Tyrion gains new responsibilities; Jon is taken to the Fist of the First Men; Daenerys meets with the slavers; Jaime strikes a deal with his captors.
As with last season, it’s from episode 3 where the new season of Game of Thrones finally begins to feel like it’s picking up steam. Almost all of this is owed quite directly to what happens to Jaime Lannister in that final moment of the episode, a shock for him as much as for the audience. The ability to surprise, to change expectations, to not hold back, has been a hallmark of George R.R. Martin’s fantasy, and here at least the producers manage to do that complete justice. The details, the context, may have changed in small ways, but the impact of it is fully as strong as readers of the novels might have hoped. Yet that final moment should not overshadow the good work seen in multiple venues in this episode, from the lands beyond the Wall to thew newly-introduced Riverrun to Astapor. The only place that feels a little aimless is King’s Landing, but that area of the story has (to us) felt the softest of all the ones on offer. Why this is is hard to say, when so many of the show’s finer actors are present there. Possibly the decision to turn away from the politics and fully contextualizing the War of the Five Kings at this stage and instead giving viewers a lengthy exercise in juvenile sex humor and a surfeit of breasts and other parts to satisfy even the horniest teenaged producer in charge of breasts. We said in our impressions that the producers seem to have doubled down, but on second-look, tripled down would be more like it…
Lets just get it out of the way: the Podrick material featured some fetchingly nude women, one very talented contortionist (I’ll hand it to the writers, however, that the “Meereenese knot” remark was a fine quip), and a complete lack of anything worth that amount of story time. Humorous remarks were worked into other scenes without having the story grind to a complete halt in this self-indulgent, frat boy jest. And then to take that moment and extend it with with what amounts to the greatest flight of fancy that the show has never seen is just too much. Yes, David and Dan will be quick to remark on a particularly outrageous sexual scene late in the series, but not only does Martin have much more time in his novels to establish tone and setting with such minor events (time that they themselves keep noting they don’t really have), the scene in the novel wasn’t there to exist as the set up for a joke. Martin has a great deal of humor in his novels, sometimes quite silly humor (here’s looking at you, Three Stoges in A Game of Thrones, and Monty Python and the Holy Grail references while we’re at it), but this particular punchline? Wouldn’t have happened, I think, because it cheapens the story. Some humor is simply too broad and too farcical.
I haven’t even really gotten in to the show’s need to fulfill some apparent nude female quota. There have been many complaints from many quarters, but in the end, it’s HBO and primetime cable, and they do as they please. But shows like Deadwood or Boardwalk Empire seem to manage this with a certain gracefulness and sense of realism, the nudity part of the decor rather than there simply to titillate the viewer. I can’t say Game of Thrones manages it, however, especially given signs that at least one unnamed producer on the show makes a point of wanting as much nudity on display as possible when a scene provides an opportunity. The show is trying too hard to be “adult”, and in the process seems to be embracing some of the things it has been most criticized for.
The other issue I have, related to Podrick, is the fact that a great deal of time was devoted in this episode to scenes or stories that I’m not sure I see value in. Podrick and the prostitutes aside, another seven episodes of Theon being alternately tortured and tricked is not what I would consider enticing television when I know just how much material from the novel is going to have to be dropped to accommodate it. It’s such an isolated storyline that it’s hard to see how they’ll give it importance to justify the time spent. Between the Podrick-related material and the Theon Greyjoy scenes, fully nine minutes of the episode were taken up—about a sixth of its total running time. There’s nothing wrong with the scene in terms of acting, of course, and seen in isolation they’re just fine. But they aren’t in isolation; the time they take up could surely have been used very well in other areas of the story, whether it was showing Arya and the brotherhood without banners interacting with the populace of the war-ravaged riverlands (a detail that is, thematically, important; the war hurts the commoners most of all, and at this stage only Beric Dondarrion and his followers are genuinely interested in defending them; the Starks and Lannisters are all too focused on their crowns to care as much as they could or should) or giving us more of Tormund Giantsbane and the other wildlings so we get a better sense of these characters. As it is, Jon’s story is clearly being treated in short snippets in large part because of the time they’re giving to other pars of the story.
