A review of tonight's “Game of Thrones” coming up just as soon as I'm not interesting enough to be offensive…
“So why go on?” -Arya
Early in “Mockingbird,” Arya and the Hound come across a dying man sitting outside a ruined house, another victim of the marauding bandits (or, in many cases, soldiers acting like bandits while enjoying the protection of a Lannister flag) who have roamed the countryside since the war ended. It's a small scene, as much about the decency (here, putting the wounded man out of his misery, with a solemn nod passing between them as he does it) that the Hound is capable of when the moment strikes him as it is about Arya continuing her journey towards becoming a remorseless killer, as she puts Needle through the heart of one of Yoren's nastier ex-prisoners. But the discussion the two travelers have with the dying man is one of the most interesting – and most self-aware – exchanges of the season.
With Robb murdered, the war over, and most of the other heroic characters either imprisoned, incapacitated, or too far away from their objectives to matter right now, it's a bleak time for Westeros, and for the series. The Red Wedding, at least for the time being, snuffed out whatever sense of hope there was in the show, and now everyone's simply trying to survive their present dire circumstances – or, in the case of the Lannisters, trying to hold onto their power by any nasty means necessary. Even Joffrey's murder isn't something much worth celebrating, because Tywin is still running the joint, and because Tyrion is in such jeopardy as a result of it. It's a world full of cruelty, where rape and torture and murder are accepted facts of life – Bronn all but jokes about his plans to murder his future sister-in-law for her fortune, and the episode ends with Littlefinger doing it for real with Lysa – where there are plenty of monsters, and even more men who act like monsters.
It's a show that seems to be constantly asking the question Arya poses to the dying man – for both the characters and for the audience: Why go on living in a world of such unending misery, and why keep watching a show that is so relentlessly bleak? It's a double-edged question the show has in common with “The Walking Dead,” which all but dares its characters to keep living, and its audience to keep watching. Here, the reasons for both groups to keep on going are clearer. For many of the people of Westeros, things may be mostly hopeless, but there's still a chance to accomplish something on a smaller level, whether that's Brienne fulfilling her oath to Lady Catelyn, Arya crossing names off her list, or Tyrion and Jaime laughing grimly at the thought of Tywin seeing the family line end with them in one stroke.
And for us, we go on because, bleak or not, this is an amazing television show (“The Walking Dead” on its best day is not in its class) – and one that, with few exceptions (scenes involving Ramsay Snow, for instance), doesn't wallow in the misery being suffered by its characters – as demonstrated by an excellent episode like “Mockingbird.”
In some ways, the accomplishments of “Mockingbird” are more impressive than some of this season's earlier highlights. It's not a format-buster like “The Lion and the Rose,” nor does it feature a thundering piece of oratory like Tyrion delivered in court last week, nor does it feature the death of anyone of real substance. (Politically, Lysa Arryn is important, but in terms of time and energy the show has invested in her, and the emotion it's therefore asked us to invest in turn, she probably ranks somewhere slightly above Hot Pie.) Instead, it's simply an episode that bounces around two continents, offering strong scenes in each place – sometimes even finding new depth and shading in previously iffy characters like Melisandre and Stannis' wife – and linking many of them together not by plot (because precious little connects what the various groups are doing this week), but by character, and by the sense of shared historical and familial burden they share.
After the Hound is wounded by one of the men looking to collect the bounty on him, Arya offers to use heat to cauterize the wound. Just the sight of the flaming stick approaching him is too much for the mighty Sandor Clegane to handle, but it does lead him to drop his guard and give Arya his account of the childhood incident that left him scarred and so afraid of fire. We've heard a version of this tale before from Littlefinger, but it's so much rawer coming from the victim, and Rory McCann's performance makes clear that he's less angry at his brother than he is the father who protected Gregor and lied to everyone about what happened.
