Jaime meets a distant relative; Dany receives an invitation to the House of the Undying; Theon leads a search party; Jon loses his way in the wilderness; Cersei counsels Sansa.
“A Man Without Honor” is an episode that received particular anticipation from us because it was the episode that Nikolaj Coster-Waldau cited as what he thought was the best material he had ever worked with, in any production. It was to be a long while before Jaime Lannister came onto the screen, a character whose legacy is a bloody and infamous one… but legacies, legacies and history, seem to be a core theme of this episode, when you examine the various story lines being dealt with by writers Benioff and Weiss. This episode certainly improves on the worst elements of “The Old Gods and the New”, and the Jaime scenes are indeed almost all that one could hope for (save for one, rather significant quibble), but one area of the story seems to be suffering significantly, and others are at a rather precarious point where it feels like the show could jump the tracks of the narrative if the writers are not careful with where they take the narrative for the final three episodes.
The Jaime material heavily reworks incidents from the novel, including background details that actually come from A Storm of Swords... with a tweak, namely that the focus is very much on Jaime’s admiration for Ser Barristan Selmy, rather than for the knight that was his true idol at the time, Ser Arthur Dayne, the Sword of the Morning. A minor detail, and nothing worth crying tears over, but I admit that I keep waiting for someone to just intone that name and title with all the weight of mystery and romanticism that it enshrines. But of course, romanticism is something that the writers of the series have very much eschewed, and this is not really new. But still, a fan can always hope… In any case, the material is skillfully handled, and though some have complained that the long scene between Alton and Jaime feels too “talky”, it’s best to remember that dialog is often action. In fact, Jaime’s interplay with his cousin motivated the sense of conspiratorial alliance between the two, and step by step Alton drew closer, became more openly trusting, letting down his guard. Was this all a fake on Jaime’s part? Well, to some degree he did want to lure his cousin in and disarm him… but he’s a man who speaks honestly and forthrightly, and I’m fairly sure he didn’t say anything he didn’t truly mean in those exchanges.
So, it all plays out well… up to that moment when Jaime bashes Alton’s face in. I am sure when he told Alton that all he needed to do was die, that many flashed to the common scene shown in countless TV shows and films or prisoners using a ruse—a fight, an illness—to lure the guard into opening the door and coming in so that they can break out. But by doing the unexpected here, at that particular moment, they’ve pushed Jaime Lannister from being a desperate man to an inhuman one—bonding with Alton at one moment, calling on all the ties of family and shared history, and murdering him the next. And the sheer logistics—bashing his head in just enough to leave him twitching his last moments? I would have thought a better approach would have been for Jaime to start with the tired old trope of the sham fight… and then allow Torrhen Karstark to see through it and shrug, or even applaud them on, and it’s only then when the gambit fails that Jaime takes it further to Alton’s death, forcing Torrhen Stark to act. I’m sure the cleverness of simply going for his actual death, there and then out—as well as the ugly brutality of it—appealed to Benioff and Weiss, but it needed a little more to it before it genuinely worked for us.
Jaime’s last scene is also strong, but then it largely draws from one of the strongest chapters of not just A Clash of Kings, but the entire series, to inform it. Going into the episode, I had been quite concerned about the situation surrounding this moment. The growing tension in the camp, and the very real probability that Ser Jaime would die that night before King Robb returned, neatly resolves that situation. Kudos on the writers for thinking that through. I would not have minded some of the other details from that chapter to be present… but given where they’ve placed this moment—far earlier than anyone must have expected before the season started filming, we expect—they got enough into it. Perhaps the one place I would genuinely fault them is the fact that they felt the need to spell out the way that Jaime’s vows conflicted: “What if your father despises the king? What if the king plans to massacre the innocents?” I wish the writers would trust viewers to be able to figure out how the cited vows and obligations conflicted back in the last days of Robert’s Rebellion.
