Sherlock S03E01: The Empty Hearse (Review)

Her Ladyship takes time off from her wanderings in the dark corridors of fan fiction to watch the premier episode of Sherlock season 3 and to reason from what she sees.

A singularly-strange and enjoyable little episode that feels a lot more like the product of the hugely-hyperactive and oft OTT pen of Steven Moffat than the darkly-intelligent work of its actual writer, Mark Gatiss, The Empty Hearse is big on chemistry, hugely entertaining and very promising of more awesomeness to come; yet falls a little flat in terms of plot, and of the mishandling of a few subtle but entirely basic Sherlock character traits that doesn’t quite seem pardonable in a show run by a pair of Holmes junkies.

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The Empty Hearse has a lot of fun ridiculing the many fan theories (both plausible and preposterous) that have popped up since the deeply-moving rooftop scene in The Reichenbach Fall that had most of us crying and screaming into our pillows for days after it was shown. None, however, is quite so much fun as the one we are introduced to first, in the episode’s engaging and utterly-badass opening sequence that brings us everything from the strategically-placed cyclist, to the bungee-rope-not-bungee-rope in Sherlock’s coat, to the Sherlock mask on Moriarty’s corpse; as well as a range of other awesomeness of which we shall not speak (except Sherlock crashing through the mortuary window and sticking his tongue down Molly’s throat. That part was too much fun not to mention). After the opening sequence, the show loses no time in informing us that Sherlock has been fully exonerated, post-mortem, of the charges trumped up by Moriarty, has spent the past two years dismantling the criminal genius’ network, and has been recalled to London from the depths of a Serbian torture chamber by his brother Mycroft, who wants him to investigate an imminent terrorist threat to the city. This, of course, means being reunited with John, who is newly-engaged, still grieving the loss of his best friend to the point of not having contacted Mrs Hudson for two years, and will probably be none too pleased that Sherlock has knowingly allowed him to go through hell. John’s reaction to the discovery that Sherlock is alive constitutes the main crux of the episode, and it is, most unfortunately, a double-edged sword of a focal point.

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First up, John. Martin Freeman’s acting is beautifully, movingly and vividly realistic. In John’s day-to-day existence he dons the grin-and-bear-it mask that so many bereaved people wear every day of their lives no matter how much it hurts. In his quieter moments of remembrance with his fiancée Mary (Amanda Abbingdon), and in the touchingly-garbled and emotional conversation that he has with Mrs Hudson when he finally works up the courage to visit 221B after Sherlock’s death, he starts to let us in more and more as to what he’s been thinking and feeling in coming to terms with the ‘aloneness’ of a world without Sherlock. It’s in his interaction with Sherlock himself, of course, that all hell truly breaks loose, and the naturally-volcanic chemistry between Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch makes for a whole lot of highly-emotional, heartrending and side-splitting scenes together, as John alternates between listening to Sherlock trying (and failing) to explain himself in an acceptable manner; and attempting to murder Sherlock in a variety of ways for what he has done.

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It is Sherlock’s half of the equation, regrettably, that just doesn’t feel right, and the problem lies in the script’s characterisation of him. Yes, we all know that Sherlock is a sociopath and has a near-autistic inability to understand or consider the feelings of others; and this may very well lead us to make the same conclusions, in terms of his character, that Gatiss has made in the script, i.e. Sherlock believes that John will be ‘delighted’ to discover that he is alive; doesn’t display anything that could reasonably be called remorse; is quite at a loss to understand why his friend doesn’t forgive him immediately; and is willing to resort to the most callous (if typical) of theatrics to bring John’s true feelings about him to the fore.

