It’s a North-centric episode as Jon goes out on a limb, Sansa has an awkward dinner with the in-laws, and Tyrion goes for a swim.
With luck, you’ll find the strength to do what needs to be done. Kill the boy, and let the man be born.
This week we step away from the cat-clawing of King’s Landing (Cersei, Margaery, Ser Pounce) to focus on the largest and oldest of the Seven Kingdoms: the blue-filtered North. Stretching from the Neck, where the crannogmen like the Reeds reside, all the way to the Wall, the North has always done things a little bit… differently. The rest of Westeros can keep their vineyards, sunshine, and the Seven — the North, ancient home of the First Men and their weirwood trees, are where you find your mountain hermits, your ice road truckers, your Deadliest Catch-ers. The women are hard, and the men are harder still, until you go so far north you can barely tell them apart.
Not so long ago, Robb Stark united these bark-tough families under one banner, until he tripped and fell onto a dozen arrows. (It was very unfortunate.) But now it’s the Boltons — the hated, feared, thinly-written Boltons — flying their bloody flag above the parapets of Winterfell. Brienne and Podrick — since we need to get about three minutes with them a week — we see continuing to lurk in a village outside the castle walls, waiting to move on Sansa. Young Payne isn’t sure why. Isn’t she safe here, away from the Lannisters? “Sansa’s in danger even if she doesn’t realize it,” argues Brienne. Eh, I think Sansa’s pretty well aware of her situation. Littlefinger left her with the lunatics who slaughtered her family — it’s not like she’s throwing caution to the wind. Jon Snow may need to “kill the boy” this week, but Sansa “killed the girl” a year ago. Or whenever her aunt
was shoved fell through the moon door.
And she has help! Her maid — the old woman who welcomed her home last week — tells her that if she ever needs aid, she should light a candle and place it on her window. There are many people in Winterfell who are itching for an opportunity to bring the Boltons down. One thinks they won’t have to wait too long. HOWEVER: remember how last week how I pointed out that shot of serving women, whispering to each other as Sansa arrived? Okay, so it turns out even I can forget a face. The focus there was actually on Myranda, Ramsey’s lover, who I didn’t recognize. She is unsurprisingly not thrilled about this new arrangement. But Ramsey doesn’t have the patience for her complaints: “You’re not going anywhere. Jealousy bores me. You know what happens to people who bore me?” What a charmer!
So later, as Sansa looks up at the dilapidated tower where Bran had his great fall — a Bran she thinks is dead, mind — Myranda slinks up to her. Standing side by side, Sansa looks older and more mature by leagues, but Ramsey’s girl thinks she makes an easy target. There’s a surprise waiting for her in the kennels, she says. “You won’t believe it when you see it,” she says. Sansa enters, fearful of having her throat torn out by a hound, but the “it” at the end of the row is… guess who? “Theon?” Sansa asks, broken-voiced, horrified by the sight of the mangy hobo in front of her. The hobo shakes his head like it’s a nervous tic. “You shouldn’t be here,” he wails.
Sansa is no stranger to waking nightmares, but this one really takes the cake. She’s back in her family’s seat, but it’s a dark, ruined, haunted place; she’s betrothed to the house that murdered her own in cold blood, and while she hasn’t yet experienced Ramsey’s cruelty firsthand, she’s certainly heard about it; to top it off, the man that she once treated like a brother, before he too slaughtered members of her family (she thinks), is limping around the castle like a beaten dog, making things awkward for everyone. Still, though the hope she has may be slim, it’s still easier to grasp than it was back in King’s Landing. Once again, Stannis is heading her way. Once again, there’s revolution brewing in the streets. Once again, she’s a piece of Littlefinger’s larger plan. But this time, she knows all of those things, and might be smart enough now to turn them to her advantage.
