I’ve always wondered what it was like for non-readers to experience the character arc of Daenerys Targaryen. It was one thing to go with her from chattel to warrior queen in the pages of a book, but Emilia Clarke has added such an extra depth, a complete other level, that the experience for TV-only Game of Thrones fans must have been extraordinary. Could they have imagined, when she was first introduced as the submissive, tormented plaything of her mad brother that Dany would rise to command a vast army? That she would have one of the most badass moments in the show so far, that she would be be so absolutely regal and strong and, most of all, good?
That’s the key to what makes Dany’s moment with the Unsullied so extra thrilling: it’s a heroic moment. Game of Thrones is all-too often a show where the impulse to do good is rewarded with destruction (see Jeor Mormont getting stabbed in the back in this very episode), and Dany’s turn on the slaver isn’t just righteous - she understood every single word that asshole was saying about her the whole time! - it was decent, as she first freed the Unsullied before leading them out of the city. We can discuss whether a group such as the Unsullied has any true understanding of the freedom she was offering, and whether they were psychologically capable of accepting it in any way, but in the meantime it’s hard to deny that Dany, a girl sold into a marriage, has made a strong and specific moral stance in a show where stances aren’t just rare, they’re dangerous.
Emilia Clarke has been one of the best things about Game of Thrones from the start, and she was in finest form in And Now His Watch Is Ended. The moment when she busts out High Valyrian, when she calls out to Drogon ‘Drakkaris,’ is so powerful, so strong, you can’t help but cheer. Clarke is an incredible actress, truly bringing Dany through a complicated and nuanced arc, and the fact that she’s had a longform showcase for that makes all the difference. Three years with her, watching her grow and change, makes the impact of that scene so much greater.
Back At King’s Landing
Dany’s story so far this season shows that patience is a virtue when playing the game of thrones, as she waited to take on that slaver until just the correct moment. Back in King’s Landing Tyrion learns the same lesson from Varys.
What’s interesting about Varys is how silly he can seem; a pudgy bald guy without any balls, Varys takes no direct action ever. He sort of, as Olenna Tyrell notes, minces. This episode, though, goes to pains to show how dangerous he can be; what seems like inaction is actually very slow, very deliberate action happening across years, if not decades. After he tells Tyrion the tale of how he became a eunuch, Varys reveals that he has just received a shipment from Myr - the sorcerer who snipped his balls all those years ago. Tyrion, who is interested in taking vengeance for the attack that almost killed him at the Battle of Blackwater, realizes the truth of that ancient Klingon proverb: revenge is a dish best served cold.
That said, not all plans should take years to hatch. Political maneuvering kicked into high gear this episode, with Margaery Tyrell manipulating the hell out of Joffrey at the Sept, pretending to be in awe of his tragical history tour. She convinces him to greet the people of King’s Landing, something utterly foreign to the little bastard, and he realizes that there’s another way to rule that doesn’t involve cutting off heads left and right. And Cersei doesn’t like that.
She’s unhappy with the way that Margaery has effortlessly manipulated her son, and she turns to her father, new Hand of the King Tywin Lannister, for help. But Cersei, ambitious as she is, doesn’t quite get the game of thrones. She can’t manipulate Joffrey, and she can’t manipulate Tywin as well as she’d like - she comes in a little too strong. I’m really enjoying how Lena Headey has been playing Cersei this season; she doesn’t have Jamie, she is on her way to losing the Queenship and her domineering father is now calling all the shots. On top of everything else, she’s losing her connection to her sick, twisted son. Headey is showing us the way Cersei is digging in her nails, trying not to fall right off.
