4) Book Of the Stranger
STARRING: Peter Dinklage, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Lena Headey, Emilia Clarke, Kit Harington, Liam Cunningham,
Carice Van Houten, Natalie Dormer, Alfie Allen, Sophie Turner, Maisie Williams, Isaac Hempstead-Wright, Iwan Rheon
Aidan Gillen, Diana Rigg + Iain Glen
WITH: Conleth Hill, Gwendoline Christie,
Julian Glover, Jacob Anderson, Daniel Portman, John Bradley, Dean-Charles Chapman, Hannah Murray, Gemma Whelan,
Finn Jones, Jonathan Pryce, Michiel Huisman,
Nathalie Emmanuel, Kristofer Hivju + Tom Wlaschiha
AND: Paul Rattray, Ben Crompton, Joseph Naufahu,
Souad Faress, Hannah John-Kamen, Owen Teale, Art Parkinson, Anton Lesser, Natalia Tena, Faye Marsay, Roger Ashton-Griffiths, Ian Gelder, Brenock O'Connor, Hannah Waddingham,
Lino Facioli + Dean S. Jagger
SPECIAL GUEST STAR: Max von Sydow (The Three-eyed Raven)
Showrunners + Producers: David Benioff + D.B. Weiss
Game of Thrones is now available on DVD, Blu Ray
and streaming services worldwide
The latest series of one of the most successful genre adaptations ever continues to progress in fine style with this pair of episodes. A key theme of the show, which I will bring in to focus, concerns different types of power.
Influence, reputation, and status are one manifestation of power. Paramount to this working is the element of respect. Dany began the season in a rather precarious position, being bound and at the mercy of Khal Moro, who had seemingly taken pride of place in Dothraki society over her late husband Drogo.
Despite being the key character that signifies the ‘fire’ aspect of the ‘song’, the Targaryen heir is forced to reside with fellow widows of fallen Khals. But she promptly seizes on an opportunity to try and extricate herself from either a humdrum and subservient existence, or an undignified demise. Luckily for her, she has two strong and skilled fighters, both utterly in love with her, and both not far away.
The Mormont/Daario dynamic has developed in enjoyably tense fashion, ever since ‘The Rains Of Castamere’. Then, Jorah realised he would never be able to win his Queen’s heart, even with tenfold the military victories of his much younger rival. To see them have a brittle alliance, designed to enable the rescue of their monarch, is engaging and produces some nicely understated moments of humour. One example comes when Daario seizes on a spare weapon that he had concealed carefully, and without which Mormont may well have perished. It had gone against a previous agreement that should they be apprehended, they needed to have no weapons found on them. Further, they have to cover their tracks as they look to infiltrate Vaes Dothrak. Looking to ensure that there is no ‘spilt blood’, Daario uses a handy rock to mash a stabbed Dothraki to pulp; complete with evocative sound effects..
Dany’s charisma is enough to get at least one temporary ally out of the Dosh Khaleen - her fellow widows and prisoners - and perhaps her plan to switch the balance of power would have worked regardless. However it no doubt a massive help for her that her rescuers block the one means of escape for the Khals. This also makes her exit through the flames, at the close of Episode Four, truly a stand out. Emilia Clarke plays the confrontation with Moro beautifully. As he spits out one venomous threat after another, she calmly stares him down, before proceeding to demonstrate just why “none” of these savage men are fit to serve as leaders of their people.
Clarke has long since declined to appear nude in the show again. Consequently a similar effect to that used for Cersei’s 'Walk Of Atonement' is implemented. The vision of the flame-defiant Queen, walking out of the inferno she herself created, ensures she has every last able and willing Dothraki on her side. That only Mormont does not completely bow, but instead attempts to look Dany in the eye is a very interesting moment. Then the question is begged - what future does she envision for someone like him?
As the ‘Fire’ consolidates another part of her wider army and reinforces her status, up at The Wall, the ‘Ice’ also is exerting some gravitas. Thanks to being reborn, Jon Snow is able to make the Night’s Watch stand up and pay attention, and the same applies to the Wildlings who he had once fought against so bitterly. Melisandre declares that Jon was brought back by the Lord of Light, and therefore Stannis was not the ‘promised Prince’ that she had first thought. Despite this being such a huge event, the show manages to also bring some levity to bear. Tormund – who has always been a quotable supporting character – makes fun of Jon’s "pecker", in trying to play down any kind of godlike powers. Edd is rather more shocked, but his line of " Are you sure that is still you in there?" also entertains in deadpan fashion.
