Cersei and Tywin plot the Crown’s next move. Dany discusses future plans. Jon embarks on a new mission.
“First of His Name” opens with a coronation, as one might expect given the title, but unlike many past episodes of the show the title’s relevance to the episode seems to start and end there. Outside of the discussion between young King Tommen’s mother and his potential bride-to-be, the episode doesn’t delve into the topic of the young king’s rule and those who hover about the Iron Throne. Instead, the episode turns on somewhat more distant matters, matters that are less thematically connected than viewers may have been used to. Sometimes the writers are able to line up certain things so that there’s a thematic through line, but other times—as with this episode—the needs of plot movement override artful thematic unity. As the middle episode of the season, “First of His Name” feels very much like a bridge episode, preparing the way for the back half of the season and the decisive events fans are no doubt anticipating. In the course of doing this, one potentially-interesting thread was snipped in a fashion that felt short-sighted, a significant plot movement was revealed to be a closed circle with no real lasting impact on the wider narrative, and the significant changes in one character’s screen translation from the source material became highlighted.
Although I never really saw the story beyond the Wall—highlighted in “Oathkeeper”—as being filler, exactly, it was clear enough that the showrunners had placed themselves in a position of believing they needed to provide Jon Snow and friends (and, for that matter, Bran Stark and friends) some material in the middle of the season, having jumped a bit ahead at last season’s close in relation to where they wanted to place the climactic material that they’ve been hinting at from before the season even began filming. But the way the storyline wraps up does seem to fit the definition of what one would call filler to a T: the status quo for Jon Snow and for Bran have not truly changed in any fundamental way, beyond the false dilemma of Mance Rayder’s potential knowledge of the Wall’s weakness (it still makes no sense that he believes there’s 1,000 men at Castle Black when he was a ranger not so long ago and knew exactly how far the Watch had dwindled) and Jon’s recovery of Ghost (a recovery which did not need to take place in that particular way). The siblings pass each other by, like ships in the night, a move that feels more cliché than inspired in this case, and very much what I recall predicting as soon as I realized how the writers were pushing characters to Craster’s Keep.
Still, some advancement to Jon’s character might have been achieved, if he followed up on his rousing speech at Castle Black with some firm leadership, perhaps the use of a clever ruse… but, no, for some reason it’s Locke who seems to do the legwork, and there are no tactics in the wild charge of the watchmen against the mutineers. Locke comes to a swift and bloody end, certainly surprising those who predicted that Noah Taylor might have lasted longer, worming his way into Jon’s confidences until some later date. Karl, too, meets his end, one facilitated by a reminder (better late than never) that a man who would own a wildling woman had best keep track of his knives. One can see Kit Harington’s stint filming the action-heavy Pompeii had an effect—the producers have remarked that they were surprised to see just how quickly he could swing that sword—but on the whole I can’t say the fight choreography (more on which later), and the direction around it, was particularly strong. On the whole, the Craster’s Keep story ends with something of a whimper. Strange to say, despite our extreme dubiousness of the way the story was pushed into place, I think I had hoped that something more would come of it than what we ultimately got. The best material, really, was Thomas Brodie-Sangster’s performance as an ill, doomed Jojen Reed, which was riveting, and of course the reveal of the full wrath of Brandor (or perhaps Hobran).
Somewhat stronger material could be found in the Hound-Arya scenes, especially the first concerning her mantra of death and the Hound’s presence on it. As I’ve said before, although the third season left me concerned about the chemistry between McCann and Williams, I now find that they’re playing off one another very well, especially when the interaction takes more humorous turns. The waterdancing choreography, on the other hand… not so much. It’s a minor quibble in the grand scheme of things, but Michelle MacLaren’s decision to film details such as Williams’s twirls seemed too painfully like watching genuine dance movements rather than anything really martial; once was fine, twice made it all too plain that the choreography of the scene was fairly limited. The first season managed quite well with waterdancing, in the brief snippets we saw, but the added flourishes (presumably from swordmaster C.C. Smiff), including some that seemed decidedly inspired by eastern martial arts, prove to be too unreal for my tastes.
Better still—and in our mind the best material in this episode—are the introduction of Sansa to her aunt Lysa Arryn, as well as her cousin Robin. Kate Dickie’s presence is very strong in those scenes, as she plays Lysa’s manic devotion to Littlefinger to the very hilt, while also diving into the depths of her jealousies and paranoia with Sansa. Her character crackles with a kind of unhinged energy, making a remarkable counterpoint to Littlefinger as he tries to deal with her. The interplay between the two actually helps bring out the best in Aidan Gillen’s performance as Petyr Baelish, a performance that has generally left us baffled. The moment when she opens the doors to reveal a septon already waiting provided plenty of reason to laughter as Gillan’s face drops in constertnation. And, it must be said, Lysa following up on her promise while MacLaren placed the camera above the image of Sansa having to hear it all was also worth a laugh, as Sophie Turner captured the awkwardness of it very well indeed. Although some of the flavor of the novels has been lost in the course of adaptation, Dickie’s performance (including the very vocal performance of that scene) retains a great deal of what makes the scenes there memorable. When she later terrifies Sansa with her insisent suspicion and paranoia, the turn feels like a natural jump for the character, a woman almost unhinged by years of disappointment and thwarted passion.
