Game of Thrones: Season 5, Episode 6 – Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken

“I’m Sansa Stark of Winterfell. This is my home. And you can’t frighten me.”

vlcsnap-2015-05-25-15h44m00s005_edited

(SPOILER WARNING!)

After last week’s focus mainly on just two of its multifarious plotlines, this week Game of Thrones was back to business as usual with a lively ep taking in snippets of plenty of them. While there was little in the way of epic action, it was no less dramatic for that as all the patient political scheming of earlier episodes began to pay off in spades. And perhaps more than any ep I’ve seen yet, it was dominated by the show’s women, who were both the drivers and the victims in practically every snapshot this week. Continue reading “Game of Thrones: Season 5, Episode 6 – Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken”

Game of Thrones: Season 4, Episode 6–The Laws of Gods and Men

“When I see what desire does to people – what it’s done to this country – I am very glad to have no part in it.”

vlcsnap-2014-05-13-21h13m22s134

(SPOILER WARNING!)

I love a good trial scene! It’s been a few episodes coming, but it can’t have been too much of a surprise that this week, the trial of Tyrion Lannister took centre stage. What may have been a surprise to fans of the book though was the increasing diversion the various plots were taking – even though they ultimately seem to be leading to the same places.

Continue reading “Game of Thrones: Season 4, Episode 6–The Laws of Gods and Men”

Game of Thrones: Season 3, Episode 7 – The Bear and the Maiden Fair

“People work together when it suits ‘em. They’re loyal when it suits ‘em. Love each other when it suits ‘em. And kill each other when it suits ‘em.”

GoTBrienne

Love was in the air this week in Game of Thrones, though in keeping with the show’s usual style, it didn’t make Westeros seem any more appealing a place to live. Love, both emotional and carnal, was very much in the forefront of many of the characters’ minds (though the ‘carnal’ part is usually a given anyway). It fed into the many subplots which increasingly involve people being forced into marriage against their wills for reasons of political subterfuge, in this year’s script by original author George RR Martin.

Continue reading “Game of Thrones: Season 3, Episode 7 – The Bear and the Maiden Fair”

Game of Thrones: Season 2, Episode 8–The Prince of Winterfell

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 8 YET.

“The day will come when you think you’re safe and happy, and your joy will turn to ashes in your mouth.”

GameOfThronesTyrionVarysJoffrey

After last week’s thoughtful, introspective episode of Game of Thrones, this week’s seemed to move at breakneck speed as we caught up on literally every plot strand. It had the feel of an endgame, moving players into position for a final battle that will surely come next week.

With so much to catch up on, it was an episode driven more by plot than by the character examination that was so much the centre of the script last week. Each vignette of where the characters were felt more like a snapshot, and with so many to squeeze in, few plotlines got more than a cursory glance. Yet even in all this breathless plot advancement, one or two characters got a little more space for some of those nicely deep dialogue scenes – in particular Robb and Talisa, Stannis and Davos, and Tyrion with both Bronn and Varys.

It was good to see a number of characters who’ve been noticeably absent for quite a while this season. Bronn in particular has been rather missed, his earthy, pragmatic views a perfect counterpoint to Tyrion’s shrewd scheming. It’s clear that King’s Landing is holding its breath for the imminent arrival of Stannis’ feared battle fleet, and each character in the city was preoccupied with this impending doom. So we caught up with Tyrion and Bronn as Tyrion pored over books of strategy while Bronn got bored and cleaned his fingernails.

It was a good scene, with the comic confusion over how to pronounce the name of the ancient maester who wrote the book nicely counterpointed by Bronn’s vivid description of how things would be if the city came under siege. He’s clearly been busy in his new capacity as Commander of the City Watch, rounding up all known thieves in the city. “For… interrogation?” Varys asked silkily, to which Bronn merely replied, “no.”

Yet again, he’s got the more pragmatic view; if it comes to a siege, the most valuable currency will be food, and any canny thief will immediately hoard as much of it as possible. So, get rid of the thieves before they get the chance. Even Varys had to concede the wisdom of this. Bronn’s sledgehammer tactics might lack subtlety, but they’re right for the circumstances.

But Tyrion had more to occupy his mind than just the imminent battle. The ever-vengeful Cersei seemed to have discovered his secret love/whore Shae – except, it turned out, she’d got the wrong whore. Lena Headey was magnificently loathsome as Cersei here, all horrible self-satisfaction with her scheme to hurt her brother; but Peter Dinklage played it well too as Tyrion played along with the mistake in a heartbeat, pretending the captive Ros really was his lover. As Ros, Esme Bianco got only one line, but it was heartfelt: “Remember me.” It gave the sense that she’s not likely to survive this; but then, after her experiences with Littlefinger and Joffrey, she’s plainly discovered that being a whore in the big city is far harder than it used to be in the wilds near Winterfell.

Joffrey himself popped up briefly to be reliably loathsome, surveying the siege preparations with Varys and Tyrion. He’s determined to lead his army into battle (which Cersei sees as a foolhardy move prompted by Tyrion), and both Varys and Tyrion seemed slyly amused at the prospect. But as Joffrey stalked off, these two master manipulators got a nice exchange about the game at which they’re both so good. “I’d like to stay alive and keep playing it,” was Tyrion’s attitude. As Varys said, he’s a far better hand than Jon Arryn or Ned Stark, because he doesn’t let his honour get in the way of how the game is played.

Ned Stark’s shadow hung heavily over the show this week. Robb, bonding ever more closely with Talisa, got to tell of his respect for his father: “he told me he walked with fear in the morning, and went to bed with fear at night”. It wasn’t too surprising that Robb and Talisa finally got it on this week, in a sex scene that was far more modest than usual for this show.

