Game of Thrones Is Just Getting Bloodier—and Better

Our roundtable on "Breaker of Chains," the third episode of the HBO show's fourth season.

Helen Sloan / HBO

Spencer Kornhaber, Christopher Orr, and Amy Sullivan discuss the latest episode of Game of Thrones.

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.

Specifically, it suggests that rather than continually broaden the story (as Martin does), the showrunners can instead deepen it, staging delectable scenes that are only implicit in the books, giving minor characters their due (I’m again reminded of Pod’s magnanimous sendoff), and generally enriching Martin’s central plots while hopefully excising some of the secondary ones. Can Benioff and Weiss pull this off? Only the Lord of Light knows. But three episodes into season four I’m as optimistic as I’ve ever been.

In any case, I’m getting ahead of myself. Setting the future aside, what did you guys think of “Breaker of Chains”?

Kornhaber: I enjoyed the episode, though I’ll confess that fact has me concerned for my soul and yours. This week, Game of Thrones followed its latest grotesque character death with even more horrors. A shadowy pimp callously cross-bolted a loyal knight; Wildlings slaughtered an innocent hamlet and promised the sole surviving child they’d eat his dead parents; brother raped sister at the their son’s coffinside.

Garden-variety concessions to what True Detective’s Nic Pizzolatto referred to as cable television’s “mandate” for explicitness? Maybe. Helpful visual accompaniment to Olenna’s aphorism that “the world is full of horrible things, but they're all a tray of cakes next to death?” Of course.

But I think there’s something else going on, too. A lot of observers last week complained that Joffrey’s death underwhelmed; sure, there was gagging and vomiting and bulging eyeballs, but, as Amy wrote, Joffrey’s long career of terribleness would seem to warrant a long and more-terrible death. Even showrunner Weiss referred to the poisoning as “anti-climatic,” going on to say that “the standard move would be to give you a sense of release, a sense of happiness … the idea somehow the moral calculus of the world has been made right.”

Yet as Jon Snow said by way of explanation for why the mutineer crows must die, “It’s not about justice.” Indeed, whoever killed Joffrey was almost certainly unconcerned with righting the “moral calculus of the world”—they likely did it because it’d put them ahead in the game of thrones. The reveal of Littlefinger as apparent Purple Wedding maestro only underscores that fact. This is the guy whose power lust creeps even Varys out, who laid down the show’s “chaos is a ladder” ethos, whose idea of comfort for Sansa is to offer a Machiavellian fortune cookie: “Gold buys a man's silence for a time. A bolt in the heart buys it forever.”

By this point, we should all recognize that Thrones is a study in the harsh virtues of realpolitik. But the yin-yang shocks of the Red Wedding and the Purple Wedding had kicked back up suspicions that good and evil, right and wrong, and crime and punishment, might be relevant concepts in Westeros. Tonight’s hour filleted those suspicions. When the Hound responds to accusations of amoral shittiness, he’s addressing the audience as much as he’s addressing Arya: “I just understand the way things are. How many Starks do they have to behead before you figure it out?”

Importantly, though, the show is doing more than reiterating the “you win or you die” philosophy. It’s demonstrating that that philosophy is ascendant, and that it’s turning Westeros into a hellscape. Introducing the Thenn raid from the point of view of the workaday villagers was the kind of cinematic trick I don’t recall Thrones pulling before; the effect was to remind us that even likable badasses like Ygritte are cool with murdering innocents. The guy with the stew-making daughter is, as Sandor says, a good man who’s not fit to survive his times; over dinner, we hear him testify to just how dangerous things have become for commonfolk since the War of the Five Kings.

All of which makes me ambivalent about Daenerys’s messiah march through Essos. This week, once again, we saw her score another win by relying on the unmatched talents of her hunky groupies and the straightforward appeal of her slavery=bad preaching. Lofty, ethical beliefs and a personal desire for revenge seem to motivate her quest, but it’s unsettling that she, in defiance of everything we viewers have learned, acts like amassing power doesn’t have to be a dirty game. I wonder, and actually hope, that there comes a point where she has to choose between being a conquering Khaleesi and a righteous human being.

