|“That’s not a fucking kiss!”|
State of Play
The choir goes off. The board is laid out thusly:
Lions of King’s Landing: Tyrion Lannister, Cersei Lannister, Tywin Lannister
Lions of Harrenhal: Jaime Lannister
Dragons of Yunkai: Daenerys Targaryen
Direwolves of the Wall: Jon Snow
Direwolves of Riverrun: Robb Stark, Catelyn Stark
Bears of Yunkai: Jorah Mormont
Mockingbirds of King’s Landing: Petyr Baelish
The Boat, Davos Seaworth
The Burning Heart, King Stannis Baratheon
Roses of King’s Landing: Margery Tyrell
Tigers of Riverrun: Talia Stark
Direwolves of King’s Landing: Sansa Stark
The Direwolf, Arya Stark
The Stag, Gendry
Bows of the Wall: Ygritte
The Dogs, Sandor Clegane
Winterfell is abandoned and in ruins.
The episode is in parts. The first runs four minutes and is set in the Riverlands. The opening image is of Thoros of Myr stepping into frame as he calls upon the Lord of Light. It features the death of Berric Dondarion, his head cut in half by the Hound. It doesn’t take.
The second runs six minutes and is set north of the Wall. The transition is by family, from Arya Stark to Jon Snow.
The third runs one minute and is set in the Riverlands. The transition is by family, from Jon Snow to Arya Stark.
The fourth runs three minutes and is set in Harrenhal. The transition is by region, remaining in the Riverlands.
The fifth runs three minutes and is in two sections; it is set in King’s Landing. The first section is one minute long; the transition is by family, from Jaime to Cersei Lannister, and also from Harrenhal to its lord. The second section is twominutes long; the transition is by family, from Cersei to Tyrion Lannister, and from talking about the Tyrells to Olenna.
The sixth part runs two minutes and is set in the Riverlands. The transition is by hard cut, from Tyrion eating sheepishly to Gendry smithing.
The seventh runs five minutes and is set in Riverrun. The transition is by region.
The eighth runs three minutes and is set in the Riverlands. The transition is by family, from Robb to Arya Stark, region, the image of fire, and dialogue, with Arya and Thoros discussing Robb.
The ninth runs five minutes and is set on Dragonstone. The transition is by dialogue, from Thoros and Berric discussing the Lord of Light to Selyse praying.
The tenth runs six minutes and is set in Harrenhal. The transition is by hard cut, from Selyse holding the ship Davos made her to Brienne in the bath.
The eleventh runs two minutes and is set in Dragonstone. The transition is by hard cut, from a spasming Jaime to Davos asleep.
The twelfth runs five minutes and is set outside Yunkai. The transition is by dialogue, from Shireen talking about the Targaryens to Daenerys’s camp.
The thirteenth runs two minutes and is set in Riverrun. The transition is by hard cut, from Barristan to Robb’s battle plans.
The fourteenth runs seven minutes and is in two sections; it is set in King’s Landing. The first section runs four minutes; the transition is by family, from Robb to Sansa Stark. The second section runs three minutes; the transition is by dialogue, from Petyr talking to Sansa to Tywin, Cersei, and Tyrion reacting to the news that Sansa is to wed Loras. The final image is of Tyrion and Cersei sulking around a table as they realize they have not completed a Full Web.
Inasmuch as individual episode quality matters at this deep a point in the game – and the transition to where it must be judged almost entirely on the level of individual scenes is nearly complete – this is a disjointed filler episode capped by what may well be the single most pointless cliffhanger in the entire history of play. What is most notable, then, is the level of thematic focus demonstrated; fully eight of the fourteen scenes can be credibly argued to be about the notion of fire This is not, of course, some strenuous task of theming any more than managing to talk about ice in eight scenes would be. If anything it’s easier, since there’s not an ice-based counterpart to R’hllor, who’s ultimately responsible for the lion’s share of the fire here between Dragonstone and the Brotherhood Without Banners. But it’s still a remarkable level of thematic unity conjured up almost out of nowhere for teh episode.
