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: It seems only fair. After Arya's brutally aborted reunion with her family last week, tonight we were offered a few literal and metaphorical homecomings. In descending order of satisfaction: Sam and Jon find each other once again at Castle Black; Daenerys adopts a city's worth of new dependents; Davos is accepted back into Stannis's embrace about five minutes after the latter sentenced him to death; Jaime (or most of him) reunites with a less-than-entirely-ecstatic Cersei; and Theon (or at least his self-described "best part") is delivered to his dad in a box. Oh, and Tywin Lannister is restored to his rightful place as the man in Westeros on whose bad side you least want to be, king or no king. (Paying attention, Joffrey?)
We've been here before, of course, in both Seasons One and Two: The penultimate episode overturns the Game of Thrones playing board—Ned loses his head, the Lannisters turn the tide on the Blackwater—and the season finale picks up the remaining pieces.
As I've mentioned throughout our roundtables, I continue to be baffled by the show's start-stop pacing. The latter half of this season consisted of three consecutive episodes that significantly pared down the number of storylines and developments (often to agreeable effect), followed by the final two, in which major twists—including the major twist of the Red Wedding—competed for attention with a variety of subsidiary narratives. It's as if showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss miscounted their seasonal allotment and belatedly realized that they had to cram four episodes' worth of plot down into two.
That said, there was plenty to like tonight. Like the season overall, it offered glimpses of both the potential promise and the potential pitfalls of Benioff and Weiss making the story their own, rather than adhering slavishly to the blueprint provided by George R. R. Martin. Take, for example, the Tyrion-Sansa "sheep shift" scene, which is not in the books. I have my quibbles with the execution (does Sansa really need to be that stupid?) but the hint that maybe, just maybe, these two relatively decent characters could find a way to be happy as husband and wife gave another layer of resonance to the subsequent revelation that his dad had just engineered the brutal slaughter of her mother and brother. That's probably going to set back the clock a bit in the whole gradual-effort-to-win-her-heart scenario.
It's as if showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss miscounted their seasonal allotment and belatedly realized that they had to cram four episodes' worth of plot down into two.
On the other hand—and in keeping with the theme of The Many Loves of Tyrion Lannister—I increasingly dislike the portrayal of proud-but-resentful Shae, whose motivations are becoming ever more far-fetched. Let's see: Accept a large bag of diamonds to restart your life as a wealthy and beautiful woman who can pick among her suitors? Or remain a sulky, secret servant to the wife of your ex-lover (and, as such, a pretty clear candidate to be killed at any time) just because you want him to "tell you himself" that it's not working out? Perhaps it's just me, but having a gimlet-eyed, wise-to-the-world gal like Shae (also, relevantly, a career prostitute) choose Door Number Two seems a considerable reach.
Elsewhere tonight—and there were a lot of elsewheres tonight—I thought that Samwell Tarley and Bran Stark's intersecting storylines provided some of the best material either has had to date (which is not, alas, saying all that much), and it was nice to see Peter Vaughan's Maester Aemon again after a long absence. Liam Cunningham, who plays Davos Seaworth, continues to make the most of pretty much every onscreen opportunity he gets, even if his Dragonstone costars (Stephen Dillane's Stannis and Carice van Houten's Melisandre) remain decidedly uneven. And the culmination of Daenerys's soft conquest of Yunkai was both a bit underwhelming—certainly relative to her incendiary capture of Astapor—and featured substantially too much crowd surfing.
I give way to no one when it comes to appreciation of Rose Leslie's Ygritte, but her Angry Cupid act with Jon Snow felt a bit off to me. In the books, she puts an arrow in his leg during his direwolf-assisted escape from the wildlings, which took place last episode. Having her track him down to do the same at a later date (plus, um, where are all the other wildlings?) seemed an unnecessary indulgence, however striking she may be with a bow in her hand and tears in her eyes.
Charles Dance, meanwhile, was in exquisite Tywin-form taking his family back in Hand at King's Landing, and never more so than when he trained his cool, death-ray gaze on his putative ruler (and grandson twice-over) Joffrey: "The King is tired. Take him to his chambers"—where's this guy when it's bedtime at my house?
Which brings me to the interminably awaited (and widely guessed) revelation that Theon's torturer is, in fact, Ramsay Snow, the Bastard of Bolton, renowned flayer of skin and eater of pork sausages. His treatment represents perhaps the greatest departure that Benioff and Weiss have yet made in adapting Martin's novels, and I have a bone I've been waiting to pick for some time about how they went about it. (Those readers uninterested in questions about the transition from page to screen may want to skip the next few paragraphs.)
In the Martin novels, we meet Ramsay in book two. A renowned rapist and murderer, he usurped the identity of his dead manservant/accomplice "Reek" in order to escape execution. In this guise, he's brought as a prisoner to Winterfell, where he ingratiates himself with Theon after the latter takes the city. It's Ramsay/Reek who, after Bran and Rickon Stark escape, persuades Theon to kill two peasant boys, mutilate their bodies, and claim that they are the Stark heirs. (In the show, this falls to a minor Ironborn character, Dagmer Cleftjaw.)
Even setting aside the show's graphic (and to my mind unnecessary) depictions of Ramsay's torture of Theon—which take place "offscreen" in the books—there are plenty of narrative complaints that can be made regarding Ramsay's portrayal. Principally, his refabricating Theon as a broken creature called Reek (as we saw tonight) is vastly more interesting if you know that 1) he previously had a degenerate servant named Reek whom he sacrificed in his employ; and 2) when he initially met Theon he was pretending to be that servant. Of course, there are counterarguments, too (the Ramsay/Reek subterfuge is reasonably complicated, and Benioff and Weiss needed to cut where possible), and counterarguments to those counterarguments (if you had to cut something from Season Two, couldn't it have been from the Qarth subplot?).
But my dismay at the Ramsay adjustments is less narrative than philosophical. In the novels, Ramsay is both the figure who tempts Theon across a moral boundary from which he can never return (the killing of the peasant boys) and the one who subsequently punishes him for his transgressions. By cutting out the first half of this equation, Benioff and Weiss have reduced Ramsay to a garden-variety psychosexual sociopath—more accomplished than, say, Joffrey, but not appreciably different in kind. In Martin's vision, by contrast, he is a chillingly literal embodiment of the Devil: He seduces you to evil and then sentences you to Hell. This is not a small alteration.
Have I been waiting eight episodes to make that observation? Why, yes I have. How could you tell?
Now back to our regularly scheduled programming: I'd say tonight's episode provided a fitting, if imperfect, end to the season. It had its ups and downs, its clever infidelities to Martin's text and its moments when it should have left well enough alone.
Overall, I found the season to be a substantial improvement over Season Two (which was still pretty damn good), even if it failed to rise to the near-perfection of Season One (which was immensely aided by its relative simplicity). To my mind, the fundamental question moving forward will be how well Benioff and Weiss can pare and adapt Martin's ever-more-sprawling (and unlikely to be completed) opus, and on this score I think Season Three offered both reasons to be optimistic, and reasons to be less optimistic.
Before asking what you guys thought, though, let me say thanks to you both for doing this—it's been an utter blast—and particular thanks for putting up with my occasionally idiosyncratic obsessions. Thanks, too, to our readers, for more of the same, for your many sharp comments and close analyses on subjects from Pod's penis to Talisa's fate, and most of all for not telling Spencer that everyone was going to die in Episode Nine.