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 3, Episode 10–Mhysa

You really think a crown gives you power?”

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After the tumultuous events of last week, this week’s season finale of Game of Thrones felt more like an epilogue than a climax. True, it was still a highly charged, and often tremendously violent piece of drama. But it also had the tall order of providing a capstone to just about all of this year’s multifarious plotlines, in preparation for next year. Benioff and Weiss’ script accomplished this with some aplomb, catching us up on just about every major character – the ones still alive, that is.

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Game of Thrones: Season 3, Episode 1–Valar Dohaeris

“Big men fall just as fast as little ones – if you put a sword through their heart.” – Jon Snow

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It’s a solid if unspectacular start to the much-anticipated third season of Game of Thrones, with an episode that has to establish where its growing army of characters are and what they’re doing since we last saw them. With the ever-increasing roster of main characters and ever more complex plots within plots, this is no small task. It’s unsurprising that, while it’s full of intrigue, the season opener has to take in so many subplots that it doesn’t deal with any of them in more than cursory detail. Even then, there’s one or two important subplots that showrunners David Benioff and DB Weiss, scripting this week, couldn’t actually fit in.

This is hardly surprising – George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, the book series on which the show is based, gets ever more labyrinthine as it goes on. Recognising this, Benioff and Weiss have sensibly decided that this year’s ten episodes will cover roughly half the third book, A Storm of Swords. That equates to its book publication, in the UK at least, where the paperback was also split into two volumes.

It might, therefore, give greater room for the characters and plots to breathe. On this week’s evidence though, I wouldn’t guarantee that. Still, the script sensibly kept any new characters to a minimum, which meant that even if we didn’t see much of the ones here, we already had a handle on who they were and what they were about.

A fair chunk of this ep focused on events Beyond the Wall, where the big threat of Ancient Unstoppable Evil is. To my mind, while they’re clearly the most dangerous of the show’s antagonists, the mysterious White Walkers and their army of slavering zombies are less interesting than the political machinations elsewhere. But we’d been left with the big cliffhanger last year of an apparent army of the devils marching on the band of Nightwatch camped in the wilds, so necessarily we had to deal with that first.

Gotta say, after the buildup in the season finale, the lack of an actual big battle was a bit of a disappointment. But lavish though it may be, Game of Thrones doesn’t have the budget to stage a Battle of Blackwater every week. Besides, it played out here much as it did in the book, with Samwell Tarly finding a corpse, assuming everyone was dead, then being rescued from a (fairly unconvincing CG) zombie by the survivors of the Watch.

That being dealt with, we didn’t return to them – there wasn’t really time. It was swiftly on to the Wildling camp, where the captive Jon Snow was ushered into the presence of ‘King Beyond the Wall’ Mance Rayder, making his first appearance here. Ciaran Hinds was as impressive as ever as Mance – another good piece of casting from a show that tends to do well here.

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Jon won his confidence with a sincere-sounding speech about recognising the real enemy and not being convinced the Watch had their hearts in dealing with it. It sets up an interesting scenario; Jon originally ‘joined’ Wildlings as an inside man for the Watch – will his loyalties genuinely change?

We won’t find out this week, as it was swiftly off to King’s Landing to catch up on the aftermath of the Joffrey/Lannister victory at the Blackwater. It wouldn’t be Game of Thrones without some utterly gratuitous sex though, so we were reintroduced to Jerome Flynn’s charismatic sellsword Bronn in the usual brothel, where he was most displeased at being distracted from a whore’s crotch by the unexpected arrival of Tyrion’s squire Pod.

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Tyrion himself had a few interesting confrontations this week. First, it was his sister, popping by his dingy new quarters to verbally fence; Tyrion has good cause to be wary of her, as it was one of her men who tried to kill him under cover of the battle. Luckily for Peter Dinklage, the TV version has backpedalled somewhat on the extent of his injuries, leaving him with a scarred cheek where in the novel he’d lost most of his nose. Cersei even alluded to that in a nice in-joke, commenting that she’d heard he’d lost his nose, but it was plainly an exaggeration.

