Just How Game-Changing Was That Big Revelation on Game of Thrones?

Our roundtable on "First of His Name," the fifth 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: Well, that was satisfying. As the world’s preeminent hater of the Locke character—this side of Jaime Lannister, at least—I was of course delighted to see the nonsensical Bolton vassal shuffle off his mortal coil. More delightful still was the manner of his passing: skull-squeezed by a wargged-out Hodor.

Indeed, there was plenty to like in tonight’s climax at Craster’s Keep—which, as I mentioned last week, is an entirely non-canonical discursion from the novels cooked up by showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss. Let’s start with the superpowers. The Bran/Jojen/Meera/Hodor storyline is a relatively dull one (in the books and onscreen alike), so I appreciated the young ‘uns having a chance to break out their special abilities. Jojen’s “I saw you die tonight” to mutineer-in-chief Karl might have been the bossest line uttered by a kid since Gordie Lachance told Ace Merill, “No, Ace. Just you” almost 30 years ago in Stand by Me. As noted, Bran taking circumstances into his own hands—by which I of course mean Hodor’s hands—was moderately awesome. And as long as I’m recounting supernatural satisfactions, I should mention the happy reunion of Jon Snow and Ghost, right after the direwolf treated Rast, the final Night’s Watch mutineer, as so much kibble.

It was also awfully nice to see a little gender payback for once. Jon’s bringing-a-sword-to-a-knifefight tussle with Karl didn’t do much for me, but I liked that he was rescued by one of Craster’s wives. I also appreciated the attention paid to what the wives’ had endured for so very long and to their final, fiery vindication. (I’d been wondering what was going on earlier, when Jojen’s hand got all Human Torch-y.) I’m not sure that the idea of Craster’s wives “finding their own way” is the best of all possible plans north of the Wall, but I certainly wish them luck.

Back in King’s Landing, we crowned a new king—again. (Given the recent lifespans of kings in Westeros, one has to assume that the invocation “long may he reign” is taken about as seriously as the ’til-death-do-us-part was at Liz Taylor’s seventh wedding.) Perhaps in celebration of having a boy-king who is not devoted to the torture of animals and murder of prostitutes, everyone in the capital seemed to take a timeout from their plots and counter-plots, leading to the remarkable discovery that they can all get along pretty well when they try. Margaery and Cersei(!), Tywin and Cersei(!!), Oberyn and Cersei(!!!)—who imagined that the Queen Regent could go three consecutive scenes without uttering a single contemptuous barb or thinly veiled threat? This was her most human portrayal since the series began.

And the happy-vibe seemed to be catching. Can someone remind me when was the last time (if ever) that Tywin had a talk with one of his children that didn’t involve direct personal abuse? Tonight, he instead gently confided to Cersei that her inheritance might not be quite what she anticipated, now that the Lannister money-pits have run dry. (This might be a good time for Tywin to see if he can live up to the old joke and shit himself some gold.) And how hard must it have been for Charles Dance and Lena Headey to maintain straight faces when, discussing the question of how long is a suitable period to mourn Joffrey’s death before marrying his brother Tommen to his widow Margaery, Tywin suggests “a fortnight?”

Meanwhile, I continue to find Pedro Pascal’s Oberyn Martell the show’s best addition this season. (Insert gratuitous dig at Michiel Huisman’s Daario Nahaaris here.) How great is it that, in addition to a lover and a fighter, we now learn Prince Oberyn is a poet as well? I confess, though, that I was a tad disappointed that he was writing for his daughter rather than Ellaria Sand: I’d envisioned something in the erotic line, one part Pablo Neruda and two parts Catullus.

This week we also had not one but two mismatched-buddy road comedies, adding Brienne and Pod to our customary dose of Arya and the Hound. I thought our new duo got off to an unpromising start with the whole World’s Worst Squire routine: the burned rabbit, the lousy horsemanship, etc. etc. We’ve seen Pod played for comedy before—remember the Westerosian sex-god mini-plot last season?—and the results were not pretty. But as it did two episodes ago, when Tyrion sent him on his way, the show afforded Pod a share of quiet dignity by the end of his campfire chat with Brienne. Nice.

