one of the more shocking revelations of the season. “Every time I’m faced with a decision,” he tells her, “I close my eyes and see the same picture. Every time I consider an action, I ask myself: will this action help to make this picture a reality? Pull it out of my mind and into the world? And I only act if the answer is yes.” As he speaks he leans in closer to her, his voice dropping conspiratorially, suggesting that he’s about to confess his love and desire for Sansa. But what is the picture in his head? “A picture of me on the Iron Throne, and you by my side.”

Wow. I’m not surprised or shocked that Littlefinger’s end game will be a play for the crown; I’m gobsmacked that he would say it out loud, and make clear his overweening ambition to Sansa. We’ve always known, as Varys once put it, that Littlefinger would watch the world burn if he could be king over the ashes, but it seems at least a little presumptuous to declare as much when there’s really no path for him to claim the throne outside of outright conquest.

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Sansa has learned enough to take everything he says with a boatload of salt, and the moment she pushes him away when he goes in for the kiss made me cheer almost as much as I did when Arya pulled off her disguise. He might have told her that the picture in his head includes her at his side, but Sansa knows too well by now that if he had a choice between the Iron Throne but no Sansa, or Sansa but no Iron Throne, you wouldn’t get the sentence out before he plunked his arse down on the ugly old chair. “It’s a pretty picture,” she says dismissively, and when he points out that he has very publicly allied himself with House Stark, she says, “You’ve declared for other houses before, Lord Baelish. It’s never stopped you from serving yourself.”

I think it’s safe to say that this is the season in which Sansa came into her own (and I may or may not have said “You go, girl!” when she tells him off), but Petyr Baelish is not so easily ignored. “Who should the North rally behind?” he asks her. “The trueborn daughter of Ned and Catelyn Stark of Winterfell? Or a motherless bastard born in the south?” Sowing the seeds of dissension already … I have a feeling that next season will see a lot of that sort of thing.

Maybe Arya will arrive and take care of him.

We then cut to “the motherless bastard born in the south” by way of a quick scene far to the north as Benjen brings Meera and Bran to the Wall. He cannot pass the Wall, he tells them, as it has ancient spells carved into its foundations. “And while it stands,” he says, “the dead cannot pass.” Which raises an interesting question for the coming war: will we see the destruction of the Wall when the Night King and his minions come south in force? Because if they’re just kind of stymied by the Wall, standing there saying “Well, fuck,” that would be a bit anticlimactic.

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But having arrived at a weirwood tree, Bran is like an impatient binge-watcher who’s been away from the DVR too long, and just has to get back to the interrupted story of his father. “I’m the Three-Eyed Raven now,” he tells Meera, “I have to be ready for this,” but really, he’s just saying “Let me get back to my stories already!”

Which, let’s admit it, is what we were all thinking, and what we have been thinking since Bran first had his vision of the Tower of Joy. FINALLY, we basically have confirmation of the most pervasive fan theory about Jon Snow’s parentage. Or … well, mostly.

To back up a moment for those casual viewers who somehow missed all the hints (but honestly, I doubt that any of those strange creatures would be reading this blog), it’s always been suggested that Jon Snow is not, in fact, Ned Stark’s son. Rather, it’s believed by almost everyone now that he is in fact the child of Rhaegar Targaryen (Daenerys’ brother) and Lyanna Stark—the latter of whom we see in this scene. The “official” narrative put about after Robert Baratheon took the throne was that Rhaegar kidnapped and raped Lyanna, and that she died from his abuse. Is however more popularly believed (and there are a lot more hints to this effect in the novels than in the show) that Rhaegar did not kidnap Lyanna; that the two of them were in fact in love, and she willingly ran off with him; and furthermore that the child she births in the Tower of Joy is Jon Snow, whom Ned pretends—at Lyanna’s desperate plea—to be his own bastard fathered on a nameless woman in the south.

This he does to protect Jon. Remember, the Targaryen dynasty is toppled, and Robert Baratheon has a very acute and specific loathing for them—he sends assassins after Viserys and Daenerys, and later Ned attempts to resign the Handship when Robert tries to have Daenerys murdered. Anyone with Targaryen blood would be a threat to the crown, and therefore in danger.

It is one of the sticking-points of Ned’s character in the novels that Mr. Honour would have dishonoured himself and his new bride (he married Catelyn to cement the allegiance between Houses Stark and Tully) by fathering and acknowledging an illegitimate son. It is the one grievance held by Catelyn in their marriage. If you’ll recall, way back at the start of season one, just as Ned heads south to King’s Landing and Jon heads north to the Wall, Ned promises that when he sees Jon next, they’ll have a long and serious talk. Presumably, he meant to reveal to him his parentage.

But of course, Joffrey put an end to that when he peremptorily decided to execute Ned rather than let him take the black. Can Qyburn resurrect him too, so that Arya can kill him all over again?

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Of course, the scene does not unequivocally establish, as the equation on the interwebs has gone, that R + L = J. We don’t hear what Lyanna whispers to Ned, but the graphic match edit that cuts from the face of the baby to that of Jon Snow makes it pretty damn clear that he’s not Ned’s son, but Lyanna’s. The scene that follows, in which the northern houses pledge their loyalty to the new King in the North, plays a little ironically on what we now know. Littlefinger has planted the first seed of doubt for Sansa, and we see her smile fade when she meets his gaze at the end of the scene. The North rallies around a “motherless bastard” whom they all assume is Ned Stark’s son; but we (think we) know that he is in reality equal parts Stark and Targaryen, which would seem to signal that he will be one head of the three-headed dragon when Daenerys finds out his parentage and discovers that he is, in fact, her nephew.

Which probably means she’ll marry him. To paraphrase something Sterling Archer once said, Westeros sometimes seems like the Alabama of fantasy worlds.