This time, the sex wasn’t for titillation, or to enliven an otherwise dull bit of exposition; it was crucial to the plot, and genuinely romantic rather than the usual lustful, animal couplings favoured by most of the characters. But lest we forget the rather large stumbling block that Robb is already betrothed to one of the Frey daughters, in exchange for access to a vital bridge, the dialogue reminded us of this several times. Again, it’s clear that Robb’s romantic choices are likely to come back and haunt him…

Robb also had to deal with the knotty problem that his mother had set free his most valuable captive. After last week’s cliffhanger, it turned out that Catelyn Stark had actually released Jaime Lannister, as an attempt to get Cersei to release her daughters. I must say, this decision rang truer in the book, with Cat’s maternal instincts equally matched by her political levelheadedness. Here, it seemed a little out of character that the normally pragmatic Lady Stark would sacrifice such a valuable hostage out of such an emotional motive; a fact hammered home when Robb reminded her of the losses of others, and how much was at stake. A misstep in characterisation, perhaps, though a forgivable one. At least it meant that we got a new double act, as Jaime and Brienne sniped and bitched at each other as they made their way south.

One of the other good double acts was split up this week, as Tywin Lannister finally left Harrenhal to head for battle. In the book, he wasn’t there for anything like as long; but in the show, he’s built up an excellent rapport with Arya, who was now frantic to find Jaqen H’gar and have him off the departing Lannister before it was too late.

Unfortunately, Jaqen was off on patrol, and by the time he returned, Tywin was long gone. But he still owed Arya one death, and she masterfully played him by demanding that it should be his own. Honour bound, he had to follow through on that unless Arya released him – which she would only do if he helped her, Gendry and Hot Pie escape from the castle. Jaqen paid up in full, slaughtering the guards offscreen so the trio could simply walk out of the castle.

But, again, the need to cram so much in left a lack in motivation – it’s pretty hard to understand why Gendry and Hot Pie would want to escape, given that they both had menial jobs that kept them alive and off the Lannister radar. Again, their reasons were fleshed out in the book. It’s a long book, and I can understand the need to compress its often verbose complexity, but I think this episode in particular skipped too much, making some characters’ choices hard to fathom.

Just to remind us that Stannis is fast approaching King’s Landing, he and Davos Seaworth got one of the better dialogue scenes aboard his flagship at night. Davos’ reasons for his loyalty have only been hinted at up till now; here, we got the whole backstory of how he’d smuggled food to the besieged Stannis during the civil war against the Targaryens. It was well played by Stephen Dillane and Liam Cunningham, whose Davos is one of the more likeable (and honest) characters in the show. And it also neatly counterpointed the fears of those in King’s Landing – Stannis’ account of his siege, as his men gradually ate the horses, then the cats, then the dogs, served to underline the points Bronn had made earlier.

Siege may well be on Theon’s mind too. His sister finally turned up, to tell him he was a fool and should abandon Winterfell before the Northmen strung him up for killing Bran and Rickon. Well, “fool” wasn’t the word she used – it was actually “cunt”. The show has infrequently used this ultimate weapon of obscenities before, but here it was flung about with casual abandon by plenty of characters, even Cersei. Tyrion got the best use of it, exclaiming, “why are the gods such vicious cunts? Where’s the god of tits and wine?” As a crude Englishman, it’s a word I tend to enjoy for its blunt shock value, but I know that for Americans it’s the ultimate taboo – I wonder how they’ll take to its liberal use here?

Swearing aside, Theon was revealed to have not killed Bran and Rickon after all, but rather the two farmer’s sons from that farm the young Starks chose not to hide at. I’d wondered how long the writers would play the bluff out and let us believe the boys were dead; in the event, it was only for the length of this episode. Probably about right, I think. Still, the fact that those charred corpses weren’t the people we thought they were doesn’t let Theon off the hook at all; if anything, he seems even worse for having killed two children who had no involvement at all. And clearly Bran, overhearing Osha telling Luwin this, is going to be burdened with the kind of guilt Theon seems incapable of.

With all this going on, the script still had time for a few snapshots of plots elsewhere. Catching up with events beyond the Wall was significant, as Jon Snow discovered that star Ranger Qhorin Halfhand had been captured too, and all his men killed – because they were searching for Jon. Clearly Bran’s not the only one who’ll be bearing a burden of guilt. A few miles away, the other Night’s Watch party were digging latrines in the snow, and Sam Tarly (good to see him again) managed to unearth a cache of ancient weapons – knives of ‘dragonglass’ – or obsidian, as we know it. Clearly these are going to be important, but the scene in which they were discovered was still a joy of character dialogue between the lowly latrine diggers of the Watch.

Somewhat less well done was the scene in Qarth, catching us up with Daenerys and Jorah as they debated whether she should flee or accept Pyat Pree’s dubious invitation to the House of the Undying. The whole scene felt perfunctory; no characters were delved into, no plot was advanced. It was as if it was there solely to remind us of what’s happening in this plotline, something the show hasn’t felt the need to do before. Previously, we’ve had multiple episodes go by before returning to a crucial plot point. Why couldn’t that have been done here? Personally, I would have preferred to use the runtime to more adequately explore the motivations of Cat Stark or Gendry, which felt flimsy at best.

A lot went on in this episode, but it almost felt like a holding pattern while the characters were moved to where they need to be for the Big Finale. If anything, the writers tried to cram a little too much in, at the expense of the show’s usually impeccable character depth. That said, this was still pretty good TV; the action and intrigue were compelling. I just wish there’d been a slightly more measured pace, and more judicious decisions about which plots to include or leave out. Still, I gather this will be the last season in which they try to adapt one of Martin’s increasingly lengthy books in its entirety; from hereon in, even an increased episode count wouldn’t allow these massive tomes to be covered in one season each. So this is probably the last time we’ll see an episode that has to feel so … rushed.

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.”

GameOfThronesJaime

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.

