Game of Thrones Goes Off Script—for Better or for Worse?

Our roundtable on "Oathkeeper," the fourth episode of the fourth season of the HBO show.
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Spencer KornhaberChristopher Orr, and Amy Sullivan discuss the latest episode of Game of Thrones.


Kornhaber: Finally, Game of Thrones has gotten around to answering the question that every little Westerosi boy and girl inevitably asks: Mommy, Daddy, where do White Walkers come from?

Or at least, I assume that was the upshot of tonight’s closing sequence, in which Snow Willie Nelson blessed a newborn Craster bastard with a fresh set of irises. Though it offered more CGI-driven style than substance, the scene nicely encapsulated the theme of the preceding 50 or so minutes: family not as an unbreakable bond but rather as one that can be forged and unforged.

Think about that infant’s squeals in relation to the episode-opening dialogue between the Khaleesi’s ex-slave confidantes. The baby in the North was inducted into a supernatural race within hours of taking his first breath; Gray Worm was conscripted into the artificial race of the Unsullied before he could form his first memory. Both events are horrific thefts of innocence, but in Gray Worm’s case we see that bondage at birth doesn’t necessarily mean bondage till death—well, as long as the nice dragon lady helps you unshackle yourself.

Once Meereen falls, Barristan Selmy points out that Daenerys’s growing family now includes the city’s immoral masters. Selmy sees that new affiliation as cause for mercy, but Dany—whose own brother, remember, sold her—believes that justice supersedes formal ties of clan and country. Her crucifixion of the aristocrats reminded me of Robb Stark’s beheading of a valuable but impertinent vassal last season; they’re both examples of a leader choosing principle over politics. Unlike in the Young Wolf's case, the bulk of Dany’s followers were antagonized by those she executed, but I nevertheless fret that Thrones has taught us to expect any ostentatious insistence on “justice” to come with consequences.

In King’s Landing, Jaime and Tyrion’s interactions offered a shockingly heartwarming portrait of fraternal loyalty. I wanted to aww when Bronn related whom the Imp selected as his first champion. But while Jaime’s “Are you really asking if I’d kill my brother?” is lovely as a rhetorical question, I’m not sure I buy that it’s merely rhetorical. Perhaps Benioff and Weiss’s stupid, offensive screw-up regarding the Kingslayer last week is having an effect: Yeah, I wanna like the guy, but he just raped his twin sister. Why wouldn’t he be willing to slice up his lil bro?

Oh, right: Because his lil bro is innocent. Cersei’s insistence otherwise baffles me; as Olenna says, the Queen Regent is vicious but not stupid. Cersei may be angry at Tyrion for sending her daughter to Dorne, but it always seemed like she was more angry at the Tyrells for threatening her influence. Why wouldn’t she consider that the “wicked little bitch” betrothed to her son had something to do with his murder? I’m hoping there’s some-yet-to-be-revealed ulterior motive for her fatwa against Tyrion. Otherwise, coming so soon after Jaime’s incongruously violent display of lust in the Great Sept, I fear the elder Lannister siblings’ inner workings are becoming incomprehensible.

Happily, though, I feel ever-better acquainted with the Tyrells. Here’s a family who knows how to exploit “family.” To their already-vast collection of Machiavellian marriage maneuvers, we can now add Joffrey’s nuptial assassination, Olenna’s seduction of her sister’s fiancé, and Margaery’s expert/creepy flirtation with the tweenage Tommen. Are the Highgardeners loyal to anyone? Yes, in fact. Olenna’s willing to poison her son-in-law, but it’s (in part, at least) out of concern for her blood kin: “You don’t think I’d let you marry that beast, did you?”

Up in the North, the most proudly artificial family of all—the Brothers of the Night’s Watch—features as much internal dissention as, say, the Allen-Farrows. But the rivalry between Alliser Thorne and Jon Snow may soon pale in comparison to the chaos caused by the infiltrator Locke. He’s the Bolton vassal that you, Chris, have publicly argued should not exist, so I’ll be interested to hear what you think of his growing role in the story. For now I’ll just note that his admittance to the Crows’ ranks seemed to come a little too easily. Didn’t Snow and Sam toil in training for at least a half season before they were able to take their vows?

Further north, I’d love to make some observation about how the Craster’s Keep mutineers fit into the familial theme of the episode. But then I’d have to rewatch those scenes of skull wine and rape and more motivation-free sadism a la Joffrey and Ramsay—no thanks. Poor Hodor!

