Mid-season episodes of Game of Thrones have typically been weak episodes. Up until now they’ve suffered from the limitations imposed by the adaptation: the books are clearly operating to a plan that is larger than the characters, and that kind of table-setting and spinning of plates to delay plot resolution becomes much more noticeable on screen.
Reading a book is a process where you can be conscious know you’re building up to something and can then adjust your reading accordingly, but in a TV show, where you have to wait for episodes, making audiences wait in an episode comes across as more galling.
So it was a surprise that last week’s ‘The Door’ managed to pack such a punch, and not just because of the emotional ending. It was an episode packed with mythological revelation, which stitched its various plotlines into the overall fabric of the series to great success, while simultaneously leaving big suggestions to where the remaining storylines might head in the future. This week’s episode, ‘Blood of My Blood’, initially felt more like the old Game of Thrones, too much table-setting and lack of resolution for the sake of it. I say initially, because it managed to evolve into something quite different.
The main thrust of the story in ‘Blood of My Blood’ deals with King’s Landing and the wheels within wheels that threaten to derail Cersei’s latest push to wrest back some control over the Throne. This storyline has been ticking along for a while now, effectively since early last season, and it’s lack of arriving at a climax stands in contrast to everything around it.
And though this has appeared to the series’ detriment this season (considering the strength of all the other storylines), this episode suggested this might be by design. It’s a long game, much like Margaery’s long game, but it is perhaps in keeping with what the showrunners have been getting at this season. While everyone in north and east of King’s Landing is busy writing their own stories and charting new paths, the Lannisters and Tyrells are moving closer and closer to their irrelevance, and potential oblivion.
Consider: last we saw Margaery she was caught between placating the High Sparrow and consoling Loras, but reaching some clarity that her future may be one that involves going it alone. In ‘The Book of the Stranger’ she listened to the High Sparrow’s confession about abandoning the ‘banquet’ of his life that was all for nothing, and setting out on the path to righteousness. For Margaery, righteousness isn’t the same as what the High Sparrow thinks it is – she seems to realise he isn’t as altruistic as he might make out – but she can recognise her own mistakes and that she needs to reinvent herself to survive.
‘All those stories I told myself about who I was and why I did the things I did. There were so many lies in those stories.’
Here is a character living out what Bran is bringing to Westeros: accepting truth over the story. What obscures us is we’re not privy to Margaery’s plans, she hasn’t voiced them to us, they are only suggested through the juxtaposition of hearing what other characters want her to do. The revelation that Tommen has united Church and State is clever plotting because it is consistent with Margaery as a character prepared to sacrifice her wellbeing to have victory (she did willingly marry Joffrey), but signals a shift in direction for her motivation.
This union can only be destructive for Tommen and the Lannisters, but is potentially also destructive to the Sparrows and Faith Militant as well. They work as antagonists of the Throne, but if they succeed in conquering the Throne, then they will quickly be identified as a movement at odds with the wider Game of Thrones mythology. They represent the old order, and while they can hold people like Cersei to account for the old rules – because Cersei built her foundation on these old rules – they can only be swept away by the coming Winter and the new world order rising in the North that cares not for out of date power structures.
The patriarchy has been burned alive already. It won’t be long until the Church goes the same way.
This whole sequence brought several things to a head: Margaery is queen once again, but now potentially pulling the strings of both Tommen and the High Sparrow, without either being aware of it. Cersei has been outmanoeuvred and is heading toward a comeuppance in her trial by combat, which leads to all kinds of exciting speculation about who will defeat the Mountain (it can really only be one character). And Jaime is isolated once again, bound for Riverrun and a meeting with the Blackfish and Brienne. The last time this happened it humanised Jaime and placed him at odds with Cersei’s destructive tendencies. Cutting Jaime from King’s Landing at a time when Cersei is potentially heading for a downfall makes for very interesting possiblities.
But overall, this episode is designed to highlight how out of touch King’s Landing is with the rest of the world – they’re still playing games while the war is happening outside. And rather than this being an unhappy byproduct of juggling various competing storylines, it now appears by design. The key to this is a very different sequence elsewhere.
Sam and Gilly arrive at Sam’s home in Horn Hill, the seat of House Tarly. On the surface, their three short scenes in this episode seem almost laughably trivial. They arrive, receive insults, and leave. It comes across as a thinly veiled plot device to retrieve another sword made of Valyrian steel for some yet-to-be-determined but undoubtedly significant plot point in the future.
And yet if we look at Sam and Gilly’s scenes in this episode as representative of what the rest of Bryan Cogman’s script is doing, everything becomes much sharper. Gilly is ludicrously out of place – neither she nor Sam move or sit with any comfort during all their scenes. The triviality of Sam’s mother and sister’s chit-chat, and the callous severity of Sam’s father’s insults stand in stark contrast to the world Sam and Gilly have been living in for the last five seasons of the series. We can’t help but think of their flight from Craster’s Keep and the horrors they left behind. We can’t ignore Sam’s actions during the attack on Castle Black.
