For all that there are undeniable issues with HBO’s Game of Thrones – and discussion of them has certainly found its way into my various blog posts – there’s no denying that this series really brings something special to the table. Episodes like this one seem to last five minutes, not fifty, and ten-week seasons seem to over as soon as they’ve begun. There’s a kind of Wabi-sabi beauty to Martin’s writing – it’s the imperfections that highlight the beauty of the work as a whole. He’s not a polished, seamless writer – he achieves stark (no pun intended) brilliance through the uninhibited way in which he populates the page with grand personalities and raw emotions. It doesn’t always work, but I don’t think he could write it any other way.
In many ways, “Mockingbird” is the dreaded transitional episode, setting up the big events that will define the final three episodes of the season. But these eps tend to be among my favorites when they’re executed, because they tend to give the actors – who are undeniably one of the most spectacular elements of GoT – a chance to really shine. This wasn’t among the best of them, but it was very good – and it’s testament to how compelling the good arcs were that I audibly groaned (I’m sure my upstairs neighbor heard it) when the scene shifted to Danerys’ storyline.
There’s a certain repetitive nature to what isn’t really working here, but in Benioff & Weiss’ defense it’s generally the same stuff that didn’t work in the books. I’m not sure what could have been done to really make the difference with Dany – here and in ASoIaF she feels disconnected from the rest of the story but more than that, I just don’t think she’s very interesting or likeable. Her arc has arguably been changed more than anyone except Theon’s (we got a merciful break from him, but he’ll be back next ep) but the overall impression is eerily similar. Her arrogance and growing sense of infallibility if anything make her even less sympathetic, but here we see that she does at least have the good sense to listen to Jorah’s advice about Yunkai. But if Jorah Mormont is the voice of reason in your inner circle…
In the case of Stannis and his circle, for me at least GoT has significantly worsened the arc through the changes (and omissions) they’ve made. When Davos isn’t about these scenes tend to be a chore, and often feel almost as disconnected as Dany’s. I’m really not sure why we saw what we did this week apart from giving the series another opportunity for some nudity (at least Dario gave the other half of the audience equal time), and interestingly, thanks to some prior scenes that were skipped and some dialogue in this one, if I hadn’t read the books I can’t help but believe there were parts of it that would have made no sense to me. I have no idea what’s up here, but I suppose we’re going to find out soon enough – probably the less said about that the better.
It was a big week for the Cleganes, starting with the return of The Mountain, Gregor. Or should I say the entrance, as we got our third actor (I suppose it’s nice to have a Mountain range) in the role – Icelandic strongman Hafbor Julius Bjornsson (I apologize for the lack of Icelandic characters on my keyboard). Cersei has chosen him to be the Crown’s champion in the fight for Tyrion’s life, and we meet this new Mountain (who certainly looks the part) as he’s disemboweling peasants to get his bloodlust up for the fight.
The far more interesting Clegane, as always, is Sandor, and his weird relationship with Arya has never been more poignant than it was this week. I find The Hound among all the cast most fascinatingly balanced on the knife’s edge between good and evil – in him is always visible both the kind soul he would have been had life not burned kindness away from him, and the angry and violent beast hidden beneath his scars. Arya sees it too, and really for the first time since she began her journey of revenge she’s forced to question the hatred she bears for one of those names she repeats like a mantra every night.
There’s all sorts of great stuff happening with this story, as usual. The old farmer they meet, dying of his brigand-inflicted wounds but lingering on because “maybe nothing is worse than this”. It’s in interacting with this doomed soul that we see the true nature of The Hound – the way he tenderly brings his waterskin to the dying man’s lips, and the no-less tender way he dispatches him quickly. “That’s where the heart is” he tells Arya, another in the continuing string of life’s lessons he gives her.