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‘If his theatrics are typical, then what’s the problem?’ The answer to that question is in the Reichenbach Fall itself. The pathos of that scene; the incredible emotion and tragedy of it; Sherlock’s willingness to destroy both himself and his reputation for the good of his friends; the fact that we see him crying towards the end of it; the usually stunted nature of his emotions transformed in the face of death, even though the great detective almost certainly knows, at that point, that he will not die: the idea of those emotions being simulated is, to Her Ladyship at least, absolutely unthinkable. Watching it, you’re really seized with the idea of separation being just as painful for Sherlock as it is for John (even if it isn’t, John not being about to die), and as a viewer, you’re granted a rare opportunity of seeing that, unburied beneath all Sherlock’s usual bullshit. I’m not saying that I wanted Sherlock to break down and be an emotional wreck for most of The Empty Hearse. Emotion is not something he does easily or lightly: but just one, tiny particle of a millisecond of acknowledgment of how hard it must have been for him to know that for two years, his friend was just a text away from being spared complete misery and heartache, would have rendered the Sherlock we see in this episode just a little more human, and would have ensured that the Reichenbach Fall itself, arguably the greatest scene ever between Sherlock and John, was not so shamelessly trivialised.
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The original short story on which this episode is based, The Empty House, succeeds marvellously at this particular aspect of Holmes’ character, even though he is faced with an entirely forgiving Watson who does nothing more alarming that faint at the sight of him. The short story manages to preserve both Holmes’ character, and the uncharacteristic expression of the depth of his regard for Watson. Let’s look at a quote:

“I had only one confidant – my brother Mycroft. I owe you many apologies, my dear Watson, but it was all-important that it should be thought I was dead, and it is quite certain that you would not have written so convincing an account of my unhappy end had you not yourself thought that it was true. Several times during the last three years I have taken up my pen to write to you, but always I feared lest your affectionate regard for me should tempt you to some indiscretion which would betray my secret (…) I came over at once to London, called in my own person at Baker Street, threw Mrs Hudson into violent hysterics, and found that Mycroft had preserved my rooms and my papers exactly as they had always been. So it was, my dear Watson, that at two o’clock to-day I found myself in my old armchair in my own old room, and only wishing that I could have seen my old friend Watson in the other chair which he has so often adorned.”

In contemporary English: ‘I was scared that you’d do something stupid if you knew I was alive. I knew what you must have been going through, I missed you like hell, and I’m sorry.’ The short story preserves Holmes’ charming narcissism and high opinion of himself, while still presenting us with a touching apology and a sincere admission of guilt. Will somebody please explain to me why this could not be done convincingly in The Empty Hearse? True, Victorian men were much more vocal about their affections for their friends than contemporary ones, but the Moffat/Gatiss Sherlock could easily have portrayed emotions parallel with those of the Conan-Doylian Holmes even without saying a word, and this could have been achieved with just a tad more attention to detail and subtlety in the script. I find it very hard to believe that a writing and production team working with an actor of Benedict Cumberbatch’s calibre could not find some way of doing this properly.

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But now I’m acting as though the entire episode was ruined by this one thing; and that is very far from the truth. Most of the scenes between John and Sherlock are an absolute joy to watch, thanks to the aforementioned Freeman-Cumberbatch chemistry, and as the original storyline of the terrorist plot on London becomes more and more submerged in the interaction between their characters, we find that we don’t mind very much at all. There is a wonderful scene involving Sherlock, John, a bomb and a railway cart (V for Vendetta?) that makes for phenomenal viewing thanks to its powerful acting (I don’t ship Sherlock and John as a couple, but I must confess to harbouring sentiments distinctly of the ‘just kiss him, already!’ persuasion while watching it). A pleasant surprise is the instant and seemingly-mutual respect that springs up between Sherlock, and John’s fiancée Mary, which should provide us with plenty of interesting interactions in future episodes; particularly in terms of the way it will no doubt develop when the time actually comes for John and Mary to get married. An unpleasant surprise is the recourse to terrible jokes and clichés for no apparent reason (what exactly was the point of making such a terrific fuss about Sherlock getting his coat back, à la Captain Jack Harkness in Torchwood: Children of Earth?). But, ultimately, The Empty Hearse is well-acted enough, and entertaining enough, to keep us wanting more, and to make us give the showrunners the benefit of the doubt thanks to the awesomeness of their previous material. Her Ladyship shall return next week, to find out if the game is afoot, or over.

The Game of Thrones Emmy’s

In celebration of tonight’s Emmy Awards, Her Ladyship invents an awards show showcasing the best (and some of the worst) of Game of Thrones season 3.

Best episode: The Rains of Castamere

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The closest thing to perfection that this show has ever seen, The Rains of Castamere’s flawless structure permits it to glide effortlessly, beautifully and appropriately from one scene to another with not a word, a note, a cry, a sword or a split-second out of place. The build-up to the Red Wedding is such a masterpiece of classical suspense that right up until the moment that the first blow is struck, we’re left thinking ‘maybe this isn’t going to happen,’ and the show’s producers show a talent for idiot-proofing their work that rivals that of Peter Jackson; every last aspect of why the Red Wedding takes place and why it is wrong conveyed to us on an incredibly subtle, emotional and artistic level without it ever being shoved down our throats.

