Game of Thrones: Season 4, Episode 4–Oathkeeper

“A man with no motive is a man no one suspects.”

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(SPOILER WARNING!)

Well, that didn’t take long, did it? As I mentioned last week, the identity of the killer (or killers) of King Joffrey, in the novels, took several volumes to ascertain for sure. In part, I think that’s because George RR Martin cast it as a fairly slight part of the plot; everyone wanted Joffrey dead, and everyone’s better off with him that way. Does it matter that much who actually did it – as long as it wasn’t Tyrion?

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Game of Thrones: Season 4, Episode 3–Breaker of Chains

“A wise king knows what he knows and what he doesn’t.”

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(SPOILER WARNING!)

After original author George RR Martin’s stint on scripting duties last week, it was back to showrunners Benioff and Weiss to follow up that episode’s tumultuous events. Understandably, that meant the majority of this week’s episode was centred on King’s Landing, as various interested parties took on the roles of amateur detectives – their quest for the truth, as ever, taking second place to the quest for power. Or, in Tyrion’s case, self-preservation.

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Game of Thrones: Season 2, Episode 9–Blackwater

SPOILER WARNING – THIS IS FROM LAST NIGHT’S US BROADCAST, AND MAJOR PLOT POINTS ARE DISCUSSED. DON’T READ AHEAD IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN EPISODE 9 YET.

“We’ve got brave men knocking at our door. Let’s go kill them!”

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Finally, after weeks of moving pawns from place to place, the endgame of Game of Thrones’ second season is here – in the form of the Battle of Blackwater Bay, one of the most fondly remembered set pieces from the book. After the vast majority of battles in Westeros’ civil war taking place offscreen (and cheaply), this was clearly the one the showrunners had been saving up the budget for. A sumptuously mounted, exciting and massively gory conflict, it took up the entirety of the episode, a necessary focus largely absent in recent weeks of jumping from plot to plot. And yet even in the midst of all the carnage, there was room for plenty of the character depth the show is justly renowned for.

Even with the obviously large amount of money spent on staging the battle, book purists may be a trifle dismayed to see some fairly substantial changes in the meticulously described military tactics of Blackwater as described in the original novel. Firstly, and most significantly, the whole battle takes place at night, while it was clearly described as a daylight battle in the book. Night battles were very unusual (though not unheard of) in medieval warfare. Yet it fits in with the general visual style of the show this year. I must say though, the show’s insistence on having so many scenes take place in (authentically dimly lit) darkness has meant that I’ve found myself squinting at the screen to make out what was going on on more than one occasion!

Tyrion’s defensive tactics were also much simplified, perhaps because the lengthy, complex description of the battle in prose would have taken far longer than the one hour of screen time it was allotted here to show. The ruse of allowing Stannis’ fleet entry to the bay virtually unopposed, then cutting off their exit by raising a giant chain across the bay’s mouth, and raining fire on them was completely absent. And while the tactic of destroying the fleet with fireships full of wildfire was present and correct, it was only one fireship that accomplished this, rather than the flotilla of the book. Yet that one ship was more than enough to blow a huge amount of ships out of the water in a superbly realised green inferno; gods know how much wildfire Tyrion stuffed into it, but it went off like a jade mini-nuke.

That, if anything, showed the visual logic of having the battle take place in darkness. The terrifying green explosion, and its subsequent orange fires as the ships began to burn, stood out starkly against the darkness of night in a way it never would have in daylight. It’s indicative that the changes made in the script recognised that this is a different storytelling medium with different requirements both visually and in the structure of the drama. And if book purists have a problem with those differences, they could try taking it up with the screenwriter – one George RR Martin. Internet flame wars aside, I think it’s safe to say that the author of the books knows what he’s doing.

The clever structure of this episode made it clear that Martin is no slouch when it comes to writing for television. We were shown the buildup to the battle (from both sides), then as the fighting got into full swing it was neatly intercut with scenes of the pessimistic Cersei holed up with Sansa and the other palace ladies holed up in the holdfast and fretfully anticipating the outcome. Meanwhile, outside, Tyrion, Bronn, the Hound and even Lancel got to show their true mettle as the carnage progressed.

That said, I did wonder about a bit of intrusive Author Voice in the exchange between Davos Seaworth and his son Matthos as Stannis’ fleet approached the city. Matthos confidently asserted that “the people of King’s Landing did not choose the false king Joffrey Baratheon. They will be glad to see his head on a spike”, to which the older and wiser Davos contended, “the people won’t see us as liberators. All they’ll see is that we’re trying to burn their city.”

