Game of Thrones is back! How great. And just to start this new series of reviews off, let’s remind everyone that we are now going deep into unchartered territory. Several plotlines of this season (most notably Brienne/Pod, Sansa/Littlefinger, Jon/Sam and Jaime/Bronn) will almost certainly go in different directions than the book versions, so there will be quite a lot of talking about changes, about new ideas and new directions and of course comparisons to how the books are sooooo much better (just kidding, I’m expecting some gratifying decisions along the way). That being said, let’s delve at it in the already accustomed way of going through the several plot locations of each episode instead of simply recapping them.
In the North, Thorne and Slynt reversed roles, a development only sensible given how much the audience knows those two. Thorne is the most likely candidate to win the election of Lord Commander, while Slynt is just his slivering crony. This change was a long time coming and really, really makes sense on a lot of levels. If they avoid the mistake they made with Locke, this will be a really good setup for the Wall storyline this season.
The spotlight remains on the Wall, though, with Jon being asked by Stannis to convince Mance Rayder to kneel and fight the Boltons. The politics are condensed compared to the book, but they still make sense, and the dialogue between Jon and Mance is well written and acted. Mance’s explanations differ a bit from the book, with Mance coming off much more as a character than his very few appearances on the page, and we understand him when he can’t bear it on his consciousness to transform the wildlings into a colonized army. “The freedom to make my own mistakes”, what a line. Only, dear Mr. Rayder, it’s not just your mistake. Your whole people is on the line for it. But I digress. His death (and does anyone doubt that in the show, he’s dead for good? No Abel for anyone here) is excruciatingly well played, and the camera lingering on Ciaran Hinds face as the flames slowly fan up, the suppressed rage of Tormund, Jon’s disgust and everyone else watching, it all led perfectly to Jon giving the mercy shot. Since he’s not yet Lord Commander, he can’t very well order a fighting squad to do it.
It’s also interesting that Jon seems to grow on me as a character in Harington’s portrayal now. I’m curious whether this effect will increase once he’s become Lord Commander (I’d wager it will). Seems like the character desperately needed some responsibilities and gravitas to it; the boy-hero-routine of the previous seasons never really went anywhere. Stannis is very Stannis-y here, and did I ever mention that his soundtrack is really good and eerie? Interesting, too, that Shireen and Selyse are kept in the spotlight. They were a major boon to Stannis’ storyline since season 3, and it’s a good decision to keep them around. Plus, greyscale.
The rest of the North is notably absent from this episode, as is Braavos, so we don’t see the Boltons and Theon nor Arya. I guess they’ll make their appearance in episode 2 with a vengeance.
Curiously enough, the Westerlands feature in the opening of the season with the first flashback in the series’ history. I’m interested to see where this is going. Will Cersei go batshit crazy now, and they wanted to explain beforehand why? Maggy the Frog in her hut is convincing enough allright, and young Cersei is the entitled bitch everyone expect. Almost said we don’t get to see her murdering her companion friend, but perhaps we’ll get another flashback. Will this set a precedent for more flashbacks in the future? Somehow I doubt it, given the total lack of context other than the closeup of Cersei’s adolescent face after. Not like they’re establishing a visual for this kind of stuff.
In the Vale, we come into the first really new situation. After the bird took wings in the last season, Sansa’s storyline by necessity will provide new territory. What we’ve seen in the books, after all, was covered in season 4. The release of Martin’s sample chapter “Alayne” also hints at something being spoiled in this season, but so far, I don’t see what it is. Robyn is put offstage to be fostered at Littlefinger’s new best buddy, the Bronze Yohn (without the title or the armor, much less grandiose that way), obviously very much condensing the politics of the Vale and sidestepping them entirely. This is totally at odds with the “Alayne” chapter. Was this Martin’s point? Like a big exclamation mark, “not my stuff”?
Well, let’s judge it on its merits. Littlefinger receives a note that lets him break camp with Sansa and go somewhere. Counting it off, there aren’t that many locations they can go. When they don’t stay in the Vale and don’t go to Essos (they won’t, there’s nothing there except maybe Braavos), only Dorne, the Reach and the North remain as likely locations. The Reach doesn’t make much sense after Littlefinger actively sabotaged the marriage with the Tyrells, Jaime is already going to Dorne and giving us enough to do (and there’s really no reason for Littlefinger to go there), which leaves the North. Have you seen Jeyne Westerling so far? I haven’t, either. Go figure.