Worst episode: Valar Dohaeris

A stinking pile of dragon poo-poo from start to finish, Valar Dohaeris is probably the worst episode in the series’ history and is a horrible gamble for a premier episode in that it makes you think that Game of Thrones has finally succumbed to the ‘money over art’ philosophy that has besmirched so many other excellent shows. Badly-written to the point of compromising characterisation, badly-acted as a result of being badly-written, and with the most pathetic excuse for a climax that could possibly be countenanced, it is only saved from being confined to the black cells below the Castle of Mediocrity by the stunning scene between Tywin and Tyrion that is probably one of the most heart-breaking and anger-inducing of the entire saga.

Best actor: Nikolaj Coster Waldau

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In his portrayal of Jaime’s psychological breakdown and transformation after the loss of his hand, Coster Waldau is mercilessly raw, shattering, excruciatingly emotional and vivid to the point of ruthlessness. His glorious command of facial expression and ability to make agony throb and spill and burn right out of his eyes weds seamlessly to a volcanic natural charisma and an evocative speaking voice that pulls you so deeply into the moment with Jaime that it seems to slice right through you. He also proves himself to be an absolute master of comedy in his more light-hearted banter with best friend/worst enemy Brienne, and does an exquisite job of turning our entire perception of the character completely on its head, just as GRRM intended.

Best actress: Maisie Williams

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Each time we think that the divine Miss Williams couldn’t possibly get any better, she knocks us all off our chairs and kicks the shit out of us for our presumption. She has reached the point in her performance where her fist seems to be closed right around Arya’s heart, so that she can feel every nuance, every ounce of pain and where it comes from, and then bring that crashing out into a face that can be numb, practical and intolerant of feelings one moment and then display an anguish so profound and so personal that it makes us want to turn away from her. Above all, Williams has captured Arya’s darkness; that love and near-worship of Death and revenge that makes her wake up every morning and go to sleep every night; that vicious, adult ruthlessness that makes us love her, but that also disturbs the more subtle of us for its brutality. But somehow, at the same time, we never lose sight of the fact that Arya is a child trying to find her family again, and has so much love inside her that she doesn’t know what to do with it. Her performance post-Red Wedding in Mhysa is a masterpiece of shock, suppressed emotion, deep, insurmountable anger and boundless talent for the taking of life that improves each time she seems to become more and more dead in her own estimation. An absolute genius of an acting prodigy who outstrips many actors twice her age.

Best supporting actor: Charles Dance

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In last season’s touching and now-iconic interaction with Arya Stark, we saw the softer, more human side of Tywin: a tiny pinprick of light in a dark and ruthless mess. This season, the great Tywin Lannister once again reasserts himself as one of the most terrifying, brilliant, hateful and inexplicably-endearing characters on a show that is already full to the brim with inexplicably-endearing characters. Dance is a towering presence and an effortlessly-kingly figure and plays the many facets of Tywin’s complex character up against one another with a near-carnivorous prowess; notably in his interactions with Tyrion, which range from disastrously-hurtful to grudgingly-respectful; and in his utter disrespect for any kind of emotion that is nevertheless contradicted by his own deep love for his family name. A masterpiece interpretation of one of the most fiendishly-difficult characters ever written.

Best supporting actress:  Lena Headey

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Headey has always been fabulous at portraying Cersei’s complexity and fucked-up-ness, but in this season she has added the constant threat of her character’s future follies to the mix, with dazzling results. She is a sweepingly power-hungry woman who finds her power being taken from her inch by inch by Tywin’s return to the capital, and lashes out against it with her characteristic spite, but with a touching and oddly heart-breaking desperation in her murmured plea ‘Father, don’t make me do it, please,’ when her usual screaming fails to make Tywin change his mind about marrying her to Loras Tyrell. On top of this vulnerability, her behaviour towards Tyrion has become even more despicable and her moments of triumphant glee even more unbearable to watch, but we never quite lose sight of the fact that despite her limited intelligence, low cunning and unimaginative cruelty, Cersei is still a highly bred and beautiful woman who would have a talent for diffusing tricky situations if she would only take the time to stop creating them. Headey juggles all this prodigiously, and while she makes us hate Cersei most of the time, she still succeeds in making us feel sorry for her every now and then; the mark of a truly great actress.

