Orr: Another week, another extremely satisfying Game of Thrones episode. “Breaker of Chains” was written by showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss, and was directed, like last week’s episode, by Alex Graves. So it’s perhaps fitting that the action picks up directly where it left off, with Cersei cradling her dead son Joffrey and screaming at her brother Tyrion, in grief and rage, “You did this! You did this!”
From that point, the episode follows a simple yet elegant structure, with less jumping back and forth between storylines than we often see. First, the episode offers its (moderately) Big Reveal of Littlefinger as the principal plotter behind the show’s latest nuptial assassination. Next, we eavesdrop on a few family discussions scattered across King’s Landing—between Margaery and Lady Olenna, Tywin and Tommen, and Jaime and Cersei (who, yes, do considerably more than “discuss”). Then we head northward for another installment of On the Road with Arya and the Hound, followed by scenes at the Wall and Dragonstone. We return to the capital for exchanges between Tywin and Oberyn and then Tyrion and Pod. And, finally, the episode concludes with two sets of invaders: the wildlings approaching Castle Black and Daenerys’s army outside the gates of Meereen.
Not a great deal of consequence happens this week, but that seems appropriate in the immediate aftermath of the Purple Wedding. Just as the final episodes of seasons one through three were largely about rearranging the game board following penultimate episodes that upended it (Ned’s beheading, the reversal on the Blackwater, the Red Wedding), so too this installment needed to reckon with the ripples of another king’s death.
It certainly doesn’t hurt that, scene by scene, the whole episode crackles in conversation, thanks to sharp writing by Benioff and Weiss. I loved the Tyrell tete-a-tete in which the Margaery laments her streak of murdered husbands—“I must be cursed”—only to have her grandmother correct her: “Nonsense. Your circumstances have improved markedly.” Tywin’s lecture on kingship to Tommen likewise offers just the right balance between genuine wisdom, self-serving advice, and Tywinesque scorn for his progeny. (“Your brother was not a good king. If he had been, he might still be alive.”)
A few other favorite bits of dialogue:
Arya: “You’re the worst shit in the Seven Kingdoms.”
The Hound: “There’s plenty worse than me.”
Ser Davos: “If you’re a famous smuggler, you’re not doing it right.”
Tyrion: “[Cersei] is the only one I’m absolutely sure had nothing to do with this murder, which makes it unique as King’s Landing murders go.”
Things are at last getting interesting at the Wall—the scene in which Ygritte and the other wildlings massacre a Northern village certainly raises the stakes—and there are signs of imminent movement at Dragonstone. Daenerys has one of her occasional regal speeches. (The catapulted slave collars were a nice kicker.) And if we must have sexposition—and it appears we must—I’d just as soon it be narrated by the terrific Oberyn Martell and Elaria Sand. Finally, I quite liked the scene with Tyrion and Podrick, which offers the latter a nice moment of recognition on his way out the door. (I was reminded of the touchingly awkward wolf-loaf that Hot Pie baked for Arya before she moved on without him last season.)
But I feel I have to find something to complain about, and given the absence this episode of my usual hobbyhorses, Ramsay and Shae, I offer the following quibbles:
1) What’s with Littlefinger’s over-the-top stage whisper as he talks to Sansa on the boat off King’s Landing? For a minute, I thought I was listening to Christian Bale’s Batman.
2) I know you, Amy, are fond of Daario Naharis 2.0. But I find him lame beyond words. The duel with the champion of Meereen would have been so much more striking had Benioff and Weiss kept last season’s Surfer Daario: He was more physically formidable, more swaggering, more “exotic,” and way less like some guy you’d find singing “A Horse with No Name” on open-mic night. Instead, when this season’s version (played by Treme and Nashville vet Michiel Huisman) began his little speech on why Daenerys should choose him to represent her, I envisioned it continuing:
I was the last to join your army. I’m not your general or a member of your Queen’s Guard or the commander of your Unsullied. Hell, I’m played by some new guy in a generic beard who bears no resemblance to the character in the novels or even the guy who played that character last season. The showrunners have done everything but hang a sign around my neck that says “expendable.” Why not risk my life? Even if I survive, they’ll probably recast the role again next season.
But apart from Raspy Petyr Baelish and Boring Daario Naharis, I thought this episode hit pretty much every one of its marks. And what makes this accomplishment all the more impressive—and promising—is that so much of the material is original. This last week I took a toe-dip back into A Storm of Swords, the George R. R. Martin novel from which this season is primarily adapted. And I was surprised to see that most of the scenes in this episode don’t appear in the book at all but rather are additions and variations supplied by Benioff and Weiss.
Don’t get me wrong: In contrast to some past infidelities—the replacement of one boring Qarth storyline with another, equally boring Qarth storyline; the total mucking up of the Ramsay character—the tweaks and tinkers on display this episode all adhere to the general plot arc of the Martin novels. But because those novels are told in point-of-view chapters by a limited number of characters, scenes that do not involve at least one POV character can only be relayed secondhand. Neither Margaery nor Olenna are POV characters, for example, so their scene this episode couldn’t have taken place in Martin’s framework. Ditto Tywin and Oberyn. Indeed, one of the ways Benioff and Weiss have often managed to improve on the books is by erasing the distinction between the major (that is, POV) characters and the minor ones. Most of the characters who are better onscreen than they were on the page (Tywin, Margaery, Bronn, Ygritte, Oberyn, Olenna, the Hound, etc.) are beneficiaries of this more democratic storytelling style.
An episode this good that draws mostly on the imaginations of Benioff and Weiss would be good news under any circumstances. But it’s particularly good news given where the series may be headed after this season. As readers of the books know (and many non-readers have heard), in the fourth and especially fifth novels, Martin begins spiraling farther and farther outwards, introducing an ever-multiplying array of characters, storylines, and venues. (Braavos! Pentos! Dorne! Oldtown!) The longstanding question has been how Benioff and Weiss might be able to save this material from itself, and I think this episode offers the hints of an answer.