Their journey takes an even darker turn when they’re ambushed by two of the prisoners who were on their way to The Wall with “Arry” – Rorge and Biter (didn’t happen that way in the books, BTW) and Biter inflicts a wound on Sandor’s neck. He kills Biter but it’s to Arya to kill Rorge – which she does without any seeming sense of regret. The wound on The Hound’s neck begins to fester, but he refuses to let Arya cauterize is with fire – in the process spinning at last the tale of how his face came to be so scarred, and why he hates his brother so much. Not only is it great acting by Rory McCann, but it’s one of the truly saddest moments in a series full of them. Rarely have we seen such a strong man seem so much a child, or anyone seem so lost. Arya insists on at least cleaning and sewing the wound, and Sandor relents – a seeming moment of grace in the midst of all the pain. To say I’m interested in seeing where this arc goes from here is an understatement.
Another character makes a surprise return here, and that’s Hot Pie. It was an interesting decision to have him interact with Brienne and Pod, and it worked rather well I thought. These scenes brought some rare humor to a very dark episode, as Hot Pie sits down to regale the hapless Brienne with tales of pie-making. He also brings himself to eventually trust Brienne after she discloses (much to Pod’s disapproval) she’s on the hunt for Starks daughters. His faith in Brienne reveals a good instinct, and the moment where he gives her a direwolf bread to take to Arya is a good one. It’s also nice to see Brienne begin to understand that Pod is quite a formidable young man, one whose wits are not to be ignored.
Ultimately, this episode – again – belongs to Peter Dinklage as Tyrion. There are three scenes in his cell which frame the episode, start, middle and end. The first is a sad encounter with Jaime, where both the strain of their current relationship and the love they feel for each other are plain to see. You can almost see Tyrion’s heart break when Jaime tells him he can’t fight for him – but Jaime is doing so because he knows he lacks the ability now to win. Jaime has always borne the burden of loving Tyrion alone in his family, but it’s plain he’s never wavered. Tyrion is plainly jealous of the “golden son”, but beggars can’t be choosers, and even Tyrion has come to realize that Jaime would not have chosen everything that’s happened to him in his life.
The middle encounter is with Bronn and it, too, is seeped in sadness. Bronn enters the cell dressed in finery, having been promised a decent (if unspectacular) marriage partner by Cersei, along with a boatload of Lannister gold. These two men understand each other very well, and Bronn is lying neither about his affection for Tyrion or his true nature as a sellsword. “When have you risked your life for me?” is the hard question he asks Tyrion – and it’s not an unfair one. The deal Tyrion offers him is a stinker, and both men know it. This could be (and no doubt will be by many) viewed as a betrayal by Bronn, but I don’t think even Tyrion sees it that way. It’s a hard, cold moment – yet oddly and undeniably suffused with genuine warmth.
Finally, the surprise visitor – Oberyn Martell. Pedro Pascal is yet another casting home run for GoT – he’s absolutely marvelous as Oberyn, and this scene is the best in the episode. Pascal’s proud and defiant statement of purpose is beautifully delivered, and Dinklage’s face as Oberyn tells the story of his childhood visit to Casterly Rock is utterly heartbreaking. If you didn’t loathe Cersei before this (and seriously, why the hell wouldn’t you) surely this is the final straw – Oberyn certainly did, and does. The climax here is when Oberyn sums up his reasons for why, in his words, “I will be your champion.” Again, the marriage between Pascal’s dialogue and Dinklage’s face is utterly spellbinding. In this action Oberyn Martell proves himself a bigger person than the ones who’ve done so many ills to his family – he’s undeniably full of hatred for what those people have done, but it doesn’t blind him to the true justice and injustice of the current situation. It’s a moment of nobility driven by the lust for revenge – like so much of Game of Thrones, a study in contrasts of the sort that makes this series so special.
There is one more moment of high drama after this emotional climax, and it takes place on The Eyrie. I think these scenes pretty much speak for themselves, and I can’t think anyone will have been taken by surprise as to what sort of man Petyr Baelish really is (except, arguably, for Lysa). “Out of the frying pan and into the fire” has never been more suited than it is to the plight of Sansa Stark. In a series full of complicated characters, Sansa is in many ways remarkably simple – and I don’t mean that as a criticism. It’s who Sansa is – her ambitions and desires are as straightforward as she is, and the world she now lives in is one ill-suited for people such as her.
Note: There will be no episode of Game of Thrones next weekend, so sadly we’ll have to wait until June 1 for Episode 38.