Meanwhile the Tyrells prove to be adept at their own maneuvering. Varys comes together with Olenna (and it’s worth noting that Diana Rigg is one of the best additions to this show ever. She’s incredibly funny and dry and awesome) to keep Sansa out of the hands of Littlefinger, whose commoner background and lust for power make him dangerous. The plan: marry Sansa off to a Tyrell, solidifying that house’s control of the North, where Sansa is still seen as a powerful symbol. Poor Sansa, meanwhile, is just being swatted about by Margaery; it’s telling that the scene where the queen-to-be tells the Stark girl about a possible wedding plan opens with blue-eyed Margaery feeding the red-headed girl a total line of bullshit.
How great, by the way, is Natalie Dormer? Margaery is a much smaller character in the books, and she has made her into a totally central, utterly compelling human. I love the cool, calculated way that Margaery straddles every complicated, thorny situation and relationship. I hope they keep giving Dorner more to do, because she has elevated a minor character into one of my favorites.
On The Road
Jaime Lannister has acquired new jewelry in the form of his severed hand. Depressed and wounded, Jaime is essentially willing himself to die. His sword hand is his identity, and that has been taken from him. Meanwhile Brienne has found herself in the unlikely position of being a life coach, telling the Kingslayer that all his whining makes him sound like a woman.
That’s an interesting choice of words for her. You get the sense that being raped - a fate from which Jaime saved her - would have been especially bad for Brienne because it would have cast her in the female role in a way that is uncomfortable for her. She’s not a lesbian (although she may be drawn to gay boys, as her love for Renly shows), but she’s also not quite able to be what society demands of a woman. She has a gender identity that isn’t acceptable in Westeros, and that colors her relationship with Jaime. She’s his bro, for sure. But is there more?
Poor fucker. How weird is it that I feel bad for Theon Greyjoy on TV, a character I simply despised and largely ignored in the books? This show makes a lot of strong cases for the magic of transformative adaptation.
North of the Wall
If you’ve been wondering why the Night’s Watch didn’t just kill that fucker Craster and take his food, wonder no more. Jeor Mormont proves once again that being an honorable guy in the world of Game of Thrones just gets you fucked over, or more specifically stabbed in the back.
The show has treated Night’s Watch weirdly, sometimes getting away from the fact that most of these guys are murderers and rapists and thieves who have been SENTENCED to walk the Wall, not heroes who choose to defend the realm. Now that distinction has been brought forward, as the ranger group splinters in in-fighting after starvation finally proves too much.
Amidst all of it is Samwell Tarly, the Hurley of this hungry group. He takes the moment of chaos to spirit away Craster’s daughter Gilly and her little son. I talked about the magic of transformative adaptation above, and I hope the show works some of that magic here, as I can’t stand Sam in the books. We’ll see.
Brotherhood Without Banners
With all the dragons and giants and sorcerers the show has been throwing at it, why is it that I find The Brotherhood Without Banners the hardest thing to accept? This Robin Hood and His Merry Men-esque band of do-gooders feels so much like they stepped out of a standard fantasy story that they really feel cartoony.
The highlight of this segment to me was The Hound. A great, complex character, it was interesting to hear him defend himself... and actually make a lot of sense. If this show were a D&D campaign, I think The Hound would be True Neutral, looking out largely for himself and doing whatever it takes to survive. He doesn’t kill out of spite or cruelty, he does it because it’s his job.
Next episode promises to show us more of the Action Figures Without Banners, and I do hope that, going with the transformative adaptation idea, the show does something with them. No spoilers, but a thought: we’re entering territory in the books where George RR Martin introduces characters who might be important later (but have not yet, as of the fifth book, really become important). Watching how the show treats these characters is fascinating, a kind of clue as to who or what is going to be vital as we move forward.
While the Hound has the most fascinating moment in this segment, it's clear that Arya remains one of the best characters on the show. On a very female-centric episode (especially if we count the unmanned Varys in that number), Arya proves herself to be among the bravest and gutsiest. Westeros is a man's world, as Olenna notes with incredulity, but the women are surely not just pawns. They play the game as vigorously, as well and as ruthlessly as the men.
No Jon Snow. His mouth hangs agape offscreen this week.