Game of Thrones: Season 2, Episode 6–The Old Gods and the New

“Don’t trust anybody. Life is safer that way.”

GameOfThronesTheonRodrik

Things continue apace in Westeros, in this week’s workmanlike but exciting episode of Game of Thrones. The season’s momentum is really starting to build up as it enters the second half, as long-hatched plans come to fruition, and unforeseen events throw meticulous planning to the winds.

Directed by genre veteran David Nutter, this week’s episode threw us straight into the fray, opening amidst Theon’s hinted-at attack on the defenceless Winterfell. Donald Sumpter as the thoughtful Maester Luwin got to show that he could be a man of action too, frantically sending out a raven message even as the Ironmen battered down the door. But Theon’s troops were too strong, and poor little Bran was forced to yield the castle to him. Isaac Hempstead-Wright was again brilliant as Bran this week, veering from his usual solemnity (“Theon, did you hate us the whole time?”) to a profoundly realistic child’s sobbing as Theon beheaded Ned Stark’s faithful castellan Ser Rodrik.

In keeping with Theon’s general ineptitude, it was a wince-makingly incompetent beheading, similar to that of Thomas Cromwell in The Tudors (purportedly a true event). Even I could tell that Theon’s sword wasn’t the ideal choice for slicing a man’s head off, and so it proved as he hacked away at Rodrik’s neck, eventually having to kick the head off what remained of it. Even offscreen, it was brutal, and set the tone for an episode that didn’t stint on the violence throughout.

Similar violence dogged the Lannisters in King’s Landing, in a faithfully nasty recreation of the book’s memorable riot. Having sent Princess Myrcella off to Dorne as Tyrion planned, Cersei made a disturbingly convincing vow that she would take great pleasure in depriving Tyrion of someone he loved; plainly a nasty bit of foreshadowing regarding the still-hidden Shae. But all the family bitching took a back seat as the royal party tried to make their way back to the Red Kepp, and the populace of King’s Landing got a chance to show their new king quite how unhappy with him they are.

It was a well-done scene, though the number of rioting extras seemed to fall short of what was required to send half the city up in flames, as in the book. Nevertheless, it served its purpose dramatically in showing just how hated Joffrey is already. And he gave the crowd ample further proof as, after having been hit by a thrown cowpat, he demanded they all be executed.

The inevitable riot that followed had yet more truly nasty bits of business, particularly the visualisation of the High Septon being literally ripped to pieces. It’s mentioned in the book, but here we got to see it – well, some of it at least, as a baying crowd bore him down then held his severed arm aloft. It was enough to make you genuinely fear for Sansa as she was separated from the fleeing royals, but fortunately for her, the Hound turned up in the nick of time to prevent a nasty rape by disembowelling Sansa’s attackers. You don’t get that in Lord of the Rings.

The odd but touching relationship between the Hound and Sansa has been well-played by both, with Rory McCann playing the scarred mercenary’s hidden passions almost entirely through looks and Sophie Turner, a real damsel in distress, showing how her initial revulsion has softened into sympathy and an unwilling respect. The relationship between the two is one of the more interesting and understated in the books, and I’m glad it’s translated faithfully to the screen.

Jack Gleeson continues to be reliably loathsome as Joffrey, whose reaction to the riot was to order more slaughter until dissuaded by yet another slap from Uncle Tyrion. Joffrey’s an eminently slappable guy, but given his Caligula-style tendencies, you have to wonder how long Tyrion can get away with that kind of thing. Peter Dinklage made him believably furious, but I wonder how unwise he’s being in not keeping his usual level head when dealing with the capricious boy king: “We’ve had mad kings and idiot kings before, but this is the first time we’ve been cursed with a mad idiot king!”

A rather better monarch was in Qarth, over the sea, as Dany Targaryen continued her seemingly futile quest to win arms and ships from the slimy, double-dealing Qartheen merchant kings. Emilia Clarke got to give yet another fiery, impassioned speech as she begged the unconvinced Spice King (a suitably oleaginous Nicholas Blane) for ships, with little to trade.

Descendant of the Mad King though she may be, Dany’s looking to be by far the best candidate for the throne of Westeros – if she ever gets there. She suffered yet another setback this week as more of her Dothraki followers were slaughtered by a mysterious hooded figure who went on to steal the three baby dragons. Poor old Dany, you can’t help thinking she deserves better luck occasionally.

Somewhat luckier was Arya, still stuck pouring wine for Tywin Lannister at Harrenhal, and plotting her revenge on all who’ve done her wrong. Building on last week’s electric scene between them, Maisie Williams and Charles Dance look to be forming another of the show’s unlikely double acts. They play well off each other, as she manages to conceal her true identity even while they talk almost as master and protege.

That secret was almost broken this week, when Lord Baelish – who knows very well who Arya is – popped in for an unexpected visit. This led to another tense scene which combined that tension with exposition; as Baelish discussed alliance plans with Tywin, Arya was obliged to pour the wine for them, and Baelish kept giving her curious glances, as though she was somehow familiar but he couldn’t quite place her. Given what was at stake, the tension was heart-pounding, though I must admit to being a little unconvinced that the normally astute Littlefinger didn’t ultimately recognise her.

Still, the whole scene was another example of something the TV show does very well – inventing little dramatic set pieces that were nowhere present in the books. Indeed, this season in particular has been a little more liberal in its adaptation, omitting some quite lengthy subplots – such as Cat Stark’s return to her ancestral home on the way back to to Robb – and significant characters like Reek and the Reed children.

This probably annoys purists no end, but I’m glad that the TV writers have taken the opportunity of the different medium of storytelling to make their still-convoluted plot more economical. After all, one look at the movie adaptation of Alan Moore’s Watchmen shows the danger of sticking too faithfully to your source material at the expense of utilising the medium you’re working in.

