Tyrion ponders his options. Tywin extends an olive branch. Sam realizes Castle Black isn’t safe, and Jon proposes a bold plan. The Hound teaches Arya the way things are. Dany chooses her champion.
Bonds figure strongly in “Breaker of Chains”, both literal and figurative. The bond between lovers (which, in one case, is also the bond between siblings), the bonds of slavery, the bonds of imprisonment, bonds of loyalty and duty. And the breaking of bonds, as well, as the title of the episode suggests. Deliberately or not, this episode manages to be more thematically unified than the first two episodes of the season. While some very early previews suggested that this episode, being something of a lull following the sudden death of King Joffrey in “The Lion and the Rose”, was the weakest of the initial three sent out for review, I’m not sure that’s really fair. Matt Zoller Seitz is surely practicing a bit of hyperbole when he suggests “[e]very scene’s just right”, but it’s fair to say that it’s the most “elegantly wrought” of the first three, no longer burdened as it is with the needs of reintroduction (as with “Two Swords”) or with a big “moment” that demands heavy attention. It’s an episode that’s allowed to breath for the most part, and it’s the better for it.
One can fairly quickly cover missteps in this episode, for the most part. Tywin’s lecture to Tommen, sadly, drones on far too long—and I say this as someone who usually enjoys it when the show mines the richness of the setting and its history. By my count, the almost-monologue with only a few interruptions from Tommen ran some 2 minutes, and I think it could readily have lost half of that and still carried the main point. For that matter, while the necessity of some sort of Tyrell reaction scene to Joffrey’s death was obvious, the Margaery-Olenna sequence felt a little inert. The inclusion of Roger Ashton-Griffiths’ Mace Tyrell might have improved matters, lending an extra voice to the discussion, and quickly highlighting the relationship between father and daughter which (so far) seems strangely opaque. Sandor having a “code” and then revealing that he doesn’t really have one the next time we see him feels like a cheap way to drum up tension between Arya and Himself. And yes, now we know that two-thirds of Oberyn Martell’s time seems to be spent in brothels, surrounded by quite naked young men and women; one can only hope that there’ll be no more need to pander, and future scenes with Oberyn and Elarria won’t need to find a way to work in sexy-sexiness (and that particular brand of sexiness that is seen so often on Game of Thrones: nudity from unnknown actors, while the “names” remain more or less clothed, showing just how cynical the use of nudity is by treating it as set-dressing rather than integral).
If we had to estimate what scene most people would hate the most, it would have to be the scene following from Tywin’s lecture to Tommen, as he begins to insinuate himself on the new king, and in so doing drove a kind of stake through Cersei’s heart as he belittles her dead son and leads away the living one. It’s a moment of great vulnerability for Cersei, which is at is should be. Headey conveys Cersei’s grief and loss with a sensitivity that’s affecting and believable. So, too, is the way the poison comes out against Tyrion, demanding his death, trying to convince Jaime to do it. Jaime resists it, loving his brother too much, uncertain of the truth of the accusations aimed at Tyrion, the bonds of brotherhood seeming stronger than the bonds of lovers… but it’s that status as lover where the scene takes its turn to something all together darker and harder to easily define and interpret. For some, the simple question will be, “Did Jaime just rape Cersei?” For a few, it won’t even be a question, it will be obvious one way or another. But it seems clear that what the writers aimed for was ambiguity, an ambiguity that serves to remind viewers that however Jaime and Cersei interact, the romantic and sexual component of that relationship is perverse, and even dangerous.
One can notice how it’s Cersei, not Jaime, who first turns the scene towards the romantic, with her kiss… but that’s followed by her pulling away. It seems essential that she turns back to her son, body language suggesting withdrawal from Jaime, perhaps regret for doing such a thing in front of her dead son, or disgust at the reminder of the loss of Jaime’s hand. But is she also looking side-long at Jaime, trying to judge if the promise and than the withdrawal of sexual access might make him budge on Tyrion’s fate? Certainly, it seems to be the only way to read Jaime’s response after a long, fierce consideration: “You are a hateful woman.” It seems he feels manipulated or slighted, and decides to have none of it, and to take what he wants. When he grabs her and turns her to him, the camera frames the body lying there behind them, the focus changing from foreground to background to leave us in no doubt of the very real presence of the still corpse of Joffrey Baratheon. It makes what follows seem all the more grotesque, and it’d be simple to then read everything else that follows as a sordid rape.
