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.
Orr: Ygritte, light of my life, fire of my....
Where was I? Oh yes, Episode 5, "Kissed by Fire."
A couple of recaps ago, Ross noted that he 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." Well, the promise of that increased respect seems to have been more than showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss could resist. (Alas, Ross is out of pocket this week and will have to forego any victory lap.) Forget the prostitute extras of episodes past: This week featured back-to-back hot tubbing by Jon and Ygritte and Brienne and Jaime, with an added dose of dude-ity (and ill-considered pillow talk) from Ser Loras and a new acquaintance. In all, the cast shed their threads almost as often as the performers in a 1970s production of Hair.
And who can blame them? The storylines in which characters declined to disrobe had an unpleasant tendency to resolve themselves in murder, execution, compelled marriage, and, in one case, a (temporarily) fatal instance of bisection by sword.
It was, in short, an episode crammed with developments almost across the board. While there were no appearances by Theon, Sam, or Bran, and the Mystery of Pod's Penis remained unresolved, pretty much every other character on the show was nudged forward along his or her narrative arc: Beric Dondarrion revealed the secret of his mortal persistence (and in so doing complicated our assessment of the Red God); Jon Snow and Ygritte found the one spot north of the wall where it was warm enough for them to take the next step; Rickard Karstark lost his head, figuratively and then literally; Tyrion and Lady Olenna bartered over who would pick up the tab for the royal wedding (her lines, "I was told you were drunk, impertinent and thoroughly debauched. You can imagine my disappointment at finding nothing but a browbeaten bookkeeper," may have been my favorite of the episode); we met Stannis's fanatical wife, afflicted daughter, and—I assume—stillborn sons (a gruesome detail not in the books); Jaime revealed the mitigating circumstances under which he earned the title Kingslayer; Sers Jorah Mormont and Barristan Selmy continued to take one another's measure while Danaerys promoted one of the Unsullied; Arya bade farewell to Gendry; the Onion Knight got a reading lesson; and the quiet plotting and counter-plotting between Lannisters and Tyrells in King's Landing took another matrimonial turn. In addition, there were doubtless a few other twists that I missed while I was trying to work out the cramps in my note-taking hand.
Indeed, if I have a complaint with the otherwise excellent "Kissed by Fire," it's that it squeezed in too much, such that a few key moments were given too little space to breathe. Take the resurrection of Beric Dondarrion: I'd expected that his death at the hands of the Hound would take place in one scene, and his revival by Thoros would be a Big Reveal at some subsequent point in the episode. Instead, the latter came so fast on the heels of the former that we barely had time to notice he was dead in the first place.
So, too, with Lord Karstark's murder of the Lannister boys and his subsequent judgment and execution by Robb. It was handled deftly enough—Richard Madden continues to come into his own as the young King of the North—but it would have been nice if the genuine tragedy of his situation had been given a little more time to sink in: kill Karstark, and he loses the allegiance of half his Northmen, without winning an iota of gratitude from the Lannisters; let Karstark live, and he gives tacit endorsement to murder and treason. Given how truly Robb is the heir to Ned Stark's sense of honor, it wasn't much of a choice at all. But it's yet another example of circumstances conspiring such that he can "win every battle but lose the war."
Jaime's revelation to Brienne—a crucial stage in his ongoing evolution—felt a tad rushed as well, as did the delicious concluding scene in which Tywin tells his shocked children, Tyrion and Cersei, of the unilateral marital plans he's devised for them. (In the books, Tywin's paternal interventions take place in reverse sequence: Cersei first, then the Imp. I'd been looking forward to the profound glee with which Tyrion receives the news that his dad wants Cersei to remarry—it may be his single happiest moment in all the novels—but in this restructuring he's obviously too miffed by his own connubial obligations to savor the moment.)
As we discussed earlier in the season, Benioff and Weiss have an almost impossibly tricky balancing act to maintain on the show, between focusing on a particular storyline (as they did in last season's "Blackwater" episode) and keeping all the others moving forward. "Kissed by Fire" struck me as one of the clearest examples to date of the dangers inherent in the latter imperative. I can't recall a single scene this week that I thought was a misfire (a rarity, as regular readers can attest), but the episode overall seemed less than the sum of its parts, and a potent reminder that there can be too much of a good thing.