Last week, I joked about Theon, Varys and Grey Worm getting together for a support group to discuss their specific mutilation. But the cast as a whole has a lot of wounds and scars in common, both physical and emotional. Here, we get to experience a lot of talk about being the less-favored child, and how that can lead to a lifetime of many different forms of pain. The Hound will always display the mark of the Mountain(*), and the memory of where this said he stood within House Clegane. Lysa Arryn was consumed with jealousy for her older sister until it apparently drove her mad, and Tyrion has gone his whole life painfully aware of how much his father and sister wish he had never been conceived.
(*) Played by a different actor (Icelandic strongman Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson) from the one who played him in season 2, who was in turn different from season 1. Ser Gregor is rapidly turning into the gigantic, aggressively homicidal new version of Bobby Draper.
Tyrion's pain bubbles up to the surface in the third, and best, of three tremendous scenes featuring him hosting visitors in his dark jail cell. The Jaime encounter serves as a reminder of how there is one member of the family who does not resent or despise him, even if Jaime isn't physically up to the task of fighting the Mountain. Bronn's visit is simply a delight: two longtime allies who enjoy each other's company, but who have never had illusions about the nature of their relationship, being absolutely candid about how they have come to this point, which only makes Bronn's sadness at the thought of Tyrion dying seem more genuine and poignant. He made his choice, got his castle and his eager wife, and he's not foolish enough to risk all of that to commit suicide against the Mountain, but he does like Tyrion, and Tyrion can appreciate that even as his despair grows.
But Oberyn and Tyrion? That was an incredible 10-course meal of a scene, whether or not you knew Oberyn's reason for the visit going in. (For more on that, see the spoiler warning at the end of the review.) Since he was introduced at the start of this season, Oberyn has been a bit of an enigma to both us and the Lannisters, but his hatred of Tywin's family and desire to avenge his sister's murder has been apparent even as he's been presenting himself as a laid-back hedonist. The conversation here starts off light, with Oberyn talking about the duplicity of Cersei and their shared enthusiasm for dead Lannisters. But then it takes an unexpected turn with the story of a young Oberyn being brought to meet baby Tyrion – or, as he was referred to throughout the land, “the monster who had been born to Tywin.” As great as Peter Dinklage was a week ago with Tyrion's courtroom explosion, he may have matched that with the way he played Tyrion's barely restrained anger and humiliation – at both Cersei and Tywin for making him feel that way once upon a time, and at this relative stranger for bringing those feelings back so vividly – as he listens to the story. (Though even there, he doesn't lose his wit entirely, responding to the rumors that he was born with both male and female genitalia by quipping, “That would have made things so much easier.”) And why is Oberyn telling him this story? Why is he making Tyrion suffer this memory? Because he wants Tyrion to feel more rage towards the sister who has wanted him dead since birth, but also, I think, because he wants to draw such a clear contrast between that awful sibling relationship and the love he felt for the sister who was massacred by the Mountain. If he succeeds as Tyrion's champion, then they both get enormous satisfaction in their feelings towards their respective sisters, as well as getting to live to have much more sex along the way.
It's such a great scene that the action at the Eyrie that follows can't help but feel a bit anti-climactic, even if it ends with Lysa being shoved out of Chekhov's Moon Door, while putting Littlefinger one step closer to completing whatever his master plan is. Still, I understand the desire to not end consecutive episodes on the same set of characters (which the show rarely does), and it's not like Sansa's difficulties with her extended family aren't themselves fraught with emotion. For a few moments, she seems to have made peace with the idea that creepy little Robin will be her future husband, but then she makes the mistake of scolding a boy who has clearly never been scolded in his life. And worse, she reminds her future father-in-law of the one great love of his life, which leads to an ugly kiss, then to Lysa threatening to push her to her death. Here's an instance, though, where childhood wounds turn out to be fatal decades later, as Lysa is too consumed with jealousy of her sister, and blinded by satisfaction at landing a man Catelyn rejected, to recognize that Littlefinger views her as one of many means to an end – and that, having gotten all he needs from her, he can safely give her the death she had just been threatening Sansa with. Bye-bye, crazy lady. I fear for where your son will get his milk supply now.
The show is taking Memorial Day weekend off. Between the various characters heading to the Vale, Oberyn's upcoming duel with the Mountain and all the hints of impending disaster at Castle Black, things are set up very nicely for the concluding episodes in June.
