Dany balances justice and mercy after taking control of Meereen. Jaime tasks Brienne with his honor. Jon secures volunteers while Bran, Jojen, Meera and Hodor stumble on shelter.
An episode written by Bryan Cogman has generally been an episode to expect good things from, as he’s often artfully conveyed details from the novels that are present but not necessarily apparent in the TV adaptation; there are those who consider him a better writer than his bosses, David Benioff and Dan Weiss, for this reason alone. But those bosses loom large, and at the end of the day all decisions—and all scripts—pass through them and receive their approval (or, at least, acceptance). Which means—just as we’ve noted with George R.R. Martin before him this season, and as we expect to note for both of them as well as new writing addition Dave Hill—that the break down of the seasons, the decisions about how plot lines should go (especially invented plot-lines ) are chiefly their responsibility in the end, and it’s for writers like Cogman or GRRM to do the best they can. Some of these decisions have been inspired, leading to fantastic moments such as Theon Greyjoy’s burning letter or his beheading of Ser Rodrik Cassel in the 2nd season. Others… have been less inspired, and unfortunately there’s a significant portion of the back half of this episode devoted to one of those decisions.
But lets focus on the good, first. Although the resolution of the Meereen storyline is much speedier than in the novel—almost certainly for reasons of time and budget—the way it’s been changed works well. Cogman foregrounds it all with Grey Worm and Missandei, two former slaves, discussing their pasts and their future… with some interesting shades of the first season’s Irri-Rakharo interactions, as it’s plain Grey Worm has a romantic interest in Missandei (made all the more interesting by the fact that he is a eunuch). The visual effects continue to sell the enormity of Meereen’s pyramids, and of the size of the city itself as we see Daenerys’s men sneak in to arrive in time for a debate among slaves regarding whether they should revolt.
This change from the novel, with Grey Worm leading the infiltration, and with a much less direct aim, actually works very well as it foregrounds the slaves first and foremost. “Kill the masters” is the mantra that Grey Worm has developed as his chief goal, a violent and bloody answer to the degradation and humiliation of servitude, and it’s a call that the oppressed slaves of Meereen take up gladly when they have weapons to hand. Daenerys’s vengeance on the Masters is as brutal as in the novel, paying them in kind for what they did to the slave children. In a way it reminds us of last season’s “And Now His Watch is Ended” with Daenerys seizing control of the Unsullied, setting her dragon to burn Kraznys mo Nakloz, and having the Masters of Astapor killed—there is a hard, violent edge to Daenerys at time, an unexpected ruthlesness, and perhaps (as Ser Barristan likely thinks) cruelty. But then, dragons are creatures of fire and violence, and some might say many Targaryens were not much different…
Cogman’s handling of Jaime’s scenes in this episode follow a neat progression in which Bronn (of all people) starts things off as a voice of conscience when Jaime wrestles with simply keeping his head down and pretending that his brother’s fate doesn’t hang in the balance over whether he did or didn’t kill Jaime’s own son. Flynn and Coster-Waldau work well together, showing a kind of uneasy camaraderie—a brotherhood of men who’ve lived their lives by the sword, who know what it’s like to face death and deal it out, even if their circumstances are wildly different… and even if, now, it’s almost a fiction as Jaime perhaps starts to realize that he’s never going to be anything close to what he once was (which, according to George R.R. Martin, was one of the greatest swordsmen in the history of Westeros). It highlights the way Bronn has been able to get away with saying things that need saying to people who wouldn’t like to hear them, whether it’s Jaime or his employer Tyrion, as well. The following scene as Jaime at last talks to Tyrion covers needed ground in regards to what Jaime can and can’t do for this brother, and reveals as well Jaime’s trust that a trial will see justice done ... and as he comes to believe Tyrion’s innocent, he hopes that the trial will find him innocent as well.