Best partnership: Jaime and Brienne

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Arguably possessing the greatest chemistry on the show, Nikolaj Coster Waldau and Gwendoline Christie are a casting director’s wet dream, and are brilliant at exploring Jaime and Brienne’s development and similarities by virtue of their togetherness. This partnership has absolutely everything: the shared love of fighting, the shared sense of honour, the shared depth of the love that exists between sister souls, comrades in arms and people who have been through hell together; all expressed in ways that are polar opposites and yet extremely similar. There’s constant, hilarious bickering to conceal identification and depth of feeling, there’s grudging respect that only reveals itself when that respect risks being violated by a third party and there is, of course, that unspoken, powerful knowledge that the one needs the other more than anything that bleeds out through every word they exchange and every action they take.

Worst partnership: Jon and Ygritte

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After a promising start in season 2, this partnership descends into utter, unconvincing chaos from the word go, though the chemistry does recover slightly in the second half of the series. From an acting perspective, the most significant reason for this decline is that Rose Leslie blows Kit Harington out of the water in terms of acting ability, which causes all sorts of mischief, the worst being the painful scene where Ygritte, broken-hearted and in tears, shoots Jon multiple times for his treason while he wails pathetically on about how much he loves her. From a writing perspective, Jon and Ygritte suffer by virtue of poor adaptation of their relationship’s nature in the books; a relationship exemplified by the beautiful line: we look up at the same stars and see such different things.’ The show’s writers do make an effort to bring up the cultural differences between Jon and Ygritte, but these differences are regrettably not represented as being a serious enough obstacle to their relationship to make us understand how their love for each other transcends those cultural differences.

Best unexpected interaction: Arya and Melisandre

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‘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 moment when Melisandre looks into Arya’s eyes and murmurs ‘I see a darkness in you,’  in her gloriously-accented voice never fails to turn the viewer’s blood to ice for the way it points both to Arya’s future as a killer, and particularly as a killer post-A Dance with Dragons. The volcanic charisma of both Maisie Williams and Carice Van Houten adds to this and succeeds in making it one of the most bone-chilling moments this season.

Best ‘oh fuck, this is not happening’ moment: Gendry is taken from Arya

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No one, not book fans, not series fans, saw this one coming for two seconds together, so from the moment Arya shouts ‘What are you doing? Let go of him!’, this scene goes down in history as one of the cruellest breakings-up of an onscreen partnership ever; the worst part, without doubt, being the way that Arya turns away from threatening Melisandre to observe Gendry being carted away without having had a chance to say goodbye to him. It’s a horrifying compounding of Arya’s loneliness, and the look on Maisie Williams’ face at the scene’s closure reminds us, once again, how young Arya is, how much she has come to depend on Gendry, and how her burden is made harder every day by the way that she loses the people she cares about.

Best ‘oh shit, oh shit, ha ha’ moment: Tywin and Joffrey

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Tywin puts an end to Joffrey’s posturing and bullshitting about ‘many important matters requiring a King’s attention’ by doing nothing more threatening that climbing the stairs in front of the Iron Throne. Jack Gleeson is fantastic in this scene, making it perfectly clear that the only word passing through Joffrey’s head in that moment is ‘shit shit shit shit’, and Charles Dance is just as fantastic, his natural screen presence and icy-cold yet fiery Tywin showing the little creep precisely who’s boss, and entertaining us immensely at the same time.

Best dressed male character: Petyr Baelish

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Award is given by virtue of this stunning cloth of gold and light blue ensemble that possesses the double virtue of being a dazzling article of clothing and making Aidan Gillan look even more gorgeous than he already is.

Best dressed female character: Sansa Stark

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Sansa sports a variety of beautiful costumes this season that compliment her extraordinary height and evoke her romantic nature, but none is quite so lovely as her wedding dress, which is rendered all the more exquisite by the deep crimson of her wedding cloak.

