Great ‘Game of Thrones’ Character Anthems Every Fan Should Know.

Her Ladyship tries listening to A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones on the way to work, and comes out on the other side with a very short playlist.

Arya Stark – O Death (Jen Titus)

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An abandonment of life and religion for a surer deity than the old gods or the new, this song is a primal and freezingly euphoric hymn that deserts all hope in life and justice, and lingers almost lovingly on the grave with a fearlessness and acceptance that is Arya’s alone…and perhaps the Faceless Men’s. It’s the soundworld of what happens in her head when she whispers her names into the dark, and what rings through her mind when she hisses to Lord Beric that Death is her one true god.

But what is this that I can’t see

With ice cold hands taking hold of me?

When God is gone

And the devil takes hold

Who’ll have mercy on your soul?

 

Sandor Clegane – Break (Three Days Grace)

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The lyrics ‘tonight I start the fire’ assume a very different kind of meaning when put into Sandor’s context. This is the song of a person trapped by themselves, the roughness of enduring this so difficult that it sinks into their very voice. But while this song also expresses Sandor’s desire to escape himself and take control of his own fears, it clings to its own identity and to brutal reality with a searing lack of idealism, for all its mention of ‘higher places.’

Tonight, I start the fire

Tonight, I break away

Break away from everybody

Break away from everything

If you can’t stand the way this place is

Take yourself to higher places.

Daenerys Targaryen – Radioactive (Imagine Dragons)

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The preposterous auspiciousness of the band’s name aside, this song is the sound of waking up from darkness to something that could turn to a blinding light, or to an apocalypse, particularly if we consider Daenerys after she emerges alive from the pyre. It’s the blood that she knows she will spill, and the blood she doesn’t want to spill; it’s the certainty of what she must do and why, and everything that makes it hard to do; it’s Meereen, it’s Drogon, it’s the bones of a child, it’s an ancient madness she fears and that she knows lurks in her blood.

I’m waking up to ash and dust

I wipe my brow and I sweat my rust

I’m breathing in the chemicals

I’m breaking in, shaping up,

Then checking out of the prison bus

This is it, the apocalypse.

 

Catelyn Stark – The Other Side (Evanescence)

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The Other Side is what shoots through Catelyn’s head when presented with the bones of her husband. It expresses the longing of a person who has lost someone, but can’t go to them because of what they’ll leave behind. In Catelyn’s case, it’s family, duty, honour. Once Ned dies, Catelyn lives for her children, and then for fewer of her children when she believes that Bran and Rickon are also gone, until she’s clinging to the thought of Sansa, Arya and Robb; all that loss and pain seeming to turn her heart colder and colder as it armours itself.

Counting the days to meet you on the other side

I will always be waiting

Until the day that I see you on the other side

Come and take me home.

Jaime Lannister – Numb (Linkin Park)

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Wildly appropriate if considered in the context of Cersei rather than Tywin, this is a sung, if unspoken cry from the deepest depths of the Jaime of A Feast for Crows, still keenly conscious of a lifetime of being one half of a whole, but starting to get a bit tired of his other half’s bullshit. Being a whole by yourself, and no one else, when you’ve spent most of your life only being a half, is a terrifying transition to make. Still more dreadful is when you’re forced into that solitude by a change that the other person cannot accept; when they persist in clinging almost ferociously to a ‘you’ that no longer exists.

Can’t you see that you’re smothering me?

Holding too tightly

Afraid to lose control

Cause everything that you thought I would be

Is falling apart right in front of you.

 

Sansa Stark – Blinding (Florence + the Machine)

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This song is Sansa after Ned Stark’s execution; a lifetime of utopian dreaming shattering so powerfully that she feels it ‘in the hollows of [her] eyelids.’ Still worse, it’s the horrifying realisation that the person who comprises the very fabric of that dreaming state is a monster. At the same time, however, it’s also an optimistic compulsion to grow up; a deeply-entrenched knowledge that dreams are not the real world, something that Sansa will push away from herself time and time again because dreams are the only way she knows how to seek refuge. As she gets older, however, she does return to it more and more often, until she becomes Alayne Stone and the lines start to blur – her identity a dream and a lie, but the world realer to her than she has ever seen it.

No more dreaming of the dead

As if death itself was undone

No more calling like a crow

For a boy, for a body in the garden

No more dreaming like a girl, so in love, so in love

No more dreaming like a girl, so in love, so in love

No more dreaming like a girl

So in love with the wrong world.

 

Tyrion Lannister – Winter in my Heart (Vast)

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The musical manifestation of the aftermath of Shae’s betrayal and ‘where do whores go?’, Winter in my Heart is the Tyrion of late A Feast For Crows and most of A Dance With Dragons; breathing, but not quite alive, heartbreak (Shae) and guilt (Tysha, not to mention Tywin) hollowing him out and making him a broken thing. The continual, haunting repetition of the words ‘but I try,’ however, are the result of a lifetime of being torn down, and of an exceptionally strong spirit that cannot; will not; refuses; to accept it.

I need a summer but the summer’s come and gone

I need a summer but it’s winter in my heart

It’s all the same fucked-up game you played with me

I need to hold you, but you’re never coming back.

 

Tywin Lannister – Running Up That Hill (Placebo)

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Always present in this song is a soft and silent, barely perceptible heartbeat, and for Tywin, its name is Joanna. We don’t know an awful lot about Tywin’s beloved wife beyond the fact that she wore the pants in the Tower of the Hand and that he is incapable of forgiving Tyrion for being born. But the fact that Tywin never speaks of her if he can help it, not to mention the glorious, horrifying dialogue between him and Tyrion in episode one of season three, suggests a whispered fragility at the heart of his soul that he would never admit to in a million years. This whisper of Tywin’s love for Joanna is reflected in every syllable of this song, and the sheer vehemence with which he treats Tyrion in accusing him of killing his own mother to come into the world leaves us in no doubt that if Tywin could change places with Joanna and let her live, he would do it in a heartbeat, for all this constant blathering about staying alive to protect his blood.

And if I only could

Make a deal with God

And get him to swap our places

Be running up that road

Be running up that hill

With no problem.

