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Game of Thrones Recap: A Little Bloody Gratitude

“Brother.”

That’s the very first word we hear in the episode, and it’s a good one to hold onto as we dive into the third season of Game of Thrones — a season that promises an even more crowded cast of characters than the past two. Last night’s episode was primarily about winding the machine back up, reintroducing some key story lines, and retracing the lines of allegiance — letting us know who, for the moment, considers themselves brothers, or sisters.

The episode begins with a cold (literally! Zing!) open beyond the wall. In the dark, we hear screams, both earthly and un-, and the sound of clashing swords. A beautiful shot of weak sunlight and rushing clouds over snow, and then Samwell is running sweatily, awkwardly. He comes across a form huddled under a black cloak. “Brother,” he sputters, half hopeful and half wary. He walks slowly around the shape … and sees that the man is cradling his own head in his hands. The camera holds on actor John Bradley’s face, observing the way he curls in his lower lip, pushing his chin out like a baby’s. Sam whimpers softly and blinks, hard, but continues to look squarely at the ranger’s mutilated body. Signs of a newly grown-up Sam? Or just a shell-shocked one? Before we can come down on one side or the other, a zombie lurches into the frame with an axe — and then, suddenly, Jon’s white direwolf Ghost jumps in and begins dragging the wight away. Lord Commander Mormont shows up with a burning torch to finish the job, and Sam —  having fully reverted to a childlike state again — must silently confess that he did not, in fact, send the warning ravens. The Night’s Watch must find a way to get back to the wall and tell the people of Westeros about the boogeymen they’ve seen. “Or before winter’s done,” the Lord Commander declares, “everyone you’ve ever known will be dead.”

A cheery beginning! Cut to the credits, still stirring after all these months, with a gorgeous new pop-up city: Astapor.

Elsewhere in the frozen north, Jon Snow is brought to the wilding camp and introduced to Mance Rayder, the much-mentioned King-Beyond-the-Wall, as the “pup” that killed Qhorin Halfhand, the famed ranger of the Night Watch. Mance tells Jon that Qhorin Halfhand was his brother once, and it’s unclear whether that’s meant as a warning (don’t think this means I won’t kill you in the morning) or as an offering (I know how hard it is to be called a traitor by your comrades). Jon tells Mance that he decided to join the wildings when he discovered that the Lord Commander knew Craster was sacrificing his sons to the White Walkers. “I want to fight for the side that fights for the living,” he says. Mance, apparently ensorcelled by the bastard’s pillowy lips and flowing locks, did not seem to find this as ridiculous an explanation as I did. If you wanted to fight the White Walkers, why wouldn’t you just, I dunno, pull a Mance Rayder and desert the Night’s Watch? Why go through all the hoopla of slaying a military hero? Oh, Jon Snow, you’re so pretty.

Mance, as played by Ciaran Hinds, is a regal presence. That’s set off some grumbling among fans of the books, which depict Mance as a big but unremarkable man who can pass in Westeros as a wandering musician. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with going off-book (Game of Thrones’ Sansa, for example, is a vast improvement on the girl in the novels), but it’s a noteworthy choice in a show that spends so much time exploring how performance and presentation can shore up a royal identity. Can you be a king without seeming kingly? Can you lead a khalasar before you grow up and “prove yourself strong,” as Jorah Mormont will tell Daenerys later in the episode? If you manage to defeat an invading navy in a time of military crisis, but happen to be a dwarf, will anyone let you back onstage once the emergency has passed? Open questions in Westeros.

As a side note, I thought the appearance of the giant in the wilding camp was perfect: so casual and brief, and so dreamily uncanny. Very different than the warlocks, who practically twirled about with their supernatural jazz hands, demanding we pay attention to their strangeness, and for my money more jarring than Dany’s newly grown dragons.

Over in King’s Landing, Margaery Tyrell is proving herself more adept at statecraft and soft power than any of the Lannisters. Unlike the freaked-out Joffrey, who travels through the streets of the city cooped up in a dark palanquin —  the window bars casting shadows like a prison cell’s – Margaery literally isn’t afraid of getting her feet dirty. She has that Princess Di common touch, spontaneously (or so it seems) deciding to visit a home full of Blackwater orphans and soothing them with sweet words of patriotism and honor. Margaery is the consummate courtier: smooth, elegant, warm, proper. (Qualities matched, we know from Season 2, by a bracingly straightforward thirst for power and a flexible approach to bedroom matters.) She’s obviously more sophisticated than Sansa — and Joffrey, too; thus his dazzlement. And of course, she’s younger and more appealing than Cersei. She’s a hammer in a velvet casing, where Cersei is just a hammer. In so many past dinner scenes, Cersei has been the indisputable queen bee at the table. But last night it became clear that Margaery is not going to be as pliable as Joffrey’s first fiancée.