Instead, I’ll say a word in praise of director Michelle MacLaren. I don’t recall her previous two Thrones episodes standing out much, but tonight she brought the assurance and panache that she so frequently bestowed upon Breaking Bad. In particular, her attention to facial features felt revelatory. We’ve lived with these characters for some time now, but I found myself noticing anew the scar over Brienne’s lip and the creases in Jaime’s cheeks. The scene between Tommen and Margaery riveted especially for its tense intimacy, with MacLaren’s lens pulling in close on these two sets of doe eyes: one containing guileless wonder and fear, the other concealing cold calculation.

Another visual note: It’s fun to see the show blow some of its FX budget in the North and in Meereen. But Daenerys looking down from the top of the ziggurat makes for the kind of moment where digital animation just distracts. We’re supposed to be marveling at Khaleesi’s might; instead, I’m thinking about Linkin Park videos. Just build a set, HBO.

Chris and Amy, give me your non-spoilery books trivia regarding what just transpired. And: Where are we on Littlefinger’s accent this week? 


Orr: First things first. It wasn’t Snow Willie Nelson who took that little Crastlet and, as Crystal Gayle would say, turned his brown eyes blue. (Hey, at least I restrained the impulse to make a Tobias-Funke, “I blue myself” joke.) No, Snow Willie Nelson only carried the baby on his zombie horse called music and placed him on the ceremonial slab at, umm, Snowhenge. It was Snow Mark Metcalf who did the actual bluing.

(Mark Metcalf? He played the Master in the first season of Buffy. Wrinkled, hairless, big-nostriled, wickedly manicured…. No? Fine, you do better.)

UPN

This is as good a point as any, however, at which to note that I have no more idea what’s going on above the Wall than you do, Spencer. Last week, I observed that showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss were providing more and more original scenes and dialogue, while generally remaining within the confines of the narrative laid down by George R.R. Martin’s novels. But tonight’s episode, written by longtime contributor Bryan Cogman, busts out of that narrative altogether, particularly up North. Indeed, there may have been more liberties taken with the source material in tonight’s episode than in all the previous episodes combined. That last bit with the White Walker King making a White Walker Baby was new, as were Jon Snow’s mission to kill the Craster’s mutineers, Bran’s capture by the same, Locke’s infiltration of the Night’s Watch—you name it.

As a book reader, this makes me simultaneously optimistic and nervous. Optimistic, because soon enough Benioff and Weiss will find themselves having to write their way out of the problematic storylines of Martin’s later novels, and they’ll need the practice. (Plus, none of the new developments this week are obviously bad ideas.) Nervous, because there’s still so much great material from the third book that needs to be crammed into this season that new story arcs will likely only distract from them. (Plus, any of this week’s new developments could easily prove to be bad ideas.)

But before we get to the crazy new happenings in the North, let’s start with the events in Meereen and King’s Landing. Following Grey Worm’s successful incitement of the slaves in the former city, Daenerys adopts a tough-love approach to her new hegemonical acquisition. Ignoring Ser Barristan’s suggestion that it is “better to answer injustice with mercy,” she proceeds to answer it instead with “justice,” nailing 163 slave masters to crosses—one for every child they had treated the same way. (Note that she’s not the only “good” character this episode to explicitly equate justice with death: Jon Snow proposes the same remedy for the Night’s Watch mutineers.)

You’re right about the importance of this decision, Spencer. On its most fundamental level, Game of Thrones is about which forms of leadership are most likely to win the “game,” in the long- as well as short-term: honor and rule-following (the Starks, Stannis Baratheon), overwhelming force (Robert Baratheon), subterfuge and punishment (the Lannisters), or quiet deal-making and soft power (the Tyrells). Daenerys is trying to find her way through this thicket as well. The reason that her storyline is generally less interesting is that she has no meaningful foils or adversaries. While the competitors for Westeros are plotting against one another, she’s basically on her own in the East: Her victories against the masters of Slaver’s Bay are the victories of a one-player game, not victories over other players.

Back in King’s Landing, by contrast, the contours of the competition are becoming clearer—even with the absence this episode of potential wild card Oberyn Martell. In the ongoing thermonuclear war between Lannister siblings Cersei and Tyrion, we find tie-breaker Jaime siding unexpectedly with his brother. He even sends Brienne (and Pod!) out to find and protect Sansa, his unconsummated sister-in-law. (Side note: His invitation to Brienne to name the sword he gives her seems to be yet another punch line for the Hound’s colorful description of people who like to name their swords.)

As for the motivations of Cersei and Jaime, I’ll try to offer explanations, Spencer. Regarding the former, her hatred of Tyrion is tied up in part with the fact that her mother died giving birth to him, but more principally with the simple fact of his ugliness. Given the degree to which Cersei is defined by her beauty, she sees having a brother like Tyrion as a genetic rebuke of her entire worldview. (Remember her look of disgust last week when she glimpsed Jaime’s stump, moments after a rapturous kiss?)

