In Walk of Punishment, Michelle Fairley continues to dazzle as Catelyn Stark, Tyrion is appointed Master of Coin, the white walkers are making charming spirals out of horse heads, and we’re treated to two separate interpretations of The Bear and the Maiden Fair which so unhappily failed to precede Lady Olenna’s cheese last week.
This week’s episode takes us to Riverrun for the first time, where we meet Cat’s unfortunate brother Edmure (Tobias Menzies) as he repeatedly tries to loose the arrow that will light his father’s funeral pyre. Brusquely elbowed out of the way by his formidable uncle the Blackfish (Clive Russell), Edmure watches with Cat as their father’s funeral barge bursts into flame in spectacular Nordic fashion. The Nordic influence ends there, however, when Edmure’s brain then turns out to be as weak as his bow arm in a subsequent argument with Robb concerning Edmure’s having apparently fucked up the entire war strategy in one day (don’t ask). Menzies already has considerable experience playing such characters from his work in Rome and does a wonderful job of making the winging weakling of the books jump right off the page. Richard Madden’s Robb, on the other hand, is much less impressive in this scene, and seems to have lost a good chunk of the kingly charisma that has characterised his work in previous seasons (who will ever forget his reaction to the Greatjohn’s threat to desert?). But not to worry: Michelle Fairley gives the Starks most of their street cred back by continuing to plow the entire cast into the ground in terms of acting ability. Following last week’s exquisite monologue, performed while on the road and still in the numbing shock of accumulated grief, Cat now speaks to the Blackfish, a man she has known her entire life, and in the castle where she grew up. ‘Watch for me, little Cat,’ is one of the book’s finest passages, and Fairley, as she remembers waiting for her father as a child and imagines how Bran and Rickon must have waited for her in her absence, delivers this beautiful piece of writing with the emotional intensity and skill of a great actress at the top of her game. Cat is one of many characters who have only entertained mild audience interest in seasons 1 and 2 by virtue of their not having had as much opportunity as others to shine. The great thing about this season is that the audience can realise how shamelessly it has underestimated truly terrific actors in the past, as well as the heights these actors can soar to when given more chances to work with decent material. In Fairley’s case, I smell a Golden Globe.
In other Stark matters, we are afforded a brief glance of Arya and company at the Inn at the Crossroads in a delightful little scene in which Hot Pie announces to Arya and Gendry that he won’t be leaving with them, and presents Arya with a loaf of bread that he has attempted to shape like a wolf.
While swept up in the utter adorableness of this, I found myself yelling at Arya and Gendry, ‘Go on! Give him a hug! Go on!’ But no hug ensued, and not much of a farewell either except a clap on the shoulder from Gendry, and Arya rather sweetly calling from the back of someone’s horse that the bread is delicious. I then thought about the world these children come from, what they have endured together and how they have learned from bitter experience not to trust sentiment. Sentiment gets you killed. The way it is evident that these feelings of affinity exist between Arya, Gendry and Hot Pie in spite of this, however, makes the awkwardness of this scene heartwarming to watch and only serves to highlight the high caliber of the child actors on the show. Turning to less heartwarming matters, Arya also makes her first, if very veiled, accusation of the Hound in regard to Mycah’s death, and is brusquely shoved aside by the members of the Brotherhood that are ‘escorting’ him. This lays the foundation both for the titanic clash between the Hound and Beric Dondarrion, and the clash between the Hound and Arya that is of similar, if more metaphorical, magnitude. It also makes you wonder if the Brotherhood will be quite so dismissive when the Hound’s trial comes along – but then we haven’t met Lord Beric yet.
Jaime and Brienne’s side of things is a little odd this week (for want of a better word) by virtue of changes to the book that are incomprehensible, notably the pair’s discussion on the possibility that Brienne will be gang-raped. While Jaime’s attitude in the book is one of characteristic traditionalist ignorance as to precisely what rape means for a woman, his advice that she should ‘go far away’ is sincere: it is a coping mechanism that he had to learn quickly as a member of Aerys’ Kingsguard, when, during his adolescence, he was arguably exposed to worse horrors than Arya is now, though he had the advantage of being battle-hardened. The show, however, makes him sound like the worst kind of imbecilic Republican Senator. ‘Pretend they’re Renly.’ I ask you. On the positive side, this idiocy does give Brienne an opportunity to inform Jaime that he’s behaving like a callous motherfucker who doesn’t have the foggiest idea what he’s talking about, which could be (and I think it is) another reference to a controversial contemporary issue following last week’s horrible discussion on homosexuality and the death penalty. If this is the case, then this is achieved at the expense of character, which simply will not do. The actual scene in which Brienne is dragged off to be raped and Jaime unexpectedly saves her by engineering a highly engaging conversation about sapphires is characterised by beautiful acting by Gwendoline Christie, who is raw, powerful and horribly upsetting in portraying Brienne’s vulnerability and terror as well as her characteristic stubbornness and valiant refusal to come quietly. This awesomeness is then besmirched somewhat by the portrayal of Jaime’s loss of his hand. Perhaps my brain was rendered foggy by the lateness of the hour and the strength of my antidepressants, but it took me an age to work out that Jaime’s significant glances at an understandably petrified-looking Brienne; his obsequiousness in getting Locke to unchain him; and all that crap about fancy words and partridges was a rather dreadful attempt at escape. Then there’s the actual cutting-off of the hand itself. In the book, this is a climactic moment. It transforms Jaime’s life into a dark hole. It makes him suicidal. He loses his purpose. He loses his passion. Eventually, he loses Cersei. He loses everything that makes him feel alive, and in the season trailer, we were rather callously fooled into thinking this moment would be exploited to the full extent of its pathos. Instead, what we get is a scene shot facing Jaime as he’s slammed down onto a boulder, his eye almost cut out, his Daddy issues evoked, and an almost unidentifiable thwack, both visually and audibly, followed by his hand coming off very slowly, and rather oddly, in excruciating detail while Jaime unconvincingly screams blue murder (for heaven’s sake, are you telling me Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is incapable of screaming convincingly?).