Other parts of the episode work admirably. Theon’s story in Winterfell, and the few moments with Bran and Rickon, all work very well and have been, for us, a true highlight of the season. It’s hard not to go into great depth here, but given what happens, we’ll leave it to the next episode to go into more detail. Elsewhere, we again see the Hound—the one that feels like he’s from the books—coming forward as well, in a gorgeously-depicted moment from the novels between him and Sansa that we admired. Sophie Turner has, if anything, grown as an actress across this season (perhaps quite literally, for all I know) and this particular episode gave her some of her widest range of moments. Whether it’s mouthing the lies she’s been taught about loving Joffrey to asking, with steely eyes, why the Hound is always so hateful, Sansa’s narrative is proving a reliably sound and thoughtful one. And though I am often vexed by how often Lena Headey’s Cersei is not very Cersei-like, her scene with Turner was very strong as she conveys the sense that for a moment she’s truly sympathizing with Sansa… and yet condemning her to the same cycle of unhappy marriage that she herself suffered, and doing so knowingly. If only the energy and fire were there—Headey’s Cersei is so often muted and guarded, rarely letting strong emotion show, quite at odds with the Cersei Lannister who is more fire than ice.
That said, Headey’s scene with Peter Dinklage near the episode is actually very fine, as they consider the legacy that is her son… although some of the details are not, I must say, to my liking. Most notably? The very open admission of her incest. The deadliest, most dangerous secret she holds is one that she never admits to anyone if she can help it, and she certainly does not admit it to Tyrion under any circumstances. She knows he knows, but she can never bring herself to confide in him. And indeed, in a sense this is how the scene closes: the awkward recognition that Tyrion cannot quite console his sister, and Cersei cannot quite confide in her brother. So to have this deadly, dangerous secret so casually admitted in his hands seems like an odd choice. This is doubtless the result of moving the moment when Tyrion comforts her from the time when she confronts him about his plans for Myrcella to this later point, but it’s a shame they couldn’t find some better way to approach the topic of Joffrey without having to bring in the fact that she admits he’s Jaime’s son.
But of course, this episode with its very fine scenes and lovely moments, but it certainly has its problems as well.
At this point, I think I’d like to call a moratorium on Arya and Tywin scenes. Yes, they’re good—but they’re starting to feel rote, the interactions always on the same topic, more or less: Tywin’s humanity, Tywin’s concern for his family and its future, and of course his probing at her identity and history. The historic detail of Harrenhal (and that fine shot of the ruins, even if they are quite different from what’s described) and Aegon’s sisters are of course always near and dear to my heart, and again it touches on the idea of legacies. And stranger still, why has Arya not used her third name on Tywin? Before, it had been assumed that they were developing her relationship with Tywin so that she couldn’t quite bring herself to such cold-blooded killing… but this episode features a moment where she is clearly tempted by the thought of killing him. Of course, the show will doubtless provide a third name in time… but at the moment one only wonders why Arya isn’t naming the Lord of Casterly Rock as soon as possible if she’s feeling murderous despite the conversations they’ve had. And, as an aside: while it’s logical for Tywin to doubt that anyone would send an assassin for Amory Lorch…. the scene could have been much better staged if they wanted to convey the idea that the dart could have been construed as having been aimed at Tywin but that Lorch somehow got in its way. That said, if Tywin believes an attempt was made on his life, why is he limiting his questioning to his own soldiers?
Why not… the prisoners who are acting as servants? Why not the very girl who appears to be in his presence more than anyone else, and who just happens to have not been around when Amory Lorch died, when otherwise we get the impression that she’s serving at his table most times? There’s no real sense of physical danger in Harrenhal for Arya, a fact that is actually an important factor in the significant developments in Arya’s character in A Clash of Kings; it all feels a little too remote, too much an intellectual game of cat-and-mouse, to carry much tension for me.
One neat way to fix this would have been to allow Arya to suffer the wrath of overseers or other servants, to be casually cursed and cuffed about by the soldiers, to basically not be safe just because she served at Lord Tywin’s table and he deigned to amuse himself on occasion by talking to her. And then to have Tywin not particularly care—that would have fit the character, would have again made it plain that his interest in Arya is of such minor note that he doesn’t ever truly pursue it, and would remind us of the danger she’s in in a more forceful way than Tywin being parried whenever he assays to catch her in a slip.
The scenes beyond the Wall should work on paper, and largely do in the moment, as the interaction between Harington and Leslie seems to feature real chemistry and the Icelandic landscape is breathtaking… but this one leaves me concerned for quite another reason: the wrap-up of this section with Jon surrounded by wildlings is now a wild departure from the novel. This is not necessarily a problem, in and of itself… but it’s a departure that seems to endanger the possibility of Qhorin Halfhand and Jon Snow having what amounts to the most important moment for Jon Snow in that book (not the obvious one that many may think of; something earlier). The build-up to it is full of tension that really feels well and truly cinematic, and I’m shocked and puzzled at the possibility that it’s been abandoned. I can only imagine they’ve decided that having more interaction with Rose Leslie is vital, but I can’t say I agree; she has more than enough presence to make an impression with less screen time. Of course, with three episodes left, there’s always the chance that Jon shall be reunited with Qhorin in a context that allows that moment to happen… but I feel trepidation at it. We shall see.
