“You should hold on to your candles. The nights are so long now.”
After last week’s ep of dramatic payoffs to long gestating political plots in Game of Thrones comes… another one. Don’t get me wrong, that’s not a bad thing; this was every bit as gripping and well—written as last week’s. Tonally though, it was so similar you could have watched the two together and been forgiven for thinking it was one extra long one.
In particular, it was an ep full of venerable British thesps acting their socks off, presumably in eager anticipation of that elusive Emmy nomination now Charles Dance has left the field. Peter Vaughan, Diana Rigg and Jonathan Pryce all got some cracking scenes this week which gave them the opportunity to really show off their acting chops. The sparks veritably flew dramatically as Rigg and Pryce had an electric confrontation in Baelor’s Sept, Olenna seemingly unable to comprehend that you can’t just buy off a true religious fanatic.
The High Sparrow, though, isn’t interested in riches, as his Big Speech about the simple nature of the original King’s Landing chapel made clear. And politically apposite though it may be, his contemptuous dismissal of Olenna’s bribery was truly chilling: “You are the few, and we are the many. And when the many stop fearing the few…” Although Olenna’s verbal sparring with Cersei was terrific last week, this scene knocked that one into a cocked hat.
Great though that scene was, top acting honours this week must go to Peter Vaughan, making his last bow as Maester Aemon Targaryen. It was truly heartbreaking to see how that razor sharp mind had deserted him as he lay on his deathbed, calling out for his long deceased brother, the Mad King Aegon Targaryen. A world away from the genial menace of Porridge’s Harry Grout, this affecting performance called to mind Vaughan’s equally heartbreaking turn as Christopher Eccleston’s Alzheimer’s afflicted dad in 1995’s classic Our Friends in the North. If his gasped last utterance – “Aeg! I dreamed I got old!” – didn’t bring a tear to your eye, then you’ve no soul.
Dramatically, there wasn’t much to hold a candle to those two scenes. But the intrigue continued apace, particularly as Diana Rigg got a chance to show Aidan Gillen what great acting is all about. As we saw last week, deceptively humble though he may be, Littlefinger is playing all the Great Houses like a master violinist. Having conveniently got Loras and Margaery out of the way, this week saw him turn to Olenna to bring down Cersei Lannister, in a scene so dripping with schadenfreude you could almost eat it.
I’ve been saying for weeks now that unleashing a horde of religious fanatics on the nation might not rank among Cersei’s better decisions, especially given her own, not exactly well-hidden, sins. Her inevitable downfall at the hands of King’s Landing’s own Inquisition was all the sweeter coming after the scene in which she subtly gloated at the imprisoned Margaery – Natalie Dormer is an old hand at this sort of thing, having spent a while in the Tower of London when she played Anne Boleyn in The Tudors.
I’ll give Lena Headey her due – in an ep full of Emmy-worthy performances, her spitting, venomous turn as Cersei was finally cornered and locked up by a bloody massive nun was memorable indeed. For pure satisfaction though, you couldn’t beat her abrupt change of expression from gloating success to horror when the High Sparrow wheeled Lancel out of the shadows. Told you, Cersei.
Still, it’s a mark of how well this show is written (by Benioff and Weiss again this week) that even with all that going on Cersei had a scene with Tommen where she made her motives clear, and they were not at all unsympathetic. Her children are the most important thing in the world to her; she’s lost one son, and she’s not about to lose another. However much lovelorn teenager Tommen might adore Margaery, Cersei honestly believes that breaking the power of the Tyrells is the best thing for her son. Lena Headey’s performance was powerful, reminding you that, even if Cersei is a monster, she’s also a mother; and she’s had a pretty horrible time herself as the pawn in her father’s schemes and the wife of a philandering drunkard.
Also having a horrible time (hardly surprising after last week) was Sansa Stark, locked in a Winterfell room by her diabolical new husband and apparently beaten every night. After the controversy over last week’s marital rape scene, many critics saw it as removing the hard-won agency Sansa had finally obtained after four seasons of being a suffering wet blanket. This ep, though, gave us a Sansa who (while she has discovered she can’t bear the terrifying attentions of her husband no matter how politically advantageous they may be) is still capable of defiance.
Let’s face it, it was hardly a surprise that her desperate scheme to enlist Reek’s help in sending a signal to the sympathetic Northerners was doomed to failure. As Alfie Allen tremblingly climbed the stairs of the Crooked Tower, the inevitable revelation of Ramsay having lunch at the top of it called to mind nothing so much as an old Looney Tunes cartoon where Wile E Coyote’s elaborate schemes fall to doom once again.
And yet, even with the utterly terrifying Ramsay Bolton, Sansa has more of a mouth on her than she ever did with the similarly psychotic Joffrey. Iwan Rheon and Sophie Tuner actually work very well together, particularly now Sansa has developed a spine. I couldn’t help wincing as she repeatedly needled Ramsay about his status as a bastard, threatened by a potentially legitimate heir to House Bolton. There’s defiance, and then there’s foolhardiness; still, Sansa’s obviously picked up a trick or two about bitchery from her time in King’s Landing.
Despite his customary scenery-chewing Hannibal Lecter impersonation, Iwan Rheon effectively gave us more glimpses at the chinks in Ramsay’s psychotic armour this week, his bluster about how “Northerners are used to fighting in frost” coming across as a massive overcompensation for an inferiority complex. In his heart, he knows he’s a mere interloper at Winterfell. It may even be at the root of his repeated humiliation of Sansa, the true heir to the North.
