The Hound is judged by the gods; Jaime is judged; Jon proves himself; Robb is betrayed; Tyrion learns the cost of weddings.
Many will, surely, see “And Now His Watch is Ended” as the best episode of the season to date… but we’ll differ, and argue that—but for one very notable flaw—“Kissed by Fire” is a more consistently good episode on a writing and pacing level. Bryan Cogman, who has again shown himself to have the best eye among the show’s writers (that is, those who aren’t George R.R. Martin) for capturing the essence of the novels and putting them on the page, turns in an episode that had a hard act to follow since “And Now His Watch is Ended” had such an overwhelming finish. Yet this episode is just as momentous, in its way, marking major changes of circumstance for a number of characters, and doing a great deal to set up the denoument of the season. But before we get into the meat of the episode—the big stuff—lets give due praise to the writing and performances around Dragonstone.
The Dragonstone-based characters have always been a difficult part of the show to deal with, because they’re both introduced in the second season—and so have to hit the ground running—and because their stories are somewhat disconnected from everything else. Davos never interacts with anyone but the Dragonstone characters, for example, and Stannis has just one episode speaking with someone outside of his particular sphere in the previous season. When compared to the amount of time building up the North or King’s Landing, and showing us a wide range of interactions, the Dragonstone storyline has always felt a bit more theatrical in its smallness, and while that can be a good thing in some circustmances, on a show like Game of Thrones it can easily be drowned out despite the terrific cast that they have there. So it says something about what Cogman’s able to do when he not only gives us one of the best segments on Dragonstone the show has ever had, but it’s one that introduces two (essentially) new characters and a whole new dynamic at the very same time. Up to now, Stannis has been something of a cypher—a man of iron conviction, with no common touch or finesse, simply that will to achieve what he believes is his due, but someone who is now lost, his hopes fading and this strange, rather frightening woman is his only succor and he clings to her.
And then we meet the other strange, rather frightening woman in his life, and perhaps it begins to make more sense. Although the show has taken some liberties—Stannis’s relationship to Melisandre on the show is rather a lot more passionate (at least on his part) than in the novels—it’s painted something that, at the core, is very accurate to the essential nature of these characters. Selyse Baratheon is a devout woman, a zealot, because her life before she found this foreign faith was anything but happy: an unloving husband, a cold marriage bed, a disfigured daughter as the only offspring despite prayers for boys. The awkwardness of Stannis’s entry into her chamber, the stiff formality matched to the forlorn features of the man who would be king, was very interesting when juxtaposed against Selyse’s absolute devotion and utter belief in him and in her god. The flames of the Lord of Light may be too hot for her, her husband may be too cold for her, but she is committed to them in a way that’s beyond rational. Tara Fitzgerald is a much more beautiful person than Selyse is supposed to be, but the show’s makeup and styling teams do a fine job of making her seem less attractive than she does in real life. More importantly, however, she’s an actress who’s able to deliver that focus and intensity of a character who believes something with all her heart, however unwise, however unhealthy. Cogman’s chief liberty with Selyse, of course, are the babies in the preserving jars, each with a name. This embellishment isn’t from the novels, and it seems like some find it too much, but the horror of it strikes me as something that Martin himself may have used if the idea was suggested to him in time. Certainly Selyse’s concern about the failure to produce a son for her husband was a major motivating factor that brought her to Melisandre and the Lord of Light, so this very visual way of depicting that fits quite naturally.
The other side of the coin in Dragonstone is the daughter, Shireen, played by the young, award-winning actress Kerry Ingram. Who knew the show would make such an attempt to be faithful to what greyscale might look like? That makeup certainly didn’t take just ten minutes to put on, but thanks to Ingram’s fortitude and talent, it helps bring Stannis’s daughter—this sweet, gentle, ugly little girl—to life. Shireen’s special friendship with Ser Davos may be new (they’re certainly friendly in the novels, that said), but it quickly and neatly shows us the two poles of Stannis’s life: the dour, god-fearing wife who will follow Melisandre anywhere she led her, and the loving, lonely daughter who cares about a man whose main role may be described as Stannis’s only friend. The qualities she sees—through her child’s eyes—in Davos are the qualities that made Stannis keep turning to Davos. From her introduction singing Patchface’s song (whether it’s his song—and we’re just not going to meet him yet, or at all—or her own isn’t yet clear) to her sitting down there beginning Davos’s lessons in literacy, she brings a smile and laughter and something very like hope to the gray, dull, embittered world in which Stannis exists. He lack even feeling enough to soften the blow of his words to his daughter—he holds nothing back to her, and that’s as it should be, but the sadness of it is quite plain.