But is it a false hope? All the signs are there that it will be anything but fair. Tyrion knows how his father and sister despise him, how Lord Tyrell is simply a lick spittle, and if Oberyn Martell has agreed to judge, he might well have been offered inducements that would make him predisposed to agree with whatever ruling Lord Tywin wishes. We see from the Jaime and Cersei scene (which features one particularly beautifully composed image showing the gulf between the two, courtesy of director Michelle MacLaren and director of photography Rob McLachlan) that the queen is certainly not letting go of her hatred of her brother or, indeed, of Sansa. The tension between them is palpable… but it’s a tension concerning Jaime’s loyalties, and not obviously a tension related to last week’s scene which many viewers read differently than the producers, director, and actors appear to have wanted them to read it.
The distance between the two characters has been present since the end of season 3, when Cersei first glimpsed the maimed Jaime Lannister, and it’s natural that it’s only grown as she discovers her brother isn’t the man he once was, the man who once promised her he’d kill everyone in the world if that’s what was needed for him to be with her. With all ten episodes already done and produced, viewers shouldn’t expect the producers to be able to work in some way to turn the story into one in which Jaime raped Cersei and Cersei acted on thatt; at best, there’ll be enough silence on the matter for viewers to read what they want into it… and perhaps next year the producers will be able to revisit the topic, to put their stamp of approval on the popular reading rather than pressing on with what they had originally intended (although that would be a departure from the novels I, at least, wouldn’t be fond of).
Speaking of Jaime, the passages with Brienne and Jaime’s attempt to regain his lost honor by sending her on her quest [Yes, I said it—it’s a quest! For those scratching their heads at this, all will become clearer when we publish our interview with Gwendoline Christie and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau ;)] to find and defend Sansa Stark with the sword his father gave him, the sword Jaime would once have given… well, his right hand for. Alas, without that hand, it’s not much use to him, but perhaps as Oathkeeper, wielded in her capable hands, it will do something good. The only shame of it all is that this is likely the last we’ll see of Gwendoline Christie and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau together on the screen, after having proved such an engaging pairing last season. As to the neat way in which Podrick is foisted on to Brienne, it works very well with the altered timeline of the show, where Jaime can take a direct hand in Podrick’s future on behalf of his brother.
The Sansa and Littlefinger scene works reasonably well, although I still consider unfortunate the way Gillan has chosen to deliver Littlefinger’s lines. As others have remarked, if his mustache had points, he could just as well be twirling them. It’s unfortunate when a talented actor commits himself to what seems an almost cartoonish approach to his character, robbing him of opportunities for more subtle details to come out through the performance, since by dialing up the unctuous untrustworthiness he leaves little room for anything else. But the writing? The writing’s quite good, as Littlefinger leads Sansa through the process of figuring out some of the details of Joffrey’s murder, and Littlefinger’s own role in it. The final line of the scene is an excellent segue, playing on the Tyrell motto as we shift to the culprit and her grand-daughter…
The big surprise here? This seems to be Diana Riggs’s last episode of the season, which was something I didn’t expect. And besides that, yes, the initial impression from last episode appears to be right: Margaery hasn’t any idea who killed Joffrey, and is left speechless when Olenna reveals it. This feels jarring, when it seemed (seems, even) that Margaery will be a political player. How could she have failed to at least think through the possible culprits for Joffrey’s murder? It’s a strange inconsistency which seems to increase Olenna’s significance while diminishing Margaery’s own. The scene that follows with Tommen—notable for introducing the TV viewership to the famous Ser Pounce (now we just need Lady Whiskers and Boots to complete the trifecta)—gives more of a chance for Tommen to be fleshed out as a young, guileless innocent, one who clearly was frightened of his older, bullying brother.