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I love that it’s everyone’s new favourite character, Lyanna Mormont, who consolidates Jon’s leadership. As the crowd grumbles and rumbles, we get a quick shot of Littlefinger’s calculating expression, and Jon’s own blank one as he peers out over the room. But young Lyanna isn’t taking anyone’s shit, and calls out all the other lords who did not stand with the Starks against the Boltons. The scene ends with a callback to season one, when all of Robb Stark’s bannerman acclaim him “King in the North.” It’s a stirring scene, but also a worrisome one, for that very reason … and because we don’t quite know how to interpret the look that passes between Sansa and Littlefinger.

From the King in the North to the Queen in the South—Jaime Lannister rides up to King’s Landing and is treated to the sight of smoke rising over the city, and the episode ends with images of rival queens.

Take us home, Nikki.

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Nikki: I have my money on Daenerys and Podrick, for the record. Ahem.

Yes, I agree that the scene of all of the houses of the North chanting, “King in the North!” was meant to hearken back to Jon Snow’s brother — er… cousin? — Robb when he was proclaimed the same.

While Daenerys, Cersei, and Littlefinger have their eye on the Iron Throne, Jon is looking no further than to unite the north and help lead them in their battle to defeat the white walkers. Cersei and Daenerys don’t have a clue about the white walkers, so they can continue their little battle to the south, but for now, they have a much bigger problem on their hands in the north. And if the white walkers manage to get past them… gods help those who live in warmer climes. The problem is, he’s seen them — as far as the other houses are concerned, the white walkers are just bogeymen they use to scare their children out of staying in their beds at night. He’s going to have his work cut out for them on that front, but he can’t even get them to unite behind him. They all grumble and complain about the winter coming, and since no one thought to put winter chains on their horses’ hoofs they’re itching to get home right now. And as you said, Chris, it’s Lyanna Mormont — Lyanna Stark’s namesake, we shouldn’t forget — who stands up and tells off the room. Here is a room full of the leaders of ancient houses, of Free Folk and warriors, of men who just fought in a battle and who are now weary, all arguing amongst themselves, and sitting in the middle, quietly surveying the room, is a 10-year-old girl.

Let’s just ponder that for a second: she’s 10. The first time we heard of her was last season, when Stannis was at Castle Black and trying to get the northern houses to rally around him, and Lyanna sent a raven to him basically telling him to fuck right off, that she would only bend at the knee for House Stark. And she has stayed absolutely true to her word. She stands up and reminds the first dissenter, Manderly, that his son had been killed at the Red Wedding. “But you refused the call.” She then turns to Glover, and reminds him that despite his fealty to House Stark, “In their hour of need, you refused the call.” Then she turns to the young head of House Cerwyn, and tells him that his father had been flayed by Ramsay. “Still, you refused the call.”

“But House Mormont remembers. THE NORTH REMEMBERS. We know no king but the king in the north whose name is Stark. I don’t care if he’s a bastard, Ned Stark’s blood runs through his veins. He’s my king, from this day until his last day.” And then she sits. YAAAAAAASSSSSS!!!!! Oh how I love this young woman. All these men do is fight in every meeting, and then a girl stands up, tells them exactly who each one of them is (and she’s right on all counts, including suggesting that Stark blood runs in Jon’s veins), and they begin to respond, and agree they’ve all been pretty shit at running the houses of the north, and that they should have bent the knee to Jon Snow long ago. Jon just looks gobsmacked, like he doesn’t know where this girl came from but maybe SHE should run the North.

Fiercest 10-year-old EVER.

And then Jaime returns to King’s Landing to see it burning to the ground, and his face is a mix of shock, confusion, and “Oh my god, she didn’t” all over it.

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We cut to Cersei Lannister walking solemnly and singlemindedly into the throne room, marching straight for the throne with purpose. And can I just pause to comment on that outfit? I don’t know what sort of Badass Queens R Us boutique just showed up in King’s Landing, but I’m so glad she opened an account there. Black leather dress punctured with holes that make it look like metal studs are over it, with actual metal shoulder pads and a chain connecting them in the front, that outfit was ca-ray-zee, and SO PERFECT for this moment. “The Rains of Castamere” begins playing somberly in the background as Jaime wanders into the gallery, and listens to Qyburn make the announcement. “I now proclaim Cersei of the House Lannister, first of her name, queen of the Andals and the First Men, protector of the Seven Kingdoms.” Some people die on battlefields to become the ruler of Westeros. Some are simply born into it. Others burn down the whole fucking city and walk into the room.

As she sits on the Iron Throne and glances over to the gallery and sees Jaime standing there, her face doesn’t change at all. And we know what he must be thinking: his son is dead. The only way Cersei could be sitting on that throne is if their son is dead. What a way to find out you no longer have any children. And not only that, but there’s nothing behind her eyes but complete deadness. He knows the Cersei he has loved for so long is gone, and what is left is this black-leather-clad person who once loved him and their children. Now all she has is that throne.

And, as I wrote in my notes, “Don’t worry, Cersei, Daenerys will soon be there to ruin everything.” For here she comes, riding across the waves in the fleet of ships that Yara and Theon brought to her

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Long ago, when Robert Baratheon wanted to have Daenerys killed because he found out she was pregnant, Ned Stark talked him out of it. He said there was nothing to fear with the Dothraki, because, as he said, “I’ll fear the Dothraki the day they teach their hoses to run on water.”

They didn’t have to teach them to run on water; they’ve simply boarded them onto the ships that are now making their way over to King’s Landing.

As the majestic music swirls over this glorious final scene, we see the Greyjoys and their armies on the ships, we see the Dothraki and the Unsullied steering others, and we pan up into the sky to see Drogon, Rhaegal, and Viserion flying freely over the water, where we finally zero in on the front ship, where Daenerys stands proudly at the prow, Tyrion by her side, and Varys and Missandei right behind her.

Winter has come to the North, and fire is coming to the South.