Alex Graves, the director, also deserves significant praise for the direction of this episode, just as he deserved for much of his work in “And Now His Watch is Ended”. Though the scale is much smaller, the single combat between Lord Beric and Sandor Clegane was, in its way, as epic as last episode’s finale. The dark of the cave, the swirling fire, the visercal action and energy of it make this one of (and perhaps the) best fight scene in the series to date. And the end result, as we know, throws another aspect of magic—the ability to resurrect life (but at a cost that may, indeed, be terrible), not simply leave an empty shell—into the setting. Some fans of the TV show may well balk, but then again, they’ve been happily eating up shadow monsters and dragons and white walkers, so perhaps I’m being too pessimistic. Either way, the introduction is done quite well, with the sudden turn of Beric’s “death” being immediately followed with his miraculous resurrection. It sets up, as well, one of the more emotionally-laden lines from Arya in the series, delivered pitch-perfectly by Maisie Williams as Arya asks if Thoros could bring back her own father from death. The ache of the loss that she still feels is quite obvious.
The most effective single scene in this episode, in our opinion, was Jaime’s monologue in the bath… though calling it a monologue does a disservice. It’s in fact quite a complicated scene (not least because it’s being down in a bath), and there is almost as much of Brienne in it as there is of Jaime. Gwendoline Christie’s face and eyes are very expressive, and she used these to her advantage as Brienne went from surly to nervous to curious and on to shocked and unwillingly concerned by turns, while she herself says relatively little. So that interaction, in the form of looks and muttered words, adds another layer to Jaime’s revelatory explanation of why he did what he did years ago. Coster-Waldau has turned in his finest performance of the season, and of the series, as he guided Brienne through the horror of what he witnessed and what he believed to be the necessity of what he did. “By what right does the wolf judge the lion,” was a line we’ve long waited for, and Coster-Waldau committed fully to it, revealing the pride and anguish both that has helped to define him. The fact that he insists on his name, rather than “Kingslayer”, at the end shows in its way that he intends to reshape his life and rehabilitate his reputation.
Riverrun, another region recently introduced, is the center of two of the more important events in this episode. The brief interlude in which Talisa tended to the two Lannister boys makes more sense, now, as a means of tyring to build some sort of connection to them (however faint) to make their deaths all the more significant in the mind of viewers. For my part, it felt slightly rushed to me, and I wonder if the show might not have done better by introducing the boys earlier, and perhaps found some way for another character (such as Catelyn) to flesh them out a bit more. We’ve remarked before that earlier episodes had scenes that seemed not to make much sense, and we wondered at the time devoted to them; anyone who complains about the boys being too quickly introduced and dismissed should consider this fact. A few minutes less of Theon might have allowed for fleshing out these characters, and other characters besides, without harming the integrity of the narrative. It’s one of the most frustrating parts of the show, actually, this fact that seconds can tick away on poorly conceived jokes.
Speaking of Theon, though we skip him, the shadow of him haunts Robb Stark’s decision to execute him, as Ramin Djawadi’s Theon score appears as Robb prepares to put Lord Katstark to death. The change from the novel—Robb gives Karstark a much cleaner death on the show—actually struck me as a small, missed opportunity as it would more strongly parallel two young men who have marched onto the verge of disaster, and it may be too late for swords to resolve their problems. Perhaps the writers felt that it would diminish Robb to leave him no more competent, at that moment, than Theon? Who can say… though it’ll be something we’ll be asking Bryan Cogman in our interview with him.
Jon and Ygritte are the part of the story that is hard to comment on without seeming prurient. All I can really say is that the actors did find, brave work, conveying this complicated relationship without needing to go out of bounds. The final scene, as well, provides complicated relationships as we come to Tywin with his children. It’s a fine moment, and for non-readers probably a very surprising one, as Littlefinger scuttles the Tyrell plans for Sansa for his own ends, and that scuttling involves a most unlikely marriage. One issue with this part of the story is the fact that it feels much too fast, as if the whole matter was resolved in a day or two; that seems excessive, but mandated by an outline or ny the head writers, and not much can be done with that because of it. More importantly, however, is the “character assasination” of Loras Tyrell. The awkward necessity for speed in leading Littlefinger to uncover the plot led to one of the more heavy-handed scenes in the episode, and the season; the other flaws, few as they are, are quite middling by way of comparison. Viewers of the show may not understand how deeply in love with Renly the Knight of Flowers was supposed to be, and how untrue to the character this moment with this random “squire” really was. “When the sun has set, no candle can replace it,” Loras Tyrell says when asked about his hopes for marriage and romance, an oblique reference to Renly (the sun) and the idea of anyone else (the candle). It was a line we were looking forward to, and instead we received something that looked like another bit of nudity and sex to keep eyeballs on the screen. That, after so much else that was good, was disappointing. Very disappointing, in fact, as that romantic notion—that romantic ideal—is something that keeps falling by the wayside on the show, whereas it’s a key aspect of what makes the novels so successful.
