Tyrion enlists an unlikely ally. Daario entreats Dany to allow him to do what he does best. Jon’s warnings about the Wall’s vulnerability fall on deaf ears. Brienne follows a new lead on the road with Pod.
After the promising “The Laws of Gods and Men”, a question on our minds was whether executive producers David Benioff and Dan Weiss could capitalize on the potential momentum created by that very fine episode, and so build towards the final episodes the season. And now that question is answered: Yes. “Mockingbird” takes over in our mind as the best episode of the season, filled as it is with strong performances, sharply written scenes that resonate strongly, and another excellent directorial turn from Alik Sakharov. Though not every scene works equally well, as a whole this episode reminds us of last season’s superb “Kissed by Fire”, both for the way it brings about some significant changes in circumstances for some of the characters and the manner in which it’s structured, focusing on a few major plot strands while smoothly keeping track of a number of others with brief scenes.
Before touching on the central storylines for the episode, it’s worth considering some of the ups and downs of the secondary story lines, where the writing sometimes proves more of a mixed bag. Gregor Clegane’s slaughter of peasants, for example, is necessary in a way—the character does need to be reintroduced after having been absent since season 2, and since we’ve a new performer in the role in the form of the enormous, Icelandic strong man Hafþór (Thor) Björnsson—but it’s so gratuitously over-the-top given its context (slaughter of random vagrants or criminals as practice for the Mountain, while Cersei watches with interest) that it feels like a trifle, something put together with little thought beyond your cliché “Big Bad introduction” scene. It would not have been out of place in an 80’s action film, and not a particularly good one. Mercifully, it’s brief, and this episode provides the return of another character, Hot Pie, which is rather more pleasing.
Young actor Ben Hawkey ably brings out the character’s amusing quirks as presented by the writers. The tale he tells of Arya Stark is in fact a significant revelation, as Brienne’s and Podrick’s reaction can attest; Arya has been believed dead since the end of the first season, so one of our primary characters (we’ll consider Brienne a primary character) being aware of her is certainly substantial. The choice to head to the Vale on that lead—with the somewhat on-the-nose suggestion that Sansa might be there as well—seems to be setting up some unexpected encounters. Christie and Portman seem to be working out well together, as Brienne grapples with the unwanted company and Podrick starts to show that Tyrion’s education has its uses, even if it lacked the more practical arts. Podrick’s willingness to warn Brienne against being quite so open about her hunt—and rightly so—may seem foolish given that that very openness directly leads to Hot Pie’s revelation, but he had a genuine point.
The Night’s Watch receives a beat, just enough time to establish the new status quo… which is a lot like the old status quo prior to “Oathkeeper”, but then it’s become increasingly evident that the excursion that occupied two episodes was really there just to give the mid-point of the story an action beat of some kind. The scene in the hall as Jon argues with Ser Alliser Thorne about the sealing of the tunnel through the Wall suggests a different tack they might have taken to emphasizing Jon’s role as a potential leader for the Watch, since here we see Ser Alliser calling on the First Builder, Othell Yarwyck… and like that, we’re reminded again that the officers of the Watch are a more diverse group. Yarwyck’s hesitation between the sensible suggestion from Jon and Thorne’s commanding position and stern opposition highlights the fact that the leadership of the Watch could well be more divided. More scenes in Castle Black showing Thorne’s efforts to shore up support for the choosing, and tensions between the men who support Jon and those who kowtow to Thorne, might have both helped eat up more time and highlighted a divide that could very well play a significant role in the outcome of the inevitable wildling attack. Wasted opportunities, alas, and perhaps there are practical reasons—such as availability of actors like the superb Owen Teale who makes Thorne one of the most unpleasant martinets on television—why this did not happen; or perhaps not, since it certainly wouldn’t have provided any kind of violent action.
Nudity is never too far away on Game of Thrones, a fact remarked on quite widely, but it’s worth noting that the two examples of this episode—in scenes of varying levels of success - provide some unique differences from the nudity seen up to now. Although the Daenerys and Daario scene struggles with the fact that not enough has been done to really establish Daario as a strong presence on the show, in part due to Michiel Huisman’s light-weight (if charming) performance and in part due to the difficulty of getting us into the head of a Daenerys who is more mature and less troubled than the corresponding character in the novels, the episode ends with the show’s first male nude scene devoted to the female gaze—quite literally, as the end of the scene focuses on Daenerys admiring Daario, she fully clothed, he mostly not. In contrast, Carice van Houten’s again nude on the show, but I would argue that Melisandre is so clearly confident and in charge in this scene in contrast to Selyse that the nudity here is an expression of power (not unlike Daenerys’s rise out of her own bath in “Second Sons”). I would not go so far as to say that they managed to de-objectify Melisandre here—as objectification is part of the point of the scene, as Selyse visibly considers the sexual allure of Melisandre in regards to her own insecurity over her relation to Stannis—but they’ve managed a very careful balancing act, both in the conception of the scene and its direction, not to mention the performances.
