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.
Kornhaber: Talk about captive audience: In this good but often hard-to-watch episode, it was almost too easy to relate to the many literally and figuratively shackled characters. Take Brienne, squirming at the horrors inflicted upon a guy she didn't even like. Or Arya, hauled blindly into the middle of a verbal battle full of proper nouns and backstory. Or Margaery, forced to look upon the macabre by a juvenile tyrant who expects her to find it entertaining.
All microcosms of the Thrones-watching experience, no?
Sorry—that sounds harsh. It's just this installment focused on the agony of imprisonment and the ecstasy of freedom... and, as is typical for Thrones, agony got more screen time. For starters: Jaime's interminable piss-soaked mud bath, during which the writers demonstrated, for the zillionth time, that humans are cruel and good guys/bad guys distinctions mean nothing. Fine goals, but executed with a little too much relish for my taste.
Then again, that over-the-topness could make whatever comeuppance that may eventually befall House Bolton all the more sweet. Because if this episode made anything clear, it's that mistreating your hostages comes at a price. Buy a boy for ritual castration? Years later, you'll end up in a crate, mouth sewn, awaiting awful revenge. Capture the very house that raised you as a son, not a prisoner? Torture, a mirage of salvation, and more torture awaits. During Deliciously Awkward Lannister Father/Child Bonding Time Part 3, Tywin pointed out to Cersei that he went to war to liberate his least-loved progeny. Just imagine what he might do to Kingslayer's limbslicer.
Daenerys's episode-closing coup was one of the greatest moments yet in the series, ending an hour centered on people held against their will with the fearsome image of an army whose loyalty has been earned—not stolen, not captured, not bought, not extorted.
In the realm of more theoretical, but equally grim, conflicts over captivity was the mutiny at Craster's Keep. An ugly orgy of literal backstabbing, the scene, to its credit, made clear how trapped the crows felt, how flimsy the vows that ostensibly govern Westeros are, and how much the Night's Watch attracts sociopaths. The totality of the carnage shocked me, though not as much as Theon's return to the crucifix did. The Greyjoy's speech about Robb Stark not condescending to him ("He didn't have to. All he had to do was... be.") re-emphasized Theon's shitheadedness, but seeing the betrayer betrayed felt more like sadism than justice. That's probably the point, though. Chris and Ross, you've hinted that this storyline has held back on revealing an important, intriguing character from the novels. Blink twice if it's that black-haired, double-crossing sicko supposedly from the Iron Islands.
Speaking of the books, I'm wondering how closely Varys's sorcerer-in-a-box monologue hewed to the text. After all, it's a bit improbable that Tyrion would want to talk revenge at the exact same moment the Spider makes good on a lifelong vendetta. But Conleth Hill's delivery transfixed as always, it was good to hear the eunuch's origin story, and I can't wait for the Imp to get whatever long-awaited vindication that the scene presumably foreshadowed.
Now to the ecstasy of freedom, or the dream of freedom. Margaery flinging open the doors of the Red Keep and introducing Joffrey to the plebs drove home how powerful this supposedly kept woman is, and how the Tyrells are subtly loosening Cersei's grip over the kingdoms. I also loved the queen-to-be breezily befriending then betrothing Sansa: Here's a rare Thrones example of someone plotting an escape that (ideally, so far) doesn't involve bloodshed.
Most exhilarating of all was Daenerys's episode-closing coup, one of the greatest moments yet in the series. Thoughts: A) I saw it coming—no way was the Khaleesi giving up any of her dragons. B) I laughed in glee at that one totally Rambo shot where Dany stood looking out of the frame as flames roared behind her. C) Thematically, it was genius to end to an hour centered on people held against their will by freeing 8,000 slaves, butchering the slavers, and presenting the fearsome image of an army whose loyalty has been earned—not stolen, not captured, not bought, not extorted.
Chris, last week you floated the idea that Thrones is never worse than when its characters are questing. I agree with that, which is part of why "Dracarys!" was such a gratifying moment. After two+ seasons of shuffling through the desert, accomplishing not all that much, the Mother of Dragons finally has the fighting force she's been asking for. Here's hoping she doesn't spend the rest of the season marching it in circles.
Chris and Ross, were you as alternately icked-out and hopped up by that episode as I was?