I realize that I’ve not even touched on some of the other fine performances, whether it’s praising Charles Dance or how Diana Rigg and Peter Dinklage haggle over the cost of the wedding, nor have I even begun to scratch the surfaace of the Essos story—though I’ll make the quick observation that and much more. This episode is a deep one, and a rich one, and it should stand up to rewatching the way that only the best episodes can. The expert direction, the talented cast, the exceptional writing bsed on an even more exceptional source—it’s all combined to create an episode that feels more like a model of what the show should be like. The length of most scenes felt organic and natural, with little of the sense of hurried cutting back and forth to try and shoe-horn every single character into an episode. One hopes Benioff and Weiss can look at the successes of this episode (and its one significant failing) and perhaps inform their approach to future episodes.
The episode covers the following chapters of A Storm of Swords: Arya VI, a brief part of Jon II, Jon III, Arya VII, Catelyn III, Jaime IV, Jaime V, and the end of Tyrion III.
Changes of note, chapter-by-chapter:
Littlefinger and Cersei: Cersei enlisting Littlefinger in spying on the Tyrells is not in the novels. That said, in the novels Littlefinger both works with and against the Tyrells at the very same time, being allies of convenience not far removed from enemies and united solely by a mutual antipathy to the Lannisters. In the novels, Littlefinger does in fact reveal the Tyrell plans to the Lannisters, however, so as to foil their attempt to get Sansa out of the city.
Tyrion and Olenna: The problem of the expense of the royal wedding and the events around it are very much a concern for Tyrion as master of coin in the novels. However, he never turns to the Tyrells to pay a part of it, as Tywin is adamant that the wedding be paid for by the crown. In the novels, Tyrion scrimps and scrounges to raise the funds, including the technique of requiring a penny to be paid to the crown for each congress of a prostitute in the city; this would be mocked as the “dwarf’s penny”, adding to Tyrion’s very negative reputation. The show appears to skip this.
Essos: The Barristan and Jorah interactions are new, though they do capture an important element here: Jorah’s jealous desire to stay at Daenerys’s side, and hints of his worse-for-wear repuation. One notable deviation from the novels is the confirmation that Barristan was never invited to sit the small council for Robert, allegedly because of the men he killed while fighting for the Mad King, but this is not in fact the case in the novels. One other change, a thematic detail, is the suggesting that the Unsullied receive the name of vermin when they are castrated. This is true enough, but in the novels it goes further: each morning the Unsullied take a new name, to further dehumanize and remove identity from them.
Dragonstone: The scenes in Dragonstone are extrapolated, largely, from what’s available in the novels, but there’s no specific chapters like this. Though Selyse Baratheon was indeed never able to give Stannis a son, the infants in preserving fluid-filled jars are entirely the imagination of the writers. That said, Tara Fitzgerald does a fine job of getting across the troubled relationship between Selyse and her husband, as well as her zealous avowal of R’hllor, the Lord of Light, and her following of Melisandre. That said, the novels never outright suggest that she was aware of Melisandre’s relations with Stannis. Selyse’s standoffish attitude to her daughter is also not in the novel. Shireen in the novels is indeed disfigured with greyscale, and leads a very lonely life. The song she sings is, in the novels, nonsense that the mad fool Patchface (her only real companion) sings and may be a nod to his existence on the show, even if he has not (so far) been seen. Shireen’s special friendship with Davos is not a feature in the novels, but she is a sweet-natured girl generally. The final detail, of her beginning to teach Davos to read, is not from the novel—it’s Maester Pylos who begins the process of teaching Davos, but the maesters does not appear to exist (or at least is not shown) on the show.
Robb’s plan: Robb’s plan to attack and seize Casterly Rock is bold… but is nothing like Robb’s plans at this stage in the novel, which are simply figuring out how to regain the aid of the Freys, to provide for the security of the riverlands, and to throw the ironmen out of the North. In fact, Robb’s apparent lack of interest in going north is rather strange, and somewhat inexplicable. The show suggests that by going west he will need to replace “half his forces” (which may be true on the show, but nowhere near the truth in the novels; the Karstarks alone were not half his strength, and the realm problem was that Robb had also already lost Frey support), which then leads to his wanting to repair relations with the Freys. This is a significant change from the novel, where the Frey situation is a fairly central problem and runs through all the chapters in which Robb is present. Another issue is that in the novels, taking Casterly Rock is basically an impossibility for Robb and his forces—the seat is far too defensible—so to some degree we must suppose that the show’s version of Casterly Rock is less formidable.
Loras and the squire: As noted in our analysis, this scene never happens. Not even close. The Loras of the novels is a knight of the Kingsguard in part because he has lost the love of his (young life) and cannot imagine taking up with someone else even months after Renly’s death. Besides this, Littlefinger’s discovery of the the Tyrell plans comes to him by way of Ser Dontos—his agent, and Sansa’s confidant—after Sansa herself reveals them to Dontos.
Sansa and Littlefinger: As previously discussed, no such scene takes place in the novels because Sansa does not know at this time that Littlefinger is her alleged benefactor who is arranging her escape from the city.