In the leanest episode of an already streamlined season, Game of Thrones is still building the blocks of this season’s structure before tearing it all down. Just how the finale will play out is anybody’s guess. Book readers may have a better idea than the uninitiated, but the series has taken several sharper turns that have made this year’s proceedings harder to predict. While there have been some missteps, these bold moves by GOT’s creative team have brought the narrative into a stronger focus.
Daenerys, as usual, is given the flaming heart of the show, even if her storyline often feels more one-note than the others. There were only so many times she can demand “where are my dragons!” before you would just wish someone would hand them over so we could check back in with the Starks. But when the show goes beyond the usual Dany “my dragons and/or people hate me,” and actually does something drastic like killing off Ser Barristan, the show thrives. We can whine about how “GRRM didn’t kill him in the books! He’s just become a POV character! He defeated Rhaegar at the tourney at Storm’s End! Random plot point from A Dance with Dragons!” (I’ll admit, I love the character and Ian McEllhiney’s performance too and prefer the book’s plotting of these events), but let’s be honest, Dany needed another jolt in this multi-season Meereen arc. Often she beats a self-important drum to get your attention, but her plot line always succeeds when a war drum beats for her. Killing Selmy was an act of war, and her revenge should be interesting.
After opening on Missandei, who’s watching over injured the Grey Worm in his quarters, we are shown Daenerys standing over Selmy’s body, half in shadow. Missandei and Worm are in a place of despair mixed with hope. Daenerys, isolated with the man who most reminds her of the old Targaryen reign, is surrounded by death. When she later asks Missandei for advice, as her other advisors would guide her to a quick act of vengeance or mercy, Missandei reminds her that Daenerys may have listened to their words but usually forged her own path. And so she does, inviting the leaders of each of Meereen’s great families for a dinner party in her dungeon. Chained like the slaves they once owned, we see a master praying in the foreground, slightly out of focus, while Daenerys gives the men an ultimatum in the face of two angry, hungry dragons.
This murmuring master, let’s call him Master #3, is the episode’s first notable red shirt. For some reason, the unruly dragons who are crazy dangerous around their own “mother,” are super tame in front a whole line of chained up food. They wait for their cue before going for food. These dragons must have watched The Lost World: Jurassic Park for research. Just as two T-Rex’s split an Eddie Carr dinner in that movie (this is the first reference I can think of), they make a bloody mess of Master #3 and Dany’s made her point. It’s either her way or the Kingsroad. These men who seem so brave behind a mask, cower when faced with these Targaryen beasts – except for Hizdahr zo Loraq who, shaking, whispers “Valar Morgulis” (“All men must die”). Hey, that’s her catchphrase! Daenerys does a quick double-take, realizes that maybe Loraq is a guy she can work with, and sends the masters back to their dungeon cells to await her decision. Maybe she can bring about peace by opening up the fighting pits…to free people only. And maybe she can tighten her grasp of the Meereenese by marrying Loraq. Before she really thinks this through, she flat out offers her hand to Loraq. We’ll see how this one turns out.
This proposal plays out differently in the books – Daenerys is more passive, the proposal moreso happens out of the quagmire she’s stuck in. Here, she’s more than a willing participant; she’s caused it. Which is a smart move for the show and it will give David and Dan (the writers) the chance to have Daenerys actively push herself into this solution (or trap, whichever way you look at it). Just as the Lorax defended the rights of the trees against the pushy Once-ler, the Loraq(s) will defend the rights of the masters against the Khaleesi. This is all about to get interesting.
On the other side of the world, Sam and Maester Aemon read Daenerys’ response to their call for aid. While she sympathizes with the Wall, she’s stuck in Meereen and has to rule there first. Calling back to season one, episode nine, in which Aemon revealed his Targaryen roots to Jon, the old Maester wishes he could join up with his blood relation, the true queen. He then imparts more words to Jon, giving the episode its title. Jon can’t please everyone, and he’ll need to make some tough decisions. If he’s going to be successful as Lord Commander, he’s got to trust his own instincts and – in this instance – offer the Wildlings sanctuary in the North. It’s a tough sell and even Jon’s own squire is against him, but as Maester Aemon says, Jon’s got to “kill the boy and let the man be born.” Jon and Dany don’t have any senior advisers to turn to and it’s up to them to make the decisions, solve the problems, and live with the consequences. It’s a nice change for both characters as it keeps Daenerys from being overly passive and Jon from being overly mopey.
This leads Jon to unchain the next-in-line leader of the Wildlings, Tormund. Looking for an ally, his tactic is to appeal to Tormund Giantsbane with reason – “I’m not asking you to make peace to save your skin. Make peace to save your people.” Good speech: Tormund is in… with the condition that Snow join Tormund on a trip to appeal to other Wildlings at Hardhome. I get the need for Jon to go – it’ll ensure trust with the Wildlings, but it’s foolish for him to leave a divided Night’s Watch. That’s like a newly elected president saying “thanks for getting me into office. But first I gotta go speak to the Russians because there’s an army of undead Nazis marching from Siberia.” And if we were still in a Cold War, that analogy would make sense.
