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Game of Thrones Recap: Westeros in Love

Ever since James Poniewozik wrote in a Game of Thrones recap that he’d love to see a bottle episode starring just Arya and Twyin Lannister, I’ve been thinking about structure on the show. The things that make the series so impressive as a screen adaptation — its geographic sprawl and huge cast of characters — are precisely what can make it tedious at times. As a viewer, you often get caught between a plot rock and a narrative hard place, either dawdling on a picaresque journey through B-plots that seem to digress ever further from the show’s center (pouty Jon Snow beyond the Wall, poor Daenerys in Qarth) or else waiting for the chess pieces to arrange themselves ahead of next week’s big, breathlessly anticipated Battle of Blackwater, an episode important enough that George R.R. Martin wrote it himself.

This week, we didn’t quite get an hour of undiluted Arya-Tywin time. (One can only pray for a DVD extra.) But we did get a number of great scenes, most of them two-handers, that deepened the characters’ emotional lives as well as their core relationships. Yes, there was quite a bit of manipulatively swelling music as, one by one, the tough men of Westeros swore their devotion to their lady loves — or their onion knights, as the case may be. But sweeping romance is one of the great pleasures high fantasy can offer, and if I’m a sucker for feeling like we haven’t had nearly enough of it so far, so be it.

Robb and Talisa’s long-teased smooshfest in his war tent provided the biggest swoon and also holds the greatest disruptive potential. Practically speaking, the love affair may mean breaking the betrothal between Robb and Walder Frey’s daughter, which was set last season when Walder allowed Robb’s forces to cross a bridge on Frey territory. This could prove a less-than-savvy political move that will weaken Robb’s standing with his allies. But even more striking is the way it represents a definitive break with Robb’s childhood.

Just as Robb is telling Talisa what an amazing leader and man his father was, news comes that his mother has released Jaime Lannister — Robb’s most important bargaining chip — in the hopes that it will save Sansa and Arya, whom she believes are both being held at King’s Landing. Robb’s relationship with Catelyn has been the one constant in his long journey from lord’s son to King in the North, and when he names her a traitor and puts her under house arrest, that bond is severed.

Let’s just get all Freudian about it and note that in “Prince of Winterfell,” Robb switches his allegiance and identification from his mother to his new lover. Robb has always drawn strength from Catelyn’s staunchness, and it’s clearly that quality, as demonstrated by Talisa’s speech about the slave who saved her younger brother from drowning (which in turn echoed Yara’s story about mewling baby Theon), that clinched the attraction for him. Catelyn, of course, saw this coming, because she is very wise. I fear this new relationship does not bode well, though it was a refreshing change of pace to see a hot-n-sweaty sex scene in GoT that was driven by passion and love as opposed to some kind of power play.

Tyrion also got a big loverman moment in this episode, which was surely a dear happiness to the many viewers who have been crushing on him hard since episode one. It also emphasized a truth about Tyrion that’s been developing all season. While he may be conniving — he loves the game, as Varys put it, where more upstanding men like Jon Arryn and Ned Stark did not — he’s also motivated by nobler things: honor, compassion (for “odd little boys” and captive young girls), and love.

The power of romantic love hasn’t been explored much in Game of Thrones, but those who remember their Westerosi history will recall how Robert Baratheon helped overthrow the Targaryen dynasty for the love of one Lyanna Stark, a woman whose ghost haunted his long, vexed marriage to Cersei. In last night’s Robb and Tyrion scenes, as with Daenerys and Jorah in Qarth, GoT established romantic love — and its cousin, chivalry — as forces to be reckoned with. (Surely, if I still owned a Trapper Keeper, I would be doodling “Mrs. Nina Shen Mormont” all over it with my Sharpies.) “That little worm between your legs does half your thinking for you,” Cersei tells Tyrion, just before she reveals that she knows about his “little whore.” But just as she gets the facts of Tyrion’s affair wrong, she also, crucially, underestimates the depth of his feeling. While his sister has abandoned her faith in romance — she may miss Jaime, but she also warned Sansa last week to “Love no one but your children” — Tyrion has not.

