After the vitriolic horror of the Red Wedding last week, Game of Thrones finished off its third season by reminding us that while some of its central heroes have been removed from play, the war of the kings is still in full effect, with old and new players alike positioning themselves for the next power play.
Of course, we still have some unfinished business at The Twins. After Robb, Talisa, and Catelyn Stark were slaughtered wholesale, we join Roose Bolton, fresh off his vicious betrayal, overlooking the field as Walder Frey’s army murders every Stark bannerman they can find. It’s all capped off by Frey soldiers parading the corpse of Robb on a horse, his head chopped off and the head of his direwolf Grey Wind crudely sewn in its place. It’s one of the most gruesome images we’ve seen over three seasons, and of course young Arya gets to see what’s left of his big brother before The Hound takes her to safety.
Similarly to previous seasons, the rest of this episode examines how the events of last week are reverberating across the Seven Kingdoms and sets the scene for next season. But it’s more problematic this time around as we check in with dozens of characters in multiple locations. Jon Snow makes his way back to The Wall; Sam and Gilly run into Bran and his travelling company; the Lannisters have some quality time after the death of a major rival; and Stannis plans his next move after spending the entire season in his castle on Dragonstone. If anyone watching still has trouble keeping track of who’s who in Game of Thrones, this week will do them no favours.
In the absence of the Starks, our de-facto moral centre of the show since its inception, we’re left with a cast that spans a wide spectrum of grey in their moralities and motivations. But several other characters appear to have taken up the mantle, at least part-time. In Pyke, the salty Balon Greyjoy and his daughter Yara receive word of Theon’s imprisonment by way of the torturer literally sending them his dick in a box. Balon considers his wayward and subordinate son acceptable losses, but Yara, who last season was mostly as dour as her father, gathers her men to set out for his rescue.
Back at King’s Landing, Tyrion and Sansa appear to be making the best of a bad situation during a walk in the park. Their idle chat quickly evaporates, though, as news of Robb’s death arrives at a Small Council meeting. Joffrey revels in the news like the brat he is, but bites off more than he can chew when he turns his sharp words onto his grandfather Tywin – in favour of his late “father” King Robert, no less.
In the wake of the teenager with attitude, brief glimpses of humanity peek out amongst his elders. Tyrion acknowledges the genius in Tywin’s orchestration of the Red Wedding while being simultaneously galled by it. Tywin notes that he let Tyrion live after birth, even as a dwarf who killed his wife during childbirth, out of the oft-conflicting notion that yes, he is his child and even in the face of the Lannister legacy that still means something to him.
And later, Tyrion and Cersei share a drink to ponder over their family’s fortunes and curses. We’ve seen the siblings in these rare moments of truce before and it never stops being fascinating. Ostensibly the Lannisters are “The Bad Guys” but, like any other family, these two understand what it means to have to look after one’s own. It helps that Lena Headey and Peter Dinklage’s on-screen chemistry rivals any other pair on this show. But now Jaime, after his own gory crucible and flanked by Brienne and Surgeon General Qyburn, is back in King’s Landing.
Amid moments of hope and reconciliation, others (and possibly even the Others/White Walkers) prepare for what lies ahead next season. Jaime’s return is sure to set off some fascinating developments, but over in Dragonstone King Stannis’ focus is shifted thanks to a newly literate Davos Seaworth. Giving the grim king a letter from the Night’s Watch that says the White Walkers are on the move (a major plot development courtesy of Samwell Tarly!) the Onion Knight narrowly avoids being put to death for springing the bastard Gendry from his prison cell.
The scenes in Dragonstone had the most to chew on this week, I think. We see a quiet moment where Davos learns to read with Stannis’ daughter Shireen, perhaps the only character untouched by misery at this point, despite her disfiguring greyscale. As Stannis listens to opposing viewpoints from Davos and Melisandre, the camera centers on him while the other two stand to his left and right like a devil and angel whispering into his ears. Stannis’ storyline seems to be taking a turn, while Melisandre and Davos grimly note each others’ usefulness. The throne room, dominated by the Painted Table (really a gigantic carved map of Westeros and one of the show’s most luminescent props) has usually been framed by grey skies. But now it’s bathed in the warm sunlight. Ironically, their storyline now points them north.
It was refreshing to see Sam and Gilly run into Bran and the Reeds, after the latter came so close to seeing Jon last week. The former reach The Wall, escaping the horrid affairs at Craster’s Keep, and later on even Jon, earlier perforated by Ygritte’s trio of arrows, makes it to Castle Black and wrapping up much of the North’s stories this season.
Arya isn’t doing any better, however, but she does get some revenge by shanking the hell out of a random Frey soldier. Maisie William’s shriek as she repeatedly stabs the poor bastard was unsettling, and echoed Michelle Fairley’s cry at the end of last week. It takes a lot to make The Hound look saner by comparison.
Oh, and Dany is welcomed by all the slaves she freed in Yunkai and things seem dizzily happy for her. But the imagery of Daenerys lifted on high by a crowd of slaves runs on the problematic imagery of a white man/woman-as-saviour that some will find distasteful. It’s hard to see what obstacles she’ll encounter next season – and whether it will have any effect on the plot in Westeros. By now, with the geographic separation and stylistic differences (e. g. last week’s Power Rangers-eqsue fight and the ~mysterious wanderer~ Daario) make her journey feel like a completely separate program.
Even as so much ends, however, it’s hard to shake off the feeling that we’re still in the middle of things. Bran’s found new companions along the way but continues onward to a nebulous quest. Jon and Sam have rallied at The Wall but the White Walkers and – presumably – Mance Rayder’s Wildlings are on the way. And we’ve still got a couple of weddings to attend! Readers of George R. R. Martin’s novels will know that Season 3 has only covered half of the third book, so this isn’t a surprise. But it feels like we’ve cut several narrative threads in half only to torture everyone with another months-long hiatus.
– Hey, it’s Balon and Yara Greyjoy! Where have you guys been this entire year?
– We finally know that Theon’s torturer is Ramsay Bolton, Roose Bolton’s bastard. But really, all that matters by this point is that he’s a crazy person.
– No sign of any of the Tyrells is a disappointment, especially with the absence of Diana Rigg’s queen of snark Olenna Tyrell. I hope to see more of her, and the rest of the family, next season.
– Gendry and Davos talking about their childhoods in Flea Bottom (i.e. the slums of King’s Landing) was a refreshing conversation between two lowborns when we’re usually so used to seeing lords and highborn backstabbers together.
– Readers will remember Arya’s trick of dropping the coin to distract her victim from A Clash of Kings, which she used much earlier in the storyline. I like it here better; she’s got more of a motivation against a Frey bannerman and is clearly worse off after seeing her brother’s desecrated body.