A review of tonight's “Game of Thrones” coming up just as soon as I forget to skin the rabbit before I cook it…
“Know your strengths and use them wisely, and one man can be worth 10,000.” -Littlefinger
“First of His Name” opens with a completed task, as Tommen is coronated as the new king of Westeros, and closes with another one, as Jon Snow and friends kill all the turncoats and burn Craster's keep to the ground. But it's an episode that brings us to season 4's midpoint, and as such it mainly features characters recognizing that their jobs are far from over, and that they – many of them misfits, rejects, or otherwise overlooked figures who now play an enormous role in the future of this story and the world in which it takes place – need to figure out what particular strengths are and how they can apply it to the task at hand.
Arya, for instance, still has her list of people she intends to kill, and takes pleasure in practicing some of the moves Syrio taught her by the river. But the Hound laughs at her dancing moves, and offers a swift and brutal reminder that she's not nearly as talented as she thinks, or at least as she can afford to be as a very small person with a very small sword. (If she was the one carrying a Valyrian steel sword – and if she could lift it well enough to use as a weapon – perhaps she could have crossed him off her list already.)
Dany's moment of triumph at Meereen is short-lived, as she gets word that the other liberated cities of Slaver's Bay have already fallen back into the hands of the Masters and other despots without Dany, her army and her dragons there to protect the freed slaves. With a large army and a fleet of ships big enough to transport them to King's Landing, it would be very easy for her to abandon the people of Essos and get down to business – and it could very easily come across as a cheat that Dany delays her inevitable return to Westeros until the rest of the narrative is ready for her to do so – but we know that she's sincere about wanting to free these people and keep them free. Her travels across this continent may have started as a means to an end (which at the time was her really brother's game), but it became something else when she got to know the slaves and slavers of Astapor. There have been times over the last season-plus where her Breaker of Chains routine has felt self-aggrandizing, but ultimately, Dany's generosity towards people who can provide minimal to no help to her long-term goals sets her apart from many of the show's other leaders, inspires men like Jorah and Barristan to fight alongside her, and could make her an excellent alternative for leaders in Westeros looking to jump ship from the Lannister clan, whenever it is that she can finally take her navy across the Narrow Sea.
Speaking of the Lannisters, we get our first signs of vulnerability from Tywin in quite some time, as he admits to Cersei how deeply the family has fallen in debt to the Iron Bank. And Cersei is able to put aside her deep and abiding loathing for Margaery long enough to recognize that sweet young Tommen's going to need at least two strong women in his corner for a while. Her trip to visit Oberyn Martell, meanwhile, is a reminder of the daughter Tyrion sent away when he was Hand, but also seems an easy way for her to attempt to bond with and influence one of the three men who will be judging her brother's trial. When her power was more absolute, Cersei didn't have to resort to these kinds of ploys, but times change, and she's been able to change and plot with them.
And interestingly enough, we discover that one of the very first crimes we suspected Cersei and her brother of had nothing to do with them, as Littlefinger and Sansa finally make it to the Eyrie for a predictably icky reunion with Lysa Arryn and Robin, who still remains joined at the breast to his dear old mum. Though she's capable of brief bursts of warmth and apparent rationality, Lysa is crazy and paranoid as ever, convinced that Littlefinger has deflowered Sansa and making sure to have a priest standing by to marry them at the moment of his arrival. And in their conversation, we learn that it wasn't the Lannister sibling-lovers who poisoned Jon Arryn – setting the entire plot of the series in motion – but Littlefinger. Did he do it to destabilize the kingdom, as Varys has always believed he wants to do? Did he do it as part of a Rube Goldberg-ian plan to separate Lady Catelyn from her brave but stupid husband in an attempt to marry her? Or had he simply accepted that Cat would never be his, but that he could at least settle for her nutty sister and her impenetrable fortress of a home? Whatever his motivation, the revelation makes me want to revisit a lot of the interactions Ned had with Jaime, Cersei and Littlefinger in the first season, and I'm impressed the show held this card so close to the vest for so long. Regardless, Littlefinger retains a gift for manipulating people of all stations, but we'll see if he can continue to outthink the cupful of crazy he just married.
Brienne and Podrick don't do much this week beyond heading north, but it provides our lady knight an opportunity to take the measure of her squire. And though Pod is lacking in many of the skills that would come in handy from a lengthy outdoor adventure like this, he at least impresses her with his very reserved, self-deprecating account of his heroics during the Battle of Blackwater. With Tyrion still locked up, Podrick needs a boss who can appreciate him, and it was good to see a thawing of that relationship as she finally let him help her remove her fancy new armor.
Finally, two of Ned Stark's three remaining sons converge at Craster's keep – though only one is aware of it (and Bran's anguish at the turning away from what may be his last chance to ever see his brother was well played by Isaac Hempstead Wright) – as they each get to demonstrate their unique skills. Though Karl mocks the fighting skills Jon Snow learned from Ned (in much the same way the Hound earlier mocked Syrio's teaching of Arya), Jon is still very good at what he does, and with a bit of help from one of Craster's daughters, he's able to win the day and ram a sword right through the rapist turncoat's mouth. Even more satisfying – and not just because I requested almost exactly that scenario in last week's review – was Bran using his warg powers to possess Hodor, turning the gentle giant into a violent one, capable of breaking his chains and snapping Locke's neck with his bare hands. On some level, I should probably feel uncomfortable with how often this show makes me cheer for the brutal deaths of characters. On the other hand, Locke was a nasty piece of work (remember, he chopped off Jaime's hand, tried to rape Brienne and later threw her in the bear pit), and I wanted no part of seeing Bran fall into the clutches of any member of the Bolton family, so I was absolutely cheering on his Hodor-by-proxy murder.
The halfway point of any “Thrones” season is a tricky place to be, because there are so many stories being juggled, many of which may barely advance at all over the course of the whole season, some of which may shift enormously or (if a character dies) conclude altogether. But it was a very strong first half, not only with the big event of Joffrey's murder, but simply with the balance of characters, which has given us an awful lot of Brienne, Arya and Tywin, and the bare minimum of Stannis, Ramsay Snow and some of the other weak spots. (I could use more Varys, but you can't have everything in a show this crowded.) Very eager to see what comes next.
Some other thoughts:
* It appears the show is going to stick with the same main title sequence for most or all of this season, since we're still stopping by Dragonstone and Dreadfort even when no scenes take place there (and I'm in no hurry to revisit either locale or the people who live there), and since they didn't dust off the Eyrie animation for Sansa and Littlefinger's arrival in the Vale.
* It makes sense that Brienne would, like Locke, think to look for a missing Stark child by visiting Jon Snow at Castle Black, but it would make me sad if she now doesn't cross paths with the Hound and Arya.
* This is Michelle MacLaren's second episode in a row, and I believe her last directorial stint with the show this season, and she again does wonderful things throughout, particularly the long action climax up at Craster's keep. Action at night, and chaotic action of this sort, is hard to shoot coherently, but the parts we were meant to follow – like Jon's duel with Karl, or Jon's direwolf leaping into frame and devouring the fleeing turncoat in one mighty gulp – played out very well. I'm hopeful the show keeps her in the rotation for the next two seasons – assuming, of course, some film producer doesn't get wise and snap her up to shoot a summer tentpole movie soon.
Finally, the moderated commenting system is going to take another week, at least, but it's coming soon.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com