I am about ready to say that Game of Thrones has reached its prime.
Usually with these premium cables shows, the first or two seasons tend to be the most interesting, as they lay out the writers’ original vision. Yet, this week’s “The Climb” is aptly named. Not just because Jon Snow and company climb a big ass chunk of ice, but because the show is climbing higher and higher from the text-bound previous seasons. This episode may have taken more liberties from George R.R. Martin’s “Song of Ice and Fire” series than any single episode, but for good reason. With this marking the fourth stellar hour of TV in a row for the series, it’s as if creators David Benioff and DB Weiss (who not so coincidentally wrote this episode) are finally climbing out of pure fidelity and HBO clichés to create something that is both ever faithful to its source material and able to stand free from it. Six episodes in, we may just be nearing the top for what is becoming the greatest show currently on television.
The episode makes no illusions of its framing device this week, which is the epic wall-climbing adventures of a certain bastard and his new crew of Wildling buddies. Like a Sylvester Stallone ‘90s movie, these crazy kids are going to climb, scale and nearly fall off the tallest structure in Westeros. Brandon the Builder’s unholy triumph: The Wall. But not before some lovey-dovey time between Jon Snow and Ygritte. The two begin the episode still swooning from last week’s lovemaking. Ygritte even finally compliments Jon Snow for being a proper lover (apparently, the tongues of the Free Men do not go South of the Wall very often). However, Ygritte reveals a startling thing that is quite different from her literary counterpart. She knew Jon Snow was still loyal to the Night’s Watch when she brought him to Mance Rayder. She knows that he may be loyal to the Night’s Watch right now. She knows and does not care if he would only be loyal to her. She is his woman now and her argument that he owes her more than any king or brotherhood is more convincing than a measly oath in front of a tree. Especially when she pleasantly ends her sweet nothings with, “Don’t ever betray me because I’ll cut your pretty cock right off and wear it round m’neck.” Ah, there is the reason we love Ygritte.
In earnest though, their entire journey up the wall was a necessary spotlight on the Bastard of Winterfell. Too often in Season 2, Jon Snow’s story got lost in the shuffle and got shortened further than Jon’s manhood was in Ygritte’s threat. Last week, we may have seen Jon Snow kiss that fire, as she keeps reminding us, but this gives the real attention to Jon Snow that his story desperately deserves. Their precarious climb up the ice throughout the show is both a stunning marvel on a TV budget and a case of great character-driven suspense. When the warg cuts the line to the lovers’ rope, I half expected the show to kill her off, despite having read the books. When they reach the top to that sunrise over the green forest of the North, they and their roles have been elevated along with the show.
Robb also spent the week having new headaches. Walder Frey’s men, two of his interchangeable sons or grandsons or incestuous uncles for all I know, have arrived to negotiate a re-alliance with Robb. They want Robb Stark to give a formal apology. Done. Also, they need Harrenhal. Who really wants Harrenhal, anyway? Oh, and Edmure Tully (Cat’s brother and Walder’s liege lord) has to marry Walder’s 19-year-old daughter. Like as soon as possible. Edmure initially balks at the demand, desiring at least the chance to pick from Walder’s extensive litter. But Robb, Cat and the Blackfish all turn the screws and lay the guilt on Edmure for having let the Mountain get away in a previous battle. Geez Robb, the only reason you even have to RENEGOTIATE the Twins’ support is because you couldn’t keep it in your pants.Uncle Edmure cannot even have a minute to clean up your mess? Also, why is Cat sitting as Robb’s council again? Did her imprisonment leave with Karstark’s head? It is an interesting scene, because everyone is blaming Brutus Edmure for Robb’s own folly. Edmure relents, but one wonders if Robb even yet realizes the strategic error in his own prideful stances. No man should be twice indebted to Walder Frey. Ah well, put down the spear and crack out the champagne. There’s a wedding coming up!read more: Game of Thrones Season 8 Predictions and Theories
While Robb is making family pay for his broken promises, Arya is receiving it in kind from the Brotherhood Without Banners. As she waits to be taken to her family in Riverrun, she notices the arrival of a strange lady in red. It is Melisandre! On a related note, I feel like every time her name is even whispered that a horse, somewhere off in the distance, should neigh. The Red Priestess has come to the riverlands for…Gendry!
Thus, I stand as one TV critic proven wrong. For those loyal DoG readers, you may recall my kvetching last week about how it is a shame that they are writing Gendry essentially out of the series. If the writers were smart, I purported, they would ignore George “Railroad” Martin and find a way to keep him around. Well, sure enough, they did. It appears he is replacing Edric Storm, a bastard of Robert Baratheon’s, from the books. Don’t know who Edric Storm is? No worries! It just means that Gendry is sticking around, even if they curtailed his best scenes of the book. It also means that Thoros and Beric Dondarrion are liars, because they promised to let Gendry stay amongst their ranks. In a wonderful moment, Arya changes her spite from them to Melisandre. She calls the Red Lady a witch and breathes hellfire to the emerald-eyed succubus. Melisandre has the nerve to say there is a darkness in Arya’s soul. Pot and kettle? At least the Fire Priestess promises the two shall meet again. That last bit should be really intriguing for book readers. I just hope that when their paths cross again that Melisandre is not the only one bringing the heat.
