“You really think a crown gives you power?”
After the tumultuous events of last week, this week’s season finale of Game of Thrones felt more like an epilogue than a climax. True, it was still a highly charged, and often tremendously violent piece of drama. But it also had the tall order of providing a capstone to just about all of this year’s multifarious plotlines, in preparation for next year. Benioff and Weiss’ script accomplished this with some aplomb, catching us up on just about every major character – the ones still alive, that is.
In that respect, last week’s carnage actually did the writers a favour, massively reducing the number of players we needed to see. But there are still plenty, including some old faces we haven’t seen since last year, so necessarily most of them got little more than brief vignettes here. Nonetheless, even these had enough character detail and fine performances crammed into them to shame most full episodes of other shows.
Some settings and characters got more than vignettes, however, in an episode that dwelled at length on family, birthright (or lack thereof) and the difference between nobles and commoners. With the Starks now virtually extinct, the last major family left is the Lannisters, and we spent more time in King’s Landing with them than any of the other major players.
They may be looking victorious, but it didn’t seem to make them any happier; indeed, just about everyone we saw this week was having a pretty horrid time. Sansa… Lannister, now, I suppose, had at least a brief moment of contentment when she seemed to actually be getting on with her new husband, almost accepting him as a decent man who wouldn’t force himself on her against her will. Unfortunately, that all went pear shaped when the news of her brother and mother’s deaths arrived – courtesy of her father-in-law.
The scene at the small court was packed with tension and drama – no mean feat for a sequence which was basically people sitting around talking. Virtually every major player at court was there, vying for supremacy; Maester Pycelle, still baiting Tyrion, Varys, the embodiment of watchful caution, Joffrey, still revelling in sadism – and, of course, Tywin.
Now more than ever we saw him proved the real power in the land, as he effectively sent the king to bed without any supper, reminding him that, “if you have to tell people you’re the king, it doesn’t mean anything.” Joffrey may be a vicious little psychopath, but even he knows better than to oppose his grandfather.
Tyrion, though, is more than capable of standing up to Tywin – verbally at least. Peter Dinklage and Charles Dance are well-matched in their scenes together, served by some excellent dialogue. We found here that, for all his (successful) scheming, Tywin was no happier than anyone else; having to live with his contempt for his disappointment of a son for the sake of the family name. It was a theme the episode returned to time and again.
Tyrion too was unhappy, teaching his squire Pod how to be permanently drunk. “It’s not easy being drunk all the time. If it was, everyone would do it.” Pod, at least, still seems to be enjoying his reputation for his skills at… whatever he does with women in bed; witness the girlish giggling from two ladies in the garden as he passed. It might seem like puerile humour, but given the relentlessly downbeat tone of recent episodes, even that felt welcome.
Cersei was no happier than any of the other Lannisters, pouring out her woes to, of all people, Tyrion. Hated her little brother may be, but he’s infinitely more approachable than their stern, forbidding father. Lena Headey got another chance to shine as Cersei recounted how her love for her children was the only thing that kept her going, and that even Joffrey as he is now couldn’t wipe out the memory of how he had been as a child; the only time Cersei had been truly happy. Still, happier times may be round the corner for her. Her brother (and lover) Jaime is back in town. He’s not quite the man he was, though. I wonder where that will go next season?
The Lannisters may be miserable, but at least they’re miserable in opulent comfort. The same couldn’t really be said of any of the other characters this week; but none more so than Theon Greyjoy. Still filling out the books’ implied backstory of what happened to Theon after the fall of Winterfell, this week the show gave us confirmation that his gleefully sadistic torturer is indeed the bastard offspring of the treacherous Lord Roose Bolton.
Ramsay Snow (I no longer need refer to him as ‘Simon out of Misfits’) was carrying on his usual torture, this week psychological as well as physical. You have to hand it to him; eating a giant sausage in front of the man whose penis you just cut off is blackly humorous. Having reassured Theon that the sausage was not, in fact, the organ in question, Ramsay had a good old taunt about phantom limbs: “when you see a pretty girl, where will it itch?” He then came up with the novel wheeze of renaming the presumably now quite smelly Theon as “Reek”, and hitting him till that’s what he answered to.
This is the first time I’ve seen the talented Iwan Rheon playing an out-and-out baddy, and I must say, he doesn’t disappoint. True, he’s not playing it subtly, but then Ramsay Snow’s not a subtle part. This the man who sent Theon’s father his son’s severed penis in a box as a means to discourage his territorial ambitions, after all. Patrick Malahide was as good as ever as Balon Greyjoy, though yet again I thought him too similar to Walder Frey – both in appearance and character – for the show to want to dwell on him.
The aftermath of the actual Walder’s actions was what coloured this week’s catchup with Arya and the Hound, who do seem to be becoming another of the mismatched buddy pairings the show is so fond of. After all, there’s no longer any question of the Hound getting a reward for returning Arya to the Starks; but he protected her nonetheless, getting her out of the bloody chaos as the Frey and Bolton armies slaughtered what remained of Force Stark from Winterfell. Unfortunately for her, he still couldn’t spare her the sight of her brother’s decapitated body with his direwolf’s head sewn none too artfully to the stump.