Another departure from the books is the addition of Robb’s love interest, the pretty Volantene nurse Talisa. Or perhaps I should say ‘substitution’ – she plainly fulfils the same narrative function as his love interest Jeyne in the books. But whereas the books didn’t present Jeyne to the reader until long into her and Robb’s relationship, here we get to see that relationship developing from its first flowering. It’s arguably more appropriate to the story that Robb should fall for someone he met on the field of battle, and Oona Chaplin as Talisa has been given some suitably thoughtful, yet flirty dialogue. Still, as his mother reminds him, Robb is technically already betrothed, to one of Walder Frey’s daughters. Could be trouble on the way there…

Jon too was getting a love interest in the snowy but picturesque Frostfang mountains beyond the Wall. Finally encountering some actual wildlings to fight, he found himself tasked with executing the lone survivor of the fight, a defiant young lady with flaming red hair named Ygritte. Jon being the heroic type, he couldn’t actually go through with it, and consequently found himself chasing his escaping prisoner until they were well out of reach of the rest of the Night’s Watch party.

Another favourite of mine from the books, Ygritte is played by a suitably fierce young lady called Rose Leslie, who’s nevertheless also flirty in a rather suggestive way. Bedding down with Jon for the night, she couldn’t help, rubbing her posterior against the hunky Ranger’s groin, much to his frustration. It was another blackly comic scene, as Jon is of course sworn to celibacy, and just the type to follow his vows to the letter. But it doesn’t take a genius to predict that there’ll be something going on between the two afore long. After all, it’s the classic love/hate/love relationship, and if you’ve ever seen any soap opera you’ll know what comes next…

After last week’s rather scattershot episode (necessitated by the advancement of so many plots simultaneously) it was nice to have a return to a tighter focus this week as the pace of the story ramps up. It was a massively violent episode, perhaps even more so than usual, with blood and guts flying all over the place. Yet as ever, character drama wasn’t neglected amid the gore, with Arya and Tywin’s scenes being a particular highlight.

Not much in the way of sex this week – Theon got some, offscreen, with former wildling Osha, who at least did a full-frontal to keep the flag up (as it were). But with the pace of the war ever more hectic, I wouldn’t be surprised if the sex is kept to a minimum for the rest of the season. Whether you think that’s a good thing is probably entirely subjective; but as the sex goes down, I expect the violence will go up. After all, it looks like the war may be building to a series of ever more brutal confrontations – and that’s something this show does very well.

Game of Thrones: Season 2, Episode 5–The Ghost of Harrenhal

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 5 YET.

“Men win wars. Not magic tricks.”

GameOfThronesArya

It was another catch-all episode of Game of Thrones this week, as almost every one of the season’s multifarious subplots was advanced, bit by bit. With the characters already so well-drawn, there’s no real need to focus so tightly on any one, which is fortunate; there’s so much going on now that the show has a lot to pack in over the next five episodes.

Nevertheless, there did seem to be a bit of a theme in this week’s script by series creators David Benioff and DB Weiss – the increasing return of magic to the lands of Westeros and Essos. Aside from Melisandre’s murderous shadow wraith, we saw Dany’s dragons again for the first time in ages, and she met the mysterious Pyat Pree, head of Qarth’s warlocks. At King’s Landing, Tyrion and Bronn were dubious about the King’s (meaning the Queen’s) method to defend the city against the forces of Stannis Baratheon – a strange green substance called wildfire, capable of burning so hot it can melt flesh. Up at gloomy Harrenhal, Arya finds herself making a pact with the enigmatic Jaqen H’ghar to take three lives in return for the three she saved from the burning wagon. And at Winterfell, Bran’s seemingly prescient dreams are getting more foreboding, as he tells Osha of a vision of Winterfell swamped by the sea and full of floating dead men.

That’s a lot of magic, for a show that has, until now, very much sidelined this traditional aspect of fantasy stories. And yet it still doesn’t interfere with the sense of grimy medieval reality that the show has already established. We already knew that there had been magic in this world; but as Maester Luwin contended a couple of weeks ago, it had long since vanished. Its apparent return cannot bode well – and presumably is tied to the return of the unstoppable White Walkers, as this world’s deadliest winter approaches.

It wasn’t all magic, of course, as the struggle for the Iron Throne continued apace. No sign of the loathsome Joffrey this week, though a ranting street preacher made clear the people’s dislike for their sadistic new monarch. Poor old Tyrion found himself lumped in with the hatred as the King’s Hand; “I’m trying to save them,” he grumbled to Bronn. As ever, Bronn was a marvellously sardonic sidekick for Tyrion, and continues to inject notes of realism about what war is really like. The role is a real opportunity for Jerome Flynn to reinvent himself from the housewives’ favourite crooner that he was in the 90s, and he’s seizing it with both hands, playing the part with relish.

Tyrion extracted the truth about Cersei’s plan from the pathetic Lancel, who’s such a wimp he’s not even fun for Tyrion to wind up (though it’s plenty of fun for us to watch). In the latest cameo by a genre veteran, a nearly unrecognisable Roy Dotrice popped up as Pyromancer Hallyne, eager to show off ‘the substance’ that his Order makes. It’s not clear (and neither is it in the books) whether wildfire is magical or a straightforward chemical weapon – I tend to the latter idea, likening it to the Byzantine incendiary known as Greek Fire. Either way, Bronn’s misgivings about its use make clear that this is very much an Ultimate Weapon, and one that could easily backfire uncontrollably on its deployers. Lucky Tyrion’s taking charge of it…

The reason for such drastic measures is that Stannis has now gained the upper hand in numbers, after using Melisandre’s deadly shadow to assassinate his own brother. That scene was genuinely creepy, Catelyn and Brienne watching in horror as the well-realised wraith crept up behind Renly and impaled him on an insubstantial blade. It’s a shame to lose Renly, whose war was over before it really began. But it does simplify matters somewhat that there’s one less pretender to the throne to keep up with. As Renly, Gethin Anthony was genial and likeable, but these qualities are hardly useful in a savage civil war. If nothing else, though, I’ll miss his role as eye candy and his dalliances with the pretty Finn Jones as Ser Loras.