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Game of Thrones Season 3: 6 great scenes that are no less great for being small.

This season of Game of Thrones gave us more great moments than any one of its predecessors; but in the midst of being overwhelmed by the grandeur and cruelty of the Red Wedding, the bath scene or the Sack of Astapor, it is often easy to forget the smaller stuff. Let’s take a look at some awesome moments that took up less screen time, but caused no less pumping of blood and crying of tears.

6.    ‘I cannot tell you how touched I am by your concern for my welfare.’

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In this glorious tête-à-tête that always leaves my fellow Sansa fans and fellow Sansa/Littlefinger shippers whooping and screaming in delight, Sansa lies beautifully and perfectly that she no longer wishes to accompany Littlefinger to the Vale because she’d feel terrible if anything happened to him. Not only do we feel prodigiously proud of little Sansa for her first and entirely instinctive recourse to the Game in order to get what she wants; we are also fearfully conscious of the clipped anger in Littlefinger’s voice and the dangerous look of betrayal in his eyes that she, in her still-lamentable innocence, doesn’t seem to notice at all. The scene positively boils over with sexual tension, and is a superb, if mildly creepy precursor to Sansa’s ‘education’ at the Eyrie, an episode that represents some of the most important development and suppression of her character that one finds in the entire saga.

5.    ‘It’s a rare enough thing. A man who lives up to his reputation.’

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I’ve already written an entire post about this scene, so I will not repeat myself, but leaving it out would be simply criminal. In this brilliantly-acted exchange, we are granted the double satisfaction of seeing Lord Tywin actually having to make an effort to ram a point home and of Lady Olenna being defeated despite her sharp wits and equally sharp tongue. The chemistry between the two characters is volcanic, tense and sparkling with intellectual pleasure on both sides, and makes one think that if Tywin had not been so deeply in love with his dead wife, these two would have been a perfect match.

4.   ‘I won’t ever hurt you.’

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An awkward but adorable scene between Tyrion and Sansa on their wedding morning in which Tyrion tries, multiple times, to talk to his bride-to-be without getting a stone wall of courtesy in response; his smart mouth transforming some of his loveliest statements into total disasters (‘you won’t be a prisoner after today, you’ll be my wife…I suppose that’s a different kind of prison.’). But eventually, after trying everything from ‘you do look glorious’ to ‘I just wanted to say that I know how you feel,’ it is this lovely line, ‘I won’t ever hurt you,’ that hits home, and the expression on Sansa’s face when he says it defies description. The most beautiful thing, of course, is the smile Tyrion manages to get out of her on the subject of wine; and if we didn’t know what a catastrophe the rest of the day was going to be, one would almost say Sansa was marrying someone she loves.

3.    ‘Goodbye, Ser Jaime.’

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An entire relationship expressed in three words, Brienne’s first use of Jaime’s name when addressing him directly is a moving recognition of a sister soul as both characters realise what we’ve known all along: that despite their differences and their bickering, they’re cut from the same cloth. The exchange of this knowledge is almost entirely silent and based in intense facial expression and command of voice that is all the more moving for the absence of pretence and bullshit, as well as a kind of honesty and emotional vulnerability that is terrifying, beautiful and awkward to watch in two characters so accustomed to armouring themselves; Brienne in silence, Jaime in sarcasm.

2.    ‘Could you bring back a man without a head? Not six times. Just once.’

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Maisie Williams acts the shit out of her adult co-stars in this searing reminder that for all her blood-stained brilliance and ruthlessness, Arya is an eleven-year-old girl who misses her father. The Hound’s winning his trial against Lord Beric has had the equivalent of convincing her, in a matter of seconds, that justice no longer exists, and she’s reminded once again of her own smallness and her inability to do much about it. The numbness and the depression that this causes in her character is a landmark moment second only to the Red Wedding, and Williams plays this brilliantly in the exhausted emotionlessness of Arya’s face. The steadiness of her voice, however, and her persistent courage in the scene, show us that while she may be numb, she isn’t broken; a stunning tribute to Arya’s emotional and psychological strength.

1.   ‘And everything that’s happened since then, all this horror that’s come to my family, was all because I couldn’t love a motherless child.’

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Catelyn opens up to Talisa about her cruel treatment of Jon Snow in the best scene ever written for the character and Michelle Fairley’s finest moment in all three seasons. In Fairley’s beautifully expressive face and voice we see the iron sense of honour that makes Cat who she is, and the deep, black guilt she feels at being unable to give to Jon the love that she has given so freely to all her children. This goes against her naturally caring and maternal nature, revealing how intolerable Jon’s existence is to her in spite of how guilty she feels about it. Cat is a character that is synonymous with loss and survival, with grief and bitterness, and to see them converge into one, powerful scene is breath-taking.

Why Tywin Lannister and Olenna Tyrell need to get married. As in right now.

A whimsical short piece utterly lacking in seriousness, structure or basic critical reasoning.

One of the many unexpected treats of Game of Thrones Season 3 was the wonderful inserted scene in episode 6, in which Tywin Lannister and Olenna Tyrell argue about Lord Tywin’s desire to wed Cersei to Loras. It’s a typical example of the non-canonical brilliance that the show is so devastatingly good at: putting two powerful, strong-minded characters that see precious little of each other in the books together in the show, and making glistening, witty, intellectual gold out of what happens between them. So, after watching this truly marvellous scene half a hundred times, Her Ladyship began to think, as she does sometimes. Actually lots of times. Her ultimate conclusion is this: that these two need to get married, as in right now. Here’s why.

