Good morning, Westeros fans. Why, is that your stump in the bath, or are you just happy to see me? Here, have a fig.
Last night’s episode, “Kissed by Fire,” continued the sharp upward swing begun in episode four, with a tightly constructed hour tied together by some key visual motifs: flames and, uh, butts. Written by executive story editor Bryan Cogman, the episode also featured a number of bravura scenes for individual actors. In a recent interview with Rolling Stone, Cogman described how the Game of Thrones staff writes to the strengths of each cast member: “As the series goes on, you're writing Jerome [Flynn]'s Bronn, not just Bronn. The same goes for Lena [Headey]'s Cersei, Alfie [Allen]'s Theon, Rory [McCann]'s Hound, Stephen [Dillane]'s Stannis, and so on.” It’s probably no coincidence that Cogman is a Juilliard-trained actor — he writes scenes that any actor would cut off his sword-hand and wear it like a necklace for.
Nikolaj Coster-Walder, for example, gets a long monologue in which Jaime comes clean (ha-ha) to Brienne, apologizing for his rude behavior and telling her the story behind the Kingslayer epithet: Mad King Aerys was planning to burn the whole city and had charged Jaime with killing his own father, who was coming to storm the castle. There was so much to savor in this scene, from the beautiful composition — the black water cutting a sharp line across Brienne's clean white shoulders — to the deepening trust that binds these two unlikely partners. Is it too hokey to note the symbolism here, of the two of them shedding their armor, and the reflective nature of the pool? Well, it's my first week writing without the benefit of advanced screeners and I'm a little sleep-deprived, so I'm going to go with it. I loved the way the scene unspooled — particularly the way Gwendoline Christie listened, with her whole body, to Jaime's story, moving silently from anger and guardedness (watch the girlish way she hugs her knees) to comprehension (betraying her shock with just the tiniest swallow) and, finally, just maybe, to empathy.
Jaime caps the speech by seething, "By what right does the wolf judge the lion?" before collapsing in Brienne's arms. She calls for help for "the Kingslayer," but he croaks, in a bit of shameless flourish, "Jaime. My name is Jaime." It's hard to remember, at moments like this, that this is the same man who cavalierly (in my memory, at least) pushed a young boy out a tower window, which is either a testament to the skillfulness of Game of Thrones’ characterizations or the gentling power of our own sentiment. Either way, I cannot wait for the moment Jaime is finally reunited with his beloved twin sister. Both he and Cersei have changed so much since their separation, it's hard to imagine they could again be anything like the cold, glittering pair of the first season. For that matter, I really can't wait for the moment when Cersei meets the new blonde in her brother's life.
In another dark, dank castle, Stannis and his Onion Knight, Davos, have their own standout scenes, thanks largely to the introduction of adorable Princess Shireen. Seriously, that kid is the cutest. Stannis goes to see his crazy
cat-lady fetus-lady wife, Selyse, whom we saw briefly (played by a different actress) in season two, during the ritual on Dragonstone in which Stannis burns the idols of the Seven in favor of Melisandre's Lord of Light. Selyse has become even more of a devout convert than her husband, her drawn face illuminated by the flickering flames and the zealousness of her faith. Stannis's confession lands somewhat less well than Jaime's; he tries to tell his wife that he's broken his marriage vows with the Red Priestess, but Selyse already knows and not only forgives him, but blesses him. Melisandre gave him a son, but all Selyse has are three dead babies floating in alien goo. (But really, Selyse, don't be too hard on yourself. It should be noted that Melisandre’s bouncing baby boy was actually a cloud of fratricidal Dementor smoke.)
Throughout the first half of this season, we’ve witnessed a change in Stannis. His rigid forthrightness is crumbling; he’s been humbled by both military defeat and the knowledge that he, too, has a capacity for sin. He’s still stiff (if Lena Headey is the Queen of Grimaces, he is definitely the king), but he’s wavering. We see the softer side of Stannis with his daughter, who sings like a little bird in a cage — which, of course, she is. Dillane applies so many little grace notes to this scene, from the way he scans Shireen’s little cell of a room as he hugs her (is that revulsion on his face? Pity? Shame?) to the deadpan way he answers her question about whether he won the battle he was fighting: “Nope.” He’s not the warmest of fathers, but there’s clearly some sort of affection here. It’s hard not to be charmed by this sweet, sprightly girl, kept cooped up and out of sight because of — I’m assuming, as I don’t think the reason has been made explicit — the dragonlike scales that cover half her face. (The moment where she runs to bear-hug her father, then looks up and reveals her deformity — heartbreaking.) Shireen seems about the same age as Arya, and she has some of the same spunk and loyalty, stealing down to visit Davos and bringing him a book because he’s her friend — a story for a toy ship, two powerful means of escape — and cracking some shy, sly gallows humor with her fellow captive.
