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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, the Hand of the King Tywin Lannister
Lions of Harrenhal: Jaime Lannister
Direwolves of the Wall: Jon Snow
Direwolves of Riverrun: Robb Stark, Catelyn Stark
Mockingbirds of King’s Landing: Petyr Baelish
The Burning Heart, Melisandre
The Kraken, Theon Greyjoy
The Direwolf, Bran Stark
Direwolves of King’s Landing: Sansa Stark
The Direwolf, Arya Stark
Archers of the Wall: Samwell Tarly
The Stag, Gendry
Stags of King’s Landing: King Joffrey Baratheon
Bows of the Wall: Ygritte
Spiders of King’s Landing: Varys
Flowers of King’s Landing: Shae
Winterfell is abandoned and in ruins, Yunkai is empty.
The episode is divided into parts. The first runs three minutes and is set north of the Wall. The opening image is of the fire Sam is ineptly building.
The second runs three minutes and is set in the North. The transition is by hard cut, from a zoomed out shot of Sam and Gilly around their fire to Meera skinning a rabbit.
The third runs four minutes and is set north of the Wall. The transition is by dialogue, from Joren talking about his vision of Jon Snow to Jon.
The fourth runs eight minutes and is set in the Riverlands. The transition is by family, from Jon Snow to Arya Stark.
The fifth runs two minutes and is set at the Wall. The transition is by family, from Arya Stark to Jon Snow.
The sixth runs six minutes and is set at the Dreadfort, though this is not disclosed. The transition is by hard cut, from the climbing party to Ramsey blowing a horn.
The seventh runs four minutes and is set in Riverrun. The transition is by dialogue, from Theon trying to guess which of Robb’s bannermen Ramsey is to Robb.
The eighth runs two minutes and is set in Harrenhal. The transition is by dialogue, from Catelyn to Brienne talking about her.
The ninth runs four minutes and is set in King’s Landing. The transition is by family, from Jaime to Tywin Lannister.
The tenth runs three minutes and is set at the Wall. The transition is by hard cut, from a broken pen to climbing.
The eleventh runs nine minutes and is set in King’s Landing. The transition is by family, from Jon Snow to Sansa Stark. The second section is four minutes long; the transition is by dialogue, from Sansa to Littlefinger and Varys talking about her fate.
The twelfth part runs three minutes and is set on the Wall. The transition is by dialogue, from Littlefinger talking about chaos as a ladder one climbs to Jon reaching the top of the Wall. The final image is of Ygritte completing a Full Web with Jon Snow after seeing the Seven Kingdoms for the first time in her life.
Let’s start with the official short description of the episode, if only because we’ve never done that. Plus it lies. I mean, the official descriptions always mislead (“Second Sons” full description has the series’ greatest to date in “Sam and Gilly meet an older gentleman”), but “Four Houses consider make-or-break alliances” is a flat-out miscount. It clearly refers to what, in the longer description, is “Tywin plans strategic unions for the Lannisters” (a brilliant scene between Charles Dance and Diana Rigg) and “Robb weighs a compromise to repair his alliance with House Frey,” (a scene with Richard Madden) but the truth is that five Houses in this story actively consider make-or-break alliances over the course of the episode. It’s just that one of these is meant to be obscured, namely the conversation between Jaime Lannister and Roose Bolton.
And obscured it is. Indeed, where this season is heading is basically not set up at all except in the most superficial sense of getting Robb to the Twins. This is of course a kind of setup, but it’s worth stressing what it isn’t, which is one based on any real sense of foreboding. Robb is being set up to fail, but as we’ve noted before, there’s not really any direction to it; just an unconnected sequence of errors to communicate the message “Robb is losing” (which he handily communicates in as many words this episode) without gesturing towards the actual nature of this failure.
This is in marked contrast to A Storm of Swords, in which Martin continually revels in the textual game of obscuring clues through the limitations of his viewpoint characters. Reading A Storm of Swords with knowledge of how it ends reveals a piece of genuinely elegant clockwork; hints begin to be laid as early as A Clash of Kings via Daenerys’s visions in the House of the Undying, and A Storm of Swords proceeds to set out an intricate conspiracy involving luring Robb to break his oath to Walder Frey via a love potion, with clear hints of what’s going on. For instance, during Tyrion’s first meeting with Tywin the book makes it clear that Tywin has intelligence regarding Robb’s troop movements that’s subsequently clearly implied to have come from Roose Bolton, who is also explicitly shown to be aware of what really happened at Winterfell. Here, however, even at the point of his meeting with Jaime he is plausibly simply quietly taking an insurance policy against a faltering King, as opposed to an active traitor.
A similar class of problem exists around Littlefinger’s actions. In reality he is currently engaged in an elaborate alliance with the Tyrells to murder Joffrey, with a sideline plot to kidnap Sansa in the process. This latter point is alluded to by dint of his intrigue-off with Varys over the last few episodes, but there’s not even a trace of the former here. (And, of course, this involves removing a larger structure of A Storm of Swords, namely the implication that Melisandre’s blood magic is responsible for clearing the field of other kings, and the consequential interconnectedness of the Red and Purple Weddings. More on this last point in Part Four of the treatise.)
In place of this sensible macro-plotting, however, we get the last Varys/Littlefinger face-off, a subgenre of scene entirely the invention of the show, and one of its strongest cases for being the better iteration of the game. Thus far they have mostly been pleasantly taunting sparring matches, generally won by Varys. Here, however, two things change. First, Littlefinger is brutally successful; Varys is absolutely routed here. Second, we see their opposition presented in starkly ideological terms. These are not new ideologies; Varys has always been the straightforward utilitarian, seeking the course of action that minimizes suffering (save for his delightfully shocking treatment of the man who cut him), Littlefinger always the ruthless Objectivist. But the decision to position them as dualism, along a classical high fantasy order/chaos distinction, is new.
On one level it is simply a depressing confirmation of the show’s bland authoritarian-liberal values and sexual sadism. And yet the “chaos is a ladder” speech – which, it should be noted, makes barely a lick of sense – remains a genuine stunner. Part of it is its sheer ostentatiousness – Aiden Gillen’s gloriously camp reading over an uncharacteristic use of montage containing what may be the single most viscerally horrifying image in Game of Thrones in the form of Ros’s obviously tortured essentially naked corpse still hanging from her wrists on Joffrey’s bed. It would be difficult for this not to stand out, even without the smash-cut to Jon and Ygritte that constitutes what may be the single loudest title drop in the entire history of play. Indeed, in many ways no scene exemplifies the current state of the game; a tawdry spectacle built out of phenomenal acting, defining and anchoring an episode that is otherwise chasing its own tail.