I was simultaneously elated and mildly heartbroken by the scene—again, added by Benioff and Weiss—in which Arya and the Hound invoke the ghost of Syrio Forel, one of the best supporting characters the show has ever had. (You have to love the Hound’s combination of incredulity and amusement when he asks, “The greatest swordsman who ever lived and he didn’t have a sword?”) In the books, as in the show, we never actually saw Syrio die, so I spent the better part of four novels—which is to say, about 326,000 pages—hoping he might reappear. (He hasn’t.) My challenge to the showrunners is this: If you can write a new scene discussing Syrio’s death, you can write a new scene in which it turns out he’s not actually dead. Somebody get started on the online petition….

Over in Slaver’s Bay, Daenerys got a stark lesson in the difference between conquering and ruling with the news that Yunkai has been retaken by slavers and Astapor has slipped under the despotic thumb of a (literal and figurative) butcher named Cleon. Faced with the question of whether to stick around and sort things out or take a pass and sail for Westeros, she opted for the former. But what I liked most about this scene was the way her discussion with Sers Barristan and Mormont—about whether 10,000 men might be enough to take King’s Landing—elegantly set up the next scene, in which Sansa and Littlefinger arrive at the Eyrie. Noting the narrow pass through which an army would have to squeeze to attack the citadel, Littlefinger explains, “Know your strengths, use them wisely, and one man can be worth 10,000.” The juxtaposition is exact: Who do you think is more dangerous, after all, Daenerys’s 10,000 men or one Littlefinger?

If there were any doubt, it should have been erased moments later, with one of the most game-changing revelations of the series: It turns out that Jon Arryn, former Hand of the King, was murdered not by the Lannisters—as we’ve believed all the way from episode one, season one—but by his own wife, Lysa, who poisoned him at Littlefinger’s behest and then framed the Lannisters in a letter to her sister, Catelyn Stark.

It would be difficult to overstate the significance of this development. The murder of Jon Arryn was, after all, the precipitating event for pretty much everything that has happened on Game of Thrones. By killing the Hand and framing the Lannisters, Littlefinger sowed dissent between the Lannisters, Baratheons, Tullys, and Starks, leading to war and the near-dissolution of three of those four crucial families. (Sure, King Tommen is technically a Baratheon….) With his subsequent poisoning of Joffrey, Littlefinger weakened the triumphant but war-weary (and, as we now know, dead-broke) Lannisters, and forged a secret alliance with the wealthy Tyrells. Not bad for a minor lord from the house of Baelish.

Moreover, as you noted back in our first recap, Spencer, the postwar landscape of much of Westeros has devolved into chaos and plunder. Didn’t someone once tell us that chaos is a ladder? And what better seat from which to watch it unfold than one high above, in a fortress that “has never been overcome—not once—in a thousand years”?

So, 10,000 men or one Littlefinger? Easy choice.

(It should be noted, though, that dragons rather complicate the calculation—and presumably could render the Eyrie a great deal less impregnable.)

And that was only the beginning of this week’s developments in the Vale of Arryn. There was also the marvelous scene between Lysa and Sansa, in which the former shifted from maternal compassion to brutal sexual competition and back so quickly that her niece nearly suffered whiplash. It was probably for the best, though: At least this way Sansa was already in shock when she was told of her upcoming betrothal to Lysa’s puling, infantile son, Robin. By my count that makes three upcoming nuptials: What could possibly go wrong?

How about you, Spencer? What did you think of “The First of His Name”?

Kornhaber: I thought it was a nice mid-season episode, propelled by Michelle MacLaren’s elegant direction, Benioff and Weiss’s smart dialogue, and the refreshing fact that storylines from Essos to King’s Landing seemed to enter new chapters.

But as the one member of this roundtable who hasn’t read any George R.R. Martin, I find myself in the curious position of wanting to carp about the showrunners’ divergence from the books. Tonight, they wrapped up the digression involving Craster’s Keep they’d begun an episode earlier, leaving the larger storyline essentially unaltered—Bran’s still heading north, Jon Snow’s still an emerging leader of men, and Locke isn’t going to dismember any other characters. Looking back, it’s hard to avoid the feeling that a big part of the reason for the new subplot’s existence was the need to a) kill time and b) inject some additional sexual assault and violence onto the show. Both of which are curious goals when you’re adapting an already dense, mayhem-laden text.

