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Game of Thrones Recap: Quit While You’ve a Head

One of the chief hazards of being a Game of Thrones recapper is that you can waste a lot of time writing down various characters’ ponderous sayings in the hopes that one of them will give you a hook into writing about an episode. The show traffics in some big themes, and because it treats its main ones (loyalty, honor, justice, family) so obsessively, you can spend a lot of time constructing elegant theses about what the show is “about.” But then it wallops you with an ending like last night’s and you realize that what GoT is about, probably more than anything else, is the visceral pleasure of a well-constructed narrative. Surprise is a key part of the story’s political and ethical worldview. Ned Stark didn’t just die because it made for great television; he died because understanding this world means understanding that stability is a crock and you can’t take anything for granted, ever. But he also died because it was great television.

The closing scene of “The Mountain and the Viper,” scripted by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss and directed by Alex Graves, was a crazy tense, classically perfect twist ending that showed Game of Thrones doesn’t need gore to be bracing and shocking. (It piled some on anyhow, just in case you no longer knew how to react without it. Would that they had stopped with those teeth to the ground!) It seemed to build effortlessly, with Oberyn doing his best Cirque du Soleil impression of Inigo Montoya (surely that was intentional?) and the camera giving us whirling pow-pow-pow shots from all angles, the emotional beats playing like percussion across Ellaria (Indira Varma)’s nakedly expressive face. And then, just as it seemed Oberyn might wrangle a real confession before leaping on the dais and finishing off Tywin for good measure, it became frighteningly clear that he’d pulled a kabaragoya. And the Mountain came roaring back to life to crush him like one of Orson’s beetles. As a fan of Pedro Pascal, not to mention Oberyn and Ellaria’s straightforward passion (the likes of which we haven’t seen since Robb and Talisa), I was, well, crushed. But as a fan of the show, it was good to be reminded how this story can jolt me with its pacing and staging, as opposed to just wringing me out with its blood and guts.

Over in the Vale, another confession scene is taking place, this one equally predicated on the power of theatrics. Sansa pulls off a Margaery-level performance on Baelish’s behalf, seasoning her “uncle’s” lie about her aunt’s “suicide” with enough truths to make the story seem entirely plausible, and drawing on her supposed weaknesses (fragility, fear, helplessness) to help sell the tale. She pulls out the quivering lip, the wet eyes, the slightly hysterical edge as she recounts the horrors of King’s Landing. It’s a bravura performance, capped off with a reprise of that shot from Episode 5 when Lysa hugged Sansa and then, as soon as the younger girl couldn’t see her face, dropped her smile like a bad man out the Moon Door. Once Sansa is hugging Lady Waynwood and the tribunal can’t see her face, it grows still. Her eyes meet Baelish’s.

And those eyes of hers are — resigned? Resolved? Afraid? Her lips part slightly but the face gives away nothing. As Sansa grows up, she’s learning how to display emotions when it suits her (slapping Robin when he destroys her snow castle) and how to hold them close to her vest when they don’t. Later, when Baelish visits her in her room — that light! on her hair! — and tries to get her to tell him why she lied for him, she won’t look at him, even though she knows full well she’s being looked at. Until, that is, the very end of their tense and teasing exchange (“I know what you want.” “Do you?”), when she looks up and says … nothing. Just parts her lips again, in what is almost a smile, and then ducks her head. (It’s an episode of meaningfully silent ellipses; when Ramsay tells Theon/Reek to “remember what you are, and what you’re not,” and then asks again who he is, we never hear the broken boy’s reply.)

In her final scene, when she emerges from those curtains and descends that sinister, spiraling staircase in her Maleficent dress and breastbone-spanning pendant — that light! on her shoulder feathers! — Sansa seems to be enjoying her to-be-looked-at-ness and relishing this chance to join the crop of women in GoT who wield their beauty like a weapon. Whether it’s this newfound power she finds seductive or Littlefinger himself — so dangerous and yet so protective — I’m intrigued. I fear for Robin, though. That kid is a weirdo but I don’t think Uncle Petyr is setting him up for anything good by trying to get the Lords of the Vale to rally around him. Especially when his form of an avuncular pep talk is: “Take charge of your life … for as long as it lasts.”