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The Chemistry

They’re both absurdly intelligent people used to having others tiptoe around them with fear disguised as respect. They’re also used to dealing with stupid people every day of their lives. So, from the moment Lady Olenna somewhat stoutly declares ‘Impossible!’, her opinion answered by a knowing and rather disrespectful ‘why?’, something clicks, and we’re suddenly confronted with all the simmering volcanic fire of two intellectual equals having a tremendously good time fighting each other; Lord Tywin’s reasoned, cold, insinuating civility partnering perfectly with Lady Olenna’s brash and utterly immodest humour. Each reads the other with uncanny accuracy, knows which buttons to press when, and takes an almost indecent enjoyment in the other’s discomfort; each chucking the other’s argument soundly back into their faces without the slightest trace of fear or nervousness. That they both enjoy this immensely is exemplified by Tywin’s rather naughty smile as he pours out wine, and Olenna’s evident pleasure at being defeated for once in her life: ‘it’s a rare enough thing: a man who lives up to his reputation.’ That they both need this immensely is also evident simply by making the most cursory examination of their characters: they’re both unashamed bulldozers who are used to terrifying people, and bored out of their wits with how good they are at it. Since his wife’s death, Tywin has become utterly unused to having anyone talk back to him, with the notable exception of Arya; and Olenna shows signs of being similarly afflicted even before the days of her marriage. So, facing up to someone who is masterfully capable and unafraid of cutting them down to size is not only enjoyable, but necessary for both parties. If only they would keep it up: Tywin would be less of a cruel old man, and Olenna would be less of a domineering old hag.

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The Children

Sure, they’re too old to have children. But let’s hypothesise. Tywin’s ruthlessness, brains and devotion to legacy combined with Olenna’s wit, intelligence and sharp tongue would produce the most beautiful, formidable and utterly badass kids in the history of Westeros, ever.

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The Money and the Power

Together, their families probably have more money than the rest of Westeros combined. They could join forces, cement their positions as shadow rulers, and put the Iron Bank of Braavos out of business while they’re at it. Their combined wealth could also buy them a small legion of Faceless Men to deal with their enemies, so the war ends, Joffrey dies (if they’re smart) and Tywin’s dream of a dynasty that will last a thousand years comes true.

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At the end of the day, the entire question of why these two should get married can be reduced to three extremely simple concepts. They’re smart, they’re bored, and they love a good fight.

Empires have been built on less.

Mhysa: Game of Thrones S03E10 (Review)

Her Ladyship returns from orc hunting and gets straight down to business in this somewhat belated review of the season finale of Game of Thrones.

Mhysa is an ode to the outsider: to smallfolk exploited by high borns, to foreigners who have made Westeros their home without ever truly fitting in; to sons and daughters who disappoint their fathers (and their sisters); to lovers from different worlds; to strangers in their own worlds; to traitor’s daughters; to dwarves that are bastards in their father’s eyes; and to lonely little girls ruled only by Death. As the shockwaves of the Red Wedding spread outwards from where Roose Bolton observes the carnage from the battlements of Harrenhal, and Arya watches her brother’s corpse paraded about with his direwolf’s head sewn onto its shoulders, we get a lot more character and relationships than plot in this nostalgic, reflective and powerful episode that compromises on structure, but somehow manages to not make us mind so much. Let’s take a look at the best scenes.

In King’s Landing, we are pleased to discover that the show’s producers have adopted the ‘Sansa and Tyrion find common ground as outcasts’ perspective as opposed to the awkwardness and emotional torture of the books. Throughout the show’s three seasons, Sophie Turner has shown multiple times what a strong and mature actress she is, but little proves this better than the fact she is able to share a scene with a smolderingly charismatic thespian like Peter Dinklage without being bulldozed. The initial, tentative chemistry that was created in the penultimate episode becomes playful, exuberant and borderline flirtatious as Sansa and Tyrion discuss ways to revenge themselves on the society that has rejected them in an entirely unserious and whimsical way, Shae glaring at them all the while from her position at Sansa’s back.
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While this will certainly please both me and my fellow Tyrion/Sansa shippers, the touching connection between these two vastly different and yet eerily similar characters is short-lived as Tyrion is dragged into a small council meeting and informed of the Red Wedding. When he returns to his chambers and calls Sansa’s name, she turns to him with tears in her eyes, the sunlight on the red shutters making her skin appear as crimson as the Stark banners set alight at the Twins. As they look at each other, one literally feels a wall slam up between them, a barrier from the outside that both seem to regret, but that both know will keep them apart forever. As Tyrion turns his back on her and walks away, the chemistry between them is like a form of magnetism, and this forceful breaking of it is almost painful.

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The small council meeting itself turns out to be an unexpected continuation of the delicious treat of a scene in which Tywin seems to intimidate Joffrey simply by standing before him. Jack Gleeson is fantastic at portraying Joffrey’s obvious discomfort at the way power appears to be slipping away from him, something that all the characters present immediately sense and act upon in various ways. Two of the most memorable remarks come from Tyrion in the form of a refusal to allow Joffrey to serve Robb’s head to Sansa at his wedding feast (‘she is no longer yours to torment’) and a delightful rebuttal of Joffrey’s calling him a ‘monster’: ‘oh, a monster? Perhaps you should speak to me more softly, then. Monsters are dangerous, and just now kings are dying like flies.’ It is to Charles Dance’s eternally-improving-in-awesomeness Tywin Lannister, however, that owning Joffrey truly belongs. He becomes bolder and bolder as Joffrey’s control of the situation flounders, being the first person ever to challenge Joffrey’s favourite line (‘I am the king’) with ‘any man who must say ‘I am the king’ is no true king at all.’ We know that Joffrey’s power is in serious trouble when Tywin does the equivalent of sending the king off to bed while the grown-ups discuss serious matters, leading into an exquisite dialogue with Tyrion once the rest of the council has been dismissed.
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As we already know, Tywin and Tyrion’s relationship is catastrophic, and riddled with anger, hurt, guilt, betrayal and lots of downright nastiness. This dynamic, as well as Dance and Dinklage’s exceptionally high calibre as actors, has always ensured the excellence of one-on-one scenes between these two characters. In this episode, we are treated to one of the best. The subject is the usual one (legacy), but there is very little conflict and the scene’s dynamic is very much that of two equally intelligent men debating a difficult question together, reminding us of Genna Lannister’s assertion in A Feast For Crows that Tyrion is the only Lannister child who truly resembles Tywin. It’s quite a treat – for a while – until Tyrion makes the same mistake committed by his siblings and by Arya by assuming that being open with Tywin will be rewarded with affection. Openness is only rewarded with equal openness, however unpleasant it may be. In this case, Tyrion makes a serious and whole-hearted attempt to make his father see that sacrificing the personal life in the name of the family name is something he demands constantly, but has never experienced himself. Tywin proves the falseness of this statement by telling Tyrion how he wished to cast him into the sea on the day he was born, but chose not to: ‘because you’re a Lannister.’ Each time Tywin speaks of Tyrion’s birth in a state that does not involve anger (which doesn’t happen often), it brings him closer and closer to the memory of his wife Joanna, because he brushes against the human part of him that died with her, and in these moments, he is always at his most vulnerable. Those four words, ‘because you’re a Lannister,’ and the acknowledgment that it was that knowledge that stayed his hand, is, paradoxically, perhaps the closest Tywin could ever come to telling Tyrion that he loves him, and Charles Dance plays the simultaneous vulnerability and iron self-control and hardness of the moment with an effortless mastery of his craft, Peter Dinklage’s exquisite face telling us that a part of Tyrion, somewhere, knows what is going on in Tywin’s mind at this particular moment.

