Maisie Williams rips our hearts out and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau gives the performance of his career in an episode that delivers three of A Song of Ice and Fire’s most titanic scenes (The bath scene, the cave scene and Sandor Clegane versus Beric Dondarrion), interspersed with beautifully-acted smaller scenes from the capital and from Essos; events at Dragonstone only prevented from boring us to death (no surprises there) by two new additions to an already considerable cast.
As Lord Beric and the Hound clash at each other with greater savagery than even the most imaginative fan could ever have conceived of, the former’s burning sword a kind of roaring, barely-contained wildness in comparison with the torches burning bright in the semi-subterranean setting, the little girl on the sidelines watches as intently as though she were the one wielding it. It goes deeper than that, however: that sword is her. She put it there. It’s her anger, and her will, a desire for revenge and for justice (more one than the other) and to see that for once, just once, an evil act is punished. In this scene, the bloodlust and tears in the eyes of Maisie Williams’ Arya as she screams ‘Kill him!’ are at once horrifying and beautiful, as is her reaction when the Hound wins and she has to be restrained by a lightning-quick Gendry before she tries to kill Sandor herself, her awful scream ‘Burn in hell!’ seeming to rend the air, before she’s a little girl again, mutinous, but powerless to do anything. It’s in her quieter moments, however, that Williams really excels in this episode, exemplified by a heartrending scene in which she learns that Gendry plans to join the Brotherhood rather than stay on with her when she eventually finds Robb and Cat. Joe Dempsie finally gets a chance to unleash his usually quiet but commanding screen presence in this scene, and this works symbiotically with Gendry’s character as we see things from his most basic emotional level for the very first time: ‘these men, they’re a family. I’ve never had a family.’ Arya’s reply of ‘I can be your family,’ almost made me weep. By the time ‘you wouldn’t be my family. You’d be m’lady,’ came along, I was bawling. The sadness and abandonment on Arya’s face in this scene is gorgeous; all the repression of affection and emotional ties that characterised her parting with Hot Pie shattered.
When she later speaks with Lord Beric about his six resurrections, it would be hard to imagine a person more alone and more horrifyingly convinced of the fact, and though she doesn’t meet his eyes, it’s a look of complete identification and understanding on her tear-stained face as Lord Beric asserts that each time you come back, bits of you keep getting left behind. This is Arya’s condition, and her tragedy. Everyone always leaves, and takes part of her away with them; what’s left of her dying again and again each time she takes a name or a life. Her question ‘could you bring back a man without a head? Not six times, but once,’ expresses her longing to go back to the family that was; to be a part of something; not to be drifting. This is Maisie Williams’ finest episode yet, and something tells me she’s going to keep getting better.
Something that definitely needs to get better is the state of affairs between Jon and Ygritte. The chemistry between Kit Harington and Rose Leslie has deflated considerably since last season, and is in dire need of a bit of rescuing. One would think that the cave scene, the sex scene of the saga, would be the ideal opportunity for this. It’s breathlessly racy, moving and adorable. It’s about two people from two different worlds who’ve slept together countless times, but who find some extremely primal common ground: the blood of the First Men, and each other’s bodies. Having sex in this way is important for their relationship. So why, WHY make it their first time (the whole reason it’s moving in the first place is because it isn’t their first time) and then show us next to nothing of the actual fucking? Modesty? Because fading to black makes it more personal? Dear me, Mr. Holmes, dear me. These possibilities do not convince us much. Furthermore, we simply haven’t seen enough of them together for us to be remotely convinced by Ygritte’s assertion that ‘I don’t ever want to leave this cave, Jon Snow.’ Where did that come from? Where have we ever been seized by the feeling that the Jon and Ygritte of the show are linked by something that binds them together so deeply that it almost transcends death, as the Jon and Ygritte of the books are? This whole absurd situation is simultaneously too much and too little, far too soon. Her Ladyship is not amused.
Fortunately, this imbecilic bungling of one great scene is repaid a thousand fold in the coin of greatness by Jaime and Brienne’s bath scene. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is exquisite, every inch the ‘half a corpse and half a god’ of the books. For much of the scene, he hardly seems to be present at all, his face and voice seeming to plunge deep into Jaime’s soul and to relive the fear and the horror that he froze inside himself during the Mad King’s reign. It’s soul-destroying to watch him, and impossible to tear your gaze away. The sense of injustice and bitterness that he feels at being called ‘Kingslayer’ when he should be a hero, and that he conceals beneath his habitual wisecracks and sarcasm runs raw and unchecked in all its pathos and razor-sharp humanity. Most of his armour is gone, taken from him in the cruelest way possible; and for reasons that he doesn’t understand himself, it’s for Brienne, as much as for himself, that he strips away the ruins that are left. And it hurts. In the space of those five minutes, Coster-Waldau transforms Jaime from a punchable overconfident snob that you almost feel guilty for pitying into one of the saga’s most complex and hurtfully misunderstood characters. As he collapses into Brienne’s arms and murmurs ‘Jaime. My name is Jaime,’ their relationship progresses beyond chemistry and becomes a connection that will mark them for the rest of their lives, each having seen and felt for the other at their most vulnerable.
