Monday, May 20, 2013

Game of Thrones 3.08: Second Sons

Hello everyone, and welcome back for a very special edition of the Chris & Nikki Game of Thrones co-blogging project.

As may or may not have been explained on this blog previously, I know Nikki from when we did our MAs at the University of Toronto together. Back then, we bonded immediately because we were the only grad students in the program who (a) owned televisions, (b) watched television, (c) were willing to admit both of these facts. We talked at length about The Simpsons one day before our Victorian Fiction and the Politics of Gender class, while our classmates inched away from us in horror.

And we've been friends ever since -- friends who do not, alas, see much of each other because I now live in Newfoundland. So when I mentioned I'd be in Ontario and would it be cool if I paid a visit, she said "Well ... can you make your visit on a SUNDAY?"

Why yes. Yes, I could. And since we were able to watch GoT together for the first time, we decided to take advantage of that and do something we otherwise couldn't, and do a video blog.

So here we are in all our poorly lit glory ...

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Game of Thrones 3.07: The Bear and the Maiden Fair

Hounds, dragons, and—wait for it!—BEARS! (well, bear). Oh my!

Welcome once again to the great Game of Thrones co-blog project, in which the lovely and talented Nikki Stafford—who could totally kick a bear’s ass—and I write about the most recent episode of everyone’s favourite fantasy television series. A fantasy series, I might add, that has sadly proven more realistic than those fantasies harboured by Toronto Maple Leafs fans.

Big sigh. Well, to cheer myself up from last night’s mauling (by bears! “Bruin” means brown bear! Coincidence? I think not. Where was Jaime Lannister when the Leafs needed him, is all I want to know), let’s turn to a tale of violence, torture, and slavery. Yes, much more upbeat. What did you think of this week’s episode, Nikki?

"Patience, my pretty. There will be other slavemasters for you to eat."

Nikki: We’ll get to that amazing final scene soon, but first, I wanted to open with Daenerys. I don’t think there’s another character on the show whose absence is as notable as hers. When she’s not in the episode, it feels like something is missing. When she’s there, she’s almost all you can think about.

We already saw the incredible scene of her taking down Kraznys, making off with all three of her dragons and an 8,000-strong army of men whose loyalty to her is voluntary and undying. Now we see her moving into a new city, Yunkai. Rather than invade the city (not smart, as her advisors tell her, given their very high walls and excellent army), she simply sends a note along the lines of, “Dude, I have dragons. Surrender. Seriously. I’ll be waiting out in my tent.” And the guy comes running. If being carried in a wheel-less carriage counts as running. (I loved that they cast a guy who sort of looks like Kraznys.) He gives her ships, gold, more gold, and more ships, and tells her to simply leave them alone and move along on her way, knowing that he will support her in her bid for the throne. Any other of the players would have simply taken the money and run, but not Daenerys. Her advisors told her there were slaves in there, and if Dany is anything, it’s merciful and kind. Unless you’re the slaver. Then you’d better be-frickin’-ware.

The scene between Daenerys and the lord who meets her is brilliantly played, as she sits on a dais, staring at him with unmoving eyes, tossing raw meat to her dragons so they’ll give a quick show of strength and strike fear into his heart. She flatly says what needs to be said, shows absolutely no fear, and watches him squirm. He becomes more and more unsettled and upset, while she sits quietly, looking as confident as she did when he first walked in. There’s a moment of vulnerability — when she asks Ser Jorah to find out what cities the lord was referring to who would go up against her — but she doesn’t show that to the lord in front of her.

She’s only in the episode for one segment and we don’t return to her story again, but she makes an impact that is unforgettable, each time.

This episode was about deepening relationships, for better or worse — Robb and Talisa; Brienne and Jaime; Ygritte and Jon; Tywin and Joffrey — and developing the stories and personalities that were established earlier in the series: Daenerys’s confidence; Gendry finding out his birthright; Tyrion and Shae’s impossible relationship; Theon’s Clockwork Orange–type of psychological abuse; Sansa and Margaery’s similar yet vastly different situations; Bran and Jojen’s psychic attachment; Hodor’s boundless vocabulary. It was such a strong episode that really pushed things along at quite a pace.

Though I must add one thing: Jon Snow and Ygritte are starting to remind me of Marcie and Peppermint Patty. 

What did you think of the episode, Chris?

Just a reminder that the bear was not, in fact, the scariest animal in this episode.

Chris: I was also delighted to have Daenerys back, as usual. As we’ve pointed out before, her storyline was pretty meh all last season, but this season it has been (as you say) almost all you can think about when she makes an appearance.

I’ve quite liked Daenerys’ evolution this season—really just a continuation of her evolution from the start—but we’re increasingly getting used to seeing her as an actual queen, rather than just a girl with the best claim to the Iron Throne. In this episode, she seemed that much closer to actually sitting on a throne, even if she was just in a sumptuous tent: flanked by her knights on one side and her dragons on the other and all approaches to her guarded by her Unsullied. Her demeanour is unflappable. When the Yunkai emissary protests shrilly that he was promised safe passage, her response is perfect: “My dragons made no such promise. And they get upset when their mother is threatened.” She’ll take that gold, thank you very much, and all your freed slaves besides.

