For my money, this was the best episode of Game of Thrones so far this season. It was beautifully paced, tight as a drum and full of memorable scenes both new and note-faithful to the book. The changes that were made didn’t feel so disruptive as they did last week (bar one, which I’ll cover in a minute) and the introductions of a couple of important new arcs were handled very well.
I’m definitely finding that just as I did with the books, certain settings with their respective mini-casts are proving favorites, and some less so. Some are just as they were in the books, but others surprising – and characters that didn’t make as much of an impact in the books are much more vibrant here. That’s what happens when you give great dialogue to great actors, and Yoren as played by Francis Magee is a perfect example. I’ve loved Arya’s arc this season, mostly because of the chemistry she has with Gendry, but Yoren has just been a standout and Magee’s speech to Arya just before the party was attacked by Ser Amory Lorch (Fintan McKeown) and his men was one of the highlights of either season for me. And it was entirely TV-original, too – a great moment to make you bond with the character just before he’s killed, naturally (and what a great death, too – “I always hated crossbows.”). Also killed was poor Lommy Greenhands, though clever Arya made use of his death to try and convince Lorch that Gendry was in fact dead. There’s a lot to take in with that sequence, and it’s a good one to file away in the back of your mind.
The most important new venue this week was the camp of Renly, Robert’s youngest brother. He was a small player in season one and didn’t appear at all in the first two episodes, but he actually commands the largest army in Westeros – over 100,000 men, the “Knights of Summer” as Catelyn calls them. Renly is as different from Stannis as chalk and cheese – a man of the people, well-spoken and charming. He’s certainly charmed Ser Loras Tyrell, also a bit player in S1. Interestingly, he’s not Renly’s lover in the books. Not explicitly, anyway – there are suggestions, but nothing like what we see here. Oddly, the HBO adaptation seems absolutely obsessed with sex. It’s not as if the books are chaste – they’re got plenty of smut – but it’s not such a constant drumbeat as it is here.
I think the scenes between Catelyn and Renly are quite effective, and very informative about both their characters. Catelyn has – for good reason – become a hard and joyless woman. Renly is in a different world than she is. When she told him that “My son is fighting a war, not playing at one.” that told you all you needed to know about what Cat is made of. In Renly’s camp we also met two very important female characters – first, Renly’s bride (and Loras’ brother) Margery (Natalie Dormer), of the powerful House Tyrell. She knows full well what she has in Renly – and what she doesn’t – and I thought her abortive attempt at consummation (original to the TV) was well written, but perhaps not overly of service to Renly’s dignity as a character. Then there’s Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie). Brienne is a powerful warrior, as witness her besting of Loras in Renly’s tournament. She thinks little of herself but the world of her King, and her only request for her victory is to serve in his Kingsguard. Christie is certainly a big and powerful woman, but Brienne is described as homely to the extreme, and I do see a pattern here of the adaptation going the “pretty” route a little more than I’d like when it comes to casting both males and females.
Back in King’s Landing we once again have wonderful scenes with the Imp – absolutely no surprise there – but there are subtler pleasures to be had in other places, too. Tyrion’s ingenious plan to figure out which member of the Small Council was spying for Cersei was re-jiggered to make it more TV friendly, and here the change was brilliant – the seamless editing between his proposals to Pycelle, Littlefinger and Varys (Conleth Hill is steadily emerging as one of my very favorites in the cast) was a perfect choice. Tyrion is no fool, and got the information he wanted – and showed he’s no softie either in the way he chose to handle things with Pycelle. There were a lot of names tossed about here that will be important later, but the main focus should be on Tyrion and the nature of his cleverness – and certain patterns about who he’s willing to trust and who he isn’t.
As well, we had some wonderful moments with Sansa, including the much-extended from the original scene where Shae introduces herself as her new handmaid. Sansa has always been a hard character to love, but Sophie Turner is coming into her own with the role, really giving us insight into how hopeless and desperate Sansa’s situation is (Shae, by contrast, is coming across as rather annoying in my humble view). We also saw that somehow little Myrcella and Tommen manage to be decent at heart despite their lineage – Tommen’s heartbreaking answer to his mother’s question about whether Robb’s death would please him the most revealing moment. And if Sansa is hard to love, Cersei is easy to hate – but we once again see in her reaction to Tyrion’s quite real plan to marry Myrcella off that she does in fact love her children very much. It is, as Tyrion himself once said, her one redeeming quality.
Theon’s arc is another that’s been beautifully handled this season. Alfie Allen didn’t really have much to do last year, but he’s been as much the star of the first three eps as anyone as we see how bitter and angry he is at the way his father treats him upon his return, and the divide in his heart caused by the feeling he has for Robb and the shabby treatment he’s receiving at the hands of his family. If anything the inner conflict of the TV Theon is being given more weight than it was in the books, but I’m OK with that subtle change. It’s all moving a bit too fast in Pyke, but I guess that was a necessary concession to the constraints of the adaptation. Interesting, the “drowning” – the ceremony where the Iron-born pledge their service to the Drowned God – has been seriously toned-down for the TV version. Given everything else we’ve seen in this series I can’t imagine was that detail was softened so much.
There were two brief visits to the North this week. First, we see that Bran is still being troubled by strange dreams – dreams where he sniffs the dirt and “tastes the blood of a fresh kill” in his mouth. Winterfell’s Maester Luwin – who counts looking after Bran’s happiness as well as his mind and safety among the many duties that have been left in his hands – tries to reassure him that the stories Old Nan told him about prophetic dreams and magic were just that, stories – that magic has vanished from the world along with the dragons. And north of The Wall, Craster evicts the Night’s Watch from his keep as punishment for Jon following him as he gave his baby son/grandson to the White Walkers, and Sam gives Gilly a memento of his mother to keep safe for him until he returns for it.