Game of Thrones: Season 2, Episode 8–The Prince of Winterfell

SPOILER WARNING – THIS IS FROM LAST NIGHT’S US BROADCAST, AND MAJOR PLOT POINTS ARE DISCUSSED. DON’T READ AHEAD IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN EPISODE 8 YET.

“The day will come when you think you’re safe and happy, and your joy will turn to ashes in your mouth.”

GameOfThronesTyrionVarysJoffrey

After last week’s thoughtful, introspective episode of Game of Thrones, this week’s seemed to move at breakneck speed as we caught up on literally every plot strand. It had the feel of an endgame, moving players into position for a final battle that will surely come next week.

With so much to catch up on, it was an episode driven more by plot than by the character examination that was so much the centre of the script last week. Each vignette of where the characters were felt more like a snapshot, and with so many to squeeze in, few plotlines got more than a cursory glance. Yet even in all this breathless plot advancement, one or two characters got a little more space for some of those nicely deep dialogue scenes – in particular Robb and Talisa, Stannis and Davos, and Tyrion with both Bronn and Varys.

It was good to see a number of characters who’ve been noticeably absent for quite a while this season. Bronn in particular has been rather missed, his earthy, pragmatic views a perfect counterpoint to Tyrion’s shrewd scheming. It’s clear that King’s Landing is holding its breath for the imminent arrival of Stannis’ feared battle fleet, and each character in the city was preoccupied with this impending doom. So we caught up with Tyrion and Bronn as Tyrion pored over books of strategy while Bronn got bored and cleaned his fingernails.

It was a good scene, with the comic confusion over how to pronounce the name of the ancient maester who wrote the book nicely counterpointed by Bronn’s vivid description of how things would be if the city came under siege. He’s clearly been busy in his new capacity as Commander of the City Watch, rounding up all known thieves in the city. “For… interrogation?” Varys asked silkily, to which Bronn merely replied, “no.”

Yet again, he’s got the more pragmatic view; if it comes to a siege, the most valuable currency will be food, and any canny thief will immediately hoard as much of it as possible. So, get rid of the thieves before they get the chance. Even Varys had to concede the wisdom of this. Bronn’s sledgehammer tactics might lack subtlety, but they’re right for the circumstances.

But Tyrion had more to occupy his mind than just the imminent battle. The ever-vengeful Cersei seemed to have discovered his secret love/whore Shae – except, it turned out, she’d got the wrong whore. Lena Headey was magnificently loathsome as Cersei here, all horrible self-satisfaction with her scheme to hurt her brother; but Peter Dinklage played it well too as Tyrion played along with the mistake in a heartbeat, pretending the captive Ros really was his lover. As Ros, Esme Bianco got only one line, but it was heartfelt: “Remember me.” It gave the sense that she’s not likely to survive this; but then, after her experiences with Littlefinger and Joffrey, she’s plainly discovered that being a whore in the big city is far harder than it used to be in the wilds near Winterfell.

Joffrey himself popped up briefly to be reliably loathsome, surveying the siege preparations with Varys and Tyrion. He’s determined to lead his army into battle (which Cersei sees as a foolhardy move prompted by Tyrion), and both Varys and Tyrion seemed slyly amused at the prospect. But as Joffrey stalked off, these two master manipulators got a nice exchange about the game at which they’re both so good. “I’d like to stay alive and keep playing it,” was Tyrion’s attitude. As Varys said, he’s a far better hand than Jon Arryn or Ned Stark, because he doesn’t let his honour get in the way of how the game is played.

Ned Stark’s shadow hung heavily over the show this week. Robb, bonding ever more closely with Talisa, got to tell of his respect for his father: “he told me he walked with fear in the morning, and went to bed with fear at night”. It wasn’t too surprising that Robb and Talisa finally got it on this week, in a sex scene that was far more modest than usual for this show.

This time, the sex wasn’t for titillation, or to enliven an otherwise dull bit of exposition; it was crucial to the plot, and genuinely romantic rather than the usual lustful, animal couplings favoured by most of the characters. But lest we forget the rather large stumbling block that Robb is already betrothed to one of the Frey daughters, in exchange for access to a vital bridge, the dialogue reminded us of this several times. Again, it’s clear that Robb’s romantic choices are likely to come back and haunt him…

Robb also had to deal with the knotty problem that his mother had set free his most valuable captive. After last week’s cliffhanger, it turned out that Catelyn Stark had actually released Jaime Lannister, as an attempt to get Cersei to release her daughters. I must say, this decision rang truer in the book, with Cat’s maternal instincts equally matched by her political levelheadedness. Here, it seemed a little out of character that the normally pragmatic Lady Stark would sacrifice such a valuable hostage out of such an emotional motive; a fact hammered home when Robb reminded her of the losses of others, and how much was at stake. A misstep in characterisation, perhaps, though a forgivable one. At least it meant that we got a new double act, as Jaime and Brienne sniped and bitched at each other as they made their way south.