The tension between these two, however, isn’t so simple as young beautiful woman threatens older beautiful woman: It’s also something fundamental about the way each of them approaches the world. In a behind-the-episode interview, showrunner D.B. Weiss points out that Margaery basically likes people more than Cersei does. I think that Margaery also likes the game more than Cersei does. There’s a joy to the way she approaches her machinations. She’s open (at least in affect) and optimistic. Cersei, on the other hand, is tight, drawn, ragged. Over and over on the show, she’s made it clear how circumscribed she feels by her gender, how embattled by life and disappointed by her loved ones. Cersei operates from a place of deprivation, from a sense of needing to hold hard onto what she’s got. (Compare that to Margaery, who, when her maid fusses that the street slop in front of the orphanage will ruin her dress, simply responds, “I have others.”) Lena Headey portrays the queen as a woman whose archness barely conceals a wild ocean of frustration, and, like her son in his litter, that feeling causes her to close up and draw ranks. It’ll be interesting to see how the presence of her overbearing father in King’s Landing affects Cersei’s already brittle state.

Tywin and Tyrion, meanwhile, are reestablishing their frosty relationship. Tyrion wants “a little bloody gratitude” for his deeds at Blackwater, and his father, the new Hand of the King, suggests that “jugglers and singers” might require applause, but Tyrion is a Lannister — albeit an “ill-made, spiteful” one “full of envy, lust, and low cunning.” Tyrion wants Casterly Rock, the family seat, for his efforts, and Tywin, predictably, refuses. Remember though, Tywin, that a Lannister always pays his debts. It seems like bad luck to be flouting your family motto, doesn’t it? What I don’t understand is why Tywin is so obsessed with whores. Tywin has many psychologically plausible reasons to despise and feel ashamed of his son, but this one seems ungrounded to me. He’s steely and cruel and cares a lot about public perception, but I don’t get the sense that he’s morally fastidious, or that Tyrion’s “whoring” presents some kind of real threat to the family.

We get a few moments of cautious sorority, as Shae and Sansa sit in the sun watching the boats come into King’s Landing, making up stories about those free to sail away from the capital. The camera pulls back and we see the two women sitting at the end of a narrow dock, observing them from the vantage point of a heavily armored guard: That dock is no less a cell than Joffrey’s cagelike litter or Tyrion’s dungeon chambers. Littlefinger arrives and repeats his offer to help get Sansa home, telling her that he’ll be sailing away in a few days and might be able to take her along. As their masters talk, Shae and Ros watch their backs carefully. Ros (presumably under Varys’s wing since the last episode of Season 2) throws out a line to Shae, noting that the two of them have done rather well for themselves. “It’s not easy for girls like us, to dig our way out.” Then Ros tells Shae to watch out for Sansa. “I always do,” Shae says, with seeming sincerity. “Watch out for her with him,” Ros replies. I’m not entirely sure where Shae’s loyalty to Sansa, which has been building across the last few episodes, comes from or whether it’s entirely sincere. But it’s a welcome layer in all the intrigue.

King’s Landing itself needs to watch out: forces are massing to disturb their newly won sense of victory. Robb, witnessing the destruction of Harrenhal and the slaughter of two hundred Northmen, is itching even harder for a fight. (Though someone, please, help me work out exactly what happened at the Big Castle in the comments.) Robb’s colder, too, now that his own mother is a traitor in his eyes. Stannis may be sourly licking his wounds at Dragonstone, letting Melisandre burn prisoners, but he’s still the one true king to some people, like Davos. (Liam Cunningham does some great work in this episode: the moment when chooses not to hide his allegiance from his unknown rescuers; the series of beats in which Melisandre taunts him cruelly at Dragonstone.)

And of course, there’s Dany, contemplating the purchase of 8,000 stone-cold eunuch warriors to fill out the khalasar she’ll have vomiting its mighty way across the Narrow Sea. Dany is still beset with treachery and still not seasoned enough to be suspicious of strangers bearing gifts, whether they’re smarmy wine merchants or adorable, Japanese-horror-movie-evil warlock girls. She’s still being talked down to by older men. But the girl’s got money. She’s got dragons. She’s got Barristan Selmy, one of the greatest soldiers in Westeros, who’s presumably been seeking her out ever since Joffrey dismissed him so cavalierly in Season 1. Nipple-slicing barely fazes her now. If she manages to get past her ethical hang-ups about hiring a slave army and winning her victory on the back of so many dead babies, the Lannisters will have some big debts to repay.

Looking forward to nine more hours of throne wrangling with all of you. And when the season is over, I’ll gather your bones in a little sack and let your widow wear them around her neck.

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Photo: Helen Sloan/HBO