Tyrion welcomes a guest to King’s Landing. At Castle Black, Jon Snow finds himself unwelcome. Dany is pointed to Meereen, the mother of all slave cities. Arya runs into an old acquaintance.
This year, Linda and I decided to share our early impressions in video form, so this will be the first time I sit down and give the return of Game of Thrones a written consideration, and I admit I’ve found it a struggle to find anything very notable to say about it. It’s not that it’s bad—if it were bad, I’d have plenty to say—but rather that there’s such a level of familiarity, now, to how the show is constructed, to how a first episode proceeds, that there’s little enthusiasm to go over the basic points at any length.
So in short: it’s a typical reintroduction, covering the bases of the chief storylines (but, smartly, leaving a couple out entirely to give the others a room to breathe), heavy on exposition that recapitulates what went on before (there are, by my count, at least three scenes in which two characters run through a list of what happened last season in their particular part of the story), but heavy also in visual splendor and gorgeous production values, with some fine scenes that let us see characters who haven’t interacted in a long time interact once more, and it also manages a few actual, fresh introductions of new players to the stage that should raise some insterest.
This may well be the best opening episode of the series since “Winter is Coming”, at least in terms of pacing and maintaing a relative briskness with so much scene-setting. It’s not perfect, of course, and we’ll at least discuss some of the ups and downs in more detail, but we will say that there is very little in the way of wasted time. At 58 minutes, almost all that time is used smartly. The notable standout are the two brief scenes featuring Margaery, Olenna, and Brienne. Sadly, despite notional potential in having these three very different women together, it offers nothing new or interesting, either in plot development, characterization, or themes. We suppose that the writers felt compelled to have the characters meet just because it seemed like they ought to do so on screen, but they forgot that they should actually have something to do when they did interact.
With that out of the way, lets cover some of the highs. Titled “Two Swords”, the episode opens with a homage to the opening of John Milius’s Conan the Barbarian which is as ludicrously amazing as the original. No, real steel swords are not made by pouring them into molds and then hammering away at the mand sharpening them—the show’s weaponmaster Tommy Dunne (who returns to the screen here as the “Volantene smith”; he previously appeared as the barber at Winterfell in “Winter is Coming”) could have told them that—but it doesn’t matter, because it’s such a fine visual. This “cold open” works very well indeed to highlight Tywin in his triumph, destroying Ice, the heirloom Valyrian steel sword of the Starks, as the sorrowful strains of the Northern theme runs… and as the steel melts and is poured into its molds, the molten steel advances toward the viewer as “The Rains of Castamere” plays in a new arrangement, an arrangement that includes drums that fainly echo the pulse-pounding strains of Basil Poliderous’s iconic opening theme to Conan; it’s a multi-faceted homage, but one that sets a tone about the fortunes of the Starks (those few that remain) and the North this season. When the wolf pelt scabbard (which, hopefully, viewers will remember after three years) is thrown into the fire, it’s Tywin who dominates in the screen, the man who ultimately orchestrated the ruin of his enemies and again sits triumphant. This scene suggests that this season will be the story of what it means to have Tywin Lannister in charge of the realm.
Good scenes with the Lannister clan follow on this, from Jaime’s divisive interaction with his father that moves from admiring the new Lannister Valyrian steel swords to arguing over Jaime’s future, to Jaime’s even more troubled conversation with a Cersei who is distant, seeming exhausted by the various setbacks that she sees herself as facing now that her father is in charge of it all and she is relegated to a place as a spectator largely. Some of that negative energy surely turns on the notion that Jaime’s return also pushes her even further out of the limelight, as she’s aware that the patriarchal tyrant who is Tywin showers Jaime with more attention. As her grip on power weakens after its peak in season 2—Tywin, Jaime, an increasingly wilful Joffrey and his future queen Margaery, they all reduce her influence, directly or indirectly—the things that give her joy start to seem like pale, paltry things besides what she’s losing. Those who regularly follow my reviews know I’m not the biggest fan of the portrayal of Cersei on the show—in part due to Headey’s chilly demeanor which rarely breaks out into something captivating, in part due to the writers too often reducing her to second-fiddle such as when the murder of Robert’s bastards was depicted as Joffrey’s orders—but this scene works quite well. Working a bit less well, alas, is Tyrion’s scene with Shae. Does anyone really understand why Tyrion is so stuck on this woman, and why it pains him to need her to leave? The writers haven’t really been able to bring readers into the relationship in a way that makes the attraction really understandable; there’s a lot of saying, and not so much showing. And besides being another scene where a character rattles off recent events, it’s one where the writers conveniently have Tyrion drop a very important point for no particular reason: rather than insisting on pursuing Shae’s remarks about someone having tried to send her away, he moves on to other things. It’s a mildly annoying choice, at least; better to have left that detail a secret, something Shae prefers to hold against him in silence, than to tease it and then all-too-readily pull away from it.
