Man, what is it about sixth episodes. I mean, at least this one’s mediocre cliffhanger isn’t a rape scene, so it’s an improvement over last season. But after two very strong episodes, this is an unfocused, transitional mess. About the best you can say for it is that it makes sense to schedule the burn-off episode for Memorial Day weekend, when nobody will actually be watching, but one doubts they were planning the episode with that sort of precision, so we probably have to call that a lucky coincidence.
Still, this is basically designed boring. It’s not that an episode that drops Tyrion and Jon can’t work, although this is actually the first-ever episode to feature neither of them. But dropping both of them while spending a lot of time in Horn Hill and reintroducing Walder Frey is almost as perverse as “The Red Woman.” So there’s only so much that one can complain about it. It doesn’t make for a great episode, but it makes for a good one. The individual parts are generally well done. The biggest moment is return of Benjen, which is only slightly more surprising than the return of Jon, but it’s still a big moment, and it’s nice to have a version of the story where Benjen is Coldhands. Joseph Mawle conveys a sense of sorrow at his existence that’s really compelling, and it helps make Bran feel like he’s in a relatively interesting place, which isn’t something you can say about him historically, so that’s good.
But it’s generally the not-big moments where it shines. The Horn Hill sequences are lovely - beautifully shot, and alternates charmingly between deft comedic beats and genuine drama. Sam is clearly the least important plot this season, and the amount of the time that’s spent on him is part of what makes this a fairly sleepy episode, but it’s one of those bits that makes you glad Game of Thrones has the narrative space it has. It would be a far weaker show without bits like the cutely melodramatic scene where Sam leaves and comes back, or the quiet thrill of him nicking a blade he’ll probably get to kill another White Walker with.
Similarly, while Arya’s makes a big transition this week, finally pointing herself back towards Westeros, her actual big moment this week is just the reclamation of Needle - a symbolic gesture as opposed to one that actually has immediate consequences. She’s still got a big “kill the Waif” setpiece to do before she can actually start moving back towards the rest of the plot. Still, her scenes this week are all marvelous, from her inappropriate affect at the theater to her slipping into character as Mercy and strange moment of empathy for Cersei, to, of course, the Needle scene. (And a scene with Maisie Williams, Faye Marsay, and Richard E. Grant is an entertaining motley of Moffat guest-actors as well.)
It’s the episode’s two nominally big moments that fall flat - the confrontation in King’s Landing and the final scene. The earlier scene, between Margaery and Tommen, is fantastic. Actually, everything with Natalie Dormer this week is brilliant. The decision to play her motivations opaquely for the time being really gives Dormer room to act, and she fills the space with gestures that always suggest there’s more than meets the eye, but never gives away what it might be. It’s really just the scene on the steps that doesn’t work, with Jaime too-often looking like he’s in front of a green screen, and the set piece never quite working up the steam to be deflated; the fact that it basically cuts away to Walder Frey in the middle as the entire thing turns out to have been about splitting Jaime and Cersei up again highlights how strange it is, although there are ways in which this actually feels more like “adventurous” than “misguided.”
No such defense can be mustered for the Daenerys scene, which is perfunctory and doesn’t actually hit a different note from her last cliffhanger. Sure, now the Dothraki are all following her when she’s on a dragon instead of when she’s naked and everything is on fire, but it’s still the exact same plot point. She hasn’t actually done anything since her last moment of triumph to earn a new one, and so to end the episode on that note when it has so little to do with anything else is strange and makes the whole thing feel more unsatisfying than it has to. It could have gotten away with being a small and quiet episode; instead it felt like an inept one.
But what I really want to know is whether “A Broken Man” will also serve to break the six-episode streak of starting at or north of the Wall.
State of Play
The choir goes off. The board is laid out thusly.
Lions of King’s Landing: Jaime Lannister, Cersei Lannister
Dragons of Vaes Dothrak: Daenerys Targaryen
Roses of King’s Landing: Margaery Tyrell
Direwolves of Braavos: Arya Stark
Stars of King’s Landing: The High Sparrow
The Archer, Samwell Tarly
Direwolves of the Wall: Bran Stark
Swords of Vaes Dothrak: Dario Noharis
Coins of Braavos: No One
Stags of King’s Landing: Tommen Baratheon
The Flower, Gilly
Winterfell and Meereen are empty.
The episode is in ten parts. The first runs four minutes and is set north of the Wall. The opening image is of Meera dragging Bran through the snow.
The second runs four minutes and is set in Horn Hill. The transition is by image, from Benjen’s horse to the ones pulling Sam and Gilly’s carriage.
The third part runs four minutes and is set in King’s Landing. The transition is by image, from a wide shot of Sam and his family to Tommen lighting a candle.
The fourth runs ten minutes and is set in Horn Hill. The transition is by hard cut, from Margaery and Tommen to Sam.
The fifth runs nine minutes and is set in Braavos. The transition is by image, from Heartsbane to theater-Widow’s Wail
The sixth runs seven minutes and is set in King’s Landing. The transition is by hard cut, from the dark after Arya blows out the candle to a wide shot of Mace and his army.
The seventh runs two minutes and is set in the Twins. The transition is by dialogue, from Tommen saying Jaime will be sent away to Walder Frey talking about Riverrun.
The eighth runs three minutes and is set in King’s Landing. The transition is by dialogue, from Walder Frey to Jaime telling Cersei about where he’s being sent.
The ninth runs three minutes and is set north of the Wall. The transition is by hard cut, from Jaime and Cersei kissing to Benjen skinning a squirrel.
The tenth runs four minutes and is set in the Dothraki Sea. The final image is of Drogon screaming.
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