Plot is Game of Thrones’ greatest asset and its heaviest burden. There’s so much pleasure to be derived from watching skillful storytellers manipulate a complicated set of characters and situations — not to mention our expectations — and when the GOT writers are on the ball here, the show really shines. But plot can also be where GOT falls down, just because there’s so much of it to move. How do you properly set expectations so that plotlines make sense, while also having those outcomes feel surprising, earned, and satisfying?
This season has featured a lot more foreshadowing, it seems, than previous ones, and as I watched “The Gift” I wondered if that was part of what made last night’s episode feel a little inert. Several plotlines built to points we’ve seen coming for a while now, only to rest on those turning points without delivering much else.
In the Stannis story line, for example, we finally get the reveal, teased since at least last season, that Melisandre has her eyes on Shireen — or, to be more precise, Shireen’s royal blood. Thanks to the big Stannis-Shireen scene a few episodes ago, it’s not surprising that he would reject whatever the Red Woman’s plotting: Stannis’s love for his daughter may be the only thing that rivals his thirst for the Iron Throne. But the scene happened so fast, it almost felt like a throwaway. I imagine there’ll be dramatic tension ahead, as that’s surely not the last we’ll hear of Melisandre’s plan, but an expectation of dramatic tension is not quite the same thing as getting to enjoy it.
Meanwhile, Tyrion finally meets Daenerys, a big event we’ve been waiting for all season. But to get to the big meeting, we had to go through a random two-episode detour through a slave market, which ultimately didn’t accomplish all that much except to show that, despite Daenerys’s high-minded insistence that only free men be allowed into the pits, the market has other plans. (I thought here of Littlefinger’s proud statement to Olenna, upon viewing the wreckage of his brothel, that his establishment had invented desires the people of Westeros didn’t even know they had — the system created the demand and the supply, all at once.)
It was good to see Tyrion demonstrate some of his old, tough spirit: When a Meereenese master pays top dollar for Jorah, fast-thinking Tyrion demonstrates his worth by yanking on his chains and bringing down the young slaver who’s holding him, upon which he proceeds to beat the man up for the audience’s benefit. The two are taken to a fighting pit for a sort of rehearsal for the Great Games, where the winners will battle in front of the queen (and where, incidentally, Daario Nahaeris suggests Dany consider slaughtering all the masters). But — surprise — Hizdahr has brought his soon-to-be lady wife to do the traditional round of the lower pits. When Jorah hears that his beloved queen is in the audience, he rushes out to clear the field of competitors, clearly hoping that when he pulls off his helmet in triumph, Dany will be so pleased with his prowess, or so happy with his return, that she revokes his exile and takes him back to her bosom. But it was a thin hope to begin with; Daenerys hardens at the sight of him and demands he be taken away. It’s only the presentation of his “gift,” Tyrion Lannister, that wins him a bit of time.
The Mother of Dragons needs someone sly and brilliant on her council, not only on a character level — it’s time for Daenerys to have someone like an equal to play off of — but also to help kick this story into a new register. At this point, watching Dany struggle with rule feels more like a poli-sci illustration rather than a compelling story. But that’s a payoff that’s still at least an episode away.
Over in Tyrion’s old home, another plotline reaches a turn we’ve been expecting for a while now: the comeuppance of Cersei Lannister.
Olenna tries to strong-arm the High Sparrow into releasing her grandchildren, threatening to bring about the social “equality” he so desires by withholding Tyrell supplies and starving out the rich and poor alike. But the old zealot calmly tells her that a lifetime of wealth and power has made her blind to the might of “the many.” The Queen of Thorns finds a more willing collaborator in Littlefinger, a man whose fate is tied to hers, she reminds him, thanks to that little business of having murdering Joffrey together. Littlefinger offers her the same “gift” he gave to Cersei: a handsome young man, plus some information. The pretty present is Lancel, who of course has all kinds of choice, incest-heavy dirt on the Queen Mother. (Though, come to think of it, did we need Olenna and Littlefinger to get here? Not that I’d ever begrudge the world more Diana Rigg, but the High Sparrow tells Cersei that Lancel confessed his sins — so didn’t he already have the ammo to clean up the royal house?)
Anyhow, it seemed so wildly obvious that this would eventually happen once Cersei set the Faith Militant into motion, especially given the way the writers have made it clear that the “secret” of Tommen’s parentage is an open one in King’s Landing. Cersei’s own canary glee at having bested Margaery (that shot of the young queen in her cell, dirty legs splayed out in front of her, was one of the most arresting of the episode) also helped dig her grave, cosmically speaking. Judging by the reactions I saw on Twitter, plenty of people found Cersei getting thrown in jail plenty satisfying, but for my money the obviousness of the outcome made it feel unearned — and even more so because of the way Cersei has been drawn this season, which is to say, somewhat cartoonishly. In the past, Cersei has risen above simple villain status because her motivations seemed so grounded in understandable human emotions. Yes, she wanted power, but I also believed that she wanted love, acceptance, and to protect her children. (Remember that amazing scene during the Battle of Blackwater, when she sat in the throne room with Tommen and a vial of nightshade, ready to kill him painlessly rather than let him be captured by Stannis?) But this season, she seems motivated by … well, I’m not sure what, exactly. Last night she told Tommen that his happiness was all she wanted, that she would “burn cities to the ground” for him. But she’s been hurting him and putting him in harm’s way all season, out of what feels like an obscure but burning need to destroy Margaery. Simple jealousy (or even a prophecy) don’t feel like enough of a foundation for this historically layered, complex character. I think in another season, I might have felt more about Cersei’s capture, one way or the other, but this left me a little cold. Those septas sure are scary, though!