Got that, Spencer? I'll have more to say about Theon's tormenter—well, when the show has more to say about him.
I hadn't considered the episode in terms of captivity and freedom, but I think you're onto something there, especially when it comes to the twin rebellions at the climax: the crows at Craster's and the slaves at Astapor. On the surface, one scene is tragic and the other exultant, but they're not nearly as different as we'd perhaps like them to be. Given that the two scenes aren't adjacent in the novel, we presumably have showrunners Benioff and Weiss to thank for the dark irony of their juxtaposition.
Getting back down in the weeds, I too didn't much like the first scene of the episode, in which the newly left-handed Jaime falls from his mount, drinks horse piss, etc., etc. My complaints from last week stand: There's simply no way that his captor, an underling of House Bolton—a knight presumably, or minor lord himself—would pointlessly abuse a supremely high-value prisoner without a stronger rationale than some vague sense of class envy. (What if Jaime died from infection? Or broke his neck in the fall?) Hostages are the premier coin of the realm in Westeros, and those who treat them carelessly (see: Stark, Catelyn) are likely to regret it.
I wasn't a fan of the second scene either, in which—as you note, Spencer—Varys just happens to be unpacking a Useful Visual Aid at the exact moment he offers Tyrion his disquisition on the importance of patience to revenge. (It didn't help that the crated sorcerer reminded me of the exotic-leg-lamp delivery in A Christmas Story: "Frah-jee-lay? It must be Italian!") Given good material to work with, Conleth Hill, who plays Varys, is as good as anyone on the show. (See, for example, his scene in the dungeons with Ned Stark in Season One or his disquisition on the origins of power with Tyrion in Season Two.) And while he does better than most at transcending middling material such as this, it's a shame to see him have to try.
I wasn't a fan of scene in which Varys just happens to be unpacking a Useful Visual Aid at the exact moment he offers Tyrion his disquisition on the importance of patience to revenge.
Things improve after the episode's bumpy start, however, in particular with a nice duet of scenes about women and power. In the first, Lady Olenna (an again-excellent Diana Rigg) explains to Cersei (the always-excellent Lena Headey) her theory that while men may have all the authority, women have all the brains. And even as she speaks, her granddaughter Margaery is putting that theory into practice, playing Cersei's son Joffrey like a lute: "Sometimes severity is the price we pay for greatness," she coos to the easily flattered little sadist.
Alas, when Cersei takes Lady Olenna's feminist blandishments to heart, and suggests to her father Tywin that she is his true and worthy heir—bad move! Didn't you see what that got Tyrion in Episode 1?—his response is brutally meritocratic: "I don't distrust you because you're a woman. I distrust you because you're not as smart as you think you are." Ouch. And just to prove that he's as unsentimental a grandpa as he is a dad, Tywin follows up with a delightful promise to curb young Joffrey's excesses. Can't wait for that.
At the start of the season, Ross, you noted how the Tyrells were outmaneuvering the Lannisters politically, and it's nice to see that theme continue (especially after the dunderheaded nobility of—rest in peace—Ned Stark). Olenna plots with the resolutely jaded Varys; Margaery cajoles the impenetrably innocent Sansa; and the young queen-to-be shows Joffrey that, contra Machiavelli, it is sometimes better to be loved than feared.
In the previous recap, I wrote that I hoped the revelation of Podrick's precocious mastery of the art of love (which is not in the books) was a one-time gag. But it came up again this week in the conversation between Varys and Ros. If it really is just a joke, then I think it's worn out its welcome. But a few commenters last week raised the intriguing possibility that there may be more to this mini-plot than meets the eye—specifically, that Tyrion, having paid the whores in advance, told them to return Pod's gold with the explanation that the gratification he'd given them was payment enough. Given Tyrion's own sexual backstory (and self-evident affection for Pod) this would be a canny twist: Tyrion grants his squire not only carnal knowledge but also carnal confidence, and, as an added bonus, receives confirmation of Pod's loyalty when the boy returns the gold to him. Now, I have no idea whether this is what's going on. But if so, kudos to Benioff and Weiss—and to those commenters who divined their intent.