Loras and his sister Margery were spirited away before Stannis arrived to take charge, presumably by Littlefinger, who popped up to work his schemes on them. It’s clear that Margery is the one with ambition in that family; Natalie Dormer did well as she steelily declared, “I don’t want to be a queen. I want to be the Queen.” I wonder where that will take her?

Also on the run from Renly’s camp were Catelyn and Brienne, who look to be forming another of the show’s well-judged double acts. There’s quite a few of these already; Tyrion and Bronn, Stannis and Davos, Varys and Littlefinger… It’s a good dramatic device, and one wonders if the showrunners took a bit of a lesson from classic Doctor Who scribe Robert Holmes, whose scripts always included at least one good double act.

Brienne and Cat are the only ones who know the truth of what happened to Renly, but they’re also suspects. They’d obviously do well to stick together until they reach safety. Gwendoline Christie, given more to do as Brienne this week, is looking like an excellent casting choice for this fan favourite from the books, and I look forward to seeing her adventuring with Lady Stark.

Up beyond the Wall, the Night’s Watch has moved on from Craster’s House of Incest and into the mountains, where they’ve met up with Qhorin ‘Halfhand’, a legendary Ranger. The change of setting is profound; previously, all the scenes beyond the Wall had been in claustrophobic snowbound forests. The breathtaking vistas high in the mountains give a much greater sense of scope to the wilds beyond the Wall – and the snow looks rather more convincing too. I wonder how much of these vistas are real, and how much CG?

At this point, Sam got to remind us of the actual threat the Seven Kingdoms are facing, in a discussion of the First Men with Jon – “I think they were hiding. And it didn’t work.” Sam also reminded his fellow Watchmen that three blasts on a horn herald the arrival of White Walkers, a signal unused for so long that it’s little remembered outside of history books.

But there was little time to dwell on such forebodings, as Qhorin duly turned up and announced a commando raid on the HQ of former Watchman-turned-wildling-leader Mance Rayder. We’ve heard a lot about this guy so far, but have yet to actually see him. I presume that next week, that may change…

In the rather warmer environs of Qarth, Dany was teaching one of her dragons how to breathe fire – that’s surely not going to work out well when they grow bigger. As an honoured guest, Dany was rather surprised to find herself beset by ‘romantic’ proposals. Her host, Xaro Xhoan Daxos, made an offer of marriage, to be paid for by providing her with the means to take back the Iron Throne; meanwhile, Ser Jorah made a speech of adoration for her leadership that can only be a declaration of love. The ever-reliable Iain Glen played the speech well, his eyes welling up with obvious restrained passion.

Dany also met the disquieting Pyat Pree, a cadaverous blue-lipped warlock seemingly capable of appearing in two places at once, who offered a less than tempting invitation to the ‘House of the Undying’. It’s definitely getting a bit mystical over in Qarth. But the city’s vague, undefined exoticism makes it an interesting addition to the story’s universe, especially after that barren desert.

Barren in a colder way are the Iron Islands, where Theon yet again proved that he’s a bit rubbish at being a leader of men. Stung by the contempt of his sister and his prospective ship’s crew, it’s believable that he would hatch an over-ambitious plan to ‘show them all’. And so it proved, as on the advice of his conniving first mate, he abandoned the ‘plan’ to raid an inoffensive fishing village, and instead invade a prime piece of Stark real estate. Whereupon, as he obviously realised, the Stark forces would head out to stop him, leaving the unspoken realisation that Winterfell would be pretty lacking in defences as a result.

The script didn’t spell that out, but it was easy enough for anyone with a basic knowledge of military tactics to work out what Theon’s going to try. Having already betrayed Robb Stark’s trust, he’s going to go the whole hog in the treachery stakes and actually invade Robb’s ancestral seat. I can’t see that going well for anyone…

As Bran’s prophetic dreams have already foretold. Plainly all that imagery of the sea swamping Winterfell is a foretaste of the invasion by the seafaring Ironmen. After last season’s dream of Ned Stark’s death, it’s looking like Bran’s nightmares have a disturbing habit of coming true; yet another sign of magic returning to this world. I like Isaac Hempstead-Wright as the solemn, soulful Bran, but as yet he’s not had much to do this year, occasionally popping up as a placeholder to remind the audience that Winterfell is still there. Thankfully, it looks like he’s about to get a plot of his own, maybe as early as next week.

Also continuing to impress was Maisie Williams as Arya; unlike some shows, Game of Thrones has cast some truly amazing child actors. The scene in which she faced off with the suspicious Tywin Lannister was electric, her eyes burning into those of Charles Dance like two equals rather than a prisoner and captor. It’s impressive that such a young actor can more than hold her own in a scene with an old pro like Charles Dance. And the scene was freighted with threat – Tywin obviously doesn’t realise what a valuable captive he has right under his nose.

Jaqen H’ghar might, though. He seems awfully knowledgeable about everything, by presumably mystical means. German actor Tom Wlaschiha is another bit of impeccable casting as Jaqen, with the solitary streak of grey in his long hair. At the end of the episode, he’d clearly fulfilled the first part of his bargain, and Arya is yet again responsible for a death – the torturer from last week having plummeted from the battlements with his head turned somewhat farther than necks usually allow.

It was a busy episode plotwise, which surprisingly found no time for the usual excesses of sex and violence. You get the feeling that it’s all building up to a positive orgy of killing in the very near future, though. And while there was none of the show’s trademark ‘sexposition’, at least I got some titillation from the surprisingly buff Joe Dempsie all sweaty and shirtless as Gendry:

GameOfThronesGendry

Next week, presumably many of the strands set up will begin coming to fruition, and I predict killing aplenty as Theon’s unwise plan starts to unfold and Jaqen continues to stalk victims at Harrenhal. Looking forward to it!