Theon, or “Reek,” has no such advantages. He’s compelled to confess to Ramsey that Sansa saw him, and a ritual begins to play out that is painfully familiar: kneel, stretch out your arm, wait to lose another finger. But this time, Ramsey has something else in mind: “I forgive you,” he says, magnanimously. Even Ramsey’s mercy is sadistic, considering the humiliation he has planned at dinner.
I sincerely hope that you never have a meal with your in-laws as uncomfortable as Sansa’s with the Boltons. Roose’s wife “Fat Walda” (he was promised his bride’s weight in silver by Walder Frey, remember) tries to make conversation, thinking Sansa views this as a “strange place.” No, Sansa replies, “this is my childhood home. It’s the people who are strange.” Did Walda not actually know who Sansa was? Ramsey, though, never misses an opportunity to twist the knife, trotting out Theon to serve them at table. He wonders aloud if Sansa is still angry at Theon for… you know. “Not to worry,” he continues, “the North remembers!” (HOW DARE YOU, SIR.) As Roose watches icily, Ramsey keeps playing his little game: first, he makes Theon apologize for killing Bran and Rickon, despite the fact that he didn’t actually, and the Boltons know this; then, he decides that since Theon is the closest Sansa has to family now (what of the Tullys?), he should give her away at the wedding! And Sansa just sits there, taking it, as he fires the opening salvo in a new round of psychological warfare.
Finally, Roose has had enough, and puts Ramsey in his place: Walda is having a baby! And it’ll probably be a boy! It’s all Sansa can do to hide her pleasure. She knows what this means. And so does Ramsey, who after dinner furiously confronts his father. Yes, Roose got him legitimized, but the Boltons know better than most how easily those kind of paper agreements can be wiped away. “I’m your son…until a better alternative comes along,” Ramsey pouts.
I give the Boltons a lot of flack for being one-note villains, but Iwan Rheon finally, finally starts to turn that around in this scene. He’s genuinely hurt, and while his horrendous actions come straight from his natural psychopathy, greater still is his desire to please his monster of a father. Last week, we also had a “do you really love me?” moment between Stannis and his daughter, Shireen. This… is not that. In Roose’s story — ha ha, it’s just so droll — he was planning to murder the infant Ramsey, the product of Roose’s rape of a peasant girl who married without his authorization — oh Roose, you scoundrel, ha ha — until he looked into the child’s eyes and saw himself. No harm, no foul, right?
God, the Boltons are the worst.
Moving ever northward, there’s more talking, more planning, and more table-setting. “Kill the Boy,” belying its inflammatory title, is a quiet episode. Everyone is feeling the urgency, but not everyone is in a position to actually act. (The biggest moments are reserved for Essos, which make up about 20% of the hour and I’ll get to at the end of this recap.) An exception is up at the Wall, where noted grammar pedant Stannis has had enough of sitting around in the cold, and decides to march his army out into the cold.
But first, he pays a visit to Sam at the library, who is poring over old manuscripts, talking of Maesters and the Citadel with Gilly, and trying to understand just how he brought down that White Walker. Dragonglass is the answer, which — imagine that! — Stannis has loads of at Dragonstone, but we’re not yet sure why it works. “Death marches on the wall,” Stannis intones. “We have to know how to fight them. Keep reading, Samwell Tarly.” You don’t have to tell him twice! That’s his favorite thing! (Sam’s father may have been the only one to ever defeat Robert Baratheon in the field, but it’s the “craven” son who may prove indispensable to the real war. That’s just great storytelling.)
Meanwhile, Jon is wrestling with the first real test of his administration: what to do with the remaining Free Folk north of the Wall? He goes to Aemon for advice, but doesn’t even get to explain the details before the Maester tells him to forget it and and just act: “Half the men hate you already. Do it!” Do what, exactly? We find out in Jon’s meeting with Tormund, who he releases from chains (which stuns the Wildling) and gives an important job: go find the rest of his people, and bring them through the gate. Jon will give them land and respect, if they’ll stand with the Watch when the real enemy comes. Tormund doesn’t think that’ll work. He’ll get disemboweled for even suggesting it… unless, maybe, Jon goes with him to Hardhome. That way the Free Folk will know it’s legit. Jon agrees, and even gets Stannis to loan him ships. But first, he has to convince his men.