And then we come to the Wall and the lands beyond. We’ve praised the way Castle Black and the Watch has been presented, and nothing really changes here as far as that goes. Indeed, with the change of time line and Alliser Thorne and Janos Slynt both present, it allows for an interesting development as Slynt nudges Thorne about getting Jon Snow out of the way before the election of the new Lord Commander. And at the same time, Locke has infiltrated the Watch as a recruit, and works his way toward an acquaintance with Jon Snow, a man he’s supposed to kill at some point to prevent his deciding to forget his vows and abandon the Watch to lay claim to Winterfell. There’s a good sense of menace to Locke’s all-too-friendly demeanor, playing well on the knowledge we have as viewers that has been withheld from the characters. But then we have Samwell suddenly regreting his decision to leave Gilly in a brothel in Mole’s Town to keep her safe from rapists among the Watch (not the wisest decision he ever made), just as Jon reveals that he’s aware that Bran’s beyond the Wall. What? This was an off-camera moment? Apparently. That revelation that at least one of his brothers is alive should really have been depicted on camera, but perhaps time constraints made that character moment seem too unimportant. Instead, we have Jon musing as to where Bran may have gone…
And this is where the producers have set their thumbs on the scale to push the story to where they want. Because in fact, it would make no sense whatsoever that Bran and company would hope to find wildlings to shelter them. Empty villages? Fantastic! That’s safe roofs over their heads, and no one to trouble them. But actual wildlings are dangerous, and not liable to think well on strangers from south of the Wall, so why would they think Bran would seek them out? It makes no sense at all, but that’s how we arrive at Jon using the falsest sort of logic to determine that Bran would actually look for wildlings in his mysterious journey, giving him yet more reason to want to get to Craster’s Keep as soon as possible… and giving Locke, who overhears it, reason to join him.
You can see the artifice of it so plainly, and that detracts heavily from appreciation of this turn. It’s mandated by an obvious need to try and keep Jon’s story dramatic in some fashion, due to their rushing his return to Castle Black to begin with. Tying Jon’s desire to go look for Bran into the Craster’s Keep narrative does at least fit neatly into Thorne setting Jon to the task in hopes of getting rid of him, but unfortunately I simply can’t believe the direction this story has gone. After all, the show merely builds a false narrative on top of another false narrative, namely that Mance Rayder—a former member of the Night’s Watch—is even for a moment fooled about the strength of the Watch, so the mutineers are genuinely meaningless. Many are doubtless willing to forgive such lapses in logic, and to each their own, but for my part I’d expect better story construction from such a high-profile show. I could only speculate at alternative Jon Snow story-lines, and so I can’t offer any better alternatives, but at least the narrative in Castle Black up to this point had seemed to work well; wouldn’t focusing on this election, and perhaps seeing the Watch begin to fracture among partisan lines even as danger threatens, have worked well?
Obviously, the other storyline that seems to need fleshing out is Bran’s. There’s some drama in his A Dance with Dragons narrative, to be certain, but it’s all fairly brief matter and so rather than allow Bran to go with a long absence, drama has been generated. It’s not particularly sensical, this notion of their deliberately wanting to find wildlings to shelter with, but what can you do? Oh, and it also neatly explains where Ghost disappeared to following Samwell’s glimpse of him lurking about Craster’s Keep in “Walk of Punishment”. To some degree it feels as if it’s not just fluffing up Bran’s and Jon’s stories that’s at play here, but tying up loose ends that the show has or has created like the mutineers (a topic that was implicitly dealt with in the novels) and Ghost (a topic that was never an issue at all), and if that’s the case, it’s again too obvious. There’s little enough to be said about Bran’s dilemma, beyond the fact that the obviousness of Jon going that way will surely lead to some sort of rescue (probably an inadvertent one, with the two siblings passing like ships in the night).
So given that this final quarter of the episode seems to obviously a contrivance to patch up gaps in what the show writers have made of the structure of the show, what’s to be enjoyed? Michelle MacLaren’s direction remains sharp as ever in these scenes, especially when she pushes into Craster’s Keep and shows us the apocalyptic scene of Karl’s mad tyranny, full of abuse and rape and horror. It shares a firelit, dingy color palette with Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, with Burn Gorman’s drunken thug and braggart overseeing atrocities rather than Brando’s mumbling, corrupt and equally-mad Colonel Kurtz. We can only imagine what further horrors the executive producers saved us from, as director of photography Rob McLachlan has indicated that he and director Michelle MacLaren went well out there in depicting the “charnel-house” and that Benioff and Weiss “really toned [it] down.” That’s perhaps just as well, as the brutality of the scenes of abuse and rape in the background punctuating Karl’s rambling megalomania are not likely to be well-received in some quarters following last week’s debacle. However well-shot and well-written—and well-acted, as Gorman’s performance certainly works well, as does Luke Barnes as the mean but weak-willed Rast—there will be those who focus on how misogynistic the visuals were, and think less of the producers for it. For my part, I don’t share that issue, and question only how clumsy and transparent the effort to put so many eggs in one basket has been. I’ve accepted many narrative changes as necessary, but most of them have at least felt organic. This is anything but.