But then we come to the key sequences of the episode, all of them revolving around various central characters and one (or sometimes two) adjuntant characters. Of the three storylines, the Arya and Hound one is somewhat the most uneven. The philosophical discussion with the dying villager, while highlighting the narrative’s construction of Arya as someone surrounded by, and dangerously interested in, death feels very “writerly”... while the very strange mechanics of Rorge’s appearance feel extremely directorial (if that’s a word). By this, I mean that the one part of the scene feels too much like a writing exercise. In a way, it slips us into an unreal place, a distinctly cinematic place when it comes to film conventions, where someone dying from a bleeding wound from the bowels (one of the most painful sorts of wounds, if popular science programs can be believed) can have such a calm, steady conversation while making thoughtful observations. That unreality prepares us for the even more surreal scene that follows, as Rorge—rather than rushing the wounded Sandor when Clegane has his back turned and isn’t even aware that Rorge is just a few feet away—stands there, and lowers his sword, and… has another, if briefer, conversation. Rorge as a completely unintelligent person is fine, but the way the scene was shot is utterly baffling. And maybe that’s the point. Maybe, presented with the material, director Alik Sakharov decided to take the opportunity to throw in a homage to some great director of the past. I keep wanting to say that the scene feels like something out of Kurosawa—perhaps Sanjuro?—where characters can hold conversations (even amiable conversations) with the sure knowledge that death is only the width of a sword’s edge away. If that’s the case, I can certainly admire Sakharov’s love of cinema, as the scene is certainly artfully composed. But I can’t say it feels like a proper fit for the show.
The second scene, on the other hand, is very strong as Rory McCann conveys for the first time the real trauma that he suffered when his face was burned: not the fact that he was horribly scarred, but that it was his own brother that did it. Combined with his terror of fire, with the nagging pain of an ugly wound that could be infected (and surely will be), McCann manages to convey tremendous vulnerability from a figure who has been a thug and a brute for so long. Maisie Williams plays off him just right, presenting just the right amount of attentiveness—she doesn’t like the Hound one bit, but he’s the only companion she has, and despite all the death and ugliness surrounding her there’s some spark left of decency and empathy. In the end, the Hound relents and lets her help (but no fire!), and the look on his face is heartbreaking.
It’s hard to choose between the other two key storylines, when it comes to which of them should be discussed last. An argument could be made for either, but I won’t. I’ll start with who we get first: Tyrion. The opening scene with Jaime is necessary, and both actors perform perfectly well, but that’s to be expected as Coster-Waldau and Dinklage have been consistently good. The scene reveals nothing really new (well, besides the arrival of Gregor Clegane), but it’s a good way to enter into the episode. However, Dinklage’s follow-up scene with Jerome Flynn—a scene which seems likely to be the last time the two actors, and their characters, interact with one another for the forseeable future—highlights the amiable roguishness of Flynn’s Bronn, who in the end simply makes the pragmatic decision to with the side that’ll keep him rich, warm, and alive rather than to allow sentimentality to get in the way. Dinklage is particularly fine toward the end of this scene, as Tyrion becomes increasingly desperate to win Bronn over. He had put all his hopes in Bronn, and seeing that fade—particularly when Bronn refutes the “friendship” play by noting that while they’re friends Tyrion’s never risked his life for Bronn (and likely never would, a fact Tyrion admitted to without needing to say so)—was just a bit heart-wrenching. And so Tyrion is left without a champion, foreseeing the prospect of personally having to fight Gregor Clegane, a man almost two and a half feet taller than he is…
... when Oberyn Martell arrives. This scene? This one was perfect. Well, almost perfect—the thoughtlessness (I assume) of the show runners yet again converting a female character into a male character (something they do twice in the space of a single episode) when we learn it’s Oberyn’s father who took him to Casterly Rock, rather than his mother (who was the ruling Princess of Dorne) is starting to become troubling—but the actual performances are perfect, and that’s enough. Pedro Pascal absolutely knocks this scene out of the park with his delivery of this sordid, sad little tale of just how deep and just how old the wounds that separate Tyrion and Cersei are. And Dinklage? Dinklage conveys Tyrion’s response wordlessly; words follow, but they aren’t needed. The writers wisely leave the scene much as Martin writes, although the timing and circumstance gives Tyrion a much greater level of desperation at this point than in the novel (as his trial is still ongoing, and the offer to take the black is still on the table), and the actors are able to lift it. When Pascal delivers the question, “But what about what I want?”, in just a few words he conveys everything about this character: a prince, infamous and dangerous, who remains haunted by the wrong done to him and his, and will pursue justice and revenge to the bitter end. I do not exaggerate when I say Linda and I got goosebumps at that moment. Stunning work.