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Their father Tywin was no more forgiving. Confronted by the irked Tyrion  asking to be recognised as heir to Casterly Rock in gratitude for his action in saving the city, the frosty Tywin told him, basically, “over my dead body”. It was an excellent scene, as well-played as ever by Charles Dance and Peter Dinklage; one of the few scenes, in fact, that had room to breathe in the multitude here.

Another was a very uncomfortable dinner with Joffrey and Cersei being visited by the Tyrells. Margery, having basically been anointed future Queen at the end of last season, was living up to the role by doing a Princess Diana – visiting orphanages, feeding the poor, and genuinely trying to become as well-loved by the people of Westeros as Joffrey is well-hated. The dinner was a scene of subtextual verbal jousting; almost every word spoken was a subtle jibe, while on the surface everyone was perfectly civil, even Joffrey for a wonder.

We also caught up with the losing side, as Liam Cunningham’s Davos Seaworth was revealed to have survived the battle by dint of hanging on to a handy rock. Rescued by charismatic pirate Salladhor Saan, Davos wasted no time rushing off to Dragonstone in a doomed attempt to free Stannis from the evil Melisandre. No dice – Carice van Houten continues to rival Lena Headey’s Cersei for the crown of Most Evil Woman in the show. A decent bloke like Davos doesn’t stand a chance against her.

The  very briefest of visits to the army of Robb Stark revealed that he’d reached Harrenhal, where the Mountain had slaughtered hundreds of prisoners. The main discontent in Army Stark, however, remains the freeing of Jaime Lannister by Catelyn. It looks like that’s going to lead to trouble for Robb, but he at least had the nous to have his mother clapped into a dungeon. I wouldn’t bank on that appeasing his bannermen for long though…

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And lastly, a slightly more detailed visit to Essos caught us up with the doings of Dany Targaryen and her loyal (if seasick) Dothraki. Her dragons are getting bigger, and continue to be one of the show’s better effects. But they’re not big enough to win a war, so it was off to the slave markets of Astapor to buy a few thousand of ‘the Unsullied’ a Spartan-like band of slave soldiers hardened by castration, brutal training and the requirement to kill a baby to graduate.

The scene in which Dany’s disquiet with slavery is counterpointed with humorous translation gags between her, the slave dealer and cowed translator girl Missandei was faithfully transcribed from the book (“tell the old man he smells of piss”). As was, wince-makingly, the moment where slave dealer Krazis demonstrates how bloody hard the Unsullied are by chopping the nipple off one of them while he doesn’t even flinch. He may not have, but I certainly did.

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Plainly, Dany has a problem with slavery. Equally plainly, the slavers have a problem with her (“tell the Westerosi whore to pay attention”). This may not end well.

First though, she had other enemies to deal with – namely the blue-mouthed warlocks of Qarth, one of whose number she unceremoniously burnt to death with her dragons last year. This has not pleased them, so an assassin was dispatched, in the shape of a creepy little girl with a blue mouth. As horror fans know, you can’t go wrong with a creepy little girl. Especially if she’s carrying a fearsome looking scorpion-style thingy.

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Luckily for Dany, another long lost character reappeared to save her by impaling the beastie on a short sword. Yes, it was none other than Ser Barristan Selmy, last seen being fired from the Kingsguard by the petulant Joffrey. Repenting of his allegiance to the Baratheons and the Lannisters, he’s  turned up to help the last Targaryen, who he sees as the true heir.

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In the books, Barristan spent most of the length of one novel not revealing his identity, instead going by the name Whitebeard. The producers of the show have sensibly dispensed with this, as the viewers would undoubtedly recognise actor Ian McIlhenny unless he was heavily made up. Rather than going through that, they’ve clearly decided it was a plot thread they didn’t really need.

They may well have to edit out quite a few others, with this adaptation being probably the most ambitious of all. Even in such a crowded opening episode, there were several important plot threads that we didn’t catch up on. Where are Bran and Hodor? What’s become of Brienne and Jaime Lannister? How’s Arya Stark doing?

