Game of Thrones: Season 4, Episode 10–The Children

“We both know that winter is coming. And if my people aren’t south of the Wall when it comes in earnest, we’ll all end up worse than dead.”

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(SPOILER WARNING!)

Unpredictable beasts, season finales of Game of Thrones. In the past, they’ve tended to be a chance to take stock after the tumultuous events of episode 9, while also laying the groundwork for next season’s plots. This one, though, was uncharacteristically action-packed, with some game-changing plot developments that should leave even those who’ve read the books impatient to see what happens next.

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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.”

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(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.

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

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

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(SPOILER WARNING!)

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

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Game of Thrones: Season 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 6–The Climb

“If you think this has a happy ending, you haven’t been paying attention.”

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Another low key (by its standards) episode of Game of Thrones this week, which caught us up with a number of the show’s multifarious plotlines that have been slightly neglected of late. Central to the ep was the dangerous, laborious climb up the Wall by the Wildling commandos, with Jon and Ygritte taking part despite having their own agendas; and bookending the literal climb was Petyr Baelish’s musing on the metaphorical climb to power that so many of the characters are attempting.

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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 7–A Man Without Honor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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