The Night’s Watch doesn’t take this development well, even after Jon makes a good point: “we can learn to live with the Wildlings or we can add them to the army of the dead.” Stannis watches while the Night’s Watch gets up in arms, and all he can do is correct grammar. Geez, what an asshole! If he’s so good with word usage and sentence structure, why isn’t HE teaching Davos to read?! That said, Stannis is still one of my favorite characters because he holds by principles and does not give two craps about what anybody else thinks. As long as you do your job and are not also trying to be king, you’ve got his vote. And he’s obviously a fan of Snow. The kid will not give this king what he wants, but because Jon is following his oath, Stannis lets it slide. These two!
Before marching on Winterfell (the old stronghold of the North is getting some much needed attention), Stannis comes across Sam and Gilly in the library. Sam had been explaining the order of the Maesters to her and how he had once wanted to become one before taking the black. This is a nice nod to the books, but whether this actualizes into something more remains to be seen. Before they can get too wistful about maesterdom, Stannis joins their conversation and gets reflective about Sam’s father Randyll who gave the Baratheons a hell of a fight during Robert’s Rebellion. He sees Sam isn’t a fighter like his father, but if they’re to defeat the dead he’ll need Sam the Slayer to keep studying for any weakness this supernatural enemy may have. So Stannis approves of Sam’s science experiment (dragon glass aka obsidian = dead Other). More points to Stannis!
Just miles away from Winterfell, Brienne and Pod mull their next move at a nearby inn. The innkeeper is a grizzled old Stark-loyalist and Brienne mentions Lady Stark in one of many references this episode. Could this all be leading to something more? Be still my beating Stoneheart. The female knight still needs to find a way to Sansa but, bit by bit, she’s learning that even though the Boltons hold the North, the North remembers.
The plot within the walls of Winterfell gets thicker as the Bolton’s prep for GOT’s fortieth wedding. Hopefully this Sansa storyline all makes sense at the end of the day. Once Cersei gets full wind that Sansa “Suspected-Murderer-of-the-King” Stark is at Winterfell, won’t she want the Stark girl dead? Won’t Littlefinger and the Boltons be considered traitors? Ah, we’ll let it slide as long as this plotline gets more twisted and screwed up. And, oh, does it get screwed up. That Bastard of Bolton (I smell a sitcom) continues to have raunchy sexual escapades with his mistress, Myranda. She’s bitter that Ramsay’s getting married, you know in that cute kind of bitter that only members of the Manson family can relate to. She also bites Ramsay’s lip bloody – but everyone’s favorite sadist is really into it, so good for them.
Sansa, meanwhile, hangs out by the Broken Tower, that same spot that Bran fell upon all those years ago. It’s a nostalgic nod, to have Sansa stand where Bran broke his legs, which led to the breaking of everyone else’s lives. Myranda soon interrupts this quiet moment and leads Sansa to stables under the guise that they’ll see a fun little surprise. Following a long dark corrider, housed with caged, snarling hounds, Sansa finds the pen that holds Theon. It’s the first of many abuses Sansa endures at the hands of Bolton & Co., and she faces whom she believes to be her brothers’ killer with more sympathy than disgust. I guess the world is so screwed up that there are worse people around than your brothers’ potential murderer. With each episode, the mood in Winterfell gets darker and more foreboding, filled with barking dogs, dank corridors, and more threatening shadows.
Out of guilt, Theon reveals his encounter to Ramsay, and Ramsay simply forgives him, sans pain. Is Ramsay a changed man, now that he’s set to be a lord? No, he’s just got more options of abuse. And this sets the table for a very awkward and tense dinner scene. Sansa is a psycho-magnet, and it’s a shame her dad isn’t around to disapprove of her boyfriends. But her husband-to-be’s dad really lightens up the dinner conversation. Regaling the guests with how he begat Ramsay: Roose had forced himself on the miller’s wife, and she came to his gates with a son a year later. He nearly threw the infant into the river, had baby Ramsay not looked like a Bolton. Instead, he took Ramsay in and made a monster out of him. To see Roose, who so coolly recounts even the bloodiest of transactions, hold court at this dinner is pretty chilling. Kudos to the casting and creative teams, who showed him as a protagonist in season 2, when Robb trusted Roose’s poise and experience. His voice is so calm it could cause some unease, but he came off as a responsible adviser. Following the betrayal of the Red Wedding, we see that Roose Bolton’s personality was always twisted, selfish, and unfeeling. You just needed to know the story of Ramsay’s birth to get the full picture. Like dogs in their pens, these Bolton’s are born and bred as bloodthirsty maniacs, and they take comfort in a world of pain.