And with that, we end what is probably the best episode of Game of Thrones ever… and now we have to wait another 10 months for more. Uggggghhhhh… What will be next? Will Arya come straight to Winterfell or will she sneak her way through the countryside, being the girl of many faces? Or could she come to Winterfell not as Arya but as another person, just to check up on her family and see where their loyalties still lie? Speaking of loyalties, will Sansa remain loyal to Jon Snow or could there be dissension between the two? After all, he was named King of the North when she is actually the true heir of Ned and Catelyn’s (as far as they’re concerned) and she was the one who brought the army that won back Winterfell. What will happen between Jaime and Cersei? He already killed one mad monarch for threatening to burn down King’s Landing — will he be forced to kill another for actually following through with it? The Sand Snakes weren’t on any of the ships; are they going to be pulled out as Olenna’s wild card later in the game

All of these questions and many more will be answered… in approximately 300 more days. Sigh.

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Thank you to everyone for reading our posts week after week, especially this 8600-word one (yeesh). And thank you, as always, to my partner Christopher Lockett, who peppers his brilliant commentary with phrases like “formal burlap” that have me spit out my tea laughing every time we pass these back and forth. I can’t believe we’ve already come to the end of another season. Until next time, Valar Morghulis.

 

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Game of Thrones 6.09: Battle of the Bastards

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Greetings and valar morghulis, friends. Welcome to the great Chris and Nikki co-blog in which we pore with exegetical fervor over Game of Thrones on an episode by episode basis.

Where did the season go? We’re at the penultimate episode, and as in every season of this show, the second-last episode features some pretty spectacular stuff, both narratively and visually: the death of Ned Stark, the Battle of the Blackwater, the Red Wedding, the wildlings’ assault on the Wall, and last season we saw Drogon immolate a whole bunch of harpy sons.

But I think this season might be the best yet. What do you think? Nikki?

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Nikki: Welp, in true Game of Thrones fashion, the penultimate episode was SPECTACULAR. Which means next week’s will probably be a wrap-up episode with a lot of exposition in the first half, a few surprises in the second, and something huge happening in the final two minutes.

As is often the case, this episode leaned heavily on the battle (I think every even-numbered season has a battle in episode 9, and the odd-numbered seasons have shocking deaths in episode 9). We all knew this episode would feature the showdown between Jon Snow and Ramsay Bolton (I love that on Father’s Day the show featured a fight between two men whose fathers wouldn’t legitimize them, ha!) but first, we start off in Meereen and another battle that’s already waging.

The episode opened with the men working for the slavers (seriously, that word to me looks like slayers with the y having been cut off) loading catapults on their ships, which they are expertly aiming at various sites on Meereen. Meanwhile, inside the pyramid, Tyrion is discussing the state of affairs with Daenerys. When she was taken away, it seemed she had some grumblings happening, but things were mostly under control. Now she comes back and after a few weeks under Tyrion’s control, the place appears to have gone to shit. The thing is, as he explains, it’s like many cases of new leadership. A new leader is nominated to come in and clean up a country’s mess, but when he first comes in, he encounters so many problems he’s suddenly blamed for everything. But it’s not necessarily his fault — it was the previous leader who caused all the problems, and now it’s his job to use his cunning and patience to actually fix them. Daenerys didn’t fix the city’s problems by freeing the slaves, she simply created new ones by angering the masters for destroying their way of life. As he tells her, the rebirth of Meereen is the cause of all the violence. If her way succeeds, it sends a message to all that a city without slavery proves that no one needs a master. And the masters can’t have that little tidbit getting out, now, can they?

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So, Daenerys has a simple solution. She will crucify the slavers, she will destroy their ships, she will go to their cities and burn each one to the ground, and she will win. And so Tyrion must once again stop her and remind her — as he did last season — about who Aerys Targaryen really was. He reminds her that the Mad King had buried wildfire throughout King’s Landing and was planning to set the city on fire, to kill every man, woman, and child in order to get to the few leaders he needed to wipe out. And so Jaime Lannister had to stop him in order to prevent a mass slaughter. If she follows through with her plan, she’ll be no different than the monster her father was, and they need to rise above that.

And so, he says, they need to come up with another plan. Cue the meeting at the top of the pyramid with the three masters Tyrion already spoke to. They tell the slavers they’re here to discuss the terms of surrender. With a smug smile, the masters begin explaining the terms they want Daenerys and Tyrion to follow, before Daenerys cuts them off and apologizes for miscommunicating — what she meant was, they’re here to discuss the terms of the masters’ surrender. Cue faces ranging from shocked to angry to amused. That last one doesn’t last for long.

As we all knew would happen, Drogon shows up and Daenerys climbs on his back. Watching him grow for six seasons is totally worth it (well, it was always worth it) just seeing the looks on the masters’ faces when he lands in front of them. She flies off and Viserion and Rhaegal emerge from the chamber where they’ve remained all season despite the fact Tyrion let them go several episodes ago, but perhaps they needed the scream of Drogon to draw them out through the wall of the place. And now that they’re flying for the first time in months, they get to have some playtime, flying around the harbour and burning everything in sight. It’s a beautifully shot scene as Daenerys, stone-faced, leads her children through the skies and orders them to immolate everyone working for the slavers.

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Checkmate, bitches!

Of course, this only takes care of the people on the ships — the Sons of the Harpy are on the ground, getting all stabby with the slaves and Daenerys followers on the ground. Hm… if only Daenerys had someone loyal to her who could handle th—

Cue Dothraki. We can only imagine the fate of the Sons of the Harpy, but I think it’s a safe guarantee that what’s left isn’t gonna be pretty.

Meanwhile, back up on the pyramid, the masters watch in horror and realize they’ve lost. Tyrion gives them a chance to help him choose one master who will die, and two of them immediately push a third one forward, mentioning he’s low-born and not one of them. As the third one bows and begs for mercy, Grey Worm steps forward and in one motion, slashes the throats of the other two masters. Tyrion steps over to the third one and places a hand on his shoulder. He tells him they will let him go, and he needs to go and find the others, and “remind them what happened when Daenerys Stormborn and her dragons came to Meereen.”