But the camera chooses to frame—or not frame—other things as well, things that suggest that these lovers, lovers for more than two decades (nearer, one supposes, to three decades on the show), may be familiar enough with one another to read signs we as viewers can’t so readily see. Because while Cersei protests, for a moment we see her actively kissing back as they slide down to their knees, even as the treacherous camera slides further downward to obscure that instant of suggestive agency and instead shows us fumbling hands obscured by voluminous clothing, hands which tear at her clothes… and at his? Staring at it, trying to decipher the choreography, I’d offer a tentative yes: she’s participating actively, but her own desires are fighting with her sense of being overwhelmed physically and emotionally. The final shot of the scene, as Jaime moves on top of her, seems emphasize it: her plaintive cries that it’s not right are matched to the classic iconography of passionate abandon, a hand clenched around cloth (a funerary cloth, however, not bedclothes; a last reminder of where the scene takes place.)
It’s certainly a very different approach to a similar sequence in the novel, and it’s one that highlights—in a particularly uncomfortable fashion—the way that the Cersei of the show is unlike the Cersei in the novel. The move to a chillier Cersei, one who burns less brightly, whose passions and hatreds are more restrained, seems to be matched to a reduction in her sexual agency, a distancing from her sexual desire. The Cersei of the novel felt it was wrong and protested at first, and then abandoned herself to it, encouraged it; she clearly made a choice. This Cersei seems far less capable of choosing what she wants, of firmly saying no or yes, and if it’s more “yes” than “no”, only she and Jaime really know. It’s more complicated in that it’s more confused, but it leaves the character feeling weaker and less in control, less of a participant and more of a person acted upon. It’s not a change we’re particularly comfortable with, but at least it seems consistent with the general changes they’ve made to her character to date, so there’s that.
Elsewhere, the story moves less ambiguously. The Littlefinger reveal hews very closely to the novels, and seems note perfect. The only discord? Gillen’s very mannered approach to playing Littlefinger, something that feels too artificial to us (and to many others besides), but at this point there’s little use to hoping it will change. Meanwhile, in the riverlands, having Sandor turn on the farmer feels like cynical writing, and I can’t particularly support it, but that said it seems important to note that this extended period spent with a common man and his daughter seems significant. It’s one of the few times the show has lowered its gaze from the lofty heights of the nobility to examine the plight of those caught up in the war. Despite the ruinous results of the fighting—the burning fields, the bandits—the farmer is resolutely loyal to the Tullys, and piously willing to share what meager food he has with guests. It gives us a human face to the first episode’s closing scene of a burnt-out, smoking wasteland made by the likes of Tywin Lannister’s foragers and raiders. Similarly, the all-together smaller scale of the Samwell and Gilly scenes—besides bringing another welcome return to Castle Black, a place that always brings back fond memories of the show’s inception—both succeeds at giving John Bradley and Hannah Murray some strong scenes, and reminds us that not everyone has the weight of the realm (or the weight of familial obligation) on their shoulders.
Seeing Mole’s Town for the first time was a surprise, but provides more examples of the common people whom the Watch is trying to defend. It’s a good time to do this, when the Watch has often felt so disconnected from the rest of the Seven Kingdoms and the “realms of men” that they are supposed to defend have often seemed remote on the show. Obviously, it highlights this in a bloodier way as well, as the wildlings begin to slaughter villages that they can find, attempting to draw the Watch out… but the timely arrival of Grenn and Dolorous Edd, recently escaped from the mutineers, helps the Watch keeps it head as Jon Snow rightly supports Alliser Thorne’s call for them to hold to Castle Black and defend the Wall. The two hate one another, but they’re bound together by their vows, and the bond of (uneasy) brotherhood that it makes that leads them to make a common cause.
