Dany (Emilia Clarke) makes a difficult decision in Meereen. Jon (Kit Harington) recruits the help of an unexpected ally. Brienne (Gwendoline Christie) searches for Sansa (Sophie Turner). Theon (Alfie Allen) remains under Ramsay’s (Iwan Rheon) control.
“Kill the Boy”, the first of Bryan Cogman’s two entries as screenwriter, proves to feature something we’ve seen before: the mid-season rush to move from the first half of the season’s set up to the second half’s resolution. What this means in practical terms is that while the settings for the episode are narrowed down (there’s no Braavos, King’s Landing, or Dorne this time around), a good deal happens in certain of the storylines to propel their stories into a higher gear. This has its good points, namely that there’s certain plot movement forward, but also its bad, namely that sometimes the rush to get forward means at times that very large stretches have to be made to connect pieces together to get that momentum.
Particularly effective in this episode is the general placement of Daenerys Targaryen and Jon Snow as sharing similar burdens and similar challenges. Both rule their domains, and both rule over troubled, fractious groups that are resistant to change and nurse grievances to their heart. This is a juxtaposition that holds true to the novel A Dance with Dragons, where Daenerys and Jon, and the show’s ability to also bring in King’s Landing allows Martin’s intended Dany-Cersei parallels to occasionally peek through (though perhaps not as well as when one compares, say, Daenerys’s first chapter in ADwD to Cersei’s first in A Feast for Crows, bearing in mind that originally those chapters would have appeared in the same book).
Both, however, do feature some of the issues of hurrying things along. Daenerys is the lesser case, as the death of Barristan—finally and absolutely confirmed in this episode, and given a lovely send off in the episode’s Beautiful Death image—leads her to cruel and violent action. To a degree this plays on one of the central conflicts of Daenerys’s transformation into the Mother of Dragons and the conqueror of Meereen: are the house words Fire and Blood a sign of all she can truly bring, or can she create lasting peace? The Targaryens of the past have sometimes been capricious, especially the less stable ones, and an argument can be made (though not a very good one, we feel) that peace was less common than war even in the era of the Targaryen dynasty.
But the cruelty of her actions, going up to the point of threatening Hizdahr after having fed one of his peers to her dragons, feels like a heavy-handed way to get her to perform a 180-degree turn… and not just any 180-degree turn, but one that they give her the entire responsibility for, whereas in the novels Daenerys is urged by multiple councillors to marry and so bind Meereenese more fully to her. What was an obvious idea in the novels becomes something to enhance Daenerys herself.
Structurally, it may be that the writers feel that the midway point needs to provide Daenerys a moment of clarity that seems like it will settle her problems for her, and that’s certainly an arguable position. If it requires delivering Daenerys to an extreme position before she takes the contrary one, at least the loss of Ser Barristan the Bold seems a suitable way to do it. One might have wished, however, that it wasn’t “done in one”, that there had been room and time to perhaps let Daenerys lash out in her anger for an episode or two more. And on a minor note, Joel Fry as Hizdahr zo Loraq turns in his finest performance to date in that dungeon cell—a fine piece of work from him.
In much colder climes, Jon takes Maester Aemon’s advice to “kill the boy”, to give up illusions of being loved and liked by his men, to make the fateful decision to allow Tormund free with the intention of Tormund leading an expedition to Hardhome to bring thousands of wildlings south of the Wall before they join the “army of the dead”. This is a particularly fascinating episode because it pulls together from a wide range of chapters in the novel (including Jon’s last in A Dance with Dragons), concentrating them all into this one moment when Jon explains his goal, offers his plan, and accepts it when Tormund suggests he must come as well, combining both the initial sea-borne effort with the more desperate overland expedition that follows when it proves not up to the task.
The change here, the one that makes no real sense and so requires some hand-waving, is the idea that Jon must be forced to go with Tormund with the argument that the wildlings need to hear his promise from him. Tormund implies that the wildlings might think it a trap, that he’ll set the ships alight… but when their crew is aboard it, what kind of sense does that make? If Jon’s willing to burn scores of “his” men, sufficiently irrational wildlings might think he’d be just as willing to kill himself. It’s a flaw of construction, especially as it seems to us that Jon could just as well have offered to go as well, to command his own men rather than put them under a wildling’s command. Such a minor thing, but it stuck out.