Still, at least they caught up with some of those responsible in the woods the next day, culminating in a vicious stabbing from Arya and much violent hacking from the Hound. Again, it looks like they’re mellowing towards each other; having discovered the knife she’d used was his, his only comment was, “next time you do something like that, tell me first.” I wonder if she still wants to kill him? The way she clung onto the Valyrian coin Jaqen H’ghar gave her, muttering “valar morghulis”, made me wonder.
We also caught up with the major threat facing all of Westeros, as Bran Stark’s party, still heading North, encountered Sam Tarly and Gilly heading South at the mysterious Nightfort. Bran’s horror story of the cook turned into a rat for killing his guests was surely meant to reflect on the actions of Walder Frey – does he psychically know about the Red Wedding already?
It did at least give them the willies as Sam climbed out of the well, covered in furs like a monster. But the real monsters are beyond the Wall. Bran has to go there, but I doubt you’d get Sam and Gilly back for all the tea in Valyria. Having equipped Bran and co with dragonglass daggers, they went their separate ways, and the last we saw of the solemn Bran was his gang heading through the Wall to a forbidding light at the end of the tunnel. I wonder where next year will find them, and whether Isaac Hempstead-Wright’s onset of puberty will now be so advanced that Bran will have to be recast? I do hope not.
As I’ve said before, while the White Walkers are meant to be the overriding threat that dwarfs the civil wars raging through Westeros, implacable magical foes are a bit two-a-penny in this genre, and the power games for the Iron Throne are far more interesting. Still, the two plots do seem to be converging a little bit this week, as Sam’s return to Maester Aemon (Peter Vaughan out of Porridge, as great as ever) led to raven-borne cries for help sent to all the combatants.
Thus far, we’ve only seen the response of Stannis Baratheon. But it was encouraging. The show spent a fair bit of time at Dragonstone this week, as the ever-conscientious Davos Seaworth tried to prevent his liege from sacrificing the unfortunate Gendry, going so far as to free the boy and send him off in a boat that looked none too safe. I hope this isn’t the last we’ve seen of Joe Dempsie.
Fortunately for Davos, Aemon’s message about the threat beyond the Wall was enough to give Stannis pause about having him executed. There are shades of grey here; Melisandre and her ‘blood magic’ are very much portrayed as evil, and Davos is a decent man. Yet her magic does seem to work – ask Robb Stark, if you could. Given that, you have to wonder about her contemptuous statement that the life of one boy might have been worth less than that of tens of thousands she could have saved. And yet, as Dostoevsky (and Robert Holmes) once asked, what price a paradise built on even one murder?
And just when I’d all but forgotten her, we caught up with Daenerys Targaryen and her unfolding quest for abolition of slavery in Essos. It was a brief coda, but a hopeful one, as the liberated slaves of Yunkai poured through the city gates to proclaim her “Mhysa” – Mother. It was an upbeat moment to end the season on, rather than the doom-laden cliffhanger of last year, but after the amount of gloom we’ve seen recently, you can hardly blame the writers for that.
The Big Acting Moment
A few this week. I’ve already mentioned Lena Headey’s superb soliloquy about motherhood, but it was at least matched by the quiet scene in which Ser Davos and the imprisoned Gendry discussed their lowborn origins. Liam Cunningham and Joe Dempsie were both excellent here; the irony being that Davos had been elevated from the peasantry to the nobility, while Gendry, as the son of the last king, arguably had a better claim to being ‘highborn’ than Davos did. Mind you, I did wonder why, if they came from virtually the same street, Davos has a very distinct (and convincing) Geordie accent, while Gendry just sounds like he’s from Nottingham.
Sex and violence
No sex this week, but oodles of violence. Most of it took place at the very start, as what remained of Robb Stark’s armies were massacred. There was so much gore going on, it takes a couple of viewings to see all of it. For instance, did you spot the feller being beheaded over a barrel (very convincingly) in the background of this scene:
Later on, though, Arya and the Hound’s little massacre of the Frey soldiers in the woods had plenty of pulsing blood too, as both hacked and slashed with gay abandon:
This was a gripping epilogue to another excellent season, even without a massive world-threatening cliffhanger. Take note, other showrunners – it isn’t necessary to constantly up the stakes of every season ending; in fact it becomes utterly impossible to top the drama every single year.
We’re roughly halfway through Volume 3 of George RR Martin’s mammoth saga now (though some of the events have been liberally reordered to flow better as a TV narrative). Along the way, we’ve met a lot of new characters – the Tyrells, the Brotherhood Without Banners, Ramsay Snow – but lost plenty too – Lord Commander Mormont, Robb and Catelyn Stark and most of their bannermen. This may keep the crowded cast a little more manageable.
Next year will presumably deal with the rest of Volume 3, and after that it gets a little more complicated. The equally weighty Volumes 4 and 5 take place, for the most part, simultaneously, albeit in different locations. Another two seasons for those, on top of one more for this Volume? And there are supposed to be two more on the way, though Martin is not the quickest of writers. I’d say we’re looking at at least another seven seasons to finish this; for now, we have to wait until next spring to see where it’s going. And now my Watch begins…