Don’t get me wrong—the return to Craster's did make for some good television. The last 15 minutes or so of this episode packed more suspense than any scene since Joffrey’s wedding-day torment of Tyrion has. But it was all decidedly, almost parodically, television. By which I mean, Game of Thrones is better than most shows precisely because it doesn’t typically trump up drama by putting its characters in situations as silly as the video-game boss duel between Jon and Karl (with the mutineers outnumbered and outmatched, there’s no reason for Snow to take this guy on alone). I’ll agree that we got a nice fist-pump moment when a Craster wife intervened, but we’ve seen that kind of deus-ex-machina fight resolution so many times elsewhere that the thrill feels a bit hollow. I’m conflicted here—I do want the producers to enliven the dull parts of the books, but am wary about any slippage away from the genre-busting realism that makes Game of Thrones so distinctive.

Additionally, the new material offered yet another example of Benioff and Weiss’s tendency to “gore the lily.” In order for us to cheer at at the skull-swording of Karl, a character we’d really only really gotten to know one episode earlier, the show had to very quickly and very loudly proclaimed his awfulness—and it did so by portraying a couple more women getting raped. Westeros is a cruel place, but there are consequences to the showrunners constantly straining to make it even crueler. As one example: Cersei’s remark that “everywhere in the world they hurt little girls” is stunning, sad, and true, but its airing in this episode came across a bit like screenwriterly justification for all the extra misogyny portrayed lately.

OK, enough whining about a TV show being a TV show. The episode-closing battle was at least a change of pace, and as I said, I liked the hour a great deal because so much of it felt like fresh territory. As you noted, Chris, with Tommen as king, we see rare friendly vibes in King’s Landing. With Dany turning her eye towards ruling, she breaks out of what had become a tiresome unstoppable-messiah routine. With Littlefinger up in the Vale, a long-hidden scheme unhides itself—and reveals a philosophizing pimp as the true villain of Westeros.

That philosophizing pimp's speech about using your strengths highlighted one of the episode’s motifs: resources and tradeoffs. Like you said, Chris, the juxtaposition of Daenerys and Littledfinger scenes raised the question of how much an army and a fleet are really worth. Both the Hound and Brienne reminded us that “armor and a big fucking sword” can protect, but it can also encumber. The Eyrie has security, but unfortunately for Sansa, it doesn’t have lemons.

And, most forebodingly, the Lannisters wield power, but that’s in large part because they’re as overleveraged as pre-crash Bear Stearns. Tywin’s economic briefing about the transactional marriages to come reminded me of how the show has been not-so-subtly foreshadowing a confrontation with the Iron Bank for quite some time (remember Tyrion’s beleaguered stint as Master of Coin?). By this point, Bravosi money handlers seem more mythical and terrifying than the White Walkers.

Speaking of terrifying: Let’s all tremble and applaud at the return of Kate Dickey as Lysa Arryn. While it’s unclear whether the school-age Robin is still suckling on her, the Lady of the Vale has a real shot at the title of Most Viscerally Unpleasant Person in Westeros now that Joffrey and Karl are gone. Her only real competition is Ramsay Snow, a garden-variety SWM (sadistic white male). With her unique blend of fetid sexual energy, harpy shrieks, mercurial moods, and cavernously flaring nostrils, I suspect she might just eclipse the rest of the cast in terms of nightmare fodder by season’s end. What say you, Amy—would you like to make the bad woman fly?

Sullivan: Chris mentioned gender payback earlier, and I suppose it should be satisfying to have a female character be as utterly riveting and creepy as Joffrey or Ramsay. But it was hard for me to appreciate Lysa’s glorious insanity—even when she swings open those doors to reveal the waiting sexton there to marry them immediately, with guards presumably to make sure Littlefinger doesn’t make a run for it—when I saw Sansa’s face.