As much as we miss Dany when she’s not there, I think the writers have made a wise decision to mete out her story parsimoniously. For one thing, if they hew closely to A Storm of Swords, next season we’ll get an awful lot more of her. For another thing, there’s so much happening this season—so much in the plotting and counter-plotting in Westeros as the main players make their elaborate plans—that when we do return to her storyline it’s a bit of a jolt. We get so wrapped up in the machinations of Varys and Littlefinger, in wondering whether Tywin will defeat Robb, or what kind of queen Margaery will be, or who will finally claim Winterfell, that we forget … dragons are coming. And their mama be pissed.

Elsewise in this episode, I think you’re spot-on Nikki to observe that it’s very much about relationships. I’d in fact go further and say it was very much about couples—actual couples like Jon and Ygritte or Robb and Talisa, or odd couples like Jaime and Brienne, or couples bound by circumstance like Sansa and Margaery … or even couples apparently thrown together by a god, as in Gendry and Melisandre.

And I’ll go even further than that and say it’s very much about couples misunderstanding each other—whose vocabularies are incompatible enough that they do not grasp what the other person is trying to tell them. The most obvious example, of course, is Jon Snow and Ygritte. Ygritte shows her ignorance of life south of the Wall, mistaking a mill for a palace, being ignorant of such concepts as swooning and fainting, and finding it utterly absurd that there would be soldiers whose entire duty is carrying a banner or beating a drum.

The moment provides a stark contrast (get it? A “Stark” contrast? Heh) between Jon’s world and Ygritte’s, and leads directly to his terse declaration that the wildlings will not succeed … that they will, in fact, fail bloodily. For, as he acknowledges, the wildlings are brave, and fierce—but they lack discipline. Jon’s words remind us (as does Ygritte’s amazement at the skill that went into building a rudimentary mill) that there is a price to be paid for absolute freedom. The radical egalitarianism of the wildlings means that there are no hierarchies, none of the structures of power and authority that allow for, among other things, the raising of castles or the mustering of armies. Karl Marx attempted to address this problem with his famous formulation, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” … which translates, more or less, as “Yes, we’re all equal, but somebody has to be in charge if any shit’s gonna get done.” (Or, if you like, “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.”)

Ygritte might well laugh, not unjustifiably, at the absurdity of a standard-bearer or a drummer-boy, but what she cannot see is what they represent: namely, the loyalty to an idea of authority (the sigil) and an army professionalized and specialized enough to have soldiers whose sole task is carrying a banner or beating a drum … armies, in other words, unified in their loyalty, disciplined enough to march in the lock-step she mocks, and well trained in specific duties. The wildlings, by contrast, are all fighters, and they are their own commanders, and are thus utterly undisciplined … and as the Roman legions taught all of Europe, a disciplined force will beat a rabble every time.

Ygritte’s misapprehension is mirrored in Shae’s inability to understand why Tyrion must do his duty as a Lannister (though to be fair, he seems less than convinced himself); in Gendry’s bafflement at Melisandre’s interest in him; and perhaps most comically in Sansa’s magisterial obtuseness in the face of every bloody thing Margaery tries to tell her. What did you make of Margaery’s attempts to school Sansa, Nikki?

"On a completely unrelated topic, Sansa, what colour is the sky in your world?"

Nikki: Let’s just say when Sansa uttered the line, “I’m a stupid little girl with stupid dreams who never learns,” my husband sat up and said, “And THAT is the most accurate thing that woman has ever uttered. Ha! Oh poor Sansa… During season 1 I shook my head at her stupidity. Throughout season 2 I felt sorry for her, having watched her father be executed while being betrothed to the monster who ordered his murder; not knowing where the heck her little sister is; assuming her little brothers to be dead; and hearing about her brother Robb and her mother only through the clenched teeth of the Lannisters (it’s not clear if she even really thinks of Jon or Theon, but considering her prissiness, probably not). While the other Starks can hate the Lannisters from the distance, she’s the only one embroiled in the spider’s web at all times, watching her step — and tongue — and so far, remaining alive somehow.

And then, in season 3, she seems to have reverted back to the silly girl in season 1 again. I don’t hate her, though; considering everything else, I just feel sorry for her. I believe there’s an arrested development there; after all, what girl doesn’t have lavish thoughts of a lavish wedding to a handsome man? Of course she was enamoured of Loras, and was too naïve to understand his true inclinations. Margaery sees Sansa’s vulnerability and it’s clear she is using her (as Tywin pointed out, if Robb is killed and the rest of the family is already gone, for all intents and purposes, then Sansa holds the keys to Winterfell, and marrying her secures that for the groom).

Despite the shock of Tywin’s pronouncement that Tyrion will have to marry Sansa, I’m now quite keen to see what will happen in that coupling. Tyrion is one of the smartest characters on the show: is it possible that under his tutelage, Sansa could mature very quickly and become an actual contender. You can tell during her conversation that she’s not repulsed by Tyrion, but taken aback. “But… he’s a dwarf,” she practically whispers. She doesn’t comment on his scar — it’s Margaery who says that — just his size, and, back to what I was saying earlier, when she was planning her wedding to end all weddings as a little girl, she wasn’t being walked down the aisle by a man half her size. Then again… dude, it’s Peter Dinklage. And he is hot.

I have heard that in the books Tyrion lost his nose, so I would assume that would be more frightful in the books for Sansa. But as Margaery says, the scar just makes him look more badass in an Omar Little kind of way.  

