Westeros blows off steam following last week’s festival of constant high emotion and tears in this little intermezzo of an episode, many beautiful, tiny scenes circling the great central melody of the wildlings’ climb of the Wall like a double helix. In some of the highlights within this helix, Tywin Lannister continues to destroy happiness left right and center and goes up against Lady Olenna with surprising results, the Red Wedding is tantalisingly hinted at, Joffrey uses Ros for target practice and Gendry is torn from Arya’s side in a gut-wrenching, magnificent deviation from the books that stands as further proof that people who spend their lives complaining about the show’s every change to canon are incapable of appreciating how this exquisite thing that we all love is not set in stone, but set in flux, forever evolving and playing by no rules but its own. Episodes structured in this way are the devil to review because of the way they flit from one very short scene to the next, leaving you little to comment on except the content. Her Ladyship shall try her best not to be a bore.
A central theme of this episode is the condition of ‘foot soldiers in the great war,’ of people, soldiers or not, who are jostled about like pawns in the Game their masters play with no mind to what may happen to them. It is the curse of ordinary people that they are incapable of seeing the world in this way: they will always see people instead of pawns. The first to point this out is Ygritte. The chemistry between Jon and Ygritte has improved exponentially since last week from the moment we first see them preparing to climb the Wall. Their relationship begins to feel a lot more like fate as they openly and sincerely discuss loyalty and fear, Ygritte spicing things up with characteristic subtlety by threatening to chop Jon’s cock off and wear it around her neck if he deserts her, and expressing a seemingly casual wish to ‘see the world from up there’ that reminds us somewhat of Tyrion’s former desire to stand on top of the Wall and piss off the edge of the world. The climb itself, however, is not something to joke about. It’s terrifying to watch; a huge expanse of petrifying whiteness that makes you want to whisper ‘not today,’ under your breath, the wildlings tiny as ants on its rigid and unpredictable surface, the wind and the ice screaming into every part of their bodies, the Wall itself a living, breathing thing that casts off intruders as though they were flecks of dust.
Ygritte barely has time to quip ‘You staring at my ass, Jon Snow?’ before things start to go wrong, the first horrific accident bleeding straight into Jon and Ygritte themselves being cut loose. While we are treated to a few moments of hair-raising panic as Ygritte falls screaming into the empty air, both miraculously survive, embrace, and keep right on going, like true children of the North. And when they reach the top! Rose Leslie has not been given much time to shine beyond torturing Jon with her innuendo-laden wit and the odd ‘you think you’re better than me, crow!’ argument, but as we know from her work in Downton Abbey, moved to tears is something she does very well. When faced with the breathtaking view of the world from the top of the Wall, she has no words and doesn’t need any, the shivering rawness of her facial expressions bringing us right into Ygritte’s experience.
While Jon and Ygritte experience such searing joy and relief in their togetherness, Arya Stark, angel of death and all-round badass, must once again come to terms with aloneness; an archery lesson with Anguy resulting both in the soon-to-be immortal declaration ‘Face. Tits. Balls. I hit them right where I wanted to,’ and the Brotherhood running into Melisandre. Once I’d picked myself off the floor after falling off my chair, I watched, spellbound, but thoroughly confused, as Thoros and Melisandre debate religion and Lord Beric’s resurrections at Hollow Hill, before heading straight back to camp and seizing Gendry. As Arya cries ‘Let go of him!’ it hits us. Fuck. They’ve replaced Edric Storm with Gendry. It’s an awful moment. Arya is both merciless and fearless in her criticism, tearing right through Thoros’ gentle explanation that gold is required for their cause and through Lord Beric’s cold-blooded assertion that the boy is needed by the Lord of Light: ‘did the Lord of Light tell you that or did she?’ Gendry is in such a state of shock at this betrayal that he’s barely capable of anything but weak struggling and pitiful naivety in his protests. Arya is anything but, and we are unexpectedly gifted with a volcanic scene between two obscenely charismatic actresses that we never thought we’d see face to face. As Arya follows Melisandre and violently turns her around, almost pushing her into her own horse, the dialogue is blood-chilling.
Arya: You’re a witch. You’re going to hurt him.
Melisandre: (cups Arya’s chin) I see a darkness in you. And in that darkness, eyes staring back at me. Brown eyes…blue eyes, green eyes. Eyes you will shut forever. We will meet again.