This was a solid enough season opener – for many shows, you’d think it outstanding. For this one though, it merely felt functional; a necessary catchup and scene setting for the advancement of the multifarious plots this year. Game of Thrones is never less than compelling, but it’s at its best when concentrating on just one or two of its plot threads, or a handful of its characters. For the beginning of a new season, that’s not really possible, but this was probably the best compromise we could hope for between drama and story advancement.

Game of Thrones: Season 2, Episode 10–Valar Morghulis

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 10 YET.

“This war has just begun. It will last for years.”

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After the tumultuous excitement of last week’s Battle of Blackwater Bay, Game of Thrones’ season finale had a hard act to follow. Since last week seemed like a climax to the story, there was always the danger that this season ending would come across more like an epilogue. Yet it pulled off the hard trick of being an exciting finale in its own right, given a little more running time than usual to catch up on all the other plots left hanging from episode 8 and setting up situations and journeys for next year’s third season.

With so much to catch up on, I rather expected the aftermath of the battle for King’s Landing to be skipped over quite briefly, but even this was given a fair amount of screentime. Joffrey held court in the throne room, doling out rewards for his allies, most notably Margery Tyrell. With Cersei having cleared it with the Small Council and Pycelle with the High Septon, Joffrey’s show of obedience to his betrothal to Sansa was set aside in favour of Loras’ scheming sister – much to Sansa’s relief.

Natalie Dormer gave a subtle, intriguing performance as Margery, with her established political ambition – to be THE Queen – now in sight. Sansa, for her part, found her relief shortlived when Littlefinger (Aidan Gillen’s Irish accent none too well suppressed) enlightened her that the sadistic boy king could still beat her and take her in the bedroom. It was a revealing exchange, obviously setting up future plotlines – when Baelish commented that Sansa was “just like her mother”, it set off warning bells, as we already know of his deep unrequited feelings for Catelyn Stark. Meanwhile, you have to wonder if the smugly satisfied, fickle Margery knows quite what she’s let herself in for agreeing to marry Joffrey…

Tyrion too found the future uncertain, as Varys paid a visit to his sickbed. First though, Grand Maester Pycelle got a bit of payback for Tyrion’s earlier imprisonment of him, taking oily delight in informing him that Tywin had taken over as Hand of the King, and Tyrion was now, basically, nothing in the court. It’s a small role, Pycelle, but genre favourite Julian Glover has made him a truly loathsome schemer. The schadenfreud as he tossed Tyrion a coin – “for your trouble” – was perfectly played.

Varys got a fair bit to do this week too, which was great for fans of Conleth Hill’s silky, evasive performance as the court spymaster. After informing Tyrion that, whatever the history books might say, some at least would remember him as the saviour of King’s Landing, Varys also got a nice little scene with Ros (Esme Bianco), as he proved immune to her allure but instead of sex bought her complicity as an informant. “Littlefinger sees you as a collection of profitable holes,” he purred silkily, “but I see you as a future partner.”

It was a good scene and well played by both – I particularly liked the expression on Ros’ face when she discovered that there was nothing between Varys’ legs to manipulate. But it was also the first (and not the last) moment that made me wonder about how exactly the characters got to that point, a casualty, presumably, of trying to squeeze such a lengthy, complex book into ten episodes of TV. When last we saw Ros, she was a captive of Cersei, in the mistaken belief that she was Tyrion’s whore. No explanation was given for her current freedom – had Cersei realised her mistake?

At least we got clarity that Tyrion’s attacker in the battle was actually a paid assassin for Cersei, a rare clear explanation in a show full of duplicitous scheming (unless of course Varys was lying). Tyrion’s future in the capital is now evidently perilous, but as he admits to Shae, he loves the game far too much to give it up and escape to obscurity. Peter Dinklage, the breakout star of the show’s first season, has been elevated to top billing in the credits this year, and it’s clearly deserved.

As I say, it was a surprise that the characters in King’s Landing got so much attention with so many other plotlines to resolve or move on, but all got their due moment in showrunners’ Benioff and Weiss’ script. Some were dealt with more quickly than others, but even these had complex, well-played scenes – even if it was only one each.