Tyrion, in the parallel conversation with Shae, is having problems of his own. He isn’t upset about having to marry Sansa, he’s upset that he can’t marry Shae. In his head, he’s worked out exactly how he’ll make it all work — set up Shae in a nice little house with servants and guards and she (and their children) will be well taken care of. Shae’s not stupid, though; she knows what Joffrey is capable of, and if he even hears a whisper of her connection to Tyrion he’ll have her and her children massacred in a heartbeat. And yet, that’s not the most unsettling thing of all to her: it’s that she will grow old, and Tyrion will cast her off like an old coat once he tires of her. Tyrion just stands there, defeated, as if he knows there’s a kernel of truth there. All he wants is to have two women who care for him and love him, and he’ll love them in return. But, as Bronn tells him, “You waste time trying to get people to love you, you’ll end up the most popular dead man in town.”

The evil at the heart of all of this is Joffrey and Tywin, and they get one of the best scenes of the season so far. What did you think of that showdown, Chris?

Christopher: I loved their showdown. LOVED it. At this point, I am almost more excited to see Tywin enter a scene than anyone else in the series—not so much because his is the most compelling storyline, but because I know that it almost always involves some of the subtlest acting and some of the best writing. And normally it is Charles Dance delivering on the acting end of the equation, but this time I was deeply impressed with Jack Gleeson’s performance. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it now: that young man deserves some serious accolades for what he’s done. When you see him interviewed, it’s night and day—he’s a slightly bashful, slightly goofy, and totally charming guy, and he’s playing the most loathed character on this show … and doing it brilliantly.

This relatively brief scene was totally laden with tension, because (a) we know it is Tywin’s intent to bring his sociopathic grandson to heel, and (b) because we know Joffrey’s totally capable of screaming “OFF WITH HIS HEAD!” at the slightest provocation, like the Red Queen on meth. Does Tywin still carry enough authority with the little shit to cow him? Or is Joffrey just batshit enough to order the head of Tywin Lannister lopped off? (and, perhaps more importantly, would anyone obey that order? What would happen if he gave it?)

For now, the Tywin Intimidation Factor carries the day. Having metaphorically smacked down Cersei and Tyrion, he now proceeds to do so with Joffrey. Joffrey manages to muster some petulance, but not much more—though he does (perhaps inadvertently) stumble on two questions of some significance, the first being Tywin’s removal of the Small Council from their normal space (the room that’s named for them, by the seven hells) to a chamber in the Tower of the Hand. This shift of location is emblematic of the fact that, for all intents and purposes, Tywin is ruling the Seven Kingdoms. He’s arrogated the main power of the council to himself, and Joffrey is astute enough to realize this (if, again, only inadvertently—he does seem more irked at having to climb all those stairs). Secondly, he asks after Daenerys and receives a contemptuous lecture from his grandfather on precisely why rumours from half a world away aren’t worth his attention … which shows, if nothing else, that however shrewd a leader Tywin is, he has his own blind spots. For one thing, he is quite stiff and unyielding in his authority, which makes it hard not to think about him in the next scene when Daenerys asks rhetorically, “What happens to things that don’t bend?”

Charles Dance gives his usual bravura show of arrogance and authority in this scene, but what made it sing for me was the visible fight on Joffrey’s face between petulance, irritation, and awe. However much he dismisses his own mother, hates his uncle, and has general contempt for almost everyone else in King’s Landing, he is still somewhat in awe of his grandfather. In the end, the awe (and not a little fear) wins out—though I cannot help but feel that Tywin overplayed his hand somewhat in speaking so condescendingly and, finally, advancing up the steps to loom over Joffrey. The latter had its desired effect—the king shrank back in his seat like a frightened child—but it’s a dangerous thing to humiliate a king … especially one with sociopathic tendencies. Tywin obviously thinks he’s won, but as he departs Joffrey reclines on the throne with a thoughtful expression on his face.

It’s a dangerous thing to inspire that little madman to think about things.

Something Sansa knows too well, but seems to have forgotten somewhat. She has the good grace to be embarrassed when Margaery gently chides her by reminding her that Tyrion is “far from the worst Lannister, wouldn’t you say?”, but still seems utterly deaf to everything else that Margaery’s trying to tell her. She was very nearly trapped in a marriage with Joffrey … by comparison, marriage to Tyrion is the stuff of grand romance.

And it’s a damn sight better than what Theon’s enduring. (How’s THAT for a segue?) What did you make of the erstwhile Lord Greyjoy’s continuing torments, Nikki?

"Mostly, they just keep me around to say witty things and occasionally frolic with half-naked women. Best gig I've ever had, really."

Nikki: There’s only one person I like to see tortured more than Joffrey, and that’s Theon Greyjoy. As I mentioned in my opening, his torturer is pulling some serious Clockwork Orange Pavlovian shit. Every time Theon thinks, “Okay, THIS is the time he’s going to be nice and everything will go back to normal,” NOPE, think again, sucker!! The first time, I completely get him falling for it. The second time, sure, he thought he was guessing and even I was convinced the guy was actually a Karstark. But then suddenly he’s being let off the torture wheel while two beautiful women undress and straddle him and he thinks this is normal?! Right. Not a set-up at all. These two women brought down your torturer with their tits and now they’re going to give you a gift because you probably smell like roses and there’s no one they’d rather be with.