We’ve been with her over the course of four seasons, so it can be easy to forget that in Westeros time, it hasn’t been so very long since Sansa watched her father beheaded at the order of her then-fiancé; endured beatings and psychological torture from Joffrey; lost Arya, the remaining family member who was with her in King’s Landing; learned that her mother and oldest brother were viciously murdered; and possibly got word that her home was burned to the ground and her youngest brothers along with it. (Anyone remember if we ever get confirmation that Sansa knows what has happened at Winterfell?)

As far as Sansa knows, she’s lost her home and her entire family—and now she’s on the run from Queen Cersei, who suspects her of involvement in Joffrey’s death and wants her head on a spike. Her rescuer, as far as that goes, is the slimy Littlefinger who sees in her the face of the only woman he ever loved. But now, having arrived in the Vale, Sansa is greeted as a loved one by her mother’s sister. The relief on Sansa’s face, the urgency with which she embraced her aunt are heartbreaking. This eerie Lady of the Eyrie—who a few scenes later will excitedly chirp “You’re about to be a widow!” the way normal people get excited about things like weddings or births—is all the family she has left.

That was the theme of this episode, with many of our characters facing decisions when they realize who it is that they’re left to rely on. It’s always difficult to know when Cersei is being real—she could still be playing a long game with Margaery—but I suspect what we saw tonight was a woman who has lost her son, cut herself off from both her brothers, and is left no longer having the strength or will to continue fighting her father. The scene between Cersei and Tywin—who seems remarkably calm about their financial straits—played like any interaction between a privileged teenager and her father over money. “Can’t you talk to someone?” asks Cersei, who has never met a problem that being a Lannister can’t fix. “There is no someone,” says Tywin. “It’s the Iron Bank. … You can’t run from them, you can’t cheat them, you can’t sway them with excuses. If you owe them money, you pay them back.”

Spencer, you referenced Cersei’s walk with Oberyn, when we saw her at perhaps her most vulnerable and human so far in this series. That line “everywhere in the world, they hurt little girls” got me, too. One argument of George Martin’s that almost sways me concerning the amount of mayhem and sexual violence in this series is that he wanted to make explicitly clear who suffers when war and unrest are normal, and what it means to be a woman in a world run by men. We hear the phrase “rape and pillage” tossed off to describe the actions of soldiers and conquerors from the beginning of time up to present-day, and Martin wants to make us see: This is what it actually looks like when men rape and pillage and act as if everyone and everything is theirs for the taking. And Cersei, whether or not Jaime raped her, has suffered her whole life for being a woman, pimped out by her father for the greater good of forming alliances. She is powerful—but only until one of the men in her life needs her to do something against her will.

Fantasy would be a series in which little girls and women were off-limits and no one would dream of hurting them. In the real world, men can kidnap more than 200 school girls in Nigeria and their country’s leaders don’t bat an eye. Everywhere in the world, they hurt little girls.

A few weeks back Chris nominated Oberyn as the Inigo Montoya of our series. But after hearing the litany Arya runs through every evening before she sleeps, I’d say she has that role sewn up. Her quest may take her a while, though, as she’s after many more than just the Six-Fingered Man or the Mountain. She may be protected by the Hound for the moment—and only because he’s hoping for a reward—but tonight’s episode was a whole lot darker than just “Arya and The Hound Go Camping!” Her murderous anger includes him as well—she sees their arrangement as temporary and functional. And she’ll kill him in his sleep when she can.

And finally we have Bran, who did indeed end up not-quite-reuniting with Jon Snow, as you predicted and feared last week, Chris. The battle at Craster’s Keep actually took away some of the emotional impact of the two brothers being so close—and one even catching sight of the other—and yet not even getting to speak to each other. Likewise, because we know so little about Bran’s quest beyond Jojen’s vague encouragements and the image of a tree, it’s hard to really feel the significance of Bran sacrificing security and family love for the sake of his mission. This isn’t Frodo on his way to destroy the ring. Or at least, not that we know of yet. For now, we just know that Jon was right there—and instead Bran and the Gang are once again headed into the great frozen beyond.

We did get one unreservedly happy reunion. Jon and Ghost are together again, so something is right in this world. I still want to know what Arya’s direwolf is up to, and when we’re getting the meeting of that hound and The Hound.