‘The gods have seen fit to make it so,’ croons an insincere Cersei Lannister in And Now His Watch Is Ended, this week’s Game of Thrones that has much to say on the trials of being brilliant and female in Westeros, and how politically ambitious women like Cersei, Margaery and Lady Olenna are forced to shadow-rule through husbands and other male relatives of varying and sometimes non-existent intelligence. We also see development in the Jaime/Brienne dynamic and Theon’s awful progression towards Reek (it rhymes with freak); we meet Beric Dondarrion; Bran has another dream; the Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch is assassinated and Daenerys finally sacks Astapor in a blaze of screaming fire and blood.
Everything about the sack of Astapor is spectacular: Drogon’s cries on the end of his chain as Daenerys walks away from him; the perversely gleeful slaver’s lack of attention to anything but the spectacle of possessing one of the last dragons in the world; Daenerys’ cry to the Unsullied in Valyrian (I’m obscenely happy that my prediction that she would start speaking Valyrian at this point came true, by the way) and her glorious words to the gibbering fool, ‘I am Daenerys Stormborn of House Targaryen, of the blood of old Valyria. Valyrian is my mother tongue,’ before delivering a beautifully-intoned ‘dracarys’ to Drogon, who cheerfully obliges her by immolating him immediately. Valyrian rolls off Daenerys’ tongue like silk. In speaking this language, the language of her ancestors, she seems to speak with all their voices combined; as well as to see through their eyes, her face expressionless as her dragons breathe towers of flame and her army slaughters the slavers. She doesn’t stay emotionless for long, however. Her subsequent speech to the Unsullied, in which they are declared free, and agree to follow her as free men, rivals Viggo Mortensen’s spectacular oration before the gates of Mordor in The Return of the King in charisma and inspiration.
A titanic, passionate and perfectly-pitched performance by Emilia Clarke, and all her previous acting flops are henceforth forgiven tenfold.
In King’s Landing, current intrigues continue and new ones evolve. While getting our first peek inside the magnificent Great Sept of Baelor, arguably the most beautiful set ever seen on the show, we can see how Margaery’s influence over Joffrey grows, the little prick practically falling over himself to impress her with awful tales of agonies the Targaryens inflicted on each other centuries ago. Jack Gleeson’s skill seems to grow daily in his interpretation of Joffrey, this giggling enjoyment of horror a disturbing new side to his love of cruelty that we’ve never seen before.
While Margaery pushes him deeper and deeper into her gold-lined pockets by expressing the deepest interest in everything he says, even persuading him, to the point of showing himself to the crowd outside, that the people’s love for her is also love for him, Cersei and Lady Olenna find themselves to be kindred spirits in shadow-ruling. While this shadow-ruling doesn’t go so well for Cersei in this episode despite a small, revealing scene with Tywin that shows a great deal of who she is and who she’ll become, it is a great success for Lady Olenna, who unexpectedly finds herself in the same sparklingly witty boat as Varys. Diana Rigg and Conleth Hill: what a duo! Their chemistry is perfect, and they’re hilarious together. This could very well turn out to be another change to the book that is a gift rather than a disaster; a replacement for Arya and Tywin that’s comic rather than dramatic.
The two do a fair amount of delicious scheming about how to ensure that when Littlefinger leaves King’s Landing, he doesn’t take Sansa with him and marry her, this probability having been revealed to Varys by his most recently acquired little bird. While we are not told what their proposed solution to this problem is, it’s fairly obvious for those that have read the book that they’re referring to Tyrion and Sansa’s wedding, which was rather tantalisingly hinted at in the trailer. While I certainly agree with Varys’ assertion that Littlefinger is ‘the most dangerous man in Westeros,’ I was a little hurt, as a proud Sansa fan, at Lady Olenna’s having shown Sansa such kindness in the previous episode, only to call her an uninteresting person with an interesting life in this one. How cruel. One would think Lady Olenna had lived in King’s Landing all her life. But let’s not get me started on Sansa and the injustices visited on her by characters and fans alike. We’ll be here all day.
One Tyrell lady whose feelings towards Sansa remain impossible to read clearly is Margaery. There is a beautiful scene shot right by the sea during which Margaery happens upon Sansa praying in the presence of her guards. Margaery sends them away and expresses her wish to become friends, something that Sansa welcomes with all the half-tearful warmth of a desperately lonely person unaccustomed to kindness. In the book, the friendship between the two girls progresses to Sansa desperately blurting out an entreaty that Margaery not marry Joffrey, something that Margaery barely pays attention to, declaring that she has her brother to protect her. After that, the friendship becomes something of a plothole and is never mentioned again. It’s for this reason that it’s impossible to tell if Margaery’s wish for a friendship is a sincere one, or if she’s as good a liar as her grandmother.