Two things stand out, then. The first is that the actual title drop comes not from any of the R’hllor scenes, nor from the next most obvious source of fire discussions, Daenerys, but from Ygritte, who notes that the phrase is used to describe red-haired wildlings. It would be tempting to call this the bawdiest title in series history, given that, except the most emphasized kissing is not so much by fire as to fire. But even without that, it sits awkwardly as a choice of titles. It’s not that Jon and Ygritte’s relationship is unimportant to the narrative. Far from it, it constitutes the extent of Jon’s plot this season, although this fact can fairly be called its own problem. Rather, it’s the way in which Ygritte is presented here. Her most interesting moment – her assertion that having sex is something they should do – is a minor throwaway. Instead the scene focuses on things like the utterly cringeworthy transition from “you know nothing Jon Snow” to Jon going down on her, or the awkward and more than slightly slut-shaming joke scene of her recounting her partners after.
Whats more troubling, however, is the underlying parallel between Ygritte and the character most conspicuously and tangibly absent from an episode about fire, Melisandre. As is often the case when characters sit out an episode she is involved indirectly, with essentially everything that happens at Dragonstone being about her. And this is effective – her absence and the lack of much of anything for Stannis to do at this moment in the plot allows things to breathe, finally giving a place for Selyse and Shireen to enter the narrative. Shireen, in particular, is a revelation in terms of Stannis, finally giving Stephen Dillane his first opportunity to be funny as he awkwardly tells her to forget about Davos. (Also, Selyse’s dead baby shrine is astonishingly delicately poised between horror and bathos.) The problem is ultimately one of comparison – the realization that Melisandre, like Ygritte, is in many ways a character who exists purely to add complications to a male character’s plot by giving him awkward boners. (The obvious point of comparison here is of course Margery, who is just as sexual a character as Ygritte or Melisandre, if not moreso, but who is in no way most interesting because of the boners she gives.)
As for the other main source of fire, the Brotherhood Without Banners, Arya gets what is basically her best material of the season here in her haunted and brooding reaction to Berric’s resurrection and its implications. Thoros’s heartbreakingly sad “I don’t think it works that way, child” is magnificent, not least for the humility and lack of knowledge on Thoros’s part. The low-magic nature of Westeros has always been a key part of the story, but this is the first time that we’ve really seen its strangeness emphasized; it’s something that even the people practicing it don’t entirely understand. Also brilliant: Arya’s angry, contemptuous glare at the fact that magic is just as unjust as everything else.
Elsewhere is Jaime finally telling his side of the whole “Kingslayer” thing in full, in a bravura performance from both Coster-Waldau and Christie. The former gets the obvious bits, mixing swagger and helpless frustration fascinatingly, but it is in many ways the latter who is most impressive, her eyes widening in astonished horror at the magnitude of the tale. (Unrelated to fire, but also charming, Roose Bolton’s relish in leaving Jaime in suspense over the events of the Blackwater, doubly funny when you realize that he’s already allied with the Lannisters and is just fucking with Jaime for the fun of it.)
Indeed, and perhaps fittingly, it’s only when things get away from the title theme that things get dubious. Rickard Karstark, who hasn’t appeared in the last two episodes, suddenly bursts in to murder the two random Lannister cousins. Then Robb executes him in a fit of pique. Obviously this is part and parcel of a larger story about Robb’s failures and how they catch up to him, and in that regard Robb, for really the first time, actually looks and feels like the young boy playing king of the novels, but in terms of the show it’s utterly unmotivated, feeling more as though all sense of competence has simply vanished from the character. Worse, it’s not entirely clear anyone has decided on what Robb’s flaw is here. Is he meant to be reckless and disregarding of advice, as when he rejects the unanimous council not to execute Karstark? Hotheaded and emotional, as when he screams angrily afterwards? Or just the vindictive jerk who gives the order to execute the watchman last “so he can watch?” Perhaps the answer is all of the above, but if so it’s a level of utter incompetence we’ve not seen the character display before.
The larger problem, though, is that this is simply something that happens to characters periodically: they abruptly lose their “being good at stuff” abilities so as to avoid allowing the plot to inadvertently advance. By and large it happens to Tyrion this season as well, with his setback following the Blackwater quietly coinciding with the apparent end of his ability to actually do things. As Master of Coin it feels like he really ought to be capable of doing more than getting kicked around by Olenna, and yet it’s hard to honestly say he’s had a plot in these first five episodes. And by any measure the decision to end with a cliffhanger of Tyrion and Cersei sitting awkwardly in the small council chamber is, forgive me, a complete misfire.