The forward momentum stalls a bit, but never fear — Ser Pounce is here!
So many men spend their whole lives avoiding danger, then they die. I’d risk everything to get what I want.
Okay, the cat’s out of the bag (see what I did there?): it took less than two episodes to confirm that yes, Lady Olenna, the Queen of Thorns, former heartbreaker and current awesome lady, is responsible for Joffrey’s death. That necklace of Sansa’s contained the poison, so she was unwittingly involved, but the masterminds of the plot were the Tyrell matriarch and her pen pal Littlefinger, the latter of whom throws the realm into chaos on the regular as his idea of a good time. “A man with no motive is a man no one suspects,” he tells his prize/new niece Sansa. Baelish (like The Hound, absent this week), is a cockroach, a man built to survive any kind of storm, making new friends and tossing away the old ones as needed, never making a loyalty oath he can’t break. And his current plans may be quite a big bigger than what we’ve seen so far.
And this wasn’t even the second- or third-most notable thing that happens this week, which is surprising because of how little movement there is in most of the storylines. This episode was directed by the brilliant Michelle MacLaren (last seen on the final season of Breaking Bad), who doesn’t get a lot to work with on the page, so she instead focuses on the small character moments, little bits of throwaway business that enliven every scene: the way the smitten Grey Worm’s hand spasms forward before Missandei’s pulls away; how Cersei fills and downs another glass of wine in the space of a door knock; the flickering light in Tommen’s bedchamber signifying the boy king being pulled in and out of shadow. The performances are even more understated this week, which makes every exchange feel fraught with meaning, seen and unseen.
We return to Jamie Lannister, with all the icky, rape-y business of last week seemingly swept under the rug (which presents a number of problems, not least of which is the lack of clarity between writers, directors, and cast as to what “that scene” was about, but the dissonance here is not MacLaren’s fault) — his relationship with his twin sister is frosty, but that’s as much of a reference we’ll get. Instead, Jamie is back on the road to redemption, visiting his poor brother in his cell (after some prodding from Bronn, who reminds him of Tyrion’s respect and love). “This isn’t so bad!” he remarks, considering how he spent the bulk of Season 2 in the mud of the Stark camp. He can tell within minutes that Tyrion is innocent (“Are you really asking me if I killed your son?” “Are you really asking me if I’d kill my brother?”), which leaves the two of them speculating on who it could have been, and what’s to be done now. Tyrion suggests that Jamie help spring him from jail, but the Kingslayer (half of “The Kingslayer Brothers,” which should be a band name if its isn’t already) isn’t about to take that much of a risk. And if Tyrion’s looking for another champion in trial by combat, he’ll need someone with two hands.
As we’ve already established, Cersei doesn’t care whether Tyrion is innocent or not (“he’d kill us all if he could”) — she wants him dead, and Sansa, and the whole world, really. She also wants Jamie out of the city, and charges him with tracking down the Stark girl and bringing back her head, a task that Jamie turns around and gives to Brienne. Only, not that last part. This pairing continues to be one of the show’s many highlights, and the best indication of Jamie’s underlying humanity, which is still trying desperately to fight its way to the surface despite his gratuitous regression last week (a lot of people will cry foul at him being cast once more in a heroic light, and they’ll have a point.) He gives Brienne not only leave to find Sansa — for Catelyn Stark, not for him — but his Valyrian blade, which she names “Oathkeeper” (his reaction to that name is a beautiful bit of acting from Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, with dozens of emotions subtly playing across his face). He also finds a way to help Tyrion after all, in sending the faithful — and targeted — squire Podrick along with her. That Pod is apparently the most well-endowed young man in Westeros probably means nothing to her, but I’m excited by the prospect of a road trip with these two. As a consequence, Jamie and the Maiden of Tarth may never see each other again (subtext: “I love you.” “I know.”) — he’ll have to find another way to fill the space on his biography page.
One of Cersei’s many complaints against her twin brother is the lack of men protecting soon-to-be-King Tommen, a charge that proves to be not entirely unfounded given how easily Margaery is able to slip in at night and surprise him like she’s in a rowdy ’80s comedy. All Tommen wants to do is play with his action figures and his cat, Ser Pounce (Ser Pounce!!!), and he has a hard time sleeping in his new bed, what with the evidence of Joffrey’s cruelty still all around the room, but the poor kid is being pulled in multiple directions. Marg, after getting over her shock that her grandmother is the mastermind behind Joffrey’s death (“You don’t think I’d let you marry that beast, do you?”), has to stay one step ahead of Cersei in the Battle for Tommen’s Affections. He’s initially a little terrified of Margaery — I mean, who wouldn’t be — but she wisely doesn’t overplay her hand, offering to share secrets and leaving him with a chaste kiss on the forehead. “Remember…our little secret.” Marg has a lot of babysitting in her future, but she’s shown she can be patient — though Cersei would rather eat a bowl of scorpions than be marginalized any further. She may be vicious, but she’s not stupid. It’s going to get…catty. (I did it again!)
