|I don’t really have a funny caption here, I just thought it was an ironic image to use this week.|
State of Play
The choir goes off. The board is laid out thusly:
Lions of King’s Landing: Jaime Lannister, Cersei Lannister,
Dragons of Meereen: Daenerys Targaryen
Direwolves of the Wall: Jon Snow, Bran Stark
The Mockingbird, Petyr Baelish
Roses of King’s Landing: Margaery Tyrell
The Direwolf, Sansa Stark
The Direwolf, Arya Stark
The Dogs, Sandor Clegane
The Shield, Brienne of Tarth
Spiders of King’s Landing: Varys
With the Bear of Meereen, Jorah Mormont
The Dreadfort and Dragonstone are abandoned
The episode is in eleven parts. The first runs five minutes and is set in King’s Landing. The opening image is of Tommen being crowned.
The second runs four minutes and is set in Meereen. The transition is by dialogue, with Jorah informing Daenerys of Joffrey’s death.
The third runs seven minutes and is set in the Eyrie. The transition is by hard cut, from Daenerys on her balcony to rocks.
The fourth runs three minutes and is set in King’s Landing. The transition is by dialogue, from Littlefinger and Lyssa getting married to Cersei and Tywin discussing weddings.
The fifth runs two minutes and is set in the Riverlands. The transition is by dialogue, with Arya reciting her list, including Cersei and Tywin.
The sixth runs three minutes and is set in the Eyrie. The transition is by family, from Arya to Sansa Stark.
The seventh runs two minutes and is set in the Crownlands. The transition is by dialogue, with Brienne and Podrick talking about Sansa.
The eighth runs three minutes and is set in the Riverlands. The transition is by hard cut, from Brienne and Podrick riding to the Hound waking up.
The ninth runs three minutes and is set in King’s Landing. The transition is by image, from a wide shot of a river to a pond.
The tenth runs three minutes and is set in the Crownlands. The transition is by hard cut, from Oberyn to a burning rabbit.
The eleventh runs eighteen minutes and is set at Craster’s Keep north of the Wall. The transition is by hard cut, from Podrick helping Brienne with her armor to an establishing shot. The final image is of Craster’s Keep landing on a snake and burning.
Structurally, it’s largely a mirror of the previous week, only with a more disjointed build-up (prior to the jump to Craster’s it’s on track to be a Season Two-sized part count) and a more ostentatious set piece for the Craster’s sequence. The result is firmly the soft and kind of spongy middle of Season Four, and the sort of episode that trying to find anything to say about highlights why A Brief Treatise on the Rules of Thrones is not quite the most functional project I’ve ever designed. (I reckon this’ll be the last run of it – I don’t see much point in writing second essays about S5 and S6 episodes.)
The ending set piece is clearly the point of the exercise. On one level, it’s not bad, and even kind of impressive. It’s worth thinking back to Season One here, and considering how its one battle is handled with an ostentatious cut away from it when Tyrion is unceremoniously knocked unconscious. It’s a detail inherited from the books, yes (and Martin himself is clearly doing a Hobbit joke), but it’s also just a sign that this was not a show that had the budget for that kind of thing. The closest thing to an action set piece the show could manage at the start was the Jaime/Ned fight. Here, however, we’ve got a sizeable, multi-party action sequence with a significant amount of fire, bigger than any spectacle of the first season, and while it’s a sixteen-minute episode-ender, it’s still not really being leaned on with any particular weight.
Which is probably good, as the near-miss between Jon and Bran is little more than a reprise of “The Rains of Castamere,” and the biggest consequence the sequence can muster is the killing of Locke, which isn’t exactly a major event. (Although Hodor’s confused horror when he comes to and realizes what’s happened is chilling and effective.) As set pieces go, it’s a minor one. But that works for the show’s first real experiment in going completely off-book. Just like Season One’s tentative, probing experiments in being a fantasy show, this is Game of Thrones working out how to do a thing. The goal is to not fuck up, and it’s met handily.
But the final scene is merely the set piece to cap off a jumble of short scenes that do the real work of the episode. For the most part that work is anticipatory. Of the five other plots to get a look in this week, three set up new status quos. (The other two are the Arya/Hound sequences, which remain charming mugging for the camera, and King’s Landing, which is setting up next week, and which we’ll get to.) Daenerys, for instance, very explicitly transitions from the conquerer role she’s been in the past season and a half to the “trying to rule Meereen effectively” role she’ll be stuck in for the next two and a half. Time is also spent establishing Brienne and Podrick’s relationship, which isn’t quite as comedy-laden as Arya and the Hound, but is still a solid and enjoyable pairing. (Daniel Portman on a horse alone justifies the entire plotline.)
But the most sizeable bit of setup, due primarily to the fact that it’s going to be paying all of this off in the next episode its characters appear in as opposed to the distant future, is Sansa at the Eyrie. It’s also doing a subtly different job, in that its not just setting up a new status quo but reminding viewers about characters unseen since Season One. This is not without awkwardness, most obviously the dispatching of the “who really killed Jon Arryn” mystery in an infodump so flagrant that Littlefinger, the character who invented sexposition, is forced to condemn it in dialogue. But Lyssa Arryn was always a satisfyingly unsettling character, and rapidly hits form, swinging between outright comedy, as with her septon at the ready, to being genuinely threatening, as with her furious berating of Sansa. Even the little things appeal – Robin’s throwing the bird out the window doesn’t really match the breastfeeding of Season One for an unsettling image, but it’s still a deft way of working a refresher course on who he is into the episode. The overall result is the efficient creation of an obviously unstable situation, and a characteristically Thronesy case where the resolution of all of Sansa’s previous problems (Joffrey, being stuck in King’s Landing) has managed to make her situation even more immediately untenable.
Finally there is King’s Landing, which is mostly concerned with the imminence of Tyrion’s trial, which is emphasized with the always clever trick of having multiple scenes about him while leaving him out of the actual episode. But since there’s relatively little actual setup to be done in this regard beyond finding excuses to have people say that Tyrion’s trial is coming up, the reality is that this mostly allows King’s Landing to be used for fairly understated scenes, including two highlights. First is Tywin’s revelation that the Lannister gold mines have all collapsed, which, like the revelation of Jon Arryn’s true killer, is a moment where our understanding of the overall state of play shifts suddenly on a bit of dialogue the consequences of which are left entirely unexplored for the moment. (Alas, in both cases, they also turn out to be left entirely unexplored in general.) Second is the beautiful Oberyn/Cersei scene, which is interesting for the intensely sympathetic light it casts on Cersei. Next week, of course, she will very much be the villain of the piece, simply by dint of the fact that she’s prosecuting Tyrion, but with his absence she can be allowed a moment of sympathy. Intensifying it is the brilliant “everywhere in the world they hurt little girls” line, one of the best moments in the game’s history, and, fittingly, one invented for the show.