“First of His Name”
Michelle MacLaren is back in the saddle for another very solid episode of Game of Thrones, one that touches a lot of different bases and generally quite effectively. She’s one of the best directors in television so this certainly comes as no surprise.
We’re halfway through the season now, and an interesting trend has emerged over the course of the adaptation of A Song of Ice and Fire. The series has a habit of staggering drunkenly in its departures from the source material – one week it will seem to be veering wildly in another direction, only to stumble more or less back onto the path the next. The reason, as I’ve come to understand, is mostly that not all the changes it makes are made with the intention of reshaping the larger plot – some of them are simply done for the sake of the moment itself. We have a tendency to look for significance when sometimes there isn’t any, and Bran’s arc seems to be an example of this.
As I occasionally do with GoT I’ll begin with the end, the events at Crastor’s Keep. Given that this episode ends with Bran’s storyline materially in exactly the same place it was in ASoIaF, I can only conclude that Benioff and Weiss engineered this sidetrack to (somewhat sadistically, I might add) get two members of the Stark family within a few meters of each other, only to rip them apart. True, in the books too Jon and Bran are more or less moving in the same orbit at this stage, and there is a close encounter – but not with the immediacy of this one. It seems cruel, really, to actually allow Bran to see his brother, to call out to him – only to have Jojen rip him away to fulfill his still somewhat ill-defined duty. In truth of course Jojen is right, if Jon got Bran under his protection he’d never let him go north on some mystical quest (that much is consistent between the two versions) but it’s still yet another bitter pill for the much-abused Stark clan and their sympathizers to swallow.
I’ll get back to those final moments shortly, but there was plenty of other stuff happening here, a very successful mix of relatively low-key material and intense drama. The one exception is the detour to Team Danerys, which as it often does provides the least interesting scene in the episode. Not surprisingly, the cities she’s attacked and liberated have reverted to form as soon as she pulled her armies out. The news of Joffrey’s death has reached her, and Berristan clearly believes she should sail for King’s Landing on the 93 ships Dario has taken from the Meereen navy. Tellingly, it’s still Jorah’s advice she seeks in the end – he’s the one she keeps behind when all the others are kicked out of the room – and Danerys makes the decision to prove she can effectively rule Slaver’s Bay (we’ve got to do something about that name) before she makes her move on Westeros.
The big business in King’s Landing is the coronation of King Tommen – “First of his name” – and the upcoming trial of Tyrion. There are myriad changes here, too, but most of them are subtler – on the tonal side of things, especially between Margaery and Cersei. After Cersei catches Margaery and Tommen undressing each other with their eyes during the coronation one might reasonably have expected the full-on cobra treatment, but this is a more practical, pragmatic – one might almost say “resigned” – Cersei. This Cersei has a relatively pleasant (well…) conversation with Margaery, admitting to her that Joffrey was a monster who did things that shocked her. “Do you think I’m easily shocked?” Clearly, no. And this Cersei effectively brokers the marriage to Tommen for the boy’s benefit, recognizing what the popular Margaery and her powerful family can do to stabilize his power, by acquiescing to her father’s order to marry Loras.
That conversation with Tywin is one of two additional interesting ones Cersei is involved in this week. In it he confides to her that the Lannisters’ last gold mine ran dry three years earlier, and that the family – and the kingdom – is staggeringly in debt to the Iron Bank of Bravos. He’s even kind to her, by his standards – admitting that he didn’t like the man he forced her to marry (who we know beat her). As viperous as she is there are moments where it’s almost possible to feel sorry for Cersei – she really does love her children and she has been used over and over – though her insistence on trying to persuade her father to kill her brother does dull that sentiment.
There appears nothing disingenuous about Cersei’s conversation with Oberyn, either (add Pedro Pascal to the endless list of actors nailing it in this series). Cersei is a grieving mother asking after her daughter, and Oberyn sincerely tells her that Myrcella is unharmed and in fact, happy. Cersei asks him to bring her a gift – a small sailboat she’s had crafted – and he agrees. There’s something binding this two, in a sense, and while Cersei does insist she “knows” Tyrion killed Joffrey when Oberyn asks, she doesn’t push the issue – and it’s clear Oberyn has already deduced that Tyrion had nothing to do with the murder.
This is the first episode I can remember where all the surviving Stark Children (oh yeah, not that Rickon kid) are featured. Sansa is first, clearly having escaped the frying pan to enter the fire (escorted by the flint itself). It’s the first time in a while we’ve been fully exposed to the madness of Lysa and Robin (the hilariously shocking breastfeeding scene leaps to mind – thank goodness there was no repeat of that) since the first season. It quickly becomes clear to Sansa just that she’s escaped the nest of vipers to enter the nest of cuckoos (and one viper) when Lysa accuses her of whoring herself out to Peter. The Peter-Lysa relationship is one of the grungiest and most disturbing in the series – the sounds of their wedding night were almost as horrifying as the Red Wedding itself. The Vale itself, however, is one of the most gorgeous settings in the entire series.
It’s a good week for the odd couples of the moment, Arya and The Hound and Brienne and Podrick. I adore Sandor Clegane and Rory McCann’s performance – no one in GoT so perfectly straddles the line between good and evil as he does. I suspect people will see his scuffle with Arya as being proof of his rotten nature, but I take it in just the opposite way. He’s a hard man, as crude and rough as they come – but he’s not sadistic and he’s not instinctively cruel. In his way I think he’s trying to give Arya the education he knows she’ll need to survive – the uselessness of what she’s been taught in castles and the usefulness of what he’s learned in the streets and battlefields of Westeros. That slap was a sign of respect, believe it or not – not one you or I would choose to bestow, but in The Hound’s dark and frightening world, the only kind he knows how to make. As for Pod and Brienne, this is played for comedy as much as any scene in the episode – but Brienne begins to find out what the rest of us know already, that there’s more to Pod than meets the eye. And she, of all people, should respect that.
Back, at last, to the brutality in the North. I strongly dislike the fact that Benioff and Weiss have, yet again, resorted to sexual violence as a dramatic device. It’s at the stage now where it’s almost becoming self-parody, really. I never expected Meera to be raped before her brother’s eyes (and Bran and Hodor’s) but was it truly necessary to humiliate her that way? It’s the only part of the sequence that doesn’t work for me – the rest is top-notch dramatics, including the aforementioned torture of seeing Jon and Bran so close and yet so far. Locke finally reveals his true stripes – to Bran and his party, anyway – and Bran engineers his own rescue by Warg-ing Hodor and using him to kill Locke. Richly deserved as that was, this is actually some of the darkest material of the series – Bran has hijacked the body of the simple and kind man who’s literally carried him all the way north of the wall in order to kill a man, and Hodor is clearly aware enough of what’s happened to be horrified by it. That’s bad Karma for Bran, really, though one could argue that he had no other options available to him.
In the end, Bran and his party go their own way, leaving Jon and his to the ugliness at Craster’s Keep. The duel between Jon and his sword with Karl and his two knives is one of the better and more brutal in the series, and Jon certainly would have lost had one of Caster’s former “wives” not intervened. Four rangers die along with all the mutineers – Rast getting the special treatment of having Ghost do the honors himself – and the senior among the women tells Jon to burn the place to the ground, the dead along with it. It seems a fitting end given all the brutality that took place there, and the women spurn Jon’s offer to back to Castle Black – why would they trust any man at this point, really? – to make their own way in the frozen wilds. It’s not exactly what you’d call a happy ending, even by Game of Thrones standards – but it’s hard to deny it fits.