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State of Play
The choir goes off. The board is laid out thusly:
The Lion, Tyrion Lannister
Dragons of Mereen: Daenerys Targaryen
Direwolves of the Wall: Jon Snow
Burning Hearts of the Wall: Stannis Baratheon, Mellisandre
Ships of the Wall: Davos Seaworth
Kraken of Winterfell: Reek
Archers of the Wall: Samwell Tarly
Direwolves of Winterfell: Sansa Stark
Flowers of the Wall: Gilly
Swords of Mereen: Dario Noharis
Butterflies of Mereen: Missandrei
Shields of Winterfell: Brienne of Tarth
Paws of the Wall: Tormund Giantsbane
Flayed Men of Winterfell: Roose Bolton, Ramsey Bolton
With the Bear, Jorah Mormont
King’s Landing, Dorne, and Braavos are empty.
The episode is in parts. The first is five minutes long and is in sections; it is set in Mereen. The section is seconds long; the opening image is of the lamp flickering by Grey Worm’s bedside. The other is five minutes long; the transition is by image, from Missandrei watching over Grey Worm to Daenerys standing over Ser Barristan’s body.
The second part is nine minutes long and is set on the Wall. The transition is by family, from Daenerys Targaryen to Maester Aemon Targaryen and, subsequently, Jon Snow, and by dialogue, from Daenerys to Maester Aemon and Samwell talking about her.
The third is nineteen minutes long and is in sections; it is set in Winterfell. The first section is two minutes long; the transition is indirectly by family, from Jon Snow to Brienne watching Winterfell and musing about Sansa. The second is three minutes long; the transition is by dialogue, from Brienne talking about Sansa to Ramsey and Myranda doing the same. The third is fourteen minutes long; the transition is by dialogue, at last to Sansa herself.
The fourth part is seven minutes long and is set on the Wall; the transition is by dialogue, from Roose and Ramsey talking about Castle Black to Castle Black.
The fifth is five minutes long and is set in Mereen. The transition is by hard cut, from Stannis’s armies riding south to Grey Worm.
The sixth is eight minutes long and is set in Valyria. The transition is by dialogue, from Daenerys in Mereen to Tyrion and Jorah talking about going to Mereen. The final image is of Jorah staring at his greyscale stricken arm.
We are, at last, to the part of the season where Game of Thrones is finally freed up to do things that are interesting as opposed to necessary. A King’s Landing-free episode marks the point where we are finally, in a sense, free of the season’s opening, the first episode having been framed in terms of Cersei. This week the only Lannister is Tyrion, by now firmly enmeshed in Daenerys’s plot.
Without the South or Arya, we get an episode about the North – a thirty-five minute stretch of episode – with Daenerys wrapped around it. This structure also produces the most flagrant “Jon Snow is a Targaryen” acknowledgment yet as Maester Aemon talks about Daenerys being all alone in the world and the camera then pans to Jon entering the scene, which is absolutely hilarious.
The result is largely compelling, with caveats. The North has been one of the triumphs of the season. It’s adapting Martin’s problem books, to say the least, but one of the most compelling parts about A Dance With Dragons was the narrative around Winterfell, told through Theon and Asha’s eyes as the situation within and without the castle grew more and more dangerous in a brutal snowstorm. It’s suspenseful and mysterious, and something the show had largely foreclosed on the possibility of doing in any way similar to the books.
The decision to add Sansa and Brienne to this plot, however, has worked well. Sophie Turner has a fantastic episode, confronted with sadism and horror of a familiar sort but finding new ways to react to it. And the overall structure is fascinating, with Sansa’s only two immediate allies being Stannis and Brienne, who are, to say the least, an unstable combination.
Plus you’ve got the Wall, another highlight of A Dance With Dragons, and of Season Five to date. This episode, however, is overdoing it a little. The interplay between Jon and Stannis remains brilliant, but the failure to give Jon anyone on the Watch who actually supports or agrees with him means that he’s not actually got much to do outside of his scene with Tormund, and Kit Harrington reverts to autopilot. There is no sense in which his scene with Olly was a better idea than letting Maester Aemon reminisce about Aegon the Unlikely and give context to his otherwise non sequitur “kill the boy and let the man live.”
Also dodgy are the Boltons, who remain basically unwatchable. There’s really not much to say here. Ramsey has never worked, and pretty clearly will never work. You continue to hope Stannis gets there soon just because it’s our only viable hope of being rid of these crappy characters. Theon has some hope of interesting stuff with regards to Sansa, and one expects Alfie Allen will do excellent work with it, because he usually does, but at this point every second that he or Ramsey are on screen is just a tedious obligation.
But these are minor problems with an episode that’s long on interesting things. I mentioned Jon and Tormund. Stannis and Samwell provide another brilliant, beautiful scene. Every second Sophie Turner is on camera is fantastic this episode. Gwendoline Christie is fantastic in her brief scene. The time spent in this part of the story, in other words, proves well worth it.
Meanwhile, in Mereen, Daenerys’s plot finds itself more or less completely out to sea. At this point she is in the worst throws of one of the competency drain’s that Martin’s plotting tends to necessitate, where every decision she makes is unproductive and her sole purpose in life is to wait for the plot to wander by again. (See also Tyrion in Season Three) Her marriage proposal is particularly poorly handled, coming out of left field and being a self-evidently bad idea all at once. The point is obviously in part to highlight how much she needs Tyrion to tell her to get her ass over to Westeros, but the effect is to highlight how obviously her story is going to be stalling for time until he gets there.
Thankfully his plot picks up, with Tyrion and Jorah finally getting to be fun together. The trip through Valyria does an interesting bit of worldbuilding, popping into a nook of the world one might have expected the show to avoid. Tyrion seeing Drogon is a fascinating scene, and a decision to let Peter Dinklage express through acting a vast amount of characterization that had been done through exposition in the books.
And there’s a terribly interesting thing that happens as Jorah inherits a plot from an almost entirely unrelated and seemingly excised character. Giving Jorah greyscale is both interesting for his character, simply because “slowly dying” is the sort of thing Iain Glenn is phenomenal at, and interesting in that it once again shows an entirely new facet of the relationship between the two versions of the story.
So a success as a piece of entertainment, with qualifications.
1. High Sparrow
2. The Wars to Come
3. Kill the Boy
4. Sons of the Harpy
5. The House of Black and White