This review contains spoilers.
It’s a tale of rebellions. Daenerys Targaryen and her slave armies are overthrowing the cruel despots of Slaver’s Bay, one walled city-state at a time. Meanwhile, north of the wall, a comparatively good leader in Jeor Mormont was betrayed and killed by his own men, and it’s up to Jon Snow and a group of volunteers to get justice for the Old Bear (before Mance Rayder and his wildling army overthrow Westeros’ power structure completely in favor of a wildling kingdom on both sides of the wall). Robb Stark’s rebellion is crushed, and Stannis Baratheon’s is mostly crushed, but the Seven Kingdoms faces continual threats from within and without.
Westeros is a huge continent, but it’s also a pretty small world in the hands of David Benioff and D. B. Weiss. The show’s characters fit together almost seamlessly during the episode. If you mention Sansa, the next scene will have Sansa. If you mention the Night’s Watch, cut to Jon Snow almost immediately. It’s a clever way to balance the cast and the competiting stories, as well as allowing the viewer to focus on shared themes rather than keeping (for example) Dany off on her own doing her owh thing. Connecting characters in such a progression is an older idea, but still one of the most successful ideas.
Director Michelle MacLaren is probably the best visual director in the Game of Thrones stable now that Alan Taylor has (for now) left the program. (You could also say the same thing about MacLaren’s work on The Walking Dead for that matter.) There’s some really clever visuals this week, mostly centered around the siege of Meereen. From the claustrophobic scenes in the beginning when the Unsullied sneak into Meereen to sneak weapons into the hands of the slaves of that city to the inevitable death and crucifiction of the city’s masters, it’s a really impressive bit of storytelling.
With a few particular scenes, MacLaren is able to tell an entire story in less than 10 minutes of screen time. It’s not just that she communicates the story, it’s that she communicates it with such a sense of style. The sewer break-in is claustrophobic. You can almost smell the basement in which the slaves meet. When Daenerys has the masters crucified and put up around the city and overlooks her new conquered territory, the slow transition from the screams of the tortured to Dany standing atop her pyramid with the black and red dragon of the Targaryens draped across the arms of the harpy of Old Ghis is really a great visual for her arc as the great white savior of all of the slaves of Essos.
This visual flair is more than matched by the script from Bryan Cogman, who did the excellent Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things from Thrones’ first season, as well as a couple of great episodes from last season, What Is Dead May Never Die and Kissed By Fire. Back at the keyboard for this episode, Cogman has turned in a brilliant script full of great moments for pretty much every character. Jamie and Brienne come to an understanding about the recovery and safety of Sansa Stark, while Cersei wants her (and Tyrion, and lots of other people) dead for the role she played in Joffrey’s death.
A role that was confirmed to her this week by Littlefinger in a brilliant scene absolutely crushed by Aidan Gillen. He not only gives Sansa a necessary education about the whys and hows and whos of his plot, he also manages to make the word “everything” in the creepiest thing this side of a white walker, just based on his delivery alone. Of course, since it’s Littlefinger, you can never tell just when he’s telling the truth and when he’s lying, but Olenna seems to confirm his story in the following scene of her in the garden with Margaery. The Tyrells wouldn’t let their rose get trampled beneath the heel of a mad king, and now it’s Margaery’s turn to find her way into the good graces of the next king via the sort of late-night visit that will kickstart a boy’s puberty a few years early. Margaery is great at her schemes, and Natalie Dormer is great in her role; sometimes the show can feel like the Peter Dinklage show, but it’s loaded with talented performers who are really good at what they do, aided by great writing and direction.
This early in the season, Game of Thrones is still preparing to drop the hammer on the audience. Granted, they already killed off Joffrey, but I have no doubt that the show has more craziness in store for the home viewer. After all, we finally got to see what happened to all those unlucky children of Craster once the white walkers have taken them off to their secret ice-Mordor alters. In a beautiful sequence, Michelle MacLaren does a wonderful job of turning something suspenseful into something beautiful, then expertly making it creepy again with a final shot of the last son of Craster’s eyes turning white walker blue. Cleverly, Maclaren uses the ice of the setting to leave the white walker – or whatever it is – blurry and out of focus. It’s a figure of dread, but it’s a subtle figure of dread. When the face is revealed to look like a flash-frozen Darth Maul, it’d even more effective for the teasing.
Game of Thrones has proven itself to build up quite well to big moments by slowly escalating the horror until it provides some sort of Big Event to blow off steam. The death of Joffrey felt like a Big Event, but the show is slowly making it clear that Joffrey’s death, like Ned’s death in the first season, is only a precursor ro something larger and crazier than can be imagined right now. Much like all the glimpses of the white walkers so far, it’s been more tease than payoff, but that’ll eventually change and in spectacular fashion. For the moment, though, I’m very happy to keep my focus on the squabbling of Westerosi nobles, but in the back of my mind, I know: winter is coming.
US Correspondent Ron Hogan can’t wait for Pod to storm to Tyrion’s rescue, riding on the back of a dragon and leading an army of King’s Landing hookers ready to save their meal ticket. Find more by Ron daily at Shaktronics and PopFi.
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