I think Theon and Sansa have degrees from the same School of Stupidity.

But it was amazing, wasn’t it? He begins by protesting, and then finally gives in, but this time the audience isn’t tricked at all and we’re just waiting for the moment when it’ll all come to a head (so to speak, ahem…). And when the horn blasts and the women jump to attention, I couldn’t help but giggle with glee to see what was going to happen next. I can’t figure out if it’s Theon I hate, or just the annoying actor playing him, but I’m thinking it’s a combination of both (is he more likeable in the books?!) And at first I thought this man was training him, in a Burgessian way, to respond to certain things. For the rest of his life, he’ll become aroused and then want to vomit because he will associate torture with sex. Or someone will be nice to him and he’ll vomit because he associates trust with betrayal.

But then his torturer takes it one further, and comes at him with a particularly horrific looking instrument, asking if Theon’s cock is actually the thing he loves the most. My eyes widened and I think I made an “AAAiiiiiyyiiiiii” noise, and when I looked at my husband he had suddenly crossed his legs very tightly. And then we cut to Ygritte. Thank god for merciful cuts, so we don’t have to watch the merciless ones.

As for Joffrey, I completely agree with you, as I’ve been saying for a couple of seasons now: Jack Gleeson is tremendous in this scene. He doesn’t immediately cower when Tywin comes up the stairs, but instead first the smug look disappears, and then his one arm comes down, and you see him jerkily, hesitantly, pull back in his chair just a bit, but not enough that it would be obvious to anyone for certain that he was terrified of his grandfather. He could have gripped the arms of the chair and shrunk back into the chair like a terrified child, but you see, as you say, the look on his face where he’s scared, but doesn’t want to betray that emotion to his grandfather, and then he looks up to him while realizing he’s standing in his way and is an even bigger threat to his throne than Daenerys. It’s such a fantastic scene.

And you’re right that Gleeson is quite charming in interviews. Here’s one he gave where he talked about the relationships between Joffrey and Margaery and Joffrey and Sansa, and you can hear his real Irish accent here, something I’ve never heard him slilp into on the show.

Now, we’ve been terribly lax when it comes to Bran/Osha/Jojen/Jojen’s sister whose name I can’t remember. Part of that is because they get about three minutes per episode, and their scenes rarely move the plot forward. Do they play a relatively small part in the third book? Are they getting any closer to their destination? (They just don’t seem to be getting very far to me, but it’s hard to tell how much headway they’re making when we only ever see them at camp.)

Hodor thinking: "She can't seriously be expecting an answer, right?"

Christopher: They’re getting about precisely as much screen time as their story needs. The whole Bran-becoming-a-warg storyline is much more interesting in the book, mainly because we get all sorts of exposition and description that we don’t get in the series—probably because it’s not an easy thing to depict Bran’s experience of seeing through his direwolf Summer’s eyes and the sensation of possessing (or riding along in) his body. So, yeah … we’re just seeing them for a few minutes an episode as a means of reminding us that they’re there. Still … traveling … north. Though to be fair, they writers do shoehorn in some interesting dialogue here and there—it just doesn’t involve Bran (or the other one, wossname). This episode we are reminded of precisely why Osha came south, and why she was willing to give up the freedom of the wildlings to become first a servant and then a guardian to the youngest Starks. It is a useful bit of backstory (which I’m pretty sure isn’t in the novel, but I’m suddenly uncertain about that): Osha’s willingness to subordinate herself to the kneelers and her flat-out refusal to go north of the Wall proceeds from the same fear that allows Mance Rayder to unite the wildlings.

Speaking of brief appearances, we haven’t mentioned Arya’s few minutes of screen time—in which she manages to escape Beric et al in a fit of pique, only to run into the welcoming arms of the Hound. Did you see that coming?

Bear baiting: you're doing it wrong.

Nikki: No, I didn’t, and it was definitely a shock. Arya thought she was with a trusted group of men, but they’re easily distracted and getting her to Riverrun certainly isn’t a priority for them. Again, as I mentioned a few weeks ago, I still remember the Hound being a sympathetic character — tortured by the Mountain, trying to save Sansa, always being respectful to the Starks as far as I can remember — and then he’s turned back into the bad guy who killed the butcher’s boy in season 1 when he’s faced with Arya again. So there’s part of me that wonders if she might be better off with him than with the Brotherhood? They started off as a really positive group of men, and have become a little creepier since then, especially with He Who Cannot Be Killed and their allegiance to the Lord of Light.

And now over to the best scene of the episode: Brienne, Jaime and a freakin’ bear!!! I hope I wasn’t alone among Buffy fans when I immediately shouted, “They made a bear! Undo it! Undo it!” WOW. I mean, we had a hint a few weeks ago with the Hold Steady doing “The Bear and the Maiden Fair” song, but I guess I didn’t realize it would extend beyond the drunken singing of it.