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Staying with the Lannisters and the fierce, fucked-up way in which they love, Jaime and Brienne return to King’s Landing well ahead of the period given for their return in the books. When Jaime re-enters the city, he is elbowed out of the way by a merchant and called a ‘country boy,’ and for a moment that empty space where his hand used to be seems very large as he stares at the ground without comment. The encouraging smile that Brienne gives him is loaded with meaning and emotion, and perhaps even a little pity; an acknowledgment of what they have endured together, as usual without needing to speak. Jaime’s reuniting with Cersei is brief, but spectacularly acted by both Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Lena Headey, the book’s mildly revolting sex scene in the sept replaced by an almost entirely silent scene in Cersei’s chamber in which the only dialogue is Jaime saying Cersei’s name from the door to get her attention.

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The twins’ faces are heart-breaking and their expressions extremely subtle. From Jaime’s side, we see both the fulfilment of his dream to return to Cersei and his fear. Looking at her, he almost seems to be begging her: ‘I’ve changed, but I’m still me and I still love you.’ From Cersei’s side, we see her happiness that he is back, but also a kind of horror at how much he has changed. In the books, that moment of realisation on Cersei’s part is the beginning of the end for them. We also know from the books that Cersei always lets Jaime come to her rather than running to him; a central feature of their relationship and a sign of the control she has over him. From the exertion of this kind of manipulation even at a moment like this, we get an insight into just how utterly dreadful Cersei is; and from Jaime’s failure to walk towards her (a distinct change from the books), which shows an unwillingness to be controlled even by his twin, we can see that once the high emotion of this moment is over, things are going to collapse pretty quickly.

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Meanwhile in the Riverlands, an unexpectedly dazzling transplant of a scene takes place, in which Arya, clearly numb with grief but running on adrenaline and bloodlust, approaches a group of Frey soldiers in the woods, having heard one of them boasting about sewing Grey Wind’s neck onto Robb’s shoulders. With the same thinking-on-her-feet audacity that she demonstrated in the books while escaping Harrenhal, Arya, seeming innocent, soft-spoken and a little stupid, offers the soldier Jaqen’s iron coin in exchange for a place by the fire, letting it slip artfully through her fingers. As he stoops to pick it up, she rips his throat out with a knife concealed in her hand, the Hound dispatching the others and cursing that she inform him the next time she chooses to kill someone. As Arya admits that this is the first time she has killed an adult, and the Hound confiscates the knife that he had failed to notice was missing from his belt, Arya’s blood-drenched hands do not shake at all. She picks up the coin and whispers ‘Valar Morghulis,’ this reference to Jaqen intensified by the stirring playing of his leitmotif in the background, taking us back to the almost-primal intensity of the connection between Arya and Jaqen in season 2, the fire in Arya’s eyes as she says the words while staring, exhilarated, at her red hands, only making the role of death in Arya’s character, and her future as a Faceless Man, seem larger, closer and righter. Maisie Williams portrays this numbness and kinship with Death with astonishing realism; making us wish for the umpteenth time that somebody would just give this girl an Emmy and be done with it (yes, I’m still mad that Maisie hasn’t been nominated for the second year in a row. Open your eyes, people!)

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Meanwhile in the North, Bran finally bumps into Sam and Gilly, and is awarded the duty of informing audience members stupid enough to still not understand guest right after what happened last week, of precisely what breaking it means, in a haunting monologue in which he tells the story of the Rat Cook to Hodor, Meera and Jojen. We’ve commented a lot on Isaac Hempstead Wright’s acting this season, but in this episode, he gets even better, his voice resonating, rising and falling with all the cadences of a master storyteller; his scenes with Sam and Gilly only reinforcing the tragic, Frodo-like sense of purpose that he feels in going beyond the Wall in spite of his own fear. Last week, Bran acted like a grown-up; this week, he has to be one, and the adultness that emerges from this very young child is inspiring and emotional to watch.

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In other Northern matters, I was delighted to discover that the producers were not, after all, going to let Jon reach the Wall without Ygritte trying to kill him, inserting a wonderfully moving scene in which Jon, desperate and on the run, encounters Ygritte, who contemplates him from across a stream, her bow trained expertly on him. The pain of their separation, and of their failure to stay together despite their love for each other, is strikingly and movingly evident. It is surprising, therefore, that Rose Leslie carries this scene almost entirely by herself, Kit Harington’s Jon being unusually pathetic and whining in a performance worthy of Mills and Boon. The divine Miss Leslie delivers such a superb performance, however, that we soon forget all about him as she literally acts the shit out of him, loosing arrow after arrow; the pain and heartbreak on her face so overpowering that the arrows might as well be piercing her own flesh. It is an excellent scene as is: better acting from Harrington would have made it a masterpiece.

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And finally, we join Daenerys Stormborn, Breaker of Chains and Mother of Dragons, as she waits before the gates of Yunkai to receive the slaves that she has liberated. When Missandei addresses the slaves and states that it is to Daenerys that they owe their liberty, the latter once again demonstrates her uncompromising idealism by contradicting Missandei, telling the slaves that they owe their liberty to none but themselves. Just as it took only one Unsullied to begin beating his spear against the ground, it only takes one slave to cry out ‘Mhysa!’ before the others take up the call. The script is once again expertly and classily idiot-proofed, informing us with great emotion and subtlety that the word means ‘Mother’, and Daenerys descends into the midst of the crowd, where she is hoisted onto the shoulders of the slaves and touches the hands and shoulders of thousands of them as though to bless them. Though not quite as remarkable as the scene from the books, which is conducted on horseback with the word ‘Mother’ roared out in half a dozen different languages, it is considerably more intimate and humanistic, the removal of Daenerys’ horse serving as a further destroyer of the unjust barriers that Daenerys has spent most of her queenship fighting against.