At Riverrun, Lord Karstark has finally achieved ‘revenge’ for the murder of his son by murdering Tywin Lannister’s two little nephews, who were being held at Riverrun as hostages. Their murder is short, brutal and horribly to the point, and is not shown to be anything other than the atrocity it is, an effective if disturbing way of portraying it. Lord Karstark is subsequently sentenced to death, and is executed by Robb in the old manner, the scene not quite as reminiscent of the beheading scene in season 1 that it was no doubt meant to be. Richard Madden has managed to recover some of the kingly charisma that he lacked the last time we ran into him, but alas, this doesn’t achieve much. The role is too big for him. When the Karstarks predictably desert, and he sits desperately trying to think how to recover the loss of half of his forces, we don’t see an extremely young man, brilliant at what he does, facing defeat for the first time. We see the last act of Macbeth acted out by a seventeen year old who is in about the middle of his drama class. He is also seized by the stupendously dumb idea that his next move should be to attack Casterly Rock. Seriously. Seriously? Fortunately, both the book and our natural assumption that Robb isn’t a nutcase are not completely destroyed, as he realises that the only way to repair his broken army is to once again get into bed with House Frey, something that will send chills down the spines of fans, as this is the season’s first reference to the Red Wedding. Let us hope the build-up will be more spectacular than Richard Madden’s acting.
Further south, in King’s Landing, the Tyrells’ plan to marry Sansa to Loras has been blown wide-open (well, as wide-open as things can get in a city of whispers). Not only do we learn that Loras is fully aware of this plan, a notion that we briefly entertained last week, but that his new lover, with whom he mercifully boasts better chemistry than the limp-salmon-bonking-a-haddock texture that characterised his relationship with Renly, is a spy in Littlefinger’s employ. This puts Littlefinger into a quietly-volcanic rage, as it throws a spanner in the works of his intention to take Sansa with him when he leaves for the Vale, a position that Varys and Olenna believe he will exploit by marrying the girl and thereby securing her claim to Winterfell. This leads to a small but brilliantly-acted scene between Littlefinger and Sansa that smolders with emotional undercurrents, in which Sansa, sporting a most unbecoming hairstyle, sweetly informs Lord Baelish that she would rather not leave the capital at present for fear that something may happen to him if the plan were discovered. Littlefinger gracefully concedes, declaring himself touched by her concern, though one can’t help but be reminded of Varys’ assertion that ‘Littlefinger is the most dangerous man in Westeros’ by the look in his eyes and the tone of his voice that expresses both anger and barely-suppressed desire. It’s thrillingly creepy. Once Littlefinger has planted a gallant kiss on Sansa’s hand and left her, she exhales like someone who has just experienced a huge rush of adrenaline. Little Sansa is learning to play the Game. Early, and without Littlefinger’s help. This is a welcome change from the book, which requires Sansa to be shut up in the Eyrie for months before she begins to ‘understand the way this Game is played,’ and will hopefully encourage Sansa haters to be quiet for a little while at least. Regrettably, Sansa’s first foray into the Game is short-lived. Littlefinger runs straight to Tywin Lannister, who calls Tyrion and Cersei together in the episode’s formidable final scene and orders the aversion of a complete Tyrell takeover by marrying Sansa to Tyrion and Cersei to Loras Tyrell (now there’s a weird change to the book for you. Hm). Peter Dinklage has been scandalously under-used this season, and let’s hope that this will allow us to see more of him. Tyrion reacts to the news by accusing Tywin of pitiless cruelty in allowing Joffrey to torment Sansa for years and then ‘giving her to me,’ just when she has seen a ray of hope on the horizon; a reaction that is so noble and self-abasing that you want to hit him, then hug him. Dinklage shows us that above all things, even his intelligence, Tyrion is a kind man, so compassionate that someday it might kill him, and Tywin’s callous responses to this only push Tyrion closer to the day he’ll take his father’s life.
Cersei is equally despicable, reveling in Tyrion’s misery until informed that she’ll be forced to share it. Tywin has put Cersei into a similar position to Sansa: crushing her just when she thought there was hope; in Cersei’s case, hope that she would able to live without being chained to a husband. It is perhaps for this reason that her initial anger wears off extremely quickly and she assumes the air of a scolded and sincerely terrified young girl: ‘Father. Don’t make me do this. Please.’ Lena Headey plays this rapid swing in the status quo both of power and of her family in an intensely sympathetic and intelligent way, and the mere fact that she is capable of making an audience feel sorry for Cersei at this point is proof of a great mastery of her craft. Charles Dance is extraordinary as always: chilling and unspeakably cruel, all the traces of humanity that Arya so successfully managed to bring out last season noticeably absent.
Meanwhile, in less intriguing scenes, Daenerys’ mesmerising first meeting with Grey Worm and the latter’s heartwarming decision to maintain his name because ‘Grey Worm is the name this one had the day Daenerys Stormborn set him free’ is spoilt by a lot of boring and over-long bickering between Ser Jorah and Ser Barristan that makes you want to tear your hair out. We also (regrettably) travel to Dragonstone, a castle whose very walls seem to possess a soporific effect, where we meet Stannis Baratheon’s wife Selyse (Tara Fitzgerald). Fitzgerald is perfect for the role, her eyes shining with all the mania and devotion of the religious fanatic, though I was displeased with her display of her stillborn babies in jars, a gratuitously disgusting deviation from the book that seems to serve no purpose other than to be gratuitously disgusting.
We also meet Shireen (Kerry Ingram), Stannis’ young daughter. Disfigured by greyscale at an early age, she is devastatingly sweet and compassionate, and the scene in the castle dungeons in which she attempts to teach the incarcerated Ser Davos to read is delightful; making us hope that Dragonstone may be a less tedious place to visit in the future.
This season of Game of Thrones continues to be incredibly strong in writing and in acting, despite the ever-present issue of there being too much to tell in too little time and the occasional inexplicable stuff-up.