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This isn’t just an episode about battles, but about preparation for and strategy within those battles. Daenerys was just going to push headlong into pure destruction before Tyrion calmed her down and explained that there was a better way to handle this, and he was right. We’ll see more scenes in this episode of discussions for what to do in battle, where not everyone will be as open to the proposed strategies as Daenerys was.

From here we move over to Jon Snow meeting his monstrous brother-in-law for the first time (a scene that included my new favourite character, Lyanna Mormont). What did you think of the initial meeting between the bastards, Chris?

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Christopher: I thought it set a particular theme and tone that ran throughout the episode, which might be best summed up as the sins of the fathers. Bastardy versus trueborn, illegitimate versus legitimate sons, as we’ve seen over the course of six seasons, is a fraught and freighted issue in Westeros. In this respect, GRRM is more indebted to Shakespeare than anyone else: Edmund in King Lear and Falconbridge in King John are two of the most compelling of his creations, both of them attractive villains whose villainy proceeds from a grievance with the universe—and their fathers—that they were born “base,” and therefore ineligible to inherit wealth or titles. “Why bastard? wherefore base? / When my dimensions are as well compact,” Edmund asks, “My mind as generous, and my shape as true, / As honest madam’s issue?” Jon Snow has always nursed resentment that he was the odd one out, but of course has given the lie to the charge of bastardy’s “taint.”

Indeed, he has never been more his father’s son than in this episode, and by the same token neither has Ramsay. Ramsay himself might seem to be an argument for the corruption of the bastard; Roose himself explained his proclivities as its product, but it is hard to make the argument that Ramsay is somehow different in kind from his father, or from his family’s historical fondness for cruelty and torture. Roose rebuked him at the beginning of the season for letting his “habits” occlude his strategic common sense where Sansa was concerned, but it has been obvious from the moment Ramsay murdered him that his cold cunning and ruthlessness has metastasized into Ramsay’s sociopathy. Like Jon, Ramsay is very much his father’s son, bastard or not.

The parley between Jon and Ramsay is itself broadly symbolic of the traits that originally set the narrative rolling way back when: courage versus cunning, honour versus calculation, justice versus ambition. Or to phrase it another way, Stark versus Lannister. In spite of the fact that the former categories have not fared well, in Jon Snow we see their distillation, and that should give us pause. It certainly does for Sansa, who explodes in anger and frustration at Jon when they’re alone. In the preceding war council, both Jon and Davos lay out a sound strategy. Let them come to us. With any luck, anger and confidence will send them charging full tilt. Hold your ground. “They’ve got the numbers,” Davos says. “We need the patience.” He then lays out what has often been a winning strategy for inferior forces: let the center give, and surround them on three sides.

Sansa, however, raises a crucial point that Jon is unwilling, or more likely unable, to grasp: that Ramsay is unpredictable, and whatever Jon thinks he understands about him is simple delusion. Sansa understands him in the most horrible and terrifying ways possible. Jon does not, and cannot.

Jon, however, so completely misunderstands Sansa’s concerns that I want to shake him by his man-bun. “I’ve fought beyond the Wall against worse than Ramsay Bolton,” he retorts. “I’ve defended the Wall from worse than Ramsay Bolton.” Oh, Jon—this isn’t about your honour, courage, or masculine pride. Of course he’s fought worse than Ramsay, at least in terms of scale (defending the Wall), and in terms of the enemy’s implacable malevolence (Hardhome). But in both of these cases, he fought an enemy singular of purpose and uncomplicated in motive—the White Walkers, who seek the destruction of all that is living, and the wildlings, who just wanted to get the fuck away from the White Walkers. It’s worth noting that the only time he’s fought an enemy with nuanced motives, they murdered him.

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Ramsay, by contrast, has no desire or purpose beyond the accrual of power to better facilitate his own pleasure and cruel entertainment. He will play with enemies for the sheer fun of playing with them. Jon is thus as uniquely unfit to deal with Ramsay as his father was with Littlefinger and Cersei Lannister. In this respect, for all his experience with battle, Jon is little better than a naïf beside Sansa, who brings not only her knowledge of Ramsay, but her experience of watching her father executed, her torment at Joffrey’s hands, and her confusing sojourn with Littlefinger at the Eyrie. At this stage in the game, she has the equivalent of a postgraduate degree in power and its abuses, while Jon has yet to pass his GED.

If we were unclear on this point, Sansa’s brutally realistic assessment of Rickon’s life expectancy shows us how much she has learned: “We’ll never get him back. Rickon is Ned Stark’s trueborn son, which makes him a greater threat to Ramsay than you, a bastard, and me, a girl. As long as he lives, Ramsay’s claim to Winterfell will be contested, which means … he won’t live long.” Sansa’s words prove prescient, as it is precisely with Rickon that Ramsay will taunt Jon into abandoning his careful battle plan. Two Starks with one stone, one might say.

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I thought Sansa was pretty magnificent in this episode, save for one crucial inconsistency. Why has she not told Jon about Littlefinger and the Lords of the Vale? It is understandable that she would have held back that information when she was determined to reject Littlefinger’s help—shortsighted and selfish, perhaps, but understandable considering the hatred she must feel for the man who married her to a monster. Considering that we know she’s sent a raven asking for his help after all, why would she not tell Jon? It’s not as though he’s ecstatic about attacking a force three times the size of his. “No, it’s not enough!” he shouts, a tinge of despair entering his voice. “It’s what we have!” It really makes no sense to withhold this from him, and that one point nagged at me throughout what was otherwise one of this show’s best episodes ever.

