There are two sides to every battle, and a hundred stories on any battlefield. This is a concept that came through brilliantly on last night’s Neil Marshall directed episode of Game of Thrones, “The Watchers on the Wall”, which took leave from its usual globetrotting ways to focus solely on the events at Castle Black.
This week’s episode being the third to last the season, it’s no surprise that its main purpose is to set up what’s going to happen in the final two episodes of the season.
The episode begins with Arya waking up, still alive and unharmed after being dragged into the woods by the Hound last week. Thinking that he is asleep, she tries to bash his head in with a rock, but he’s already awake. He tells her he’ll give her one free shot, and if he lives, he’ll break her hands. Arya backs down, and they hit the road.
Living up to last week’s episode, what with its fiery dragon apocalypse closing it out, would have been a tall order for any show. But damn if this week didn’t do just that, but from a different direction.
If last week was all about moving the plot forward, then this week was all about character. The episode somehow managed to squeeze nearly every member of its enormous cast into it’s hour long running time, and still somehow managed not to feel imbalanced, rushed, or overloaded. The writers of this show have mastered the art of exposition, explaining the world and how it works without sacrificing the story. It truly is one of the best written shows on TV, on a purely technical level.
Three scenes in particular stood out to me. First, the opening scene, and quite possibly the best sword fight of the series, if not the best on TV in some time. This duel is the fulfillment of last week’s sentencing against Sandor ‘The Hound’ Clegane. Clegane is a monster of a man that few could ever hope to match. He has but one weakness, a fear of fire. Beric Dondarrion knew this and used it to his advantage. The result was an epic face off that was not only visually stunning, but built upon character foundations set down two years ago in the first season. The outcome of this fight also serves to further the Lord of Light mystery, as well as push Arya toward a crucial cross roads in her story.
The second standout scene involved Jaime Lannister (who has quickly become one of the more complex characters on the show) and Brienne of Tarth. This match up was my favorite story in Storm of Swords, and it’s a real treat to see it come alive on screen. It is important to bear in mind that both characters are nude in this scene, though the nudity isn’t primarily sexual. It’s more about emphasizing their vulnerability, Jaime’s in particular, as he finally reveals the full circumstances surrounding his murder of King Aerys Targaryen with a simmering, frustration fueled speech that nearly renders him unconscious due to the festering wound of his right wrist and the heat of the bath. Can a character who once shoved a ten year old kid out of a window in order to cover up his incest ever be redeemed? Maybe not, but this scene goes a long way to do just that.
Speaking of Jaime’s incest, the third scene of particular note involved his sister/lover Cersei, their father Tywin, and younger brother, Tyrion. Cersei spends much of the scene with a smug smile on her face, amused by the secret she knows, but Tyrion is unaware of. Both Petyr Baelish and House Tyrell have designs on Sansa Stark and through her, Winterfell. Tywin doesn’t intend to let either happen. Instead, he intends to wed Sansa to Tyrion, ensuring their supremacy in the north. Tyrion protests, and in another outstanding, low key moment, we are reminded of the horrible event Tywin put Tyrion through years before, when Tyrion says that he’s already been wedded once before.
Cersei watches, smiling that smug smile, but once Tywin is done with his son, he turns to his daughter and tells her that she will be married to Loras Tyrell, thus expanding their power to the South. Cersei’s demeanor changes completely at the drop of a hat as she realizes that she is being shunted off to spend the rest of her life in yet another loveless marriage. The scene ends with Tywin laying down the law to his children, telling them how tired he is of their trudging over the family name before storming out of the room and ending the episode.
While those three scenes were the standouts, that’s not to say there were other goings on in Westeros this week.
Robb Stark’s army continues to falter, despite having won all of their battles. The Lannisters have pulled back and decided to wait the young King out. This has caused discontent amongst the Northern ranks, as Rickard Karstark, one of Robb’s most valuable banner-men, is still angry at the loss of his son at Jaime Lannister’s hands, and Robb’s inability to do anything about it. So, in his rage, Karstark kills two young Lannister hostages. Both Talisa and Catelyn advise him not to execute Karstark, lest he lose support of the house. But Robb, in his stubbornness, believes that if he stands for righteousness, he cannot allow the murder of those under their care to go unpunished, Lannister or no. There goes that damnable Stark honor again…
North of the Wall, Jon Snow and Ygritte share a nice little romantic moment. It’s worth pointing out that anytime a show of this nature adds a romance between two young idiots, proceedings take a turn for the cheese. Luckily, their love scene somehow avoids this trap, even with Ygritte’s “You know nothing” catchphrase. In fact, the catchphrase is used in a great reversal, as Jon shows her that he does know something, despite “being a maid.”
Across the sea, in Essos, we catch up with Dany and her newfound army. As they march, Barristan Selmy and Jorah Mormont reminisce about the reign of Aerys and the civil war. Barristan says that he has served the drunken and the insane, and that just once he’d like to serve a ruler he’d be proud of. Jorah is in much the same boat, and both of them hope that Dany will be that ruler.
The conversation takes a sour note, however, when Barristan reminds Jorah that his reputation in Westeros has faltered since the war, given his crime of selling slaves. He suggests that, if they are to help Dany win the hearts of the people upon her return to the west, then Jorah might consider stepping away, for her sake. Jorah reminds Barristan that he’s no longer the lord commander, and that they are both nothing more than exiles at the moment. The only wish he follows is Dany’s.
As for Dany, she has the officers of her new army meet with her and choose their own commander. His name is Grey Worm, a name given to him by the slave masters to remind him that he is vermin. Horrified, Dany tells him to choose his own name. Grey Worm chooses to remain Grey Worm, because the name he was born with was cursed, and Grey Worm is the name he had the day Daenerys Targaryen of Westeros freed him.
Finally, we take a trip to Dragonstone, where Stannis Baratheon takes the time to visit his wife. This is probably my least favorite scene in the episode, namely because Stannis is probably my least favorite character, and the whole fetus-in-a-jar-of-green-slime motif that the half crazed Lady Selyse has going on looks borderline Schumacher Batman. This scene does eventually lead to the introduction of Stannis’ disfigured daughter, Shireen, and a brief but sweet scene between her and Davos where she learns that he can’t read and agrees to teach him, a small but important plot point further down the line.
Other bits of Note:
Gendry telling Arya that he was staying with the Brotherhood Without Banners. When she asks why, he tells her that they are a family. Arya says that she could be his family, to which he replies, “No. You would be my Lady.”
Lady Olenna continues to wreak havoc on the status quo when she goes to see Tyrion about the cost of Joffrey’s wedding. She tells Tyrion that she’d heard he was a drunken, debauched little terror, and that she is quite disappointed to find nothing more than a book keeper. Then she agrees to pay for half of the royal wedding. It seems not even Tyrion can keep up with the Queen of Thorns.