“Have you ever seen a war where innocents didn’t die by the thousand?”
Showrunners Benioff and Weiss were back for this week’s Game of Thrones, with David Benioff doubling as director too. It was (by this show’s standards) a fairly leisurely episode; a consequence, presumably, of adapting only half of George RR Martin’s A Storm of Swords for this season. Together with trimming some of the original book’s more repetitive capture/escape subplots, this may seem to have slowed the pace a little, but again allowed for some depth, and some long scenes which dripped with tension even without action.
Even so, we met more new characters this week, on top of the multitude introduced in the previous two episodes. Opening the episode at Catelyn Stark’s ancestral home of Riverrun, the script immediately introduced us to two of her previously unseen family – her uncle Brynden, known as ‘the Blackfish’, and her brother Edmure.
Brynden, a recently reconciled black sheep of the family, was played by the inimitable Clive Russell, trading his native Scottish accent for a nondescript Northern English one. You know where you are with Clive Russell; he’ll either be a terrifying violent lunatic, or a stern but fair man of the world. Here, we got the latter of these two. Just as well, really, Westeros already has more than its fair share of terrifying violent lunatics.
Edmure was played by Tobias Menzies, previously seen a few days ago as a Soviet submarine office in Doctor Who. Between him and Liam Cunningham, also in Saturday’s Who, it looks like the shows are sharing a casting pool – no bad thing with actors this good. Still, I thought it was overly obvious having Edmure painted as quite such a vainglorious idiot from the outset, as he repeatedly failed to land the flaming arrow that would set afire his grandfather’s funeral barge.
His incompetence was further rammed home in a meeting with the none-too-happy Robb, who berated him for attacking the Lannister force without orders, leading Tywin out of a trap Robb had planned for him. Presumably this was some while ago, before the Battle of Blackwater. If so, Edmure made a pretty grievous strategic error. If Robb had managed to capture or kill Tywin, the Lannister patriarch wouldn’t have been able to charge to the rescue of the besieged King’s Landing, and things might have turned out quite differently.
Tywin, thankfully, is written more subtly, and Charles Dance was on good form here as he hosted his first meeting of the new Small Council. It’s a mark of how twisty this show is that its members couldn’t even manage to sit at a table without silently jockeying for positions of power, an an amusing sequence that perfectly demonstrated the various rivalries of the characters without needing a word uttered. Tyrion got the last laugh by positioning himself opposite his stern father at the other end of the table, but that didn’t last. Having made the observation that Lord Baelish’s proposed marriage to Catelyn’s barmy sister Lysa Arryn risked leaving the capital without a treasurer, Tyrion found himself appointed the new Master of Coin.
Judging by the satisfied smirks of Cersei and Maester Pycelle, this was not considered to be a good outcome. Indeed, if it was, Baelish would probably have fought harder to keep the position. Aidan Gillen was as smarmy as ever as the jumped up accountant/brothel keeper, and we also got to see the devious Varys (Conleth Hill) for the first time this season. Sadly, he barely got more than a couple of lines, but hopefully future episodes will give him a bit more to do.
It was no wonder Baelish was so pleased to be rid of responsibility for the Seven Kingdom’s finances, as it turned out. In a blackly amusing bit of timeliness, it turns out that Westeros is virtually bankrupt, mired in unpayable loans to the nasty-sounding Iron Bank of Braavos. I’d love to see George Osborne try to deal with the sort of bankers who might try and call in a loan in this world.
Over the sea in Essos, Dany Targaryen too was having money troubles. She’s obviously got a huge problem with the concept of slavery; but attempting to abolish it by dint of buying all the slaves seems rather naive. especially when all she’s got to trade of any consequence are her dragons, and as Jorah and Barristan pointed out, they’ll be more use than an army when they’re full grown.
Nevertheless, a dragon was indeed offered to the contemptuous Master Kraznys as payment, in another of those wittily subtitled scenes (“tell her the Dothraki are only good as pig feed”). Dan Hildebrand is marvellously nasty as Kraznys, but he’s such an obvious villain that I’m not expecting him to last long – especially with Dany being portrayed as a heroic would-be liberator to the Unsullied. She’s not a fool though; having also bargained for the freedom of young interpreter Missandei (Hollyoaks’ Nathalie Emmanuel), she responded to the Braavosi axiom “Valar Morghulis” thus: “Yes, all men must die. But we are not men.”
From sunshine to snow, and north of the Wall is as unwelcoming as ever. Another brief catchup this week, as Jon and the Wildlings reached the site of the (unseen for budgetary reasons) battle between the Night’s Watch and the White Walkers. In a creepy bit of business, the Walkers had arranged the slaughtered horses in a macabre spiral against the snow. The bodies of the men were nowhere to be found, but it wasn’t difficult to figure that they’d risen to join the Walkers’ undead forces.
