“Don’t trust anybody. Life is safer that way.”
Things continue apace in Westeros, in this week’s workmanlike but exciting episode of Game of Thrones. The season’s momentum is really starting to build up as it enters the second half, as long-hatched plans come to fruition, and unforeseen events throw meticulous planning to the winds.
Directed by genre veteran David Nutter, this week’s episode threw us straight into the fray, opening amidst Theon’s hinted-at attack on the defenceless Winterfell. Donald Sumpter as the thoughtful Maester Luwin got to show that he could be a man of action too, frantically sending out a raven message even as the Ironmen battered down the door. But Theon’s troops were too strong, and poor little Bran was forced to yield the castle to him. Isaac Hempstead-Wright was again brilliant as Bran this week, veering from his usual solemnity (“Theon, did you hate us the whole time?”) to a profoundly realistic child’s sobbing as Theon beheaded Ned Stark’s faithful castellan Ser Rodrik.
In keeping with Theon’s general ineptitude, it was a wince-makingly incompetent beheading, similar to that of Thomas Cromwell in The Tudors (purportedly a true event). Even I could tell that Theon’s sword wasn’t the ideal choice for slicing a man’s head off, and so it proved as he hacked away at Rodrik’s neck, eventually having to kick the head off what remained of it. Even offscreen, it was brutal, and set the tone for an episode that didn’t stint on the violence throughout.
Similar violence dogged the Lannisters in King’s Landing, in a faithfully nasty recreation of the book’s memorable riot. Having sent Princess Myrcella off to Dorne as Tyrion planned, Cersei made a disturbingly convincing vow that she would take great pleasure in depriving Tyrion of someone he loved; plainly a nasty bit of foreshadowing regarding the still-hidden Shae. But all the family bitching took a back seat as the royal party tried to make their way back to the Red Kepp, and the populace of King’s Landing got a chance to show their new king quite how unhappy with him they are.
It was a well-done scene, though the number of rioting extras seemed to fall short of what was required to send half the city up in flames, as in the book. Nevertheless, it served its purpose dramatically in showing just how hated Joffrey is already. And he gave the crowd ample further proof as, after having been hit by a thrown cowpat, he demanded they all be executed.
The inevitable riot that followed had yet more truly nasty bits of business, particularly the visualisation of the High Septon being literally ripped to pieces. It’s mentioned in the book, but here we got to see it – well, some of it at least, as a baying crowd bore him down then held his severed arm aloft. It was enough to make you genuinely fear for Sansa as she was separated from the fleeing royals, but fortunately for her, the Hound turned up in the nick of time to prevent a nasty rape by disembowelling Sansa’s attackers. You don’t get that in Lord of the Rings.
The odd but touching relationship between the Hound and Sansa has been well-played by both, with Rory McCann playing the scarred mercenary’s hidden passions almost entirely through looks and Sophie Turner, a real damsel in distress, showing how her initial revulsion has softened into sympathy and an unwilling respect. The relationship between the two is one of the more interesting and understated in the books, and I’m glad it’s translated faithfully to the screen.
Jack Gleeson continues to be reliably loathsome as Joffrey, whose reaction to the riot was to order more slaughter until dissuaded by yet another slap from Uncle Tyrion. Joffrey’s an eminently slappable guy, but given his Caligula-style tendencies, you have to wonder how long Tyrion can get away with that kind of thing. Peter Dinklage made him believably furious, but I wonder how unwise he’s being in not keeping his usual level head when dealing with the capricious boy king: “We’ve had mad kings and idiot kings before, but this is the first time we’ve been cursed with a mad idiot king!”
A rather better monarch was in Qarth, over the sea, as Dany Targaryen continued her seemingly futile quest to win arms and ships from the slimy, double-dealing Qartheen merchant kings. Emilia Clarke got to give yet another fiery, impassioned speech as she begged the unconvinced Spice King (a suitably oleaginous Nicholas Blane) for ships, with little to trade.