No less satisfying are the Eyrie scenes, which bring us to the end of the episode. The Eyrie’s snow-dusted garden is beautifully rendered by the production, and the immediate melancholy and longing for home that Sansa feels on seeing it is equally well-conveyed by Sophie Turner. That it leads to Petyr Baelish appearing, and perhaps revealing to Sansa something of his real motives, simply helps propel the narrative forward with alacrity. The feelings Petyr expresses are certainly complex in their way, the suggestion that this Iago of a character has constructed a heroic narrative for himself, a narrative of overcoming the strictures of a cruel world to carve out his own happiness. It’s too bad that his happiness requires trampling on the lives of millions by fanning the flames of war right from the start of the series, but still, Baelish fits Martin’s maxim that every villain is the hero of his own story. Sansa, on the other hand, is not yet a heroine: she’s a survivor, but she’s carved nothing out herself, not yet. Indeed, this episode emphasizes that she remains Littlefinger’s pawn, her entire world circumscribed by what he does or does not allow… and by what he does. Will that change? That’s a very important question given what follows.
Kate Dickie’s send off is certainly memorable, conveying Lysa’s paranoia, hysteria, and ultimate longing to just have her Petyr in her own fairy tale narrative providing a picture of a troubled, unhappy woman simply unable to cope with reality. Though I’m not afraid to say I bitterly regret that the writers changed Littlefinger’s last line (“Only Cat” is far more intimate, and far more of a twist of the knife, than “Your sister”), Aidan Gillen’s performance here is the best of the season. Not perfect, no, but perhaps more than ever it seems clear that the highly affected manner of speaking—so forced and unreal—may, in his mind, be very deliberately connected to how powerful Littlefinger feels at any moment. Is Baelish trying to project strength when he speaks in such a manner? I’d say so, because at certain points in these scenes the affectation lessens, the bombast drains away somewhat, and he seems more… normal, more approachable. Perhaps that, too, is an act of course, calculated to lure in Sansa or Lysa into his webs, but it’s effective enough because it allows Gillan some actual scope to his performance beyond the vaguely mustache-twirling scenes he’s given this season up to now.
Best episode of the season, indeed, even with its occasional infelicities and oddities. Fingers crossed that two weeks later, we’ll be returning to say that no, it’s no longer the best episode of the season.
The episode covers the following chapters of A Storm of Swords: part of Arya XII, parts of Tyrion IX, part of Arya XIII, and Sansa VII.
Changes of note, chapter-by-chapter:
Other scenes of note:
Jaime and Tyrion: As previously noted, none of these Jaime-Tyrion discussions are from the books, nor is Jaime’s deal with Tywin. One detail that is correct, however, is that he is a woeful swordsman with his left hand.
Cersei and Gregor: Gregor Clegane does indeed come to King’s Landing to serve as the crown’s champion in the trial by combat. While the character in the novel is an infamous brute, this particular scene—in which he “spars” against vagrants or prisoners whom he happily slaughters while Cersei watches—does not exist in the books.
Jon and the Watch: As previously discussed, the events of the previous episodes are not from the book, and Jon Snow and Alliser Thorne being present in Castle Black at the same time at this point is also not from the books. Jon’s proposal that they seal the tunnel is inspired by the practice of the Watch of sealing the tunnels at forts when they were being abandoned, but is not something proposed in A Storm of Swords. A Dance with Dragons does feature a proposal to have the tunnel sealed, but it’s a proposal Jon actually argues against.
Daenerys and Daario: Daenerys and Daario do eventually strike up a sexual relationship, but at a much later time in relation to their acquaintance and the circumstances they are in respectively. As for the attack on Yunkai—then turned into a diplomatic effort backed by force—this is an invention of the show; in the novels, Daenerys is aware Yunkai is arming against her but largely acts defensively rather than trying to impose her rule on them by main force.
Melisandre and Selyse: This scene is not from the novels, but does seem to somewhat correctly characterize Selyse’s devout worship of the Lord of Light and her unwavering belief in Melisandre. Melisandre does indeed use various tricks—powders and potions—in her arsenal to convince unbelievers and control followers, but in the novels this is not a fact she shares with anyone. Already discussed in previous seasons has been the fact that Selyse is aware of Melisandre’s sexual relationship with Stannis on the show, whereas the novels are at best unclear on that point. Finally, Selyse’s dislike of her daughter is also not from the novels. The detail that Melisandre believes that Shireen must accompany them to the Wall is one that is heavily speculated based on other details in the novels—namely Shireen’s dreams, which may be prophetic—but are not actually confirmed in the books. One last detail is that Melisandre eschews her necklace while in the bath, whereas in the novels she’s never described without it.
Brienne and Podrick: As previously noted, Podrick and Brienne do join the hunt for Sansa Stark together. However, Hot Pie is not among the characters they meet. The fact that Brienne learns that Arya Stark was alive more recently, and in the company of Sandor Clegane, is from the novels, though she learns it from the Elder Brother at the Quiet Isle in A Feast for Crows, who also informs her that the Hound is dead. Brienne states Walder Frey is Lord of Riverrun, which if accurate is a change from the novels, where his son Ser Emond (who happens to be wed to Tywin’s sister Genna Lannister) is named lord.