No wonder Mance is so determined to storm the Wall and head South. Moves were made in that direction this week, as he sent a small commando force to scale the Wall and knock out Castle Black’s defences, promising to start “the biggest fire the North has ever seen”. Jon was sent along as a test of loyalty – will he pass, or will Kit Harington continue to display his sole, grim facial expression as he plummets from the Wall?
There were brief catchups too with the Stannis and Arya. The Big Climax hinted at when the hound recognised Arya for who she was actually turned out to be rather an anticlimax – it doesn’t seem to bother Thoros one way or the other. Stannis seems to be in a holding pattern of brooding and trying to cop off with Melisandre; she, for her part, asserts that he’s not strong enough, and a shag would probably kill him. (“What a way to go…”) I’m not sure there’s much point to these brief scenes other than to remind us that the characters still exist when they haven’t got much of a plotline, especially in a show as crowded as this one.
Speaking of which, while it’s enjoyable enough, I’m still not sure where the showrunners are going with their original, non-book plotline involving Theon trying to escape from… whoever has him prisoner. As promised last week, the mysterious ‘Boy’ (aka Simon out of Misfits), turned up to set him free, but the guards were in hot pursuit with maces and arrows. Fortunately, Simon out of Misfits turned up just in time to save Theon’s arse. Literally, as he was about to be raped by his gruesomely salivating former torturer.
This being a new plot, even those who’ve read the books can only guess where it’s going. Is the mysterious ‘Boy’ all he seems, or another captor? Or will Theon’s destiny take him in a wholly different direction to the books? At least Alfie Allen must be happy he doesn’t have to wait another couple of seasons before they call him back to work.
Lastly, we caught up with Odd Couple Jaime and Brienne, who, as it turned out, hadn’t managed to fight their way out of last week’s confrontation. Trussed up on the back of a horse, they continued to bicker like an old married couple, but with a much darker air; the disagreement was over whether Brienne should lie back and accept being raped by their captors, or should fight back and probably be killed. Inevitably, Jaime advised the former, while Brienne herself preferred the latter.
Brienne may be one double-hard bastard, but big as she is, even she can’t fight off four men at the same time. Locke (a standin for the books’ repellent mercenaries, the Bloody Mummers) turns out to be a genuinely nasty piece of work, with Aussie actor Noah Taylor sneeringly nasty, despite not entirely being able to hide his Antipodean twang.
Fortunately for Brienne, he seemed to believe Jaime’s story that her father was swimming sapphires, and reprieved her from rape – for now. Unfortunately for Jaime, his apparently greedily accepted promises of wealth and titles for freedom didn’t cut so much ice. I never quite believed Locke was taken in, so I’m surprised the normally shrewd Jaime did. Suck mistakes in this show tend to have dire consequences – as Jaime discovered when the sneering Locke casually chopped off his hand. His sword hand, too. Given all that he’s said about fighting being his only skill and his only passion, this is not likely to cheer him up.
Gratuitous nudity of the week
A properly amusing scene, as Tyrion tried to reward his squire Podrick for saving his life. Visiting Littlefinger’s brothel, he called forth first one full-frontal nude whore… then another… and finally one who at least had a shred of clothing, but promptly contorted herself to push her crotch into young Pod’s astonished face. “Pace yourself, lad,”smirked Bronn.
That was followed by an even more amusing scene in which Pod revealed that the whores hadn’t accepted payment, leaving the astonished Tyrion and Bronn to wonder what he’d done to make them eschew gold coin: “Tell us everything. We want details. Copious details.”
But if you prefer chaps, you had to make do with Theon’s (thankfully still virgin) arse.
In an episode with blink-and-you’ll-miss-them cameos from Snow Patrol’s Gary Lightbody and Coldplay’s Will Champion, it was appropriate that we were introduced to another of the recurring songs from Martin’s original books. First heard sung raggedly by Locke and his men, ‘The Bear and the Maiden Fair’ is an altogether bawdier number than last season’s sombre ‘Rains of Castamere’, in keeping with the ribald nature of many real medieval songs and tales (think Geoffrey Chaucer). A decidedly unmedieval rendering of the tune by Brooklyn guitar band the Hold Steady graced the closing credits. I’m still undecided whether that was a little too jarringly anachronistic.
As entertaining as ever, this week’s episode was more jaw-jaw than war-war, but the lengthy scenes and some actual laugh-out loud comic moments distinguished it from some of the show’s darker hours. Still, plenty is going on, even if it’s back to plotting and scheming rather than confrontation.