Speaking of familial vengeance, other than the unfortunate need to introduce the scene in that particularly gratuitous way, the writers do show a definite facility with Oberyn and Ellaria, and Pedro Pascal and Indira Varma match them with their ability to convey a sordid, lusty, loving relationship in the midst of the opulence of their surroundings and the pleasures of the flesh on hand. Pascal’s scene with Charles Dance is also striking in that it feels somewhat less hand-holding than their first scene together in “The Lion and the Rose”, at least a trifle more subtle as Oberyn reveals certain nuances to his character’s view on the Lannisters. It’s interesting, too, to end the scene without seeing if Oberyn takes Tywin’s proffered hand, not so much for the purpose of creating a false mystery as to whether Oberyn accepts or not, but merely because it shows that even as he’s offered the world on a platter (or at least, vengeance on a platter), Oberyn isn’t rushing headlong into it. The restraint strengthens the character’s portrayal, as we see at last that he can temper his desires, can practice restraint rather than just wanting to set fire to House Lannister and watching it burn.
And the weight of the realm… well, that weighs heavily on Stannis’s shoulders, doesn’t it? One of the things that readers remarked on was that we didn’t have a great deal to say about last week’s Dragonstone scenes, and this time I can’t say it’s all that different. Part of the issue is that some of Stannis’s most ardent fans disapprove of the show’s adaptation of the character, whereas we feel that while there are differences, the magnitude of them is less than some claim it to be. Is he a bit more beholden to Melisandre? Certainly. Have less of his good qualities been revealed? Perhaps, although truthfully a lot of those “good qualities” come out primarily through Davos’s internal thoughts, where his particular devotion to Stannis colors his interpretation of the king (and so colors ours). Stannis Baratheon is not an unalloyed hero, in the end, and if viewers unfamiliar with the books presently frown on him, well, that may not be so bad at this point. The question will be where the story goes this season, and how they’ll think of him by the end of it.
Of course, the structural changes they introduced in the last season—rushing to very nearly the conclusion of his story in A Storm of Swords, and then needing to come up with some way to keep the narrative on hold for a time— has done no favors, as Stannis seems exceptionally weaker due to lack of money, soldiers, and ships that are so significant that he’s paralyzed, unable to move from his lonely island to press his claim… or pursue the war beyond the Wall which he was informed of last season, and which saved Davos’s neck (for now).
And so the Dragonstone scenes, so far, have largely been about establishing more of the inter-relationships. Which means more opportunities to watch the delightful interactions between Liam Cunningham’s Davos and Kerry Ingram’s Shireen, which so far has never been time wasted. There’s an easiness to these scenes that suggest a genuine chemistry between the two, as Davos is set to reading The Life and Adventures of Elyo Grivas, First Sword of Braavos and they fall to talking about Braavos and its fabled Iron Bank. Which, of course, leads Davos to the realization that there’s an opportunity to solve Stannis’s fiscal problems. It’s another turn that’s different from the novels, but at the same time actually seems to suggest that the narrative is simply grabbing up material from later to fill in the time now as the show waits for the right time and place to bring Stannis’s pursuit of his claim into the foreground.
After all of these various bonds shown in previous scenes—loyalty, love, friendship, duty—we come to the person whose duty, it seems, is to break servile bonds and free the opressed. Daenerys’s narrative has moved very quickly to this point, with pleasing economy. It perhaps makes things a bit too clean, her advance simply an unstoppable juggernaut rather than the more complicated affair in which keeping the massive train of freedmen fed and healthy was a significant concern, but it means it cuts to the point swiftly. After a magnificent look at the towering pyramids of Meereen, and the huge walls and gates from which issues the Meereenese champion, we see Daario Naharis come to the fore once more. Huisman’s kiss of the dagger’s wanton hilt as he prepared to throw it at the charging horse did more than anything I’d seen up to that point to make me think he’d capture something of the character’s flamboyance.
If the sequence ended all too quickly—it seems like an extended fight would have done more to establish his bonafides as a warrior—it did make a very clear point to the watching masters of Meereen (including Hizdahr zo Loraq, played by Joel Fry, who’ll be seen more often this season). A point that Daenerys followed up with one of the lengthiest speeches we’ve had in Valyrian to date. The moment she signals the catapults to loose their ammunition is well-played, suggesting the start of a siege… and then, in something of a twist (and certainly a deviation), it’s revealed that the barrels they flung contain broken collars. The final shot of a slave picking one up, and then looking back at a stricken slaver who realizes just what Daenerys’s actions might do, was a perfect way to end the episode: the dawning realization that some bonds can be shaken off.
