“Kissed by Fire”
Is it really possible that this season is half over? The deeper into this series we get, the more convinced I am that 10 hours is nowhere near enough time to tell the story the way it deserves to be told. But given the time constraints it’s working under, Game of Thrones is doing a miraculous job of it.
Not for the first time I find myself torn between the part of me that agonizes over the elements of the books that I loved that are dropped or severely changed (it seems inevitable now that Edric Storm’s character has been dropped entirely, which is a shame for Stannis’ arc) and the part that watches the series in awe at just how good it is. I also find myself surprised – just as I was when reading the books – at finding the Lannisters perhaps the most fascinating people in the cast.
Taking things more or less sequentially, we have the trial by combat between The Hound and The Lightning Lord, which was some of the best swordplay TV has seen in ages. I truly feel for Sandor Clegane, who was burned as a child by the man who truly is the monster Sandor isn’t, his brother, and now seems cursed to be tortured by flame for his entire life. But the standout here for me is, once again, is Richard Dormer as Beric – what a stupendous screen presence he has. I loved the scene where he and Thoras (who seems a lot Godlier than Melissandre – she burns people to death, be brings them back to life) told Arya about the many times Beric has died, and come back – “leaving a piece of himself behind” every time.
For Robb, things are going, well, badly. Lord Karstark, dissatisfied with Robb’s gentle punishment of his mother, takes his revenge into his own hands and murders the two Lannister boys in Riverrun’s dungeons (in the books, one of them is a Frey). Karstark seems to goad Robb into doing exactly what he does – executing him – though his Mother and Uncle urge him not to do so, as he’ll lose the Karstark army (though why the TV decided to make it “half his forces” is beyond me). Here again we see that Robb is a weaker man than his father, and we’ve already seen he’s not as honorable – would Ned ever break a vow the way Robb has, even for love? Backed into a corner Robb decides that his next course should be to assault a lightly defended Casterly Rock (a plan that’s new to the TV version) and for that he’ll need the help of the man he broke his vow to, the “late” Lord Walder Frey.
In Harrenhal, Jaime and Brienne are delivered unto Roose Bolton’s graces, and he’s treated by Qyburn, refusing both the amputation of his arm and milk of the poppy despite the agony of having his flesh purified by boiling wine. The highlight here, though, is no doubt the scene between Jaime and Brienne in the bath. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau has been pretty much dead-on as Jaime since day one, but this may just have been the finest of many fine moments. The truth of that fateful day that forever led to the nickname that he loathes is shared for the first time, and it’s Brienne he shares it with – as Jaime says, he trusts her. Jaime is many things, but he’s not blind to those with honor when he sees them, and he sees honor in Brienne. As I’ve said before, Jaime may just be the most surprising character in Game of Thrones – nothing with his character ever goes just as you expect it to.
Then there’s the matter of Stannis, whose storyline seems to have undergone perhaps more changes than anyone except Danerys’ and Theon’s. The evidence is that those arcs more or less get back in-line with the source despite the detours, and I suppose the same is likely for Stannis – though his character and the way it’s perceived is changed in ways that will never be undone. Selyse makes a rare appearance – I had to double-check to make sure she’d even appeared before – and she’s way nuttier than she is in the books. The whole business with the stillborn sons, never mind keeping them in jars, seems unnecessary and garish to me. Stannis sees a lot more of his wife in the books than he does in the TV, it seems, though her dedication to the Lady in Red is about the same.
We also meet Stannis’ daughter, Shireen (Kerry Ingram) for the first time (and the first in a long time for Stannis). Shireen’s face is disfigured by greyscale, a topic I won’t go into detail about as I assume the TV will explain it in detail in due course. What I liked here is that we see some of the self-doubt that plagues Stannis – both about the way his daughter is treated, and about what he’s done to Davos (not to mention sleeping with Melissandre). Stannis is a more complicated man than the TV series has successfully portrayed so far, and tortured by the contradictions in the choices he’s made – and we haven’t seen as much of that as I’d like. This ep made a welcome change.
For a change, Danerys doesn’t finish off the episode. She’s still in the process of trying to her her slave soldiers to think like free men, and we see some small hint of the challenges she may face in doing so. The meat here, though, is in the TV-original conversation between Jorah and Ser Barristan. Their cautious verbal parrying is interesting, but not so much as the contrast being set up between Barristan and Jaime. Barristan, as he points out, spent a lifetime serving bad Kings – the Mad King, and Robert (“a good man, a great warrior, and a terrible king”). What would Barristan have done, had he been in Jaime’s shoes – this man who places his oath above all else? Would he have killed his father and burned thousands alive in their homes for a madman? Oaths are a strong theme in this series, their significance floating all over the ether – Jaime, Robb, Ser Barristan. Is an oath sacred, always, or is there a time for practical considerations to take hold?
Finally, we have King’s Landing, where things are quite busy. There’s a cute but unnecessary segment between Tyrion and Olenna haggling over the cost of the royal wedding, seemingly added so Peter Dinklage and Diana Rigg could have a flashy scene together. There’s been a surprising lack of boobs and butts lately, but GoT seemed intent on making up the deficit this week, showing us plenty from both sides of the gender and sexual preference spectrum (starting with Jon and Ygrite’s rather anti-climactic (sorry) cave sex North of The Wall). There’s some slightly clumsy exposition surrounding Cersei’s countermeasures to the Tyrell “plot” to marry Sansa off to Loras, Littlefinger’s response being to send a spy to bed Loras and extract the truth (among other things) from him.
Tywin – who as always manages to steal every scene he’s in – calls his son and daughter before him to announce that his response is to have Sansa marry Tyrion (he won’t have The North stolen out from under him) as Cersei looks on smugly. Tyrion’s response is classically in character – he’s aghast that Sansa should have to suffer yet more cruelties in having to marry him. But then Tywin pulls another shocker, and just as much so to readers of the books as new viewers – he plans to marry Cersei off to Loras as a final measure to keep the Tyrells in line. Where this is going I have no idea (it interestingly does give Tyrion and Cersei something in common), but it’s certainly a joy to watch Tywin ruthlessly slice open Tyrion and Cersei and lay their guts on the table – never was a character’s introduction scene more fitting that Tywin’s, and it remains the best single addition that the TV series has offered to the series.