This week’s Game of Thrones is an exponential improvement and welcome respite from the panic-inducing dreadfulness of its season premier. The script is excellent, the production and locations striking and beautiful, and the acting is tremendous. Let’s start with the characters we didn’t see in the season premier.
The episode begins with the reintroduction of future greenseer Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead-Wright), who is now on the run with Osha, Hodor and his younger brother Rickon following the destruction of Winterfell, and who has grown up into such a gorgeous young man since the previous season that you almost feel guilty for fancying him. Gorgeous or not, he’s a terrific actor. This show has always been wonderful at portraying Bran’s vivid inner world since his fall, and the scene in which he dreams of shooting futilely at the three-eyed crow, which is superimposed with the first time we met him in season 1, thoughtfully reproduces Jon and Robb entirely, but reduces Ned to a mere voice. Hempstead-Wright’s immediate whirling-around and cry of ‘Father!’ is a heartbreaking display of the hope of a child, the vivid, sighing forest setting only increasing his loneliness and longing for the past. Bran’s storyline also introduces Jojen and Meera Reed in rather more dramatic fashion than in the books (Jojen invades Bran’s dreams before rather abruptly appearing in reality), with the intelligent outcome that the mystical side of Jojen is revealed to the audience without much tedious mucking-about in the realm of verbal explanation. Thomas Brodie-Sangster is fantastic as Jojen: serene, wise beyond his years, very charismatic and with a beautiful speaking voice, he’s too mature to be the slightly creepy small boy of the books, but still looks young enough to be in the same age-bracket as Bran, making him much more believable as Bran’s friend and his mentor. Ellie Kendrick as Meera Reed joins the ranks of the show’s warrior women facing criticism and ridicule for their chosen profession: this criticism coming from Osha (who is not too bad with a spear herself) acts as a catalyst for the development of a very interesting dynamic between the two women that is not fully exploited in the books.
In this episode we also rejoin Jaime and Brienne, now travelling to King’s Landing on foot, bickering every step of the way. This bickering becomes very cruel on Jaime’s part when he succeeds in discovering Brienne’s love for Renly; and his attacking Brienne on such a personal level stupendously succeeds in increasing the personal nature of the connection between them which will mark them both so profoundly. As mentioned multiple times on this blog, the combination of Gwendoline Christie and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is a masterpiece of casting, and the brilliant chemistry that was created between them in such a short space in season 2 becomes so fiery in the heated exchanges of this episode that it borders on sexual, which should please fans that ship them. The show also manages to turn their capture by the Brave Companions into a revealing character study which ultimately comes down to whether or not Brienne should have killed an innocent-looking farmer they met on the road; a farmer who eventually betrays them. This is an excellent idea, as it shows that Brienne’s chivalric view of the world has disadvantages when it’s universally applied, and that Jaime’s bloodier, more reckless views can sometimes have a favourable outcome. These views on chivalry represent the biggest differences and the biggest causes for fighting between these two characters, and introducing this grayer view of things early on shows us the deeper subtleties of the issue in an extremely powerful way. Plus, the fight between Jaime and Brienne on the bridge is terrific: each learns that the other is not to be underestimated and each sees the other at their most beautiful, which is significant, since people who have read the books know that Jaime will never be beautiful in this way again.
Of all the characters the audience will be the most pleased to see, Arya Stark is probably number one. Like Isaac Hempstead-Wright, Maisie Williams has changed considerably since the last season and has metamorphosed from a hot-blooded tomboy that is often mistaken for a boy into an fiery, androgynous young woman who shows every sign of becoming a great beauty (something that is consistent with the Arya of the books through her similarities to her aunt Lyanna). Following her escape from Harrenhal with Gendry and Hot Pie, Arya has allowed herself and her companions to become hopelessly lost. She reacts to their meeting with the Brotherhood Without Banners with characteristic subtlety by threatening to kill them all, creating a nice dynamic with the decidedly un-Myrish Thoros of Myr (Paul Kaye), who likes to humour her and ridicule her simultaneously. The scene where Arya and company share a meal with the Brotherhood is particularly touching and revealing both of the Arya in the series and the Arya of the books. The Brotherhood laugh and mock at her interest in swordplay, which hurts particularly deeply since the exact opposite was what characterised Arya’s profound relationship with Tywin Lannister in the series; and her consequent picking up of her sword and challenging Thoros ends with him knocking the sword out of her hand before one blow is struck, which also hurts, because it reminds the Arya of the books that ‘she was no water dancer,’ which only increases her anger at being unable to defend herself and others despite her ambitions and her temperament. Fortunately, the arrival of the Hound on the scene after being captured by the Brotherhood and immediately identifying her, will provide much opportunity for being a badass when they capture her and try to ransom her. Her attempt to escape on horseback is a spectacular passage in the book, and I hope it makes its way onto the screen.