This season of Game of Thrones has been extraordinary, flawlessly recreating and adding certain scenes and unforgivably fucking up others. As the season finale, Mhysa ties up most of the plot’s loose ends, reminds us what has been so great about the show over the past eleven weeks, and beckons to us of greater things to come.

The Rains of Castamere: Game of Thrones S03E09 (Review)

The most dazzlingly, incandescently and brutally perfect episode of the season, as episode nine unfailingly is on Game of Thrones, The Rains of Castamere is flawlessly-structured, beautifully written, gut-wrenchingly horrifying and brings us one of A Song of Ice and Fire’s greatest showstoppers: the Red Wedding. Interspersed with this stupendous reminder of what happens when you cross Tywin Lannister are titanic human struggles taking place just south of the Wall, and Daenerys’ conquest of Yunkai, across the Narrow Sea.

The writing in this episode is nothing short of genius, and it is not remotely surprising that it took both of the show’s formidably-talented creators, D.B. Weiss and David Benioff, to write it. The build-up to the Red Wedding is perfectly executed, not a scene or a word out of place, and the writers display a Peter Jackson-like brilliance in idiot-proofing their work. The Walder Frey of the books’ scorn at Robb’s insistence that his household partake of bread and salt is replaced with a ceremony in which servants move around offering these to Robb’s men while Lord Frey drawls out an incantation taking them under his protection, and the entire sorry business of Robb’s marriage to Talisa is dragged up in great detail. None of this is excessive or too obvious, and by the end of it, we’re almost convinced that Lord Walder is satisfied with things as they stand. Our sense of ease (or hysteria, for those of us who have read the books), increases throughout the ceremony and the wedding feast, in which the bride proves lovely, the wine copious and the guests raucously cheerful in exemplary Westerosi style; Catelyn chatting animatedly with the Blackfish and Robb with Talisa. As the hall doors are closed following the bedding, however, and the musicians intone the first haunting bars of The Rains of Castamere, terror wells up in our throats as Cat rises to her feet; knowing, but not allowing herself to believe. The abominable butchery of the slaughter is cruel, savage and almost impossible to watch, not because of the prodigious quantity of blood that is spilled or the number of principal characters that die (the gods know we’re used to that), but because of the way the love the characters have for each other emerges as they die; Robb rousing himself after being peppered with quarrels to clasp his hand to Talisa’s bloodied stomach; Catelyn finding the strength to seize Lady Frey and threaten to cut her throat after being brutally shot herself.
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This leads to a deeply affecting and fiery final showdown between Cat and Lord Walder as she demonstrates the ‘woman’s courage’ that Brienne spoke of in season 2; simultaneously pleading for her son’s life and threatening to gut her hostess; begging an incapacitated Robb to stand up and flee. The desperation on her face cannot be described, and when Robb’s throat is cut, the scream that tears from hers roars out all the grief and loss that this extraordinary woman has endured since the first day we met her. Through this unhinging of the emotions that Cat has suppressed for so long, and through her slicing the blade across Lady Frey’s neck as casually as she would swat a fly, it is Lady Stoneheart, not Catelyn Stark, who is staring blankly at us as her throat too is cut.

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As these central characters die, however, the rest of the Twins is in uproar; Frey men slaughtering Stark men in their droves, the free availability of wine doing little to allay the ensanguined confusion of the butchery. And at the gate, getting her heart torn out of her chest, is Arya, watching from the shadows as her brother’s men are massacred and his direwolf is killed, the hope in her eyes dying right in front of us as her childhood disappears. Maisie Williams has a terrific episode, not merely during the Red Wedding, but in other scenes demonstrating Arya’s complexity and the repeated blows that are dealt to her belief in goodness through her conversations with the Hound. Williams and Rory McCann have great chemistry, and each has an equal ability to use the other’s secrets and fears against them. Arya’s treatment of Sandor is absolutely fearless, rubbing his fear of fire in his face, and spitting at him, while trying to prevent him from killing a pig farmer he is robbing, that he’s a coward who chooses easy victims rather than the great killer he thinks he is: ‘I know a killer. A real killer. You’d be like a kitten to him. He’d kill you with his little finger.’ Being an ardent Arya/Jaqen shipper, this reference to him gladdened my soul. It was the only moment in the episode that did so.

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Meanwhile in the North (Queenscrown, to be exact), Jon and Bran’s paths almost cross in the famous storm scene that leads to Jon’s leaving Ygritte in rather unconventional fashion as he refuses to kill an old man the wildlings are stealing from. Though I must confess that I missed Ygritte’s beautiful, blazing cry ‘I am no crow wife!’, the show’s sprinkling of sugar on the scene by making Ygritte attempt to defend Jon in the resulting dance leads to seeing his desertion from her perspective. We have commented on Rose Leslie’s mastery of facial expression before, but here she outdoes herself, her face horror-struck in the most painful way; her beautiful eyes wet, but not with tears. In the nearby castle, Bran, Osha, Meera, Jojen and Rickon are doing their level best to calm Hodor, who is terrified by the lightning and refusing to be terrified quietly. The knowledge that the wildlings below will almost certainly hear them makes everyone rather pricklier than is practical when dealing with Hodor, and these heightened emotions lead to Bran’s first waking experience as a warg as he warps into Hodor’s mind and quiets him down. He then does the same with Summer and Shaggy Dog, who turn on the wildlings and allow Jon to escape them. Isaac Hempstead-Wright plays this scene with just the right mix of fear and exhilaration at this glimpse of what the power in him could mean; all the doubt that has been plaguing his young mind replaced by calm, adult knowledge that the three-eyed crow is beyond the Wall and must be found at all costs. This newfound adultness also leads to his decision to send Rickon with Osha to the Umbers at the Last Hearth, thus ensuring the survival of another male heir to Winterfell should Robb fall (oh, my sweet summer child). The scene in which Bran and Rickon say goodbye is incredibly moving, and is all the more so when we consider what’s happening on the other side of the continent.