But perhaps the most tension was once again in King’s Landing. While Sansa walks the path of many a teenage girl before her by not realizing just which side Loras Tyrell raises his sword for, everyone around her schemes. In an amazing scene, Tywin Lannister meets with Lady Olenna Redwyne. The Tyrell matriarch is here to prevent a union between Cersei and Loras. Tywin is determined that this is the best way to unite their two houses. Olenna does not wish for her grandson to marry someone so old. Diana Rigg, who just guest spotted on a superb episode of Doctor Who, sparkles in her devious eyes when she purports that she is an expert on the subject of “old”. Charles Dance also showed up with his best game in this entirely made-up scene. He reveals an outrageous disgust for the rumors about Loras’s nocturnal habits. When Olenna counters by asking him if he has ever swallowed swords, the look on his face is priceless. The more Tywin flaunts his homophobia, the more he sets himself up for the zinger. “True we [Highgarden] don’t tie ourselves in knots over a discreet bit of buggery, but brothers and sisters?! Where I come from that stain would be very difficult to wash out”. Tywin’s words protest this fact, but the way he shrinks from the conversation and goes over to the window to avert his gaze confess his knowledge. Jaime and Cersei sitting in a tree…
Ultimately, Tywin threatens Olenna that if Loras does not marry Cersei, whether she can bear him a child or not, that he will conscript Loras to the King’s Guard where he will be unable to take a wife and continue the Tyrell line. The most fascinating thing about this moment is Olenna relents. She claims to concede she has met her match in Tywin. Somehow, I doubt it. The only thing certain is that the show is completely disregarding how particular events play out in the books. It is riveting.
Almost as addictive is Tyrion and Cersei’s wound-licking from last week. They are both being wedded to partners who will be equally unenthused. Cersei wonders who is getting the rawest deal and Tyrion glumly answers “Sansa”. Indeed. It is so fitting that after 2.5 seasons of bickering that it is Tywin Lannister punishing both his children, which brings them together. Like a pair of teens trying to figure out how to sneak off to a party, the two share their misery over wine while they continue to cry. In all their bitterness, Tyrion even gets Cersei to admit that a) Tyrion saved her life in “Blackwater” and b) Joffrey tried to have Tyrion killed. She will not mouth it herself, but she agrees that only Joffrey would be so stupid as to have Tyrion murdered by one of his own King’s Guard in front of his own army.
Thus, the show has softened Cersei again by passing one of her most despicable acts over to Joffrey. She even shows a little sympathy for Tyrion when he mans up to go tell Sansa the big news. The scene politely and elegantly cuts away before Tyrion reveals to Sansa (and Shae!) the happy tidings, but oh to be a fly in that room! Did Sansa scream? Cry? Laugh as her handmaiden attempted to strangle the life out of the Imp?
Meanwhile, Varys and Littlefinger meet in the throne room for a new rejoinder. Varys promises that he has no ill will for Petyr Baleish, the future Lord of the Vale. Yet, I am not so sure that the same can be said in return. Littlefinger calls Varys a friend, but lets the audience glance at the purest depths of fury hidden within. Varys tried to spirit Sansa out of his grasp and this indignation cannot stand. While the Stark girl cries that she must stay, likely forever, in the capital where her future in-laws ordered the death of her father, Littlefinger gloats. Also, the underling who informed to Varys on him? Well, he found a new use for her.
In one of the episode’s final images, right before a romantic kiss between Jon and Ygritte atop the Wall, we see Ros naked, dripping blood and dead in Joffrey’s bedroom. He has shot her multiple times with his precious crossbow. So much for the viewers who thought that Margaery was training the evil out of the petulant little monster. Littlefinger, a lifelong bureaucrat, has some words about the pointlessness of serving the realm. He scoffs at Varys’s belief that public service keeps life from chaos. To him, chaos is an opportunity to “climb” out of one’s station. A cynical view if it means thousands will die in the process, but one that makes for great TV. Especially now.
This was not the best episode yet this season, but its placement in the succession of four amazing ones makes it stand out. It is the moment where the show feels like it has severed its rope to traditional tropes and is ready to be taken as seriously as all the other upper-echelon programming out there. It will still be faithful to the books, if the hints in certain marital storylines are any indication this week, and it will still have copious amounts of gratuitous nudity. But the way it can nonchalantly rewrite the seeming destinies of Gendry or Loras Tyrell proves the show is ready to do what works for its medium best. That can also mean sending off characters who served no purpose other than to fulfill HBO executives’ nudity requirements early on. Bon voyage, Ros.
The show is its own animal and may cut the lifeline to its characters at any time. Luckily, it was just Ros. This week.