While true enough, this felt like a somewhat hamfisted attempt to parallel Stannis’ imminent attack with recent ’wars of liberation’ which have found the US welcomed less sympathetically than they expected. As an allusion, it works well enough; but I’ve already had enough of real historical wars being paralleled with US adventures in the Middle East, in the recent BBC Robin Hood and the movie Kingdom of Heaven among others.

Still, that’s just a personal view; it wasn’t out of character for either Seaworth to express those views. And the rest of the characters were written as well as you would expect from the man who created them. Bronn and the Hound in particular were well-served this week, as the setup of their initial antagonism (nearly leading to a barfight to the death) led to a hair-raising moment mid-battle as the pyrophobic Hound was charged by a knight who was literally on fire, only to be saved at the last minute by an arrow from Bronn.

Rory McCann as the Hound was superb here, his usual embittered cynicism pushed sharply to the fore by his disillusionment with the King he serves and also by his understandable terror of fire, so plentiful in the battle raging for King’s Landing. This was neatly foreshadowed by his flinching every time a flaming torch came near, leading to the payoff of him fleeing the battlefield with the bitter declaration of, “fuck the king”.

He’s finally, properly deserted now, off to the North perhaps. But before he left, he got another of those tantalising scenes with Sansa, highlighting their weird little relationship. Popping up in her bedroom, he invited her to come with him, promising to take her ‘home’ to Winterfell. Of course, with Winterfell currently held by Theon Greyjoy, and her brothers ostensibly dead, Sansa chose to stay. But the wounded look as the Hound stalked out was almost heartbreaking, like a man who’s just had his last little bit of honour cruelly refused.

Sophie Turner as Sansa got some of the episode’s most thoughtful scenes, mostly paired (as she has been many times in the past) with Lena Headey’s brittle and increasing fragile Cersei. Cersei’s plainly finding power not as rewarding as she expected, as she’s more or less admitted in recent weeks. Now she finds herself cowering, increasingly drunk, in a holdfast as she depends on men to sort out the problem outside. And she’s not optimistic either; those scenes were hovered over by the baleful presence of grim-looking, mute King’s Executioner Ser Ilyn Payne, on hand to spare the women rape by killing them should Stannis prevail.

Cersei did seem to have an increasing despair, as shown by Headey’s bitter smile and sharp tongue. Yet despite her apparent fragility here, we were shown that she’s still very much a force to be reckoned with. Noticing Sansa’s surprisingly lowborn handmaiden Shae, the Queen recognised her as oddly out of place an began to question her with a suspicious and determined look in here eye. Given that we know Cersei’s been torturing Ros in the mistaken belief that she is Tyrion’s whore, there was a lot of suspense here with the possibility that she might discover her mistake.

Fortunately, Shae found herself saved by the bell; or rather, by the arrival of the ever-wet Lancel Lannister, bringing news of the apparently losing battle outside. True to form, Lancel was fairly rubbish throughout. He fled from the battlefield after an arrow hit that seemed less than incapacitating, then cravenly agreed (after a halfhearted objection) to the Queen’s proposal to remove Joffrey from the battle. Yet even Lancel got to display a bit of courage as he eventually tried to tell the Queen that this might well destroy the Lannister chances, only be met by a punch in the chops from the aggrieved Cersei. Safe to say he won’t be returning to her bed any time soon, having made the mistake of underestimating her venom under pressure.

In the thick of the battle itself, Tyrion once again got to show that he can hold his own not just as a politician and tactician, but also as a soldier. With the jittery looking Joffrey having fled to the dubious safety of his mum, it was up to Tyrion to make the inspirational speech that would give the men the heart to follow him into battle. This was nicely done, very much in the style of the classic example, Shakespeare’s Henry V. Peter Dinklage’s Tyrion may tend more to the scatological than Shakespeare’s Henry, but the intended effect was the same. Having finally won the attention of the demoralised troops, he goaded them into action with self-deprecation as he strapped on his armour: “I’m only half a man. What does that make those who refuse to fight?”

Stannis too was in the thick of the fray. Unlike Joffrey, he’s clearly not afraid to lead from the front, and was in the thick of the action as his troops stormed the walls of the city. Said action was increasingly and massively drenched in gore; heads were chopped off, throats were slit, viscera were spilled, and at one point the Hound actually cut someone in half diagonally. Stannis experienced the gore as his mouthy lieutenant, next to him at the wall, had his head pulped by a falling stone from the battlements. It didn’t put him off though, and he was among the first up the siege ladders.

The blood-drenched spectacle of the battle was truly impressive. Apparently showrunners Benioff and Weiss had to convince HBO to up the budget to actually show it, with the original intention to have more of a bottle episode told from the POV of  Cersei and Sansa cowering in the holdfast. I’m thankful that HBO agreed; much as the show is great character drama, the absence of onscreen battles in a show centred on a civil war was becoming increasingly conspicuous. That the battle as seen was so exciting should give huge kudos to director Neil Marshall, who started his career with low-budget werewolf horror Dog Soldiers. As that film showed, Marshall is clearly adept at producing the maximum spectacle for the minimum of money.