This episode is very much about reintroduction and introduction, so perhaps the best way to examine the episode is to examine some specific examples in the form of new cast members. The most notable introduction, of course, is the arrival of a party from Dorne, led by a prince. Not, however, Prince Doran Martell, who rules Dorne, but his infamous brother Oberyn (played by Pedro Pascal, in a scintilating, energetic turn as the Red Viper of Dorne), and his paramour Ellaria Sand (played by HBO alumnus Indira Varma, who appeared in the first season of HBO’s Rome). It’s certainly a memorable introduction, though not necessarily for all the right reasons. It’s certainly very economical to show the lusty pair in Littlefinger’s brothel as our first introduction, since it covers the ground of their transgressive behavior, their sensuality, and so on quickly; on the other hand, it risks immediate recall of all the other times where bare flesh on the screen seemed reason enough for a scene. As an isolated case—just the initial introduction—it’s not that much of a concern… but I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that this will not be the last time Oberyn and Ellaria are going to be surrounded by naked prostitutes in the course of the season, which may be worrisome if it proves a trend throughout the season.
Beyond the Wall, we catch up with Tormund Giantsbane and Ygritte—who provide us another brief rundown of what happened last season—when we’re introduced to a villainous lot of wildlings, savage, ritually-scarred cannibals called the Thenns. Of course, readers of the novel recognize the immediate changes to the character of the Thenns and their leader Styr. It’s not a story-breaking change, but it does make them rather a lot less distinct within the genre; cannibals have been done before, after all, and I don’t think we can expect these to be as interesting as Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal. At times the show prefers to go to extremes rather than to allow itself to indulge in nuance, and it’s no different here: the strange wildlings who were distrusted because they were disciplined, insular, and more advanced and because they worship Styr, the Magnar of Thenn, almost as if he were a god, become distrusted because they’re eaters of human flesh, crueller and more savage than any other wildling. It’s an easy simplification, something that makes them into boogey-men and monsters, easy to hate, but it doesn’t say much about their fellow wildlings that they’re disliked. It’s a small shame, but painting them as larger-than-life monsters may make them easier villains to detest.
And the last introduction is more of a reintroduction: Daario Naharis returns… though viewers of the show aren’t reminded just who Daario Naharis was—after all, he was a relatively late introduction last season—and are perhaps left unprepared for the fact that actor Michael Huisman now plays the part, after Ed Skrein’s departure from the production. Other than the similarity in armor and accoutrements, and his interest in Daenerys, there’s really nothing to connect him to last year’s character as they don’t look similar at all, and the performances are quite different. It was odd in an episode concerned at least in part with setting the ground that a throwaway line about his leading a company of sellswords after killing its former leaders on Dany’s behalf, or his central role in the defeat of Yunkai. From my experience of seeing how lost, sometimes, viewers can be among the maze of characters and locations, it would have been helpful to contextualize.
But perhaps they’re on to something: maybe viewers are likely to be lost regardless. In any case, Huisman—whose role as Sonny on the late, great Treme made him part of one of HBO’s best ensembles—proves as charming as one would expect, though as suggested his approach to how he interacts with Daenerys and others are quite different. If anything, the flamboyance of the character—already lacking, somewhat, compared to his original counterpart—has been toned down even further, and Daario so far doesn’t seem all that much different from a younger, less smarmy Bronn. Is that a good thing? In one sense, at the basic level, it probably is: it makes him easier to swallow, less challenging to the audience’s expectations for Daenerys. But it’s a shame such things are necessary, especially when one harbors the suspicion that Huisman has the talent and charm to pull off someone more blatant in his regard, someone supremely confident and willing to show it. the way that the more low-key approach to Daario works is to take a scene, such as the discussion of flowers, and makes it seem almost… cute, as if it came from a romantic comedy? And that’s not quite the word one wants to imagine for the all-together baser relationship that Daario hopes for.
In the end, the introductions are largely good work that do their job. But they do their job in part by dropping the nuances one grows to love in works that are more daring, more challenging. If the show lacks the luxury of nuance because of its scope (it’s an argument that’s occasionally put forward, in any case), that’s a genuine loss, something that can hold it back from the full richness of the source material. Which is a shame, but on the other hand, perhaps it’ll spur on yet more readers of the novels who decide to get the richer, more complicated story.
