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 4 YET.
“You’re fighting to overthrow a king, yet you have no plan for what happens afterwards?”
After last week’s tight focus on a handful of characters and plotlines, this week’s episode of Game of Thrones widened its scope to include almost every one of the series’ increasingly complex web of subplots. As a result, it moved like a rollercoaster; but the detailed character development explored in depth last week was necessarily absent. What we got instead was more like snapshots, brief but revealing sketches of characters as the action rattled along at lightning speed.
None of this is necessarily a bad thing. This second season has a hell of a lot to pack in in terms of plot; as the War of the Five Kings gathers pace, there’s a lot more to keep up with than there was in the relatively straightforward first season. It follows that you can’t have every episode scrutinising little details when there’s simply so much plot to move along. Still, while we didn’t really learn anything new about the people in the show this week (with a couple of notable exceptions), there were plenty of telling character points amidst the breathless action.
The episode opened with an almost Shakespearean scene of a couple of Lannister spear carriers gossiping about the best fighters in the realm, unaware that Robb Stark’s army is about to fall on them like wolves. It was a nice intake of breath before the action began in earnest, seeing these two lowly soldiers, the most ordinary of people, and getting to know them a bit before they ended up ripped to pieces by Robb’s direwolf. The ensuing battle, as previously, wasn’t actually shown – possibly an indication of budgetary restrictions even on a show this expensive. Equally probably though, it simply wasn’t considered important enough with so much plot to get through. We need to know that Robb won the battle; showing the spectacle is really incidental.
The aftermath was predictably bloody, with eviscerated bodies scattered hither and yon. It gave some real sense of how it must have been after a medieval battle, as the victors looted their fallen foes for their boots, coup de graces were delivered to the mortally wounded, and grisly impromptu amputations were carried out.
The amputation we saw was performed by a pretty young nurse called Talisa, with Robb’s stoic help. There was clearly a spark between them, and I’m guessing she’s going to take the place of another character from the books who served as Robb’s love interest. It’s a little uninspiring to see the cliched approach whereby she is a stern critic of what he’s up to but you could cut the romantic tension with a knife; but their little scene, as she poured scorn on his lack of an endgame plan to justify the slaughter, was still rather good. Her comment about him not knowing what he’ll do after overthrowing Joffrey felt pointed, but hopefully it wasn’t yet another example of a TV show trying to comment on current events in the Middle East. Mind you, there’ve been so many of those recently that I might be seeing such allusions where none are intended!
But there wasn’t time to linger on the theme of ordinary people caught up in a war of their rulers’ choosing. There was far too much to pack in. Aside from the continuing intrigue in King’s Landing, this episode caught us up with Dany Targaryen in the desert; Arya and Gendry at Harrenhal; both Renly Baratheon and his brother Stannis’ war efforts; and the machinations of Stannis’ sinister Red Priestess, Melisandre.
It was all well done, but we found ourselves racing from place to place with dizzying speed as the plot and events interweaved to affect each other. At King’s Landing, Joffrey was continuing his descent into full-on cruel tyrant mode, much to Tyrion’s consternation. With so much authority vested unquestioningly in the King, Tyrion showed quite some nerve remonstrating with him after he had Sansa beaten in retaliation for her brother’s actions. He got away with it though, with the ever-sardonic Bronn to back him up. It’s always good to see those two on screen as a double act; discussing whether a bit of sex would cure Joffrey of his sadistic tendencies, Bronn pithily opined, “there’s no cure for being a cunt.”
Perhaps Tyrion should have listened. This week’s only sex scene was a revealing glimpse of quite how twisted Joffrey was, as we saw how he planned to enjoy himself with the two whores Tyrion had sent him. It was a nice bit of continuity to see Ros again; but her involvement in every scene involving the local prostitutes does make it seem like King’s Landing has a rather limited supply.
Still, she might reconsider her profession after Joffrey had her first beat fellow whore Daisy then violate her with an eye-wateringly jagged and wide royal sceptre, Joffrey’s intent being to get his sadistic jollies then send the result to Tyrion as an object lesson. Whether this actually killed Daisy was unclear, as even this show wasn’t going to put sexual violence of that level on the screen. It was a genuinely nasty scene to watch; Esme Bianco as Ros conveying the terror of having to obey the hideous orders of the capricious king, and Jack Gleeson being every bit the salivating monster as the spoiled boy king.
With so much to pack in, the script didn’t follow up by showing Tyrion’s reaction to Joffrey’s ‘message’. Perhaps it’ll be followed up on next week; but then, I suppose both we and Tyrion already know what a monster Joffrey is, and reminders aren’t really needed. Besides, Tyrion was busy intimidating his cousin Lancel, who turned up with an order from Cersei to release the imprisoned Grand Maester Pycelle. Lancel was really no challenge for Tyrion, who’s dealt with far more sophisticated operators than this dim prettyboy. Once Tyrion revealed that he knew (and might tell) of Lancel’s dalliances with the Queen, Lancel was putty in his hands, easily malleable into a useful little informant.
