State of Play
(They're genuinely helpful in quantifying what the episode did.)
The choir goes off. The board is laid out thusly:
Lions of Meereen: Tyrion Lannister
Lions of King’s Landing: Jaime Lannister, Cersei Lannister
The Dragon, Daenerys Targaryen
Ships of the Wall: Davos Seaworth
Burning Hearts of the Wall: Melisandre
Roses of King’s Landing: Margaery Tyrell
Snakes of Dorne: Elyria Sand
Direwolves of Winterfell: Sansa Stark
Direwolves of Braavos: Arya Stark
Spiders of Meereen: Varys
Kraken of Winterfell: Theon Greyjoy
Shields of Winterfell: Brienne of Tarth
Stars of King’s Landing: The High Sparrow
The Sword, Daario Naharis
Flayed Men of Winterfell: Roose Bolton, Ramsey Bolton
With the Bear, Iain Glenn
The episode is in nine parts. The first runs eight minutes and is set at the Wall. The opening shot is of the Wall at sunrise, as the camera pans down into Castle Black.
The second runs ten minutes and is set in Winterfell. The first section is three minutes long The transition is by image, from Jon Snow’s dead body to Miranda’s. The second section is seven minutes long. The transition is by dialogue, from Ramsey and Roose talking about Sansa to Sansa.
The third part runs six minutes and is set in King’s Landing. The first section is four minutes long. The transition is by hard cut, from Brienne’s anguished face to the sails of Jaime’s ship. The second section is two minutes long. The transition is by hard cut, from Jaime holding Cersei to Septa Unella’s book.
The fourth part runs two minutes and is set in Dorne. The transition is by hard cut, from Margaery in her cell to a garden in Sunspear.
The fifth runs one minute and is set in King’s Landing. The transition is by family, from Doran to Trystane Martell.
The sixth runs four minutes and is set in Meereen. The transition is by hard cut, from Trystane’s corpse to an establishing shot of the city.
The seventh runs nine minutes and is set in the Dothraki Sea. The first section is three minutes long. The transition is by faction, from Varys and Tyrion to Jorah and Daaario. The second section is six minutes long. The transition is by dialogue, from Jorah and Daario concluding that the Dothraki have captured Daenerys to Daenerys among the Dothraki.
The eighth runs two minutes and is set in Braavos. The transition is by hard cut, from Daenerys to a street in Braavos.
The ninth runs five minutes and is set at the Wall. The transition is by family, from Arya Stark to Jon Snow. The final image is of Melisandre going to bed.
For what is surely the most highly anticipated episode of Game of Thrones ever - the first 100% off-book episode (well, 90% - Arya’s still in A Dance With Dragons) - this is a shockingly thin and uninspiring thing. Given that… I’d say there’s a fine line between a languid start and just trolling the audience, but it’s not that fine a line, and the title is on the wrong side of it. It refers to the biggest thing in the episode, I suppose, but that’s not saying much, and given that it also refers to the best bet on how Jon Snow is going to come back it’s more than faintly cruel.
That said, there’s something brave about the decision, and moreover with how understated the resultant episode is. The fact that so much of the Castle Black material is just Davos and some random Nights Watch people in a small room with Jon’s body, and that Dolorous Edd is the only actual sympathetic Nights Watch member with a name at this point is bold. That we don’t even get to the “never been much of a fighter” scene that’s been trailered and that they released a clip of is perhaps back to trolling, but still, the point stands: the confidence involved in making this episode a slow burn with an extra-understated finish speaks highly of the show.
All the same, there are some real weak spots in this episode, and the lack of anything substantive to compensate for them makes this tough to like. The Dorne massacre is shockingly bad - the elimination of nearly the entire cast of last season’s big new setting in three minutes, culminating in a bad quip is such an utterly ridiculous sequence that it’s hard not to just take it as an apology for the entire Dornish fiasco last season. Of course, “reduce Dorne to Elyira and the Sand Snakes” is what exactly nobody asked for, and it’s difficult to see how this is going to work as a plot given that there are no characters for Elyria to play off of anymore. Also, why are two of the Sand Snakes in King’s Landing, and moreover able to kill Trystane, who it’s absolutely unimaginable isn’t in custody as a hostage? This isn’t even fucking trying.
Meanwhile, the Arya scene is, while not bad, painfully perfunctory, and the Tyrion scene isn’t a lot better. Longer, yes, but existent seemingly mainly to disprove the hypothesis that it’s impossible to give Dinklage and Hill a bad scene. It’s alarmingly inept in its construction - at no point does either character in it actually take any action to achieve any goal. It’s always nice to have a Tyrion/Varys scene, but they’re clearly not rare treats at the moment, and man, is there anyone who wouldn’t rather have seen Tyrion and Missandei walking around Meereen? As for Daenerys… she gets four lines, all of them of the same generally defiant note. It’s fine, and a scene that has to happen, but again, not particularly inspiring.
What is good? The manic, despairing Cersei - her citing of the prophecy to Jaime, and the absurdly rash, reckless reply he gives. Unlike, say, the Tyrion/Varys scene, it bothers to show what’s interesting about the current status quo, which is Cersei in a fatalistic, despairing position without actually being in any danger as such. Cersei has been a villain for so long that it’s both strange and energizing to see her in a position where she can’t really function as an antagonist and her motivations are largely sympathetic. Really King’s Landing in general is good. The Margaery scene is curiously slender, but suggestive, with Natalie Dormer clearly enjoying getting to do something new with the character and doing a tremendous amount of heavy lifting with her final expression.
And the Sansa/Theon/Brienne/Podrick scene is also wonderful, both because it’s about the only one besides the Dorne massacre where something is allowed to happen and because what happens is long overdue and seems likely to be a compelling set of characters. Actually, first and foremost because of Gwendolyn Christie, who has never been better than this. The look on her face as she pledges her service is one of the most frighteningly moving things in the history of the series. Sophie Turner’s reaction is at once perfect and plausibly Turner just reacting in awe at her already skilled co-star abruptly discovering an entire range. It’s a pity that Sansa is otherwise being written as Susan Foreman, but the fact that she ends the scene as the de facto leader of the group is promising in the long term.
But where does that leave us? There’s surely fireworks to come, such that a slow start is going to be interesting in light of the whole. It ultimately says good things about the show that it’s capable of being so deliberate in making a counterintuitive choice at this point. I remain very much a Game of Thrones optimist. None of that makes this anything other than an anticlimax. It’s the televisual equivalent of writing for the trade. Which is fine, even in weekly serialized television. But man was it out of touch with the mood of April 24th, 2016.
Still, it'll get at least one week at number one in the ranking.