Game of Thrones Season Five reviews are supported by my backers on Patreon. We crossed $300 this week, so I’ll be doing the whole season. Assuming, you know, that nobody backs out or anything. There’s a new milestone at $310, however, for a bonus post on the episode leaks of Doctor Who Season Seven. Which might be interesting to Game of Thrones fans as well, all things considered.
State of Play
The choir goes off. The board is laid out thusly.
The Lion, Tyrion Lannister
Lions of King’s Landing: Cersei Lannister, Tommen Baratheon
Direwolves of the Wall: Jon Snow
Mockingbirds of Moat Cailin: Petyr Baelish
Roses of King’s Landing: Margery Tyrell
Burning Hearts of the Wall: Stannis Baratheon
Ships of the Wall: Davos Seaworth
The Spider, Lord Varys
Kraken of Winterfell: Reek
Direwolves of Moat Cailin: Sansa Stark
Direwolves of Braavos: Arya Stark
Archers of the Wall: Samwell Tarly
Shields of Moat Cailin: Brienne of Tarth
Coins of Braavos: No one
Flayed Men of Winterfell: Roose Bolton, Ramsey Bolton
With the Bear, Jorah Mormont
Meereen is vacant.
The episode is in eleven parts. The first part is three minutes long and is set in Braavos. The opening image is of one of the many statues of gods’ faces in the House of Black and White.
The second is seven minutes long and is set in King’s Landing. The transition is by hard cut, from Arya to an establishing shot of the city.
The third is three minutes long and is set in Winterfell. The transition is by hard cut, from Cersei looking angry to Bolton men outside
The fourth is nine minutes long and is set at Moat Cailin. The transition is by dialogue, from Roose Bolton talking about Ramsey’s forthcoming marriage to Sansa, his bride-to-be.
The fifth is four minutes long and is set on the Wall. The transition is by dialogue, from Brienne talking about Stannis to Stannis.
The sixth is six minutes long and is set in Braavos. The transition is by family, from Jon Snow to Arya Stark.
The seventh is two minutes long and is set in Winterfell. The transition is by family, from Arya to Sansa.
The eighth is five minutes long and is set on the Wall. The transition is by family, from Sansa to Jon Snow.
The ninth is seven minutes long and is set in King’s Landing. The transition is by image, from the ritual of execution for Janos Slynt to the High Septon’s ritualistic sex game.
The tenth is three minutes long and is set in Winterfell. The transition is by causation, from Qyburn writing a message for Littlefinger to the scene where he receives it.
The eleventh is seven minutes long and is set in Volantis. The transition is by hard cut, from Littlefinger to an establishing shot of Tyrion and Varys’s cart outside the city. The final shot is of Jorah Mormont capturing Tyrion Lannister.
There is not quite such a thing as a default pattern for Game of Thrones, simply because the show’s basic function depends so heavily on breaking the pattern – for instance, by putting the Purple Wedding in the second episode of the fourth season, thus defying expectations about the speed at which a season gets off to a start. But if you were to suggest a generalized pattern for a season, the third episode would be a point of drastic acceleration.
Certainly that is the case here. Most obviously, the hinted becomes actual as we realize that Sansa is going to be taking on the Jeyne Poole plot from the books and marry Ramsey Bolton. This is the marquee change, and one that is easy to see doing poorly, but certainly possible to see doing amazingly. The obvious peril is that it’s a rehash of Sansa and Joffrey. We’ve seen Sansa and a sadistic husband with power over her before. What we haven’t seen, though, is Sansa doing this from a position of power, in Winterfell. The random servant who whispers to her that the North remembers makes it clear that this is not King’s Landing, and Ramsey is presented, in a real sense, as hopelessly out of his depth, only knowing one tactic (flay people). If this is the story we’re doing, and Sansa is going to be the self-rescuing princess, well, that’s really tempting.
And certainly the number of extra layers involved is tempting. Sansa as the self-rescuing princess endangered by Ramsey and the Boltons around her as Stannis sieges Winterfell and Brienne lurks about the edges of the story looking for an opportunity to kill Stannis is… absolutely fantastic television. Not least because for the first time in Game of Thrones nobody can say with any confidence how that set of elements is going to interact and play out.
Elsewhere the plots proceed more book-predictably, but in every case there’s a sense of a show that’s finally starting to enjoy the potential of its premises. Arya is, I think, the plot that works least well this episode – simply put, she’s not really given much to do, instead suffering the common fate of Game of Thrones characters whereby they are suddenly deserted by all of their competence so as to make sure they don’t accidentally advance the plot. (The lowlight here is surely Arya asking which of the many faces in the House of Black and White is the Many-Faced God. Really, Arya?) But even here there’s a moment of genuine beauty in her inability to throw away Needle and her hiding of it. Not only does it set up the inevitable moment of her reclaiming it (and it’s safe to say that there has never been a scene of Arya reclaiming Needle that has not been wonderful), but it captures the conflict and plot driving her character perfectly in a single image.
The Wall is similarly full of good images: The Jon Snow/Janos Slynt execution is both a fun scene (the cut back to Jon finishing his ale before he goes out is hilarious) and one that sells the fun of “Jon Snow as Lord Commander.” But I actually prefer the scene of him telling Stannis that he’s grooming his page for command, all earnest and confident, simply because Stephen Dillane is secretly a brilliant comic actor.
And, of course, there’s Cersei in King’s Landing. Her scene with Margery, in which Margery throws masterful shade (“it’s a little early for us” indeed), is a thing of absolute beauty – probably the single best sequence in the story. But so is her follow-up – her spectacularly ill-advised alliance with the High Sparrow, which the show doesn’t belabor the idiocy of, instead simply depicting her actions and letting the audience pick up on the sheer folly of them. (Contrast with Littlefinger, where the show contrives to have him interact directly with his obvious mistake, admitting that he doesn’t know much about Ramsey Bolton to his face.) This is, thus far, the plot with the least said and the most shades of subtlety, mostly to its strength.
I have, obviously, left Tyrion out of the mix so far, mainly to set up a nice sort of structural thing where I open and close talking about the use of the unknown. Tyrion’s plot was heavily altered in the first episode via the excising of an ill-advised subplot about an obviously fake Aegon Targaryen. And this, in turn, called into some doubt over where it would go from there. So the use of Jorah to suddenly take the plot back towards the book is clever. For those who haven’t read the books – i.e. essentially the entire audience – it’s a great game-changing twist of the sort that makes good cliffhangers. But it manages to be surprising for those who have as well, simply because the show has by this point engineered circumstances where fealty to the books is a form of surprise. Which is, again, a terribly exciting place to be.
So on the whole, by some margin the best episode of the season so far, simply because it’s the first one to move past setup and into demonstrating the appeal of this particular configuration of the board.
Shall we start ranking episodes? It was fun for Doctor Who.
1. High Sparrow
2. The Wars to Come
3. The House of Black and White