Easier said than done, as after Jon’s announcement in the dining hall, there’s nearly a riot. Thorne gets in his usual digs, but even Edd — who would follow Jon anywhere — has serious doubts. These are the people who slaughtered black brothers by the score, and occasionally ate them! The only reason there are farmlands to give away is because the original residents — like Jon’s steward, Ollie, who we need to keep an eye on — were driven off by Wildling raids! This is a real problem for Jon, and at episode’s end it’s unclear who, if anyone, will go with him to Hardhome. But his argument is clear: any one of the Free Folk they don’t bring south will just turn into a zombie later. The next morning, Stannis’s army departs, meaning Jon is finally free of Melisandre, but his job is only getting harder. At least we get a cute moment between Davos and Shireen: “I’m not scared,” the girl tells him. “Well, I am. When the battle comes, promise you’ll protect me.” Aww.
“A Targaryen alone in the world is a terrible thing,” Aemon says earlier in the hour. He was talking about himself, but Daenerys is also feeling that weight. (So is Jon, if last week’s hints were in fact hints, but he doesn’t know it yet.) Our Dragon Queen has now lost her most trusted advisor, and her top general is badly wounded — (though he’s got Missandei to keep him company, as the two finally, adorably, connect.) But what now? Daario says Dany should just clear out the city block by block, and when Dany summons the leaders of all the great families to her dragon pit, it seems like she agrees. When she pushes one unfortunate Master out to get flambeed and eviscerated, it definitely seems like she agrees. (That’s, uh, a rough way to go. So sorry, unnamed rich guy!) Happy Mother’s Day!
But once her point is violently made, she turns — on Missandei’s counsel — to “a better choice that only she can see.” Hizdahr is awaiting his death in a cell, but Dany comes to him with a proposal: first, she’ll re-open the fighting pits (to free men only) — viva tradition! Second, to unite the city, she’ll marry the leader of a respected family. “Thankfully, a suitor is already on his knees.” So the good news is that Dany is finally making some smart moves. The bad news is that she’s just entrenching herself further in the Meereenese sweatbox.
But we’re not done yet — we’ve still got Jorah, crawling back towards Daenerys like the jilted boyfriend he is, and with Tyrion in tow. The dwarf’s not enjoying the trip: “long silences and the occasional punch in the face… the Mormont way!” Also, there’s no wine. Jorah leads their little boat into Old Valyria, a steaming jungle land of ruin and decay — it’s the river of Fellowship of the Ring by way of Apocalypse Now, and some of the most evocative world-building the series has done yet. The land has been lost to legend after a cataclysm known as “the Doom,” as the poems go, but Jorah’s not bothered by that. It seems entirely empty, until their eyes are caught by a silhouette in the clouds: it’s Drogon, the free-range dragon. If Jorah is surprised by how big the beast has grown, Tyrion is utterly gobsmacked.
A mournful cello plays on the soundtrack; it’s a beautiful moment — this entire episode-closing sequence is a great one for director Jeremy Podeswa, a series rookie. But that tranquility gets destroyed almost immediately when their boat is attacked by those pesky Stone Men we’ve heard so much about. A melee ensues; Jorah shouts “don’t let them touch you” as he swings his paddle like a madman — STONE MEN DON’T SURF! — but there are too many of them. Tyrion topples into the water, grabbed by the ankle, and the screen fades to black. If the episode had ended there, people would be furious. Instead, Tyrion comes to on the shore of a gorgeous, sunset-drenched beach. He’s fine, because he didn’t make skin contact with the greyscale-afflicted mutants. Jorah, however… well, the prognosis ain’t good. You might want to put some Vaseline on that.
Next week: Arya levels up, and Lady Olenna is back in town. Gird your loins.