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In many regards the episode everyone expected to watch last week, which I suppose means we should start with the end, in which Jon Snow is resurrected more or less exactly how everyone expected, right down to it being the cliffhanger. It is in some ways puzzling why this couldn’t happen last week, not least because the mechanics of Jon’s death back in “Mother’s Mercy” required that there still be Wildlings at the Wall (as there are in the book), so the inevitable collapse of Thorne’s regime in the face of the reality that they can’t hold Castle Black against a bunch of pissed off Wildlings could easily have happened last episode. Which in turn probably could have made the resurrection work in one. Should they have?
There are clear advantages to not having done so, most obviously that the incredible Davos/Melisandre scene really benefits from the end of “The Red Woman.” (Carice van Houten in particular is amazing here.) But even with that, it remains tough not to be at least somewhat frustrated by the underwhelming start to proceedings. But that declaration, in many ways, requires looking at only one plot. The amount that would have had to happen at Castle Black to make it fit in the first episode would have been an awkwardly-sized – only the Sansa/Brienne scene really would have had a chance of standing up to it in scale. Here, however, it finds an episode that can actually support it, and the result is consistently satisfying.
Perhaps the biggest thing in helping balance this episode out is the return of two long-absent sets of characters. Neither are historically plots it’s easy to get excited about, and the Iron Islands are in some ways difficult to straightforwardly get invested in by dint of things hinging on a mysterious new character who’s not even named. But even if it’s not entirely clear how events in Pyke are going to suddenly stop being excruciatingly dull (especially given how awful the book material is for this plot), Balon’s death at least constitutes a major shift in the status quo that could in theory be interesting, and makes returning to the Iron Islands feel like a significant decision. Likewise even though little of import comes of Bran’s journey into the past, the basic fact that the show now has an easy means to go look at the past is interesting, not least because that sure looks like the Tower of Joy in next week’s trailer.
Also substantial is the death of Roose Bolton. There are some distinct problems with this scene – the timing of the Maester’s entrance is painfully contrived, and the sequence of Ramsay killing Walda and her son is a tedious bit of Ramsay being Ramsay, and one that’s tough to be invested in given that all the significant fireworks have already gone off in that plot. But man, they’re good fireworks. If nothing else the show has done a rock solid job of selling the point that Ramsay is a psychopath of middling actual skill, and having Roose try to explain why Ramsay is being a moron one more time before he gets killed really hammers home the message. It’s an interesting use of the show’s age and backstory – we’ve seen people like Ramsay before, and know what happens to deranged sadists in power. So we can look at the arrangement of pieces around Ramsay – at what will actually happen if he tries to attack Castle Black, at the knowledge that Littlefinger and the Knights of the Vale are en route, at the presence of Sansa and Jon in the area – and can see his downfall clearly telegraphed.
And there’s the Meereen scene, which, while being another fairly slender thing plot-wise, actually features functional Tyrion banter (“I drink and I know things” was rightly trailered) and sees Conleth Hill giving one of the best “steal a scene you don’t actually have any lines” in performances of the show history with his facial expression as Tyrion descends into the crypt. (It’s a surprisingly robust list, albeit consisting almost entirely of either Hill or Natalie Dormer.) And then, better yet, sees Dinklage calmly take the scene back with his absolutely gorgeous monologue to the dragons. I’m not entirely clear on what’s happened with the dragons (are they free only in the sense of being able to walk around the crypt more, or did Tyrion actually let them out?), but it’s a solid scene, and once again one that wouldn’t have worked as an intro to the Meereenese status quo.
Actually, the small scenes are all pretty good this week. Arya’s plot is admittedly treading water, but there’s something satisfying in the fact that the show has so many balls in the air that it just deals with Arya in two two-minute segments and gets on with it. Sure, neither this week nor last week’s segment can accurately be described as interesting, but they’re also short enough to not screw anything up. And the other short scene, Sansa, is similarly deft, taking a small plot beat in the form of Theon changing plot lines and wedding it to a character moment that could have been skipped, but that it’s tremendously nice to get to see. (Mind you, one kind of wishes Brienne hadn’t held the identity of the man back, as Sansa would have reacted to that too, but oh well.)