“Breaker of Chains” is the most consistent of the three episodes this season, and if it does not reach the highs of the prior two episodes, it also doesn’t reach the lows. It’s very encouraging to see such a solid performance from the start of the season, suggesting that the producers have found a path forward through the complicated morass of structural changes that they made last season, hammering out a cohesive narrative that should entertain. There’s many mysteries left, with certain plot lines unclear at the moment, the next couple of episodes should provide some clarity and, hopefully, cause to hope that this may well be the strongest season since the first.
The episode covers the following chapters of A Storm of Swords: Sansa V, part of Jaime VII, part of Tyrion IX, and part of Daenerys V.
Changes of note, chapter-by-chapter:
Added scenes of note:
Margaery and Olenna: Not a scene from the novels. It’s likely Olenna did view her husband’s body, however.
Tywin and Tommen: No such scene is shown in the novels. Orys I appears to be an invented ruler—the name Orys is first attested with Orys Baratheon, who was not of any royal line, and there are no known royal Orys’s before him. Tywin never articulates a direct criticism of Joffrey as he does here, although it’s clear that he had serious concerns about what kind of ruler the boy would grow to be.
Arya and Sandor: Borrowing elements from Arya XII very loosely, it does depart from them. In the novel, Sandor come across a small village near the high road to the Vale and decides it’d better to hole up there for a time before continuing on. A big, strong man such as himself can be useful, and he and Arya are provided room and board. However, the villagers soon realize who he is and afraid of his reputation turn him away, and Arya with him.
Sam and Gilly: There’s no question in the novels that Gilly is in danger from men of the Watch, but it’s worth noting that Samwell and Gilly do not arrive at the Wall until a much later point. Mole’s Town, with its brothel used to serving men of the Watch, is accurate enough, though it remains to be seen if the tunnels used to connect various buildings even at the height of winter exist; the tunnels are why it has its name.
Davos on Dragonstone: In the novel, Stannis is convinced by Davos that, “Two is not three”,” referring to the leech ceremony in which he named three rival kings—Robb Stark, Joffrey Baratheon, and Balon Greyjoy—for death, and so refuses to act on her argument for sacrificing Edric Storm until that last death takes place. Here, Stannis seems satisfied that two is enough proof, and he’s annoyed by Davos having let Gendry go when he believes Melisandre really could win him great power by sacrificing his bastard nephew. The timing of events, as noted last season, are all quite different, in that the confrontation over the release of Edric is climactic for Davos’s storyline. It appears that in the show, Davos has won a reprieve from Stannis, but Stannis cannot actually act on the knowledge that the real threat is beyond the Wall; he has too little money, men, or ships to go anywhere at all. This is somewhat different a situation from the novels, but it’s worth speculating that references to the Iron Bank suggest a storyline from A Dance with Dragons is being arranged. Finally, we don’t know very much of the full range of Davos’s journeys as a smuggler, and can’t specifically attest to his having been in Braavos, but it’s not at all impossible. That said, the book whose title he reads, The Life and Adventures of Elyo Grivas, First Sword of Braavos is not from the novels; Syrio Forel and Qarro Volentin are the only First Swords named in the novels to date.
Tywin and Oberyn: In the novels, Doran Martell had already been offered a small council seat as an inducement to aid the Lannisters, as well as the head of Gregor Clegane. The details here—including the notion that Oberyn might be a suspect—are correct to the novels. One particular detail of note: Tywin’s awareness of Daenerys and her three dragons is absolutely a new detail. In the novels, it’s only rumor, and Tywin largely ignores it as unlikely and uninteresting in relation to more pressing matters.
Wildling attack: The Thenns and the wildlings with them do not make any attacks until they reach Mole’s Town, so this particular attack—and, specifically, its intention of trying to lure the Night’s Watch out—is not from the novels. As noted in past seasons, there are no potatoes in the Westeros of the novels, but obviously someone loves potatoes on the writing team (and who can blame them? Tolkien had “taters” in Middle-earth, after all!)
Grenn and Edd: Grenn and Dolorous Edd escape the mutiny immediately in the novels, rather than ending up prisoners. They report on what transpired, as does Samwell, but there is no talk of needing to deal with the mutineers because of their knowledge of the true state of affairs on the Wall, since Mance Rayder was quite fully aware of the Watch’s strength (being a former member). The main detail that he learns in A Storm of Swords is learned from Jon Snow following the discovery of the slaughter at the Fist of the First Men, where Jon admits Mormont had taken 300 men ranging beyond the Wall, but he’s already aware of this by this point in the show.