And yet, he may not have all that much to worry about as far as Stannis Baratheon is concerned. What with all that snow up at Castle Black, I’d been repeatedly checking my watch for when winter would finally come to the Starks’ old holdfast; this week, it arrived with a vengeance, and Stannis’ forces were solidly stuck in it. For once, I found myself agreeing with Stannis over Ser Davos, as the latter counselled retreat in the name of caution, to wait for the weather to blow over. Strategically, that would be in effect conceding defeat, since we know winters in this world can be many years long.
Still, there’s an out; but I doubt if Stannis is willing to sacrifice the one thing he truly loves – his daughter. Melisandre (Carice van Houten keeping her clothes on this week, for a wonder) is intent on using “King’s blood” to gain an advantage. Stephen Dillane’s gruff performance as Stannis never betrays his real feelings so much as when his beloved daughter is threatened. Mind you, if we’re going to credit Melisandre’s magic with getting rid of Robb Stark and Joffrey, I couldn’t help remembering that she managed to get the required blood out of Gendry without actually killing him. Maybe she’s just trying to bind the gullible Stannis even further to her will.
All of that was pretty grim, but there were a couple of lighter plots (by this show’s standards) on the go. Locked up in a Dornish cell opposite the Sand Snakes, Bronn took the opportunity to regale us with song; let’s hope the marvellous Jerome Flynn isn’t hoping for a return to his 90s pop career. It must be said though that bawdy ballad ‘The Dornishman’s Wife’ was a world away from the insipid pap he used to churn out with Robson Green, to the delight of ‘ladies of an age’ throughout the 90s.
His flirtation with the literally venomous Tyene Sand (Rosabelle Laurenti Sellers, marvellous) is likely to provoke yet more heated debate about misogyny, given her signature move of opening her dress to beguile him. And yet, my impression there was that (like Irene Adler in Sherlock) this was a formidable woman who knew her sexuality was one of her deadliest weapons. In a world that treats women like Westeros does, it’s hardly a surprise that she would use that.
The ep’s other laugh a minute subplot saw Tyrion and Jorah, by a convoluted and rather contrived set of circumstances, finally arriving in front of Daenerys Targaryen, who didn’t seem best pleased about it. Yes, it was all too convenient; and yet I couldn’t help breathing a sigh of relief that Benioff and Weiss had cut out all that padding that made the fifth book so interminably draggy. They need to be there. They’ve got there. And we didn’t have to waste weeks of besieging city after city through an epidemic of dysentery to get them there.
Sex and Violence
After a sedate couple of weeks in this regard, fans of the show’s signature gratuitous nudity and wince-making violence were presumably mollified by this week’s instalment. We saw Dany in bed with the new improved Daario Naharis (Michel Huisman is so much sexier than Ed Skrein), but thanks to Emilia Clarke’s principled refusal to do any more topless scenes a couple of years ago, it was all fairly modest:
But if the sight of a nubile female body was what you wanted, presumably it was very satisfying to see the deceptively sweet Tyene Sand baring all in that Dornish jail, like a tribute act to all those ‘women in prison’ pornos:
But the best bit of sex was neither revealing nor exploitive, as the unexpectedly heroic Samwell Tarly finally popped his cherry courtesy of Gilly’s grateful attentions on his sickbed. If you think all the sex in this show is about gratuitous exploitation, this was a truly romantic, even comically sweet, scene to show it doesn’t have to be that way.
The violence was back with a vengeance too. The show does body horror jarringly well, and that was represented here by the nastily realised flayed body of Sansa’s loyalist old lady friend. Director Miguel Sapochnik played the revelation well; there was no one, panoramic shot of how horrifically Ramsay had mutilated the old lady. Instead it was conveyed by a series of gruesome close ups on various flayed body parts, leaving the horror of the whole to your imagination. Nicely done.
If you wanted more traditional bloodletting though, there was plenty of it with Jorah’s sudden action hero bit in the gladiatorial arena. Hacking and slashing left right and centre in a veritable John McClane style, the amount of gushing blood on show should be enough to satisfy the most gore-hungry of teenage male viewers.
Still, though, perhaps the most upsetting violence this week was also the most understated. Unremarked upon, Sansa Stark’s arms were positively covered in bruises.
Choice dialogue this week
Less of last week’s humour, and more grim portents. Well, we’re almost at that crucial ep9 game changer that usually sees the whole plot turned inside out, after all.
Sam, in a moving eulogy to Maester Aemon: “His was the blood of the dragon. But now his fire is out.”
A chilling exchange in Winterfell:
Sansa:” It can’t be worse.”
Reek: “It can! It can always be worse!”
But a surprisingly sympathetic assertion from all-round nutjob Ramsay Bolton: “Bastards can rise high in the world.”
Melisandre, challenging another hit show: “You must become King before the long night begins. Only you can lead the living against the dead.”
And who can forget the moment when Margaery Tyrell finally forgot to play sweetness and light with the gloating Cersei: “Get out, you hateful bitch!”
All that patient scene setting in the season’s early episodes is continuing to pay satisfying dividends. Yes, this ep was basically a continuation of the one before it, despite a different creative team; but a show this complex needs a degree of consistency. For me though, this ep stands out as, among other things, a chance for some of my all time favourite British thespians to flex their acting muscles. Give that Emmy to Peter Vaughan! No, Diana Rigg! Well, maybe both…