Of course, those are not the final scenes in this imperfect episode… and to discuss the final scene, we’re going to use spoiler protection. If you watched the scene, you know why.
The episode covers the following chapters of A Storm of Swords: Part of Daenerys VI, part of Sansa V, part of Sansa VI, and Jaime IX.
Changes of note, chapter-by-chapter:
Added scenes of note:
Grey Worm and Missandei: Grey Worm’s origins are not discussed in the novels. Missandei is indeed from Naath, on the other hand. Finally, in the novels Grey Worm shows no particular interest in Missandei.
Slave revolt: As noted above, the details of the defeat of Meereen and the slave uprising that entailed are quite different. In particular, Grey Worm does not appear to have been personally involved in the infiltration of the city, a task carried out by Barristan Selmy, Jorah Mormont, and a mixed group of Unsullied, freedmen, and sellswords in the novel.
Bronn and Jaime: As noted previously, Bronn and Jaime do not interact in the novels. Jaime practices with Ser Addam Marbrand in King’s Landing.
Tyrion and Jaime: As noted previously, Jaime and Tyrion do not actually speak with one another until very late in A Storm of Swords, under very different circumstances. Tyrion does acknowledge his awareness that Joffrey is Jaime’s son at that time, though again, under very different circumstances.
Magaery and Olenna: As neither are point-of-view characters, such a scene never appears in the novel. That said, it’s correct that Olenna was once to marry a Targaryen prince, a plan she claims she put an end to. However, the specific details of doing so by seducing Luthor Tyrell before her could wed her sister are apparently an invention of the show.
Jon and the recruits: Such a scene never takes place in the novels, as there’s much more urgency to the situation once Jon is in Castle Black, with wildlings expected to attack within a very short time. Also, Alliser Thorne and Janos Slynt are not present at this time, nor is Locke or any other figure dispatched by other forces to infiltrate the Night’s Watch.
Cersei and Jaime: The scene between Cersei and Jaime appears loosely inspired by the relationship between the two in A Feast for Crows, and in particular a passage early in Cersei III in that chapter.
Tommen and Margaery: Though no such scene is revealed to take place in the novels, in A Feast for Crows Margaery does go out of her way to build a connection and trust with Tommen, despite Cersei’s desire otherwise.
Podrick and Brienne: Markedly different from how Podrick comes to join Brienne in A Feast for Crows, here Podrick is foisted on Brienne as a
Samwell and Jon: As noted in the review, these plot threads—Gilly in Mole’s Town, Jon thinking Bran might head to Craster’s Keep—are an invention of the show. In fact, the most notable deviation is the fact that Jon learned that Bran was alive and beyond the Wall from Samwell; in the books, Samwell was sworn to secrecy on this point, and so far has kept his promise not to tell him about it.
Craster’s Keep: The horrors at the keep are likely close enough to the reality of what happened there. However, they are never depicted after Samwell’s initial flight from the keep, and how long they last before the white walkers come and presumably kill them is unknown.
Bran and company: This is an entirely invented passage, as discussed in the review. Bran and company are steadily guided north by Coldhands, and though at one point they are trailed, they do not actually try to seek out villages, much less populated villages.
Final scene: Although it has been widely speculated that Craster’s sons were taken by the Others to be turned into further Others, largely due to the belief of Craster’s wives that the sons became the “cold gods”, it has never been confirmed in the novels. The specific location is not drawn from the novels, although it’s worth noting that it shares some similarities to the “heart of winter” which lies beyond “the curtain of light at the end of the world” and where icy spires rise out of the ground. The black-clad Others are something not hinted at in the novels, as is there being some who seem to be leaders or kings among them.