Winter is coming, and it’s a cold, cold episode this week.
Last week I spoke about how the show was becoming increasingly deft at weaving together characters and plots, by taking a cause-and-effect approach to certain scenes.
Well this week they basically stepped that up a level, with the entire episode operating very much as one long sequence from start to finish, tying together characters from the farthest reaches of the show’s geography, while also highlighting and connecting various symbols and plot points that might otherwise fade into the background.
It’s a strength of the show that I’m finding it has in spades over the books. Shearing the story from the weight of oppressive amounts of detail and backstory, we’re getting the refined version in the show. It’s almost as if George R.R. Martin’s books read like the first draft of a story that we’re now seeing in a much cleaner and efficient form.
And while most of this episode is centred around the North, we begin in Meereen, with Missandei watching over Grey Worm as he recovers from the ambush that nearly took his life, and did that of Barristan Selmy. It’s testament to the strength of the scenes between these two, in this and the later one, that we get so much out of their connection – a nice subplot to the drudgery in Mereen.
But Barristan Selmy is dead, and Daenerys uncertain how to proceed without one of her trusted advisors. He promoted peaceful measures, whereas Daario Naharis favours swift and clinical aggression. Daenerys has other plans for the city, as she seeks to squash the Sons of the Harpy.
In her strongest scene since that chance encounter with Drogon, she rounds up the usual suspects – the heads of the important families – and takes them into the dragon pit. It’s a return to her maverick moves that won her an army and her reputation, and a welcome relief to the stagnation that’s followed. Viserion and Rhaegal have a barbecue with one of the patriarchs, but Daenerys imprisons the rest, as she doesn’t want to overfeed them.
After taking a suggestion from Missandei to embrace her own abilities to see ways forward that others can’t, Daenerys decides to betrothe herself to Hizadr zo Loraq, and potentially shoring up her wavering support in the city. The motivations behind this act plays out differently than it does in the books, but somehow it works. It places Daenerys in a position where she potentially knows what she is doing, rather than as someone struggling to react to the machinations of those around her.
This return to her reputation is noticed, and carried in the news to The Wall, as read by Sam. It’s a nice touch, and a clever segue, bringing these two extremes to a form of connection. Sam is talking to Maester Aemon, himself the only remaining Targaryen (or is he?) that might be able to offer Daenerys any assistance. It’s a good reminder about the Maester’s past, as well as nodding to the potential revelations of last week’s episode.
Jon sits down with the Maester, to discuss a difficult decision he must make that will make half the Night’s Watch hate him. Later on, once he makes the decision, he realises it will make the wrong half hate him – those that would always support him. This episode is setting up future threats to Jon’s control of the Night’s Watch, but simultaneously strengthening the character as one who can only act for good even when it puts him at risk.
As Maester Aemon says to him, Jon has realised he must ‘kill the boy, let the man be born.’
So he talks to Tormund, and the two reach an agreement that they will head to Hardhome to recruit (and save) more Wildlings, to join the Night’s Watch and move to safety south of the Wall.
To do so, he needs Stannis’ ships, and he gets them. While it’s a nice exchange, and a further sign of Stannis actually becoming the Human Who Would Be King, it’s also at odds with how these two characters have interacted all season. Jon has done nothing Stannis wanted, including his mercy killing of Mance Rayder, yet somehow Stannis feels comfortable lending his ships to Jon.
Anyhow, Stannis chats with Sam, fact-finding about the White Walkers. Sam mentions dragonglass, and Stannis zeroes in on this. Like the greyscale, one can’t help but place significance on the highlighting of this fact. Again, it’s there in the books, but it lands so much better here. The threat of the White Walkers was also much articulated in this episode, reiterating that they are the big bad looming at season’s end (perhaps).
Stannis won’t wait though, and decides to march on Winterfell with his army, Davos, Shireen and Selyse, and Melisandre. A diverse group indeed. It’s a parting of the ways at the Wall, after the uneasy truce formed at the end of last season. Jon and Tormund head to Hardhome, Stannis to Winterfell, and Sam and Gilly may perhaps have a journey in front of them as well.
So to the outskirts of Winterfell, where Brienne and Podrick plan their potential rescue of Sansa. If I’m correct in my suspicions, these two could replace a slightly different rescue mission in the books. Which was to rescue fake Sansa, not real Sansa, so it’s all a bit interesting right now.
In Winterfell, Ramsay Bolton needs to put some clothes on. Everyone keeps saying winter is coming, and this psychopath likes to prance about a stone castle complete naked. I told you it was a cold episode.
His scene with Myranda sets up her antagonism toward Sansa, who she finds looking at the tower where Bran fell back in the first episode of the show. It’s a nice visual moment, and helps bring home to the audience how Sansa is feeling with her return to Winterfell. Myranda sends Sansa into the kennels, where she finds a cowering Reek, still trying his hardest not to be Theon.
And continuing this chain of small moments affecting later moments, Reek then confesses to Ramsay that Sansa has seen him, prompting Ramsay to parade Reek in front of Sansa at dinner, as the killer of her two brothers. Roose Bolton is irritated, Sansa somehow holds it together (having clearly learned much from her proximity to Joffrey), but the scene raises an interesting question.
Ramsay knows the old Theon never killed Bran and Rickon. And Reek still somehow knows he didn’t. And revealing this to Sansa would bind the two together in a way that might allow them to escape the Boltons. So why would Ramsay bring this whole topic up?
Regardless, Roose Bolton sees through all of Ramsay’s antics and still manages to manipulate him into devoting all his energies toward holding the North, particularly as Stannis is marching.
The trip to Valyria, to join up with Jorah and Tyrion, is potentially the one shift that feels out of joint with the rest. But bear with me, it works.
Firstly, they’re on a boat. There’s been a lot of boats this season. Tyrion sums it up the situation nicely as:
‘Long sullen silences and an occasional punch in the face- the Mormont way.’
Jorah is steering them into the ruins of Valyria, and they treat the audience to a bit of backstory about the cursed place where doom still rules. But not only doom. Realisation hits home for Tyrion the cynic when Drogon soars overhead. Dragons have returned from the past, and suddenly he’s a world away from the political brinkmanship of King’s Landing.
This dovetailing of disparate characters and storylines is working a treat during this season, and this moment was promised by one of the promotional images released before the season began. It certainly lives up to it.
But not for long. The stone men arrive, and attack Jorah and Tyrion. Afflicted wholly by greyscale, it appears to affect their perceptions as well, rendering them into growling, hulking monsters. Tyrion jumps ship, but is dragged down by one of the stone men, only to come to on a beach, rescued by Jorah.
And then the kicker: Jorah reveals to us, but not Tyrion, that he’s been infected with greyscale. Its importance has been looming all season, and finally here we have it playing a central role in the future of a major character, if not a major storyline as Jorah brings Tyrion to Daenerys and her dragons.
The connection between greyscale, the dragons, dragonglass and the White Walkers is something this episode really tried to illustrate. And the good thing is, the exciting thing, is we know they’re going to be important in the future of the story, we just don’t exactly know how and why. And, if we’re really keeping an eye on the future, there’s still Bran’s discoveries with the Three-Eyed Crow to tie into the ongoing mythology of the show.
- Valar Morghulis: a Meereenese family head, and a few stone men. After Barristan Selmy last week, it’s all a bit quiet on the brutality front.
- Initially I thought next week would bring all the conflicts to a head, but now I think it’ll be the week after when we reach the battle for Winterfell, Jon gets to Hardhome and Tyrion gets to Daenerys.
- Uncle Davos is the best.
- Next week is all King’s Landing, Dorne and Arya, who all sat this week on the bench.