Some other thoughts:
* This season's more haphazard approach to the opening credits map continues, as we get Braavos again even though no scenes take place there (ditto Dreadfort), while there's an honest-to-goodness scene at Dragonstone and it's not on the map. (And I've given up on the Eyrie reappearing in the credits for now.) The next time I have the opportunity to interview Benioff and Weiss, even via email, my priority may be to get to the bottom of their philosophy on this.
* Speaking of which, as I watched the charred ruins of Winterfell rise up from the map for the umpteenth time this week, I began wondering if or when the narrative might ever return there, since for now it only continues as a symbol of where this all began. I was then amused when Sansa began wondering the same thing, all while building a snowy replica of the castle that I could instantly recognize because of the credits.
* I thought Hodor was the only minor character whose every appearance makes me irrationally happy. But the return of Hot Pie was a similarly joyous experience, and his decision to trust Brienne with news of Arya's continued existence provided an amusing opportunity for Brienne to be rightfully smug to Podrick.
* Once again, the Mother of Dragons, Breaker of Chains, Enjoyer of Bacon, etc. demonstrates that while she has strong convictions, she doesn't really think her plans through, and is very easily swayed by the words of the people around her – here allowing Daario to lead the Second Sons to re-conquer Yunkai (after first enjoying the thing he does best), then letting Jorah convince her to spare the lives of all the Masters, only hours after she had decided to have them all executed. On the plus side, she at least seems to understand how to motivate her own people, as she puts an extra spring in Jorah's step by inviting him to tell Daario about changing the Khaleesi's mind.
* Though Daario is briefly shown naked from behind, Melisandre gets the full sexposition treatment in the next scene, as she rises from the bath to explain to Stannis' wife Selyse how some of her “magic” is simply a hustle to bring new believers before the Lord of Light – even though we know from past experience that the power she and Thoros of Myr generate from appealing to the Lord can be very, very real. Between that confession and her making a few small jokes, it's the most human the Red Priestess has seemed in her entire run on the show. For that matter, Selyse having to repeat the mantra about it not being a sin for her husband to sleep with this beautiful naked woman was the most human she has seemed so far. Stannis has had his moments as well, but not lately.
* The show generally does a good job of making the more villainous characters interesting in some way to compensate for how badly they treat the heroes. In the case of Ser Alliser, the acting commander at Castle Black, they haven't managed to make him seem like anything other than a jealous idiot to drive the plot and make Jon Snow look smarter and more noble in comparison. I recognize that most of the members of the Night's Watch aren't the best of the best – Jorah's father was unusually noble and wise, and there only out of a sense of obligation to make up for his son's crimes – but Alliser is such a willful ignoramus that it brings down those scenes.
And as you know, the comments are back, albeit in moderated form. So you submit your comments, and someone else from Team HitFix will be periodically going through, approving the ones that don't give away things from the books, and punting the ones that do. It'll slow down the flow of discussion from what we had previously – particularly this week, since our moderating team is literally scattered around the world in different time zones – but it'll also prevent people from obnoxiously trying to spoil things.
As a reminder, we are here to discuss “Game of Thrones” AS A TV SHOW, NOT AS AN ENDLESS SERIES OF COMPARISONS TO THE BOOKS. Therefore, here's the only rule you should remember: if your comment contains the phrase “the books” without it being immediately preceded by “I haven't read” – whether it's revealing upcoming plot, a motivation that hasn't been entirely clarified in the show yet but was explained in detail by George R.R. Martin, discussing the differences between a scene in the books versus on the show, etc. – then you should probably delete what you've written and start over. Anything even vaguely questionable will not be approved.
Also, along similar lines, let me remind you of the other anti-spoiler rules for the blog: even if you haven't read the books, things that have yet to air are off-limits, whether that's previews for the next episode, interviews that actors or producers give, or even episode titles. (Several commenters last week violated one of these to figure out that the Mountain and Oberyn would be fighting for Tyrion's life.)
But with all that in mind, what did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org