Speaking of Arya, she, too, is trying to forge a connection, but with less luck. Gendry tells her that he is going to stay and smith for the Brotherhood. Like Jon Snow with the Night’s Watch and then, even more so, with the wildings, the orphan Gendry is drawn not only to the sense of family the Brotherhood has fostered, but also the fact that they’ve chosen to be a family. It’s a luxury that the titled Arya, for all her transgressive and progressive ways, doesn’t have, lineage being both a blessing and a bind. The moment where she exposes the depth of her need to him and tries to cement a vow — “I can be your family” — and he responds gently but firmly, “You wouldn’t be my family; you’d be my lady” was another heartbreaker. It’s no wonder that Arya obsessively recites the names of those who wronged her, worrying them like a rosary. What else does she have to hold onto?
“Kissed by Fire” reminded us that Game of Thrones is a cruel world for children, as the scene between Arya and Gendry cuts straight into a melee at Riverrun that ends with young Willem and Martyn Lannister stabbed to death by Karstark, seeing revenge for his own two dead sons. (Shades of Richard III.)
Robb’s at a turning point here. On one hand, he’s at the height of his kingliness (and his hotness — woof, amirite?). He’s passionate, forceful, and never more like his father than when he dispenses cold justice on Karstark — who, the old man reminds him, is not only a bannerman but kin, as well. Unlike Theon, who spectacularly botched the beheading of an elderly ally last season, Robb seems to have been paying attention to Ned in the show’s very first episode, when his father executed a deserter from the Night’s Watch: He takes Karstark’s head cleanly and swiftly, with the proper display of elegance and might. This episode underlined themes of performance by referencing different kinds of theater: The flaming sword-fight between Beric and the Hound that opened the episode played in the round, like a rowdy bear-baiting brawl, and this was a more traditional show, with the performers playing out to a seated crowd. The shots of Catelyn, Talisa, and Edmure’s watching faces, lined up along a neat angle, echoes the scene a few episodes back where Edmure failed, publicly and awkwardly, to shoot the flaming arrow into his father’s funeral boat. Robb knows how to play the king, and he does it in a classical fashion, just like his dad would.
At the same time, the façade has plenty of cracks. Karstark mocks him as the King Who Lost the North; his own mother, wife, and uncle are urging him to consider a lighter, more tactical approach and keep Karstark hostage. But Ned wasn’t one for realpolitik, either. Karstark’s final words are a curse, branding Robb a kinslayer, and that dramatic, swelling music at the end of the execution scene sounds as ominous as it does triumphal. But maybe Walder Frey, the man Robb burned by rejecting his daughter in favor of Talisa, holds the key to fortifying his army of “bickering children” …
The episode’s treatment of children and their tenuous place in the world comes full circle in the closing scene with Cersei, Tyrion, and Tywin. I would have thought the revelations that Tyrion is to marry Sansa — who is “just a child” herself — and Cersei is to wed “the boy” Loras Tyrell would have been more of a plot bombshell, but the scene really played out like a kitchen-sink domestic drama between two generations. The younger Lannisters never seem more raw and stripped to the core as they do with their father, who speaks, tellingly, of “killing this union” between Sansa and Loras “in the crib.” Lena Headey stole this scene, I thought, moving from withering, catlike smugness (“She’s flowered, I assure you. She and I discussed it at length.”) to childlike despair. As the camera pulls out, Cersei and Tyrion are hanging their heads, staring down at their father’s big table, united in their helplessness.
Finally, a moment for Kit Harrington, who at last got a chance to use his prettiness to full effect. Jon Snow’s scene with Ygritte is one of the sweetest we’ve ever seen on Game of Thrones, and it loops visually and thematically with Jaime and Brienne’s equally revealing scene in the bathhouse. Ironically, for a woman who glorifies her people’s love of bracing, cold openness, it’s in the privacy and warmth of the cave that Ygritte’s able to be most herself.
You know nothing, Jon Sno — ohh.
Some stray comments and observations:
- Beric Dondarrion! How friggin’ cool is Beric Dondarrion? I don’t have much else to say about that, but you can tell why the fans love him.
- Locke is the Six-Fingered Man, right?
- Jon Snow almost lost his maidenhood once, to another feisty woman “kissed by fire”: Ros. He talks about it with Sam in season one. (Thanks, HBOGo.)
- I don’t know if it’s been different this season or I’ve just been noticing it more, but the between-scenes editing has been really great lately. In this episode, there were all these shots of flames leading one scene into the next, not to mention the bit where Shireen is reading to Davos about Aegon conquering Westeros, which bleeds into a voice-over against Daenerys’s massing army. Not only elegant, but eerie: If Dany follows in her ancestor’s legacy, poor Shireen is not likely to fare well.
- Is Grey Worm’s speech about his name being a lucky one supposed to make Daenerys feel better about what she’s done, or us?
- Again with the great, evocative outro music.
- It’s almost too predictable that Diana Rigg is going to steal every scene she’s in, but you have to appreciate the way she out-tallies the Master of Coin. That head-poof hides one big mental Excel spreadsheet.
- Oh Goooooood, that stump.