Well, that episode had a little bit of everything. Changes from the books confirmed, new changes added, torture, death and kisses in the strangest places, and a tasty little spoiler of events to come much, much later that isn’t in the books at all. And a measure of focus on some characters who’ve been underrepresented in the third season.
I’ll definitely say this for the HBO gang – they know when they have a good thing going, and they have a good thing going with their cast. Charles Dance has been a revelation as Tywin since the first moment the series brought him to our screens – in a completely original scene where he skins a deer as he lays out his singular vision for the world. And you really can’t go wrong with Diana Rigg. The series has made a point of it to give her some showcase moments with the other stalwarts in the cast, and this time it was Tywin’s turn.
These are the sorts of changes I can really get behind, as long as they don’t get excessive to the point of self-aggrandizement. Many of the best moments of last season were Tywin’s conversations with Arya, which were greatly expanded. We may be getting close to saturation with Olenna – she’s had new scenes added to give her a chance to riff with Varys, Tyrion and now Tywin – but this one was definitely the best of the three. Rigg and Dance (he’s aptly named, watching a scene like this) were marvelous. Her line about Loras – “He’s definitely a sword swallower” – might just be the funniest thing in the series so far. And she summed up the moment perfectly when she said of Tywin, “It’s so rare to find a man who lives up to his reputation.” This round, Tywin wins – and Sansa is betrothed to Tyrion.
As viewers, of course we know that in many ways she could do a whole lot worse. But Tyrion is a decent enough man to know that from Sansa’s perspective this is a nightmare. Given as how the entire development with Cersei and Loras is TV-original of course her conversation with Tyrion never happened in the books – but it was interesting to see the two of them almost civil to each other in their shared misery over being (as always) their father’s pawns. It’s interesting to see how certain characters have come off as somewhat softer in the TV version – Cersei and Jaime definitely qualify – while others have been much nastier (more in a minute). Whether this is a matter of the performances or the writing it’s hard to say, but I suppose it’s some combination of both.
It was nice to see some focus on the North, and while Jon got most of it Bran and Samwell had their moments too. These are two of the very few unambiguously good people in the cast, and one of my regrets has been seeing their roles cut back considerably. Fans of the books will have seen something in Sam’s brief scene with Gilly to give our hearts a little thrill (though I do wonder how it is that Sam has lived the life he has for the last year and not lost a pound). He and Gilly had nice chemistry there. Bran’s scene was likewise brief, but it did give him a chance to show off his Lording skills acting as peacemaker between Meera and Osha. The other takeaway here was a chilling depiction of Jojen having a seizure to go along with his vision of Jon Snow on the wrong side of the wall – nice work by Thomas Sangster here. And Art Parkinson actually got a line of dialogue as Rickon.
Meanwhile, eldest Stark brother Robb is still trying to salvage the vital link with The Late Walder Frey. Poor Edmure is the one stuck paying the price for Robb’s mistakes, but at least Robb is man enough to admit it. The overt hostility between Edmure and The Blackfish is a little startling – I don’t remember it being this venomous in the books – but Edmure has every right to feel a little peeved at the moment. As for Jaime, he and Brienne face off with the formidable Roose Bolton as he decides their fate. There are a couple of nice, small moments here – first when she holds his meat for him (stop that) so that he can cut it, and then when he immediately stays her hand when she’s about to raise her knife against their captor. It really shows the way the two of them have come to know each other well during their nightmare of an adventure together.
I mentioned last week that it seemed likely that Edric Storm – a name that will mean nothing to TV-only viewers – was being written out. There’s no harm in confirming it now, since he definitely won’t be appearing based on the new scenes between Melissandre and the BWOB. I’m not happy about this development but I confess, I’m loving every moment with The Brotherhood. I’ve already raved about Richard Dormer’s Beric, but Paul Kaye is likewise doing a fabulous job as Thoras of Myr. I love the additional backstory his character got, and I loved hearing Old Valyrian. Just last week I mentioned how striking it was that his way of serving his God seemed so different than Melissandre’s – little did I expect the two of them (who never met in the books) would be having a conversation about that very topic in this episode. I still like his character, and I still can’t stand hers.
Another thing I’m not crazy about it the obsessive fetishizing of Theon’s torture. I think it’s pretty obvious who “Boy” is at this point, and it’s certainly true that Theon was tortured in the books as well. But reading about it and seeing it are two different things, I thought it was excessive in the books to begin with, and it’s been greatly enhanced for the TV version. We all know what Theon has done, but I take no joy in seeing anyone go through what he’s going through. The scenes are supposed to unpleasant to watch, but I could do with them being about 1/3 as long as they are.
It was very elegant the way the TV version tied in two separate threads in two different places – one literal, one metaphorical – to establish the title of the episode. The focus on Jon and the climb of The Wall was the most time we’ve spent with his arc this season, and his scenes with Ygritte were probably their best of the series. I absolutely love Tormund but he hasn’t gotten nearly the opportunity to shine the way he had in the books by now – I hope that’s still to come. The TV added the bit where Orell tries to cut Jon and Ygritte lose on the climb, and I thought it fit the context perfectly. The climbing scenes were excellent from a visual standpoint, and seeing the world – viewed in both directions – from the top was a nice framing moment midway (roughly) through the season.
Finally, we have the metaphorical climb – another addition from the TV series, but again one that really fits well. It’s always entertaining to see Varys and Littlefinger (he’s one of those who definitely comes off more venal in his TV incarnation), Kings Landing’s two most powerful covert operators, bare their fangs at each other. With these two – especially Varys – we’re never on sure footing in trying to guess just where their true purposes lie, but it’s always been clear that they’re eternally in opposition. Littlefinger has won this round by thwarting the Sansa-Loras match, and by putting an end to Ros (yes, Joffrey is still a psychotic, and another Mary Sue meets an untimely end – can Talisa be far behind?). Both of them know Baelish is right that the idea of Westeros is built on lies. But where The Spider sees the alternative, chaos, as “a pit” Littlefinger sees it as a ladder. A ladder of opportunity, a perfect metaphor for his character, the eternal climber.