Game of Thrones Hints at the Apocalypse

Our roundtable discusses 'Kill the Boy,' the fifth episode of the fifth season.

Helen Sloan / HBO

Spencer Kornhaber and Christopher Orr discuss the latest episode of Game of Thrones. (Amy Sullivan is away this week.)

Orr: Happy Mother-of-Dragons’ Day, Daenerys! To honor the occasion we got you this lovely dragon’s egg, tulip, and iris arrangement. Oh, and also, the corpse of Ser Barristan Selmy, destroyer of the Blackfyre Pretenders, rescuer of King Aerys II, and hero of the Greyjoy Rebellion.

I confess that I was more than a little sad to see Barristan the Bold go, especially after it seemed that Grey Worm might have saved him at the end of last week’s episode. In the George R. R. Martin novels, he’s still alive, and a moderately important figure. But showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss warned us they would be charting their own course this season, not least when it came to fatalities.

I like Grey Worm fine, but given the many, many storylines already in play, I could really live without his non-canonical romance with Daenerys’s interpreter, Missandei. The latter seems to have incorporated elements of a handmaiden character with whom Daenerys occasionally had sex in the books; who’d have imagined that Benioff and Weiss would have punted on this opportunity to sex things up in favor of a relationship with a eunuch?

But overall, I thought tonight’s episode was superb—perhaps the best of the season so far—crisply written, directed, and performed. This is especially remarkable given that we didn’t once visit King’s Landing, which has been the show’s most reliable ace in the hole since the very beginning. Indeed, this was a great example of how well it works when Game of Thrones focuses on just a few storylines instead of hopscotching all over Westeros and Essos. We had just four plots tonight: two each in the North (which appear to be preparing to intersect) and across the Narrow Sea (ditto). No Dorne, no Braavos, no King’s Landing. It really makes a big difference.

A common theme in both major plotlines was that of a female dynast who seems to be all alone in a hostile world but may in fact turn out not to be. The idea was highlighted early, with Maester Aemon lamenting the fact that his grandniece, Daenerys, is without the advice and alliances that family provides: “A Targaryen alone in the world is a terrible thing.” Sansa Stark, abandoned in Winterfell to be married to a maniac, clearly feels quite the same way.

But perhaps there’s hope for both. Despite the loss of Ser Barristan, Daenerys has reinforcements (maybe) on the way in Ser Jorah and his captive, Tyrion. Moreover, she has the idea to make new family—and new alliances—of her own with a marriage to Hizdahr zo Loraq. It may not have been the height of romance, but her proposal was pretty much the definition of an offer you can’t refuse: Marry me, or I’ll have my dragons turn you into human s’mores. It’s hard to see him saying no.

It will be interesting to see how Daenerys’s occasional boy-toy Daario Naharis feels about this. For my part, I don’t much care. As regular readers may recall, I preferred the original, season-three portrayal of Daario as a kind of offbeat, surfer-Fabio by Ed Skrein. The current incarnation, played by Michiel Huisman, is pretty much Generic 2015 Romantic Lead, as evidenced by the fact that the actor has played related roles in Treme, Nashville, and Orphan Black. If Dany dumps him, he’ll find sexual solace quickly enough in another series.

Sansa, meanwhile, has guardian angels Brienne and Pod looking out for her. And presumably related (it’s not 100 percent clear), the “the North remembers” serving woman gives Sansa a one-if-by-land signal to use if she finds herself in trouble. Now, I’m not sure that lighting a candle “in the highest window of the broken tower” is going to be a terribly convenient recourse in case of sudden emergency. But I suppose it’s better than nothing. And when we see the tower itself, it’s hard not to flash back to Game of Thrones first terrible hook: Jaime’s diabolical repurposing of 10cc’s “The Things We Do for Love” as he shoved a prepubescent Bran out the window in the series premiere.

As for the rest of the Sansa storyline, all I can say is that any episode that does not feature Ramsay torturing her double-redundantly (we saw him do it to Theon and we saw her suffer it from Joffrey) is a Benioff-Weiss bullet dodged in my book. Even the moments in Winterfell that seemed primed to go off-course righted themselves neatly. When Ramsay’s lady friend Myranda used an easy compliment about stitching to entice Sansa to walk deep into the scary kennel alone—umm, never would happen—I anticipated (as, I think, we were intended to anticipate) some lame canine-murder plot. But no, the Theon reveal was a good one.

Likewise, when Ramsay offered his bit of Theon dinnertime theater to Roose, his new spouse Walda (née Frey), and Sansa, it seemed like the kind of scene Bolton pere would not countenance. But afterward, he upbraided his bastard son that it was a “disgrace,” before telling the story of the latter’s conception, which amounted, in essence, to: “I tolerate you because I, too, am a deranged sociopath; I just put up a better public front.”

Farther north, at the Wall, Jon Snow is “killing the boy” inside (in turn, providing the episode with its title) and Stannis is continuing his evolution into perhaps my favorite character on the show. The man is committed to overthrowing the Boltons and doing whatever it takes—up to and including Jon’s plan to bring the Wildlings south of the Wall—to stop the White Walkers. What’s not to like? (Plus, you have to love Jon’s exchange with Maester Aemon. Jon: “Half the men will hate me as soon as I give the order.” Aemon: “Half the men hate you already.”) That said, I don’t like the look in the eye of Jon’s steward, Olly. Not that you can blame him. Hard to let bygones be bygones, I imagine, when someone has told you “I’m going to eat your dead mama, and I’m going to eat your dead papa.” Just guessing, but that seems like the kind of thing that would stick with you.

