State of Play
The Choir goes off The board is laid out thusly:
Lions of King’s Landing: Tyrion Lannister
The Direwolf, Catelyn Stark
Dragons of Qarth: Daenerys Targaryen
The Mockingbird, Petyr Baelish
Bears of Qarth: Joran Mormont
Lions of Harrenhal: Tywyn Lannister
The Ship, Davos Seaworth
Stags of King’s Landing: Joffrey Baratheon
The Direwolf, Robb Stark
Direwolves of King’s Landing: Sansa Stark
Direwolves of Harrenhal: Arya Stark
The Burning Hearts, Stannis Baratheon, Mellisandre
The Rose, Margery Tyrell
Chains of King’s landing: Bronn
Dogs of King’s Landing: Sandor Clegane
Pyke is desolate. Winterfell is abandoned. The Wall is unmanned.
The episode is in twelve parts. The first is six minutes long and is set at a Lannister camp. The first image is an establishing shot of the camp.
The second is seven minutes long and is set in King’s Landing. The transition is by family, from Robb to Sansa Stark.
The third is four minutes long and is in Renly Baratheon’s camp. The transition is by sound, from Daisy’s screams to a horse whinnying.
The fourth is one minute long and is set in the Red Waste outside Qarth. The transition is by hard cut, from Littlefinger to an establishing shot of the Red Waste.
The fifth is two minutes long and is set in Harrenhal. The transition is by dialogue, from Daenerys to a discussion of how Harrenhal burnt.
The sixth is four minutes long and is set in Renly Baratheon’s camp. The transition is by family, from Arya to Catelyn Stark.
The seventh is three minutes long and is set in Harrenhal. The transition is by family, from Catelyn Stark to Arya.
The eighth is three minutes long and is set outside Renly Baratheon’s camp. The transition is by family, from Arya to Catelyn Stark.
The ninth is six minutes long and is set in Qarth. The transition is by hard cut, from Renly riding away to the walls of Qarth.
The tenth is two minutes long and is set in Harrenhal. The transition is by image, from the walls of Qarth to a head being fastened to a spike on the wall of Harrenhal.
The eleventh is three minutes long and is set in King’s Landing. The transition is by family, from Tywin to Tyrion and Lancel Lannister.
The twelfth is six minutes long and is set around the two Baratheon camps. The transition is by hard cut, from Lancel to the stag atop Stannis’s ship. The final image is of Mellisandre giving birth to a shadowy riddle whose answer is chess.
Three episodes of buildup based around the magical scraping at the edges of the world pay off in several regards. This is signified straightforwardly by the episode’s structure, which both opens and closes with forces within the War of Five Kings being attacked by amazing and uncanny things. At the top of the episode a Lannister encampment is attacked by a direwolf (and note how, by the time the tale reaches King’s Landing it has been elevated to an act of magic, with the Starks turning into wolves and feasting on the bodies), while at the end Mellisandre gives birth to a shadow.
It is not a coincidence that this should take place in the same episode as Daenerys’s arrival in Qarth, nor that the episode should draw its name from that fact. Qarth is, at this point in the narrative, the point physically most distant from the Wall (and, more to the point, from the Land of Always Winter) that an actual scene takes place. (Although in A Dance With Dragons Mellisandre’s POV chapter has flashbacks to events in Asshai) It is a literal endpoint, and, as we will see in future, an interesting point in general. Some of this is clear up front; the city is starkly bespoke and oddly offputting in its first appearance, and there is something distinctly theatrical about it. But Daenerys’s arrival at it nevertheless marks the point at which she begins to claw back a place within the narrative for herself.
All told, however, Stannis and Daenerys occupy but sixteen minutes of the episode, with the core dynamic remaining, as ever, the material politics that are the meat and matter of gameplay. Within this, however, King’s Landing is in a curiously unprivileged position: at ten minutes, it’s exceeded by the sequences in Renly Baratheon’s camp, Part of this is simply a question of what needs to be established. “What is Dead May Never Die” made it clear that Tyrion has seized functional power in King’s Landing, which means that his situation is currently largely stable; indeed, the comparative size of King’s Landing over the next few episodes is appreciably smaller than it was in the first episode.
But that doesn’t mean that the materialist politics that King’s Landing represents are absent. The Renly sequences, for instance, are just as much about material politics as King’s Landing, and are indeed some of the episode’s best moments, with Littlefinger getting phenomenal scenes with both Catelyn and Margaery. And both are entirely inventions of the show – the return of Ned’s bones is accomplished through entirely different means, with Littlefinger and Catelyn’s last-ever meeting being in King’s Landing, while a Margaery/Littlefinger scene is of course impossible within the narrative techniques of the book. And more to the point, both are wonderful. In both books and show Catelyn’s actual story rather runs aground after Ned’s death, and this is one of the few that really works.
But it’s the Margaery scene that really shines. Margaery in general is something of an interesting figure on the board. Her first appearance immediately announces her significance, simply because she’s a credited regular. Notably Gwendoline Christie, who plays Brienne, a character who becomes a POV character in A Feast For Crows, does not appear in the opening credits until Season Four, despite debuting in the same episode as Margaery. The result is that, of the characters introduced and brought back in Renly’s camp, Margaery is clearly flagged as the most important. This is in no way the case in the books.
On top of that, both of Margaery’s first two episodes include scenes in which she is allowed to demonstrate great confidence. Here she out-talks Littlefinger, a feat few characters have fully accomplished. There are characters who have dominated Littlefinger or successfully put him in his place, but only Margaery and Varys have ever really out-talked him. Her droll putdown of him, however, is a thing of beauty. And, of course, the previous episode has her character-defining scene, another complete invention of the books, in which she casually suggests that if Renly needs Ser Loras to help in impregnating her, that would be fine, is one of the best introductions to a character in the entire series, in part because Natalie Dormer’s skill playing sexually adventurous characters is unparalleled, but also because it’s a particularly feminine vision of ruthless pragmatism that has not been displayed on the board yet.
Meanwhile, Robb Stark makes his second appearance of the season. Indeed, this is the only episode in which all four of the major kings appear (Balon being a comparatively marginal figure in the show, nominally among the five kings the war is named after, but quietly disappearing from the narrative with an uncertain fate). Robb’s scene exists purely to introduce Roose Bolton and Talia, who replaces Jeyne Westerling from the books on the entirely sensible logic that explaining the convoluted mess that is that relationship (which blooms in Catelyn’s absence, and is implied to have been a plan on Tywin Lannister’s part involving a love potion) was not going to work, but it nevertheless helps to anchor the episode in the broader political situation, as does Arya’s acquiring a strange place at what might be described as the margins of the center as Tywin arrives in Harrenhal.
Finally, it seems necessary to talk, at least in passing, about the theme of brutality and torture, a topic related to Harrenhal, but also to King’s Landing, where we see the depth of Joffrey’s cruelty in new and upsetting ways, both in his brutalization of Sansa and then in the results of Tyrion and Bronn’s dreadful miscalculation as to what he needs. Joffrey has, of course, always been cruel, and his previous appearance this season in “The North Remembers” was hardly lacking in sadism, but there is a sense of a new line being crossed here, both in his chillingly delivered “I like her pretty” and in the sheer unmotivated savagery towards Daisy. In this regard, at least, it’s effective, although it’s also obviously a subject of diminishing returns. The torture that is so horrific and unsettling in this episode also moves one step closer towards being normalized and drained of its power. This, at least, is a basic truism of the game: even the best strategies grow weaker through the act of repetition. And torture, it must be admitted, is not really among the best strategies employed within the game, even if this episode uses it well.