Sansa holds her own during the dinner – she got a lot of training from Joffrey – but Roose’s wife Walda soon sets the stage for some future problems with Ramsay. She’s pregnant and Roose thinks it’s a boy. He doesn’t know the sex of the baby for sure, but he does know how to rile Ramsay up. It’s all part of Daddy Bolton’s plan to get the bastard battle-ready – Stannis is coming and they need to finish him off. These two have a weird dynamic, but like a father and son bonding over “Field of Dreams,” nothing unites the Bolton Boys more than the smell of flaying in the morning.
Tyrion and Jorah get their own bonding moment as they sail through Valyria. The ancient city has been mentioned several times before in the show and many times in the books – it’s more effectively shown subtle and piecemeal as it is here. We don’t get any grand, sweeping shots like Meereen, and it keeps the mystery and majesty in place. Jorah and Tyrion regale each other with a poem of the Doom of Valyria, some cataclysm that Pompeii’ed the hell out of this place. And while they talk, they see Dany’s wandering dragon, flying through the mists high overhead. Another small effect with a large footprint – we don’t need the aerial shot of the dragon soaring through the sky, we just need it from their perspective. It leaves a mark, distracting us and our heroes as a camouflaged “Stone Man” hops from a ruin, into the river, and onto the boat. More jump into the water and launch a full scale attack. The show resurrects a moment I feared was cut from the books and uses it here for their own purposes – to much success. These stone men aren’t statues or undead creatures, but sufferers of grayscale, the affliction that was stopped in Stannis’ daughter, Shireen. With an advanced form of the disease, they’ve made Valyria into their own leper colony. “Don’t let them touch you!” Jorah shouts as a card-carrying, unmoisturized member of the Grayscale Society knocks Tyrion into the water. As he sinks toward a hungry gray man, his eyes close. And the screen goes dark. And for what feels like minutes, we wait for the end credits.
But Tyrion wakes up. What a confident fakeout, GOT! And we’re with Tyrion and Jorah on a beach, bruised, shaken, but moving onward with their journey. These two guys are pals now in the kind of companionship that only comes from fighting off suffering victims of rare flaky disorders. All is sunshine and rainbows and dragons until Jorah sneaks a peek at an itchy spot on his wrist, and…wait a second…Jorah has grayscale now!!?! What’s his life expectancy!? They just killed Ser Barristan, for Seven’s Sake!! Who’s going to council Dany?!
On a spoiler note, let’s talk a little bit about grayscale before all is said and done… I’m surprised by the amount of references to it this season. Of the many side stories and anecdotes from the books, I thought grayscale would be one of the cuts, so it’s nice to see this detail color and deepen the world of the show. And, like any great message board dweller/Jon Snow truther, I get sickeningly excited because this amps up the importance of grayscale in some personal theories about the books and the show.
THE SPOILERS OF WAR:
Specifically in the novels, Melisandre offers to wake the “stone dragon” for Stannis, that can only be awoken using king’s blood. Ignoring the “king’s blood” part, I’d thought this stone dragon was somehow a Westerosi metaphor for a volcano of some kind. A natural disaster that could cause chaos and destruction – a giant stone, fire-breathing mountain that creates obsidian (re: dragon glass) in it’s wake. Now, I’m more inclined to believe it’s something to do with grayscale and Targaryen blood. Maybe somebody, who happens to be high up in the throne ranking, contracts grayscale. Or maybe grayscale makes you immune to the touch of the Others. I don’t know, I’m just liking this grayscale connection and my theory wheels are turning.
END SPOILERS OF WAR
This episode gets 6 out of 7 kingdoms. Even though rightful heirs populate almost every city on the Westeros map, the characters of Northern descent have served as the most noble protagonists of the show and have been screwed over the more often than most. So it’s nice to see the focus placed on the struggles in the lands near the Wall.
Dark times definitely lie ahead, and the stage is being set for a great showdown at Winterfell. While we have yet to reach that battle in the books, the show’s armies are marching towards a satisfying season conclusion. Hopefully, our favorite characters will have happy reunions and won’t get “too soon” endings like Ser Barristan.
As always, the writers succeed in keeping the backstories interesting, have fun playing with the awkwardness of evil playing nice (as in the Winterfell dinner scene), and give us a good juxtaposition between the many personalities playing off of each other (Bolton and Stark, Mormont and Targaryen, Snow and Baratheon). The same storylines that sometimes slog still have trouble – you want Daenerys to win the war but it’s hard to care as much when she surrounds herself with faceless villains. However, direct decisions made by the Dragon Queen can dig her out of any sort of narrative shortcomings, so, good on the writers for continuing to make bold decisions after last week’s death. While this week’s episode had less fight choreography than last week, “Kill the Boy” had lots of subtle moments for the characters to play with.