This takes us, once again, to Qarth.
Having already said my piece about the radical changes and the abandonment of the tonal and thematic aspects of Dany’s presence there, I’m not going to belabor the point beyond saying that I feel the narrative on screen is much less interesting than the mythopoaeic narrative Martin provided for Daenerys in the aftermath of the birth of the dragons. But since this is the narrative we have, how is it working? I can’t say it is doing very well, and it’s specifically because for the most part, scene-to-scene, there’s no meat on the bone. To turn Qarth into a cesspit of intrigue and assassination, all without really explaining anything about it, its history, its customs, without—in other words—giving it context, Xaro’s turn simply isn’t something that is important or even particularly interesting. Certainly, I can’t say I find it compelling. Who genuinely cares about his quest to become king enough to actually hate him? The only reason to care is ancillary to it—he used the dragons to get the support of the Undying—and that just makes the story nebulous because it’s so detached. It’s as if they retained much of Martin’s enigmatic Qarth, without understanding that they couldn’t then graft an action-packed political story onto it unless they dropped that enigma. Qarth’s mystery has been thoroughly diluted… but it hasn’t been clarified.
The final set piece was certainly impressive, but the real impression comes not from Nonso Anozie, who plays this version Xaro as too smooth and unctuous, too untouched by emotion, but by Ian Hanmore who is, certainly, very creepy indeed as Pyat Pree. The way he says “babies” gives me chills. From his appearance to the way he carries himself, he succeeds—where few others do—to bring a truly otherworldly feel to the narrative. And yet… I can’t help but note that the scale of magic he’s showing is well beyond anything Martin shows, just in a visual sense. It’s strange to think that one of the plus points for the series being adapted was that it was relatively low magic (direwolves and dragons would be the most significant not-quite-natural things around for a long time), which would be easy to reproduce on screen because naturally a higher magical quotient would need a lot more effects… and suddenly, we’re getting a lot more effects anyways. Magic in the setting is very deliberately on a smaller, less explosive scale than in many other fantasies, in part because Martin believes it’s too easy if people can just destroy one another with a snap of a finger… or slice a dozen throats with a dozen magical clones. It loses something, but I suppose the visual was well-executed.
Finally, while the scene between Jorah and Quaithe was rather interesting—and it’s new material, it must be noted—the scene between Jorah and Dany felt dissonant and not fully formed. Daenerys seemed to be all over the map, and not in a way that felt like it flowed naturally from where her character was. To be grateful for his return to help to then begin to question everything he said and then finally accepting that help… it felt schizophrenic of her. Was this the only way they could convey her lack of a sense of what to do? By pulling in her question of trust of Ser Jorah—a detail from later in the novels—it seems they also rather skipped some necessary steps to make this a genuine question rather than one dictated by the writers. It didn’t seem organic. Yes, she may be concerned about the fact that he may love her, and that may be making him possessive… but specifically centering her concern on the issue of trust seems an unmerited leap. Perhaps if Xaro had hinted that through his vast network of merchant contacts, he heard that Ser Jorah was known to have messages carried by caravans to Pentos and even by ship to Westeros, that that would have been a way to really make her wonder as to how far she could trust him. As it is, I didn’t buy that moment between them.
On the whole, King’s Landing and Winterfell have been a pleasure, and the scenes with Jaime as well, and for that I’m grateful that the show was able to mostly pull things back from the precipice of ill-considered and sometimes lazy writing and direction that really made “The Old Gods and the New” the toughest episode to like in the series to date. This one feels much more in tune with the first two episodes of the season, although it did cover less ground and so was largely able to provide enough time for characters to breathe and having meaningful dialog. Next episode, “The Prince of Winterfell”, seems to promise to highlight the Theon story which has been, consistently, the best thing about the show this season… and is the episode that will lead into the much-anticipated “Blackwater”, which could well become the fan favorite of the show if it lives up to its promise.
The episode covers the following chapters of A Clash of Kings: Theon IV, Sansa IV, and elements of Catelyn V and Catelyn VII.
Changes of note, chapter-by-chapter: