Finally! After three hours of listless flitting, Game of Thrones let fly last night with a tight, rip-roaring belch of fiery goodness. If last week was all about tallying and appraising, “And Now His Watch Is Ended” was all about settling up accounts — with dramatic and tragic consequences.
An eerie, early scene with Varys prepares us for what’s to come in this episode. Tyrion has paid the Master of Whisperers a visit: He wants to know more about who, exactly, tried to off him during the Battle of Blackwater and ended up hacking his face instead. Rather than answer him directly, Varys tells the new Master of Coin the story of how he became a eunuch. Sold at a young age to a sorcerer who hacked off his incipient manly parts for a dark ritual, Varys has spent the intervening years clawing his way toward power, hiding his anger under a smooth façade of courtliness. Influence grows like a weed, he tells Tyrion, but so do rage, pain, and hatred. This is how Varys can tell Lady Olenna with such confidence that he knows what Littlefinger is up to: both men are willing to take the long view on the game, to burn slow if it means a bigger conflagration when it really counts.
If Game of Thrones itself had a house motto, it might be, “What’s past is prologue.” It’s true for the highborn, who live their lives in the constant light — or shadow — of their ancestors. And it’s true, too, for those scrambling to gentle themselves. (Ros has to remind Varys that “prostitute” is her “former position.”) The big, Silence of the Lambs–ish reveal at the end of Varys’s story — it puts the balls in the fire — is not only effective because, Jesus, Varys has a dude with his lips sewn shut stuffed in a packing crate, but because it shows, in an unsettlingly casual way, just how long memories can be. Time heals no wounds, grudges, slights, or offenses. It’s no coincidence that the show’s ever-impressive opening credits depict centuries of Westerosi history: all those tales are still feeding the beast. Which is part of the reason being a Game of Thrones geek is so great: The sense of pattern recognition that comes from diving into fathoms and fathoms of canon is its own kind of narrative reward.
“I have no doubt the revenge you want will be yours in time, if you can stomach it,” Varys tells Tyrion as he closes up the box. Up in the north, some ranger stomachs couldn’t stomach it anymore, and this causes their owners to slash up food-hoarding Craster before stabbing Lord Commander Mormont in the gut for good measure. Mob rule in Craster’s Keep; the masses at the door of the Red Keep. As I mentioned in my chat about this episode with Slate’s Rachael Larimore, Game of Thrones often seems to subscribe to a kind of Great Man theory of history: single people making unilateral choices that change the nature of the game (or fuck it up, as the case may be). But in this episode, we start to get hints of how group dynamics could move the needle, too. The aggrieved smallfolk of King’s Landing have made their appearances in the past few seasons, but so far they’ve just been nipping at the Lannisters’ heels. Could they rise up, and pull a Craster’s Keep on the whole royal clan?
If they did, the victory march would inevitably involve Margaery being hoisted aloft on the people’s shoulders. Was anyone even cheering for Joffrey, the heroic defender (if only in Margaery’s flattering retelling) of King’s Landing? If they were, I couldn’t hear them over the adoring shouts for his betrothed. Margaery has made a relatively quick ascent, but those luscious eyes are also fixed on some prize off in the distance, which we can’t quite make out from where we stand.
Natalie Dormer is as fun to watch as her onscreen grandma, but I love the whiff of menace that trails in her wake — particularly when it curls around Cersei. (Someone please make a supercut of Lena Headey’s grimaces. Cersei needs to learn how to smize if she honestly wants to fool anyone, but I could watch that face all day long.) The tense dance between Joffrey’s leading ladies continues apace, but what I really appreciate about the way the show has set up their rivalry is that both women manage to come off as simultaneously dangerous and sympathetic. Margaery is so likable, but how can you not feel for a woman fighting so hard to keep her son safe and close, and who seems so beaten down by life?
Yes, boo-hoo, tiny violins for the rich and beautiful Queen Regent, but I find it affecting. Look how hard she’s trying to lean in, Sandberg-style —demanding a seat at the table (literally) last week, and trying so hard to capture her father’s attention this week. Cersei and Olenna have a walk-and-talk as Margaery indulges Joffrey’s gleeful romp through the more macabre elements of Westerosi history. (“It ate her while her son watched!”) They contemplate the ridiculousness of a world that belongs to their foolish sons, who are always charging off drunk and tilting at boars and feasting while Storm’s End burns. (Cersei, too, has a good memory, despite recent attempts at Baratheon-Tyrell nicey-nice: The Siege of Storm’s End that she alludes to, in which Olenna’s son Mace battered the holding of House Baratheon for nearly a year, occurred at the tail end of Robert’s Rebellion.)
