Game of Thrones: Season 3, Episode 6–The Climb

“If you think this has a happy ending, you haven’t been paying attention.”

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Another low key (by its standards) episode of Game of Thrones this week, which caught us up with a number of the show’s multifarious plotlines that have been slightly neglected of late. Central to the ep was the dangerous, laborious climb up the Wall by the Wildling commandos, with Jon and Ygritte taking part despite having their own agendas; and bookending the literal climb was Petyr Baelish’s musing on the metaphorical climb to power that so many of the characters are attempting.

With showrunners Benioff and Weiss on scripting duties again, the intrigue and machinations continued apace, along with a couple of developments that might be surprising to fans of the books. In particular, I was happy to see that Gendry wasn’t gone from the show after all, as the Brotherhood Without Banners made a surprising acquaintance – the Lady Melisandre, Stannis’ Red Woman and priestess of the Lord of Light.

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This meeting never happened in the books, but it was a clever addition. As Thoros of Myr is another priest of the same religion, albeit a more dissolute and less sinister one, this gave us the chance to learn a bit more about both of them, and about their religion. As I noted last week, for all that Westeros’ official religion is the worship of The Seven, only the Lord of Light has shown any demonstrable power so far, what with Melisandre’s demon smoke child thingy and Lord Beric’s repeated resurrections.

Here, Melisandre and Thoros got to discuss this, giving us a fair bit of exposition along the way. It seems resurrection from the dead is not unusual for this religion, but Melisandre was shocked by the sheer amount of times it had happened to Beric thus far. Forebodingly, Beric disclosed that, as far as the afterlife goes, there was nothing but “darkness” – the Lord of Light might be powerful, but I wonder whether he’s a deity you really want to get involved with.

But philosophical discussion wasn’t the purpose of Melisandre’s visit. Remember, to work her magic she needs “king’s blood”, and as she pointed out to Stannis last week, he’s far from the only one with Baratheon blood flowing through his veins. It was Gendry she was after, much to Arya’s disgust, and the pragmatic Brotherhood were happy to give him up – for the will of their god, and for gold.

Gendry, if you recall, was one of the few of Robert Baratheon’s bastard children to escape Joffrey’s Herod-style cull. While in the books he faded into the background rather, here he’s being combined with another of Robert’s illegitimate offspring to reduce the already massive head count of the cast. And a good thing too; I didn’t want to say goodbye to the talented and handsome Joe Dempsie just yet.

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In the other non-book related plotline, Theon Greyjoy was still subject to the sadistic whims of the enigmatic ‘Boy’ (aka Simon out of Misfits). Having revealed his true, malicious colours last time, Simon out of Misfits’ gloves were off and it was time for yet more torture. Why? Well, that was the question he posed to the trembling Theon. If Theon could guess his identity, and why he was being tortured, he wouldn’t lose his little finger. Unless, of course, he begged to have it cut off.

This was a truly nasty scene, filling in some of the implied backstory from the books more explicitly. Theon guessed, it seemed, correctly – the ‘Boy’ was a Karstark, torturing him in vengeance for his betrayal of Robb Stark. Except, of course, he was being played. The ‘Boy’ was nothing of the kind. And as he proceeded to flay the skin from Theon’s little finger, Theon did indeed beg him to cut it off to relieve the agony. Alfie Allen’s screams were all too convincing, as was Iwan Rheon’s wide-eyed sadistic glee.

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I’m still sticking to my theory that he’s Lord Roose Bolton’s previously mentioned bastard offspring; remember, the banner of House Bolton is a flayed man. Lord Roose himself was given more depth this week, as he had his captives Brienne and Jaime to dinner, while trying to decide what to do with them.

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Lord Bolton has seemed shifty ever since he started getting lines, notably whispering in the late Lord Karstark’s ear to foster his eventual mutiny against Robb. We saw again here that his loyalty to the ‘King in the North’ is pretty suspect, as he ‘negotiated’ with Jaime as to the most profitable way to dispose of his prestigious captive. If he was truly Robb Stark’s obedient bannerman, he should be shipping the Kingslayer back to captivity with Force Stark. But he was prepared to listen to Jaime’s promises of Lannister gold should he be sent to King’s Landing, or Tywin’s harsh vengeance if he wasn’t.

He’s probably right to contemplate switching sides to the Lannisters. Robb himself conceded that his war isn’t going well – “I’ve won every battle, but I’m losing the war”. So desperate is he that, after losing the armies of the late Lord Karstark, he’s trying to cement an alliance with the very man who’s likely to be as pissed off with him as Tywin is – the sourfaced Lord Walder Frey, Robb’s promise to marry one of his numerous daughters already broken. Still, it looked (on the surface) like there was a way out – the Frey messengers were prepared to accept Edmure Tully as a substitute. Providing, that is, the marriage happened within a fortnight. As they pointed out, Walder Frey now has reason to distrust long engagements.

Edmure was pretty unhappy about this, but a pep talk from Uncle Brynden sealed the deal. Well, the threat of a good thrashing from Uncle Brynden, anyway. Clive Russell is a pretty forbidding figure at the best of times, so it was hardly surprising that he got his way. So, is this salvation for the King in the North, or has Robb jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire?