Most over-used character: Robb Stark

As mentioned previously on this blog, Richard Madden seems to have devoted the past two seasons of Game of Thrones to completely destroying the impressive and understated kingliness of presence that he so successfully brought to life in season 1, and season 3 is no exception to this rule. Most of the time he just hangs around trying to be tough, vulnerable or sexy, but does not manage to be any of these three things despite a number of scenes that had excellent potential. To add insult to injury, the excess of screen time afforded his character only compounds the poor man’s predicament and makes things worse than ever. A crying shame and a disgrace!

Most under-used character: Tyrion Lannister

Tyrion’s importance to the progression of the saga does not diminish at any point in A Storm of Swords, so the considerable reduction in screen time this season does nothing if not baffle. The development of Tyrion’s character after losing the Handship and his descent into constant worry, bitterness and depression, particularly after his wedding, is one of the saddest, most moving and most annoying things in the books, and is also extremely important in understanding his character post-Purple Wedding. Glancing over all of this and constantly shoving it into a corner, as was done in season 3, is not only an action of questionable intelligence in terms of character and story development; it is also a scandalous under-use of a phenomenally-gifted and powerful actor.

Best totally badass moment: Daenerys feeds her dragons in front of the Yunkish envoy.

So we’re snoring loudly as Razdal mo Eraz craps on about many an army having broken against Yunkai’s walls, when Daenerys takes a piece of meat from a jar next to her and throws it into the air. The resulting lightning-fast catfight and cacophony of shrieks as all three of the dragons go after it mid-flight scares the pants off poor Razdal mo Eraz and makes us whoop in delight, even more so when Daenerys hardly spares them a glance and remarks ‘Good. My Unsullied need practice. I was told to blood them early.’

Best fight scene: Sandor Clegane versus Beric Dondarrion

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It’s the psychological issues behind this already-great fight scene that make it so infinitely superior to other fight scenes this season: it’s Sandor’s fear of fire brought to the fore when facing a man with a burning sword; it’s his insane courage and willingness to keep fighting in spite of that, and it’s Arya on the side-lines screaming ‘Kill him!’ with a chilling savagery that doesn’t belong in someone so young, pinning all her hopes on justice finally being done on this one encounter, and trying to kill Sandor herself when it fails.

Best monologue: Cersei tells Margaery the story of House Reyne of Castamere.

Seething with innuendo and suppressed violence, this monologue is a blood-chilling and gorgeously-written warning in the very best tradition of Tywin Lannister that fucking with the Lannisters causes nothing but trouble. Lena Headey’s Cersei is icy cold, regal and very, very frightening; the cruelty in her voice rendered all the more awful by the blinding courtesy of her facial expressions.

Best one-liner: ‘Then you’ll be fucking your own bride with a wooden cock.’

Tyrion explains to Joffrey that there will be no bedding ceremony in language that the little shit understands. Thrilling not only because of the irate tension (and the look on Joffrey’s face) that it creates, but also in terms of the depth of Tyrion’s respect for the downtrodden (Sansa, in this case)

Best adaptation of a great scene

It is tempting to give this award to the bath scene or the Sack of Astapor, but nothing, regrettably, beats the horrifying butchery of the Red Wedding. It’s a masterpiece of psychological horror: raw, unglorified, no slow motion and no pretty music, and traps you right inside it with a magnetic X-factor that makes you stay right to the end despite it’s being almost impossible to watch; not, as we observed in our review of the episode, because of the blood and gore, which we’re more than used to, but because of the way that the Starks’ love for each other and instinct to protect each other even in the face of certain death emerges in the most poignant, heartrending and horribly upsetting ways.

Worst adaptation of a great scene

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I’ve raved about this before, but seriously, how could they? The cave scene is GRRM’s magum opus of sex scenes. It makes A Song of Ice and Fire’s fat pink masts, Myrish swamps and variations thereupon worth it. It’s a coming-together of two people from different worlds, it’s Jon realising that vowing to remain celibate was probably the stupidest thing that someone with his capacity for love could have done, and it never fails to make you feel like your pants are molesting you. The TV adaptation is utterly boring and yawnable. A large part of this is the chemistry problem between Jon and Ygritte in the first half of season 3 (which miraculously and inexplicably recovers after this mediocrity takes place), the other half is…I don’t really know what. This scene is supposed to be an explosion. What it’s become is something like a sneeze.

Best throwback to season 2: Jaqen’s leitmotif.