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Across the Narrow Sea in Yunkai, Daenerys makes her preparations to sack the city and free the slaves. Daario’s presence makes everyone uncomfortable, a feeling which is not much assuaged by Grey Worm’s reluctant statement that he trusts him. The actual conquest of Yunkai is quite different from that of Astapor, relying on suspense to be convincing. The show succeeds spectacularly, if rather conventionally, in this area, showing us nothing of the fighting but a brief skirmish through a back door in which Ser Jorah, Grey Worm and Daario fight bravely, but disappear behind an unexpectedly large wall of guards. This puts us into Daenerys’ shoes as she calmly but desperately questions Ser Barristan on how long it takes to sack a city, only to be interrupted by the return of the men themselves. I was flabbergasted at my own relief to see Ser Jorah alive, and take this as a sign of the show’s brilliance that I could unconsciously have begun to care for a character whose death in the books would not cause me a moment’s concern. I was pleased to the point of being stunningly annoyed with Daenerys when her relief at his survival seemed to pale in comparison with her relief surrounding Daario’s. But no doubt this is the entire point. Daenerys has a new commander, she likes him and he’s simply not likeable.

A grandiose testament to the genius of George R.R. Martin and to that of the people who devote their lives to adapting him, The Rains of Castamere is the greatest episode of season 3; absolute, unequivocal perfection from start to finish.

Second Sons: Game of Thrones S03E08 (Review)

In this week’s Game of Thrones, Peter Dinklage reminds us that he’s the best actor on the show as Tyrion and Sansa reluctantly join their Houses, Daenerys surpasses her own reputation to further prove that she’s one of the most important female characters in modern television, and Gendry’s Baratheon-ness blows up in his face as Melisandre proves the power in a king’s blood.

Much of the episode is dedicated to Tyrion and Sansa’s wedding; a golden, bejeweled, luxuriantly Byzantine mosaic of an affair that simmers with too many undercurrents to count. Tyrell/Lannister relations are still at breaking point following the discovery of the marriage plot, which leads to some truly prodigious acting from each family member on both sides, the most hair-raising being a sinister discussion between Cersei and Margaery in which the former explains the legend of The Rains of Castamere to the latter before pleasantly threatening to strangle her in her sleep. This is a welcome, fiery and ominous taste of the queen-against-queen savagery of A Feast For Crows that makes us yearn for the day that this most difficult of books comes to be adapted. Charles Dance continues to menace and terrify as Tywin Lannister, his presence casting a freezing shadow over the proceedings, and Jack Gleeson’s Joffrey has his best episode yet, combining the fresher, giggling cruelty Joffrey has demonstrated this season with the disturbing, screechingly evil madness that has defined his character in previous seasons. But the undisputed star of the show is Peter Dinklage, who performs at his tragic, charismatic best after taking a little too much of a back seat this season. Tyrion is the drunkest we’ve ever seen him: desperately unhappy, guilt-ridden, raucous, yet ferociously protective of his young bride to the point of threatening to geld Joffrey, leading to an electrifying stand-off that is only prevented from resulting in bloodshed by the speedy intervention of Tywin Lannister. Tyrion’s drunkenness is disturbing and highly upsetting to watch, and Dinklage plays it with magnificent emotion and perfect believability and equilibrium.

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The best wedding scenes, however, are those between Tyrion and Sansa both before and after the ceremony. Their conversation before the wedding is excruciatingly awkward but heartwarming as Tyrion tries to find common ground between them in their mutual desire not to marry. Sansa parries his every attempt to break through her defences, but when Tyrion gently takes her hand and vows, ‘I promise you one thing, my lady. I won’t ever hurt you,’ she smiles. In that moment, the chemistry between Dinklage and Sophie Turner is extraordinary, pointing us forward to all the future moments when Tyrion’s kindness comes crashing into Sansa’s thoughts, only to be shoved away again into her unconscious mind.

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The scene after the wedding is a lot less uplifting, but glows with pathos, heartbreak and tragedy as Sansa begins to undress; Tyrion so drunk he can barely stand up straight. It is beautifully shot: Sansa standing with her back to Tyrion, her glorious golden clothing coming off in layers; Tyrion’s face filled with sadness and self-loathing at the thought that he’ll have to deflower a fourteen-year-old girl, yet awe-struck, moved, even, by her beauty. It is his respect for her, as well as his innate compassion, that makes him tell her to stop, increasing our love for him tenfold. The power of Tyrion’s strange attraction to Sansa, and the subtle ways that he expresses it, make for some of his best chapters in the books, so let’s hope we see more of it before the season is over.

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Meanwhile in Yunkai, we’re treated to Daenerys’ best scene from the books, in which she displays Rhaegar Targaryen-like brilliance in trying to persuade the sellsword companies (here simplified to the three leaders of the Second Sons) to desert the Yunkish and join her instead. Among them is Daenerys’ future lover Daario Naharis, played by an excellent Ed Skrein, who combines just the right amount of magnetism, obsequiousness and punchableness in his interpretation of the character. But it is Emilia Clarke who truly dazzles (and delights) in this scene: serenely unconcerned at the sellswords’ lewd and jaw-dropping insolence, her persona seeming to blaze with red flame; she talks with the confidence, experience and hardness of a dragon, of a woman so accustomed to dealing with brutal men that even their lowest threats fail to concern her or make her blanch. As the sellswords leave, however, we see that this is also a mask she has learned to wear, the disgust on her face indescribable as she watches the retreating back of the most vicious of the commanders: ‘Ser Barristan. If it comes to a battle, kill that one first.’ When Daario returns that night, this time to assassinate her, she only seems to grow more military-minded, more queenly and more devastatingly charismatic. As she rises naked from her bath in front of Daario, we find ourselves thinking of the shy girl in season 1 who had to be told that tears aren’t a woman’s only weapon. But she doesn’t need to be told any longer: she knows it. Each episode turns Daenerys into a shrewder, wiser and deadlier politician, and Clarke has performed this transition subtly, brilliantly, volcanically. Emmy, please!