But whatever her reason, her heart or her shoes, she refuses to give Jon Littlefinger’s news. Which leads to bleak parting words that hearken back to season four. Sansa avows that she will not go back to Ramsay alive. When Jon promises to protect her, she says bitterly, “No one can protect me. No one can protect anyone.” I don’t know about you, Nikki, but this line made me think of Cersei’s sad reply to Oberyn’s claim that they don’t hurt little girls in Dorne: “Everywhere in the world,” she says, “they hurt little girls.” Jon’s promise is no doubt sincere, but again, she knows more of the world than he does, and he can never understand what she’s been through. He’s been murdered, and he can’t grasp what she’s been through.

She leaves Jon alone in his tent, brooding, and Davos’ question to Tormund gives us a sound bridge over the edit: “So do you think there’s hope?” War makes for strange bedfellows, none stranger than these two. “You loved that cunt Stannis,” Tormund growls, “and I loved the man he burned … I believed in him. I believed he was the man to lead us through the Long Night. But I was wrong, just like you.” Perhaps, Davos counters, believing in kings is the mistake. Between Mance’s failure and the (not literal) demons whispering the Stannis, between Tyrion’s remind to Daenerys about her father’s madness and Daenerys’ acknowledgement that she, Tyrion, and Theon and Yara all had terrible fathers who left the world a worse place … we get a mini-seminar in this episode about the potentially corrosive aspects of power, and how desiring, getting, and possessing it can deform the mind.

And speaking of the demons whispering in Stannis’ skull, our next stop on our Night Before Battle Tour is Jon visiting Melisandre. Before you comment on that, Nikki, I’m curious: when Tormund thought Stannis’ demons were literally real, did you flash to Guardians of the Galaxy and Drax the Destroyer’s inability to understand metaphor? Or was that just me?

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Nikki: Hahahaha!! Tormund was the BEST in this episode. When Davos says Stannis had demons talking to him, and Tormund says matter-of-factly, “And did you see those demons?” I laughed and laughed. I want to see Davos and Tormund do “Who’s on First” together. Though… I guess then you’d have to explain the concept of baseball to the guy and… yeah, probably wouldn’t be as funny as Abbott and Costello doing it. (Though Abbott and Costello never finished a routine with the punchline, “Happy shitting.”)

And one quick word about Sansa: I could be completely wrong on this one, but my thinking is, Sansa didn’t know Littlefinger was coming until the day of the battle. We saw her send a raven; we never saw her receive one. I’m sure many fans are probably coming down hard on Sansa (though it never occurred to me they would until I just read your thoughts above) but when I watched this episode, I automatically assumed she brought in Littlefinger’s troops the moment they arrived. And leave it to that cock to show up at the last minute after Rickon was already dead. I don’t think Sansa would risk Jon being killed because she wanted to make a dramatic entrance. Petyr? Yes. Sansa? No. I think she was hoping Jon would reconsider the battle, and part of her desperation in begging him to do so is that she hadn’t yet heard back from Baelish.

And why didn’t he RSVP? He received the Facebook invitation saying the battle would be happening on Saturday, and by god he wasn’t going to show up a full night early and have to pay for all of his soldiers to stay at the Best Westeros, so instead he just brought them in the day of, and they showed up a wee bit late. But just in time to stop things from becoming atrocious. Besides, I don’t think I have to go out too far on a limb to assume Baelish is going to want something in return (duh) and that something is Sansa Stark. And since he ALSO wants the North, I would assume he would be quite happy if every other Stark kid died off so Sansa would be the last heir, and he would become king. If Sansa knew he was coming, she would be able to warn Jon to hold off on the beginning of the battle, thus possibly saving Rickon’s life and ensuring Jon wouldn’t die. Baelish ensured the youngest Stark would die and was probably hoping Jon had already been crushed by the time he showed up.

It never occurred to me that Sansa was withholding information — I don’t think she had a clue Baelish was actually coming until he rang her doorbell on Battle Day.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here.

Back to the night before the battle, Jon Snow goes to the Red Woman to seek her advice on the battle, but more importantly to ask her not to bring him back if he should die. She tells him it’s not within her control; if the Lord of Light wants her to bring Jon back, she must do it. “What kind of god would do something like that?” Jon asks. “The one we’ve got,” she replies.

Meanwhile, Davos goes on his traditional walk the night before battle, and finds Shireen’s stag. It’s a gut-wrenching moment where you can see the wheels turning in his head, and he turns back to the camp with only one thought: what monster have I brought into this fray? The same one who gave life to Jon Snow and is vowing to follow him to the end took Shireen’s life when she had vowed to follow another. Remember, it was last season’s penultimate episode where Shireen died, so the show took an entire season to bring it full circle. Also, on a purely production note, as Davos stood on the hill with that gorgeous sunrise behind him and the dark, dark sky above, I thought how long did it take them to line up that perfect shot?

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And these two quick scenes bring us back over to Meereen, where Tyrion and Daenerys are meeting with Theon and Yara. As you mentioned, Chris, apparently they took a TARDIS to get there that fast, but hey, let’s give the writers some artistic license. After all, we really can’t rule out that the Doctor may have spent some time in Westeros.

I really loved this scene. Tyrion won’t let Theon get off easily after making the remarks about his height way back in season one. A Lannister might always pay his debts, but it also seems that a Lannister never forgets. He reminds him of some of the ruder things he said about his dwarfism before telling him how unoriginal they are, and topping it off with a, “So how have things been going with you since then?” Ha! I know Theon has been through hell, and he’s actually become a character I quite like, but I despised him in season one as much as Tyrion despises him now, so I understand why Tyrion would have held onto his resentment.