Other than the above, however, this episode works very well indeed. So much of it looks and sounds right, and a number of scenes feature real dramatic tension, such as the grudging admittance of the Night’s Watch into Craster’s home and the way the camera clues us in to the fact that Craster believes the Watch will fight rather than be forbidden from his home, or the arguments of Barristan, Jorah, and Daenerys over how to proceed. It’s to the credit of the writers that they are managing to adapt so many engaging storylines at the same time and bring them to the screen. Of particular note are several fine scenes inRiverrun, where we are introduced to poor, put-upon Edmure Tully (he gets browbeaten even more harshly than his namesake in the novels, and that’s saying something) and the gruff Blackfish worked quite well. Clive Russel’s height and broad shoulders, his voice and manner, are quite impressive and he seems to tower over those around him, a useful feature that immediately makes him seem a dominant, forceful figure. His later scene with Michelle Fairley also worked quite well, especially as the writers finally pushed the point home that Catelyn fully believes Bran and Rickon are dead. While this is finally catching her up to the point that she was at the end of A Clash of Kings—and which she ought to have been by the end of the second season—it does so in a well-wrought scene in which Fairley again elevates the material. My only small regret is that the writers yet again have Catelyn implying she should never have left her children, which is an irrational position; doubtless they mean it to be irrational, but the fact is too many viewers will take it at face value.
But best of all? Jaime and Brienne. We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: when this season is done, many viewers are going to remember their shared story best of all. Noah Locke finally has a chance to cut loose, and he makes a memorable, dangerous antagonist who has just enough power to be able to do things like remove a potentially very valuable prisoner’s hand just because he can. He may not be Vargo Hoat, but Locke appears to be fully as capable of sadism, and does so with an ease that’s truly shocking. The moment when Jaime begins to believe that he’s talking his way out of harsh treatment was particularly well shot, because at the same time the camera began to focus more and more on Brienne watching with a curious expression on her face. Our guess is that Christie managed to convey that Brienne was becoming uneasy by Locke’s increasingly genial behavior towards Lannister, that somehow she could see that something was wrong while Jaime could not. His confidence and arrogance, and the chance of his birth to the wealthiest house in the Seven Kingdoms, would certainly make Jaime weary. It was all quite well-framed and well-paced, so that when that final moment came it felt suitably brutal and shocking. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau’s acting also deserves a great deal of praise, particularly as he played the shock that comes before fully registering what happeened (and feeling it) so convincingly. It’s a harrowing way to end an episode, almost as much as Ned Stark’s execution was.
This is certainly the best episode of the season to date, and one can hope—hope very strongly—that this is a sign of things to come.
Changes of note, chapter-by-chapter:
Catelyn and the Blackfish: This scene largely tries to give some sense of the Blackfish’s relationship with Catelyn, something established over the three novels to this time. Some of the details, such as the Blackfish and Lord Hoster constantly arguing, are quite accurate. Catelyn’s recollection of waiting for her father to come home is drawn from her last chapter in A Game of Thrones.
Talisa with Lannisters: The Lannister boys are stand-ins for Willem Lannister and Tion Frey. Tion is in fact Lord Tywin’s nephew by his sister Lady Genna, who is wed to Ser Emmon Frey, one of Lord Walder’s sons by his first wife. The fact that the Freys have ties to the Lannisters (and many other families besides) has been erased from, or at least downplayed, on the show.
Theon: As noted previously, none of Theon’s scenes this season are drawn directly from the novels. However, what we know of the period after Theon’s capture seems like it could fit scenes of this sort; not just the torture and abuse, but the apparent escape as well.
Stannis with Melisandre: Melisandre never departs from Stannis’s side in the novel. Stannis’s desire to see his rival kings dead is, however, true enough… and is probably a key to understanding what Melisandre is up to. That said, Stannis’s lust for Melisandre as a major motivating factor for why he wants to keep her around is not from the novels.
Podrick: In the novels, Podrick is quite young—about twelve or thirteen at this point—so a scene like this would never have happened.
Tyrion and Littlefinger’s ledgers: Tyrion is indeed made master of coin and tasked with becoming familiar with the crown’s finances. However, the show has greatly simplified Littlefinger’s technique for gathering money, putting it all down to loans. In the books, Littlefinger has involved the crown’s wealth in speculation, in investments to produce more money, and in usury of its own… usury that is, apparently, particularly fishy. This has led to speculations that Littlefinger has found ways to inflate the wealth on the ledgers.