Thoughts below the cut to avoid spoilers, as per usual:
I almost feel as if I watched two separate episodes this week – one that I liked very much, because it had compelling characters acting in ways that felt true to their character, and another that I felt immensely frustrated by, because it had the raw materials for glory and yet was failed by clumsy plotting, poor characterization, or just missed opportunities.
So let’s start with what I liked about the episode:
- Finally, finally, finally, (link) after seasons of depicting Northern politics in an opaque or uninteresting fashion, we got an episode absolutely crammed with great material. I’ll get into the specifics in a second, but I liked that, throughout, you saw people wrestling with both their immediate interests, their ideologies, their past experiences, etc.
- The wildlings were interesting as both a political asset and a political liability, but also as people who have their own sense of their interests. The push-pull between “this isn’t our fight,” (technically true but founded on an unrealistic isolation that isn’t going to fly south of the Wall) and Jon’s argument that a Bolton-ruled North will destroy the Wildlings whether they fight or no, felt very real. And I loved Wun-Wun ending the debate with a single vote.
- I loved the Bear Island sequence, both because Lyanna Mormont is a tiny badass, but also for the complexity of Northern politics that the scene showed: the complexities of what it means to be a Stark in Jon and Sansa’s complex cases, how Lyanna is trying to balance the best interests of a small but proud House, and Davos’ arguments about how our political interests need to be recalibrated in the face of the Night’s King’s existential threat.
- The Deepwood Motte sequence was also interesting, although I felt a bit more frustrated by the arguments that Jon and co were putting forward. On the one hand, Robett Glover has a point in that House Glover has suffered in the service of the Starks. On the other hand, I’m really surprised that neither Jon nor Sansa argued more forcefully that much of House Glover’s losses happened because of the Boltons attacking them at the Red Wedding.
- Totally not surprised that Sansa goes for the pragmatic solution and sends a raven to Littlefinger to get reinforcements beyond the “2,000 wildlings, 200 Hornwoods, 143 Mazins [Masons? dunno], 62 Mormonts,” when Jon gets stubborn about fighting “with the army we have.” And I like that pragmatic Sansa doesn’t trust Davos because she hasn’t shared the same experiences with him that Jon have – although I’d note that they’ve now name-dropped the Manderlys repeatedly, and Davos has an urgent need to get himself down to White Harbor to get those last-minute reinforcements…
- Finally in this episode, we get an answer about whether Margaery’s genuinely converted or is running a scheme, and the answer is the latter. On the one hand, I agree with those who think that she’s running a Lysistrata scheme – in this case, to drive a wedge between King Tommen and the High Sparrow. Now that there’s a grand alliance, the High Sparrow has a certain amount of buy-in to the regime (always one of the problems with outside movements making deals with the establishment), and if he can’t deliver Tommen the pliant queen he wants, a thirsty Tommen is going to get frustrated with him. And the High Sparrow’s options are limited by the way that Margaery keeps using her religion as a judo-flip. It actually reminded me quite a bit of Anne Boleyn’s tactics with Henry VIII vis-a-vis Cardinal Wolsey, which is appropriate since Natalie Dormer got her break playing the former and Jonathan Pryce just got finished playing the latter.
- On the other hand, I’m not sure what her plan is with Olenna (who is not going to join in with Cersei’s plan to cut off the Sparrow movement at the head by having Gregor assassinate the High Sparrow during her trial). Clearly she’s signalling a tactical withdrawal of House Tyrell to their base of power – possibly she wants Olenna to cut the capitol off from food and blame the High Sparrow? I’m also very confused how the High Sparrow thinks the solution to Loras’ imprisonment is going to work: he now needs House Tyrell to stay around as one of the props of the new alliance, and they need a male heir for that.
- There’s also some really interesting parallels with the Vale scenes with regard to religion. The High Sparrow and Septon Meribald are in some ways very similar men, but Meribald seems to have kept closer to a more genuine faith by retaining his pacifist impulses, his emphasis on active service, his ecumenical nature, and his humility that he doesn’t have a perfect understanding of the will of the gods or their nature. By contrast, for all that the High Sparrow talks about “there are some who know every verse of the sacred text, but don’t have a drop of the Mother’s mercy in their blood and savages who can’t read at all who understand the Father’s wisdom,” it is his certainty that he knows the will of the Gods that has let him drift into militarism and political ambition.
- It’s a season late, but I was absolutely thrilled by the execution of Jaime’s Riverlands plot. The Riverrun siege looks quite impressive – the details of the defenses are all building up to making an assault impossible, thus teasing Jaime’s ploy with Edmure next episode. Clive Russell, who has sometimes been played as too gruff for my tastes, works very well here as an embittered Blackfish who has seen too much injustice happen to his family to give up either fighting (“as long as I’m standing the war is not over“) or debating. Likewise, this is the closest to AFFC Jaime that we’ve gotten in Game of Thrones to fate.
- More in Lady Stoneheart Watch 2016: The loathsomeness of the Freys is re-emphasized constantly throughout the episode, especially with poor Edmure’s torture, and Catelyn is repeatedly mentioned: the Blackfish brings up “the vow you made to my niece,” Lothar brings up his murder, and the Brotherhood Without Banners is all over this episode. I’d be putting my money on a Lady Stoneheart appearance in Episode 10 of this season. (Episode 8 seems to be Riverrun setup and giving Blackfish a potential character path out, Episode 9 is likely to be the big battle at Winterfell, etc)
- So let’s talk about the big thing in this episode: the revelation that, as per AFFC, Sandor Clegane is alive and living in a religious commune, although here Ian McShane seems to be portraying both the Elder Brother and Septon Meribald. I liked Rory McCann’s ambivalence towards his own redemption, his continuing sense of alienation, and his somewhat more pragmatic attitude to violence. However…
- While Ian McShane made his character completely believable, I really really do not understand why Bryan Cogman didn’t give a great actor the chance to give one of George R.R Martin’s best monologues. Let’s be honest, the speech he had was ok, but only just ok and elevated considerably by the performance. And this is what I mean by missed opportunities for glory, because I truly believe if you’d given McShane this material to work with, it would have been an Emmy-worthy episode.
- I’m also not sure I like how they’re going with this: while some people have said that this sets up Cleganebowl because now Sandor has a reason to fight for the Seven, I think instead Sandor’s going for revenge against the Brotherhood, and thus will be in a position to save Brienne and Pod from LSH, which isn’t how it’s going to go in the books at all, and is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the larger importance of the Brotherhood by the showrunners from Season 3 onwards.
- Well, we definitely have confirmation that
YaraAsha likes the ladies! I also found the interaction between Asha and Theon quite touching in a siblings can’t really talk about emotions so hide it in shoving kind of way.
- As I suspected, Asha and Theon’s play is to try to beat Euron to Dany and make their own pact, which loosely parallels Victarion’s plan in ADWD. I think it’s going to work out better for them than it will for Victarion, however.
- I am infuriated at the continual ham-fisted plotting and staging of the Braavosi plotline this season. If Arya got Needle in the last episode, why didn’t she have it in hand to fight the Waif with? And since she knows she’s on the run from the Faceless Men, why the hell would she let anyone (especially someone as clearly suspicious as the old witch from Snow White) get within stabbing range? Likewise, for an peerless order of assassins, why would the Waif not confirm the kill?
- This is what I mean by the difference between good and bad characterization and plotting. Arya and the Waif are acting out of character because the writers want Arya to be in danger (most likely so that she’ll be rescued by Lady Crane) and couldn’t think of a compelling and fluid way to get from A to B.