So we briefly caught up with Arya, Gendry and Hot Pie, now wandering the wastes outside Harrenhal, for just one quick but significant scene. Jaqen H’gar popped up (as if by magic) to explain himself and offer Arya a place with ‘the Faceless Men’, a mysterious-sounding group of which he is presumably one. Maisie Williams as Arya looked tempted, but had to refuse, preferring to try and reunite her family (good luck with that one, they’re all over the Seven Kingdoms). But Jaqen wasn’t quite done with her, giving her a strange coin and the codewords “valar morghulis”, should she wish to find him again. Then he changed his face utterly and was gone, a different man. It was a nicely subtle bit of the magic that the show uses so sparingly, but I have to say I’ll miss German actor Tom Wlaschiha as Jaqen.

Brienne and Jaime, clearly now another of the show’s excellent double acts, also got one scene to continue their journey towards King’s Landing. Probably not strictly necessary as it didn’t advance their storyline one bit, but useful as a reminder of where they were, and where they were going. It also gave Brienne, finally, a chance to show what a badass she truly is as they were confronted by a trio of too-inquisitive Stark soldiers, who had previously killed three girls for the simple crime of flirting with Lannisters. After the initial bluff failed and the thugs recognised Jaime for who he was, Brienne slaughtered them all in a single-handed display of the show’s trademark gore. Gods know where she shoved the sword in her last victim – even this show backed off from displaying that clearly – but it looked like a very painful end.

Up at Dragonstone, Stannis too got a single scene to lick his wounds after his defeat at Blackwater, and take it out on Melisandre, whose prophecies of victory now seemed hollow. Carice van Houten as Melisandre yet again pulled out the stops in her portrayal of the Red Priestess as a mysterious, yet alluring sexual presence. Even the furious Stannis couldn’t – quite – bring himself to strangle her, and their scene together ended with him yet again utterly in her thrall, gazing eagerly into the flames of her god’s visions. The Battle of Blackwater may be over, but it’s clear that for Stannis, this is just a pause in the war…

Robb Stark too was pausing in the fight – in his case because right now, love was preferable to war. He’s besotted enough with Talisa to actually marry her, in a typically flame lit night scene, despite his mother’s warnings about arousing the wrath of Walder Frey. All this happened offscreen (as it were) in the books, with Robb turning up married as a fait accompli. Here, Richard Madden and Michelle Fairlie got a good scene as Catelyn reminded Robb that hers too had been an arranged marriage, and she and Ned had grown to love each other “stone by stone”. But Robb wasn’t listening (when does young love ever?) and you can see upcoming trouble for him being telegraphed from miles away.

There was also Theon Greyjoy’s increasingly tenuous-looking occupation of Winterfell to resolve before the season was out, and that was done with subversive brevity. Theon got a contemplative scene with the ever-thoughtful Maester Luwin as Northern troops surrounded the castle, hopelessly outnumbering him. The dialogue was as revealing as ever; Luwin told him, “you’re not the man you’re pretending to be. Not yet.”, to which Theon could only helplessly reply, “It’s too late for me to pretend to be anyone else.”

Too late indeed, as he gave a genuinely rousing speech to spur his twenty men into glorious deaths against the five hundred opposing them. But even his own men have had enough of him, and plainly would rather live than have songs sung about their deaths. So Dagmer promptly clobbered Theon as soon as he’d finished (“it was a good speech”), and dragged him off with a bag over his head. It was now clear (if it hadn’t been before) that Dagmer, played by the reliably loathsome Ralph Ineson (Finchy from The Office) was a conflation of both his own character from the books and that of the equally loathsome Reek. In a show with such an enormous ensemble cast, reducing the character list by combining similar ones is probably a very wise way to go.

But here too we had evidence of problems squeezing the book’s sheer amount of detail into the TV show’s comparatively short run. Bran, Rickon, Osha and Hodor emerged from their crypt hideout to discover Winterfell burned out and ruined, and Maester Luwin dying in the Godswood. Yet there was no sign of the Northern troops that had so outnumbered the Ironmen, and no indication of why they would simply abandon Winterfell when it’s the ancestral seat of the King in the North. It seemed likely that it was the fleeing Ironmen who’d actually torched the place, but having previously established that a Stark-friendly army was camped outside, you had to wonder why there was no one left when the Stark boys came out of hiding.