But the far more important connection in this scene was that between Yara and Daenerys. Half girl-power, half flirtiness, the little smiles and knowing looks between the two were priceless. Theon explains that he’s handing rule of the Iron Islands over to his sister because he’s not fit to rule, but she is. Daenerys looks surprised, and asks Yara, “Has the Iron Islands ever had a queen before?” “No more than Westeros,” says Yara, cunningly. And Daenerys gives her quite the sly smile when she says it. Yara and Theon explain that their uncle Euron plans to come to Meereen and give her his cock in the form of a marriage proposal, and if they were to pledge the Iron Islands back to Yara, that wouldn’t happen. “I imagine your offer is free of marriage demands?” asks Daenerys flirtily. “I wouldn’t demand it, but I’m open to anything,” says Yara. And the two queens smile knowingly at each other again.

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This bit of banter ranked right up there with meeting Lyanna Mormont for the first time.

Daenerys acknowledges that everyone in the room had shitty fathers who were shitty leaders, and that it’s up to the four of them to bring about change in the world. Again, the Father’s Day is about learning to be better than the piece of crap their fathers were. (Now if that doesn’t have the trappings of a Hallmark card, I don’t know what does.) Daenerys steps up to Yara and tells her they have a deal under the condition that the Ironborn can no longer rape, raid, or pillage. “But that’s our way of life,” says Yara, without even the slightest touch of irony. But if she wants to leave the world a better place than her father did, she must change. And with that, Daenerys and Yara grasp hands, and the Daenyara/Yarnerys ship is born.

Before we get to the play-by-play of the final battle, were you as thrilled with this scene as I was, Chris?

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Christopher: I thoroughly enjoyed it, TARDIS and/or jet-powered longships notwithstanding. I was particularly pleased that Daenerys seems to be learning. At least, that is what I took from her willingness to grant the Iron Islands a measure of self-determination in exchange for Yara’s loyalty. She corrects Tyrion when he voices his concern that other regions might demand their independence as well, saying, “She’s not demanding, she’s asking. The others are free to ask as well.” It’s early days, of course, but Daenerys appears to be thinking in terms of alternative political models—perhaps this is part of what she had in mind when she spoke of “breaking the wheel.”

Which brings us to the final battle, which is easily the most spectacular and well-shot of the entire series. And, unsurprisingly, the most expensive—between the dragons routing the slavers’ fleet and the Battle of the Bastards, this episode cost around $10 million to make, the most the show has spent to date. It was money well spent, especially in the latter battle. While the fight for Meereen was necessarily CGI-heavy, for the Jon and Ramsay throw-down, the director (Miguel Sapochnik, who last season gave us “Hardhome”), went a much more Lord of the Rings direction, eschewing the CGI for a far more tactile depiction, employing a legion of extras rather than an army of computer animators. CGI was of course employed, but it is far harder to see where it ends and real people begin than at any other point in the series so far. Though the battle took twenty-four days to shoot, it pays off in one of the dirtiest, bloodiest, and most realistic battles I’ve seen outside of the beginning of Gladiator.

It actually has a bit of the Gladiator feel to it, especially in the opening moments when we see the serried ranks of the forces facing them across the field, as Jon Snow walks his horse to the front. Jon, alas, is no Maximus however, and this battle demonstrates the truth of Ygritte’s repeated charge: he really does know nothing.

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Before getting into a discussion of Jon’s rash stupidity and respond to your thoughts on Sansa’s silence about the Vale knights, Nikki, I just want to point out something that should have been obvious to me but wasn’t until I happened across this article. Namely, this is the first time Game of Thrones has treated us to a proper set-piece battle. By that I mean a battle in which opposing forces draw themselves up on opposite sides of a battlefield and close on one another, with the various stages of the battle itself shown in some detail. All of the other battles we’ve seen on Game of Thrones have been sieges and/or assaults on fortresses, such as the Battle of Blackwater or the wildlings’ attack on the Wall; ambushes or routs, like Stannis’ attack on the wildling or his defeat by the Boltons; or small but bloody skirmishes, like Jon’s attack on Craster’s Keep. In fact, the show has done a scrupulous job of keeping all of the other set-piece battle off-screen, usually just showing us the aftermath—perhaps most notably in season one, when Tyrion gets knocked out just as the Lannister army is about to take on the Starks, and he wakes up afterward.

This reluctance to depict large-scale battles in all their brutal glory is understandable. Such spectacles are extremely expensive to shoot, as this episode’s price-tag attests, and can too often end up being underwhelming when not done well (the Battle of Phillipi in season two of Rome comes to mind).

But they got this one right, from start to finish, and as the article I mentioned above points out, it demonstrates a solid grasp of historical military tactics, to the point where the original conception was based on the Battle of Agincourt, with Jon &co. playing the part of the beleaguered English. Though this idea had to be abandoned because of the ever-niggling question of budgets, the prominence of longbows as a crucial weapon lingers on in the thick flights of arrows punctuating the battle.

In fact, never mind Gladiator. It occurs to me just now that this battle’s closest filmic cousin is Kenny B’s Henry V.

The difference of course being that Henry V was not a raging idiot, and was not goaded into a suicidal charge by the Dauphin.

Oh, Jon Snow. You really do know nothing. I wrote in my notes “LISTEN TO SANSA!” as soon as Rickon appeared at the end of Ramsay’s rope. There’s that moment of tension as he raises his dagger over Rickon’s head, but it’s only tense for the characters in the scene and anyone who, for whatever reason, just started watching Game of Thrones with this episode—all the rest of us know that Ramsay’s not going to make things so simple.

And Jon, not unpredictably, falls for it. Sigh. As I said, he is his father’s son. Can we imagine a scenario in which Ned Stark would stand still when a loved one is in danger? Sansa’s dire prediction about Rickon is realized the moment we see him at the end of that rope. The one chance Rickon had of surviving, we realize, was to have been left moldering in the Winterfell dungeon by an overconfident Ramsay.

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Well … shit.