And how much do I love that Brienne wasn’t cowering in a corner, but facing that beast head on, knowing she didn’t have a hope in hell but still giving it her all. She is absolutely fantastic. The scene of Jaime first telling the man that they must go back for Brienne (and using his cunning once again, explaining what he’ll tell Tywin if he helps him, and what he’ll tell Tywin if he doesn’t), followed by Jaime leaping into the pit with Brienne to help save her, once and for all solidifies his position as a fully sympathetic character with the audience on his side. He realizes that the only reason Brienne cannot be bought back by her father — because they’re holding out for sapphires — is his fault, and he’s going to fix it. And, we can tell from the goodbye scene between the two of them, he has an immense respect for her. Perhaps, now that she’s wearing an ugly dress, he also can see she’s actually a woman. But I think I’d like to see this relationship grow into one of mutual admiration and respect and not a romance. That said, I trust wherever GRRM is planning on taking this duo.

Evidence that the radical bear agenda has taken root in Westeros.

Christopher:  Didn’t Stephen Colbert do this in a Threatdown? “And the number one threat to freakishly tall female uber-warriors? Bears.”

Once again, a scene that is awesome in the book is made even more awesome on the show. In one of the trailers for season three, there is a very, very brief glimpse of a distraught, bloodied Brienne looking terrified, with men arrayed above her looking down. I (and probably everyone who has read the books) thought “Bear pit! Bear pit!”

And you’re right—Brienne is not one to cower in the corner of the pit, wooden sword or no. Gwendoline Christie continues to be amazing in this role, and her performance captures a heartbreaking mixture of terror and defiance as she faces down what is certainly going to be her death. Until Jaime comes to the rescue! For once in his life actually acting like a knight, throwing himself into harm’s way for the sake of doing what is right and just. It’s our first real glimpse of the new Jaime Lannister, who, finding himself symbolically emasculated and indebted to this strange, baffling woman, finds he cannot any longer behave in the cavalier and amoral manner that has marked him since he earned the name “Kingslayer.”

Brienne vs. the bear, the expurgated version.

Well, dear friends, that is all for this week. Tune in next week for what promises to be, if my calculations are correct, the episode that will break the internet. And what’s even more exciting is that, because I am current back in Ontario visiting friends and family, next Sunday Nikki and I will actually watch the episode together! Perhaps we’ll even take a picture or two to commemorate this world-changing event.

See everyone next week!

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Game of Thrones 3.06: The Climb

Welcome once again to the Chris and Nikki Game of Thrones co-blog. This week: we talk about trust, betrayal, St. Sebastian, why Lady Olenna continues to be awesome, and what we think Littlefinger’s favourite book is.

"Am I doing it right?" "Don't bother, they don't talk about you in this post."

Christopher: Though we ranged all over Westeros in this episode, it felt in the end like the prominent narrative thread was Jon Snow’s. Certainly, the final shot of him and Ygritte kissing atop the Wall conveyed that idea, and while I admit to cringing just a little at the heavy-handed romanticism of the moment—made all the more jarring by how out of place it felt in this series—we know that there’s no such thing as unalloyed happiness in Westeros, and soon Jon Snow’s conflicted loyalties will complicate things rather a lot. Or, as Theon’s torturer puts it, “If you think this has a happy ending, you haven’t been paying attention.”

What I found interesting about the Jon Snow / Ygritte storyline this episode was the way Ygritte framed the question of loyalty. It reminded me of E.M Forster’s famous line, “If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.” The tension between personal relationships and devotion to a larger cause was a theme running through much of this episode. It is, really, the tension between the concrete and the abstract, between what one lives on a personal basis and the larger, often byzantine superstructure of ideology and politics, and the oaths and obligations they entail. Jon Snow learned honour at his father’s knee, and Ned Stark was one of the most honourable men in Westeros—to a fault, and to his demise. Jon took the black as a result of a combination of idealism, honour, and neglect, joining the Night’s Watch at least in part because his bastardy meant he would never rise to any prominence otherwise. But as we have seen, he idolized Ned and took all his lessons about leadership, loyalty and honour to heart.

But not so much that he didn’t attempt to desert when he heard of Ned’s execution in season one, only brought back by his friends. “Honour set you on the Kingsroad,” Commander Mormont said then. “And honour brought you back.” “My friends brought me back.” “I didn’t say it was your honour.” The Night’s Watch was, and remains, his new family.

But Ygritte is a spoiler, for she represents a form of love Jon has never experienced; and we know from his story about his one abortive experience at a brothel that he is no seducer. Ygritte sees more clearly than her fellow wildlings, in part because she understands Jon Snow, and she knows that one such as he would never turn his cloak. But she also sees in him the power that a personal bond has, and personal love—love that was strong enough to make him desert in season one, and she believes that, though he’ll not betray the Night’s Watch, he’s also incapable of betraying her. “I’m your woman right now,” she says. “You’re going to be loyal to your woman.” Their commanders and leaders, she points out, care nothing for them—for them, they’re just pieces in the game, just “soldiers in their armies.” They don’t matter to their leaders, but “with you and me, it matters to me and you. Don’t ever betray me.”

And however uncharacteristically sentimental the last shot of the episode was, its moment of happiness is cruelly undercut by the memory of the Brotherhood’s betrayal of Gendry—something that does not occur in the novels. At no point in the books is there a meeting between Melissandre and Thoros, and Gendry is not sold. Which makes the moment somewhat more significant in the show, for it specifically contrasts Ygritte’s trust in Jon Snow’s personal loyalty. Previously, Gendry avowed that he was done with serving and being loyal to inconstant leaders, preferring instead the familial egalitarianism of the Brotherhood. His betrayal—for purely pragmatic reasons—reminds us rather sharply of two sad realities: that Ygritte’s ethos about personal loyalty is just as uncertain as the caprices of the powerful; and that betrayal by those close to you is infinitely crueler than betrayal by an ideal.

