Brought to you by my backers on Patreon. There’s a new Milestone there, by the way, as we just unlocked the Marcelo Camargo post today. So at $325, $10 from where we are now, I’ll do a post on Night of the Doctor.
State of Play
The choir goes off. The board is laid out thusly:
The Lion, Tyrion Lannister
Lions of Dorne: Jaime Lannister
Lions of Casterly Rock: Cersei Lannister
Dragons of Mereen: Daenerys Targaryen
Direwolves of the Wall: Jon Snow
Mockingbirds of Winterfell: Petyr Baelish
Roses of King’s Landing: Margery Tyrell
Burning Hearts of the Wall: Stannis Baratheon, Mellisandre
Snakes of Dorne: Elaria Sand
Archers of the Wall: Samwell Tarly
Direwolves of Winterfell: Sansa Stark
Chains of Dorne: Bronn
Swords of Mereen: Dario Noharis
Butterflies of Mereen: Missandrei
Stags of King’s Landing: Tommen Baratheon
With the Bear, Jorah Mormont
The episode is in eight parts. The first is one minute long and is set in Volantis. The opening image is of a boat in the harbor at night.
The second is three minutes long and is set on a ship in the Narrow Sea. The transition is by image, from ship to ship, any by family, from Tyrion Lannister to Jaime.
The third is ten minutes long; it is set in King’s Landing. The first part is three minutes long; the transition is by family, from Jaime Lannister to Cersei.
The fourth is nine minutes long and is in two parts; it is set on the Wall. The first part is six minutes long; the transition is by hard cut, from Margery walking away to boys sparring in the yard of Castle Black. The other three minutes long; the transition is by image, from Jon Snow at his desk to Stannis at his.
The fifth part is five minutes long and is set in Winterfell. The transition is by image, from a candle in Stannis’s office to Sansa lighting candles, and by dialogue, from Stannis to Sansa and Littlefinger talking about him.
The sixth is nine minutes long and is set in Dorne. The transition is by image, from Sansa in the dark of the crypt to Jaime and Bronn’s boat rowing ashore in the dark.
The seventh is three minutes long and is set on a small boat. The transition is by hard cut, from the Sand Snakes to an establishing shot of the boat.
The eighth is six minutes long and is set in Mereen. The transition is by dialogue, from Jorah and Tyrion talking about Daenerys to Daenerys. The final image is of a mess of bodies, including Grey Worm and Ser Barristan Selmy.
Braavos is empty.
It is difficult not to think of the first four episodes of Season Five as something of a unit, given their simultaneous release. And while the leak was unintentional (though evidently unproblematic, with “The Wars to Come” bringing a record high rating for the show, although subsequent episodes have been roughly level with the fourth season, and this is the first season in which the lowest rated episode will not beat the highest rated of the previous), it came from the official HBO screeners, which sent out the first four episodes as a unified block.
It’s easy, watching this, to see the logic. The episode ends with a double death, both of them characters who are still alive in the books. In a season that has in part been about negotiating the transition to the television show being ahead of the books, ending your preview with such a decisive and fundamental break is huge. I mean, Barristan is a POV character towards the end of A Dance with Dragons and into The Winds of Winter. Killing him here isn’t just a detail (as, ultimately, the killing of Grey Worm could easily be), but a massive alteration to the range of things that Daenerys’s story can do from this point. Even in the immediate term, the impact is huge – Daenerys has lost half of her closest advisers in one shot. Her inner circle at this point consists of Missandrei and Daario. Jorah’s boat can’t make it to Mereen fast enough.
The other interesting thing this episode does is to tacitly link the Sons of the Harpy to the Sparrows, two violent and seemingly populist movements. The Sparrows are clearly being manipulated by external powers, which suggests quietly that the Harpies are as well, but equally, anyone who thinks that Cersei actually has control over the Sparrows is daft. In both cases the movements are in fact instabilities – points where the system of power and authority is simply being shown to have fundamental limits.
In this light, the pattern repeats across the board. The Dornish plot can be understood both as an illustration of the declining power of the Iron Throne, which can no longer keep the Seven Kingdoms in line, and of Dorian Martell, whose hold is challenged by the Sand Snakes, a smaller and more elite sort of rebellion that nevertheless carries a populist energy. Sansa represents a populism of the North. And, of course, the Wall continues to illustrate a similar sense of unease in terms of the Wildlings, who have the theoretical capacity to reunite and smash the Wall the moment Stannis leaves. Everywhere power frays, leaving Westeros less like a tinderbox waiting for a spark and more like a bed of dried hay upon which sparks are raining down. Or perhaps just like a thing that is on fire.
On to specific quality. First, it’s notable that the episode is in a small number of parts, with three sequences at nine minutes or longer, and only Dorne and Volantis getting multiple parts. Everything is an extended sequence. King’s Landing gets the longest single scene, and in many ways sets up the chaos in Mereen, not just with the Harpy/Sparrow parallels, but with the move to put a character in peril that isn’t in the books, namely Loras. (Who, like Grey Worm and Barristan, is conspicuous by his lack of series regular status.) The particulars of how King’s Landing departs from the books, where the plot is based heavily on using Cersei as an unreliable narrator, is probably more a Brief Treatise sort of issue than a review issue, but the effect is compelling. Margery’s disbelieving frustration at Tommen’s cowardice is particularly good, and the imminent return of Diana Rigg can only be called a good thing.
Dorne is also a thing of genuine delight. That Jaime and Bronn are a hilarious double act is hardly unexpected – their training scenes in Season Four were delights as well. But the particulars are still brilliant. Coster-Waldau’s ability to get laughs by waving his fake hand around is tremendous, and the swordfight is an absolute hoot, especially the look on his face when he catches his opponent’s sword.
Other plots are more meandering. The Wall finally has its first dud of an episode, returning to the bad old days of outright wheel-spinning. (Mellisandre attempting to seduce Jon Snow is particularly painful.) Stephen Dillane continues his demonstration of comic timing, and his scene with Shireen is terribly sweet, but it doesn’t hide the fact that nothing happens anywhere in the nine minute Wall sequence. Although the mention of Jon Snow’s parentage ties in nicely with the discussion of Lyanna and Rhaegar between Littlefinger and Sansa (which does seem to imply that Littlefinger knows Jon Snow’s parentage), and in turn with Barristan’s reminiscing about Rhaegar in the final sequence, all of which feels remarkably like setting up the parentage reveal for this season, which would be a heck of a twist.
(As for Sansa, her plot continues to be suitably dread-laden, with bad things inevitable on the horizon, but as with the Wall, they remain firmly on the horizon, instead of things that happen now.)
The resulting episode is an odd one. It does what seems the first and foremost goal of a Game of Thrones episode, which is to say that it makes one excited for the next one. And its big moments are indeed opulently big – indeed, the biggest to date this season. But the foundation around those moments is particularly soft.
1. High Sparrow
2. The Wars to Come
3. Sons of the Harpy
4. The House of Black and White