The battle ended suitably abruptly (as such battles often do) with the surprise arrival of reinforcements led by Tywin Lannister and Loras Tyrell. The tension and atmosphere of doom for the Lannisters had, up till then, been ratcheted to breaking point; Cersei was just about to poison her son Tommen (and herself) as Tywin burst into the room to declare the battle over. Good thing for Tyrion, who’s been dealt a nasty blow, only to be saved by callow squire Podrick. I must say, the slash across his forehead and cheek looked considerably less severe than the injury described in the book, which left him with only half a nose; but then Dinklage has always been a better looking man than the Tyrion the books described.

All told, a massively exciting episode with a nearly faultless script from the author of the books and tight, spectacular direction from Neil Marshall. It was great to hear Lannister anthem of power ‘The Rains of Castermere’ finally, at first raucously sung in a bar, then in a beautifully mournful tone over the end credits. Like Lord of the Rings, the books are full of songs (though they’re less twee than Tolkien’s), and they’ve wisely been kept to a minimum in the show. But this song’s notable for its frequent occurrence, and if composer Ramin Djawadi was to set any of them to music, I’m glad it was this.

With the whole episode forming a set piece of the battle, next week’s ‘epilogue’ is going to have a heavy workload catching up the rest of the plot before season’s end. We’re still awaiting resolution for Dany in Qarth, Robb in the Riverlands and Jon beyond the Wall, to name but a few. It’ll probably be a crowded episode, without the tight focus of this one. But that’s not really a problem; if the season has a climax, it’s the Battle of Blackwater, and thankfully this was no letdown.

Game of Thrones: Season 2, Episode 7–A Man Without Honor

SPOILER WARNING – THIS IS FROM LAST NIGHT’S US BROADCAST, AND MAJOR PLOT POINTS ARE DISCUSSED. DON’T READ AHEAD IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN EPISODE 7 YET.

“Don’t look so grim. It’s all just a game.”

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After the frantic, relentless action of the last few episodes, this week Game of Thrones seemed to pause for breath and allow those well-drawn characters to relax for a while, and take stock. Not that there weren’t some major plot developments, which I’ll come to soon, but it felt like a (necessary) lull in the action. This made for a thoughtful episode, again scripted by showrunners Benioff and Weiss, which was largely constructed of something the show does fantastically well – introspective, character-driven dialogue scenes, in which the cast are given a chance to truly shine.

Up at Winterfell, Theon was revealed to be even more of a wretch than we thought as he blamed everyone around him for the escape of Bran and Rickon, while somehow missing his own gullibility in letting Osha seduce him as a distraction. Of course, as soon as a nameless underling pointed this out, Theon gave him a good kicking. Nobody’s disputing that he knows how to fight, but he plainly doesn’t know how to lead – nothing was as revealing of his craven thoughtlessness as his furious comment, “it’s better to be cruel than weak.”

Unfortunately this has been the credo of far too many leaders in the real world, and just like them, Theon’s first thought was to lash out. Dragging Maester Luwin on a fruitless hunt for the boys, Alfie Allen made Theon convincingly loathsome while never – quite – losing the viewer’s sympathy as a fool who’s got in far over his head. It’s a good performance that shows Allen to be more than just a bloke fearlessly willing to display his (admittedly pleasant) naked body week after week.

Down in King’s Landing, we got scene after scene of revealing dialogue-driven interaction. This may have frustrated those who prefer the show’s propensity for masses of explicit violence and sex, but for me, this kind of drama is what puts Game of Thrones head and shoulders over almost every other fantasy-based extravaganza.

Thus, we got yet another glimpse at the odd, almost protective relationship between the increasingly less naive Sansa and the embittered, cynical Hound. Rory McCann invested Clegane with just the right amount of hardbitten cynicism, as he asserted that last week’s ‘gallant’ rescue of Sansa from her would-be rapists was nothing more than an opportunity to indulge in his love of killing. Sansa, trying gamely to thank him for what seemed a chivalrous gesture, seemed less than convinced; something I think we all shared as the Hound asserted that one day, he’d be the only one standing between her and her “beloved king”.

The cruel, capricious Joffrey was personally absent this week, but it was telling that most of the character scenes in King’s Landing revolved around discussion of him. Sansa, terrified that her first period meant she must immediately go to his bed, got a terrific scene with Cersei in which the scheming Queen once again reminded us that she’s also a human being – and a mother. Later, Cersei had one of those truce-like discussions with her brother – and bitter enemy – Tyrion, and in a moment of surprising frankness, all but confessed that she knew her son to be a monster, and wondered if she was being punished for her incest with brother Jaime.