Game of Thrones: Season 2, Episode 3–What is Dead May Never Die

“Power resides where men believe it resides. It’s a trick. A shadow. And a very small man can cast a very large shadow.”

GameOfThronesTyrion2

Wow. I swear, it seems like this show gets better every week. With the plot well and truly motoring along now, this third episode of Game of Thrones seemed the best yet, for a variety of reasons. Yes, it had the requisite amount of impeccable dialogue, gory battles and gratuitous sex and nudity to liven up exposition that we’ve come to expect from the show. But best of all, it served up a monster portion of what I like best about the show – portraits of Westeros’ devious, Machiavellian characters in all their scheming glory. For that, it’s up there with another favourite of mine, I, Claudius, which I wouldn’t be surprised to find is one of George RR Martin’s inspirations for the books.

King of the schemers this week – taking the crown from Varys – was undoubtedly Tyrion. Having flexed his muscles as proxy Hand of the King last week, with his exile of Janos Slynt, this week he was clearly in his element among the slimy, untrustworthy denizens of the Small Council. In a cleverly scripted and edited scene, we saw him testing,one after the other, Grand Maester Pycelle, Varys and Littlefinger as to their trustworthiness. They’re all veteran schemers too, of course, but this was Tyrion’s chance to hoodwink them before they’d got his measure as every bit their equal.

And it worked, too. Having fed each of them separate stories about who he was planning to marry off Princess Myrcella to, then stressed that “the Queen mustn’t know”, all he had to do was sit back and wait to see which story she went ballistic over. In hindsight, it was perhaps no surprise that it turned out to be Pycelle who went running to her; much as I love genre veteran Julian Glover in the role, the character is far less interesting than either Varys or Littlefinger and thus more expendable.

All of this was played beautifully by the actors concerned. Peter Dinklage continues to be masterful as the irreverent, sardonic Tyrion, and Conleth Hill is more than a match for him as sly spymaster Varys. Their scene together, in which Varys smoothly compliments the newcomer (“nicely played".) was one of the highlights in an episode full of memorable scenes. I’ve seen some sceptical reviews of Aidan Gillen’s performance as Littlefinger, but I have to say that he too worked well for me in the scene where he realised he’d been had, only for Tyrion to hook him all over again with the promise of Catelyn Stark.

Lady Stark was back herself this week, and with her we finally caught up with the last – and perhaps least – of the pretenders to the throne, Robert Baratheon’s youngest brother Renly. Renly’s been busy between seasons; not only has he grown a beard, he’s married one – Margery Tyrell, sister of his true lover Loras. Slipping smoothly into a bodice yet again after The Tudors, Natalie Dormer was surprisingly good as Margery. The script here made her out to be a another astute political operator, far more so than in the book. She knows that the true way to cement their alliance, and Renly’s power, is for him to get her pregnant asap.

Unfortunately that may be harder than she thinks. She’s perfectly aware of her husband’s dalliances with her brother – and ruthless enough to suggest he join them in bed, if that’s what it takes – but Renly just can’t get it up for her. Indeed, poor old Renly got most of the gratuitous nudity this week, but was perpetually thwarted when it came to actual sex. He can’t get it up with Margery (is there a Westerosi equivalent of Viagra, I wonder?), and pretty young Loras is in a snit with him. Not that this stopped Gethin Anthony and Finn Jones having some pretty raunchy semi-clad foreplay, ticking a box for those like me who enjoy a bit of man on man action.

The reason Loras is in a snit is his humiliation at the hands of another fan favourite from the books. Yes, Brienne of Tarth – Brienne the Beauty – has finally arrived, clobbering the Knight of Flowers but good in a playful tournament (nobody died). Gwendoline Christie certainly looks the part as Brienne – apparently she took on a monster training regimen to bulk up suitably. But even her almost defensive fearlessness can’t disguise that she’s got the hots for the King she’s meant to be serving. Shame, she’s barking up the wrong tree there.

With all that going on, Catelyn barely got much of a look in, dramatically. But when she did, she was as dour and grim as you’d expect from a woman who’s already lost one fiance and one husband to war. "It’s just a game to you, isn’t it?” she bitterly asked the affable Renly, before commenting on his youthful army, “I pity them… They are the knights of summer. And winter is coming.”

She wasn’t the only one quoting the Words of her House; this week we also got to hear those of House Greyjoy (“We do not sow”), as Theon was faced with a very hard choice by his unyielding father. Would he continue to help Robb Stark, son of the man who’d thwarted his father’s rebellion and held him captive for his entire childhood? Or would he prize his true family over his adoptive one?

It’s a measure of how surprisingly good Alfie Allen is as Theon that I truly felt for him as he first swallowed his pride then betrayed his honour, siding with the bitter, twisted father he’d never truly known, all in the hope of glory. It was another nice visual touch from director Alik Sakharov as the decision was shown without words; Theon, a lone point of light in a vast darkness, choosing to burn the warning letter he might have sent to Robb.

Patrick Malahide is his usual chilly self (albeit more unkempt) as Lord Balon Greyjoy, a hard man shaped by the culture Theon was taken away from. Still, good though he is, I couldn’t help thinking that, visually and in personality, he seems very similar to David Bradley as Walder Frey last season. We haven’t seen Walder yet this year, but when/if we do, hopefully the producers will be able to clearly differentiate the two…

With the focus of the episode firmly on these three plotlines, the script still found time for some vignettes from elsewhere in the Seven Kingdoms, and even these were replete with rich character detail. North of the Wall, we found out the resolution to last week’s cliffhanger, as Jon Snow, having been bashed about the head by Craster, was dragged bloody to the loathsome wildling’s hall.