A beautifully-evoked leitmotif that takes place after Arya and Sandor’s encounter with the Frey soldiers in the woods. Arya bends down to earth to pick up the iron coin given to her by Jaqen at the end of season 2; her hands drenched in blood and her eyes still numb with the shock of the kill. As she contemplates the face that decorates the coin’s surface, her eyes suddenly come alive as she murmurs the words ‘Valar Morghulis,’ and Jaqen’s exotic and chilling leitmotif seems to fill her up with his essence and memory. Absolutely gorgeous, and very, very thrilling.

Her Ladyship ends there to pray to the old gods and the new that Game of Thrones wins in its nominated categories tonight.

You’re a Doctor of what, exactly?

The person who plays the Doctor has to be many things. They have to bestride the narrow world like a colossus (or the narrow worlds, if you like); know how the sadness of being the last of one’s race sits in a face; give the impression of being deeply and heartbreakingly human without ever really being one of us at all; but also explode with the joy of life, of laughter and of never growing up.

Her Ladyship adds her voice to the casting question of the moment: who should be the 12th Doctor?

Jim Parsons

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We know he’s a comic genius thanks to his work on The Big Bang Theory, and his popularity in that role is a big drawback (or advantage, depending on your philosophy); BUT if we consider the previous, preciously-scarce and utterly glorious forays of other comedians into drama (Steve Carell in Little Miss Sunshine; Martin Freeman in Sherlock or Robin Williams in Dead Poet’s Society) we come to the conclusion that a truly great actor can act anything brilliantly, even if it’s outside his chosen line of work. Conclusion: the divine Mr. Parsons would probably be as brilliant at drama as he is at comedy, particularly if we consider the huge amount of work that he does on characterisation, and the ability to do all of these things with equal brilliance is essential in the role of the Doctor.

Damian Lewis

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A brilliant thespian at the top of his game, Lewis has a lot more to recommend him than the colour of his hair. Having spent loads of time delving into the darkest regions of the soul from his earliest (and exquisite) work in The Forsyte Saga, he’s also proved from his work in the much-underwatched and equally-underappreciated Life that he’s really good at portraying eccentricity following extended trauma, something that the Doctor knows plenty about in spite of his innate craziness. The combination of these two things would be absolutely deadly were he ever to be cast in this role.

Russell Tovey

Artwork by itsjuststayingalive on tumblr.

Artwork by itsjuststayingalive on tumblr.

The favourite of former showrunner Russell T. Davies, this is an exquisite and much underappreciated young actor who deserves an enormously big break: he can be adorable, heartbreaking and outrageously funny (Little Dorrit), as well as tragic, despondent and somewhat psychopathic (Sherlock).

Emilia Fox

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There’s something ageless and magnetic about Emilia Fox that you can’t quite put your finger on. It’s a quality that’s impossible to teach to someone, and it’s characterised every Doctor since the First. On top of this, she’s an extremely psychological actress with flawless control and equilibrium, knowing when to fly off the handle, when to be calm, and how, qualities that are kind of useful when playing someone who’s 909.

John Lithgow

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Having spent years mastering both the light (3rd Rock from the Sun) and the darkness (Dexter) and drawing such an extraordinary line between them that you can hardly believe Dick Solomon and Arthur Mitchell are played by the same person, combining them would probably be a breeze and would make for one of the most alluring, impossibly magnetic Doctors ever cast.

Benedict Cumberbatch

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Whenever one has anything unpleasant to say, one should always be quite candid, and Benedict has proved most unpleasant in stating quite candidly that he is not interested in this role at all. A pity, as his astounding versatility, distinctive looks and devastating charisma make him perfect for it.

Stephen Fry

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A master of comedy and hearbreakingly good at drama on the rare occasions that he turns himself to acting the rough stuff; Fry is a tornado of schoolboy cheek, intelligence, hard experience and effortless charisma AND there’s six foot four of him.

Andy Serkis

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A chameleon with a hundred faces, Serkis is an undisputed master of the beautiful things that human beings can do with face and voice; the implication of these qualities being that he could easily rival David Tennant in passion and intensity if he put his mind to it.

Rooney Mara

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An actress of great emotional maturity with an interesting unearthly quality about her, her exquisite work on the otherwise-dreadful The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo shows a psychological readiness for portraying the Doctor’s loneliness and darkness; her ability to play a character like Lisbeth Salander at such a young age suggesting that playing the naughtier, more playful side of his personality might very well be child’s play for her.

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.