I admit I was sort of worried when the critical reaction to the first four episodes of this season (you know – the ones that coincidentally ended up leaked online) of Game of Thrones seemed pretty lukewarm – especially in light of the fact that the end of the third season was not among my favorite stretches in the adaptation. But I have to say, these first three eps have been among the best in the entire series in my opinion – though I’m more than a little worried about what’s to come.
What has been the dominant motif of this season? Two characters talking to each other. And that’s what GoT does best. There have still been the bursts of violence and helicopter shots, but they’ve been in context – every episode has been framed around simple (in structure, not in meaning) conversations. And this one was the most glaring example. To wit:
- Arya and Jaqen. Admittedly the sets for the House of Black and White are scene-stealers, but Jaqen’s blunt words about identity are like a blow to Arya’s face. In the end, she’s weak – a girl can’t let loose her attachment to Needle. A girl is still lost.
- Tommen and Margaery. This is a gut-wrenching one, because somehow, miraculously, Tommen has turned out to be a genuinely kind and innocent boy. Margaery takes a good measure of that innocence to be sure, but not in the ways that really matter (no one could say “This is all I want to do – all day, every day!” the way Tommen did unless they were innocent). Margaery is a smiling black widow – every bit as dangerous as Cersei, if much more genteel. Does she feel anything for Tommen whatsoever, or is he just another tool to be manipulated (literally)?
- Cersei and Margaery. Oh, the venom. “It’s a little early for us” – meow! The war for Tommen’s heart has been lost – I think even Cersei can see that now – but the larger war still rages on.
- Roose and Ramsay. Clearly there’s no decency in either man, but Roose on some level seems to realize that his bastard is an unrepentant psychopath, and that it’s a threat to his tenuous hold on the North. But does it matter that he does?
- Sansa and Baelish. Oh, Littlefinger – you’ve been a snake from the beginning, but this is a new low. No one as connected as Petyr could possibly not know Ramsay’s reputation, and you’re a fool if you believe otherwise. Littlefinger is, as always, playing every angle – but I fear very deeply for Sansa here, especially after Ramsay’s “I’ll never hurt her” pledge to Baelish. And just what was in Cersei’s raven to him?
- Brienne and Pod. This is another pairing I deeply fear for, but damn if they aren’t beautiful together this episode. Pod is such a quietly noble soul, and Brienne such a tortured one – and he’s never judged her for the way she’s treated him as her fortunes have foundered. Her recounting of the story of her humiliating “party” – and Renly’s nobility in defending her honor – was heartbreaking in so many ways.
- Stannis and Jon (and Davos, and Olly). Stannis is one of the most troubling and difficult figures in ASoIaF, and I’ve never felt GoT quite got him right – but this was good. Stannis sees something in Jon he respects – and the fact is, stubborn moralist that he is, Stannis knows damn well he’d never have accepted the offer he made if he’d been in Jon’s shoes. But I’m also not sure Davos is wrong in his interpretation of what that Black Watch vow really means. I think the show has rushed through events at The Wall – Jon’s election, just what turning Stannis down means to him, the execution of Jonas Slynt.
- Cersei and the High Sparrow. Yet another magnificent actor joins the cast in the person of Jonathan Pryce. This is a conversation – and a relationship – I basically can’t talk about without spoilers – as it’s one of the few threads that’s still largely following the books. But I reveled in this, because Pryce is a great presence, and he nails the character. Stay tuned on this one.
- Tyrion and Prostitute B. I’m calling the “Dragon Queen” Prostitute A, and they’re both interesting. Clearly Dany’s fame has spread to Volantis, and clearly Tyrion’s conscience has followed him there. The tortured decent man inside Tyrion that’s always trying to assert himself is another heartbreaker, because life seems determined to keep him beaten down. As usual Varys was in the right here, and Tyrion’s cabin fever was an invitation to disaster – though I doubt the Spider expected it to be in the person of Jorah Mormont. So – which queen was the disgraced Jorah talking about?
So there you have it, and I wonder if there’s a certain disappointment because the third season gave some an incorrect idea of what this series is really all about. Ironically, even as this season has veered further than ever away from the books’ storylines it’s felt closer to them in spirit than it has for a long time. But there are dark clouds on the horizon – the creeper Qyburn and his experiments on The Mountain, of course, but most especially the North. We’re heading for a conflagration at Winterfell – Many arcs are converging there, and Ramsay’s presence tends to encourage Benioff and Weiss to indulge their worst instincts as storytellers. My read at this point is hope for the best, prepare for the worst.