I have a few other quibbles here and there: As you note, Spencer, Arya (and, by extension, we) are subjected to some pretty hasty exposition when she reaches the Brotherhood's hideout. Had they even mentioned before now that Thoros is a priest of the Lord of Light? (If not, it's a pretty substantial oversight.) And a better setup of Beric Dondarrion—whom I expect will have a good scene or two in the next episode—would have been nice as well. Will viewers of the show even remember his tiny role (played by another actor) in Season One?
Such concerns are pretty much washed away, though, by the episode's Big Dracarys Finish, which nailed one of the most striking scenes in Martin's third book. You're exactly right, Spencer, that Daenerys is the character who benefits most from having clear, strong story arcs (her evolution from Viserys's timid little sister to Drogo's proud khaleesi in Season One; the turning-the-tables-on-the-slavers sequence we just witnessed), and suffers most when wandering vaguely around the Eastern kingdoms. How her character will develop in the coming episodes (and seasons) will depend a great deal on whether Benioff and Weiss learned their lessons in the narrative quagmire of Qarth last season. (Compress! Keep the focus on Westeros!)
That said, Spencer, you're somewhere between less-right and dead wrong in your eager expectation of House Bolton's eventual "comeuppance." Now, I don't know exactly where the showrunners intend to take this particular family's storyline, which has already been altered considerably from the books. But: Really? You think that this is a world in which you can count on evil acts being punished?
You know nothing, Jon Snow.
Douthat: You've both done a great job of covering the episode as a whole, and so I'm just going to piggyback on some of your thoughts and then zero in on the episode's two biggest moments. Varys's bound wizard? I agree; an implausibly-timed, overly on-the-nose embellishment. Arya's introduction to Beric Dondarrion? I agree again; too much exposition crammed into too little space, and a good example of why a 12-episode season sometimes seems like a better fit for material this sprawling than a 10-episode sprint. Theon's re-introduction to his torture chamber, courtesy of his "rescuer"? Well, it's nice that non-book-readers are finally, finally getting acquainted with one of the saga's most sinister figures ("sicko" is precisely the right word, Spencer), but there's a reason that Martin kept Theon's torture offstage in the book: It's far removed from the rest of the action, and (as the luckless princeling learned this week) it doesn't really offer to much to viewers who don't share our nameless's taste for sadism. The Tyrell-Lannister-Stark action in the capital, with Margaery playing the game of thrones like a champion? Liked it all, and especially liked seeing the show's budget stretch a bit to give us a little Lord of the Rings-style grandeur with the Great Sept of Baelor.
This is the happiest I've been with the show, I think, since the blade came down on Sean Bean's neck.
Now down to the most important stuff: The bloody maelstrom in Craster's Keep and the fiery finale in Astapor. Fans of Martin's novels live for these kind of "game changer" sequences, where rising action climaxes in a scene that feels inevitable in hindsight but that still leaves the reader catching his breath. For show-watchers, the prime examples to date have been Ned Stark's execution and the death of Drogo/birth of Daenerys' dragons sequence, which set a standard that nothing in Season 2 quite matched. This week's game changers didn't match those first season moments, either (though the game changer awaiting at the end of this season might), but they both packed a wallop. Lord Commander Mormont is no Ned Stark, sure, but as the Lord Commander of the Watch and Jon Snow's mentor he's one of the weightier figures in the story and the manner of his passing—gutted by his own mutinous men, leaving the Wall exposed to invaders both human and Other—makes it the show's most significant death since Ned and King Robert met their makers. (Renly's assassination had more immediate political implications, but in hindsight everyone understands that he wasn't going to be king anyway.) And the hard bargain Daenerys drove in Astapor changed her position more completely than any character's has really changed since, again, the bloody end of Season 1. A week ago, she was famous only because of her name and dangerous only because of her dragons: Now she's a conqueror, with an army at her back.
I suppose I could have done with a few more of those special effects dollars funneled into the sacking of Astapor: I loved that Rambo shot, too, Spencer, but everything was either close-up or the view from 10,000 feet, so you didn't get a sense of how big and bloody a deal it would be to have an army of slaves unleashed in a city run by slavers. But that's just a quibble. Overall, the sequence met my expectations, and the claustrophobic denouement under Craster's roof exceeded them (thanks in no small part to Robert Pugh, who played the "godly" bastard to perfection). This is the happiest I've been with the show, I think, since the blade came down on Sean Bean's neck.