At least that was my takeaway. How about you, Spencer? I can hardly imagine what it would be like to swallow all these developments in a single sitting as a non-reader of the books. What's your verdict? A satisfyingly hearty meal or the makings of a bad case of narrative indigestion?
Kornhaber: Too... many... developments? No. I show up to an episode wanting to see forward movement, and unlike in the talky, table-setting opening hours of this season, the bulk of the scenes here provided an "oh SHIT!" moment of one sort or another. Count this newbie as satiated.
If anything made me queasy, it was the tension of seeing characters having to juggle the oaths they've sworn to competing authorities—lords, gods, family, codes of conduct. Whether it was Jaime recounting the choice between betraying his king or his conscience, or Robb weighing justice against strategy in punishing an insubordinate (and later realizing he'll need the help of a lord whose commitment he'd flaked on), or Jon trampling his vows by surrendering intel and his virginity, or Jorah and Barristan feeling out each other's loyalties, or Stannis confessing infidelity to his creepily permissive wife, each storyline in "Kissed by Fire" suggested that abandoning promises in Thrones can be not only pragmatic, but principled.
The opening scene, though, forwent any moral murk and instead delivered the dumb clarity of trial by duel—and a badass one at that. The sound editors cranked to 11 the roar of Beric Dondarrion's flaming sabre, the clank of steel on steel, the clatter of kicked barrels, and the savage sideline "KILL HIM!" of Arya Stark. The effect was such that I was hunched with my face inches from my laptop screen (the 2013 equivalent of "edge of my seat"), hanging on every reversal of advantage in the fight. Dondarrion's resurrection may have come too quickly for book readers' tastes, Chris, but I didn't mind, as his character hasn't been much developed on the TV show. His demise felt just north of incidental, and his return roused one of those "oh SHIT"s not because Berric Is Back but more because This Lord of Light Guy Really Is Something, Huh?
I'm not sure I like whatever that "something" is, though. As we saw so many times last night, much of Thrones is about people cutting through the flimsy ties of decorum, honor, and fealty in the name of raw, fact-based self-interest. But kill-at-will, resurrect-at-will magic like we've seen from the fire god's faithful screws with that cold logic: It's still not clear who has access to it, and the adherents speak in glazed-eyed, hazily motivated gobbledygook—i.e. all of the scenes with Stannis's wife. And I'm waiting for the explanation from why the hell this religion hasn't already conquered the world if equipped with such powers. But all will be made clear eventually, right?
Onto the sex scenes. At Think Progress recently, Alyssa Rosenberg hosted a discussion about the lies pop culture tells us about sex—among them that "sex is something you're inherently good at or not good at, rather than a set of skills you develop." The non-conspiracy-theory version of the Podrick-at-the-whorehouse plot offered up that trope as humor, but Jon Snow's deflowering was far funnier for its unwinking depiction of Snow as naive sex god who just knows exactly when and where, to, uh, kiss. (Interestingly, Daenerys's evolution in the first season was the opposite of this, no?) Oh well. The stone-pillow talk and the cave-Jacuzzi confessions of love were endearing, at least. And, as noted, Loras's encounter with his cute new squire was a step towards righting the show's long-maligned deficit in equal-opportunity ogling.
Other instances of affection felt a bit too hammy, though. Gendry's "you wouldn't be my family, you'd be m'lady" to Arya made me gag, but I'm glad we get to bid adieu to the non-entity that he's been. I found Jaime and Brienne's hot-tub scene transfixing—the Oathbreaker's confession hinted that the glimmer of humanity we've seen in him lately may have been there all along—right until the end. That's when the Lannister inexplicably convulsed, Brienne shouted out "The Kingslayer!", and Jaime corrected her with his real name. Bleh. The scene had already reach a crescendo; it didn't need a daytime-soap kicker.
But the episode kicker, was, as you put it Chris, delicious. The first finale this season to not hinge on a violent showdown, it opens new lines of intrigue, deepens the oh-so-fascinating daddy issues in House Lannister, and to my eye, plants the possibility of a familial mutiny. Jaime's undergoing an identity crisis out at House Bolton, and now Tyrion and Cersei are being made to wreck their lives to secure their father's dynasty. But the Queen Regent outright rejects Tywin's order at first, and for all of Charles Dance's matter-of-fact menace, the only cudgel his character brandishes is paternity: "You're my daughter! You'll do as I command!" As we were reminded repeatedly in the preceding 50+ minutes, stronger bonds have been broken in Westeros.