“Given the opportunity, what do we do to those who hurt the ones we love?”
With showrunners Benioff and Weiss on scripting duties again, this week’s Game of Thrones may have disappointed those who tune in for the show’s usual heady mix on action, sex, violence and intrigue. It was one of the eps the show occasionally does in which very little actually happens, but we get to spend a lot of time with the characters while they reflect on where they are, how they got there, and where they’re going.
What drew me to the series in the first place was its mixture of fantasy/medieval violence and skulduggery with actual drama, so I actually enjoy these contemplative episodes every bit as much as any action-packed Battle of Blackwater or Red Wedding. It helps that these characters are very richly drawn and complex; even the most dislikeable (which would be a hard choice to make) have depths and backstories that make them believable and sympathetic.
Take the Hound, very much an example of a character who could be utterly loathsome without the knowledge of what made him the man he is. We heard the story already, of course, but that was way back in season 1, quite a while ago. Plus, in an early example of changes from the books, in the show it was Petyr Baelish who related the story to the horrified Sansa making this the first time onscreen that the Hound himself has discussed it. As ever, Rory McCann and Maisie Williams did wonders with the material, in a scene which deepened the unlikely bond between the two.
The ep set out its stall early in the thoughtful scene of Arya and the Hound’s lengthy philosophical discussion with a dying man, victim of one band of raiders or another; as he pointed out, from his perspective it didn’t matter where their loyalties lay, his farm ended up just as burned. The rest of the ep very much followed that style, as characters from Meereen to King’s Landing had deep discussions of their views on life, death, and everything in between.
The Red Woman Melisandre made a welcome return in a fleeting visit to Dragonstone, during a charged scene with Stannis’ wife Selyse. It was interesting to hear Melisandre’s religion slightly expanded upon, and revealing that she was prepared to admit so much of her ‘magic’ was fakery. But fakery with a purpose; if it draws in the believers, it’s done its work. The show rarely discusses the various religions of its world, so this was an unusual insight. Having said that, the unholy shade Melisandre birthed to murder Renly Baratheon seems unlikely to have been a fake.
Indeed, Melisandre’s Lord of Light and his devoted followers are an example of where the show (and the books) diverges from being a straight analogy to Medieval Europe. The Christian Church was central to the lives of everyone, from commoner to king, and extremely influential; if you wanted to, say, seize the throne from another, you needed the Church to legitimise your monarchy. It was that powerful.
Here in Westeros though, the equivalent to Christianity – the worship of the Seven – seems far less powerful. Certainly none of the characters has been presented as especially devout, and the High Septon (the show’s equivalent of the Pope) doesn’t wield anything like the power of his real-life counterpart. But the one exception to the rather lackadaisical devotion to religion in Westeros is the cult of the Lord of Light. With good reason, perhaps – as we’ve seen not only from Melisandre but from Beric Dondarrion, he seems to be capable of genuine miracles along with the fakery. He also does not seem like the kind of god who you’d want running things, what with his penchant for dark magic and the burning of heretics…
The reminder of Melisandre’s murderous shade was one among many callbacks to the show’s tortuous, convoluted past this week. The Hound had a stinging encounter with Arya’s former fellow travellers Rorge and Biter (named in the novel but not in the show, till now). Arya’s swift dispatch of Rorge with a sword to the heart made you wonder how much she’s now treating the Hound as a role model.
Elsewhere, as Brienne and Pod continued to wander the countryside, they stopped off at an inn for a hot pie cooked by none other than… Hot Pie. Arya’s former travelling companion, last seen with the Brotherhood Without Banners, is now a cook with a comedy relief passion for pies; it was a genuinely funny scene as he waxed lyrical about his creations, unaware of his audience’s utter boredom.
But there was more reason to bring him back than a need for more comic relief in a subplot that has plenty already. His information about Arya means that Brienne and Pod are now among a very small few to be aware that the younger Stark daughter is still alive. Pod’s reasoning of where to look for her (and potentially Sansa too) was sound enough – but it still felt a little contrived that he came up with the precise correct answer so quickly and easily.
While what was going on was certainly serious, the dialogue was full of the show’s usual dry humour, and many of the scenes came across almost as jet-black comedy. Certainly, Tyrion’s frustrating quest to find a champion for his trial by combat felt that way, as one supporter after another regretfully declined to take on Cersei’s choice of champion – none other than the Hound’s hated brother the Mountain.
The Mountain, another returnee from the past, has now undergone several recasts to emerge as the intimidatingly huge Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson. Björnsson, an Icelandic strongman, is the third actor to play the part, and in fact has never acted before; however, this is not a demanding role. In contrast to the complexity of the other characters, all it requires is to look giant and terrifying, which on this evidence Björnsson is quite capable of. Mind you, even with his 6’9” in height, director Alik Sakharov cannily spent a lot of time shooting him from below, making him seem even bigger!
The lack of insight into the Mountain’s character is a little disappointing in a story that gives such depth even to the loathsome likes of Karl. But that’s as much a failing of the source material; George RR Martin never delved into the psyche of this twisted maniac either. Perhaps the intention was for him to be an unknowable monster. But from the show’s perspective, it does at least mean he’s fairly easy to recast.
Jaime wasn’t prepared to take him on with his incapable left hand, and Bronn wasn’t stupid enough to try. Given what we know, it was no surprise that the third of Tyrion’s dungeon visitors is prepared to have a go – Oberyn Martell has a grudge with the Mountain specifically that overrides his more general grudge against the Lannisters. This is Game of Thrones, after all, a show built on grudges.
All three of Tyrion’s increasingly desperate encounters were played with depth, comedy, and not a little pathos. Bronn in particular was his usual sardonic self, admitting to Tyrion that, while he may be a friend, he’s not going to commit suicide for him. As he put it, “I like you, even though you’re a pampered little shit, but I like myself more”. And it was a revealing moment for Tyrion when Bronn pointed out that, friends though they may be, Tyrion has never risked his life for Bronn. It was a pointed summary of the imbalance of power in their relationship, something the nobly born Tyrion had simply taken for granted until it was pointed out to him. That was a well-played scene by both Peter Dinklage and the ever-excellent Jerome Flynn.
Slightly less well-played, however, was Petyr Baelish, as we caught up with him, Sansa and the increasingly barmy Lysa Arryn in the Eyrie. I’ve been a staunch defender of Aiden Gillen’s performance as Baelish in the past, but I have to admit that, compared to the range of Conleth Hill as the sly Varys, he’s beginning to seem a bit one note. It doesn’t help that his Irish accent seems to keep creeping in; I’d have no problem if he’d used it from the start, but having not done so, it seems jarring.
It’s a shame, as Gillen certainly looks the part, and Baelish is a very important role in the story. But even though he gets a lot of the best dialogue, it’s not always the best delivered. However, it was genuinely creepy when he kissed a surprisingly willing Sansa; her apparent consent may well set internet feathers flying again, what with her being his niece and about 25 years younger than him.
Sex and Violence
Not a huge amount of either this week, though it would hardly be Game of Thrones without at least some. On the violence front, the Mountain’s sword practice on some hapless prisoners involved a huge amount of hacking, slashing and disembowelling.
It’s hard to see what actual challenge he was getting out of it, what with his opponents being stick-thin. Perhaps he was just doing it for the lulz. He’s that kind of guy.
If you’re a fan of nudity, the show rarely disappoints. This week, though, it was notable that most of the nudity was male. Granted, Melisandre spent her entire scene with Selyse entirely unclothed, having just risen from the bath:
But she was the only woman to reveal anything, in an ep far more concerned with the male members of the cast (though none of their actual ‘members’ were on display). First to disrobe, at Dany’s salacious request, was the new Daario Naharis, Michiel Huisman. On this evidence, I certainly prefer him to the role’s previous incumbent:
If you like the beefier sort of man, the Mountain spent all his time shirtless, presumably to show off Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson’s impressive (nay, terrifying) physique:
But if you prefer your men skinny, then his disadvantaged opponents might be more to your taste. Shame they didn’t last long:
A slow episode plotwise, then, but richly deep in character insight. Still, I can see that some of the show’s more bloodthirsty fans might be impatient with an ep where so little happens. Probably the most significant thing to actually happen was the not-unexpected demise of Lysa Arryn; as soon as she started poking about that Moon Door it was clear there was trouble ahead. While I do enjoy this kind of character portrait, though, I’ll acknowledge that it’s probably best as an occasional thing. And I’m glad that the showrunners are cleverly mixing up plotlines from as far ahead as book five now. If you find this kind of slow moving ep a disappointment, try dealing with the 2000-odd pages of it that form the aimless travelogue of those later books!