What did you think of this episode, Nikki?

I think my dentist has this print in his waiting room.

Nikki: You and I picked up on exactly the same overarching theme of this episode. I felt like it could have been subtitled, “If you think this has a happy ending, you haven’t been paying attention.” But… that would be a rather long and unwieldy subtitle, so…

I also disliked the overly sentimental ending between Ygritte and Jon (though I like that Gareth has made a serious enemy of both of them), and thought the special effects might have been the worst I’ve seen on the show. For the most part, I think the effects are spectacular, as opposed to the local cable network green-screen look of Once Upon a Time, but when the camera pulled back you could see the Wall in the foreground just not lining up with the fake scenery in the back, and it looked cheap. That’s a very, very tiny nitpick about an otherwise excellent episode.

The episode opened with Sam and Gilly. Both have betrayed their groups and set out together, with him remaining loyal to her, and her doing what she has to in order to save her son. (I’m looking forward to the memes involving Gilly telling Sam to use less wood to make her hot. There’s a joke in there somewhere, but someone else will have to make it.) Sam is incredibly charming in this scene, showing both his aptitude as a poet — he tells her that the Wall is 700 feet high, made of ice, and “on a warm day, you can see it weeping” — and with children, when he sings a lullaby to put the baby to sleep. A lullaby that, to be honest, seems to have a harsh irony to it considering what Gilly’s father was actually like (as opposed to the father in this song), but a sweet lullaby nonetheless.

Theon is also getting a harsh lesson in betrayal and loyalty. In episode 4 he trusted his “saviour” so much that he spilled his guts on what he really thought of his father, how he felt about the Starks, and revealed that Rickon and Bran were both, in fact, still very much alive. Or, at least they were the last time he saw them. But then his new confidante betrayed him in the most horrific turn I think we’ve seen yet on the show, and he’s back where he started. Now, in a room with his now-torturer, he plays the game of “guess who I am” with the boy, with his little finger taking the brunt of the cringe-inducing result of the game. Despite the boy turning on him and proving himself false, Theon is lulled back again into thinking he’s right about something, that he’s guessed where he is, who the boy is, and who his family is. As viewers, we’re stunned that this boy is actually a Karstark, the son of the man that Robb Stark beheaded in the previous episode. And… then it’s not true. The boy played his part to the hilt, just as he’d done before, and then leapt up, pronounced himself a liar, and went to town on Theon’s little finger. If nothing else, he’s going to teach Theon why you should never EVER trust another living soul.

And in further broken loyalties, members of the House Frey have shown up to confront Robb Stark about betraying the oath and alliance he previous made with them so they could make the Crossing back in season 1. They’re willing to let it be water under the bridge [rim shot] as long as Robb’s uncle marries one of the daughters instead. The uncle doesn’t want to marry a daughter at all, and Robb gives him a big lecture about loyalty and oaths and the good of the nation and I just wanted to smack him the entire time. While what he said had some merit, it seems more than a tad hypocritical coming from him, the guy who married a field nurse after the oath had been sworn. In fact, I think Robb’s made a lot of mistakes and seems to be handling leadership rather badly. In season 1, I think most viewers were on side with the Starks, but now, Robb comes off as grossly inefficient and ineffective, and part of me wants to see him fall in battle just so another Stark can step up to the plate as the head of that family. Arya could certainly bring some honour back to them, and considering Sansa had the gall to ask if her family would be invited to the wedding, let’s just quietly snuff her out for sheer stupidity, shall we?

I know people have said Sansa, at least, is more interesting in the books. How does Robb fare, Chris? Is his portrayal on the show accurate?

"Oh, yes. Please, tell me again how low and dishonorable I am. Really, that never gets tired."

Christopher: I would say the show has done an excellent job of depicting Robb. He must be a bit trickier for the writers to shape, as he doesn’t get any POV chapters of his own, but to my mind they’ve captured him admirably. I agree with you entirely that he’s had some major cock-ups (not least of which was his impetuous marriage), but we should also remember how young he is … and in the books, he’s even younger. His mistakes are the mistakes of youth, while his successes show a more mature mind at work. But where age and experience would smooth out the hills and valleys of impetuousness and pride, he hasn’t quite gotten there.

It’s worth noting, so long as we’re talking a lot about honour today, that in the novels his marriage had as much to do with that than with the tempests of passion. In A Storm of Swords, he takes a wound in a battle and is nursed back to health by the daughter of a noblewoman whose castle he shelters in. Over his recuperation, she progresses from nursing to playing nurse, as it were; if Robb were more like Robert Baratheon or, really, ninety-nine percent of the men of Westeros, he’d have cheerfully notched his bedpost and moved on. But like Jon Snow, Robb is his father’s son, leaving him nothing else for it but to do the honourable thing and make an honest woman of his inadvertent conquest. We assume that, like Jon, he must have been genuinely in love to transgress his oath … but then, the Freys aren’t likely to forgive such weakness.

Hence, Robb’s romance with and marriage to Talisa on the show irked me a little last season. I understand why the writers made the change, but it detracts from the strength of Robb’s character somewhat (though it does make his wife something more than the shrinking violet she is in the books).