Queen of Meereen. As I predicted, in turning the slaves of Meereen against their Masters, HBO saved a dragonhoard’s worth of battle money that it’ll probably need later. After an inspirational speech from Grey Worm, who secretly enters the city via sewer duct to drop off some blades, the uprising seems to begin and end within a day or two, and without Dany having to do much of anything. Even the dragons are still hidden. But I like how our window into this story is expanding, after spending so much time strictly in Daenerys’s POV — the aforementioned scene with Grey Worm and Missandei is a great example, as she’s just teaching him to read, but the two jump up when interrupted like teenagers caught on a couch. (It’s also going a LONG way to flesh out these other players, who are considerably more void of characterization in the book, but on the screen have hopes and dreams of their own.) The conquering Dany, meanwhile — and against Barristan’s advice — wants to “answer injustice with justice,” and crucifies the Masters in full view of their former slaves. So begins her rule under a giant Targaryen flag, a striking visual, and a promise that the show is finally ready to do something with her character other than having her roam the desert making speeches…but that something is going suspiciously dark.
One does not simply skate into Ice Mordor. At the other end of the hour is the show’s most WTF visual so far this year, as we finally learn just what the White Walkers do with all those babies they collect (no, they don’t eat them, why would you think that?). In what is either a huge break from canon or — more likely — the show finally outpacing the books in a crucial area, we visit the ghoulish fortress where the Walkers “live,” or, I guess, stand around waiting for sacrifices to brought to them. It’s suuuuuper creeeeepy (and shot in a dreamlike way, with figures moving in and out of focus) as we see one who might be their King — I mean, he’s got a crown sticking out of his skull and everything– turns the final Craster boy into one of them with a single touch of a pointed fingernail. Ramin Djawadi’s memorable Walker Motif goes “DOOM, DOOM, DOOM,” and maybe this was just a baldfaced attempt to freak out the audience while hiding that not much happened this hour, but it was undeniably effective…
…Because it allows us to forget for a moment the previous sequence, which is this week’s Problem Sequence. Thrones has often taken fire for reveling in the sadism of its characters (looking at you, Ramsey Bolton), and the depravity of Karl and the Mutineers (another band name) at Craster’s Keep is no exception. When they’re not drinking out of the skulls of their dead brothers or raping the late Craster’s daughters literally to death (again with the rape!) they’re…well, no, I guess that’s all they’re doing. Isn’t is readily obvious how bad these dudes are? They already killed the beloved Commander Mormont, and their comeuppance is coming soon if Jon Snow has anything to say about it, so why spend interminable minutes on the awful Karl and his awful henchmen being awful? WE GET IT. And even when Bran and the Reeds get themselves caught by these monsters (and Hodor gets stabbed — oh no, Hodor!) and Bran gives up his identity at the drop of a helmet, it’s hard not to see this as what it is: filler. But we do have Bran’s reunion with his half-brother to look forward to, assuming he doesn’t manage to get away first and provide yet another missed connection between far-flung cast members.
Jon, for his part, has enough problems of his own, as the men of Castle Black get joined by Locke (on a mission from Roose Bolton), who lies about being a simple thief and has a more definitive fate in mind for Lord Snow than he granted Jamie Lannister. To make matters worse, Locke probably overhears Jon and Sam identifying Craster’s Keep as a possible pit stop for Bran, which — while raising the urgency for Jon to get out there and dispatch with the mutineers — gives Locke an unneeded clue in hunting down the remaining Stark Spawn. Thorne and Slynt, threatened by Jon’s innate leadership ability (was he reading John Maxwell in the Wildlings’ camp?), are eager to send him to his possible death. (Great plan, Slynt. “Let’s make the popular guy ask for volunteers for a dangerous mission; he’s so popular I’m sure no one will go with him.”) And sure enough, Jon makes an impassioned speech — “Let’s win one for the Old Bear,” basically — and gets his dirty dozen, which of course, includes Locke.
But it’s the episode’s final image, that of innocence itself being frozen by the Finger of Pure Malevolence, that is sure to generate the most chatter. It’s also yet another reminder of how petty and insignificant the the squabbles of the South are (and the East, to a lesser extent). There is no force in Westeros more powerful, or more threatening, than these ice demons, and now that we we may be nearing the halfway point of the series (if it’s going seven seasons, as the producers have hoped), it’s almost time for more of these characters to realize that. This year has felt a little different than the others — though they’ve all felt different — and the reason is that we’re slightly unmoored without a unifying “heroic” figure. Robb Stark is dead, the cockroaches are turning on each other, and Jon and Dany are too far removed from the main action…for now. Who will step up, and who will get stepped on? And how much weirder is this going to get? (Answer: Much, much weirder.)