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Melisandre and Gendry finally get to Dragonstone, where the Red Priestess continues her slow seduction of Gendry in order to win his trust, thus minimising the pollution to his blood that trauma causes at the time of sacrifice. The irresistible allure and spine-tingling menace of Carice Van Houten’s performance acts in perfect counterpoint to the hopeless innocence and naivety of Joe Dempsie’s; Gendry acting like a son Robert Baratheon would have been proud of, but only realising that Melisandre’s intentions are murderous rather than kinky when she ties up his feet as well as his hands. Mercifully, she doesn’t gut or immolate him, but uses three leeches to draw his blood.  Stannis then casts these onto a brazier and intones the names of Robb Stark, Balon Greyjoy and Joffrey Baratheon, sending chills down our spines as we realise that all three will soon be dead. In the meantime, though, we should concern ourselves with Gendry, and with the newly-liberated Ser Davos, who are now in a position to once again take up the Edric Storm line of the story, though this naturally depends on whether or not Melisandre actually intends to kill Gendry, something we now have no way of knowing.

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In shorter scenes, Arya and the Hound connect unexpectedly after she tries to kill him with a rock, Arya barely able to conceal her happiness when she learns that Sandor plans on reuniting her with her family rather than returning her to King’s Landing. Beyond the Wall, Sam finally learns the true significance of his obsidian dagger, the entire scene resonating with a The Lord of the Rings-like malevolence as two different forces of evil patiently wait their turn to sample the same prey.

A much better-structured and better-acted episode than those of the past two weeks, Second Sons lays many subtle foundations for future intrigues and relationships, and puts us firmly on the path to Westeros’ deadliest wedding season yet.

The Bear and the Maiden Fair: Game of Thrones S03E07 (Review)

A mostly character-based little oddity of an episode that leaves one thinking that this entire season could have been done in eight episodes instead of ten, The Bear and the Maiden Fair strews a lot of building blocks along its merry way, some of them haunting and many of them perplexing. We are nevertheless rewarded for our patience by the long-awaited, all-too-short and frankly terrifying bear pit scene and by Daenerys’ scaring the pants off the potentate of Yunkai in a stirring scene that brings her ever closer to embracing the inherent genius/madness of her House.

In the Riverlands, Jaime is finally well enough to leave Harrenhal and to continue his journey to King’s Landing, regrettably sans Brienne, who is left behind at the mercy of Locke and his gang of hooligans. In a rather silly move that represents this season’s first deviation from the books that has left me well and truly pissed off as opposed to clapping my hands in admiration at the show’s creativity, Jaime returns to Harrenhal for Brienne following a chance conversation with Qyburn, in which it is stated that Brienne will no doubt be brutalised for sport now that Lord Bolton is also absent from the castle. This seems a rather inadequate substitution for the books’ vivid fever dream that transports Jaime to the bowels of the earth beneath Casterly Rock, where the sense of belonging and wholeness that he feels in the presence of the shades of his ancestors, and of Tywin and Cersei, rapidly metamorphoses into gnawing, anguished fear as he is cast away from them into a darkness that is his alone. His sword, and Brienne’s presence at his side providing the only light, he watches helpless as his twin, whom he sees as the other half of himself, abandons him to his fate, the darkness around him rendered all the more terrible by the sounds of some beast out there in the black, its snarls drawing ever closer. ‘I mislike this place,’ Brienne quips, and he heartily agrees. It’s at this point that he wakes up and blackmails Steelshanks into returning to Harrenhal. Replacing such an important, and indeed beautiful, dream sequence with a slight tête-à-tête involving a creepy ex-maester just doesn’t have the same effect, and makes one wonder if the show’s producers are uncomfortable with dream sequences, a possibility that we got a distinct whiff of last season in the changes to Daenerys’ visions in the House of the Undying. All is not lost, however, as we’re gifted, perhaps by way of compensation, with the deeply moving scene when Jaime goes to visit Brienne in her cell before his departure. Brienne, valiantly fighting back tears on what she clearly believes may be her last night in this world, charges an equally-emotional Jaime with fulfilling the task she is now unable to, and to return Sansa and Arya to Catelyn. Jaime promises to do so with a sincerity that is simultaneously astonishing and completely unsurprising. It’s the best-acted scene in the episode, and only constitutes further proof of what we touched on last week; that the real truth of Jaime and Brienne’s friendship, as it genuinely is beneath all the wisecracks and insults, is something that runs so deep that neither of them acknowledges it, ever. Brienne’s voice cracking slightly as she stiffly recites ‘Goodbye, Ser Jaime,’ and Jaime’s staring awkwardly at her, then at the floor before leaving without a word is in itself indicative of how difficult it would be for them to put the nature of their connection into words. Despite the incredible odds against such a bond existing between an innocent, idealistic young woman and a shattered, increasingly pessimistic man of the world that is almost twice her age, each understands the other in ways that they will never experience with another human being, and for both of them, that doesn’t need saying. They both feel it, and know it, and that’s enough. This in itself is a possible reason for the elimination of a sequence that would eventually require Jaime to say ‘I dreamed of you,’ though it’s certainly not a good enough reason to prevent both myself and millions of YouTube vidders from tearing their hair out.

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The bear pit scene itself is quite spectacular; the books’ lavish, three quarters empty auditorium replaced with a crude wooden structure as savage and casually dismissive of human life as the shouting and singing Brave Companions that are crammed around it, looking down into the pit. Brienne ignores the cacophony and faces the bear down with all the focus and poise of a consummate professional (wooden sword, dress and all), but Gwendoline Christie’s exquisite face reveals to us that despite Brienne’s innate bravery, she’s terrified. Things get a lot more frightening when Jaime himself ends up in the pit, the bear undaunted by the presence of two people  and seeming only too delighted to get two for the price of one, and there are plenty of positively hair-raising, blood-curdling moments once the dear man realises he has no clue what the fuck to do next. All in all, it’s an almighty test of the viewer’s nerves and should be finding its way onto plenty of ‘greatest moments’ lists in no time at all.