And while King’s Landing, at the longest single scene (though not the longest single setting) can hardly be called a “small” scene, is still a fairly low-key one. There’s an artfulness to the reintroduction of Tommen here – his going to his mother for help in being strong and suitably vengeful is, like Ramsay taking over, a kind of delicious slow motion car crash, especially with Cersei’s prophecy hanging over things. But Jaime’s presence complicates things intriguingly as well – the arc of Tommen’s implosion and Cersei’s final downfall seems relatively set, but where Jaime is going to fit into it is one of the less clear things.
So all in all, a well-balanced episode that helps justify the more eyebrow-raising decisions of the first week. At this point, the season seems firmly on the rails.
State of Play
The choir goes off. The board is laid out thusly:
Lions of Meereen: Tyrion Lannister
Lions of King’s Landing: Jaime Lannister, Cersei Lannister, Tommen Baratheon
Direwolves of the Wall: Jon Snow, Bran Stark
Ships of the Wall: Davos Seaworth
Burning Hearts of the Wall: Melisandre
The Direwolf, Sansa Stark
Butterflies of Meereen: Missandei
Direwolves of Braavos: Arya Stark
Spiders of Meereen: Varys
Stars of King’s Landing: The High Sparrow
Paws of the Wall: Tormund Giantsbane
The Kraken, Theon Greyjoy
Coins of Braavos: No One
Flayed Men of Winterfell: Ramsay Bolton, Roose Bolton
The Shield, Brienne of Tarth
The episode is divided into nine parts. The first runs six minutes and is set in a cave north of the Wall and in Winterfell. The opening image is of roots.
The second runs four minutes and is set at the Wall. The transition is by family, from Bran Stark to Jon Snow’s dead body.
The third runs nine minutes and is set in King’s Landing. The transition is by hard cut, from Jon’s corpse to a crowd of people.
The fourth runs six minutes and is set in Meereen. The transition is by family, from Cersei to Tyrion Lannister.
The fifth runs two minutes and is set in Braavos. The transition is by hard cut, from Tyrion and Varys exiting the crypt to Arya in the street.
The sixth runs seven minutes and is set in Winterfell. The transition is by hard cut, from Arya walking away to Roose Bolton.
The seventh runs three minutes and is set in the woods between Winterfell and Castle Black. The transition is by hard cut, from Ramsay to Theon.
The eighth runs six minutes and is set on Pyke. The transition is by dialogue and family, from Theon talking about home to Balon and Yara Greyjoy there.
The ninth runs eight minutes and is set at the Wall. The transition is by hard cut, from Balon Greyjoy’s funeral boat to Melisandre by the fire. The final image is of Jon Snow’s not-corpse.
2. The Red Woman
May 2, 2016 @ 6:51 am
The Ramsey thing is reaching stupid levels of the people one level under the actors are the most psychologically implausible people conceived. You killed the king, your mother-in-law, and your baby brother, sure I guess we have to put you in charge, since your a named character, go lead us in war. How would you even begin to explain that to the various lower lords that command your army.
May 3, 2016 @ 6:00 am
Spoken like someone who hasn’t read much history… plenty of people have done as bad or worse and been rewarded with much more power than Ramsey now has.
May 2, 2016 @ 7:51 am
Man, the Mountain just smooshed that guy like a grape single handed. That was wonderfully gross. Are you hyped for the Cleganebowl? I’m hyped.
At first, I thought the opening flashback was Bran and Rickon, and was surprised at the foresight they had in filming it back then.
The stuff with Jaime and the Sparrow was fantastically tense, though at the time I was thinking “That’s an awful lot of steps, a man his age could slip and fall and really hurt himself, you know.”
I’d forgotten that Balon was the fifth King, I thought Mance was the fifth King. Joffrey, Robb, Stannis, Renly, Mance. I guess that’s what they get for cutting the Ironborn plot out.
I feel like we’ve not been introduced to the three-eyed raven well enough. He got an interesting but very brief introduction two years ago and then this episode just treats him as practically a background character. I don’t feel like he’s properly established. I had a similar problem with Jojen, as I only picked up his name much later, thanks to the internet.
There’s some interesting stuff going on with Ramsay, he’s got this strange reaction when he’s feeding his stepmother and brother to the wolves. I don’t fully know how to describe it.
And I see what they did there: Kit Harrington would only agree to come back to the show if they would cut his hair.