Marital arrangements were also central to the characters in King’s Landing, as Tywin continued to foster his elaborate schemes for cementing alliances by marriage. Tyrion and Cersei got a great scene together as both moped over their father’s use of them as chess pieces. He’s none too happy about being foisted on poor Sansa, and she’s obviously not best pleased at the prospect of marrying Loras, a man whose disinterest in women is well known.

Doesn’t look like there’s any getting out of it though, as we learned during the confrontation I’ve been waiting for – Tywin Lannister and Lady Olenna Tyrell. Olenna’s been unstoppable since her introduction this year, her schemes bamboozling even the seasoned likes of Tyrion. Now at last we got to see what happened when her irresistible force met Tywin Lannister’s immovable object.

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True to form, it was a brilliantly acted scene, with Charles Dance and Diana Rigg’s verbal sparring a joy to watch. She was none too happy about his plans for Loras and Sansa derailing her own, and much was made of Loras’ well-known penchant for pretty boys while Olenna countered by reminding Tywin of the (accurate) rumours of Cersei and Jaime’s incest.

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Tywin’s distaste for homosexuality was played with amusingly here, as Olenna probed cleverly for whether he himself had ever… experimented, surrounded as he was in his youth by boy cousins and men at arms. Tywin’s denial seemed a little too forceful, and it was easy to share in Olenna’s scepticism about it.

Still, the scene ended with Tywin (apparently) getting the upper hand, the first time we’ve seen anyone manage this where Olenna’s concerned. Threatening to assign Jaime to the Kingsguard if his plans were denied was a good gambit; Cersei may be getting a little old to bear a Tyrell heir, but the Kingsguard vow of bachelorhood would prevent any likelihood of an heir at all. Outwitted, Olenna seemed impressed for the first time – “it’s not often I meet a man who lives up to his reputation.”

Up in the North, we had a typically brief catchup with Bran Stark’s motley crew, Osha and Meera Reed butting heads, while Jojen was subject to another vision. His visions, it seems, affect him like a grand mal seizure, and certainly Thomas Sangster made it look pretty unpleasant. Not as unpleasant though as what the vision showed; “I saw Jon Snow, on the wrong side of the Wall… surrounded by enemies.”

And so he was. Jon and Ygritte, having got together properly last week, were engaged in Mance Rayder’s mooted attack on the Wall, by dint of climbing its 700 foot bulk. First, though, there was a surprising revelation – Ygritte is not convinced of Jon’s loyalties after all, still thinking him a man of the Night’s Watch. She may be right; the show’s playing Jon’s loyalties very cagily.But Ygritte was pragmatic enough to point out that, “the Night’s Watch doesn’t care about you, and Mance Rayder doesn’t care about me. We’re just soldiers in his armies, and easily replaced.”

Their true loyalties, as she pointed out, should now be to each other – and that was soon to be tested as they encountered danger scaling hundreds of feet of sheer ice. It was a genuinely tense sequence as they slowly made their way up, with ropes and crampons; and along the way, the slimy Orell got a chance to make good on those threats he’d made to Jon previously. As a huge chunk of the Wall’s face crumbled, sending men plunging to their doom, Orell took the chance to cut loose the rope holding the dangling Jon and Ygritte.

Under the circumstances, it was probably the right thing to do; but given Orell’s dislike of Jon, I’d be pretty sure it was only a matter of time anyway. Fortunately for Jon (and presumably unfortunately for Orell), he managed to get an axehold on the ice after all, pulling Ygritte up after him. The ep’s final scene, of the two framed atop the Wall with the green lands of the South before them, was pretty epic. But where will their commando raid take them next?

Sex and violence

Surprisingly, given the show’s reputation, there was very little of either on display this week; and what there was actually combined both. If you wanted male nudity, there was Theon strapped shirtless to a cross, though his torture still involves him retaining his breeches. Given the agony he was in, though, it was hard to be titillated. If the flaying of just one little finger hurts enough that you’ll beg to have it cut off, imagine how much worse it could get for Theon.

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Female nudity was even thinner on the ground; in fact I think all we saw was Ros wearing a very revealing dress. Unfortunately for her though, it was liberally punctured with crossbow bolts from the ever-sadistic Joffrey. Apparently Petyr Baelish, having worked out that she was one of Varys’ little whisperers, had found her usefulness at an end, and handed her over to the Caligula-like monarch for some ‘new games’.

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It’s a shame; I liked Ros, a character invented for the TV series, and found her advancement from rural whore outside Winterfell to mover and shaker of court intrigue at King’s Landing one of the more interesting subplots. Mind you, it is fair to say that, since getting entrenched as administrator of Littlefinger’s brothel, she’s not had that much to do. Perhaps this is the right time for her plotline to be brought to a close.

This was Game of Thrones at idle – still one of the better things on TV, and the endless scheming and machinations are always entertaining. Nonetheless, the climb of the Wall was the nearest we got to action, and while the advancement of the plots was vital, it never felt as gripping as it did a couple of weeks ago. And while it’s impossible to fault the acting (especially from Charles Dance and Diana Rigg), this week there was a lack of any Big Acting Moment where a character soliloquised for the benefit of Emmy consideration. Still, even at its lowest pace, Game of Thrones is infinitely more watchable than most TV shows.