In Episode Two, one of the men to betray Jon met with a bloody end thanks to the giant Wildling known as Wun Wun. However, there are still three officers, plus Jon’s former steward Olly, needing a comeuppance. The direction is strong here as we are teased with the possibility that perhaps the Lord Commander will accept the boy was misguided, and offer him one last chance. Perhaps this really is the case, but without source material from author G.R.R Martin it is hard to be sure. In the event though, the one survivor from the village massacre in Season Four is still resolute; he feels he was justified to keep opposing the Wildlings, even if that meant stabbing his devoted mentor. He makes only a determined scowl in terms of a response to Jon’s offering of a final statement. This is notably different to the others who respectively show disbelief, a wish for his mother to hear a different story concerning his death, and a proud declaration that their actions were just and fair. The last of these three officers to speak up is Alliser Thorne, and his enmity with Jon had been very well developed from the very first season. Owen Teale did very well, in what could have been a simplistic role. Whilst the character is not likeable, it does feel a loss in a way to see him killed off.
The moment when Jon actually carries out the joint death sentences is shockingly stark and brutal, and evokes the same cold dispatch applied to Janos Slynt in Season Five. The sudden cut to the faces of the lynched men is a very disturbing moment, despite this being a show full of death. The funereal feel to the end of Oathbreaker is compounded, as Jon relinquishes control of the Night's Watch to Edd; the last true brother in black he can count on, at this point. Whilst Jon has more status than ever before by surviving a lethal attack on him, part of him seems to have died that cold night at Castle Black.
There is also a more brutally obvious illustration of power and respect, as Arya continues to suffer at the hands of the mysterious 'Waif'. When she is asked about the Hound, it is confirmed just how conflicted she was, when she left the former bodyguard of Joffrey to die in the wilderness. However, Arya has suffered enough pain, and impairment to one of the five senses. To her relief, she is granted her normal eyesight again. Perhaps the show has been doing more with these confrontations with the Waif - and philosophical conversations with Jaqen H'ghar - than simply checking on a storyline so far away from most of the others. If that is so, then just how this will all play out remains to be seen.
The material back in Mereen itself moves quite slowly, as Tyrion and Varys continue their efforts to outwit The Sons of the Harpy, and perhaps also find out just who is in charge. Some elements of respect are at work, but mainly it is a chess game, where a number of key moves have yet to play out. There is no doubt some set-up going on, but the scenes never breath full life and seem to be a waste of two great actors in Hill and Dinklage. Tyrion may have secured a tentative alliance with the main leaders of the absent Dany’s enemies, but he seems just far too confident by his normally calculating standards. It is almost as if the wine, and the altitude of the Great Pyramid, has really got to his head. Grey Worm and Missandei are sensible enough characters, but it just seems a bit contrived for them to be clearly onto something in pointing out Tyrion’s supreme over-confidence.
Power, in the sense of magical force, is most obviously featured in the way that Bran is trying to see the past actions of his father Ned. Thanks to the help of the aeons-old Three-Eyed-Raven, the second youngest Stark is able to be ‘present’ in another time zone, and even ‘heard’ by his father. It is truly welcome to see a version of Ned who was rather more upbeat and sure of himself, if admittedly arrogant here. Whilst Sean Bean’s portrayal of this pivotal character remains a highlight of the entire show, the character of Ned is still strong enough in his own right. These flashback scenes truly feel from a different period in time, and in Episode Three convey the sense of a kingdom being turned upside down with the Baratheon/Targaryen power struggle.
Despite his having supernatural power, Bran perhaps witnesses more than he would have liked. It transpires a combination of luck, and help from the injured Howland Reed, allows Ned to vanquish the “far better” Arthur Dayne in a swordfight. That the scene ends on a deliberate cutaway, concerning a Tower and the cries of Ned’s sister, begs the question when the resolution will come. After all, this is a show that has dragged out story arcs past more than a mere week or two many times previously.
Then there is powerful magic, that is suddenly granted to someone who previously had gifts of 'foresight', and the ability to help with an assassin in the form of a “shadow”. It is remarkable just how jaded Melisandre is, so far in this season. She clearly is an old soul (and a very old human as seen at the end of Episode One), and her questioning of Jon on what he saw works on several levels. The viewer is clearly aware of her weariness with life, and her concern she may have crossed a line in actually bringing a person back from the beyond.
Power can also be displayed through the almost intangible form of family ties, and love for one's relatives. It is a truly heart-warming moment when Jon and Sansa embrace - given their respective journeys. Yes, they had very little interaction in the early episodes of the series to begin with, but at this point with most Starks dead, missing or captured this feels like a justified moment of hope. Episode Four is quick to establish what an excellent dynamic these half siblings have together, and clearly more is to come in later episodes. It also shows how both Kit Harington and Sophie Turner have grown as performers. Loyal viewers can reflect how each has grown resilient, and able to survive the cruel reality of Westeros, with each passing Season.