Cersei’s long shadow is felt over in Dorne, where Myrcella, wearing the pinkest gown imaginable, is telling her “uncle” Jaime that she doesn’t want to go back — Dorne has been her home for years now, ever since “she” made Myrcella come there. The notion of a Lannister who might somehow choose to exist outside the great war is an intriguing one, though one we don’t spend much time with, since the real star of the Dornish scenes is clearly Jerome Flynn’s Bronn and his pop-band pipes. It seems to be winning him a fan in Tyene, at least, who begins to showily disrobe for the old flirt after he teases her that Dornish women are the most beautiful in the world — but no, he wasn’t talking about her. (Judging by the way her older sisters roll their eyes, this seems not out of character for Tyene.) It’s the beginning of a pretty sexy, if incomprehensible, couple of beats. Bronn gets all swimmy-eyed, and not from lust: Tyene confesses that the dagger she grazed him with was tipped with a long-acting poison. Luckily, she remembered to pack the antidote before she got thrown in jail, and she tosses it across the way — but not before she gets him to admit that she’s the most beautiful woman in the world. So, that happened.
Last week, the conversation around Game of Thrones was all about Sansa, and the controversial closing scene in which she was raped by Ramsay on their wedding night. What do we make of her story line this week? Sansa hasn’t lost all of her momentum, as I’d feared. Though she’s locked in her room, bruised in her long, lovely gown, she has maintained enough of her hard-earned presence to be forceful with Theon: She doesn’t just beg for his help — she charges him as Theon Greyjoy, son of Balon Greyjoy. It’s an act we’ve seen over and over again in this season of Game of Thrones, this formal declaration of someone’s name as a way of imbuing them with power and meaning. For Sansa, it’s a way of transferring some of her grit, her backbone, to the broken man. Later, when Ramsay walks with her on the battlements — the snow, in this episode, was gorgeous — she has enough fight in her to needle him about what Roose’s impending baby means for his inheritance. But still, her plot makes a circle and she winds up even worse than when she started: Theon (who can’t shed his Reek-ness, despite her attempts to name him to the contrary) sells her out to Ramsay, who reveals that he’s had the old Northern woman who was helping her flayed and strung up. Ramsay’s insistent claiming of a shared Northern identity, an identity that has been Sansa’s bulwark these past several episodes, only rubs salt in the wound — “we” breed them tough in the North, he tells Sansa, when he speaks of how long the old woman held out under torture.
I suppose it’s true enough to say that Sansa’s rape is of a piece with the rest of Ramsay’s treatment, and, as I’ve seen several people argue, it wasn’t exactly unexpected behavior from him. But as I watched last night’s episode, I thought: Was last week’s scene necessary? Forget necessary — was it the most interesting, or the most effective way to get us to where we are now? Or was it simply the easiest way to make that ending feel like a crescendo, which is a narrative formula Game of Thrones adores?
The discussion around rape-as-narrative-device gained more fodder in the final major story line of the evening. The Castle Black scenes began with the death of Maester Aemon, who’s been slipping in and out of memories of his baby brother, “Egg,” better known to the rest of the world as Aegon V, father of the Mad King and grandfather to Daenerys. Gilly and Sam are caring for him in his last moments; Aemon urges “Gillyflower” to take the boy south, before it’s “too late.” Soon, Sam is speaking at Aemon’s funeral, bracketed by shots of the funeral pyre, which, with its rectangle of black and the white spots of flesh, was the most starkly beautiful image in an episode full of strong black-and-white compositions.
It’s an important emotional beat for Sam, who’s now the token “learned man” of Castle Black and also, as everyone seems eager to remind him, severely lacking in (male) friends, as Jon Snow has taken off with Tormund and the rest of the wildlings. But the climax of his scenes comes when Gilly is harassed by two loutish Brothers, who are hungry for a woman. She fights back, and then Sam arrives and yells at them to take their hands off her, as a hero does. Sam delivers the most classically badass lines he’s ever had — “I killed a White Walker. I killed a Thenn. I’ll take my chances with you.” — but gets his head cracked, loudly and repeatedly, for his troubles. He gets up woozily to face them again, then gets saved by a deus ex direwolf: Ghost arrives to scare the men off.
What follows is a scene that feels almost churlish to examine too closely, since it’s two of the show’s sweetest characters finally consummating their sweet, almost-romance. But still, it’s true that Gilly’s body is the currency and the reward in this arc; protecting it is what makes Sam “a man,” as he puts it. Just as a thought experiment, you could imagine this plot framed differently, given all the same elements: Gilly could have realized that Aemon’s death has made her beloved emotionally vulnerable, and she could have come to him as a way of saying that they were in this together, that they were a team. Instead of being the token of his transformation, she might have participated in it. Maybe it’s unfair to express a little wish that sensitive Sam might have established his masculinity in a somewhat less clichéd way, or that Gilly — who grew up, after all, under the thumb of a sexual tyrant — could have had a bit more Ygritte in her. But hey — that’s why they call it a fantasy.