“I didn’t ask for black magic dreams.”
After last week’s crowded but slow-moving scene setter, this week’s Game of Thrones was back to full on action and intrigue, as we caught up with most of the characters we hadn’t seen last week, and met a whole plethora more.
While last week saw the introduction of a few new characters – Mance Rayder and the Wildlings, for example – this week the show really cut loose with introduction after introduction. In some cases, these were characters held back from the second book, necessitating some economising on plotlines. In all cases, they were superbly cast, and it was a pleasure to see many of my favourite character actors making an appearance as new regulars.
First though, we got to catch up with some of the Stark family we didn’t see last week, and immediately I saw a looming problem. Crippled Bran Stark is still being dragged toward the general vicinity of the Wall in the company of Hodor and Osha, and beset by mysterious visions of the three-eyed raven and an oddly elfin teenage boy.
That’s not the problem, though. I like that Bran’s journey is getting increasingly mystical and portentous. The trouble is that, brilliant though Isaac Hempstead-Wright is in the part, he’s obviously hitting puberty. He’s noticeably taller than last season, which in the show’s timeframe was only a few days ago, and his voice seems to be breaking. I’ve speculated before that the story’s compressed timeframe vs the time it takes to make a season might mean that some of the marvellous child actors may have to be recast. I’m beginning to think (much as I’d hate the idea) that Bran might be the first. When puberty proper hits him, he may well shoot up in height – and that might be tricky to explain. There’s always magic, I suppose.
Which may explain one of his new friends. The Reed children (for it is they) are related to the Stark bannermen of the Riverlands, and in the books were introduced last volume. Showrunners Benioff and Weiss, thinking season two already somewhat overmanned, held them back till this year, necessitating a different, but just as effective introduction as they caught up with Bran’s party in the woods.
There are two of them, Jojen and Meera, and Jojen is played by the elfin Thomas Sangster. Sangster appears not to have aged since his part in Doctor Who six years ago; despite now being 22, he still looks about 15. Accompanying him is his less spiritual sister/bodyguard Meera, played by Ellie Kendrick, Being Human’s nerdy werewolf Allison.
Thankfully, Maisie Williams appears to share Sangster’s ability to not age, so there’s no danger of Arya being recast. Having escaped Harrenhal thanks to the homicidal favours of Jaqen H’ghar, she was still roaming the woods with Gendry and Hot Pie, heading for her mother’s ancestral home of Riverrun. Williams was as brilliant as ever, as Arya faced off against rebel leader Thoros of Myr, another fan favourite charismatically incarnated by Paul Kaye.
This was another neat case of economising on George RR Martin’s occasionally meandering storylines. In the books, Arya and friends spent ages wandering the countryside having minor skirmishes; the show sensibly dispenses with that, getting them straight to where they need to be for the story proper to advance. It was ‘economised’ even further when Thoros brethren dragged their latest captive into the inn where they were all dining – the Hound.
It’s great to see Sandor Clegane again, after his disgusted abandonment of King’s Landing during the Battle of Blackwater. Unfortunately for Arya, he knows who she is – that could put the cat among the pigeons.
Also wandering in the general vicinity of Arya and co were other interested parties, most notably her mother. Still not popular among Force Stark from Winterfell, Catelyn has plunged her rep even lower by dragging the army off to her family home of Riverrun to attend her father’s funeral.
They’re really cutting the flab from Martin’s narrative here (no bad thing in this regard), as Catelyn in the book had an emotional reunion with her father then waited patiently for him to die – while, presumably, the Army of the North tutted disapprovingly and checked their watches. Here, with Lord Tully already gone, Vanessa Taylor’s script found time to give Michelle Fairlie a moving showcase speech concerning her guilt over Jon Snow.
Having first prayed for his death, then, when he became ill, making a bargain with the gods that if he recovered she would love him as her own, she found she couldn’t manage it. As a result, she thinks the various misfortunes that have befallen her family are all her fault – “all the horror that’s befallen my family… all because I couldn’t love a motherless child.” It was an obvious Big Acting moment, but so well delivered by Fairlie it was hard to begrudge. That’s the kind of character depth that sets this show apart from shallower fantasy fare.
Along with its vicious politicking, that is. There was plenty more of that to be found in King’s Landing this week, and once again, despite action, horror and magic elsewhere, it proved the most gripping part of the show.