The show perhaps missed a trick by not having a brief scene or two showing the difficult journey for Pod, Brienne and Lady Stark. Yet their tired and dirty faces perhaps invite the viewer to envisage their own mini-story privately. However, there has been plenty of excellent set-up for several years, with making viewers hate Ramsay. Thus Sansa’s urging to retake Winterfell will clearly drive on the season arc, as regards these characters.
In terms of family ties concerning the Lannisters and Tyrells, both dynasties remain frustrated by the machinations of the High Sparrow. Tommen and Cersei still struggle to have a setup that works for both of them, e.g. a simple visit to the resting place of daughter Myrcella, is made into a major obstacle for the Queen Mother. But later on, Tommen is able to notify Cersei that Margaery is due to face her own Walk of Atonement.
This is not the most welcome of news for the ‘Queen of Thorns’ (Diana Rigg), who already has found it galling that both her grandchildren remain in rags and in captivity. Clearly there is a need to deal with the High Sparrow and his minions, but the price may be steep. Olenna still believes it is worth it, and pragmatically proposes that the Sparrows be the main party to perish: "Better them than us."
When looking at this material set in Kings Landing, whilst it admittedly still revolves around political intrigue and family rivalry, sometimes it feels somewhat sparse. Although this latest season is doing quite well without any concrete source material, cracks can occasionally show. One example I can cite is a scene with the Small Council, where the Mountain’s intimidation of Pycelle (and others) was played for low brow laughs. This really should have been edited down, and the so-called humour kept for a ‘deleted’ DVD extra. It simply comes off out-of-place, considering how late in the ‘Game’ events are now.
More positively, the reunion scene of Yara and Theon Greyjoy is done very well. Whilst a bit of glossing over Theon’s escape from the forces of Ramsey and his allies is contrived, this passage of the show still offers solid drama, and character work. Initially Theon's sister is venomous in reminding him how he refused rescue (back in the middle of Season Four). But he eventually affirms that Yara "should rule the Iron Islands". This has added resonance, as moments before he was fighting back tears, in recounting the physical and mental toll Ramsey’s cruelty took on him.
And the new 'Lord Bolton' continues to unleash horrors of both immediate violence, as well as tactical intimidation. With these two episodes he has gained another ally in 'Small John' (Dean S. Jagger). This ally is notably brutal and cold, as well as unwilling to bend the knee. Whilst a small scene, in terms of being just another conversation, it still is a shock to see that Shaggydog, Osha and Rickon did not find long-term sanctuary. The kindly Umber who had backed Robb Stark has passed away, and his heir is nothing more than an opportunistic turn coat - betraying the people he had been entrusted to protect.
Clearly Ramsey will use Rickon as his main chess piece on the board to try and control Jon, but by also having a large percentage of the factions once loyal to Ned (and briefly also Robb), he clearly is the favoured party in the battle to come. Whilst Rickon's direwolf was put down off-screen, there is a rather disturbing on-screen exit for Osha. Despite being a capable fighter and streetwise, she just cannot outwit Ramsey, and she pays for it with a stab to the neck.
The viewer hopes Rickon somehow will remain safe, but by the precedent of the show, it certainly does not look too promising.
Some of the more minor subplots in these episodes perhaps do not directly fit the three power categories. The journey of Gilly and Sam feels a touch like padding. The potential face off, between high-born Sam and his cruel father, however promises to bring some more involving drama to the show.
Whilst I pointed out the notable impact of the High Sparrow on the familial ties in the Capital, there is some rather ropey material for the very skilful Jonathan Pryce. He seems to be given screen time that delves into pointless back story. We know how he is mainly a fraud and confidence trickster. Whilst perhaps making viewers wonder if Margaery is under this fanatic's spell, there is rather too much evidence to suggest that she is just as scheming (if not more so).
However, just the right amount of time is used to reintroduce Littlefinger, who has always been both memorable and well-played in equal measure. His quick manipulation of Robin Arryn, so as to scare Royce with the potential fate of the 'Moon Door, is a relatively brief scene. However it is beautifully played by all featured, and really puts the labored religious fanatic material at King's Landing into perspective.
On a final note, the music so far for this season has been superb. Some of the stunning material includes: Dany’s ascension in the flames, Jon's resignation as Lord Commander, the tension at the Small Council, and the chilling impact of Ramsey slaying someone that stands in his way.