‘Game of Thrones’ – ‘The Old Gods and the New’: I’ll take the high road

A review of tonight’s “Game of Thrones” coming up just as soon as I make an investment based on wishes and dreams…

“You can’t tame a wild thing. You can’t trust a wild thing.” -Halfhand

Ned Stark is long gone from our narrative, but all of the children he raised – including the bastard Jon Snow and the former boy hostage Theon – are still very important to the narrative (okay, maybe not Rickon), and all are struggling to travel over new terrain this week, often making impulsive decisions based on belief and not brainpower.

And because most of the stories lean on the extended Stark family, and in some cases – particularly Jon Snow’s adventures up north – we spend much more time than usual in a particular area, “The Old Gods and the New” wound up feeling less choppy than some of this season’s previous hours. 

Theon and Jon Snow wind up the two most dominant figures, and it turns out that Ned’s two not-quite-sons both should have paid closer attention to his beheading technique. Theon succeeds in capturing Winterfell, then makes a mess of executing Ser Rodrik – an act that, even more than the siege itself, irrevocably casts his lot in with the family that bore him over the one that raised him. Theon may well be able to hold onto his new prize (especially if his sister’s forces can make it to Winterfell before Robb’s), but his heart’s not entirely in betraying the Starks, and he’s still too obsessed with rank and title and prestige. He may have paid the iron price to be called “prince” rather than “milord,” but that’s not what he should be concerning himself with, especially since Osha outwits him and escapes with Bran, Rickon and Hodor(!) in tow, removing any leverage Theon might have hoped for  when Robb’s forces inevitably show up.  People keep warning Theon that he hasn’t thought this through, and they appear to be right.

Theon at least succeeds at killing Rodrik, even if it takes him forever and a day to do so, where Jon Snow doesn’t have it in him to execute Ygritte. (And is in position to let her run away because the more seasoned Ranges for some silly reason decide to leave him alone to do it.) As with Theon, he proves tremendously vulnerable to the charms and tenacity of a wildling woman, and it seems only a matter of time before our man – who’s repeatedly described as “stupid, but brave” – either falls into bed with her or lets her get the better of him because he thought they were going to fall into bed together.

Arya’s smarter than either of her quasi-brothers, but she gets too clever for her own good when she steals an important communique of Tywin’s and is caught before she can find a way to send it to Robb. She survives thanks to a bit of luck (the soldier who catches her is too illiterate to read the message and arrest her on the spot) and thanks to the efficient wetwork of Jaqen, which leaves her with only one deadly wish remaining.

Even more tense than Arya’s near-arrest is an earlier scene where Littlefinger comes to visit Tywin while Arya is busy cleaning up the table. Director David Nutter is a suspense expert in general, so it’s no surprise that he does such an effective job of choreographing this little dance to show just how hard Arya is working to avoid letting Lord Baelish see her face, and to leave just enough doubt in our minds as to whether he recognized her. Great direction, and the expected great work from Maisie Williams.

Robb gets less to do in this hour, but he’s reminded by Catelyn that being King in the North brings greater responsibilities that will require personal sacrifice. He can’t pursue any kind of romance with Talisa the nurse because he was promised in marriage to one of crazy Walder Frey’s daughters late last season (in exchange for the right to let his bannerman travel through the important gate Frey controls), and he can’t go personally to liberate his brothers and defeat the treasonous Theon. Power has its advantages, but also its drawbacks.

And with Arya still in disguise (probably) and Bran and Rickon on the lam with Osha, the only Stark child still an open hostage is Sansa, who has the roughest go of it this week. The riot that Joffrey incites – and Sansa’s near-rape before being rescued by the Hound(*) – is among the more unsettling sequences the show has done, a catastrophe so ugly and up close that even Joffrey seems upset by it. (So upset, in fact, that he ignores – for now – Tyrion giving him another incredibly well-deserved slap across the face.) Joffrey is so used to being in an environment where his word is law and his power is absolute that it’s baffling to find himself in a circumstance where that suddenly, terrifyingly isn’t true. His security guards are able to protect him the same way the Secret Service crashes the president in event of an attack, but for once the little monster can’t ignore how much he’s despised and by how many, even if it’s his bride-to-be who nearly suffers horribly for his sins, even though she hates the king just as much as the rioters.

(*) Do not mess with the Hound. Seriously. Shame we’ll never see a Hound/Drogo throwdown. 

All of Ned’s children (legitimate or otherwise) learn valuable, at times painful lessons. But they’re still alive to learn them, which is better than you can say for many as things get bloodier and bloodier.

Some other thoughts:

* I wouldn’t quite call Dany “stupid, but brave,” but she’s definitely leading with her heart – and her dreams (even if her dreams tend to come true – over her head, and the spice king wants no part of that. I’ll be curious to see who was responsible for snatching the dragons. Dany already put all her faith in conquering Westeros in Khal Drogo’s hands, and he’s long gone. Now all of her plans have been built around the wee little fire-breathers, and they are, for the moment, being lugged up the steps towards an imposing tower somewhere in Qarth.

* Tywin is a cold sonuvabitch, and it’s not an accident that he produced two children as horrible as Cersei and Jaime (who in turn produced a grandchild even more horrible in Joffrey), but it’s funny to see him through Arya’s eyes in the scenes at Harrenhal. To her, he’s the one who stopped The Tickler from torturing everyone, he’s the one who keeps a (relatively) cool head in meetings with his advisors, and he’s the one who treats her with as much respect as an underage female prisoner is likely to get. So long as Tyrion’s around, Tywin’s at best a distant second for the Most Likable Lannister crown, but for the moment he’s among the show’s less hiss-worthy villains. 

* I don’t know what it costs HBO to shoot those north scenes in Iceland, but it is worth every penny. Wow, are those sequences gorgeous.

* For a minor character, Ser Rodrik dies very well, daring Theon to be the one to swing the sword and assuring Bran and Rickon, “I’m off to see your father.”

This is the last episode I’ve received in advance as of now. Do not expect upcoming reviews to post on Sunday at 10 for the rest of the season – and it’s entirely possible that conflicts with “Mad Men” could ultimately push “Game of Thrones” reviews into sometime on Monday afternoon. I’ll do what I can do, but ultimately the math is what it is. Sorry.

And finally, my attempt to keep these comments free of book spoilers has been mostly successful, but some people just don’t seem to get it, or care. Once again, let me remind you of the spoiler policy as it relates to this show: we are here to TALK ABOUT THE TV SHOW AS A TV SHOW, AND NOT AN ENDLESS SERIES OF COMPARISONS TO THE BOOKS. If you want to talk about things from the books that haven’t yet appeared on the show – whether they are plot points, characters we haven’t met yet, still-to-be-explained motivation, etc. – please do so in the message board topic I set up for this episode. I don’t care how clever or oblique you think you’re being: NO BOOK DISCUSSION IN THE COMMENTS. PERIOD. Anything even vaguely over the line gets deleted, and if anyone notices a comment before I do, feel free to email me.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com