|Daniel Portman perfectly duplicates the reaction of George R.R. Martin’s editors to the Mereneese Knot
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State of Play
The choir goes off. The board is laid out thusly:
Lions of King’s Landing: Tyrion Lannister, Cersei Lannister, Tywin Lannister
The Lion, Jaime Lannister
Dragons of Astapor: Khaleesi Daenerys Targaryen
Direwolves of the Wall: Jon Snow
Direwolves of Riverrun: Robb Stark, Catelyn Stark,
Bears of Astapor: Jorah Mormont
Mockingbirds of King’s Landing: Petyr Baelish
Burning Hearts of Dragonstone: Stannis Baratheon, Mellisandre
The Kraken, Theon Greyjoy
Archers of the Wall: Samwell Tarly
The Direwolf, Arya Stark
Tigers of Riverrun: Talia Stark
The Stag, Gendry
Bows of the Wall: Ygritte
Bears of the Wall: Jeor Mormont
Spiders of King’s Landing: Varys
Chains of King’s Landing: Bronn
The Dogs, Sandor Clegane
Winterfell is abandoned and in ruins.
The episode is in ten parts. The first is five minutes long and is set in Riverrun. The opening image is of Hoster Tully’s funeral boat.
The second runs four minutes and is set in King’s Landing. The transition is by dialogue, from Robb talking about Tywin Lannister to Tywin.
The third runs eight minutes and is in sections; it is set in the Riverlands. The first section is two minutes long; the transition is by family, from Cersei, Tyrion, and Tywin to Jaime Lannister. The second section is three minutes long; the transition is by hard cut, from Brienne realizing what she faces to Gendry working on armor. The third section is two minutes long and is set in Riverrun proper; the transition is by family, from Arya to Catelyn Stark. The fourth section is one minute long; the transition is by dialogue, from Catelyn and Brynden talking about Robb to Martin Lannister and Talia talking about him.
The fourth part runs seven minutes and is in sections; it is set north of the Wall. The first section is two minutes long; the transition is by dialogue, from Talia talking about Robb’s supposed powers to the precise butchery of the White Walkers. The second section is four minutes long; the transition is by dialogue, from Mance Rayder talking about the Night’s Watch to the survivors stumbling into Craster’s Keep.
The fifth part runs two minutes and is set in the Dreadfort, though this is not revealed. The transition is by theme, from the monstrosity of Craster to that of Ramsey Snow.
The sixth part runs two minutes and is set in Dragonstone. The transition is by hard cut, from Theon riding off to the shore.
The seventh runs seven minutes and is set in Astapor. The transition is by hard cut, from Melisandre walking away to the Walk of Punishment in Astapor.
The eighth runs seven minutes and is set in King’s Landing. The transition is by image, from Daenerys noting that she and Missandei are not men to a lascivious shot of Rosalyn.
The ninth runs four minutes and is set in the North. The transition is by hard cut, from Poderick to an establishing shot of hills.
The tenth runs six minutes and is set in the Riverlands. The transition is by image, from Ramsey and Theon in a forest to Brienne bound to a tree. The final image is of Jaime screaming as he realizes he has failed to achieve a Full Web (and also had his hand cut off).
Unlike “Valar Dohaeris” and “Dark Wings, Dark Words,” “Walk of Punishment” is a basically formless collection of scenes. It’s also a spectacularly good episode. In many regards this demonstrates the season in microcosm; it is an episode largely unconcerned with the business of the macro scale, and that instead gets out of the way of the show’s strengths, which are the intricacies of its small mechanics.
The opening funeral scene is indicative, effectively introducing Edmure and Brynden without even requiring dialogue, and while managing to be bleakly funny to boot. The raw materials of this are all in A Storm of Swords, but the particulars of the arrangement – the decision to use the funeral scene to introduce the two characters, and the distillation of the scene to a simple microcosm of the haughtily incompetent Edmure and the brashly competent Brynden is all the work of the show, and is delightful. And the subsequent scene, fleshing out this relationship in dialogue, is equally deft. Richard Madden is not consistently one of the show’s strongest performers, struggling to imbue his character with a sense of interiority, but his mixture of anger and authority as he delivers Edmure’s dressing down is fantastic and Tobias Menzies’s increasingly inept arrogance is masterfully played.
Similar bits of deftness abound. Emilia Clarke is superlative, making the wise decision not to imbue her negotiations with Kraznys with any sense of doubt or suspense as to whether she is in control of the situation, making the question not “is Daenerys going to get through this OK” but rather “OK, so what’s her plan?” The script pushes in this direction, of course, with her sublime bit of snark to Missandei (“we are not men”) and her icy rebuke to Jorah and Barristan, but it’s an impressive turn, and well-executed on every level. Daenerys opened the first two seasons in a position of extreme weakness, clawing her way towards triumph over their course. And so the calm underplaying of her strength is tremendously compelling; previously this sort of “what is the clever person planning” suspense has been associated with characters like Tywin and Tyrion.
Also notable, not least for the amount of space it’s given, is Hot Pie’s survival. Mass slaughter of characters is of course a key part of the Game of Thrones brand, and so the decision to take a character who is by any standard whatsoever completely disposable and give him an extended scene where the entire point is that he gets a dignified and non-fatal farewell is remarkable. Of particular note is the way that the scene’s comedy is made of small moments that reinforce the small and human scale of the central event, with Joe Dempsie’s delivery of “yes it is” competing fiercely with Maisie Williams’s “it’s really good” for the prize of getting the most depth out of a tiny comic beat.
And of course there are a host of smaller triumphs. Mellisandre’s put-down of Stannis is marvelous, communicating a tremendous amount about Stannis and the way in which his confident authority is, in a fundamental sense, utterly hollow. Daniel Portman’s performance through Poderick’s unexpected emergence as a sex prodigy manages to make what would otherwise threaten to be one of the most grotesquely tawdry uses of sex in the series into a bit of genuine comedy, due largely to the fact that he plays every bit of the scene with the same earnest blankness that he plays everything else, allowing Flynn and Dinklage to sell the comedy with their incredulity. And the final shot, as Jaime’s severed hand, bewildered expression, and scream smash-fades into the rolicking Celtic-punk of The Hold Steady’s rendition of “The Bear and the Maiden Fair,” is perhaps the most wickedly funny instance of the grotesque in the entire series’ history; a case where its inclination to revel in sick and bloody excess is paid off perfectly. (As with the funeral scene at the start, this is a case of savvily reworking the tone of the book.)
But nothing in the episode compares to the chairs scene in the High Council chamber, which exemplifies why the game remains compelling even as its larger machinations go almost entirely off the rails. As with the funeral scene at the episode’s start, it’s a beautiful example of characterization through comedy, although in this case the appeal lies in the way the humor emerges out of well-established characters. What’s great is not simply Cersei’s smirk as she pulls her chair around or the gloriously obnoxious squealing of Tyrion dragging his chair around the table, but the expectant stare of Tywin as he baits his trap, Varys’s raised eyebrows as Littlefinger pushes past him, and, for that matter, the blind and instinctive lunge forward as Littlefinger realizes what’s going on.
At the heart of it is simply the fact that Tywin, Varys, Littlefinger, Cersei, and Tyrion are all well-sketched characters with phenomenal actors who are capable of seizing a small dramatic or comedic moment and making the most of it. And, of course, the same can be said of almost every other great moment in an episode that is absolutely stuffed with them: what makes them good is well-acted characters being given small gems that they polish effectively. The takeaway is clear: for all that the larger business of delivering a dramatically satisfying macro narrative almost completely eludes it, a game whose pieces are this well-worked is almost inherently compelling.