Descendant of the Mad King though she may be, Dany’s looking to be by far the best candidate for the throne of Westeros – if she ever gets there. She suffered yet another setback this week as more of her Dothraki followers were slaughtered by a mysterious hooded figure who went on to steal the three baby dragons. Poor old Dany, you can’t help thinking she deserves better luck occasionally.
Somewhat luckier was Arya, still stuck pouring wine for Tywin Lannister at Harrenhal, and plotting her revenge on all who’ve done her wrong. Building on last week’s electric scene between them, Maisie Williams and Charles Dance look to be forming another of the show’s unlikely double acts. They play well off each other, as she manages to conceal her true identity even while they talk almost as master and protege.
That secret was almost broken this week, when Lord Baelish – who knows very well who Arya is – popped in for an unexpected visit. This led to another tense scene which combined that tension with exposition; as Baelish discussed alliance plans with Tywin, Arya was obliged to pour the wine for them, and Baelish kept giving her curious glances, as though she was somehow familiar but he couldn’t quite place her. Given what was at stake, the tension was heart-pounding, though I must admit to being a little unconvinced that the normally astute Littlefinger didn’t ultimately recognise her.
Still, the whole scene was another example of something the TV show does very well – inventing little dramatic set pieces that were nowhere present in the books. Indeed, this season in particular has been a little more liberal in its adaptation, omitting some quite lengthy subplots – such as Cat Stark’s return to her ancestral home on the way back to to Robb – and significant characters like Reek and the Reed children.
This probably annoys purists no end, but I’m glad that the TV writers have taken the opportunity of the different medium of storytelling to make their still-convoluted plot more economical. After all, one look at the movie adaptation of Alan Moore’s Watchmen shows the danger of sticking too faithfully to your source material at the expense of utilising the medium you’re working in.
Another departure from the books is the addition of Robb’s love interest, the pretty Volantene nurse Talisa. Or perhaps I should say ‘substitution’ – she plainly fulfils the same narrative function as his love interest Jeyne in the books. But whereas the books didn’t present Jeyne to the reader until long into her and Robb’s relationship, here we get to see that relationship developing from its first flowering. It’s arguably more appropriate to the story that Robb should fall for someone he met on the field of battle, and Oona Chaplin as Talisa has been given some suitably thoughtful, yet flirty dialogue. Still, as his mother reminds him, Robb is technically already betrothed, to one of Walder Frey’s daughters. Could be trouble on the way there…
Jon too was getting a love interest in the snowy but picturesque Frostfang mountains beyond the Wall. Finally encountering some actual wildlings to fight, he found himself tasked with executing the lone survivor of the fight, a defiant young lady with flaming red hair named Ygritte. Jon being the heroic type, he couldn’t actually go through with it, and consequently found himself chasing his escaping prisoner until they were well out of reach of the rest of the Night’s Watch party.
Another favourite of mine from the books, Ygritte is played by a suitably fierce young lady called Rose Leslie, who’s nevertheless also flirty in a rather suggestive way. Bedding down with Jon for the night, she couldn’t help, rubbing her posterior against the hunky Ranger’s groin, much to his frustration. It was another blackly comic scene, as Jon is of course sworn to celibacy, and just the type to follow his vows to the letter. But it doesn’t take a genius to predict that there’ll be something going on between the two afore long. After all, it’s the classic love/hate/love relationship, and if you’ve ever seen any soap opera you’ll know what comes next…
After last week’s rather scattershot episode (necessitated by the advancement of so many plots simultaneously) it was nice to have a return to a tighter focus this week as the pace of the story ramps up. It was a massively violent episode, perhaps even more so than usual, with blood and guts flying all over the place. Yet as ever, character drama wasn’t neglected amid the gore, with Arya and Tywin’s scenes being a particular highlight.
Not much in the way of sex this week – Theon got some, offscreen, with former wildling Osha, who at least did a full-frontal to keep the flag up (as it were). But with the pace of the war ever more hectic, I wouldn’t be surprised if the sex is kept to a minimum for the rest of the season. Whether you think that’s a good thing is probably entirely subjective; but as the sex goes down, I expect the violence will go up. After all, it looks like the war may be building to a series of ever more brutal confrontations – and that’s something this show does very well.