All this would still be fine had the producers not decided to cut straight to closing credits, which are backed by a rock version of The Bear and the Maiden Fair. The music itself is awesome, and a very creative idea. But the trivialising of such an important moment in a character’s life is utterly disgraceful. And don’t tell me it’s to showcase the more raucous side of life in Westeros. That’s what Bronn is for.
Meanwhile in Astapor, Daenerys continues her negotiations for the purchase of her Unsullied, and is introduced to one of Astapor’s grisliest testaments to its status as a slave city. The Walk of Punishment is an avenue lined with crosses on which slaves in various states of near-death are crucified in plain sight to discourage mischief from any of their fellows, and one cannot help but be reminded of the crushing of Spartacus’ rebellion in Ancient Rome and the thousands of slaves that were crucified along the Appian Way afterwards. To strengthen this rather awful ‘tribute’ to Ancient Rome, Daenerys then falls into her naturally Messianic tendencies by pulling a Ben Hur on one of the slaves and offering him water, which he refuses, begging that she permit him to die.
Emilia Clarke is doing a wonderful job on Daenerys’ character, playing up her conflict between a humanistic approach and the requirements of brute survival with none of the natural Targaryen arrogance and irritating whining of the Daenerys of the books. It is also very enjoyable to watch the similarities between herself and Rhaegar being brought to light by contrasting Ser Jorah and Ser Barristan’s opinions on the morality of purchasing soldiers that are incapable of thinking for themselves, and by her intelligent resolution of the problem by insisting that she purchase all the Unsullied in Astapor, including those that have not yet completed their training. Her telling-off of her two respected advisors after they publicly urge her not to exchange one of her dragons for an army did rather lack in fire, however, and the question of whether or not she understands the Valyrian insults directed at her is becoming a considerable irritation. The Daenerys of the books speaks fluent Valyrian, and everything about Emilia Clarke’s body language suggests that she understands what is being said to her. So why not make this plain when she acquires Missandei, something that works to great effect in the books? Let’s hope the producers are planning a sequel to Khal Drogo’s magnificent Dothraki war speech in season 1 and make Daenerys address her first orders to the Unsullied (free the slaves and kill the slavers) in Valyrian. That would be terrific. Otherwise, this whole situation is rather preposterous.
In King’s Landing, the small council is rather hilariously playing musical chairs. Their meeting with Lord Tywin, in which Littlefinger, Varys and Pycelle take their places in the chairs arranged at one end of the rectangular table without question, while Cersei and Tyrion drag their chairs to different places (Cersei to Tywin’s side, Tyrion to the opposite head of the table), is very funny and rather symbolic. The three most experienced players are always in the same place looking to see how and whom they can manipulate, while Cersei and Tyrion attempt to accomplish the same thing by moving and shaking. It’s a clever metaphor, and it precedes significant changes in the government. Littlefinger (looking gorgeous in cloth-of-gold) is dispatched to the Eyrie to commence his wooing of the pathologically dotty Lysa Arryn, while Tyrion is given his job, thus catapulting him back into a position of power. This should mean that we’ll soon be seeing Tyrion back at his most fulfilled and his most ingenious, for however short a time, and that we’ll be seeing more of Peter Dinklage’s astonishing interpretation of a character who has been all-too-absent this season.
From Littlefinger’s perspective, his absence so soon and for this reason creates a change from the book that will have to be filled in very intelligently. Firstly, how will Sansa get to him after Joffrey’s wedding, and secondly, does this mean we’re going to miss Littlefinger and Lysa’s wedding night, which must be one of the funniest scenes in the entire saga? In other King’s Landing matters, a rather big deal is made of Podrick Payne’s first visit to Littlefinger’s brothel, a gift that is sponsored by Tyrion and for which the money is bizarrely returned to him along with Podrick. Tyrion and Bronn then display a marked interest in whom Pod fucked and how, the details of which seem to be immensely important to them. I cannot tell if this is simple curiosity, or suspicion that Cersei or Varys might be involved. To adapt the words of the former: ‘I’m sure they’ll make their point eventually.’
And now for a quick ride around the Seven Kingdoms and matters given less screen time. Theon escapes his torturers, is pursued by them in a forest scene reminiscent of The Lord of the Rings and narrowly escapes being raped by them, Jon and company discover a perfect spiral constructed by the white walkers using the heads of the Night’s Watch’s horses, Mance Rayder delivers his beautiful line ‘I’m going to light the biggest fire the North has ever seen’ after packing Jon off to climb the Wall, the Night’s Watch get back to Craster’s keep in time for Gilly’s baby to be born, and Melisandre briefly leaves Stannis to search for ‘sacrifices,’ no doubt precipitating the mess involving Edric Storm. The world beyond the Wall in particular has not been given a lot of time to develop since episode one, and one can only hope that in the relationship between Jon and Ygritte (which the trailer assures us we’ll get to eventually), this clash between this world and that of Westeros will be portrayed in all the complexity it deserves.
While not as good as last week, Walk of Punishment deals with a lot more material and lays a lot more building blocks than it tells stories. Fortunately, many of these ‘building blocks’ are dealt with in exemplary style and the storytelling that it does do is moving, very engaging and leaves no doubt in one’s mind as to wanting to continue to watch this outstanding series.