The atmosphere between Carice van Houten and Maisie Williams is electrifying, Arya silenced by the undisguised horror on Melisandre’s face that resembles that on the face of Gaius Helen Mohiam contemplating Alia Atreides for the first time in Dune. For Arya fans, it’s both a thrilling and a deeply satisfying moment, pointing to Arya’s future among the Faceless Men. But then Arya turns around just in time to see Gendry being carted off; not a word of farewell having been exchanged between them. Williams’ face is devastating, mourning as another part of Arya turns to ice right before our eyes as Gendry is taken from her. From the point of view of Arya’s character, and of Gendry’s, this change is a truly exquisite idea. As for us, it changes everything and creates an infinite number of new questions. It would be relatively easy to transplant poor Gendry into Edric’s shoes and get him as far as Dragonstone, before Ser Davos ships him off to the Free Cities to stop Melisandre burning him alive. Then what? This gets us into post-A Dance With Dragons territory, and, considering that the last time we saw Gendry (in the books) he was a member of the Brotherhood, could bite everyone badly in the arse should Gendry eventually reappear, a prospect that appeals enormously to me as an ardent Arya/Gendry shipper (though I’d also jump for joy through hoops for a week if she hooked up with Jaqen). Whatever is going to come out of this brilliant idea, GRRM is in on it, so we should just sit back and let the great man do his thing. As for the divine Maisie Williams, if she is not nominated for an Emmy this year, I shall be most seriously displeased.
Meanwhile at Harrenhal, another great partnership is also breaking up, albeit temporarily, in a short but funny scene in which Jaime and Brienne dine with Roose Bolton. Brienne recites her courtesies through gritted teeth as Jaime stabs continually at his steak with his left hand, eventually provoking Brienne to impale it on her fork so he can cut it. Jaime is able to repay Brienne’s kindness seconds later by laying his hand on hers, thus saving her from the unpleasant repercussions that would no doubt result from her using her steak knife to decorate the room with Roose Bolton’s brains. The casualness of both gestures, and the fact that no word is exchanged between the two on either subject is delightful, the unspoken playing a greater role in Jaime and Brienne’s friendship than anything else. As for the scene, Jaime is back at his devastating, hot-blooded best in his conversation with Lord Bolton, the threat of Lord Tywin’s wrath saturating each crisply-annunciated syllable as Jaime protests Lord Bolton’s decision to send him ahead to King’s Landing and to keep Brienne at Harrenhal as a prisoner. As a very amusing precursor to the bear pit scene, it’s also a very revealing study both of Jaime and Brienne’s characters and a hint at their attitude to each other once the bear pit scene is over. Jaime is all tyrionesque (did I invent a word?) banter and open threats, Brienne is all smoldering looking daggers and icy courtesy, but their attitude to the world as regards each other will soon be exactly the same: threatening one of them inevitably provokes the wrath of the other.
Speaking of precursors. At Riverrun, Lord Frey has sent envoys regarding Edmure’s marriage to Roslyn Frey, and demands that the marriage take place in two weeks. Though those two weeks could easily drag on till the end of the season, this will no doubt send one half of fandom into complete hysteria that we’re going to see the Red Wedding so soon and the other half into feverish anticipation of the carnage. Season finale?
Apart from another torture scene, Bran chastising Osha and Meera for fighting before getting the life scared out of him by Jojen (again) and Sam adorably singing a song for Gilly’s baby, there is nothing much of interest going on in the North on either side of the Wall this week (all the action’s happening on it). In King’s Landing, however, Tywin Lannister duels deliciously with Lady Olenna over his proposed marriage of Cersei to Loras, eventually only getting her to agree to it by threatening to make Loras a member of the Kingsguard. Olenna doesn’t behave at all like someone who’s just been bested at a Game she’s terrific at. On the contrary, she seems exhilarated: ‘It’s a rare enough thing. A man who lives up to his reputation.’ Cersei and Tyrion have one of their rare heart to hearts while they spy on a radiant Sansa, who listens to Loras Tyrell discuss the material, colour and embroidery of her wedding gown and still, incredibly, fails to realise he’s gay. Tyrion finds himself in the awkward position of having to propose to Sansa with Shae in the room, his habitual sarcasm hiding the anguish he feels for being the cause of both women’s misery. We are happily spared from watching the carnage. Then we get to Varys and Littlefinger, once again alone before the Iron Throne, once again threatening each other in the softest tones imaginable.
Aidan Gillen is terrifying in this scene, the anger that we saw in his eyes last week reaching full fruition now as he reveals that he knows it was Varys who instigated the plot to marry Sansa to Loras Tyrell and that Ros has been handed over to a patron with exotic tastes to do with as he sees fit. While we’re reeling from this, they discuss the beautiful lies that people tell and that people believe for power, to get it, to keep it, to ignore it or to throw it away, the power that is the driving force behind the actions of most of the show’s characters: ‘Chaos isn’t a pit. Chaos is a ladder. Many who try to climb it fail and never get to try again. The fall breaks them. And some are given a chance to climb, but they refuse. They cling to the realm or the gods or love. Illusions! Only the ladder is real. The climb is all there is.’ As he speaks, we are granted a vision of Ros, tied to Joffrey’s bed, stone dead and peppered with quarrels, His Grace relishing the power of his new toy. And with that, the intermezzo comes to an end and the symphony begins again. Margaery Tyrell will never have full control of Joffrey; his lust for cruelty is impossible to control. Sansa Stark watches, distraught, as Littlefinger’s ship sails away, leaving her to a fate she thinks is worse than death. Jon and Ygritte reach the top of the Wall, two nobodies at the edge of the world, free, together, the monstrosity they have ascended together not even the first rung in the ladder that rules their world.