Staying with the Starks, the undisputed star of this particular episode is Michelle Fairley as Cat, who endures the double blow of her father’s death as well as the suspected death of Bran and Rickon. A well-meaning Talisa’s attempt at comfort does not lead to anger, but rather to a numbing expression of grief in the form of a beautiful monologue on the nature of life and death that deals, surprisingly, with her relationship with Jon Snow, and with her fear that all the misery that has befallen her family is the result of her appalling treatment of the boy from his infancy. Cat’s permanent solemnity and bitterness following her losses can sometimes be very difficult to read in the books by virtue of their trying sanctimoniousness, but in this monologue, Cat speaks to us as a mother and as a human being, with sincerity, with rawness and with a heartbreaking universality that expresses itself beautifully in her face and voice.
Meanwhile in the capital, Sansa is invited to lunch by Joffrey’s new betrothed Margaery Tyrell and her grandmother Lady Olenna (Diana Rigg), fondly called the Queen of Thorns, to furnish the Tyrell ladies with an idea of the kind of man Margaery is marrying. This scene is both delightful and tragic. Not only does it exploit the stunning beauty of Croatia to the full in its gorgeous sea views and the beautiful garden in which it takes place, it also reminds us that King’s Landing, like Joffrey, is only attractive on the surface. Diana Rigg is stupendous as Lady Olenna and is a perfect transition from book to screen, her hilarious reflections on her husband’s death, on men on general and on the right time to serve cheese (‘when I want it served and I want it served now’) perfectly timed and giving the Dowager Countess a serious run for her money. But she also convinces as an intelligent, politically-minded woman that is capable of great compassion towards those not as strong-willed as she is. Sophie Turner’s Sansa pulls out all the stops of her acting genius to portray Sansa’s anger and hatred towards Joffrey, as well as her desperation to stop these emotions from bursting through the seams of the socially correct views that she is usually required to prattle like an automaton. When treated with such rare kindness and understanding, she doesn’t succeed, of course, and Turner’s ability to play these two psychological levels out against each other is prodigious.
If any character has come into her own this season, it’s Natalie Dormer’s Margaery Tyrell. Cersei already perceives her a threat after being offended by her interest in helping the poor and her dressing with provocative sensuality, but it is in this episode that we begin to see her as a serious threat to Cersei’s power (not that it gives us much concern). Following Sansa’s unwilling admission that Joffrey is a sadistic monster, there is a very interesting scene involving Joffrey, his new crossbow and Margaery that leaves us in no doubt that we’re dealing with a highly intelligent woman deeply versed in manipulating people’s emotions and who may turn out to be a political genius. Through asking Joffrey to demonstrate how the crossbow works, Margaery expresses an affinity with the sexual pleasure that Joffrey derives from killing (‘I imagine it must be so exciting to squeeze your finger here and watch something die over there (…) would you like to watch me?’), while somehow managing to convince him that she is completely under his control and is his willing slave. The scene ends in a rather creepy embrace with Margaery taking aim with the crossbow while Joffrey shows her how to hold it properly, his arms strategically placed. While this scene shows us that Margaery could prove to be a formidable player in the only Game that really matters, it also shows us that Joffrey hasn’t changed a bit in his lust for cruelty. Following a discussion of Margaery’s relationship with Renly (or lack thereof) he also proposes making homosexuality punishable by death, something that isn’t in the book, but which works into Joffrey’s cruelty the kind of inhumane views that exist in many societies today. Margaery does a fantastic job of hiding her fear that this kind of decree could mean the death of her own brother. This intolerance of homosexuality in Joffrey’s character could be a once-off thing or it could develop: either way, it’s an intelligent reference to a contemporary issue that further proves Game of Thrones’ relevance to today’s world.
Lastly, let’s talk about Sansa and Littlefinger. Both Valar Morghulis and Valar Dohaeris have shown Littlefinger’s intention to help Sansa leave King’s Landing, as well as his evident desire for her. While Sansa herself seems to remain oblivious to the obvious, Shae is working herself up into quite a sweat about it, particularly after the fairly pointless consumption of screen time that was her discussion with Ros in the previous episode. When she communicates her concerns to Tyrion, he makes the interesting remark that Sansa has been discarded by the Lannisters and will now have many suitors because she is ‘a great beauty’ and of ancient blood. This causes Shae to hit the roof in a fit of jealousy that is eventually passed off as a joke. Let’s not forget that Shae eventually betrays Tyrion: cruelly, despicably. In the book, this is shocking but not impossible to accept, as there is no indication that Shae shares Tyrion’s love for her. In the series, however, Tyrion and Shae are deeply in love, which creates the problem of how Shae is going to progress from devoted lover to traitorous bitch from hell. This problem has just been solved for us. Tyrion will marry Sansa. Shae will accuse him of loving Sansa rather than her. She’ll want revenge. After the debacle at Joffrey’s wedding, she’ll get it. Let’s see if things really do turn out this way. Furthermore, Tyrion’s evident embarrassment at Shae’s accusation is also a revealing precursor to the complexity of his feelings for Sansa, which he never succeeds in understanding himself, and which should make for some terrific acting when their wedding eventually comes along.
To sum up, this week’s Game of Thrones is a massive improvement from last week. The writing shows every sign of supporting the narrative weight of the story through making intelligent changes to the book that make sense and through using individual characters to set off other narrative threads that refer both to the past and the future. This indicates nothing but future awesomeness to come.