The choir goes off. The board is laid out thusly:
Lions of King’s Landing: Tyrion Lannister, Jaime Lannister, Cersei Lannister
Dragons of Meereen: Daenerys Targaryen
Direwolves of the Wall: Jon Snow, Bran Stark
The Mockingbird, Petyr Baelish
Roses of King’s Landing: Margaery Tyrell
Archers of the Wall: Samwell Tarly
The Direwolf, Sansa Stark
Shields of King’s Landing: Brienne of Tarth
Chains of King’s Landing: Bronn
With the Bear of Meereen, Jorah Mormont
The episode is in seven parts. The first runs eight minutes and is set in Meereen. The opening image is of the fire by which Grey Worm and Missandei are sitting.
The second runs five minutes and is set in King’s Landing. The transition is by hard cut, from Daenerys overlooking her city as the hundred-and-sixty-three people she crucified scream in agony to Jaime and Bronn swordfighting.
The third runs three minutes and is set on a boat. The transition is by dialogue, from Tyrion and Jaime talking about Sansa to Sansa.
The fourth runs two minutes and is set in King’s Landing. The transition is by dialogue, with Littlefinger talking about his new friends and saying the Tyrell words to Margaery and Olenna.
The fifth runs four minutes and is set at the Wall. The transition is by hard cut, from Margaery’s stunned face to Jon and the men sparring in the yard of Castle Black.
The sixth runs ten minutes and is in three sections; it is set in King’s Landing. The first section is two minutes long; he transition is by hard cut, from Locke and Jon to Cersei drinking. The second section is four minutes long; the transition is by family, from Cersei and Jaime Lannister to Tommen Baratheon, and by dialogue, with Cersei and Jaime discussing the security around Tommen’s bedroom to Margaery breaching it. The third section is five minutes long; the transition is by family, from Tommen to Jaime.
The seventh part runs nineteen minutes and is in four sections; it is set at and around the Wall. The first section is five minutes long; the transition is by hard cut, from Brienne and Pod riding away to Sam fussing at scrolls. The second section is six minutes long; the transition is by dialogue, from Jon Snow talking about a mission to Craster’s to Karl Tanner of Gin Alley drinking wine from the skull of Jeor fucking Mormont. The third section runs five minutes long; the transition is by family, from Ghost to Summer. The fourth section is two minutes minutes long; the transition is by image, from Craster’s Keep to Craster’s last son. The final image is of a baby landing on a snake and acquiring purple eyes.
On its most elemental level, a further development of the tendency towards compacted play - a mere seven parts, without even the reliance on a big set piece. And while some of this is accomplished by heavily sectioned scenes, even these have a strong internal logic - two Jaime scenes framing a Tommen scene, for instance, or the final sequence’s focus on Craster’s Keep. Perhaps more than any other episode thus far, this illustrates the way in which Season Four marks a decisive maturation in the show’s storytelling.
The Craster’s sequence is also interesting in that it is by some margin the largest plot to date that the show has simply invented wholesale, with the books never returning to Craster’s. It’s not a particularly great plot, although it’s not dissonantly awful either. But it’s a smart one that solves multiple problems with relative elegance. Jon’s plot has decelerated considerably, such that Season Four is essentially trying to adapt four chapters worth of material, whereas Bran’s has been accelerated such that he’s already a book ahead (and it’s a book where he has three chapters and disappears by the halfway point). In both cases, there’s a need for some extra material.
But of course, Arya and the Hound are largely subsisting on extra material this season as well, and that’s been handled very differently, leaning hard on the ridiculously good chemistry McCann and Williams have and just letting things be largely plotless otherwise. Neither Hempstead Wright nor Harrington are actors who can anchor a scene on raw charm, however. (Indeed, there’s not really anyone north of the Neck who can do that right now.) And so the show goes to the opposite extreme, constructing something that, while obviously a bit jerry-rigged, nevertheless boasts considerable plot importance, throwing Bran and Jon together for a plot, picking a midsized loose end (understatedly handled in the book as Coldhands kills the mutineers while being cryptic about it), and repurposing Locke for the job now that he’s done maiming Jaime Lannister. And then for good measure it uses the plot to reveal how White Walkers are made, a cleverly chosen revelation that on the one hand is firmly an instance of the show revealing things the books haven’t, and on the other still basically a minor thing with no real consequences. The result, as I said, isn’t some spectacular and classic bit of play or anything, but it is again a smart and carefully taken decision.
It also sets up the season’s first bit of ice/fire dualism, a move that counterbalances the otherwise jarring “Daenerys and then some other shit” structure of the episode. Which is good, because other than feeling bolted onto the beginning the Daenerys scene is really solid, balancing the unusual and striking tone of “Breaker of Chains”’s cliffhanger by largely underplaying the actual fall of Meereen. Where both Astapor and Yunkai were defeated in big end-of-episode cliffhangers, Meereen falls midway through the first scene of an episode, its relevant cliffhanger offering a far more puzzling mood. More interesting, however, is the way in which Daenerys is made genuinely disturbing here, with the screams of people being crucified held over to the shot of her atop the great pyramid looking out at her city, unapologetically hammering home the point that Daenerys, no matter how much she dresses it up as justice, is committing an outright atrocity here - a compelling contrast with the “Breaker of Chains” cliffhanger, which emphasized her role as a liberator.
The other character to get an odd emphasis put on her this week is Margaery, who gets a spectacularly odd scene with Tommen. Some of this is simply down to the same bafflingly thoughtless approach to sex that marred “Breaker of Chains.” Olenna’s anecdote emphasizes the use of sex for manipulation, and Margaery has always been emphasized as a highly sexual character, so the bedroom scene with Tommen strangely demands to have a sexual element. But as written, there’s something much gentler and cleverer about it, with Margaery being more a mischievous Peter Pan figure than a seductress - a note emphasized by the adorable Ser Pounce. The contrast is weird, and Dormer remarked on the scene in interviews for Season Five, all but calling the scene a bit creepy. (Notably, the show quietly starts portraying Tommen as older but gullible in Season Five, as opposed to as a child.) But for all the difficulties, Dormer attacks the scene with skill, managing to make the “secret best friend” approach seem contiguous with her previous sexualized approaches, and for that matter with her deft playing of Joffrey.
And just to make it a run of talking about deft use of female characters, this is also the point in the narrative in which Brienne emerges as an anchoring character in her own right, having previously been the guest star in Catelynn and Jaime scenes. Brienne is one of the show’s quiet triumphs. One of the more agonizingly visible tics of Martin’s descriptions of women (coming only behind the bewildering amount of time Daenerys spends thinking about her breasts) is how often he emphasizes the fact that Brienne is ugly. In this regard, the casting of Gwendolyn Christie, who is instead non-normatively beautiful, goes a long way, not least because she’s absolutely brilliant in the role. The fact that the show can effectively make her a viewpoint character as of this moment (and emphasize that fact by giving her the title drop) instead of having it be the last moment of the last Jaime chapter, prior to Brienne picking up as one of the viewpoint characters in the badly misconceived A Feast For Crows is a nice improvement for the character, and moreover one that will be paid off well later on in this run of play.