It seems fitting to discuss the end of the episode at the end of the review. Returning to the popular duo of Arya and the Hound (Maisie Williams and Rory McCann, who I recently interviewed ahead of the season), the show immediately sets up the combative dynamic between the characters before plunging us back into Arya’s incipent narrative of revenge. Last season closed with her murdering Frey soldiers who had taken part in the Red Wedding and the bloody slaughter outside the twins, and this season starts with more of the same. It’s not the best-written sequence that the show can tout—something about the exchange between Polliver and the Hound feels off; perhaps it’s the delivery of Polliver’s lines, and the content that is so thumpingly focused on the casual attitude to cruelty that Polliver shows—but the fighting certainly feels visceral and real, helped along by some fine effects work when the Hound uses a particularly murderous technique (note: it’s quite hard to watch someone having their face impaled repeatedly on a dagger), and when Arya slips Needle into Polliver’s throat and out the back of his neck. The gore will surely be a crowd-pleaser.
And the show is that, a crowd-pleaser, knowing by now the beats that wins rapt audiences waiting to feast their eyes on the next death, the next battle, the next bevy of bared breasts, the next betrayal.
The episode covers the following chapters of A Storm of Swords: Jaime VII (combined with elements of Tyrion IV), Tyrion V, elements of Jon VI and Jon IX, part of Daenerys V, and Arya XIII. There are also scenes drawn from A Clash of Kings, namely Sansa II and Sansa VIII.
Changes of note, chapter-by-chapter:
Added scenes of note:
Oberyn and Ellaris: As they are not point of view characters, the scenes here are never depicted, and are not drawn from the novels. That said, Oberyn expresses an immediate interest in making use of the prostitues of the city, and reports that Ellaria feels the same.
Daario and Grey Worm: Such a wager is never mentioned, and feels relatively childish, which is how Daenerys treats it. More interestingly, Grey Worm appears to be interested in Missandei, whereas in the novels he seems to be entirely asexual due to the early castration that rendered him suitable for the Unsullied.
Shae and Tyrion: Nothing specifically like this appears in the novels, as Tyrion’s desire to send Shae away isn’t really in the book; his solution is to get her married to someone and get her out of the way that way. The relationship between them is never so strained as depicted on the show. And, as we noted last year, the added complication of Varys attempting to pay for Shae going away creates problems between them that are not accurate to the novel.
Cersei and Jaime: In the novel, the couple immediately have sex when reunited, but the show indicates that Cersei’s distaste for the lack of his hand and in general for her feelings of abandonment that no such activity has taken place. This scene underscores a more openly unhappy Cersei, and also one who seems generally less passionate than the character in the novel. The golden hand is an element drawn from A Feast for Crows, as is Cersei finding Qyburn useful in preference to Grand Maester Pycelle.
Ygritte and Tormund: As noted above, the Thenns are very different from the Thenns of the novels, having been given the savagery and the cannibalism of the cannibal clans of the ice rivers. In the novels, the Thenns come from a hidden valley far, far to the north of where most wildlings reside, and are noted for their general lack of knowledge of the Common Tongue (only a few speak it), their near-worship of Styr, the Magnar of Thenn (“magnar” means lord in the First Tongue), for their unusual level of regimentation and discipline compared to other wildlings, and for their forging and using bronze armor and weapons where most wildlings only have stolen armor or crude armor of leather and bits of iron. In the novel, Styr, not Tormund, leads the expedition south, so his introduction at this stage is quite late.
Joffrey and Jaime: A fine scene, and one which introduces viewers to the Book of the Brothers which recounts the deeds of the Kingsguard. It is also the mention of two notable Kingsguard, Ser Duncan the Tall (mentioned once before during the first season) and Ser Arthur Dayne, the Sword of the Morning (never mentioned before, but near and dear to our hearts). In the novel, the chamber where the Kingsguard congregate is all white, and features a weirwood table, but the show has obviously eschewed this, much as it has eschewed the white armor of the Kingsugard. Some of the details shown in the White Book are not closely following the novels: for example, Jaime is listed as having been a squire to Barristan Selmy against the “Kingswood Outlaws”; in fact he squired for Lord Sumner Crakehall, and as mentioned on the show, they were the Kingswood Brotherhood.
Jaime and Brienne: Both characters are in King’s Landing much sooner than their counterparts in the novels, so their discussing Sansa’s fate is certainly new. The topic of Jaime not doing anything to fulfill his word is briefly touched on in the novels, but is far more central to their interactions on the show.