This week Game of Thrones offers up yet more of what we’ve come to expect from it with startling regularity: brutality, brilliant dialogue, new characters, amazing actors, lots of gore and an hour that feels like ten minutes. It also offers us the usual frustration at not being able to spend more time with each thread of the story.
As usual, this episode is a mix of old and new – some things line-for-line from the book, some wholly new to the adaptation. There was certainly plenty of note happening – this was easily the most action-packed episode yet – but the first thing to make note of it is that is was the first time this season that the amazing Conleth Hill has gotten to really sink his teeth into the role of Varys. It seems fitting for an episode so focused on betrayal and revenge that Varys should play a central role, and Hill as usual blows the doors off.
In a show full of larger-than-life characters and great performances, Varys is still exceptional. He epitomizes the moral ambiguity at the heart of the story, and we got a look at him interacting with many potential allies this week – Olenna, Ros and of course, his frequent dance partner Tyrion. We finally get to hear the story of how he was mutilated – told word-for-word from the book (and beautifully so by Hill) but with an addition that’s completely original to the series, and one I’m not sure I like. Varys professes to be trying to help Sansa, though it seems clear that his main goal is to thwart Littlefinger – the man he says would “See the Kingdom in flames if he could be King of the ashes.”
Let’s move on to Theon, because there’s a whole lot going on here that novel readers have no more idea about than new viewers. It seemed all along that something very strange was going on with the boy who “rescued” him, but Theon was hardly in a positon to be choosy. I actually found his speech in the tunnels rather moving – especially when he says his “real father lost his head at King’s Landing”, and that he “had a choice to make – and chose wrong.” Oddly enough I always felt sorry for Theon in the books, even after what he did to those orphan boys and I knew he didn’t deserve it. But if I’m right about who that mysterious boy is
I wonder why these added scenes with Theon have been inserted at all – because it would place us pretty much right back where we would be if none of them had been added at all. Isn’t there enough going on with the rest of the cast – we get about three minutes of Bran and the Reeds every other week – that we don’t need extra threads inserted that aren’t existent in the novels?
Speaking of how crowded the story is, we meet yet another critical character this week, the Lightning Lord, Baric Dondarrion (Richard Dormer). If I sound like a broken record I apologize, but Dormer is yet another astonishing actor in this cast – not one of its biggest names, but the impact he makes in his short appearance as Dondarrion is stunning. Dormer as Dondarrion commands the screen like a young Richard Burton, and immediately launches into a grinning war of words with The Hound, Sandor Clegane. Clegane makes a heartfelt defense of his conduct – of sorts, anyway – and makes it quite clear he won’t idly sit by and have the crimes of his brother tied around his neck like a dismembered hand. The Lightning Lord is a follower of the Lord of Light, and he sentences The Hound to a trial by combat – with himself as the opponent.
Apart from the machinations revolving around Sansa, we see yet more evidence that Marjaery has fully twisted Joffrey around her little finger. This, of course, has brought Cersei to full panic – and she goes running to her father, who’s his typical warm and loving self. I could watch Charles Dance for the full hour every week and never get tired of him, and he promptly puts Cersei in her place with the same words she used against Tyrion: “You’re not nearly as smart as you think you are.” Meanwhile Jaime is in full self-pity mode, and Brienne takes it upon herself to remind him that he’s merely had a taste of what the common people live with as their daily bread – misfortune. Yet she also knows he saved her from being raped, with a lie which brought him no personal gain whatsoever. Their relationship is one of the strangest and most compelling of any in the web of relationships in GoT.
The big headlines, though, will certainly be what happened at the extremes of the setting. In the North, the surviving members of the Nights Watch – chafing under Craster’s brutal treatment – have splintered, and Rast leads a mutiny against both Mormont and their vile host. The old bear is betrayed, and pays with his life – but not before very nearly throttling the life from Rast before his own drains from him. Sam manages to flee with Gilly and her son, but…
Finally we have Danerys, who gets what’s probably her pivotal moment of the entire series to date. She’s full of tricks, our Dany – the first of which being that she speaks perfect Valyrian. And she has a rather cruel surprise in store for Kraznys: she keeps her end of the deal, then turns around and order her new slaves to slay every overlord in the city. Dany then frees all of the Unsullied, offering them a chance to flee or serve her as free men – and not a single chooses the former, as Jorah and Ser Barristan look on proudly. The Targeryen girl now has her army, and three growing dragons to boot. It’s a mismatched bunch – a collection of spare parts, traitors, freed slaves and forgotten mythical beasts – but the nature of the game is certainly changed by it.