Still, they too have been set on a new course for next season. Advised by the dying Luwin to head for the Wall and the help of Jon Snow, the last we saw of Bran, Rickon, Osha and Hodor was them fleeing the smoking ruins of Winterfell and heading North.

Over the sea in Qarth, we had to deal with Dany’s resolve to go to the scary sounding House of the Undying to rescue her dragons from the cadaverous warlock Pyat Pree. This is one of the weirder scenes in the book, with magic and illusion leaving you questioning how much of what Dany sees in the mysterious building is actually real. Here, sensibly, this surreal journey was somewhat simplified. But we still got some magnificent visuals of Dany’s hallucinatory journey, finding herself first in the ruined, roofless and snowy throne room in King’s Landing, then venturing North of the Wall to where she found a Dothraki tent. Inside, we got an unexpected, and most welcome, return for Jason Momoa as her deceased love Khal Drogo, clutching their child, a vision of the life Dany was forever denied. Emilia Clarke again gave a splendidly mature performance as she rejected the vision’s falsity, even in the face of being reunited with her one true love.

But she still had to deal with Pree, who was doing his familiar trick of appearing in multiple places while magicking chains onto Dany next to her equally chained dragons. We then got one of the show’s truly triumphant moments as Dany exhorted the small creatures to incinerate the treacherous warlock, breaking his magical chains. The shot of her defiant, with the dragons roaring flame like flamethrowers, was awesome. It also made you realise what a fearsome weapon these creatures will be when they’re fully grown; they’re only the size of cats, and they can already incinerate a man from across a room.

And Dany wasn’t done with her betrayers, catching Xaro Xhoan Daxos in bed with her treacherous handmaiden Doreah. Taking the key to his mysterious vault, she found it empty of the promised riches – Xaro had been nothing more than a conman the whole time. Xaro and Doreah got a truly nasty end, sealed into the dark empty vault to die, and Dany ended this year ransacking the riches of his palace. She’s one step closer to buying the ships she needs to return to Westeros and wage war. And when the dragons are grown, who’ll be able to stand against her?

Finally, we had to catch up with the various parties of the Night’s Watch beyond the Wall. Jon and Qhorin were still being led, tied up, to the wildling camp, and Jon was baited into fighting then killing his legendary colleague. It was less clear than in the book that this was at Qhorin’s own urging, a means to get Jon taken into the wildlings’ confidence as an inside man; but the result was the same. Jon was untied, and the last we saw of him, he was gazing down into a valley filled with what looked like thousands of wildling tents.

Elsewhere, Lord Mormont’s party was again represented by lowly latrine diggers Sam, Edd and Grenn. Their usual fun banter (“It’s no place to live where you have to burn shit to keep warm”) was abruptly interrupted by the unprecedented sound of three blasts on the Rangers’ horn. We’d already established that three blasts, unused for centuries, meant the arrival of the legendary White Walkers, barely glimpsed since the show’s very beginning.

And so it proved, as a terrifying army of undead wights began to stream past the cowering Sam, led by a truly alien-looking blue eyed creature riding an undead horse. It was a genuinely thrilling climax to the season, with the zombies every bit the equal of those in The Walking Dead; and it’s probably a bit churlish to mention that the closing shot, of an undead army advancing on the Watch encampment, was essentially identical to the cliffhanger in Walking Dead’s penultimate episode this year.

It’s been a triumphant second season that’s firmly cemented the show’s success, and established that it can work as an ensemble without a central ‘hero’ figure like Ned Stark to hold it together. It’s also, for practical reasons, compressed or omitted many storylines and characters from the book; though as I’ve remarked, now and then this has left gaping holes in plotlines and character motivations. Sensibly, the showrunners have declared that the next, even longer book will be dealt with over the course of two seasons, and from there it may get even trickier as books four and five take place, for the most part, concurrently. Nonetheless, Game of Thrones is now clearly another great success story for HBO, and I’m already waiting eagerly for the next season.

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 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 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.