As for the most important issue facing the show—Daario Naharis’s appearance—I have thoughts. Amy’s right that the new Daario is handsomer, but Chris is right that the old one was more memorable—and that’s because actor Ed Skrein stood out from the rest of the cast with his '90s Matthew McConaughey clean-shaven stoner vibe. Now that we’re in the era of Rust Cohle, my theory is that Skrein’s previous-commitment excuse was BS, and the show really recast him to so that the Mother of Dragons’ love interest would fit in with our scruffy, Brooklyn-dominated zeitgeist. All the better to stoke Daarionys shippers on Tumblr! But: Researchers in Australia this week announced that culturally, we may have hit “peak beard,” meaning that the attractiveness advantage bros gain from facial hair can only decline from here on.  Baby faces may be cool again soon—so perhaps the show’s big twist next season will be Skrein’s return.  Is that in the books?

This hot-or-not talk reminds me we’ve yet to tackle the sexual dynamics of this episode. I’m going to find it easier to root for Oberyn as someone who maintains alpha-male status while openly embracing his midrange Kinsey score—especially when it has the added, hilarious effect of denying Tywin a clean bed to sit on. Meanwhile, I’m going to find it a lot harder to root for Jaime after he sexually assaulted Cersei in the most ghastly circumstances imaginable. Amy, as a noted Kingslayer fan, what did you make of that scene? This can only lead to Joffrey’s rebirth as a demon baby, right?

Sullivan: Um, yeah. Was it just last week I was singing Jaime’s praises and declaring him rehabilitated as a wholly sympathetic figure? It’s been a while since I read the books. Clearly I forgot that Westeros’ favorite lovers from the same mother can always make their relationship even more twisted. Although, I’m not sure even they can top incestuous coffin-side rape. And if they can, I really don’t want to see it.

I’m sorry to hear you’re both still unmoved by the charms of Michiel Huisman. You’ll want to avoid the new season of Orphan Black. (I know! It’s as if someone said, “Cast that man in all of Amy Sullivan’s favorite shows!”) I honestly don’t see how Surfer Daario would have improved the duel at all—I thought it was pretty badass, the better for not being a typical mano-a-mano tussle but instead letting Daario end it before it ever really began.

Agree to disagree. Littlefinger, on the other hand, was indeed distracting—and not just because of his creepy, raspy delivery. Has Aidan Gillen’s Irish accent ever been this strong on the show before? Maybe when Littlefinger gets out of King’s Landing, he doesn’t feel the need to keep up the manor-born act. Whatever the case, it’s hard to feel relieved for poor Sansa, who has finally escaped the control of Cersei and Joffrey. She couldn’t have stayed in King’s Landing, we know that. But she has no idea where she’s headed. And her rescuer is a creep who was slightly obsessed with her mother and taunts Sansa about her naiveté. Sleep with one eye open, girl.

Meanwhile, back in King’s Landing, everyone but Cersei seems to be moving with lightning speed past the death of Joffrey. Not that anyone could blame Margaery for failing to mourn her dead husband-for-a-few-hours, but maybe she could hold off for a few days on the “So, am I the queen?” questions. Even Lady Olenna corrects her etiquette: “This would not be an opportune time to press the issue.”

Olenna’s rival for power, Lord Tywin, takes the opposite approach: This is precisely the time to bring young, passive Tommen under his control and consolidate power once again. Cersei is appalled that her father chooses to do this in the temple, over Joffrey’s corpse—in her reactions during this scene, you can see her horror both at her father’s calculating coldness and his blithe disparagement of Joffrey: “Your brother was not a wise king. Your brother was not a good king. If he had been, perhaps he’d still be alive.” Charles Dance is a treasure, and that line reading alone made the episode for me.

Even Tommen doesn’t seem too put off by big brother’s untimely death—one gets the sense that Joffrey wasn’t exactly the chummiest sibling. When Jaime moves to comfort him, Tommen is all, totally fine, dude.

Overall, I enjoyed the episode—although to nitpick, Chris, that Oberyn and Ellaria scene was not sexposition but just good old gratuitous sex—and it made me optimistic about both where this season and the whole series is going. The middle books do tend to get bogged down, as Martin has to send his characters off to the corners of the Seven Kingdoms so that he can gather them back by the end of the series. (There might even be an entire book or so that could be whittled down to, say, an episode…) If the showrunners can continue to pare down some of the less compelling storylines while deepening plots for some of the better characters, we’re in for some good television and some excellent storytelling.

Spring has come to Washington, but winter is coming, guys. This might be a good time to work on your crossbow skills if you’re rusty. You don’t want to be caught unaware by a pack of marauding Thenns when you’re cooking potatoes.