It’s the dramatic irony that makes the scene so poignant, and so complex. Even as we’re repulsed by her actions, it’s hard not to feel for the woman; she really has had a rough go of it this season, and if she only knew how ridiculous she looked, with her shit-eating grin, she’d be even more broken up than she already is. Once again, Cersei proves unable to properly read the facts of the situation. In this, she continued a motif that had been developing throughout the hour, since that opening image of five-and-twenty ravens being dumped from a basket in Winterfell, choking the lines of communication out of the North. Everyone in this hour was acting on corrupt or partial information, or struggling to get good intel from less-than-ideal sources.

Catelyn believes Arya is still in King’s Landing. Tywin believes Jaime is still Robb’s prisoner. Sam and his latrine-digging buddies don’t know whether Jon and Qhorin Halfhand are dead or alive. Finally, finally, news about Daenerys and her dragons is filtering back to Westeros — though as Tyrion tells Varys wearily, let’s just deal with one war at a time. And of course, we in the audience learn definitively that it wasn’t Bran and Rickon’s charred bodies swinging from the rafters of Winterfell, but the farmer’s boys. The closing shot of the episode elegantly capped this theme, as the filmmakers layered Osha and Luwin’s discussion, in which they agreed to never tell Bran what happened, over a shot of the young boy sitting awake next to a sleeping Hodor and Rickon, leaving it somewhat ambiguous what, exactly, Bran might have overheard.

The farmer’s boys don’t get much by way of memorial — they never got names, as I can recall, and we never even saw their faces when they were alive. It’s just their bodies that serve a purpose in the royal drama, just like the young boy whose leg Talisa amputated on the battlefield. It’s a point that the show has been driving home, again and again, with the figure of Ros, whose body has borne more of the brunt of this war than any soldier. Of course Tyrion was relieved to see that it was Ros and not Shae who had been captured by Cersei — and for a sickening moment, we were, too. It’s a testament to Tyrion’s growing sense of heroism that his vow to take revenge on his sister (delivered with a line as quotable as Inigo Montoyas, and taken from the novels) felt like it was meant as much for Ros’s sake as for Shae’s.

In a way, Tyrion’s story is a mirror of Theon’s. Both are acting out psychological dramas with very deep roots, though only one seems conscious of that fact. Both were treated poorly by their tough fathers, dismissed and marginalized in favor of their more promising siblings. Each man is driven to prove himself because of those original slights, and each hungers for connection because of the love they believe they were denied. If Tyrion has used his past pain in more fruitful ways than Theon has, I suspect it’s in part because Tyrion is clear on all these points. Tyrion likely recognizes that his fierce commitment to Shae — and his need to hear her say that she belongs to him — is a way for him to overcome the memory of the Tysha incident, in which he was doubly betrayed, both by the woman he loved and by his own flesh and blood. His love for her is being presented as both a strength and a weakness, and it’ll be interesting to see which side Game of Thrones eventually comes down on. (I fear I know already.)

There were similar dynamics at play in the fantastic scene between Stannis and Davos Seaworth, two more men whose stories look backward as much as they look forward. Stephen Dillane gives the best line readings of anyone on the show, and I’m including Peter Dinklage in that group. I want to see a whole bottle episode where Stannis just lists all the stuff he doesn’t like. In an episode that was full of great, funny moments, his line about eating cats while under siege in Storm’s End was my favorite, though Arya outsmarting Jaqen H’ghar came a close second, and Jaime and Brienne’s rom-com-ish scene with the canoe was priceless, as well.

That’s what I loved about this episode: There were so many moments when we were allowed to just enjoy these characters’ company, to spend a few minutes taking pleasure in their way with a quip or a ruse or allow ourselves to be carried along by their emotions. It was particularly welcome as we prepare to head into next week’s big battle episode, where QT is likely to be at a minimum.

Some stray thoughts:

  • I thought the editing in this episode was really excellent; the transitions between the scenes, with each closing moment being held for an extra beat before moving onto the next scene, were beautiful, and seemed to echo the theme of information-passing.
  • Yara’s really got a way with a drumstick, eh?
  • Hot Pie really loves pies, eh?
  • Did anyone else think for sure Sam was going to find John Locke down in that hatch?
  • I call dibs on Lord of Bones for Halloween!

I hear that in the Summer Isles they worship a fertility goddess with sixteen teats. We should sail there immediately.

Photo: HBO