Game of Thrones: Season 2, Episode 3–What is Dead May Never Die

“Power resides where men believe it resides. It’s a trick. A shadow. And a very small man can cast a very large shadow.”

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Wow. I swear, it seems like this show gets better every week. With the plot well and truly motoring along now, this third episode of Game of Thrones seemed the best yet, for a variety of reasons. Yes, it had the requisite amount of impeccable dialogue, gory battles and gratuitous sex and nudity to liven up exposition that we’ve come to expect from the show. But best of all, it served up a monster portion of what I like best about the show – portraits of Westeros’ devious, Machiavellian characters in all their scheming glory. For that, it’s up there with another favourite of mine, I, Claudius, which I wouldn’t be surprised to find is one of George RR Martin’s inspirations for the books.

King of the schemers this week – taking the crown from Varys – was undoubtedly Tyrion. Having flexed his muscles as proxy Hand of the King last week, with his exile of Janos Slynt, this week he was clearly in his element among the slimy, untrustworthy denizens of the Small Council. In a cleverly scripted and edited scene, we saw him testing,one after the other, Grand Maester Pycelle, Varys and Littlefinger as to their trustworthiness. They’re all veteran schemers too, of course, but this was Tyrion’s chance to hoodwink them before they’d got his measure as every bit their equal.

And it worked, too. Having fed each of them separate stories about who he was planning to marry off Princess Myrcella to, then stressed that “the Queen mustn’t know”, all he had to do was sit back and wait to see which story she went ballistic over. In hindsight, it was perhaps no surprise that it turned out to be Pycelle who went running to her; much as I love genre veteran Julian Glover in the role, the character is far less interesting than either Varys or Littlefinger and thus more expendable.

All of this was played beautifully by the actors concerned. Peter Dinklage continues to be masterful as the irreverent, sardonic Tyrion, and Conleth Hill is more than a match for him as sly spymaster Varys. Their scene together, in which Varys smoothly compliments the newcomer (“nicely played".) was one of the highlights in an episode full of memorable scenes. I’ve seen some sceptical reviews of Aidan Gillen’s performance as Littlefinger, but I have to say that he too worked well for me in the scene where he realised he’d been had, only for Tyrion to hook him all over again with the promise of Catelyn Stark.

Lady Stark was back herself this week, and with her we finally caught up with the last – and perhaps least – of the pretenders to the throne, Robert Baratheon’s youngest brother Renly. Renly’s been busy between seasons; not only has he grown a beard, he’s married one – Margery Tyrell, sister of his true lover Loras. Slipping smoothly into a bodice yet again after The Tudors, Natalie Dormer was surprisingly good as Margery. The script here made her out to be a another astute political operator, far more so than in the book. She knows that the true way to cement their alliance, and Renly’s power, is for him to get her pregnant asap.

Unfortunately that may be harder than she thinks. She’s perfectly aware of her husband’s dalliances with her brother – and ruthless enough to suggest he join them in bed, if that’s what it takes – but Renly just can’t get it up for her. Indeed, poor old Renly got most of the gratuitous nudity this week, but was perpetually thwarted when it came to actual sex. He can’t get it up with Margery (is there a Westerosi equivalent of Viagra, I wonder?), and pretty young Loras is in a snit with him. Not that this stopped Gethin Anthony and Finn Jones having some pretty raunchy semi-clad foreplay, ticking a box for those like me who enjoy a bit of man on man action.

The reason Loras is in a snit is his humiliation at the hands of another fan favourite from the books. Yes, Brienne of Tarth – Brienne the Beauty – has finally arrived, clobbering the Knight of Flowers but good in a playful tournament (nobody died). Gwendoline Christie certainly looks the part as Brienne – apparently she took on a monster training regimen to bulk up suitably. But even her almost defensive fearlessness can’t disguise that she’s got the hots for the King she’s meant to be serving. Shame, she’s barking up the wrong tree there.

With all that going on, Catelyn barely got much of a look in, dramatically. But when she did, she was as dour and grim as you’d expect from a woman who’s already lost one fiance and one husband to war. "It’s just a game to you, isn’t it?” she bitterly asked the affable Renly, before commenting on his youthful army, “I pity them… They are the knights of summer. And winter is coming.”