I wish Cersei and Olenna could actually be friends, the way Margaery and Sansa seem to be becoming. (Oh God, I hope they’re really friends. I can’t take that puppy-dog look on Sansa’s face when Margaery turns her beams on her; it makes me want to weep.) Alas, that is not likely in the cards. But Cersei takes her talk with the crafty old biddy to her cold, dead heart and recommits to her new, more straightforwardly assertive strategy. She wheedles Tywin into promising he’s doing everything he can to help Jaime, but of course what she really wants to tell him is that he should take her under his wing. “Did it ever occur to you that I might be the one who deserves your confidence and your trust, not your sons?” she asks him bitterly but hopefully. Tywin was probably not surprised to hear Cersei call him out for caring about his legacy more than he does his children (he would probably agree), but it must have stung Cersei to hear dear old Dad say that he distrusts her not because she’s a woman, but because she’s not as smart as she thinks she is. Cersei’s arc has resonances with Theon’s and Tyrion’s, as she attempts to orient herself by her father’s light. But it also reminds me of last season’s Daenerys, who stumbled around, trying to figure out not only how to lead, but to prove herself worthy of being followed. So many of the second-generation characters have had to go through one sort of initiation rite or another, but the women seem to have it harder than the men, in that the nature of their tests is often less clear.
But holy shit, A+ for Daenerys, huh? The episode’s closer was a perfectly executed bit of pop triumphalism, from the martial rhythm of Dany and her entourage’s entrance down to the Biblical-epic scoring and righteous choral capper. Again and again, the show has demonstrated the importance of proper theatrics when it comes to establishing your leadership bona fides, so it’s fitting that Dany comes into her own with such a strong exhibition. The flashy, beautiful framing throughout this episode — the camera constantly peering up through grates and going wide to show sweeps of ocean and forest — really paid off thematically in those last, stagey moments. The bottom-up perspective of Kraznys looking up at Drogon, and then the top-down view of Drogon turning him into a slaver-kebab, followed by the shot of Kraznys’s charred body in the extreme foreground, hand crisped up into a permanent defensive gesture — the camera was Daenerys’s great ally last night. Couldn’t you see that awesome shot of her, dust billowing behind her perfectly still silhouette, hand clutching the whip, being framed and sold in the tourist shops of Astapor like some kind of devotional aid? In last week’s "Inside the Episode" featurette, showrunner David Benioff pointed out that Daenerys has developed a kind of Joan of Arc complex. As a Targaryen, Dany feels she’s been ordained for this destiny just as clearly as if the Seven had anointed her themselves. Last night we saw her come into her own as an icon of zealous feminine might, complete with ritual slaughter, dragonfire, and brimstone. I haven’t always been Emilia Clarke’s greatest fan, but my ambivalence toward her almost heightened my fist-pumping satisfaction last night. Hey, I’m only human.
But as D.B. Weiss notes in this week’s interview, as the “sphere of her empathy widens, the sphere of her cruelty widens as well.” How different is Dany from Varys’s sacrificial sorcerer? And while the Unsullied may have declared their allegiance to her in good trained-horse style — stamp once if you’ll follow me, twice if you want to retire and go to culinary school — saving her from the curse of trying to conquer Westeros with an army of slaves, how much free will can 8,000 men who’ve been brainwashed since childhood really have? Daenerys may have ridden out of Astapor like Django Unchained, casting aside Kraznys’s harpy whip in the most badass version of a mike drop ever, but all those silent, spectral warriors don’t exactly put me at ease. At some point, the credits roll and you’re left with the wreckage you’ve choreographed.
Before we go, let’s take a moment for some words about our traipsing twosome, Jaime and Brienne, and poor old Theon. Jaime and Theon are two boys bearing a whole lot of baggage. Jaime has had the golden boy slowly ground out of him over the past season or so; now he’s lost not only his sword hand but also his sense of self. “I was that hand,” he moans to Brienne. Kingslayer, Lannister — these are identities he’s worn like raiment all his life.
Theon, meanwhile, remains haunted by the possible identities he sees so clearly but can never manage to inhabit. Robb Stark never had to lord his birthright over him, he tells his mysterious rescuer. “All he had to do was be. Be who he was born to be,” Theon says bleakly of his lifelong reverse image. “His life fit him better than his clothes.” His rescuer, meanwhile, plays on Theon’s need for others to recognize and validate his lineage by telling him a story about his father bringing him to watch as the young Theon sailed off for Winterfell, telling him all the while that Balon Greyjoy’s only son was being taken away. No man can serve two masters, and no boy, it seems, can serve two fathers; whether you believe Theon when he says that Ironborn is what he was born to be or you believe him two seconds later when he says that his real father lost his head at King’s Landing, it’s clear that Theon will never find his path until he resolves that contradiction.
Thanks to Brienne’s staunch example and her rough, derisory brand of empathy, we sense that Jaime has a shot of reworking himself in a new image. But Theon — well, Theon’s lady savior is nowhere to be found, and his mysterious rescuer has turned out to be a crazy-eyed backstabber. Going it alone has never been Theon’s strong suit; it seems being strung up and stuck with his torturers may indeed be where he “belongs,” as Crazy Eyes puts it — for a while, at least.
See you back here next week, as Gilly, Sam, and little Craster-Baby embark on their road trip, Arya watches the Hound tête-à-tête with Beric Dondarrion, and Lady Olenna picks out new china patterns for House Tyrell. I’ll have an extra feather bed waiting for you, you lecherous little stump — unless Podrick takes it first.