One of the other good double acts was split up this week, as Tywin Lannister finally left Harrenhal to head for battle. In the book, he wasn’t there for anything like as long; but in the show, he’s built up an excellent rapport with Arya, who was now frantic to find Jaqen H’gar and have him off the departing Lannister before it was too late.

Unfortunately, Jaqen was off on patrol, and by the time he returned, Tywin was long gone. But he still owed Arya one death, and she masterfully played him by demanding that it should be his own. Honour bound, he had to follow through on that unless Arya released him – which she would only do if he helped her, Gendry and Hot Pie escape from the castle. Jaqen paid up in full, slaughtering the guards offscreen so the trio could simply walk out of the castle.

But, again, the need to cram so much in left a lack in motivation – it’s pretty hard to understand why Gendry and Hot Pie would want to escape, given that they both had menial jobs that kept them alive and off the Lannister radar. Again, their reasons were fleshed out in the book. It’s a long book, and I can understand the need to compress its often verbose complexity, but I think this episode in particular skipped too much, making some characters’ choices hard to fathom.

Just to remind us that Stannis is fast approaching King’s Landing, he and Davos Seaworth got one of the better dialogue scenes aboard his flagship at night. Davos’ reasons for his loyalty have only been hinted at up till now; here, we got the whole backstory of how he’d smuggled food to the besieged Stannis during the civil war against the Targaryens. It was well played by Stephen Dillane and Liam Cunningham, whose Davos is one of the more likeable (and honest) characters in the show. And it also neatly counterpointed the fears of those in King’s Landing – Stannis’ account of his siege, as his men gradually ate the horses, then the cats, then the dogs, served to underline the points Bronn had made earlier.

Siege may well be on Theon’s mind too. His sister finally turned up, to tell him he was a fool and should abandon Winterfell before the Northmen strung him up for killing Bran and Rickon. Well, “fool” wasn’t the word she used – it was actually “cunt”. The show has infrequently used this ultimate weapon of obscenities before, but here it was flung about with casual abandon by plenty of characters, even Cersei. Tyrion got the best use of it, exclaiming, “why are the gods such vicious cunts? Where’s the god of tits and wine?” As a crude Englishman, it’s a word I tend to enjoy for its blunt shock value, but I know that for Americans it’s the ultimate taboo – I wonder how they’ll take to its liberal use here?

Swearing aside, Theon was revealed to have not killed Bran and Rickon after all, but rather the two farmer’s sons from that farm the young Starks chose not to hide at. I’d wondered how long the writers would play the bluff out and let us believe the boys were dead; in the event, it was only for the length of this episode. Probably about right, I think. Still, the fact that those charred corpses weren’t the people we thought they were doesn’t let Theon off the hook at all; if anything, he seems even worse for having killed two children who had no involvement at all. And clearly Bran, overhearing Osha telling Luwin this, is going to be burdened with the kind of guilt Theon seems incapable of.

With all this going on, the script still had time for a few snapshots of plots elsewhere. Catching up with events beyond the Wall was significant, as Jon Snow discovered that star Ranger Qhorin Halfhand had been captured too, and all his men killed – because they were searching for Jon. Clearly Bran’s not the only one who’ll be bearing a burden of guilt. A few miles away, the other Night’s Watch party were digging latrines in the snow, and Sam Tarly (good to see him again) managed to unearth a cache of ancient weapons – knives of ‘dragonglass’ – or obsidian, as we know it. Clearly these are going to be important, but the scene in which they were discovered was still a joy of character dialogue between the lowly latrine diggers of the Watch.

Somewhat less well done was the scene in Qarth, catching us up with Daenerys and Jorah as they debated whether she should flee or accept Pyat Pree’s dubious invitation to the House of the Undying. The whole scene felt perfunctory; no characters were delved into, no plot was advanced. It was as if it was there solely to remind us of what’s happening in this plotline, something the show hasn’t felt the need to do before. Previously, we’ve had multiple episodes go by before returning to a crucial plot point. Why couldn’t that have been done here? Personally, I would have preferred to use the runtime to more adequately explore the motivations of Cat Stark or Gendry, which felt flimsy at best.

A lot went on in this episode, but it almost felt like a holding pattern while the characters were moved to where they need to be for the Big Finale. If anything, the writers tried to cram a little too much in, at the expense of the show’s usually impeccable character depth. That said, this was still pretty good TV; the action and intrigue were compelling. I just wish there’d been a slightly more measured pace, and more judicious decisions about which plots to include or leave out. Still, I gather this will be the last season in which they try to adapt one of Martin’s increasingly lengthy books in its entirety; from hereon in, even an increased episode count wouldn’t allow these massive tomes to be covered in one season each. So this is probably the last time we’ll see an episode that has to feel so … rushed.