A review of tonight's “Game of Thrones” coming up just as soon as I get lost on the way back from my embroidery lesson…
“You just do what needs to be done.” -Olenna
There's always a certain level of role play going on in “Game of Thrones,” as various characters try to fake it until they make it – whether that's to safer territory or greater power. Dany had to act the mighty Khaleesi long before she had the power she does now, Arya keeps trying to convince people that she's a hardened killer (and, at times, that she's a boy), Tyrion had to spend a while pretending like he belonged as the King's Hand, etc.
But we get an especially strong dose of the idea in “Oath-Keeper,” in which an abundance of characters choose to pose in new guises, or have these identities thrust upon them.
Early in the episode, Grey Worm and a company of the Unsullied put on slave garb to sneak into Meereen and incite a slave uprising. (Turns out the barrels full of the broken collars of the murdered children was only part one of Dany's propaganda offensive.) Roose Bolton's right-hand man Locke makes it all the way up to Castle Black, posing as a new recruit for the Night's Watch in the hopes that Jon Snow will lead him to Bran and Rickon. After learning that her sweet but calculating grandmother was secretly behind the assassination of Joffrey, Margaery once again has to try on a new persona to bond with her future king husband.
And then there's Jaime Lannister, who after last week's unpleasantness has to go back to pretending to be the same guilt-stricken, lovable rogue he was for all of last season.
Though the show doesn't necessarily want you to think he's pretending.
It's a complicated thing that happened last week between Jaime and Cersei, not just because different people associated with the show (whether Alex Graves, David Benioff or George R.R. Martin) had such different takes on what exactly that scene was meant to convey, but because the audience had such an overwhelming consensus on it: that Jaime raped Cersei, no ifs ands or buts. In many cases, the notion of authorial intent clashing with audience interpretation isn't some impossible puzzle. If you have a different take on what Rosebud represented to Charles Foster Kane than what Orson Welles had in his head, that's fine. In this case, though, we have an ongoing story featuring characters who continue, and we have them continuing on from a point about which there is some disagreement between the audience and at least part of the creative team over what exactly happened next to Joffrey's corpse.
And in an episode where Jaime is very prominent in many scenes, he comes across as exactly the guy he was before that scene last week: charming, conflicted, caring more deeply for Brienne and Tyrion than you would expect a man in his position to, and wanting to accomplish something good on the matter of Sansa Stark and the oath he made to Lady Catelyn. And when he shares a scene again with Cersei, she is visibly angry with him, but it does not seem to be over a rape, but over the death of their child and Jaime apparently siding with the brother she believes to be Joffrey's killer.
Now, it could well be that her anger is meant to be about both – that Cersei is venting to Jaime about the one because she can't bring herself to speak of the other. She acts like a woman who has written Jaime off forever, and it could be for the thing that she doesn't want to dignify by discussing in his presence, even as she knows that they're forced to interact by circumstance and station. There is some ambiguity there, and potential for this to be dealt with more directly down the road, if Benioff and Weiss so choose.
But all the other scenes featuring Jaime this week – another dueling lesson with Bronn, a visit with Tyrion, Jaime giving the Valyrian steel sword to Brienne and assigning her the task of finding and protecting Sansa, Jaime and Brienne saying what sounds like a permanent goodbye as she and Podrick ride off on their quest – played exactly as they would if no one expected the audience to now look at Jaime as someone whose uphill climb in morality took a steep plummet the week before. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is again so wonderful with Gwendoline Christie, with Peter Dinklage, and with Jerome Flynn, that I just wanted to soak up the chemistry of those different pairings, to appreciate the tough situation Jaime is in with his family and his loyalties, to appreciate the sense of loss he and Brienne feel as he sends her after Sansa. Instead, this other matter was on my mind in each of those scenes, in a way that they didn't seem to be asking for.
This is, perhaps, the point where I should note that so many fans came to like Jaime even after he had pushed a child out a window, murdered his own cousin to escape captivity, broke his oath to protect two different kings, slept with his sister, etc. On “Game of Thrones,” morality and likability are very mutable things. The difference being that he was relatively far removed from those acts in season 3, had suffered punishment (including Locke chopping off his hand), was clearly regretful of many of his actions, began trying to redeem himself through his protection of Brienne, etc., etc. This is Jaime returning to awesomeness in the very next episode after he did what the audience views as a horrible, horrible thing.
Television shows are living organisms. They change and evolve based on what's working and what isn't, based on what actors are available, what locations are usable, and based on how the audience is reacting to things. But there are also times where a substantial chunk of the work – like this season – is done before the creators have any chance to react to the reaction, and so there may be six more episodes of them writing one version of Jaime while the audience has another version of him in their heads. (Or the season could end with Cersei poisoning her brother and telling him, “And that's for what you did to me right after our son died!”)
We'll have to wait and see how this plays out, and whether the divergence becomes great enough that that whole section of the show is badly impacted.