Again, this battle proves to be a distillation of Jon and Ramsay’s characters. Jon is honourable and brave to a fault; Ramsay is cruelly cunning, but also cowardly. He remains comfortably ensconced in his rearguard, from which vantage he can enjoy watching the blood and brutality of the battle. And his weapon of choice throughout this episode is the longbow, which symbolizes both his precision and unwillingness to close the distance between himself and his foe. It is worth remembering that among our first encounters with Ramsay were his “hunting” escapades, when he and the late unlamented Miranda shot fugitives like deer.

By contrast, none can fault Jon for his courage—nor for his skill. While he seems to have a preternatural capacity for avoiding arrows, he is in the thick of the battle from the start. When we’re on the ground and in the midst of the blood and mud, here the filmic analogue is more Saving Private Ryan than anything else. The chaos and confusion is visceral, and Jon’s struggle to escape the press of bodies was not good for my claustrophobia. The sequence did a fine job of shifting between shots establishing the overall shape and geography of the battle, and the ground-level anarchy of the melee.

Before handing it back to you, Nikki, I just want to say another word or three on Sansa’s recalcitrance, re: Littlefinger and the Vale knights. Considering just the story in and of itself, it seems likely that yes, Sansa did not want to say anything because she didn’t know if (a) her message would bring allies, or (b) her message was received at all. But that still makes no sense, mainly because this is no longer the naïve Sansa of season one. Which is why in this case I have to step outside of the story itself and just say that this was bad writing. I understand the need to bring things to a keen dramatic pitch, but in a season that has over-relied on deus ex machinas anyway, this was just hamfisted … especially when there was a way to have the Vale cavalry ride to the rescue and keep Sansa’s behavior consistent. Basically, the arrival of the Vale forces could have been revealed as something orchestrated by Jon and Sansa. If they’d had their fierce argument about the paucity of their forces just one episode ago rather than at the eleventh hour—perhaps ending with Sansa saying something like “There is one possibility …”—we could have had the Vale cavalry summoned by a signal from Davos after Ramsay committed all his men. In this scenario, the battle would have been won by strategy rather than mere chance, it would have been consistent with both Sansa’s character and, well, LOGIC, and it wouldn’t have been yet another deus ex machina but a clever tactical coup.

End rant. Thoughts?

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Nikki: I so agree with you on the Gladiator comparison, and Branagh’s Henry V. I kept expecting to hear the soaring music from Gladiator in this scene (and while we didn’t get it, the score was gorgeous, and kept our hearts pounding throughout the sequence). I’m going to stand my ground that Sansa didn’t know Littlefinger was coming, and yes, she could have mentioned something about having sent the raven, and that in itself was a mistake not to have said something (even Brienne commented on that) but I don’t believe she knew he was coming. I, of course, could be proven 100% incorrect on this in the next episode and if so I’ll admit my mistake, but for now, I’m going to say that one of the themes of this episode was about leaders and advisors. Daenerys wanted to go in headlong and kill them all, but when Tyrion suggested an alternative, she listened to him. Jon Snow wanted to go in headlong and kill them all, but when Sansa suggested an alternative… he disagreed with her. As you pointed out, he believes he knows battle, and as much as he loves Sansa, she’s a girl. What does she know? Daenerys easily and handily wins her battle. And while Jon Snow ultimately wins his, it’s at a very grave cost, and only after Sansa saves them from annihilation at what I’m going to continue to contend was an 11½th hour arrival by Baelish.

But you’re right, Chris, in evoking the modern-day war imagery in what Jon Snow goes through on the ground. We always get the sweeping overviews in these medieval battles, with men on horses and men with arrows and swords. But in WWII epics we get the men in the trenches, in the mud, covered in the blood spatter of their victims while trying not to sink in the muck that surrounds them. This episode featured both.

And I’m going to take this opportunity to announce that my husband has NO FAITH in Jon Snow whatsoever. After Rickon met his horrible and inevitable death at the hands of Ramsay (my notes are just a frantic scribbling of ZIG ZAG… DAMN YOU, ZIG ZAG!!! Isn’t that how you outrun an alligator? Wouldn’t it have worked to throw off Ramsay? Sob…), Ramsay unleashed his army and they went headlong at Jon. “Well, that’s the end of Jon Snow,” said my husband. “No it’s not,” I replied, with an “are you effing KIDDING me?!” tone to my voice. “He doesn’t stand a chance, that’s the end of him,” he persisted.

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So I guess they had SOME viewers convinced he was going to die. I wasn’t one of them. From a purely writerly standpoint, it doesn’t make sense to bring him back to life, wander around the north for a few episodes, and then kill the guy again. That would be terrible writing, and then what? Just bring the dude back to life again? Even I would consider giving up the show if they pulled a stunt like that. That said, this scene was BRILLIANTLY filmed, where you don’t see Jon’s army at all, and when they come it’s an utter shock. Just beautiful. I can’t remember seeing anything like that in any other show. And then the choreography of Jon Snow dodging the horses and swords as he spins throughout the chaos — incredible. Yes, yes, I have no doubt it was green screened but I don’t care. Short of having Lyanna suddenly ride in with a Xena yell and kill them all with her superpower sonic hand cannons, this was everything I could have hoped for in the scene.

The episode didn’t back down on the gore, as you said, Chris. The pile of bodies that form a human death wall is enormous (and I couldn’t help but think, man, whoever ends up taking Winterfell in the end is going to have to deal with one hell of a stench in a day or two) and Jon ends up falling beside a horse just on the edge of the body wall. As the men use him to climb over, not realizing he’s not a dead body, he begins to roll under the actual dead bodies, quickly buried (once again my husband figured this was it for the bastard), and one can see how easily something like this could happen in battle. How often throughout history have men died in battle, not from a gunshot wound or an arrow or a sword, but simply being buried under the dead bodies of their fellow men? The idea is horrific.

And then Smalljon Umber’s men come flying down the hill, and for one brief hopeful moment I thought they were going to turn traitor, and actually mow down Ramsay’s men in fealty to House Stark. Sadly, that wasn’t the case, and his men suddenly make the death tally in Snow’s column rise even more quickly than before.

