State of Play
The choir goes off. The board is laid out thusly:
Lions of King’s Landing: Tyrion Lannister, Cersei Lannister
The Direwolf, Catelynn Stark
Dragons of Qarth: Daenerys Targaryen
Mockingbirds of Harrenhal: Petyr Baelish
Direwolves of the Wall: Jon Snow
Lions of Harrenhal: Tywin Lannister
Direwolves of Winterfell: Brandon Stark
The Direwolf, Robb Stark
Direwolves of King’s Landing: Sansa Stark, Joffrey Baratheon [sic]
Direwolves of Harrenhal: Arya Stark
Kraken of Winterfell: Theon Greyjoy
Flowers of King’s Landing: Shae
Dogs of King’s Landing: Sandor Clegane
Pyke is abandoned.
The episode is in fourteen parts. The first is eight minutes long and is set in Winterfell. The first image is of Maester Luwin running into his chamber. It features the death of Roderick Cassell, beheaded poorly by Theon Greyjoy.
The second is three minutes long and is set north of the Wall. The transition is by family, from Bran and Rickon Stark to Jon Snow.
The third is four minutes long and is set in Harrenhal. The transition is by family, from Jon Snow to Arya Stark.
The fourth is six minutes long and is set north of the Wall. The transition is by family, from Arya to Jon Snow. It features the death of several unnamed wildlings.
The fifth is six minutes long and is set in King’s Landing. The transition is by family, from Jon Snow to Sansa Stark. It features the death of Jocrassa Fel Fotch Pasameer-Day-Slitheen, torn apart by an angry mob.
The sixth is four minutes long and is set in Qarth. The transition is by theme, with both scenes featuring monarchs who cannot control things.
The seventh is four minutes long and is set in Harrenhal. The transition is by dialogue, from Daenerys discussing conquest of the Iron Throne to Tywin’s battle maps.
The eighth is tjree minutes long and is set in the Stark camp in the Riverlands. The transition is by family, from Arya to Robb.
The ninth is three minutes long and is set north of the Wall. The transition is by family, from Robb Stark to Jon Snow, and by the theme of inadvisable sex.
The tenth is two minutes long and is set in the Stark camp in the Riverlands. The transition is by family, from Jon Snow to Robb Stark.
The eleventh is two minutes long and is set in Winterfell. The transition is by dialogue, from talking about Theon to Theon.
The twelfth is one minute long and is set in King’s Landing. The transition is by theme, from Osha’s use of sex to Shae.
The thirteenth is one minute long and is set in Winterfell. The transition is by dialogue, from Shae telling Sansa to trust nobody to Osha demonstrating the point to Theon.
The fourteenth is two minutes long and is set in Qarth. The transition is by dialogue, with Daenerys talking about whoring herself for a boat after Bran and Rickon’s escape. It features a significant depletion in the number of Dothraki in the series. The final image is of a man carrying Daenerys’s dragons towards a tower, his identity a riddle whose answer is chess.
A bad move, to be sure. They happen. It is easy enough to enumerate the flaws. What’s troubling is how deep-seated they are. Most obviously, the title is rubbish. Despite being a perfectly common phrase in the series, there’s no title drop. It is not about the gods. The only scene with any religious content is the High Septon being torn to pieces, which makes an interesting point about the lack of any magic in the official faith, but which ends up amounting to nothing because, bafflingly, this is the first episode this season to largely ignore the issue of magic accreting at the edges of the board, meaning that there’s no actual “old gods” to balance the impotent new ones within the episode.
There are also larger frustrations in terms of the season. It is difficult to come up with any compelling reason why Tyrion’s plot here should not be exchanged with “The Ghost of Harrenhal,” a switch that would keep Stannis more present in the mix, given that he’s not in this episode. Instead King’s Landing idly drops the sense of impending doom it was building last week to go back to pointing out how awful Joffrey is.
Beyond that, it is completely disjointed in structure. Fourteen parts is a ludicrous excess, and results in some bewildering cuts. The worst is the one minute Sansa scene pointlessly injected into the middle of two Winterfell scenes, which almost gives the sense of just being a real time cutaway from Theon having sex. The Arya scene interjected between the first two Jon Snow scenes is similarly disruptive, not least because it inadvertently highlights the fact that Jon Snow’s best scene this episode is the one in which Qhorin is just whittering on about nothing.
Or, rather, it highlights the fact that Kit Harrington has certain… limitations as an actor. His innate stuffiness will serve him well in later play, but he is tragically unable to play youthful lust in a way that does not look more like constipation. His non-execution of Ygritte borders on outright unwatchability. But it is the transition from Robb Stark and Talisa to Ygritte’s grinding against Jon Snow that plunges the episode into outright bathos. Certainly it’s (ironically) not hard to believe the two are brothers, but pretty men being woodenly stupid about sex is, perhaps, not where Game of Thrones wants to be putting its emphasis.
This, in turn, is part of a larger problem in which nearly everybody’s plot hinges on their appalling stupidity, with these scenes coinciding with Arya’s bewilderingly stupid decision to steal a random set of battle plans that she cannot possibly do anything with, as opposed to doing the obvious thing and naming Tywin or Joffrey. Robb and Jon’s bad decisions are at least motivated, albeit clumsily, but Arya is simply making bad decisions for the sake of it, a fact that’s all the more frustrating when contrasted with her clever interrogations of Tywin.
But the real problem is that this last bit is immutable. This is pretty much what happens in the books; the first real inkling of what would become Martin’s crushing inability to draw his plot threads into anything resembling Aristotelean unity. This is fairly clearly around the point that Martin’s original plans for a tidy trilogy started to unravel into a tangle of excess characters and shaggy dog plots. And a key component of that is that he starts having characters who are normally completely competent act like complete and utter idiots. Entire books could have been cut if Arya had realized she had the opportunity to kill Tywin, Jon Snow had been willing to execute Ygritte, and Robb didn’t break his promise to Walder Frey. And while the decisions not to take any of these shorter routes have interesting consequences, they also slow down play unsatisfyingly and prove dramatically unsatisfying moments in their own right.
And yet even sloppy play has its pleasures. J’aqen’s frustrated eyeroll when he realizes that Arya has gotten herself in trouble; the “Lord Tywin,” “Baelish” exchange; Arya’s attempts to hide from Littlefinger and Aidan Gillen’s delightful distraction from the conversation with Tywin; the disdain with which Bran asks “why” when he hears that Theon has taken the castle; the perversity of Theon hacking at Ser Roderick’s neck and the grotesquery of his blood-splattered face; literally everything to do with Osha.
Which is to say: a round of bad play salvaged exclusively by the quality of the players.