It’s another woman, however, who is the heart of this episode. Lena Headey’s scenes—three in total—are the real centerpiece of the episode, despite the closing placement of the scenes beyond the Wall; that material was a way to stretch out certain storylines, and served little other purpose, whereas Cersei’s scenes are integral to fleshing out her character further. We have remarked here and in other venues of our general dislike for the radically different Cersei Lannister of the show, and nothing really changes for us with this episode. That Cersei would work to manipulate the judging is no surprise—it’s very much a part of the novels—but the way she goes about it underscores how changed she is from the more vivid character of the novels, how much blander she seems. It’s not entirely Headey’s fault, as the writers have clearly reimagined the character quite strongly, but it’s the fact that she’s blander which is part of the reason for the initial outrage over the sept scene in “Breaker of Chains” (a scene which, it must be noted, Headey has spoken about to clarify that the intent did not match the common interpretation) came to pass; making her less determinative of her own choices, reducing her agency and increasing her passivity was an obvious contributor to the confusion that the scene caused. And so we are reminded with Margaery that she was shocked by Joffrey’s actions, things like killing Robert’s bastards (an action that was commanded by Cersei, in the novels). And so we discover her taking the news that the Lannister mines had run dry—a plot turn that is either grossly simplifying the economic situation of the novels or taking place to provide a useful alibi for Cersei down the road—with little more than a creased brow. And finally, we find her seeking out Prince Oberyn… and talking about daughters with him.
Pedro Pascal’s performance as Oberyn in these scenes is impeccable, and the writers certainly provide so much new detail about Dorne and the Martells—Oberyn’s eight daughters, Myrcella’s enjoyment of playing amidst the fountains, Oberyn’s dabbling in poetry—that it seems inevitable that Dorne will be seen again next season. But the daughter conversation seems like an obvious replacement for, and distraction from, the baser approach Cersei might have used instead. After all, the show has gone out of its way to foreground Oberyn’s lustiness, even making him reside in a brothel so that willing playmates are always near to hand. Cersei could very well have gauged that her charms might be of more interest to a man like Oberyn. Although the show’s events have led to a rather different martial situation for Cersei, one could imagine that she’d have tried to suggest her hand in marriage as an option, hoping to manipulate matters so that Tywin would release her from her marriage to Ser Loras Tyrell while also leading Oberyn on. But no, sexuality is something that Cersei seems largely uninterested in (bedding Lancel Lannister seems an exception). Her love of her children has already been amply presented on the show, so the Oberyn scene is really much more about him and her. It was disappointing, to be reminded so clearly how much less interesting the character is on the show. (That said, a brief praise: the last line of the scene, while too on-the-nose, was beautifully delivered by Lena Headey, and I could finally feel the emotion she so often represses).
“First of His Name” feels like a lesser effort by the production, and perhaps it needs to be as the season wears on and the producers have to set things in place for the back half. Did it have room to soar? A more vivid Cersei would surely have helped, and so too would have been a serious rethink on just what was to be achieved at Craster’s Keep compared to alternatives. But missed opportunities are what they are. Now the show should be able to plunge into Tyrion Lannister’s trial, return us to the real threats approaching the Wall, and and more, so there’s a deal of material to look forward to remaining.
The episode covers the following chapters of A Storm of Swords: Daenerys VI and Sansa VI. Elements of A Feast for Crows Brienne III are also present.
Changes of note, chapter-by-chapter:
Added scenes of note:
Coronation: Tommen’s coronation is not depicted in the novels.
Margaery and Cersei: No such scene takes place in the novels, and in fact Cersei is fairly bitterly opposed to Tommen’s marriage to Margaery. While on the show Cersei is simply politicking to get Tyrell support in finding Tyrion guilty, Cersei does not seem to give much thought to Lord Tyrell in that respect.
The Bloody Gate: The details about the history of the Bloody Gate are accurate. However, Littlefinger and Sansa enter the Vale from the Fingers, on the eastern coast, while the Bloody Gate defends the high road that provides entry into the Vale from the west. Littlefinger giving Sansa a new name, Alayne, is from the novel, although on the show he concocts a story of Alayne Stone being his bastard daughter rather than a niece. The novels do not reveal whether Littlefinger has any siblings, although it seems unlikely.
Tywin and Cersei: No such discussion takes place between Cersei and Tywin that we see in the novels. Of particular note is one very significant change in setting detail: in the novels, there is no danger of the mines of Casterly Rock running dry, whereas on the show Tywin declares that the mines are entirely played out, and have been played out for three years. This creates a far sharper financial situation for the Lannisters than what is seen in the novels. One reason this may have been done may be to mitigate Tywin Lannister’s refusal to forgive the crown’s debts to Casterly Rock, although it seems clear that it is consistent behavior for Tywin; he may lend to the crown for its future, but he will not cripple House Lannister by forgiving the debt. A likelier reason is that this may exist to greatly simplify the financial situation presented on the show; rather than a matter of the Lannisters attempting to remove most debts but those owed to Casterly Rock, now it is a matter of finding benefactors to support the crown. Alternatively, or equally, it may also serve to mitigate Cersei Lannister’s actions later in the series.
Arya and the Hound: Arya’s list is not something she repeats out loud in front of people, in the novels, so the exchange regarding it is not from the novels. Similarly, Arya does not practice waterdancing in front of the Hound. Thoros of Myr, Melisandre of Asshai, and Beric Dondarrion are not part of Arya’s list the novels, and are present to the very different association she had with them in the previous season.
Oberyn and Cersei: While Cersei does bargain with Prince Oberyn to win his vote against Tyrion in the novels, there she tempts him with marriage. The details Oberyn shares about his eight daughters, including one named Elia, are correct to the novel, as is the fact that he occasionally indulges in writing poetry.
Crater’s Keep: All of this material is invented by the series, save the fact that Jojen is indeed aware of the manner of his death (whether that fate involves fire in the novels is not yet known). The fate of the mutineers, Craster’s wives and daughers, and Craster’s Keep are a mystery in the novels. Locke’s death is invented, as the character does not exist in the books. Rast’s death takes place during the defense of Castle Black, as he was never a mutineer.