Lord Commander Mormont was none too happy, after last week’s lecture about learning how to follow; and Jon himself got a Star Trek Prime Directive-alike lesson from Mormont, who turned out to be all too knowledgeable about what Craster did with his unwanted son’s. “The wildings pray to crueller gods,” he muttered darkly, and Jon replied that he’d seen one – that dark figure taking the baby in the wood had been one of the mysterious and deadly White Walkers after all, unseen since the prologue of the show’s very first episode. They’re plainly the greatest of the threats facing Westeros, but as yet they’re in the shadows – perhaps a good thing, as a Sauron-like unstoppable magical threat is less interesting than all the political wrangling going on all over the Seven Kingdoms.

Back at Winterfell, we’re seeing more of the crippled Bran’s mysterious ability to ‘green dream’ himself into the bodies of animals; yet again, his direwolf hunting in the night. Isaac Hempstead-Wright as Bran got a short but effective scene with Donald Sumpter as the sceptical Maester Luwin. “My dreams are different,” Bran protested. “Mine are true.” But Luwin’s had a go at magic, as an impressionable student, and like Arthur C Clarke with his Mysterious World, doesn’t believe in any of it: “Maybe magic was once a mighty force in this world. But not any more.”

The equally compelling Maisie Williams got a bit of the action too, as Arya heard the backstory of Ranger Yoren. His brother had been killed in front of him when he was a boy, and every night after he’d repeated the name of the killer like a prayer – until one day the killer returned and Yoren butchered him with an axe, fleeing to the Wall. You could see Arya mulling this over thoughtfully…

But not for long. Like in a classic war film, Yoren’s revelation of his hard life was an obvious prelude to him getting brutally killed, as Lannister thug Amory Lorch turned up to assist with the search for Gendry. Yoren took some killing though; even after a crossbow bolt in the chest and a spear through the back, he still managed to take down a few thugs before a sword in the spine felled him for good. Francis Magee turned in another of the show’s great performances as Yoren, and he’ll be missed.

Still, this sequence usefully compressed a much longer – perhaps unnecessarily so – plotline from the book, omitting the escape and subsequent wanderings of Arya, Gendry and a couple of the other recruits. Here, they went straight into captivity, heading for Harrenhaal Castle – but not before Arya, smartly, led the thugs to believe that the hapless boy they’d already killed was Gendry, the conveniently placed bull’s head helmet lending her story credence.

This is epic stuff, but with the fate of kingdoms depending on the whims of treacherous backstabbers, it doesn’t stint on the character portrayal either. Obviously it has excellent source material, but this week’s writer Bryan Cogman expanded it well, with acres of quotable dialogue. It could be argued, again, that making some of the book’s more implicit plots explicit – Renly and Loras’ affair, Margery’s political cunning – was unnecessary for a show with this much intelligence; but I think the overt scheming displayed as a result makes for some hugely entertaining scenes. With all the pretenders to the Iron Throne now in place, and the plot already speeding along, I can’t wait for next week!

Game of Thrones: Season 2, Episode 2–The Night Lands

“Another king. How many is that now?”

GameOfThronesTheon

With the season premiere having firmly planted the pieces in place, Game of Thrones’ second episode sees the plot beginning to really move. Taking in fewer of the players than last week, series creators David Benioff and DB Weiss were able to focus more closely on those we did see, giving us some meaty conflict between the well-drawn characters, and giving depth to some of those who’d previously had little attention.

Most notable of those was Theon Greyjoy, who had so little to do last year that you could have been forgiven for wondering why he was there. Having been held hostage since childhood by Ned Stark against his rebellious father’s good conduct, this episode saw him returning to his ancestral home of Pyke on the Iron Islands, introducing yet another player into the game.

But before we reached the Iron Islands, the viewer would need some instruction as to the culture of yet another region of Westeros. How best to explain the Ironborn’s rugged, seafaring ways? Ah yes, the show’s tried and trusted ‘sexposition’ tactic. Lest we get bored with Theon’s explanation of how his culture works, it was delivered while he was busy having sex with the daughter of the captain of the boat taking him there. You had to admire Theon’s power of concentration at being able to deliver a sociological lecture while having some pretty vigorous sex.

It’s easy to have a teenage smirk whenever the show does one of these scenes, and they certainly do seem like titillation, but they’re very much part of the show’s established style now. The main problem, I suppose, is that the more frequent they are, the more the show runs the risk of slipping into self-parody. It’s not there yet, though, and this viewer at least was happy to be titillated by the surprisingly buff Alfie Allen as Theon. I seem to recall that last year, he was one of the only main male cast members to appear full frontal nude. Which was nice, given that the other one was Hodor.

Anyway, having arrived at the Iron Islands, we got some faithfully recreated scenes from the book as Theon was reunited with his family – in the case of his sister, quite unknowingly. Yara Greyjoy (renamed from the book’s ‘Asha’ lest she be confused with wildling Osha) is plainly another formidable player in the game, and not above some fairly dirty ttactics. Having been flirting unwittingly with her as they rode to the castle, to the extent of having a hand in her pants, Theon looked pretty queasy when he realised who she was. It was blackly amusing, as if Luke and Leia from Star Wars had done far more than kiss before realising they were siblings.

We also met Theon’s father, the bitter and formerly rebellious Lord Balon Greyjoy. As played by Patrick Malahide, Balon’s an unforgiving, harsh, proud man, who’s less than happy with the seemingly soft, spoiled boy Ned Stark has turned his son into. It’s clear that (unsurprisingly) Balon Greyjoy is not going to forget the past and ally with Robb Stark, the son of the man who ruthlessly crushed his rebellion and killed Theon’s brothers. Catelyn’s advice to Robb in that regard was spot on. What’s less clear is exactly what Balon is intending to do with the fleet that Yara’s been put in command of…

Over at Dragonstone, ships were also much in the minds of Stannis Baratheon and Davos Seaworth. As in the books, Stannis is a cold, remote figure, and hard to empathise with. This is why his more moderate, sensible aide Davos is more usually given screen time, and Liam Cunningham has already established him as a much more likeable character.