Down below, Sansa’s sister and her older man friend have finally arrived at the Bloody Gate, only to be told that Lady Lysa died three days earlier. Arya responds the only sensible way — by bursting out into hysterical laughter. Are we going to have another Stark sibling almost-meet? The Bloody Gate is a bit of a distance from the Eyrie, and even if they’re allowed to proceed, it seems Robin, Littlefinger, and Sansa are heading out — and no one besides those three and the Lords of the Vale know “Alayne’s” true identity.

Meanwhile, in Meereen, Daenerys and her older man friend are breaking up. We’ve known for a long time that Jorah was once a spy for Varys, though it was never entirely clear when he stopped; presumably, some time after he fell terribly, unrequitedly in love with her. I expected this change to land with more of a … something? Especially after that earlier moment where Grey Worm told Missandei that it was Jorah who taught him the word precious, or the scene in the last episode where Daenerys played him off Daario 2 so masterfully, you could see her hooks sink deeper into his heart. Maybe it’s because it did feel like she was playing him last week. As Dany’s world has expanded exponentially beyond her khalasar, her individual relationships have seemed to shrink and become more perfunctory, more utilitarian. (Note how fast she kissed and then dismissed Daario.) But I would have thought this rift would feel more momentous, regardless. The emotional impact may have been blunted by the fact that it was sandwiched in the middle of an episode that had a lot of balls in the air — the Theon storyline suffered the same fate — but I imagine Jorah will be back at some point, carrying his big rucksack o’ stifled feelings, so maybe we’ll get more fallout then.

As far as emotions in Meereen go, I’m cautiously optimistic about the Grey Worm/Missandei storyline. The entire across-the-Narrow-Seas arc involves a young woman and her ever-expanding army conquering swathes of foreign lands. Astapor, Meereen, and Yunkai have been striking, visually, but there’s been little attempt to flesh out these cultures beyond the fact that they each treat a certain category of people like chattel. (It’s all Daenerys ever wants to talk about, anyway.) We’ve spent no significant time with the individuals she’s liberated, except perhaps the goatherd who lost his flock to her dragons — but even he barely spoke, and anyway he was really only there as a prop for Daenerys’s drama, i.e., her evolving understanding of what it means to truly rule a place.

But we do have Missandei, and we do have Grey Worm. And yes, it’s a little awkward to have the two main black characters on the show hook up with one another, and yes, I felt a little queasy about Grey Worm’s suggestion that being cut by the slavers of Astapor was all part of the romantic journey that brought him to her. But I heartily welcome a little Upstairs, Downstairs-style B-plot here, as a reminder that there are actual people in those teeming masses who are always yelling “Mhysa, Mhysa, Mhysa!” at Daenerys. (And remember, Daario sussed out Grey Worm’s feelings back in the first episode of the season.) In their language lesson, and now, Grey Worm and Missandei speak to each other of the past; where they’re from, what they’ve seen, whether they would go back. Their histories stretch back much further than the moment Mhysa arrived on the scene. Grey Worm may never want to return to the Summer Isles, but when he stands in front of this woman and calls her Missandei, from the Island of Naath, he names her as a person with a past — that is, as a person. Seems as good a reason as any to root for a couple.

A few stray observations:

* I love how Dany and Missandei are straight-up braiding each other’s hair while they talk about Grey Worm’s “pillar and stones.”

* Game of Thrones does such great walking-and-talking scenes, and the grand spiral staircase at the Eyrie is an amazing new set piece for staging them. It’s like something out of a horror movie, with its dim lighting and the wallpaper-like patterns behind; every time I see characters make the slow, winding descent, my neck prickles at the thought of the Moon Door at its center, and the plummeting falls that have been made out of it.

* I was not thrilled to see yet another massacre of innocents, but that moment in Mole’s Town where Ygritte comes upon Gilly hiding in a cupboard with Little Sam and, then, after a tense second, puts her fingers to her lips and then retreats — so all you can hear is the sound of blood trickling from the ceiling — made for an indelible image.

* Is it just me, or do you find it hard to believe that a psychopath like Ramsay Bolton, nee Snow, would care so much about making his dad proud? I get that this is the signal preoccupation of most of the young men of Game of Thrones, but don’t you feel like Ramsay would rather, I don’t know, eat his dad than take his last name?

See you here next week, for what looks to be a big showdown between the Wildlings and the Crows. I’ll just be here belching “The Bear and the Maiden Fair” until you get back.

Photo: Neil Davidson/courtesy of HBO