These were brilliant scenes, allowing the talented cast to give their all. Lena Headey has truly mastered playing Cersei as a character who, like Theon, has ambitions that far outstrip her abilities. She’s done pretty well, conspiring to put her bastard son on the Iron Throne, but now she’s realised that she can’t control him. Not for the first time, we got a sense that she feels almost a solidarity with her hostage Sansa, another woman condemned to a forthcoming loveless royal marriage. For her part, Sophie Turner as Sansa – a less showy Stark role than Arya or Bran – got to show the increasing loss of her innocence in the Machiavellian world of the court. No wonder Shae too has appointed herself as Sansa’s protector.

Over at Harrenhal, there was another lengthy scene between Tywin Lannister and Arya, fast proving to be one of the best double acts in the show. Charles Dance and Maisie Williams continue to have a great chemistry together, and their scenes – greatly enlarged from any in the book – crackle with tension. This week, their protracted discussion of Westeros’ history revealed to Tywin that Arya was no lowborn daughter of a stonemason, and there was a breath stopping moment when he disclosed that. Fortunately for Arya, he still doesn’t know which highborn child he’s got his hands on, but you have to wonder if he’ll work it out…

Properly back in the drama this week was Jaime Lannister, still held captive in a muddy stockade at Robb Stark’s camp. In an episode full of memorable scenes, the Kingslayer arguably got the best of them, more than making up for his virtual absence this season until now. The lengthy scene with young Ser Alton Lannister – possibly the longest scene this week – was impeccably played both by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Karl Davies as Alton. It’s one of the things the show does very well, possibly better than the original books – giving the characters detailed, convincing backstories.

In this case, we learned of both characters’ past pugilistic achievements, filling in so much of why Jaime is the way he is. And then a further demonstration of the way he is, as he coldly murdered his loyal kinsman as a mere tool in an escape plan (and really, it’s one of the oldest plans in the book – so much for Jaime’s assertion that the Starks have well-trained guards).

Not that it even got him very far. Jaime was recaptured the next morning, leading to a nasty confrontation with Lord Karstark, whose son had been the inept guard Jaime strangled. This short circuits a much longer plotline from the book, but works just as well, if not better. Catelyn, aware of Jaime’s value as a hostage, is obliged to step in to protect him from her son’s vengeance-hungry bannermen, leading to another excellent scene between her and Jaime in which he bitterly explains that all the vows of a knight mean nothing when they start contradicting each other. How can he protect the King and the weak when the King is busy slaughtering the weak? Cat, though, seemed less than convinced, and the scene ended in a cliffhanger as she pointed Brienne’s sword at the treacherous Lannister.

But there were more cliffhangers to come, as the episode came to several “how will they get out of that?” climaxes. Up beyond the Wall, Jon was being mercilessly mocked by Ygritte for his virginity and vow of celibacy. You could cut the sexual tension with a knife – at least until Ygritte slipped her bonds and disappeared, only to re-emerge with a cadre of wildlings pointing bows at her former captor. How will Jon get out of that?

Over the sea in Qarth, Dany had been looking for her stolen dragons. After yet more none too subtle declarations of feeling from Jorah Mormont, she found herself addressing the assembled Council of Thirteen. Somewhat surprisingly, the culprit owned up almost immediately – it was cadaverous warlock Pyat Pree. It was one of the episode’s genuine shock moments as he revealed that he’d conspired with Xaro Xhoan Daxos to install Xaro as King of Qarth. Even more shocking was the moment multiple duplicates of Pree appeared, slashing the throats of the council and disappearing when stabbed by Jorah, only to mockingly reiterate that dubious sounding invite to Dany. I wouldn’t be so keen to visit anywhere described by a blue-lipped magical murderer as the “House of the Undying”. But that’s where Dany’s dragons are. How will she get them out of that?

The last cliffhanger was probably the most shocking, as Theon revealed to the defiant populace of Winterfell how he dealt with such defiance, hoisting what looked like the charred bodies of Rickon and Bran for them to gasp at. Maester Luwin was devastated. Even in a show in which pretty much anyone can die, the brutal murder of two children is pretty strong stuff. Still, the bodies were charred beyond recognition – will Bran and Rickon get out of that?

So, despite the episode’s brilliant character scenes and generally languid pace, there were one or two shocking plot developments. But taking time out from the increasingly complex interwoven plots to focus on the characters seems exactly right at this point in the series. It’s a breather before the final three episodes, and if it’s anything like last year, that’s the point where all hell will start breaking loose. This is probably the last opportunity this season has for some introspection, and it’s all the more welcome for that.