The second episode of the sixth season is continuing a trend, it seems. It’s extremely uneven over the course of its running time in terms of storytelling quality, while at the same time being consistently great in almost any other department. This is a trend that arguably started in season 4, when “Game of Throne” finally found its footing, aesthetic-wise, with no scenes left that looked cheap or underfunded, while at the same time slipping more often in the actual storytelling department. So let’s take a minute and simply acknowledge what good work everyone is putting into this. The costumes are great, the camera-work is excellent, this episode especially offers some of the best shots this side of “Better Call Saul”, and the actors continue to put in great work, no matter how stupid the lines they are given. And with that moment of silence, we venture into the plot, where the moments of admiration are farther and more in between.
We start the episode as well as the review with Bran, (way) north of the Wall. It’s a welcome sight; Bran has always been my favorite character, and I treasured every minute with him in books and show alike. And while he is relegated to being a pure vessel of exposition here, it’s so great that I don’t mind at all. We’re in Winterfell, seeing a young Ned and Benjen spar before being interrupted by Lyanna showing off her riding skills. Like us the viewers, Bran is reveling in the sight of happy times, reminded by the Two-Eyed-Raven that those times won’t last, as well he knows.
But who cares for doom and gloom when we see those tiny bits of backstory that everyone loves from the books as well! As a surprising twist, we get to see a young Hodor (Willas, for some reason, instead of Walder), able to speak and willing to take it up with the young lords before a more virile Old Nan pulls him away. Not that Hodor’s non-speaking ability was a secret anyone clamored to know about (in the books he’s a fairly straight-forward simpleton), it could make for some good emotional anchor for these scenes and make the character relations in that dreary cave more interesting.
For the moment, it seems like the visions will be the most interesting part of the story, because down there in the weirwoods, not much is happening. Meera spells it out, saying she’s only watching Bran visioning about and Brynden von Sydow babbling about the wars to come. Hopefully, they don’t overdo this in the future, because right now, I really love and long for these scenes.
Things are not quite as rosy at the Wall. Here, Alliser finally calls for the attack on Davos and his sorry lot, just in the moment Wun-Wun comes to save the day and the Watch to surrender. Well, that was quick, utterly convenient and entirely unearned, but the sight of the giant smashing that stupid crossbowmen at the Wall partially made up for it. But still, that seemed rather rushed. There were nice tidbits before, like Davos’ self-depredating humor when he remarked on his poor fighting skills, but other than that, it was staged like a checklist: it needed to happen, so it happened, much like Brienne’s timely rescue, only without the emotional payoff. I doubt that this will go over quite so smoothly in the books.
But anyway, the “checking boxes” feeling only intensifies when Davos for really no apparent reason comes up to Melisandre asking her to revive Jon. First, Davos wasn’t in the Riverlands, so he didn’t meet Beric and Thoros. Second, why does he have such a sudden interest in Jon that he is now totally okay with using magic when he wasn’t back when Stannis tried to win his throne with shadow babies? This is so out of character I can’t even start. Third, why did we have Melisandre’s really well staged crisis of confidence last episode when all it takes is some tough (and nonsensical) talk by Davos? The ceremony itself is also ringing false, and I was convinced that it wouldn’t work, telling my wife that it felt way too cheap to work. I was convinced that they either would try again or that Bran and Max von Rivers would help out. But no. They needed Jon alive as cliffhanger for episode 2, and so it happened. There’s no real rhyme or rhythm for this. Miles Schneiderman and I have argued at length about this in our book about the first five seasons, and it seems more and more that there is a clear idea where the story is headed, but not how to pull it off, with the result of big moments feeling unearned and ham-fisted. This will happen again this episode, so bear with me. For the moment, I’m still stunned at how paint-by-numbers this resurrection was and how little I care for the lack of emotional attachment by everyone involved. Davos has no emotional stake in Jon, Melisandre is doing it all carrying herself like she’s only going through the motions – which surely is how the scene is constructed – and Edd and Tormund stare intensely, but don’t show real disappointment when it works, because it was a longshot anyway. And Ghost doesn’t have a role in this whole affair, because why the fuck did we introduce direwolves in season 1? Nobody knows.
And with that we’re going to Winterfell, where stupid shit happens. I mean, seriously? Ramsay murders Roose in front of the young lord Karstark and the maester and that makes him the new lord? Has the Dornish virus progressed all the way to Winterfell? At least Ramsay has the good sense to cover up the murder, but still, this is such a lazy thing. What exactly is going on here? “New blood”, my ass. It seems like there simply wasn’t anything left to do with Roose that couldn’t be done by Ramsay, super-villain number one, so they got rid of him.
