Game of Thrones's Problem With Quests

Our roundtable discusses "Walk of Punishment," the mostly excellent third episode of the HBO show's third season.
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Every week for the third season of HBO's fantasy series Game of Thrones, our roundtable of Ross Douthat (columnist, The New York Times), Spencer Kornhaber (entertainment editor, TheAtlantic.com), and Christopher Orr (senior editor and film critic, The Atlantic) will discuss the latest happenings in Westeros.


Douthat: Okay, this was a bit more like it. Movement, development, momentum, a climactic mutilation—everything that Episode 2's slow-motion stage setting conspicuously lacked, Episode 3 delivered. True, until Jaime Lannister was severed from his swordhand and Theon's pursuers were turned into pincushions, this episode was still longer on setup than on payoffs. But more than last week it gave us a feeling for where this season's action is going, and what the payoffs might ultimately be.

Start with Riverrun, where we were (finally) introduced to Catelyn's family—her uncle Brynden, alias "Blackfish," and her headstrong brother Edmure (played by Tobias Menzies, whom I placed, finally, as Brutus from HBO's Rome). More importantly, we were given a better sense of the military situation, and how Robb Stark can be winning every battle but, like many an outmanned general before him, still find himself losing the war. On the other side of the battle lines, meanwhile, the new Hand of the King finally got around to giving some marching orders: Littlefinger was dispatched to court Catelyn's sister Lysa and bring her into the war on King Joffrey's side (no easy task: Viewers who remember her Season One appearance will remember how she feels about the Lannisters), and Tyrion was boosted into Littlefinger's position as Master of Coin, and put in charge of figuring out how to pay the throne's ample debts.

So our favorite schemers have actual schemes to pursue, thankfully, and up north so does the fake-turncloak Jon Snow, who's dispatched by his new king on a mission to climb the Wall and fall on his fellow Night's Watchmen from behind. Momentum! Likewise his old friend Sam and the rest of the bedraggled survivors of the Night's Watch's encounter with the Others: Last week it was just tromp, tromp, whine, whine, but this week they finally limped back into Craster's Keep, whose "godly" host didn't seem all that happy to see them. And can you blame him? When you're running a one-man polygamist compound where you marry your daughters and sacrifice your sons to ice demons, inviting in a band of desperate, starving, semi-mutinous soldiers is a recipe for ... well, we'll find out next week, I hope.

The table-setting up north was matched by table-setting off to the east in Astapor, where Daenerys made the fateful choice to purchase a slave army—and the even more fateful choice to offer one of her dragons in exchange for the 8,000. Again, the payoff from those choices will have to wait another week—but the important thing was that her storyline for this season began to actually move forward, toward what promises to be a more interesting destination than anything that befell her in Qarth.

Not every plotline saw the momentum pick up, alas. Stannis's whining to Melisandre and her opaque replies probably set Spencer's teeth on edge, Arya didn't do much except part ways with Hot Pie, and I'm afraid that "On the Road with Jojen and Bran" promises to be this season's weakest thread. Theon's scenes moved at a (literal) gallop, but since the audience hasn't yet been clued in to who his mysterious benefactor really is, where he's actually headed, or how it connects to the stories unfolding north and south of him, I imagine that they're mostly a source of frustration for non-book readers at this point.

For a show that otherwise has done an impressive job deepening Martin's sometimes-cardboard female characters, the way Game of Thrones uses its whorehouse excursions often feels worthy of a Seth MacFarlane monologue.

The episode's comic relief was supplied by Podrick Payne's brothel ménage a quatre—paid for by Tyrion as a show of gratitude for his squire's life-saving battlefield work last season—in which he apparently conducted himself so, er, manfully that the professional women decided not to charge. I like Pod, but I smiled less than I should have, maybe, at this business—mostly because I find the way the show uses prostitute "characters" to double or triple Martin's already-ample nudity quotient to be irritatingly exploitative. (Imagine if The Sopranos had a sex scene set in the back room at the Bada Bing *every single episode* ... ) It's nice, I suppose, that Ros the madam has graduated from "supplyer of each episode's T&A quotient" to "fully clothed deliverer of hard-earned wisdom," but there's always a new supply of nubile working girls to remind us that this is cable and they can show whatever they want, heh-heh, nudge-nudge. I would respect Game of Thrones' sex scenes more if the leads were disrobing as often as the extras, or if the men were exposed half as often as the women. (Insert your "Podrick" joke here.) But for a show that otherwise has done an impressive job deepening Martin's sometimes-cardboard female characters, the way Game of Thrones uses its whorehouse excursions often feels worthy of a Seth MacFarlane monologue.

Finally, I'll leave it you gentlemen to discuss the implications of the shocking ending, and just say that I've been very, very happy with Nikolaj Coster-Waldau's work as Jaime Lannister to date, and I'm looking forward to seeing where he takes the role now that Jaime has been parted from the best part of himself.


Kornhaber: Ross, you're right. Hands down, the best episode so far this season. Or should I say hand down? Cuz... like... Jaime... hand... down... get it?

Sorry for the loopiness. I'm still buzzing from what was one of the funnier, more kinetic, more cleverly constructed Thrones installments yet—where the plot not only started to move in interesting ways, but the camera as well. The change of pace might be credited to this being the first and only episode to be directed by showrunner David Benioff (his copilot D.B. Weiss still has yet to direct). We've discussed how the series largely occupies itself with talk, but it appears the guy in charge has a flare for the nonverbal, too.

The opening two minutes set the agenda: No words, just the sublime choreography of Edmure failing to alight his father's pyre. I was giggling nervously along with the rest of the funeral party, and the grimly comic tone lasted through the three scenes that followed. Robb, in what may be Richard Madden's best moment yet, laconically struggled to contain his anger as he told off his condescending and disobedient uncle. Then we saw the small council awkwardly and silently selecting its own seating arrangement. The next sequence opened with a slow pan down on Jaime and Brienne's captors, paying musical homage to a homo sapien/ursine relationship.

The rest of the episode delivered as cinema, as well. Theon's chase offered a bona fide, will-he-die-slash-get-raped-or-won't-he thrill. The hour's other instance of threatened sexual violence was even more tense and horrifying, although the action—and Brienne's screams—came from off screen. I loosed a cackle when the tension was cut at the same time as Jaime's wrist and the episode itself, leaving the Hold Steady's punk-rocking version of aforementioned drinking song to play us out. All in all, Benioff, nice job.

Deprived of his physical ability and with his over-famous name exposed as a liability, I'll be fascinated to see Jaime need to resort to his not-inconsiderable remaining asset: his wits.

And even though the showrunner is, as I pointed out last week, on record as anti-theme, over and over in "Walk of Punishment" characters were met with the limits of familial privilege. Dynasty matters in Westeros, but how much? Not enough to give Hoster Tully a dignified funeral—his son's ineptitude prevents that. Not enough to prepare Tyrion to be master of coin—"a lifetime of outrageous wealth hasn't taught me much about managing it." Probably not enough for Theon to make good on his promise of lordship to his rescuer, who reminds him that "we're not in the Iron Islands." Not enough for Lady Brienne of Tarth herself to convince her would-be rapists that she's anything but a "a big dumb bitch from who cares where."

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