Other than that small flaw, the Wall works quite well, even if Stannis’s reasons for taking Shireen and Selyse with him—a deviation from the novels—is painfully obvious a decision from the writer’s room in respect to their plans that aren’t really in line with the novels. Stannis in the books has no concern for his wife and daughter on the Wall, not with his guard about them and not with Jon Snow in command, but by crafting their own story that veers away from the novels the writers must again force characters to make decisions that are quite different from their novel counterparts. (As an aside, Samwell and Gilly speaking of the Citadel and maesters makes us wonder if this is not laying down the groundwork for Samwell going to Oldtown after all. I had speculated this wouldn’t happen for io9, and am now preparing to eat crow if that does turn out to be the case.)
Between these two larger, plot-centric storylines, we have two smaller ones, segments we might consider atmospheric that help to establish characters and prepare the way for more significant events later. At Winterfell, Sansa discovers that she has a mysterious friend (Brienne was very persuasive, obviously) and also that Ramsay is not as sweet as he pretended. Our issue here is that Myranda eats up an inordinate amount of time. While the actress does well, there’s a sense that there was a need for more nudity in that long bedroom scene… and a sense that every minute with her petty, dangerous jealousy is a minute less spent with Reek, Sansa, and/or Roose. We certainly know that Ramsay as conceived in the novels doesn’t need a jealous psychopath girlfriend to make what he does and why he does it more apparently vile, and given how little they made any real use of Myranda last season it feels as if her character was a concept that they liked on paper but now feel forced to make use of her to tie up loose strings.
The dinner scene, too, has its little issues—Roose’s extremely long silence felt awkward in the scene, to say the least, but this may be intentional (if off-putting). But Ramsay’s remark about it being “tense” took us out of the story, and made us remark to one another about how Iwan Rheon (a very fine young actor) seems to have been given moments and lines that emphasize his off-kilter, sadistic humor more and more often. There’s something of the Joker about him—Mark Hamill’s Joker, sometimes, rather than Heath Ledger’s—and while it’s a consistent interpretation, it felt like the missed the mark when trying to feel menacing. On the other hand, the scene that followed with Roose’s twisted, horrifying narrative of his rape of Ramsay’s mother (beneath the swinging corpse of the husband he had executed, no less) followed by, “You are my son” is a bit of mad and perverse genius when juxtaposing it to the touching, beautiful Stannis-Shireen scene that we praised so much in “The Sons of the Harpy”.
And then, last of all, Tyrion and Jorah continue their sea journey and come to …. Valyria?! Let us first say that the “topless towers” of Valyria, the Doom, and everything around it has enormous mystery and ominous weight in the novels. To then see it, filmed on a small river in Ireland presented with a bit of mist and called “the Smoking Sea”, was quite the shock. It far, far failed to capture the image one supposes from the novels of an Atlantean ruin of wonder and dread, haunted by demons and wracked by flames and lava and geysers. The writers seemed amused by the idea that that was all just the fancy of sailors, that in fact it’s just a sad and quiet ruin, but to us it means they’ve belittled and treated lightly one of the central images of the past of the setting, the destruction of the world’ greatest empire (mentioned in Daenerys’s very first chapter far back in A Game of Thrones, in a place where it evokes wonder and curiosity) that matches with its flames the snow and ice of the world’s primordial disaster of the Long Night.
And yet… they use this poor man’s Valyria to at last at least pay passing nod to one of the elements that runs strong in Martin’s novels: romanticism. We have written about this in Beyond the Wall, a collection of essays, and have spoken about it in interviews and podcasts since as something we feel to be a central and very important feature of the novels. So it was heartening to see it acknowledged, even if for one scene in one episode. The poem was a nice homage to Romantic poetry, doubtless inspired by a throwaway reference in the tourney of singers in A Storm of Swords, and in that it was good.