The Tyrells have been quick to exploit the debt the Lannisters owe them for their aid at Blackwater, and wasted no time in insinuating themselves at court. We saw the beginnings of that last week, as the shrewd Margaery began her campaign to worm her way into the public’s affections with random acts of Diana-like kindness. Natalie Dormer, an old hand at this kind of thing after her role as Anne Boleyn in The Tudors, gives Margaery an obvious core of steel under that sweetly girlish exterior.
Even so, it was a tense scene in which she verbally sparred with capricious and psychotic boy king Joffrey. Jack Gleeson (apparently a lovely guy in real life) is so convincing as a Caligula-like despot you never know which way he’s going to jump. Margaery, it seems, can stay the right side of him – just. It took an extremely Freudian use of a crossbow as phallic symbol to pacify him, with Joffrey plainly more turned on than is wholesome by the idea of his fiancee killing things.
This week, we also got to see where Margaery learnt her manipulative skills, with the ever-excellent Diana Rigg turning up as her grandmother Olenna Tyrell, the aptly named ‘Queen of Thorns’. Sharp-tongued, caustic yet charming, she’s plainly going to be a force to be reckoned with in the court. Drawing the truth about Joffrey (“He’s a monster!”) from the terrified Sansa, she was all sweetness throughout. Yet, even if she has a matronly care for Sansa’s well-being, you could see the cogs whirring as she processed the information for future use.
Olenna’s not the only one to be ‘protective’ of Sansa, though, as Shae popped up to offer her some worldly advice about the sinister attentions of Petyr Baelish – “Men like that only want one thing from a pretty girl… love is not the thing.” Interesting though the character is, I’m still not sure about Sibel Kikelli’s performance as Shae – an accent can’t wholly hide a sometimes hesitant line delivery. Still, at least she had the frustrated Tyrion to play off in his all-too-brief appearance this week.
Elsewhere, there was the obligatory brief catch up with events beyond the Wall, as Sam Tarly faced the contempt of Watch brother Rast, only to be rescued by Grenn and Dolorous Edd. Jon, meanwhile, was still trekking southward with the Wildings, and the not entirely unexpected appearance of Mackenzie Crook as Orell shed some light on the destiny of Bran; Orell is a ‘warg’, one who can see through the eyes of animals. Plainly this is where Bran is heading too…
We also caught up with Jaime and Brienne, who are presumably not far from Arya and her mother. The Riverlands must be quite big to avoid the dramatic contrivance of these three sets of characters running into each other at some point. Jaime and Brienne’s scenes were some of the best of the ep; these two characters, with their constant sniping, are plainly destined to become unlikely allies and perhaps even friends.
First though, they had to bond as warriors always do – with a bloody great swordfight. In a show that’s steeped in medieval combat, this was superb even by the high standards usually on display. I’m not sure which of them would have won, though, as their bonding exercise was interrupted by stalwart Australian actor Noah Taylor, as Locke from House Bolton, plainly intent on recapturing the Kingslayer. I’ve got the feeling this is not going to end well for him and his men next week.
The Boltons are being quietly shaped up to be major players in the show’s labyrinthine power struggles. Lord Roose Bolton has been gradually enlarging his role from sniping about Robb Stark to the disaffected Lord Karstark to shaping strategy for the well-meaning but naive Robb. Michael McElhatton’s quiet but intense performance as Roose suggests hidden nuttiness to come.
Having already introduced enough new characters to fill the casts of several less ambitious shows, the ep surprised me by actually adding a new plotline not in the source material. In the books, it was a very long time before we discovered that Theon Greyjoy had survived the burning of Winterfell. Here, we discovered fairly early on that he’s being held captive in a mysterious dungeon and being fairly comprehensively tortured.
As usual, Alfie Allen played Theon without the hindrance of clothes, though any titillation was held off by the wince-making realism of the torture; still, how many fingernails does he really need? There’s hope for Theon yet though, as a mysterious boy claiming to be sent by his sister whispered that he’ll save him when the time is right. This being Game of Thrones, I wouldn’t trust him an inch, even if he is Simon from Misfits (Iwan Rheon).
Despite the burden of introducing more characters than War and Peace, this somehow managed to feel like a deeper episode than last week. Yes, some of the plots were only glancingly referred to, but others were given enough room to breathe that they felt fresh and exciting. New characters always give a show like this a new lease of life; introducing a veritable army of them at the same time really helps. But with so many complicated plotlines already in progress, can the show manage the juggling act of the books and keep them all in the air successfully? On this basis, I suspect it can. There’s now so much going on the show barely has room for its trademark gratuitous nudity – the only character to get his kit off this week was Joffrey, of all people. Still, if you like that kind of thing…