As for Jaime—well, I think the best thing to do is to try to forget the scene in Baelor’s Sept altogether, or at least re-envision it more along the lines of Martin’s original, mostly consensual text. As I assumed at the time, and now pretty clearly appears to be the case, Benioff and Weiss staged a rape scene largely by accident. So hold it against them, by all means. But try not to hold it against Jaime, who is (relatively speaking and until further notice) one of the good guys.

Getting back to the idea of competing modes of governance, I also like the way the showrunners have been developing the Tyrells. In the books, the family is more opaque (none of them are point-of-view characters), but Benioff and Weiss have filled them out them nicely, in particular Margaery and Lady Olenna. (The latter’s line about flinging herself from the cliffs if she has to take “one more leisurely stroll through these gardens” is about as self-referential as the show ever gets.) The floral cunning of the Tyrells provides a particularly nice contrast with the more straightforward Machiavellianism of the Lannisters.

As for Littlefinger, he’s playing another game altogether, some form of three-dimensional Westerosian meta-chess. I am a little concerned, however, that as his character becomes more explicitly villainous, actor Aidan Gillen is feeling the need to enunciate more and more theatrically. The throaty accent this week wasn’t quite as bad as the full-on Batman-rasp of last episode, but it was still moderately distracting.

Which brings us to the new doings up North. Despite my nervousness about Benioff and Weiss’s deviations, I confess to a certain thrill at for once not knowing what’s going to happen next. In theory, I like the idea that Jon Snow has to go kill the Craster’s mutineers before Mance Rayder gets hold of them. But I worry that it’s taking place at the one point in the series to date where there is already more than enough happening up around the Wall to fill the remaining episodes. (For instance, what exactly are Ygritte and the other wildlings supposed to be doing during the time that Jon & Co. are venturing to Craster’s? There are only so many Northern towns that the Magnar of Thenn can eat on his way to Castle Black.)

I am, as you note Spencer, a confirmed Locke-hater, and I agree that his appearance at Castle Black could have been set up a little more carefully. Criminals who join the Night’s Watch—and he’s claiming to be one—don’t generally just show up unaccompanied, after all. But I’m willing to give this storyline the benefit of the doubt for the time being.

When it comes to Bran and clan stumbling into a Weekend-at-Craster’s situation, though, I’m less optimistic. For starters, it seems like a rather large coincidence that in the whole wide North the travelling young ‘uns just happened to camp within earshot of Mutiny Central. More important, I’m not sure where this storyline can go that will be satisfying. If Jon Snow and Bran have another near-missed reunion (as they did last season when Jon broke with the Wildlings outside the tower where Bran hid), it will be one too many. And if they actually do hook up, well, what then? I suppose we’ll find out. This may come down to a question of whether it’s worth injecting a little more action into the Bran storyline—as the showrunners seem to be gambling—even if it requires giving it more overall screen time. (On an only peripherally related note, how is it that I haven’t seen any Westeros-themed variation on the Bob and Doug McKenzie classic, “Take Off [to the Great White North]”? Somebody needs to make this happen.)

As for the Crazy Ice King and his magic fingernail, I’m not sure what to think. Is this a non-canonical invention by Benioff and Weiss, or an as-yet-unrevealed detail of Martinania? Either way, it seems like a bit of overkill when it comes to  viral reproduction: the White Walkers already create their zombie armies from dead human beings. Do they really have to create themselves out of living ones? I guess I’ll leave that question to the paranormal evolutionary biologists.

A final note on this episode’s visuals: I’m with you on all counts, Spencer. Some truly striking closeups, but the pull-away shot of Daenerys’s CGI pyramid was money ill-spent. Save it for the dragons, guys!

What about you, Amy? What did you think of tonight’s episode—and, in particular, the unexpected new wrinkles it’s thrown at us?


Sullivan: This episode managed to make me even angrier at the men responsible for the scene-that-should-be-forgotten from last week. (Emphasis on men. Because speaking of Michelle MacLaren, there’s no way a female director would have accidentally filmed a rape scene if it was meant to be read as ultimately consensual.)

Chris, you and others have written about the disturbing tendency of Benioff and Weiss to turn consensual or ambiguous sex scenes from the book into forced sex onscreen. What was more upsetting about this scene is that the director, the actor playing Jaime, and the show-runners all thought they had created a scene that portrayed consensual sex. (To my knowledge, the actress playing Cersei—Lena Headey—hasn’t publicly shared her take on the scene.) If that’s the going understanding of consent these days, I’m not letting my daughter out of the house, ever.

