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.