Perhaps it’s a bit of both, as Margaery then drops the bombshell of asking Sansa if she would like to marry Loras, a deviation from the book that puts Margaery into the position of someone using others for the gain of her House. In the book, and in the series, Sansa is not averse to marrying Loras, but there’s an important difference between these two. In the book, Sansa is quickly pounced upon by Lady Olenna, who points out that Loras is Kingsguard and therefore cannot marry. In the series, Loras isn’t Kingsguard. This opens another can of worms. Does Loras know of this plan? Is he willing to marry Sansa, despite his being gay, so that he can marry her title and her claim to Winterfell? Or is he completely unaware of this? It seems unlikely. If Loras knows about this, then he and Margaery are willingly condemning both him and Sansa to a lifetime of misery that it isn’t difficult to imagine. If Loras does not know, then Margaery is using her own brother, who is still mourning his lover, and using friendship to seduce an exasperatingly innocent girl into a decision she’ll regret for the rest of her life. In the meantime, let’s sit back and watch the enigma that is Margaery unravel.
Turning to less flowery matters (pardon the symbolism), we go to the Riverlands, where a badly-beaten-up Brienne is now goading a semi-catatonic Jaime with accusations of cowardice and effeminacy in the hope that they will convince him to eat and stay alive. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau’s performance is heartbreaking: so weak he can’t even keep himself on his horse, his attempt to fight off his captors with his left hand when he’s barely capable of standing up is far more upsetting than any of the series’ bloodiest moments. While Gwendoline Christie still cleaves to the dead-pan dourness of the castle walls Brienne has built around herself, grains of emotion and pity are beginning to escape through the arrow slits, something that is exemplified by her dismounting (tied up and all) and attempting to run to Jaime’s aid when the Brave Companions indulge in a bit of rubbing the Kingslayer’s head in the mud. The scene in which she bitterly accuses Jaime of thinking he’s the only person to have lost something that meant everything to them and asks why he lied to save her from being raped, leaves you waiting for a resolution that doesn’t come.
She gets him to eat, but not to answer her; a state of affairs that I hope is a precursor to the bath scene.
Staying in the Riverlands, we inch closer and closer to Sandor Clegane versus Beric Dondarrion, getting as far as Arya’s accusation of the Hound regarding Mycah’s death. Short as it is, Maisie Williams’ performance in this scene shines with pathos and makes you watch the tears in her eyes that she always tries to blink back with admiration and compassion as it is declared that she may be the bravest person in the room for speaking out. A performance that doesn’t quite shine with pathos is that of Richard Dormer as Beric Dondarrion, who gets the shit acted out of him by young Miss Williams. True, he doesn’t get an awful lot of screen time, but he doesn’t seem to possess the screen presence necessary for a commanding figure like Lord Beric: if he did, screen time wouldn’t matter. I’m sure the situation will improve when he starts waving a burning sword around.
Turning North, we rejoin the detestable Theon Greyjoy, who finally seems to have realised how detestable he actually is. Alfie Allen is sorrowful and reflective, two things he didn’t really have much time to be in the previous season, and blurs audience reaction with great skill: part sympathy, part hatred. He does this so well that when his rescuer turns out to be an accessory to a form of psychological torture, and has only succeeded in bringing him round in a circle straight back to the rack where he started, it is impossible to rejoice.
In other Northern matters, the Night’s Watch finally gets round to assassinating its Lord Commander at Craster’s keep, a spectacular if disgraceful brawl following the moving funeral of one of their own. We’ve seen the Lord Commander so intermittently since season 1 that it’s almost impossible to mourn his passing with seriousness, or to remember his touching mentorship of Jon Snow. Though his death does give us an opportunity to reflect on how difficult it must be to keep all these storylines going and to maintain our attachment to all the characters, it also gives Sam, Gilly and her baby a chance to escape into the wild, the hellish darkness swallowing up both them and the light, a constant reminder of the ‘darkness that will swallow the dawn.’
Staying in the North, there is also a very brief scene featuring Bran chasing the ever-evasive three-eyed crow of his dreams. Joy seems to pour out of every pore in Isaac Hempstead-Wright’s body as he sprints through the forest and climbs to the top of a huge tree, his unconscious self reveling in something he knows his conscious self will never experience again. Both Jojen and Bran’s own past once again intrude on the dream; but while Jojen is a largely silent, observant guide, Bran’s past takes the form of Catelyn, who he barely has time to run towards before she’s shaking him and beseeching him ever more violently, ‘No more climbing! Promise me!’ Bran plunges to the ground and wakes up drenched in sweat to find Jojen watching him, barely looking affected by what they’ve just shared. Both Hempstead-Wright and Thomas Brodie-Sangster are exceptionally mature actors for their respective delicate ages, and this largely wordless communication between them is pitched just right; the all-over-the-place, unchannelled emotion of Bran’s dream world contrasted with the powerful, constant presence of Jojen, wide open to everything, yet closed as well. More, please!
Apart from its focusing so admirably on the formidable ladies of Westeros and Essos, this episode’s strength is the contrasting of the longer, grander scenes of the capital with small, powerful scenes focusing on character. Apart from the sack of Astapor, it does, however, share last week’s peculiarity of planting a lot of strong, beautiful seeds that will lead to great moments. It’s about time we saw more great moments and less planting of seeds.