The Tarly’s are an extension of what is happening in King’s Landing. The nobility are far removed from the real world, and the real conflict, and settle themselves down to dinner with old family barbs and meaningless squabbles over legacies. Gilly fires back at Lord Tarly in a manner comparable to what Cersei endured in her walk of atonement. The difference here is Tarly is too old and too wedded to the past for him to realise his meaninglessness.
He describes Sam as:
‘Something resembling a man, at least. You managed to stay soft and fat, your nose buried in books, spending your life reading about the achievements of better men.’
And yet for us none of this lands as insulting as he means it to be. All season this reading about better men has led viewers to realise the past is a lie. A well-told lie, but a lie nonetheless. And for Tarly to sit in his castle and gloat over his family sword as if that gives him legitimacy to heroism stands at odds with the revisionist direction Game of Thrones has been taking.
Again, most of the main action in this episode is blanketed by events in the North – in this case, Bran and Meera’s flight from the wights and their connection with long lost Benjen Stark. I’m enjoying the subtle way the show has tied Meera and Bran together, and the glimpse of her father in an earlier episode is indication there may be more to their connection than we’ve seen so far. Benjen’s arrival is not unexpected, and consistent with the season focusing more on reconciliation rather than sundering, though hopefully his purpose can be stronger than merely serving as an exposition-character to replace the Three-Eyed Raven.
Bran’s visions are the real trick, it must be said. They establish the stakes of the episode before we reach the games at King’s Landing and the there-and-back-again of Horn Hill, and suggest that we ignore these stakes at our peril.
There are scenes we’ve witnessed before: the Night King corrupting a wildling infant, Daenerys and her dragons, young Ned Stark at the Tower of Joy, the Red Wedding, the creation of the White Walkers and Jon fighting at Hardhome. Several moments play repeatedly, particularly the connection between the dragons and the infant changing into a White Walker. Something is being established here, but we’re clearly lacking context.
However, there are moments that are wholly new. Firstly, a bloodied hand over a bloodied corset, which in its placement in the visions seems to suggest the hand belongs to young Ned. If so, Bran is seeing something that will exist in the future of the series, though it’s a moment in the past. More notably, there are our first glimpses of the Mad King Aerys, anticipated from last week’s episode and now witnessed. Jaime Lannister cuts him down, ending the cries to ‘burn them all’. This plays out almost exactly as Jaime recounted it to Brienne seasons ago, a rare instance of a character playing to the truth of a moment and not the story. Remember, Ned Stark believed him to be a betraying kingslayer.
The shots of Aerys are connected to the creation and explosion of wildfire. There’s nothing to suggest a connection to Tyrion’s use of it in Season 1, but we also know that Aerys never succeeded in his call to ‘burn them all’, so where is this explosion from? The possibility, and suggestion, is that this is a moment still coming. An act of sabotage under King’s Landing that calls into question who the real villainous Lannister is: if the Mad King didn’t burn them all, who will?
Daenerys’ short scene doesn’t really gel with the rest of the episode’s thematics, but its placement at the end ties her once again to the North as the ‘real’ story of Game of Thrones, and its a moment designed to articulate purpose and direction for her character. That in itself is fine, but given the show is working hard to undermine the necessity and value of the Iron Throne, at some stage Daenerys’ storyline is going to have to deal with this devaluing of her driving motivation.
Similarly, there’s some confusing motivation with Arya’s scenes. The interactions with the troupe of players is once again delightful in bringing to light the meta-textual direction of the season. Here Arya finds a moment of connection with a person from her list: she sees Cersei (through the performance of Cersei) as a character much like herself, someone constrained into a role and forced to become the grieving, vengeful survivor of murderous men. But while everyone else in the show is breaking out of these roles, Arya feels played. She is serving, once again, and taking on the role of being ‘no-one’ not because that’s who she is, but because others say she should be.
So her decision to become ‘Mercy’ is a reclamation of her independence. She can choose to seek revenge. She can choose to let be.
The confusion, though, is that it’s not entirely clear what this detour to Braavos was for. The show seemed to support Arya’s quest, as an opportunity for her to become something greater than she was, only now it’s suggesting that was a not a good idea and its backtracking. Clearly the coming conflict with the Waif will shed a bit more light here, but Arya’s storyline is lacking the clarity that the other Starks have at the moment.
This was a table-setting episode. This was an episode that raised more questions than it did answer them, befitting of its mid-season position. And yet rather than just serving to touch base with various characters as we mark time until the next death or the next battle, Game of Thrones is finding an interesting way to position its various characters around each other. And while we may not have resolution, we can see that episodes like this are prepared to do the heavy lifting, prepared to play the long game for the eventual payoff. The show is, like Margaery, hiding its true story in plain sight, daring us to get distracted by the surface of things and ignore the real peril that is coming.