But before Snow can be completely suffocated, he manages to pull himself free, and uses the shoulders of his comrades to pull himself up on top of them. But by this point, Ramsay’s men have surrounded them with shields, and are pushing inward, bit by bit, until they’re being crushed like people in the front row at a Morrissey concert. At this point, I’m yelling, “STOMP THEM, WUN WUN!! STOMP THEM!!” But our poor last giant on earth is being slowed down by the vast number of swords that are hitting him. And then Sansa shows up with Baelish’s men, and they make mincemeat of Ramsay’s men. Or, in the case of Tormund, he, like, eats one of their faces. AAAHHH!!

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ramsay_uh-ohAnd just as you said, Chris, what happens next? Ramsay turns and runs as fast as he can in the opposite direction, because he’s a coward. And Jon—who is the opposite of a coward— is in hot pursuit, along with Wun Wun and Tormund. I just want to pause here and say that this season has not been kind to the giants of the show, whether literal (Wun Wun) or gentle (Hodor). And in both cases, a door is involved right before they die. Hodor dies holding the door, and Wun Wun dies opening it. There was a part of me that wondered if this might have been a merciful end to the creature; after all, there are no other giants alive besides him, if the legends can be believed, and therefore he is alone. He doesn’t sit around campfires gabbing with the Free Folk; he sits apart. They only want him for battles, where he can take out 15 men in the time it takes them to kill one. Otherwise, I imagine he’s pretty alone. But it’s because of him that everything that happens next, happens.

And I will leave you to break down what happens next, and the very end of the episode, Chris. My last words on this episode are twofold: when the direwolf banner unfurled along the wall of Winterfell, I thought I was going to weep tears of joy. What a beautiful thing, even if at such a cost. And secondly, I think someone got off easy at the end—they could have funded the next 10 years of Winterfell upkeep just selling tickets for people to come and take one thwack at him like a pinata.

Chris, take us through the rest of it.

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Christopher: The simple image of the Stark banner is perhaps the most poignant visual in this episode, much more so than that of Daenerys’ dragons burning the slavers’ fleet—precisely because of what it cost. By the same token, the retaking of Winterfell is far less triumphal than Daenerys’ victory. Her victory was quite literally unequivocal, both in terms of how completely she crushed the slavers, and also because (whatever Tyrion’s mitigating influence) it came without compromise. Indeed, Daenerys returned to Meereen more powerful than ever, as the Sons of the Harpy learned when the khalasar came thundering around the corner.

However many problems she had in ruling Meereen, Daenerys nevertheless comprises a sort of revolutionary ideal, or, perhaps more accurately, an idealized revolutionary. Breaker of chains, freer of slaves, she is an unequivocal saviour and hero.

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By contrast, Winterfell represents the accrual of blood and pain and sacrifice that comes with war. The Starks limp into Winterfell battered and nearly broken. The defeat of Ramsay came at a staggering cost, and everyone is somehow compromised. Winterfell is Sansa’s home, yet it will also always be the site of her rape and systematic brutalization at Ramsay’s hands. For all they know, Jon and Sansa are the last of the Stark children. Rickon was killed. Robb and Catelyn were murdered by the people who took Winterfell from them. Jon came within a hairsbreadth of losing everything. The last of the giants gave his life for people who, a mere year ago, would have happily seen him dead. Davos looks with loathing at Melisandre, who he now knows was Shireen’s murderer. And lest we forget, victory came at the cost of Sansa putting her trust in the man who handed her over to Ramsay to start with. We don’t know what the cost of that compromise will be—what will Littlefinger name as his price?

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That being said, it is not as though the final moments of this episode, from the appearance of the Arryn forces to Ramsay’s ultimate demise, don’t possess a significant number of deeply satisfying elements. Ramsay’s face as the scope of his defeat dawns on him was definitely worth the price of admission; ditto for Jon advancing implacably through his hail of arrows to beat him bloody. And of course his final fate. A few episodes ago, a friend and I started gaming out the Ramsay Death Odds, figuring that there was a reasonably good chance he wouldn’t make it out of this season alive. Given that most of the big bads’ deaths have been at the very least ironically appropriate, I put Sansa killing him at 2:1, and being eaten by his own hounds at even money.

How about that? Called it! As big bads’ deaths go, I rate it Five Tywins On The Shitter.

The final scene was a testament both to Sansa’s evolution as a character, and the quiet strength and dignity Sophie Turner brings to her. She remains silent as Ramsay speaks, until he says “You can’t kill me. I’m part of you now.” His words reflect his particularly pernicious species of evil, which is not merely his penchant for cruelty and torture, but his need to break people, as he did in turning Theon into Reek. It was obvious he had similar plans for Sansa. When she stands outside his cell, with the guttering torches in the background and snowflakes drifting by, it is a visual callback to last season and the shot of her through the cross-hatched casement window as she prepares for her wedding. Though she still carries the trauma of that night and the many that followed, she has survived. The shot through the window turned her tower into a figurative prison cell, but now she looks in on Ramsay in his literal one. The tableau could only have been improved by letting Ramsay know that, as they speak, Theon is on the other side of the world, bargaining with a queen to win his sister a throne.

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“Your words will disappear,” Sansa tells him. “Your house will disappear. Your name will disappear. All memory of you will disappear.” As she speaks, the camera pans down Ramsay’s battered profile, until we see the hound framed in the open door beside him. “They’re loyal beasts,” Ramsay protests. “They were,” she corrects him. “Now they’re starving.”

As I tweeted after watching this episode: to quote Buffy Summers, as justice goes it is not unpoetic.

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Well, that’s it for now. Join us next week as we wrap up yet another season of Game of Thrones. Thanks for reading, and remember: it’s never a good idea to starve your pets for a week. Not hounds, and especially not dragons.

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