“You’re not going to serve. You’re going to die.”
Blimey, it’s all go this season isn’t it? Only four episodes in, and the plot of Game of Thrones continues to advance at a frenetic pace this week. Benioff and Weiss, who seem to be writing almost every ep this year, continued to knock characters down like ninepins while finally showing us some of the show’s long-running plans coming to fruition.
It was another ep that took in so many plotlines that each had only the shortest of screen time – but virtually every one made the most of its vignette to drag the plot bodily forward. Again, there’s a sense of things moving towards a conclusion, not least in the sense that possibly for the first time ever in the show, a character has got safely to where they wanted to go without finding the destination fraught with mortal danger.
That character is of course Sansa Stark, finally reunited with Jon Snow after what seems like years of trying. It’s been a rocky road getting her to Castle Black, but at least she’s there now. And of course, she’s immediately going to have to leave, as a result of Ramsay Bolton’s serial killer-esque note informing her in salivating detail of the sadism he’s about to visit on her little brother.
The prospect of an actual battle to take back Winterfell is a pretty major advancement, though I actually wondered if Jon’s sparse Wildling army might be spared the trouble in that tense sequence with Osha, Ramsay and a convenient knife. Ramsay’s too good a villain to lose right now though, especially with so many of them dropping like flies. Sure, it’s a shame to lose Osha when she’s only just returned, but in plot terms it was hard to disagree with Ramsay’s assessment: “what use would I have for you?”
Another villain and prime plot mover made a reappearance too, in the form of Aidan Gillen’s ever-shifty Lord Petyr Baelish. Baelish, lest we forget, has been directly or indirectly responsible for almost everything that’s happened since the very first episode as part of an unfeasibly complex long game that presumably ends with him on the throne. However, satisfying though his scheming undoubtedly is, I’d begun to wonder if he was ever going to make a move into the open.
Looks like he is now, with the dubious support of the Vale’s bannermen as mustered by his puppet Lord, the still batshit-crazy Robin Arryn (Lino Facioli as another of the show’s victims of rapid puberty). Have to admit, for a guy whose scheming has rarely put a foot wrong, this seems like a rash move – the forces of the Vale have never been painted as particularly formidable, and right now they’d be up against the heavy odds of the Lannisters, the Tyrells, the Boltons, the Faith Militant, and possibly even the Wildlings and the Watch. Does Littlefinger really think he can take on all that in a conventional war and win? Or is this another scheme within a scheme? It’s hard to see what he would get out of it.
Still, he might be helped by what looks like a brewing Holy War in King’s Landing, as Cersei and Jaime took to seeking unlikely allies to dethrone the increasingly powerful High Sparrow. Jonathan Pryce was a highlight of the ep as ever, his monologue explaining his history shedding powerful light on his motives while also allowing the mask of humility and gentleness to slip just enough to give us a glimpse of the fanatic below the genial exterior.
The alliance of convenience between the Cersei and what remains of the Small Council was inevitably dominated by Diana Rigg’s majestic Olenna Tyrell, agreeing with Cersei that Margaery absolutely should not be humiliated by her own Walk of Atonement. Her appearance – and her plan to use military force – also served to reinforce the previous impression that she and Cersei don’t really grasp how to take on a religious fanatic. As our own politicians in the real world seem blithely unaware, you don’t defeat ideas with force. You’re more likely to reinforce them. If these reluctant allies really want to defeat the Faith Militant, they shouldn’t be trying to kill the High Sparrow, they should be trying to discredit him.
That’s the sort of realpolitik that their little brother could have told them, but unfortunately for them Tyrion was exercising his political expertise on the even more naïve citizens of Meereen. That’s a tricky one even for him and Varys to pull off, balancing the demands of the only city where slaves haven’t been forced back into servitude with the demands of their erstwhile Masters, now returned to power in Astapor and Yunkai’i.
Tyrion’s nothing if not a pragmatist though, and his solution was typically realistic – appeal to the self-interest of all concerned. It remains to be seen whether his ploy will work out, but that’s the key to political compromise both in Essos and in the real world; show people how what you want will benefit them.
Interestingly, Tyrion’s also playing Dany’s absence as a temporary thing to the Meereenese, despite not having a clue where she is or when she’ll be back. Jorah and Daario, still hot on her trail, do know where she is. But it’s a mark of the show’s agency for its female characters that their unlikely to succeed rescue attempt turned out to be entirely unnecessary, as Dany had it all taken care of.
The spectacle of yet another messianic triumph for the last Targaryen made a great capstone to a dramatic episode. After several weeks of trudging around looking haughty, it was good to see Dany once again proving that, as a leader, she’s a force to be reckoned with. It also showed that her monicker of “the Unburnt” wasn’t a one time deal – she really does seem to be fireproof. I’m guessing that’s a skill that will come in handy when she inevitably has to wrangle those dragons in the likely Final Epic Battle with the cold-loving White Walkers.
Sex and violence
Slightly higher on both counts this week, though still nowhere near the levels of gratuitous excess that drew regular weekly complaints a couple of years ago.
On the sex count, there was a random Dothraki shag in the streets of Vaes Dothrak; though that’s entirely in keeping with the Dotkraki’s established customs:
And after Emilia Clarke’s pronouncement a few years ago that she wouldn’t do any more gratuitous nudity, Daenerys was showing it all off this week – and since it was absolutely germane to the plot (showing Dany emerging untouched from a fire fierce enough to burn away her clothes), Clarke confirmed that it wasn’t a body double but actually her:
Violence-wise, the immolation of the Khals was horrific without actually being very graphic. But you can rely on Ramsay Bolton for a bit of the old ultra-violence:
Choice dialogue this week
Jon Snow, showing Sansa that he has some self-awareness after all: “I’m sure I can’t have been much fun, always sulking in the corner while the rest of you played.”
Tyrion, explaining diplomacy to Grey Worm and Missandei: “You make peace with your enemies, not your friends.”
Daario, explaining his reluctance to have a fight with Ser Jorah: “What would I have to gain? If I win, I’m the shit who killed an old man. If I lose, I’m the shit who was killed by an old man.”
Olenna Tyrell, expressing her usual compassion at the prospect of a religiously motivated civil war: “Many will die no matter what we do. Better them than us.”
This was a storming episode, in a season that’s faster-paced than the show has been for some years. But it didn’t stint on the rich character detail and witty dialogue that the show can justifiably be proud of. Looks like there’s big stuff on the horizon – Jon Snow reclaiming the mantle of Warden of the North and marching an army on Winterfell, Littlefinger leading the lords of the Vale on a quest for the Iron Throne, Cersei and the small council declaring war on the Faith Miltant.
But it was Dany Targaryen who really stood out this week, taking control of all the Khalasars from a gang of huge, muscular blokes with little more than her wits. Along with what remains of her Unsullied, I suspect that gives her one of this world’s most formidable armed forces. When (finally) she returns to Westeros, I think the rest of them are really going to have something to worry about.