But… Valyria? How disappointing that they did not at least establish that this was some “minor outpost” of the Freehold, at least, so that we did not have to be treated with the paltry “Smoking Sea” or have to pretend that the Doom’s aftermath is a sailor’s fancy. Or, better yet, to have reconfigured the season slightly, to have Tyrion seized at Selhorys and taken to Chroyane, the festival city, now a drowned ruin because the Rhoynar—ancestors of the Martells of Dorne—dared to dance with dragons and paid the price. One of those great ruins could have been the Palace of Love which for a thousand years has instead borne the name of the Palace of Sorrow…
Romanticism, straight from the novel—in fact, our essay on romanticism in A Song of Ice and Fire was titled “The Palace of Love, The Palace of Sorrow”—and it would have allowed him a taste of Dornish history, and perhaps even hold a thematic hint about the role of their story in the overarching Game of Thrones saga. Volantis? Could have been glimpsed later, if Jorah would pass through there with Tyrion, or not at all if that’s what they preferred. But since Volantis’s role in the story has been severely reduced, no longer playing the role it does in the novels, we’d think that would not be a loss in any case.
The actual story action, of course, is an interesting test of Selznick’s maxim of cutting rather than changing. By cutting out Tyrion’s river journey and its companions in the novels, and giving them to Jorah, it’s clear the producers made a choice of how best to spend their limited time. And yet when Jorah is revealed, in that final twist, to be infected with greyscale, we see one particular element of that cut storyline has been salvaged. Is it just because the dilemma of it appeals? Or could this be a sign that greyscale really does hold some importance for Martin’s ultimate plans for the novels?
Spending too much time speculating and reading the tea leaves of decisions by Benioff and Weiss can lead to madness, however. Let us say, instead, that there’s no immediate feeling that this is a strange or unwarranted transplantation of an element to Jorah’s story. It could, indeed, be interesting if it lets us get some strong emotional beats down the road. We’ll just have to wait and see.
The episode covers the following chapters: Samwell IV (AFfC), Samwell I (AFfC) / Jon II (ADwD), elements of Jon III, Jon XI, and Jon XIII (ADwD), Reek III (ADwD), Daenerys V (ADwD), and Tyrion V (ADwD).
Other scenes of note:
Grey Worm and Missandei: As noted in the last episode guide, such an attack as wounds Grey Worm never happens in the novels. Missandei has no particular feelings for Grey Worm, and vice versa, as she is a child in the novels.
Barristan’s Death: As noted in the last episode guide, Barristan survives through A Dance with Dragons. Daario’s suggestion is in keeping with his argument that the city must be cleaned out of the masters, but Daenerys’s alternative to frighten them into submission is a significant deviation. When pressed by the sons of the harpy, she actually allows Hizdahr to attempt to convince the rebels to stop their killings. In fact, her going so far a to have a random master killed is extremely loosely based on her allowing Skahaz the Shavepate to torture a man and his daughters for information, but this level of injustice once she’s queen is an invention of the show.
Brienne and Podrick: The two never come in sight of Winterfell in the published novels, but Brienne’s storyline has gone very far from that of the novels at this point.
Myranda: Myranda does not exist in the novel, so these scenes are an invention of the show.
Sansa in Winterfell: This invented storyline of the show continues, introducing a secret conspiracy among servants of Winterfell to help Sansa when she is at need. This ma be extremely loosely inspired by the fact that some northerners do maintain support for the Starks even under the Boltons.
Sansa and Reek: Although Sansa’s presence is new for the show, Theon being kept in the kennels by Ramsay certainly is based on his condition in the books, as his refusal to accept his original name.
Ramsay and Theon: The specific scene is invented, but does capture some of the dynamics between Ramsay and Theon at thos point in time for the most part. Ramsay forgiving Reek is, however, rather out of character.
Gilly,Samwell, and Stannis: Samwell’s claim tha the library of Winterfell is small is actually untrue, by the standards of the novels, as it holds hundreds of volumes and records. Samwell did wish to become a maester when he was young, as he notes in this scene. Stannis and Samwell do meet in the novel, where Stannis remarks on his father, and just as on the show he becomes interested in the use of dragonglass against the Others.
Stannis and Davos: Davos is not present in Castle Black in the novels, and does not join Stannis on the Watch. For that matter, in the novels neither do Selyse and Shireen, as Stannis has no concern for their safety at Castle Black given the guard he leaves them.
Shireen and Davos: Similarly, this scene does not take place in the books as Shireen does not join her father’s march nor is Davos present to speak to her.
Jon and Stannis: In the novels, Stannis departs between chapters, so his leaving is not depicted. As established in the last episode, Melisandre travels with him on the show, though this again is a deviation from the novels as she remains at the Wall in the books.
Daenerys and Missandei: This scene encapsulates the two choices Daenerys can make in Meereen, namely unleashing violence to quell the uprising and attempt to make peace.