“Kill the boy – and let the man be born.”
After a hectic flurry of excitement last time, this week Game of Thrones was back to plotting and intrigue in a sedate but grim episode. No surprise that it was grim, with the focus very squarely on events in the dour, chilly North; no sign of the Lannisters, Dorne or King’s Landing this week. Despite a couple of brief (but significant) interludes with Dany in Meereen, and a quick catchup with Jorah and Tyrion, Bryan Cogman’s script mainly dealt with just two of the ongoing plots – the turmoil up at Castle Black and Sansa’s unfortunate situation in Bolton-occupied Winterfell.
OK, it was a trifle disappointing that the script turned down the heat a bit this week. Nonetheless, I do like it when the show doesn’t try and encompass virtually every plotline every single week, because, as here, it allows for more than just a snippet of development before a fast cut to plot number 347b. There’s been a lot of attention to the Night’s Watch this season, which should please those fans for whom the best thing about the show is the implacable supernatural enemy North of the Wall.
Having said that, there was still no actual sign of the mysterious White Walkers and their zombie henchbeings. Instead we got more of the fraught politicking in the Watch itself, almost a microcosm of the battle for Westeros as beleaguered new Lord Commander Jon Snow tried to unite his fractious brethren against the greater enemy while they were still fixated on past grudges with the Wildlings. As Jon pointed out, “we can learn to live with the Wildlings, or we can add them to the army of the dead”.
It was a sensible, strategically accurate point. But emotion tends to have a way of overriding logic where longstanding grudges are concerned. Watching the Brothers of the Watch rejecting the pragmatic tack in favour of bitter revenge felt all too ironic in the week that the UK elections saw the Labour Party fall prey to much the same thing – if they’re not careful they’ll face an election wipeout at the hands of the White Walkers, who will privatise healthcare, take Westeros out of the Essos Union… I’m drifting.
Anyway, to be slightly less facetious, I was actually reminded very strongly of the interminable grudge match between Israel and Palestine, which has lasted for thousands of years and which neither party is prepared to let go. It even felt lampshaded when Jon referred to the Watch’s original purpose: “for 8000 years the Night’s Watch have sworn an oath to be the shield that guards the realm of men; and for 8000 years we’ve fallen short of that oath”. True enough – if their original purpose was to guard against the menace of the White Walkers, their obsession with fighting the Wildlings should be no more than a distraction. It was interesting that only Tormund Giantsbane saw it Jon’s way, with even the likes of Dolorous Edd Tollett siding with Alliser Thorne against the alliance.
As ever, the best performance in Castle Black was given by veteran actor Peter Vaughan, as Maester Aemon. He got a couple of great scenes, notably with Jon himself, schooling him in how to be Lord Commander with barely more than hints. “Kill the boy, and let the man be born” – indeed. However annoying he may be off screen, Kit Harington’s performance as Jon has matured along with his character; no longer the surly teenager who first came to the Wall, he’s now a (still surly) man who recognises his responsibility to the Seven Kingdoms via the oath he swore.
Sam Tarly continues to figure strongly as Jon’s staunchest supporter and one of Castle Black’s more interesting characters. Old stone face Stannis himself had a good scene with him this week, recognising the son of a man who’d inflicted the only defeat on Robert Baratheon during the Rebellion. Stephen Dillane and John Bradley played it well, Stannis offering unlikely Walker-slayer Sam grudging respect. Their chat also contained what may turn out to be a pretty important nugget of information – apparently Dragonstone, Stannis’ HQ, is rich in ‘dragonglass’, the only stuff known to kill the White Walkers. I’m betting that could be important later on.
Aside from Stannis himself, his retinue also got a fair crack of the story whip, with daughter Shireen, wife Selyse and most significantly advisor Ser Davos Seaworth all putting in appearances. Liam Cunningham’s Davos, his role somewhat expanded from the books, is the perfect foil to the dour Stannis; a warm-hearted everyman with a better relationship to his king’s daughter than Stannis himself. He’s also a pragmatist, and the only man willing to contradict the advice of the imperious Melisandre.
The other major thread of the ep filled us in on the doings at Winterfell, now shown in the opening titles flying the Flayed Man banner of House Bolton. Both Roose and Ramsay were in residence, playing less than genial hosts to the still uncertain Sansa; despite her new ‘Disney villain’ look, Sophie Turner’s Sansa is still rather a wet blanket. She’s surely no match for Ramsay’s squeeze Myranda, who seems more than capable of playing up to the Bolton Bastard’s sado-masochistic tendencies.
It’s hard to figure out what game Myranda was playing by revealing the whereabouts of poor old Theon (the kennels, presumably Ramsay’s idea of fun). Alfie Allen convincingly played the artist now known as Reek as a beaten creature pathetically in the thrall of his cruel master. The scene between him and Iwan Rheon was steeped in dread as nutjob Ramsay, sensing treacherous independence, instructed Reek, “give me your hand”.
After everything we’ve seen, it seemed likely that some horrible torture was in the offing, but even that didn’t stop Reek obeying. I genuinely let out a breath I didn’t realise I was holding when Ramsay simply smiled and said, “I forgive you”. But is the snivelling Reek as quiescent as he seems? It was notable that he did nothing to disabuse the Boltons of the notion that he’d killed bran and Rickon Stark…
As ever, Iwan Rheon was eating up the scenery as the bonkers Ramsay, possibly the only character to be seen wearing a smile this week. Not that that ever portends humour; a smiling Ramsay is very, very scary indeed. But he too had his problems, as it seems his stern, slightly less insane father has got his new bride (one of the many Frey daughters) in a family way. With what could be a legitimate heir to the Bolton name, placing the Bastard of Bolton in a rather precarious position.
Again, there was the sense that Roose Bolton’s quiet menace could be even scarier than Ramsay’s flamboyant nuttiness, as even the boy himself was cowed by his father’s sneering description of how he was almost drowned at birth. Ramsay is scary, but he’s chaotic; Michael McElhatton’s Roose, by contrast, doesn’t need to be demonstrative of his power. His mere presence is enough to keep his psychotic son in line – so far.
This ep had a lot of dwelling on the past – Brienne and Pod’s brief appearance gave us a reference to the long-deceased Eddard Stark, while up at Castle Black Maester Aemon was reflecting gloomily on the uncertain fate of his only living relative, Daenerys Targaryen. Stannis’ memories of Sam’s father Randall Tarly played a part in this theme, along with Jon Snow’s reference to the Watch’s 8000 year history and his brethren’s unwillingness to forget old defeats at the hands of the Wildlings.
But by far the most interesting reference to this fantasy world’s past came courtesy of Jorah and Tyrion, still trekking upriver in the general direction of Meereen. Their journey this week took them through the ruins of ancient Valyria; an empire glancingly referred to before, but never in much detail. Here, we got the information that Valyria was (by Westerosi standards) a massively advanced and powerful civilisation, but was somehow destroyed, so long ago that little of its knowledge remains. It’s tempting to see it as an analogue to the Roman Empire, which was similarly revered by Saxon kings in the Dark Ages; though the decline of Rome didn’t come about by dragon. Tyrion saw one for the first time here, finally giving us a payoff to the season’s promo image, and it looked pretty epic.
The other two, of course, are still chained in a dungeon in the increasingly rebellious city of Meereen. Dany’s increasingly insecure rule got a couple of brief looks in here, at either end of the episode. As I suspected last time, Ser Barristan Selmy is no more, slain by the Sons of the Harpy; but thankfully Grey Worm survived. Amid all the power struggles and civil war in this plotline, his sweetly chaste relationship with Missandei is one of the more touching subplots; Jacob Anderson and Nathalie Emmanuel got another cutesy scene together as he confessed he feared death because he would never see her again. This being Game of Thrones though, I doubt they’ll get a happy ending.
At least Dany finally decided to listen to reason, in the form of the oily Hizdahr zo Loraq. I’ve been saying for weeks that, whatever Dany thinks, Hizdahr’s advice is both pragmatic and sensible; after all, it’s his city, so he’s bound to have a better insight into its people than their recent conqueror. Joel Fry, an actor mostly known for British comedy shows, isn’t at all how I imagined Hizdahr would be from the books, but he’s actually pretty good in the role. Dany’s volte face plan to marry him and cement her influence with Meereen’s oldest families is shrewd, but I suspect she may have underestimated her apparently obedient fiancé.
Sex and Violence
Surprisingly little of either this week – perhaps the showrunners are taking notice of all the criticisms about gratuitous exploitation. I doubt it though; this probably just wasn’t that kind of episode.
There was nothing this week to compare with the Sparrow riots or the epic swordfight with the Sons of the Harpy. What little violence there was came early, courtesy of Dany’s remaining dragons gruesomely flambéing a cowering member of Meereen’s nobility then pulling his flaming corpse in half, pour encourager les autres:
And in the sex/nudity stakes, the balance was pretty equal between male and female this week – one of each, courtesy of Ramsay’s slightly unnerving sex scene with Myranda. Ramsay Bolton might be a terrifying maniac, but Iwan Rheon, my old favourite from Misfits, is still a damned sexy man:
Choice dialogue this week
Precious little humour to be found in the gloomy North this week, as most of the conversations seemed to be filled with gloomy portents of oncoming doom.
Maester Aemon, hearing of Dany’s plight: “A Targaryen, alone in the world. It’s a terrible thing.”
Ramsay Bolton to Myranda, as charming as ever: “Jealousy bores me. You remember what happens to people who bore me.”
Dany, frustrated with her narrowing options: “If I give everyone what they deserve, I’ll have no one left to rule.”
At least Tyrion retained some humour: “I am a person who drinks. People who drink need to keep drinking.”
A thoughtful ep, this one, its lack of action made up for by a closer focus than usual on just two of the show’s multifarious plotlines. Not trying to include everything but the kitchen sink gave the script a chance to delve deeper into the characters than usual, which was rewarding. Standout performances, as ever when either appears, came from Peter Vaughan’s Maester Aemon and Iwan Rheon’s ever-OTT turn as Ramsay Bolton; by contrast, Sophie Turner is still a dull contrast to her onscreen sister as Sansa.
The script also gave us a lot more insight into the richly detailed history of this world, thankfully without resorting to the lazy trope of flashbacks as in ep1. This wasn’t the most exciting ep this season, or even the best dramatically; I can understand some fans’ frustration with the sedate pace of the narrative, but it’s still a rollercoaster of action and intrigue compared to the flabby travelogues of books four and five. So there’s that.