A stunner, paying off not only the (we can now confidently call it) deliberate pace and structure of the first three episodes but on numerous longstanding pieces of storytelling. In this regard, you can’t not start at the beginning, which for a half-scene feels like “oh god can we start an episode anywhere other than the Wall” until, abruptly, it switches into an event the show has been building to since the Stark diaspora commenced in the second episode. It’s a moment that shifts the entire show on its axis, and it’s structured beautifully, given all the time in the world to breathe. And that’s the opening. It follows that up with an immensely satisfying scene in which Sansa becomes the dominant figure of the relationship (and also well done owning the slight arbitrariness of their relationship - Benioff and Weiss claim they’ve never actually been on camera together before this episode, which is hard to believe but entirely possible), and then a lovely grace note of Brienne meeting Davos and Melisandre.
There’s an obvious question of how to end an episode that starts that big. The answer - to lean on the way this reaches back to Season One and recreate the cliffhanger of “Fire and Blood.” I howled with laughter as she torched the Dothraki - a charmingly direct solution that served as a satisfying reminder of what constitutes a Daenerys-scaled problem at this point. Although the earlier, fairly large Daenerys scene is also satisfying, giving Daenerys a small moment of victory - her first of the season - that quietly prefigures her later one. So much of what makes the last scene work is its beautiful inevitability - Daenerys is already safe as of the time Jorah and Daario get to her. That’s already a reasonably-sized moment that is keeping up the episode’s momentum when it happens. So Daenerys’s casual acquisition of the entirety of the fucking Dothraki is wonderful icing on top of the cake.
But the fact that Daenerys is on a fast ticket back to Meereen also enlivens that plot satisfying, which is good, as Tyrion is one of the bits of this episode that isn’t quite working. The general momentum and direction of this episode lends credence to his claim that he’s going to have the advantage over the slavers. Tyrion is good at what he does. In many ways, it’s been seasons since he had a substantial moment of victory, and so he’s massively overdue to get something. And yet the scene is pointing overwhelmingly towards him making a mistake - to the point where you wonder for a moment if he’s about to Stark it up completely and get put down by Grey Worm or Missandei. The sense of marking time would be frustrating were it not for the knowledge that there has to be a breakthrough coming at this point.
Because literally everything else is just plowing forward. Even the two smallest scenes - the Greyjoys and Osha’s death - have weight to them. Theon has never been the most “hold down a plot line successfully” of characters, but there’s a pleasant weight to the scene - a nice balance between how completely beaten down as a character he is and the upward trajectory he’s on. His sputtered, helpless, and utterly honest “I don’t want to be king” is quietly beautiful in a show called Game of Thrones. And Osha’s death, even as it is on one level yet another Ramsay being evil scene, feels earned, not least because Osha so gloriously takes him down a peg with the “I’ve seen worse” crack. And the fact that this is followed by the hugely decisive scene of Jon Snow deciding that he’s going to help Sansa take Winterfell further emphasizes Ramsay’s relative smallness.
And then there’s King’s Landing, where again things accelerate and characters get satisfying moments of victory. Cersei gaining an advantage through common sense and good governance is nice - a pleasant cut against the idea that she’s a villain that nevertheless doesn’t actually change anything. And that slow zoom on the High Sparrow as he speaks to camera is a deliciously creepy sequence. Indeed, it’s things like that, and Pycelle’s trollingly slow shuffle out of Tommen’s office, and the time taken out to tease everyone with a Tormund/Brienne ship (which OMFG yes) that really make this episode. It’s a good, easy to like episode because mostly good, big things happen to favorite characters. But it’s also one that knows it’s a big one, and that has the confidence to get the details right and make sure this one lands. And man, it lands well.
State of Play
The choir goes off. The board is laid out thusly:
Lions of Meereen: Tyrion Lannister
Lions of King’s Landing: Jaime Lannister, Cersei Lannister
Dragons of Vaes Dothrak: Daenerys Targaryen
Direwolves of the Wall: Jon Snow, Sansa Stark
Roses of King’s Landing: Margaery Tyrell
Mockingbirds of the Eyrie: Petyr Baelish
Ships of the Wall: Davos Seaworth
Burning Hearts of the Wall: Melisandre
Butterflies of Meereen: Missandei
Spiders of Meereen: Varys
Paws of the Wall: Tormund Giantsbane
Stars of King’s Landing: The High Sparrow
Swords of Vaes Dothrak: Daario Naharis
Stags of King’s Landing: Tommen Baratheon
Flayed Men of Winterfell: Ramsay Bolton
Shields of the Wall: Brienne of Tarth
The Kraken (of Pyke), Theon Greyjoy
With the Bear of Meereen, Jorah Mormont
The episode is in nine parts. The first runs seven minutes and is set at the Wall. The opening image is of Longclaw, the Starks’ new ancestral blade.
The second runs three minutes and is set in the Eyrie. The transition is rather distantly by dialogue, as Littlefinger and Robin Arryn discuss Sansa, and more immediately from Brienne talking about executing Stannis to a shot of a weapon.
The third runs seven minutes and is set in Meereen. The transition is by hard cut, from Littlefinger to a ship.
The fourth runs eight minutes and is set in Vaes Dothrak. The transition is by faction, from Tyrion, Grey Worm, and Misandei to Daario and Jorah.
The fifth runs thirteen minutes and is set in King’s Landing. The transition is by image, from Daenerys to a bug, and from queen to queen.
The sixth runs three minutes and is set in Pyke. The transition is by hard cut, from Cersei to Theon’s ship.
The seventh runs three minutes and is set in Winterfell. The transition is by dialogue, from Theon talking about what was done to him to Ramsay.
The eighth runs four minutes and is set at the Wall. The transition is by image, from Ramsay Bolton to a Bolton shield outside Castle Black.
The ninth runs seven minutes and is set in Vaes Dothrak. The transition is by family, from Jon Snow to Daenerys Targaryen. The final image is of a fucking Khaleesi.