Davos and his son Matthos (Kerr Logan) meet with flamboyant pirate Salladhor Saan, in the hope of gaining his ships’ support for an attack on King’s Landing. Salladhor is one of the book’s most memorable characters, despite being fairly minor, so it was nice to see the writers giving him a pretty good amount of screen time as he declared that his condition for agreeing was to be allowed to “fuck the queen”. Not ‘rape’ – actor Lucian Msamati made it clear that this likeable rogue believes he can charm anyone into sex. As he remarks to the uptight, unconvinced Matthos, “I haven’t tried to fuck you yet.”

It was a good scene, that did much to establish the history and nature of the relationship between Davos and Stannis, despite the latter’s absence; but I did think the sudden switch from the bleak seaside locale of Pyke to the bleak seaside locale of Dragonstone was potentially a little confusing for viewers. The locations were so similar that it only remembering which characters were based where made the distinction clear.

Not much scope was given this week to Daenerys Targaryen and her small tribe of Dothraki over the Narrow Sea, but their one scene continued to show their privations in the Red Waste. Dany was dismayed to receive the severed head of the faithful Rakharo, which caused much lamenting from her handmaids that the manner of his death barred his entry from the Dothraki afterlife – the Night Lands, from which the episode’s title was drawn. Rakharo’s death is a significant deviation from the books, where he lasts a good deal longer; but it works because he’s made a much more significant character here, so his death has a lot more resonance. As he plays no particularly notable part in any of the books’ plots, it’s a good gambit for the screenwriters to build him up and then kill him off, yet another sign that nobody is safe in this game.

Given similarly short shrift were the Night’s Watch, still quartered with the loathsome Craster in the North beyond the Wall. Deftly signposted last week, this episode showed us more of Craster’s fearful daughter Gilly, and her fear as to what would become of her soon-to-be-born baby if it was a boy. Gilly is played by Skins’ Hannah Murray, who I’m glad to see back on the screen after a long absence to, presumably, finish her education. There’s the beginning of a nice relationship between her and loveable ‘coward’ Sam Tarly, as he first rescues her from Jon’s impressively realised direwolf Ghost then lends a sympathetic ear to her troubles.

The normally heroic (but fallible) Jon is less than eager to help, presumably remembering the earful he got from the Lord Commander last week about pissing off Craster, but it doesn’t take long before he’s reverted to heroic type and off to nose around the woods as Gilly’s baby is born, getting clobbered by Craster for his pains. This is a small but important plotline in the book, so it’s good to see it getting a fair shake of screen time – even if viewers might be impatient for the Night’s Watch to get a move on with their mission of investigating the sinister happenings in the snowy North.

Those concerns are also echoed in King’s Landing, as Cersei summarily dismisses an urgent message from Lord Commander Mormont, pleading for more men to help with the cold, blue-eyed walking dead. She thinks it’s all just superstition, and Tyrion must be a fool for giving it any credence.

But Tyrion’s no fool, as this episode again makes clear. We got a terrific scene between him and Varys (Conleth Hill), as the softly spoken spymaster implicitly threatens to reveal the presence of Tyrion’s whore Shae to his disapproving father. As Tyrion reminds Varys (and us), unlike Ned Stark he is no honourable man, and smart enough to see how the game is being played. Having already banished City Watch commander Janos Slynt for his part in Joffrey’s slaughter of the innocents, Tyrion makes it clear that if Varys threatens him, he can expect something similar or worse. Varys, typically, is unfazed, and points out his continued survival when so many more visible players in the game have fallen. It was a powerful scene between these two most devious, cynical men, reminiscent of Varys’ more veiled exchanges with Petyr Baelish last year.

Lord Baelish himself got one of the episode’s other great scenes, as he dealt with young Ros’ grief over last week’s slaughter of one of the brothel’s babies. At first seeming uncharacteristically sympathetic, his soft tones belied the increasing harshness of the story he told; of how an unhappy whore is, for him, a pretty bad investment, and one that can be easily disposed of by pandering to some of the clients’ scarier sexual peccadilloes. No fool herself, Ros got the message. She’d get a day off to grieve, and then be back at work – and happy. It was a cracking scene, one of those created solely for the screen version of the story that work so well; a similar highlight last year was the temporary truce and neutral discussion of their relationship by Robert and Cersei.

Arya Stark, meanwhile, was still headed north with Yoren’s Night’s Watch recruits, and we got to see her first encounter with the mysterious Jaqen H’gar, a caged charmer played by German actor Tom Wlaschiha. As Arya, Maisie Williams is one of the show’s best child actors, and it’s god to see her continuing to have such a prominent role. We also got to see more of Gendry, the fugitive bastard son of the dead king, who’s realised his travelling companion Arya is really a girl – and is soon informed that she’s a noble to boot. Not that being addressed as “my lady” pleases her very much. Arya and Gendry look to be shaping up into another of the show’s effective double acts, and it’s nice to see another Skins alumnus, Joe Dempsie, getting more to do as Gendry than he did last year.

It was another great episode from a show that shows no sign of flagging in quality. The pacing is excellent, with the plot beginning to move but still not too fast; there’s still plenty of time for the character building scenes that Benioff and Weiss do so well. The writers have also taken it upon themselves, as last year, to take some of the books’ more implicit plots and make them explicit; last year, it was the relationship between Renly Baratheon and Loras Tyrell, this year it’s the sexual coupling of Stannis and Melisandre. This has been a divisive tactic for some of the books’ fans, but I think it works well and is justified in this different medium of storytelling. Check back next week for, likely, more fulsome praise.