To be fair to Robb, he’s completely cognizant of his hypocrisy and acknowledges as much to Edmure, saying “You’re paying for my sins … It’s not fair or right.” I’m actually least sympathetic to Edmure in this scene, if for no other reason than that his main objection doesn’t seem to be the prospect of marrying beneath him but that he doesn’t get to pick one of the hot chicks from Walder Frey’s brood. In the novel he actually goes a step further, speculating darkly that Frey will probably stick him with someone fat and toothless out of spite.

But at least Edmure has a semblance of choice (the Blackfish’s threats to his teeth notwithstanding), which is a damn sight better than what Tyrion, Loras, Sansa, and Cersei have in King’s Landing. Once again, the Queen of Thorns is magnificent in her showdown with Tywin—proving utterly blasé when Tywin tries to leverage her with a not-so-subtle allusion Loras’ proclivities. Her frank admission is awesome enough, but her curiosity about Tywin’s own experimentation had me cheering: “Did you grow up with boy cousins, Lord Tywin? Sons of your father’s bannerman, squires, stableboys? … I congratulate you upon your restraint. But it’s a natural thing, two boys having a go at each other between the sheets … we don’t tie ourselves in knots over a discrete bit of buggery.” And even more awesome? She turns his game around on him: “But brothers and sisters. Where I come from, that stain would be very difficult to wash out.” As she then points out, the sexual frolics of the highborn matter very little; but a queen’s infidelity, incestuous or not, throws a very large monkey wrench into the question of succession.

But in the end, the question of lineage and the imperative of having viable heirs proves to be Olenna’s weakness: she might not care about who Loras fucks, but she does require him, eventually, to provide little Tyrells to carry on the family name. Thus Tywin’s threat to name him to the Kingsguard, an order who are forbidden to marry or father (legitimate) children, carries real weight, and the Queen of Thorns capitulates.

This scene was not, I should note, in the novel—nor for that matter is the plan to marry Cersei to Loras. In the books, Loras has an older brother named Wyllas, a gentle soul who has a club foot because of an injury sustained at a tournament in his youth. It is to Wyllas that Olenna plots to marry Sansa, and after that plan is rumbled by the Lannisters, it is to him that Tywin means to give Cersei. Loras is named to the Kingsguard immediately after the Battle of the Blackwater.

What did you think of this game of marriages, Nikki?

"How does it feel to be engaged to a man who's prettier than you?" "I don't know. How does it feel to be engaged to a woman who could carry you around in her pocket?"

Nikki: How interesting! Out of curiosity, how old is Robb Stark in the book? I find their ages rather hard to determine on the show. He could be in his late twenties or early thirties for all you can tell on the show, but I gather from what you’re saying he’s a teenager in the books or thereabouts? And I agree with you that the story of his conquest in the book is far more sympathetic than the Talisa story here.

I should note, however, that I’ve never begrudged him that marriage; only the hypocrisy with which he looks upon Edmure, completely shocked that he won’t do it. He does, as you say, admit as much, but it doesn’t make it any better. And I also agree with you that regardless of Robb’s hypocrisy, Edmure is always the least sympathetic person in the room. Tobias Menzies just has that way about him (he was even on Doctor Who a couple of weeks ago, playing a spineless shit over there, too).

The Olenna/Tywin scene was absolutely delicious. As I watched it, my husband and I kept going, “Oooooohh… OOOOOHHHH…” as they lobbed one hardball after another at each other. It was like watching two skilled fencers parrying, or two grandmasters playing chess. Olenna clearly has the upper hand for most of the conversation (her comment about the incest was FANTASTIC), but as you say, Tywin comes in for the checkmate. It’s interesting that he doesn’t deny Cersei and Jaime’s relationship, but instead says that if this is true, then Joffrey isn’t the king, and the Tyrells are throwing their best girl to someone who’s not the rightful heir. ALL TRUE, of course, but it simply can’t be, not if she wants to carry on the family name, as you say. Just a brilliant scene. Diana Rigg has equalled Peter Dinklage now: they’re the two people I want in every episode, verbally sparring with another person. And both of them have done so with Tywin… and lost.

In addition to the dialogue you quoted, I want to add how much I loved it that when Tywin first hints at Loras’s proclivities, Olenna waves it all away with a “Yes, yes, he’s a sword swallower through and through.” HAHAHA!!!

Another scene worth noting, of course, linking to this one, is Tyrion and Cersei together. These two have been locking horns since the first season, but now they find themselves joined together in this horrible betrayal by their father. Tyrion asks who of the four of them is getting the worst deal, and if you look at it that way, no one wins. Sansa ends up with a Lannister, a family she hates, and the imp at that. Tyrion is deeply in love with Shae, and has to marry Sansa instead. Cersei is once again thrown into a political marriage, but this time it’s not with a boor, it’s with a man who has no attraction to her whatsoever because he’s gay. And Loras has to be tied down to a woman who is older than he is, belongs to a family he despises, and is, well, a woman. Loras embraces the idea of wedding Sansa, because he knows that Sansa is stupid and seems to be the only person in all of King’s Landing who hasn’t figured out he’s gay. He knows he’ll marry her and continue to climb into bed with other men. But will that be as easy with Cersei? And will he enjoy being the stepfather of the most evil little shit in Westeros? Mmm… no.