But what upsets me as a viewer is that in one scene, the show screwed up what had been a really fascinating character arc with Jaime Lannister. Ser Jaime was seemingly everywhere on the show tonight—Jaime and Bronn! Jaime and Tyrion! Jaime and Cersei! Jaime and Brienne!—to enjoyable effect. Is there anyone Nikolaj Coster-Waldau doesn’t have amazing chemistry with? He totally made me tear up as he watched Brienne ride off to keep the oath they both made to Catelyn Stark.

It was only possible to watch these scenes of Jaime doing the right thing, however, by pretending that last week never happened. I’ll do that, of course, but I’m annoyed that I even have to.

Okay—rant delivered. As for those King’s Landing scenes this week, I’m glad we got to see Jaime caught in the Lannister sibling triangle. As twisted as his relationship with Cersei is, Jaime has always been close to—and protective of—his little brother. But who would have thought Bronn would be the one to soften Jaime’s heart and inspire that visit to Tyrion’s dungeon cell? Actually, that cuddly-bear side of Bronn isn’t so surprising if you’ve seen the music videos of his time as one-half of a 1990s chart-topping duo. And having seen those videos, I now can’t think of anything else whenever Bronn comes onscreen. (That choreography!)

Between choosing to believe Tyrion, refusing to hunt down and kill Sansa, and sending off Brienne with his Tywin-gifted sword of Valyarian steel, Jaime is quite the good-guy rebel in this episode. He clearly can’t survive the series. But we can enjoy his scenes while they last.

That’s more than I can say for Littlefinger. Yes, Chris, Littlefinger is doing everything short of twirling his mustache as he becomes more and more of a bad chaperone for our Sansa. But it’s his dialogue that concerns me as much as his delivery. Littlefinger is becoming a walking book of Machiavellian sayings: “A man with no motive is a man no one suspects,” “Always keep your foes confused,” and last week’s awesome “Gold buys a man’s silence for a time; a bolt in the heart buys it forever.” If that’s his idea of how to woo a lady, it’s no wonder Catelyn Stark rejected his advances.

Spencer, I’m disappointed we didn’t get more of a reaction from you to the (official) reveal that Lady Olenna was the one who killed Joffrey. We also got confirmation in this episode of the answer to another open question: Joffrey was indeed a horrible older brother. No wonder Tommen didn’t need any time to grieve. What kind of monster would want to kill the adorable fuzzball Ser Pounce? “Joffrey didn’t like him. He threatened to skin him alive and mix his innards up in my food so I wouldn’t know I was eating him.”

No Daario scenes in tonight’s episode, so, yawn. Actually, I’m happy to leave the Meereen discussions to you two. That whole plot-line bothers me in the books and it doesn’t do much for me on the screen. Wake me up when we’re in the last season and Daenerys finally remembers she wanted to get back to Westeros with her dragons to reclaim the Iron Throne.

I do have some thoughts about the final scenes north of the Wall, however—and one only half-formed theory. Like you, Chris, I will be annoyed if this rewriting of the Bran plot results in yet another Stark-ships-passing-in-the-night. And I am surprised that Benioff and Weiss have chosen to move away from what should be the tense and dramatic build-up of Mance Rayder’s advance on the Wall and Castle Black. That said, any change to Bran’s plotline makes me happy, and I’m surprised by how much I want to see two Starks in the same room together again.

I’ll admit to being distracted during the abandoned baby scenes—as the mother of a five-month-old, I cannot hear a baby cry without every cell in my body freaking out. But as soon as I saw the baby in that rider’s arms, I wondered: What ever did happen to Benjen Stark, younger brother of Ned, uncle of Jon Snow, and missing first Ranger of the Night’s Watch? I’m not saying Benjen has turned into the king of the zombies. But I’m not saying he hasn’t, either. 

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Amy Sullivan is a correspondent for National Journal and the director of the Next Economy Project. More

Amy Sullivan is a writer and former senior editor at TIME Magazine who covers politics, religion and culture. She previously served as the magazine's nation editor and as editor of The Washington Monthly. Her first book, The Party Faithful: How and Why Democrats are Closing the God Gap, was published by Scribner in 2008. She was a 2009 Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellow in Science & Religion.

Spencer Kornhaber is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he edits the Entertainment channel. More

Before coming to The Atlantic, he worked as an editor for AOL's Patch.com and as a staff writer at Village Voice Media's OC Weekly. He has also written for Spin, The AV Club, RollingStone.com, Field & Stream, and The Orange County Register.

Christopher Orr is a senior editor and the principal film critic at The Atlantic. He has written on movies for The New Republic, LA Weekly, Salon, and The New York Sun, and has worked as an editor for numerous publications.

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