With that, we move to King’s Landing, where Tywin is buried and we get one last shot of the big man. Charles Dance looks menacing even in death, and boy, those eye-stones or whatever they are certainly don’t improve this. It must be horror for Jaime to stand vigil there. And now we get to the first crucial fallout of season 4’s creative decisions: how will Jaime deal with the new situation? How will Cersei? Jaime tries to cool her down instantly, but Cersei is having none of it, dropping the bomb real fast. She suspects, no, knows Jaime let Tyrion go, and hammers him for it. Jaime instantly acknowledges his role in it and is left alone to ponder. And you know what? It works. We have to wipe out our image of book!Cersei in our mind and turn to show!Cersei. The main difference between the two is – and this tumblr points it out very well – that while in the books, Cersei is all fire, flaring anger and hatred, the show!Cersei is all about restraint, pulling back and swallowing it all. So in this case, her being on the one hand more receptive about what’s really going on and on the other hand “only” dressing Jaime down for it makes halfway sense. Of course it depends on how their relationship will develop in the future, but given that Jaime will go to Dorne, I guess they will break in some fashion at least.
We then see how every fool is giving Cersei their false condolences, first with Loras continuing in his big tradition started in season 3 of being really bad at telling sociable lies (remember the fawning over the wedding gown when Sansa tried to talk about the marriage?), then with Pycelle continuing his own tradition of being ignored by Cersei. And then comes Lancel, in the gown of a begging brother. He also continues a Lannister family tradition in changing hair colors between seasons, but we accepted brown-haired Jaime, so why not Lancel, too? Lancel is just great, along with the embarrassment of Kevan at his appearance. His talk with Cersei is intense, and you can feel the danger of it. Surprising that she doesn’t shut him up more decisively, just telling a feeble “I don’t know what you’re talking about”. This will come back to haunt her, all right. And hey, Kevan’s back!
Meanwhile, we get our first scene with a privately scheming Margaery as she bust the sex party Loras has with Olivar, Littlefinger’s brothel-keeper and spy. The scene is just great, full of sexuality (and male one at that!) and humor, confirming for everyone just what a blast Margaery is in case you needed any convincing. What plan could she hatch to dislodge Cersei? This conflict is much less one-sided than it is in the books, and Natalie Dormer is perhaps the best casting choice for any second-tier-character from the books becoming first-tier. Really great addition to the show.
With that, we leave Westeros and go to Essos, where for the first time in history, we have two storylines. In a Breaking-Bad-like shot, we see Tyrion’s journey to Pentos only in short peeks out of the crate (is this the same crate a certain wizard was carried in back in season 2?) until he’s spilled on the ground to find Varys washing his hands of him. At least that seems to be the symbolism here, if there is any. Do I overinterpret? Seems like it, because after Tyrion spills all the wine by way of his stomach (There and Back Again. The Story of a Sip of Wine, as told by Bilbo Baggins), he spills the beans over Daenerys Targaryen. His motives come off as a rather cheap, though. I mean, seriously, you thought Robert was kind of a bad king and that’s why you decided to restore the Targaryens? Seems like the Griff-storyline is dead for good. Also, where is Illyrio? Seems like the casting department’s budget was used up. At least we get the promise of miserable Tyrion journeying Essos, the favorite part of “A Dance with Dragons” of no one ever. Hope this gets better soon. By the way, my prediction that Varys would already send him off alone here is vindicated; they start this little road trip together. How will Varys’ gentle wit mix with Tyrion’s brutal nihilism at that point? I fear ill here. “The future is shit, just like the past.” Let’s hope it isn’t.
And last, we’re with Dany. She is bringing down monuments in Meereen, fall-of-the-Soviet-Union-style (or the American conquest of Bagdad, if you prefer more recent metaphors) and trying to rule the city. What gets in the way are the Sons of the Harpy, very recognizable with their masks, murdering her Unsullied while they enjoy very tender and well shot scenes in brothels. I like the visual style of it, it gives us a clear enemy, which is somewhat at odds with the original storyline, but I think they can still pull this off while giving us the best of both worlds.
We can also see another example of the show’s process of maturing in the sex department: while Emilia Clarke covers herself in the after-sex-scene with Daario, Michael Huisman is entirely naked (and yes, it was his butt in season 4). Together with Loras the male nudity count is much higher in this episode than in the earlier seasons. Good thing. I also like how they connected Missandei to Grey Worm and the brothel thing, subtle and workable, taking up the good work from season 4.
What doesn’t work at all, on the other hand, is the introduction of the fighting pits storyline. Daario delivering his background as a fighting slave (really?) is just so…boring? If left me utterly cold, and Dany as well. I wouldn’t be surprised if it didn’t surface again ever. One of those stupid throwaway lines that sometime (although luckily seldom) find their ways into the script. Daario’s talk of dragons is better. Is he taking over a part of Quentyn? Given that the heir to Dorne isn’t in the series at all, I’d imagine him trying to steal a dragon later might work. And Yunkai is now effectively a colony of Meereen? Ok, seems like the conflict of this story arc will be Meereen-exclusive. Probably not a bad idea. Let’s wait and see.