Tyrion uses this moment of weakness in Cersei to finally get to the bottom of what happened during the battle. She admits that he saved the city with the wildfire, and he realizes that Joffrey was the one who put the order through to have him killed. Cersei refers to Margaery as Joffrey’s little “doe-eyed whore,” and then the two of them look off into the distance together as they realize they are united in the sense that, as Cersei puts it, “We’re all being shipped off to hell together.” Oh, and the fact that they both believe Jaime is coming back, and they are both fiercely loyal to him.

This scene leads right into Tyrion having to tell Sansa what the hell has been going on, and the end of the episode moves very, very quickly, as Tyrion breaks the news to Sansa with Shae standing right there, Baelish and Varys talk about the throne and chaos and OH MY GOD JOFFREY HAS SAINT SEBASTIANED ROS RIGHT THERE IN HIS ROOM WTF?! and Sansa stands weeping on the shore as Littlefinger’s boat rides away, without her on it. Yikes.

So let’s back up a bit, and focus on Baelish and Varys’s final conversation. I know you’re dying to talk about this, Chris, so I’ll give you the floor to get it started.

"Your problem, Varys? Every day you wake up castrated in a city that ain't."

Christopher: I am in fact dying to talk about it, not least because of Aiden Gillen’s chilling delivery … but mostly because it represents something of a shift from the Littlefinger of the novels. Petyr Baelish is unctuous, slippery, and treacherous in the books, to be certain, but not entirely unsympathetic. GRRM plays his cards close to the vest with Littlefinger, but allows us hints of a wistful humanity hidden under his long-forged armour of cynical cunning. In the novels we come to understand that one of his crucial impetuses for everything he has done is the torch he still carries for Catelyn—and that he sees much of her in Sansa. There are, as in the series, a lot of creepy interchanges between him and Sansa, but we’re led to believe he’s actually working to help her as much as himself. (Of course, this might all prove to be false).

Conversely, the series seems to have made a definitive choice about Baelish’s character, best summed up in Varys’ bleak pronouncement that “He’d see the realm burn if he could be king of the ashes.” There isn’t much to redeem him at this point, not after we’ve had half a season to get to know Ros with her clothes on and develop an emotional investment in her character. As we all know, GRRM is notorious for killing off his characters, often in shocking and surprising ways; the final montage of this episode demonstrated that the writers have learned that lesson well. The image of Joffrey lovingly fingering his crossbow was creepy enough, but as he rises and the camera pans left I realized an instant before we see Ros (incidentally, in my notes I have written “Holy St. Sebastian!”) which “client” Littlefinger had given her to.

His interchange with Varys begins as these fencing matches have since the series began—a few jabs and feints, the kind of I-loathe-you-politely banter we’ve come to expect. Initially, their point of discussion is about the stories we tell, and the way certain narratives work to cohere the body politics. Varys believes in the power of symbolism, and in the value of subordinating oneself to an idea. But the moment he acknowledges that he serves “the Realm,” Littlefinger’s snark turns into outright contempt. The “realm,” he sneers, is “a story we agree to tell each other over and over again until we forget that it’s a lie.”

As I listened to Littlefinger’s words, I wrote in my notes “Bet he has Atlas Shrugged on his bedside table.” Because the speech that follows is pure Ayn Rand: “Chaos isn’t a pit. Chaos is a ladder. Many who try to climb it fail and never get to try again. The fall breaks them. Some are given a chance to climb but they refuse. They cling to the realm. Or the Gods. Or love. Illusions. Only the ladder is real. The climb is all there is.” What differentiates the Littlefinger on the show from the Littlefinger of the novels is precisely this Randian radical individualism—the “objectivism” of believing that the only concrete and therefore moral choice in life is pure self-interest. Hence the contempt in his voice when he rebukes Varys’ ostensible altruism.

Of course, Littlefinger’s speech ends with “The climb is all there is” spoken over the image of Jon Snow’s ice ax summiting the Wall. As Jon and Ygritte drag themselves up, gasping, and gaze down at the thrift shop landscape painting vista to the south, we have reason enough to see the poverty of Littlefinger’s philosophy. Orell cut Jon and Ygritte loose to save himself; but Jon chooses not to do the same, instead risking himself to save his lover.

Any last thoughts, Nikki?

"Unless there's six more of you and you're all singing 'Hi Ho,' I'm really not interested."

Nikki: So well put. Littlefinger has pretty much thrown everything to the wind to serve his own needs. He’s the epitome of someone climbing over the heads of others to get to the top, and he’ll stop at nothing, clearly. In season 1, he seemed like a wrench in the plans of the others moving across the chessboard to the Iron Throne. Now, he’s one of the pieces, working his way up as if he believes he has as much right to sit there as anyone else. When the Freys demand Harrenhal early in the episode, I rubbed my hands together and thought, “Oh, this’ll be good,” because we know that that is now Littlefinger’s domain, and he’s fought hard to get it. With so much parrying and movement among the parties, I can’t even begin to comprehend how GRRM is planning to fit all of this into a mere seven books, regardless of how long they are. This game has no end that I can see.

We’ll see you all next week!  

"You really are more important than all these others, Gendry. Seriously, they wrote this whole scene just for you."