It was another scene dominated by Peter Dinklage as Tyrion, who pretty much steals every scene he’s in. Eugene Simon is pretty enough as Lancel, but the boy is, basically, an idiot. He’s obviously a poor replacement for the Queen’s real lover, her brother Jaime.
And it was negotiating for Jaime’s release that brought Littlefinger to Renly’s camp this week, where Catelyn Stark is still hanging out trying to negotiate an alliance with Robb. We saw tow sides to Lord Baelish this week; his usual smooth political facade crumbling as he impulsively tried to grab Catelyn, confessing his long term love for her. It was just a moment, and he soon regained his composure, but it was a revealing glimpse into Littlefinger’s insecurity beneath that controlled veneer. It was another great little scene, well played by Aidan Gillen and Michelle Fairley; the latter’s warrior queen facade cracking too when presented with the bones of her dead husband.
Outside, Littlefinger was back to his usual smooth self in a heavily freighted discussion with Renly’s wife Margery Tyrell. His thinly veiled comments made it clear that Renly’s relationship with her brother Loras is very much an open secret about court; but Margery, as shown in the series, is a canny political operator herself, and was giving nothing away. As a fan of The Tudors, it’s hard to see Natalie Dormer in a bodice and not think of her turn on that show as Anne Boleyn, but Margery Tyrell is a far cleverer woman than Henry VIIII’s doomed lust object.
Over the Narrow Sea, we caught up with Dany Targaryen and her starving Dothraki followers as they finally reached civilisation in the form of the city of Qarth. This led to a brief vignette as Dany was faced with the ruling Thirteen of the city, who were less than keen to let her and her “Dothraki horde” in. But Dany showed some real fire (appropriate for the ‘”Mother of Dragons”) as she boldly stood up to them. Emilia Clarke was as impressive as ever, as was Nonso Anozie as her eventual guarantor Xara Xhoan Daxos, and the gates of Qarth eventually opened to display a breathtaking CG vista of a releif from the baking desert. Still, as CG vistas go, I’m not sure Qarth (either its interior or its high walls) is up there with the best the show’s done.
Rather better was the realisation of Harrenhal, where Arya and Gendry found themselves imprisoned this week. A grim, forbidding half-ruined giant castle, Harrenhal was a place of terror where prisoners were taken one by one to be sadistically tortured to no real purpose other than their captors’ sadistic satisfaction. The torture was imaginatively nasty; the prisoners had a rat in a bucket strapped to their chests, whereupon the bucket was heated and the maddened rat would have to chew its way out through the terrified torturees’ bodies.
It all looked bleakly nasty, with Arya and Gendry held ina cold, wet cage outdorrs, awaiting their turn for torture. But just as Gendry’s turn came, they were saved by the unexpected arrival of Tywin Lannister, making a welcome first appearance this year. Charles Dance is magnetic in the role of the Lannister patriarch, and I must admit I’ve missed him onscreen so far this season, so it was as much a relief for me to see him as it was for the prisoners.
Tywin may not be a very nice man, but he’s not wilfully cruel. To him, it makes far more sense to put the prisoners to work than sadistically torture them to death. He’s also not stupid; he spotted immediately that Arya wasn’t a boy, and she found herself appointed as his cupbearer – an ironic place for Ned Stark’s heir to be. Tywin might have recognised her to be a girl, but not which girl. That could be interesting…
Just when you thought the episode couldn’t pack in any more plotlines, up popped Stannis, having arrived at Renly’s camp in a futile attempt to get his little brother to abandon his claim to the throne. Renly, who’s got a nice big army, was having none of this, so it was time for Stannis’ back up plan – Melisandre and her tricks from the Red God.
After Liam Cunningham got to fill in Davos Seaworth’s back story in another revealing vignette aboard Stannis’ ship, he was sent off to row Melisandre into a handy nearby cave, and it was time for one of the show’s rare depictions of actual magic in its fantasy universe. It seems that the queasily uncomfortable coupling between her and Stannis has indeed borne fruit. Carice van Houten, a veteran of Paul Verhoeven movies, got to do yet another full frontal nude scene as she shed her robe to reveal that she was about as pregnant as you can get. But it wasn’t a baby she moaningly gave birth to; it was a scary looking smoke monster that kept taking and then losing human form. As Davos cowered against the wall, it was an excellent place for this week’s cliffhanger.
There was so much packed into this episode (admittedly of necessity) that, while it was breathtakingly exciting, it was actually a bit hard to keep up with. About the only plotlines not covered this week were events north of the Wall, and what the Greyjoys are getting up to on the Iron Islands. The twists and turns of the intricate, interweaving subplots were great, but I have to say, I missed the longer, more detailed skulduggery so much in evidence last week. Still, from memory of the book, there’s still a heck of a lot to pack in in the remaining six episodes, so this breakneck pace may be more of the norm as the season progresses. If so, it’ll be a shame to lose so many of the thoughtful, lengthy character scenes, but a necessary progression of pace for the story. Still, excitement is always good, right?