Finally, over in Essos, we have kidnapper Jorah and kidnappee Tyrion making clear progress in their journey to Meereen—clear enough that they see Drogon the Dragon (do we think the creature knows how silly that sounds? Might it be why he’s so ill-tempered?) slicing through the skies. I admit to a certain thrill at the sight. Nice, too, to see old Valyria—even if it wasn’t the show’s best CGI—and to hear Tyrion and Jorah sharing a verse about its ancient Doom.

And then, the Stone Men! For weeks, I’d been noting the escalating references to greyscale and at last the foreshadowing has been fulfilled. (A similar scene takes place in the books, but at a different phase and featuring a different character who doesn’t appear in the show.) I’m not sure what this portends for Ser Jorah, but between this nasty STD, Daenerys’s boffing of Daario, and her (presumed) engagement to Hizdahr, it looks like his long-desired joining of the houses of Mormont and Targaryen is less likely than ever.

It’s just you and me this week, Spencer, as Amy is away in Westeros (a.k.a. Ireland). Here’s hoping she doesn’t opt for the Ramsay’s Pleasures tour. Until her return, what am I missing? Is the Bastard of Bolton a better guy than I give him credit for? Will Jorah’s greyscale prove a secret turn-on? Are Grey Worm and Missandei the secret protagonists of the whole show? Thrill me with your acumen, Agent Kornhaber.

Kornhaber: You’re right about this being a great episode. Longtime Thrones writer Bryan Cogman and veteran HBO director Jeremy Podeswa’s ace execution made the hour of theoretically slow plot development as stimulating as a dip in the Smoking Sea. The visuals, especially, stunned even more than usual; Podeswa composed uncluttered shots using a postermaker’s eye, serving up a few images of pure terror in the process (Dany’s dragon materializing in the darkness comes to mind). And like you, I far prefer when the show carefully advances a few key storylines rather than blowing hastily through a bunch of them like it did last week. There’s already so much going on with Thrones; on an episode-by-episode basis, less is often more.

Or is it “fewer is often more?” No, but: The cutaway to Stannis’s grammar check at the Night’s Watch ranks as one of the funniest moments of the series. At first, it came off as a maybe-too-meta piece of fan service, intended to inspire amused tweets a la Matt Weiner’s Sunglasses Peggy shot last week on Mad Men. But then you think about all the ways that the joke works to reinforce key traits about this world and its characters: Stannis’s stickler side; the fact that he’s paying close attention to Jon’s reign as Lord Commander; the education gap between social classes, also seen in this episode through Gilly and Sam’s conversation. Plus, the less/fewer distinction is every grammar scold’s favorite rule, and there’s no reason for that to be different in Westeros, where the common tongue is the same as English except for when it comes to vowels in proper names (it’s Myranda with a y, naturally).

The discussion Stannis had been auditing regarded whether the Night’s Watch would ally with its sworn enemy of 8,000 years. As portrayed by Jon Snow, the choice was no choice at all: Undead hordes will murder everyone, Wildling or not, so maybe it’s time to forget the xenophobia and bloody backstory to save the world. That won’t be easy to do, but setting aside historically justified bitterness for the greater good was a commonly made decision this hour, and maybe it should be one in the real world too. Whether it’s Sansa settling in with the people who murdered her family (and one of the supposed murderers being forced to apologize to her), or Dany marrying into a caste that’s been conspiring to overthrow her, or Tyrion thanking Mormont for saving his life despite the fact that he’s his captive, by this point the characters have figured out that enmity’s a luxury they can’t afford.

You not-so-earnestly asked whether Grey Worm and Missandei’s love may make them the covert heroes of the series. It’s not my favorite storyline either—their scenes together are Nicholas-Sparks-for-ex-slaves sap that’s tonally inconsistent with the rest of the show—but giving these two low-status loyalists a budding romance does underline one key Thrones theme, which is that Everyone Matters. That idea felt especially important last night, as normally unseen and unheard servants took on new prominence. Lil’ crow Olly offered Jon a note of dissent, kennelmaster’s daughter Myranda bit back at Ramsay, Theon/Reek became a human chess piece, Missandei gave her queen counsel, and washbasin-fillers and firewood-handlers hinted at a Stark restoration in Winterfell. Gilly bolted out of the room without a peep when Stannis entered at one point, but lordly characters like him ignore the folks scurrying around in the background at their peril.

That fact was dramatized nicely in the shot of Tyrion gazing up at Drogon as a Stone Man, out of focus to the camera, dropped into the water behind him. It’s always wonderful to see characters we’ve come to know so well express an emotion we haven’t seen before, and Tyrion’s pure awe at the sight of a dragon felt true to the show’s presentation of the supernatural as being as freaky to many of the characters as it would be to us. From a production perspective, the Stone Men looked a little hokey to me—this year’s hot Halloween costume, and it’s only May!—but the Valyrian sequence overall served up some real spookiness. This season has done a lot to deepen viewers’ knowledge of the realm’s history and lore, and knowing that a once-thriving civilization was wiped out by cataclysm makes the world of the show feel bigger and scarier—much the same feeling one sometimes get when considering the fate of Rome, or the dinosaurs. The glimpse of Jorah’s spot of greyscale, a highly contagious zombie-minting disease, drove home the mounting sense of apocalyptic dread. Winter could arrive at any moment, Stannis said earlier in the episode, and that’s as frightening a thought as anything Thrones has yet shown us.