As for “Oath-Keeper,” it closes with some more rape, as we see that Karl and the other turncoats have been forcing themselves on Craster's many daughters, making the place somehow even more unpleasant than when the old monster was running the place. Bran is able to protect Meera and Jojen temporarily by revealing his identity – which should lead to a lot of tension whenever Jon Snow's team of rangers arrives to deal with their oath-breaking comrades. And then we get a chance to see what the White Walkers are actually doing with the many male babies that Craster has sacrificed to them. The pale rider carries the poor kid to the center of a kind of icy version of Stonehenge, places him on an altar, and it appears the baby is himself being turned into a Walker. Perhaps this is how they create more of themselves, just as Craster kept creating more lovers by fathering them.
We haven't seen an awful lot of the Walkers over the run of the show, despite the obvious threat they pose. (The most likable/compelling moment Stannis has ever had on the show was when he briefly seemed to recognize that everyone in Westeros needed to stop playing games and deal with the danger coming from the North; now he's gone back to burning people and moping about how his birthright has been stolen.) But the show keeps returning to them for a reason, and it's obvious that they are something very different and mysterious compared to either Dany's army or Mance Rayder's. They have powers, and also motives we don't understand, and they're capable of turning the dead back into living weapons, and turning an innocent baby into something far scarier and more tragic.
Nearly everyone on this show has evolved over three-plus seasons, sometimes for good, sometimes just temporarily adopting a new identity before reverting to the old one. The White Walkers, though, are old and inscrutable and only seem interested in changing – if not destroying – everyone in their path, while they remain the same as they always have.
Some other thoughts:
* Always a pleasure to have the great Michelle MacLaren back behind the camera on this show – and for her to get to direct a couple of scenes between Jaime and Brienne, given that she got to conduct their amazing adventure with Bart the bear.
* I don't know if writer Bryan Cogman is particularly a fan of “Spartacus,” but this was an episode riddled with allusions to it, including a slave revolt, the line of crucified men (though in this case, they were the slave masters), and the later scene where it appears none of the rangers will stand up to side with Jon Snow, until one by one, a large number of them do.
* I'm not sure I have ever wanted anything from this show in its entire run as much as I want to be able to put a “Hodor unchained” headline next to an upcoming review, along with a photo of Kristian Nairn laying waste to Karl and the other turncoats. Hodor!
* It's never easy to get a sense of how quickly people can travel from one part of Westeros to another, and how scenes in one location are supposed to fit in, time-wise, with scenes at another. So when Locke was standing in the group of recruits watching Jon Snow's fighting lesson, at first I tried to convince myself that it was just another actor who looked an awful lot like Noah Taylor, because how could he have gotten from Dreadfort to the Wall so quickly? Time to start studying a map key, I suppose. (As I recall, it may have only taken Tyrion this much time to get from Westeros to the Wall in season one.)
* It appears I lent too much credence last week to Varys' belief that Littlefinger would just try to burn down the whole kingdom because he wanted to. As Sansa eventually gets him to admit, he arranged the assassination – using the necklace Ser Dontos gave her – at the whims of his new friends the Tyrells.
* Meanwhile, now Sansa and Arya are both allegedly headed to the Eyrie. If they should somehow both make it there, and have Brienne arrive at the same time – giving us a scene featuring Brienne, Arya and the Hound all together – that might be too exciting for many DVRs to adequately record.
* I also had a big smile on my face at seeing Podrick assigned to be Brienne's squire. The show has done a good job with him in not a lot of screen time over the years, and I imagine Brienne is going to learn to really appreciate his loyal service. Also, at some point the show is going to have to revisit the matter of his incredible way with the ladies, even if I don't know if his new traveling companion would be much interested in what he has to offer.
* Daario figured out a while back that Grey Worm had feelings for Missandei the translator, and here we see her giving him lessons in English (or, as I'm told it's called in Westeros, the Common Tongue). That Grey Worm refuses to ponder his life before being abducted into the Unsullied speaks to how well the Masters programmed him, but also to how painful it must be to consider a life where he was not what they made him into.
* It's always a pleasure watching Margaery go to work on her new intended. This seems a much easier challenge than trying to seduce a gay man or an asexual sadist, and she very cleverly doesn't overplay things here. Tommen's just a boy, and if she came on too sexy at the start – or even did something as relatively mild as kissing him on the lips – she could scare him away. She's taking this one nice and easy.
* Meanwhile, Olenna's story of how she seduced Margaery's grandfather into marrying her rather than her sister of course evokes images of the young, “Avengers”-era Diana Rigg. My guess is that Emma Peel's famous jumpsuits wouldn't be fashionable in Westeros, but she probably could have worn the Queen of Sin outfit back in the day. (Also? If someone wants to try rebooting that show – and not monstrously bungling it like the Uma Thurman/Ralph Fiennes movie – I imagine Natalie Dormer would make a fine Mrs. Peel.)
As you can see, I wound up writing this one before “Mad Men.” Don't know if that'll be the case next week, or any of the remaining weeks where the two overlap, but we'll see. And with any luck, moderated comments should be ready to implement either next week or the week after, and then we can get the discussion going again.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com