She wasn’t the only one quoting the Words of her House; this week we also got to hear those of House Greyjoy (“We do not sow”), as Theon was faced with a very hard choice by his unyielding father. Would he continue to help Robb Stark, son of the man who’d thwarted his father’s rebellion and held him captive for his entire childhood? Or would he prize his true family over his adoptive one?

It’s a measure of how surprisingly good Alfie Allen is as Theon that I truly felt for him as he first swallowed his pride then betrayed his honour, siding with the bitter, twisted father he’d never truly known, all in the hope of glory. It was another nice visual touch from director Alik Sakharov as the decision was shown without words; Theon, a lone point of light in a vast darkness, choosing to burn the warning letter he might have sent to Robb.

Patrick Malahide is his usual chilly self (albeit more unkempt) as Lord Balon Greyjoy, a hard man shaped by the culture Theon was taken away from. Still, good though he is, I couldn’t help thinking that, visually and in personality, he seems very similar to David Bradley as Walder Frey last season. We haven’t seen Walder yet this year, but when/if we do, hopefully the producers will be able to clearly differentiate the two…

With the focus of the episode firmly on these three plotlines, the script still found time for some vignettes from elsewhere in the Seven Kingdoms, and even these were replete with rich character detail. North of the Wall, we found out the resolution to last week’s cliffhanger, as Jon Snow, having been bashed about the head by Craster, was dragged bloody to the loathsome wildling’s hall.

Lord Commander Mormont was none too happy, after last week’s lecture about learning how to follow; and Jon himself got a Star Trek Prime Directive-alike lesson from Mormont, who turned out to be all too knowledgeable about what Craster did with his unwanted son’s. “The wildings pray to crueller gods,” he muttered darkly, and Jon replied that he’d seen one – that dark figure taking the baby in the wood had been one of the mysterious and deadly White Walkers after all, unseen since the prologue of the show’s very first episode. They’re plainly the greatest of the threats facing Westeros, but as yet they’re in the shadows – perhaps a good thing, as a Sauron-like unstoppable magical threat is less interesting than all the political wrangling going on all over the Seven Kingdoms.

Back at Winterfell, we’re seeing more of the crippled Bran’s mysterious ability to ‘green dream’ himself into the bodies of animals; yet again, his direwolf hunting in the night. Isaac Hempstead-Wright as Bran got a short but effective scene with Donald Sumpter as the sceptical Maester Luwin. “My dreams are different,” Bran protested. “Mine are true.” But Luwin’s had a go at magic, as an impressionable student, and like Arthur C Clarke with his Mysterious World, doesn’t believe in any of it: “Maybe magic was once a mighty force in this world. But not any more.”

The equally compelling Maisie Williams got a bit of the action too, as Arya heard the backstory of Ranger Yoren. His brother had been killed in front of him when he was a boy, and every night after he’d repeated the name of the killer like a prayer – until one day the killer returned and Yoren butchered him with an axe, fleeing to the Wall. You could see Arya mulling this over thoughtfully…

But not for long. Like in a classic war film, Yoren’s revelation of his hard life was an obvious prelude to him getting brutally killed, as Lannister thug Amory Lorch turned up to assist with the search for Gendry. Yoren took some killing though; even after a crossbow bolt in the chest and a spear through the back, he still managed to take down a few thugs before a sword in the spine felled him for good. Francis Magee turned in another of the show’s great performances as Yoren, and he’ll be missed.

Still, this sequence usefully compressed a much longer – perhaps unnecessarily so – plotline from the book, omitting the escape and subsequent wanderings of Arya, Gendry and a couple of the other recruits. Here, they went straight into captivity, heading for Harrenhaal Castle – but not before Arya, smartly, led the thugs to believe that the hapless boy they’d already killed was Gendry, the conveniently placed bull’s head helmet lending her story credence.

This is epic stuff, but with the fate of kingdoms depending on the whims of treacherous backstabbers, it doesn’t stint on the character portrayal either. Obviously it has excellent source material, but this week’s writer Bryan Cogman expanded it well, with acres of quotable dialogue. It could be argued, again, that making some of the book’s more implicit plots explicit – Renly and Loras’ affair, Margery’s political cunning – was unnecessary for a show with this much intelligence; but I think the overt scheming displayed as a result makes for some hugely entertaining scenes. With all the pretenders to the Iron Throne now in place, and the plot already speeding along, I can’t wait for next week!