At this point, I would say everyone watching Game of Thrones (apart from Benioff and Weiss and George R.R. Martin – and I’m not even 100% sure about him) – is pretty much in the same boat. In short, I have no idea what’s going to happen from this point forward. I can only assume there’s an agreed-upon endgame where Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire are going to wind up in a place that’s materially at least similar, even if they take different roads to get there – but for now, it’s the Butterfly Effect on steroids.
I have no choice to start with the hangover from last week’s scene in the Sept, though the series (in a rare occurrence) started with Danerys, because it’s been by far the biggest story over the last week. And the events in this episode make that rape scene all the more mystifying. It seemed as though pretty much everyone – from the writers to the characters – was acting as if it had never happened. That fosters the suspicion that it amounted to a colossal misstep in direction rather than a deliberate attempt to change the meaning of the scene – and hard to believe as that is, it’s less hard to believe than any other explanation based on “Oathkeeper”.
Any way you slice it it’s a huge shame, because everything Jaime did this week – which was perfectly consistent with his development right up until last – was tainted by the blight of that rape of Cersei. It did take Bronn shaming him into going before he went to see Tyrion (that was a change) but here we see a man who at least seems to want to do the right thing. At heart he knows all along that Tyrion didn’t kill Joffrey, but won’t formally admit it to himself until he’s seen and talked to his brother. Jaime seems unwilling to go so far as to commit treason to help Tyrion – it’s not like he’s coming off as heroic – but his response to Cersei’s implied order that he go and bring back Sansa’s head is much more resolute. Not only does he send Brienne to find Sansa and get her somewhere safe, but he gives her his Valyrian steel sword (a tacit rejection of his father and indeed, his family) and even has her take Podrick with her to keep the randy squire from being collateral damage when Tyrion goes down.
Another significant change here is that Benioff and Weiss have come right out and clarified who Joffrey’s killers were – or at the very least, some of them. Littlefinger admits his involvement to Sansa (not that she didn’t already know) and Olenna to Margaery – though one might argue that the headline there was that Margaery didn’t know beforehand. As Peter Baelish in deliciously slimy fashion tells Cersi “I don’t want friends like me” and responds to her question of what he does want with “Everything”, Olenna is counseling Margaery that she needs to move quickly to bring Tommen over to her side, and giving her the recipe for how to do it.
It’s certainly plain now why HBO changed to an older actor for Tommen, but I give a lot of credit to writer Bryan Cogman and director Michelle MacLaren (a legend in the annals of great television) for the Tommen-Margaery scene. It was obviously uncomfortable, but fascinating. Margaery is one of the most morally ambiguous figures on the show, and given the story Olenna had told her it was easy to expect the worst – but without knowing how much if any heart Margaery had in the moment, it was almost sweet. Tommen, somehow, has managed to emerge from his twisted background and vile mother’s influence and become a decent and sane boy. We even get a rare appearance from the much-revered Ser Pounce, who Joffrey had threatened to grind up and feed to his brother. When Margaery notes that Tommen doesn’t seem cruel like Joffrey, his thoughtful response of “No… I don’t think I am.” is one of the more straightforwardly moving moments of the series.
More than any episode of recent vintage, this one takes place in the North – and if it was Danerys’ tale that seemed the most changed last season, it’s here that things are most unrecognizable now. First we have Locke (who doesn’t exist in the books in the first place) who was sent North by Roose Bolton to find and kill (or capture, presumably) Bran and Rickon (remember him?) showing up at Castle Black and ingratiating himself to Jon. The latter is still pushing to attacks the rebels at Craster’s Keep, and Slynt advises Commander Thorne that it might just be a good way to get rid of a potential thorn (sorry) in his side. Jon, Slynt points out, is popular – and Thorne isn’t. And at some point there’s going to be a formal selection for a new Lord Commander to replace Mormont.
Things with Team Bran are radically changed as well. I won’t go into details of what’s been cut from his arc altogether it seems, but readers of ASoIaF will know – instead, Bran and his party end up in the vicinity of Craster’s Keep (where Karl, Rast and the others are camping up the evil big-time). Inside the keep the last of Craster’s children has been born – a son – and Karl is informed of how Craster disposed of his sons. It’s the baby’s crying that catches Bran’s attention and prompts him to go into beast mode with Summer, who promptly gets caught in a trap – but not before spotting Ghost in a cage. Bran being Bran isn’t willing to let either of them go, and against Meera’s wishes insists on a close-up reconnoiter.
From here, who knows. Superficially, it appears as if GoT is pushing Bran and Jon together – it hardly seems a coincidence that the former is now a prisoner at the very keep his brother is rousting up a party (Thorne has allowed him to attack it, but only with volunteers) to attack. I can’t even speculate where that’s headed – but that’s not even the most shocking change of the episode. That would be the final scene – absolutely a cracker, flat-out terrifying – where we see not just one but two White Walkers close up. And not only that, one of them touches the baby’s cheek and seemingly turns it into a White Walker too. That’s already more detail than we’ve ever had on their nature and abilities in the books, and one can only assume Martin gave this scene his blessing. The implication is that the White Walkers are going to be both a more immediate presence and a major factor much earlier than in ASoIaF but again, that’s just a guess – though I confess the possibility is rather tantalizing.