But what really infuriates me is the needless cruelty in the murder of Walda and her child. This is simply outrageous. Not only does it immediately undercut the logic of the entire preceding scene – will you chalk up Walda and her child publicly ripped apart by your hounds WHILE YOU WATCHED as poison, too?! – it is also insulting to us viewers. The torture porn with Ramsay arguably got out of hand in season 3 a bit, but it really went into overdrive with season 5, and by now, it is simply as gratuitous as it is enraging. Couldn’t you simply have alluded to the murder? No, you needed to draw it out, with Ramsay looking evil while he opened the kennel doors, and even then you couldn’t cut away but needed to entertain us with the sounds of dogs eating a mother and a baby alive. Thanks, Game of Thrones, this is just the entertainment I wanted, really. Fuck you guys, this is getting really out of hand. Sansa’s scene is only a placeholder here, filling her up on Arya – good that someone remembers to do that – and making plans. For some reason, Theon needs to go back to the Iron Islands. I guess we need more named Ironborn characters for the kingsmoot? No idea where this will lead, but I don’t really get his rationale for leaving them. Anyway, I’m cautiously optimistic for what will come of those two now diverging storylines.
In King’s Landing, we get a short rehash of the Walk of the Shame from last season, which seems reasonable enough – drunken idiots would of course joke about sex with Cersei – but the murder of the drunken boaster by “Ser Robert Strong” seemed totally random. Did he hide in the shadows, overhearing the discussion? Why did he kill him? Why was he there? Fuck if I know. This scene had a “Welcome to King’s Landing”-vibe about it, and that season 4 abomination still holds the spot as single-worst-scene of the entire series.
It gets much better in the Red Keep, where Cersei holds herself back from employing her monster against the hapless guards sent by her own son, and in the Sept, though, where Jaime tries to comfort Tommen over his weakness in the face of opposition before confronting the High Septon. This is an incredibly well done scene, from the lighting and the use of space, as Jaime circles the bar with dead Myrcella to close in on the High Septon, himself descending from the high steps, with the camera closing in on the two while Jaime threatens him, seemingly totally master of the situation – until the camera slowly pulls out again as the High Septon calls his bluff, and then to reveal the threat of a populist uprising. Now, that is great storytelling right there, told in the camera-movement as much as in the dialogue itself, but it’s also a story that’s worth telling, complicated and with no easy answers on any side. I’m genuinely excited to see what will come out of this, especially since the diversion from the books – where the Faith has Aegon VI to throw its lot in with – is necessarily great.
Mercifully, there’s no Dorne this week, and instead, we get to see the Iron Islands, who by now can’t really decide whether they want to be their own Dorne. It’s strange to see Pyke again after three seasons without it, and one-and-a-half-seasons after the afterthought of a rescue mission that Yara lead back in season 4. Balon is still the same old, grumpy, hyperbolic and hypocrite piece of shit he was the last time, hell bent on continuing a war his daughter tells him is lost, now that Deepwood Motte fell (off-screen).
The switch-up in the chronology of events has some interesting consequences, of course. Not only is Yara not captured by Stannis like Asha, she is also present when her father dies, and the kingsmoot comes only when the War of the Five Kings is over. I don’t think it will matter that much, though – Euron will still win the moot and they will still raid the South, if the show even bothers and doesn’t immediately go to the trip to Meereen. The biggest question is how the dynamic will be changed with Theon in the mix and Victarion missing. My best guess is that either one or both of the Greyjoy siblings will take up his role in going to Meereen, but we’ll see.
At that moment, we have to talk a bit about Euron, of course. The fact that he is included after all speaks to his importance in the overall narrative (with the horn, the magic and whatnot), but then, we assumed the same thing about Dorne, and that has turned out to be the duddest of duds. So, there’s the real danger that the Iron Islands will prove to be another irrelevant side-show that should better have been kicked out altogether, like Aegon VI, in order to concentrate on the other storylines that are sprawled out more than any other TV show anyway already. Pilou Asbaek, whom I know from the Danish series “1864” (recommended), surely isn’t what I had in mind for Euron, but then again, that doesn’t tell me anything interesting. Right now, we haven’t seen that much of him, but the dialogue on the bridge totally nailed it.
In Braavos, meanwhile, Arya gets beaten up again, and then Jaqen asks her questions, and then she’s allowed to go. Wait, what? This is also strongly in the “doesn’t make any sense, but we need to keep moving”-department that Jon Snow’s resurrection was in. Oh hell.
In Meereen, meanwhile, no one knows who burned the fleet, but no one cares, either. And why would they? They read the script about the Ironborn sending one their way, so everything’s alright. Instead, Peter Dinklage can show that even with nonsensical or stupid lines, he can steal any scene he is in. With his great acting alone he sells why Tyrion wants to unshackle the dragons, and that’s really not something that’s apparent from plot logic alone. He sells it only by power of personality, which you have to give him credit for. But oh boy, the dragons! That’s just a great scene. Again, beautifully filmed and lit, with great emotions between the dragons and Tyrion. And it wall worked out! Which makes his final line to Varys about punching him in the face so stupid. There is already way less seriousness in the plot and dialogue as is, without need to break it up even further. Guys, get your act together! This isn’t Deadpool, the series. Show some respect.