Meanwhile in King’s Landing, both Tyrion and Sansa are absolutely miserable, a state that both of them will regrettably be trapped in for some time to come. Peter Dinklage is at his heartbreaking best, Tyrion’s attempt to pacify Shae blowing up in his face by virtue of its sheer Lannister typicality (golden chains? Tyrion, darling). He grasps desperately at the chance of having something like a normal life with Shae, even going so far as to assure her that any children they might have will want for nothing. While his devotion and desperation make us want to weep, Shae pulls out all the stops of her talent for argument to disguise how frightening and how moving she finds this, eventually reducing their relationship to something that it only is on the surface: a lonely little man with a whore he calls his lady, and whom he will eventually cast off when he becomes bored with her. Tyrion’s wedding is bringing Shae closer and closer to the Shae of the books who will eventually betray Tyrion in the most despicable, humiliating way, and while the show takes a risk by romanticising that betrayal, it’s also a good way to make Tyrion’s isolation and hurt all the more acute, which should make for terrific acting when the time comes.

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On the other side of the soon-to-be marriage bed, Sansa, who is still red-eyed following her betrothal, has a fascinating girl talk with Margaery, in which the future Queen makes the case for Tyrion as a prospective husband. One could even say she makes the same case that every intelligent reader or viewer has made a thousand times in their head: that Tyrion, compassionate, loyal, sensitive, fiercely intelligent and terrific in the sack, would be an excellent husband to any woman who took the trouble to see past his height. Sansa’s reaction to marrying Tyrion and her behavior to him during their marriage is one of the hardest things for Sansa fans, in whose ranks I am proud to stand, to defend in her character. Let us merely consider that teenaged girls capable of seeing inner beauty are rare as obsidian and are usually of considerably greater intelligence than Sansa, and that it is difficult to blame her for being incapable of rationality when it comes to Lannisters, even one who has treated her kindly, since she has come to expect that all kindness is part of some cruel trick to get her punished. We can only watch and wait as to whether the show will mirror the agonising misery business of the books, or whether these two vastly different creatures will somehow manage to find some common ground in their mutual need to be comforted and valued.

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Down in Blackwater Bay, right beneath the Red Keep itself, Melisandre and Gendry, whom we are relieved to see alive, bond unexpectedly as the Red Priestess tells the bullheaded bastard boy who he really is. It’s an unexpectedly marvelous treat of a scene; Melisandre hypnotic as ever as she declares both her and Gendry’s humble origins to have no bearing on the role they will play in shaping the world. Gendry’s eyes are beautiful in this scene as he looks up at the Red Keep, awe overcoming the fear that he knows he should feel, unable to reconcile his smallness with a great legacy that marked him before he even knew it existed. This also leaves readers of the books completely incapable of knowing what’s going to happen next, since the obvious course (Dragonstone) has not been taken, a very healthy state for us know-it-alls to be in. But as much as it interests us to see Melisandre and Gendry find common ground, however, we still fear constantly for his longevity.

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A beggar queen no longer, Daenerys is regal, confident and a master of diplomacy as she demands the freedom of the slaves of Yunkai. The perfumed and rather pathetic Razdal mo Eraz is sent to bribe her with gold, the prospect of ships and a polite request that this Westerosi barbarian should not meddle in what she does not understand. Emilia Clarke plays this scene with perfect balance; terrifyingly beautiful, icily diplomatic in a way that would make Tywin Lannister squirm, and surrounded by her dragons, whom she entertains by throwing scraps of meat into the air and watching both the resulting catfight and the growing apprehension on Razdal mo Eraz’s face with delight. She’s scornful and unpredictable in all the right ways, but has a kind of confidence that weds well to her natural charisma. As she pleasantly observes ‘I have a gift for you as well. Your life,’ one feels, not for the first time, that Clarke’s interpretation of Daenerys is a mesmerising improvement from the Daenerys of the books, and that she will prove a formidable player in the Game should she ever get round to returning to Westeros.

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Meanwhile in other Westeros news; cultural differences, guilt and fear are beginning to make their mark on Jon and Ygritte’s relationship, but not badly enough to stop our hearts glowing at this beautiful quote straight from the books: ‘You’re mine, Jon Snow. Mine as I’m yours. If we die, we die. All men must die, Jon Snow. But first, we’ll live.’ This leads straight into Osha becoming increasingly hysterical at Bran’s desire to go beyond the Wall with Jojen and Meera, and we’re given insight into Osha’s fear of the North through a monologue that would have been moving if Natalia Tena had the acting ability to perform it convincingly. In King’s Landing, there is an electrifying scene in which Joffrey’s intention to chastise Tywin for not keeping him up to date on small council meetings does not have the impact he desired, Charles Dance thrilling us with his charisma as he effortlessly commands that entire hall, including the cringing boy on the throne, from the moment he enters it. Theon is once again tortured in such a yawningly predictable way that he and Ramsay make you want to get up and make tea. On the road to the Twins, Robb and Talisa have a pointless, boring and overly-long sex scene that ends with Talisa announcing that she’s pregnant. This is either going to be the source of a great deal of nausea or of a great deal of hope in episodes to come, depending on whether or not Talisa survives the Red Wedding. It’s probably the latter, since the presence of a Stark grandchild would only complicate things further, and Talisa surviving (by not attending), then simply dropping out of the story, as Jeyne Westerling does in the books after being accepted back into the Lannister fold, just wouldn’t work on screen, though we should also consider the possibilities of miscarriage or suicide (or both) once the Red Wedding takes place. Let’s face it: this idea is a mess. Let’s allow the producers to dig themselves out of it. And finally in the Riverlands, Arya Stark gets sick of the delays in the Brotherhood’s journey to Riverrun, announces to Lord Beric that the Red God is not her lord and master and, when asked who is, she replies, in a deathly whisper, her eyes blazing, ‘Death,’ before sprinting out of the cave and running straight into the Hound, the next stage of her journey to the Faceless Men about to begin.

A few good scenes make this episode watchable; the rest of it is tolerable merely because of the future its more action-less scenes will bring. Let’s hope that next week’s wedding will succeed in jolting things back into action again.