Shane Ryan and Josh Jackson review Game of Thrones each week in a series of letters.
This week, Game of Thrones knew that you and I and everyone else needed to take a deep breath, and—dammit—they were probably right. In improv comedy, the very basic structure of any good scene is called the “game,” which is the unusual twist that makes people laugh. Ideally, the actors will hit the “game” three times within the scene, but there’s an important adage about how to treat the moments in between these three comedic beats. That’s when the actors have to “let the game rest.” This negative space is not as glamorous as the hilarious punchlines, but it’s just as important. Without letting the game rest, you’re just looking at a rapid-fire series of jokes. But when the actors know enough to pause, and to let the anticipation build as they construct a vivid world, the comedy will be twice as satisfying when it finally comes.
That concept isn’t unique to improv comedy, of course—rhythm matters in any art form, including television. Last week we got the madness of the fight at the cave, and the heartbreaking story of Hodor’s origins. The week before was arguably even more hectic and revelatory, with the Jon-Sansa reunion and Daenerys emerging yet again from the flames. You could say the same for Episodes Two and Three, which provided a steady IV drip of action and information. But last night’s episode, “Blood of My Blood,” was something a little quieter, a little subtler, and less viscerally dramatic.
The symbolic centerpiece for the hour was the High Sparrow’s masterful play with King Tommen. He knew the very threat of making Margaery Tyrell take the walk of atonement would bring out the full force of her family’s army and unite the Lannisters and Tyrells in common cause against him. In other words, he guaranteed himself an audience. Then—in a scene we didn’t really see—he gave Margaery a choice. Either convert Tommen to the faith (he knew how much influence she had over him) or march naked through the streets with every sleazebag in Flea Bottom reaching in for a grope and that awful shrew ringing her bell the entire way.
So we saw Margaery the reborn zealot as she sang the praises of the Sparrow and did what she had to do, but I don’t believe for a moment that she’s a true convert. I think she wanted to spare herself, I think she loves her brother Loras more than anyone, and by the look of barely restrained glee she gave when Jaime Lannister came on the scene at the head of the army, I’m willing to bet she might despise the Sparrow even more than Cersei at this point.
But none of that mattered—as Olenna was forced to admit, the Sparrow outmaneuvered them, using Tommen as his pawn. (This also gives the lie to what I thought was a pretty compelling theory, which was that the secret information the Sparrow gave to Tommen in the last episode was that Olenna had been complicit in the death of Joffrey. Oh well!) He conceded what he had to concede by letting Margaery off, placating the Tyrells, but he also scored an enormous PR victory over the crown in front of what looked like the entirety of King’s Landing. And if Jaime had simply cut his head off, as he clearly wanted to do, the best case scenario was losing any remnants of loyalty and/or respect from the common people at a time when they can’t afford to make more enemies, and the worst case scenario was a spontaneous popular uprising. The Sparrow held them in the palm of his hands, and now he has tenuous control over King’s Landing. In short, the dude is brilliant—at least for now.
George R.R. Martin is famous for reaching into actual history for several of his more famous set pieces, and this scene reminded me a little of the story of Constantine the Great, who was the first Roman emperor to end the persecution of Christians, and who eventually converted to Christianity himself. From that point on, Christianity became the dominant religion of the Roman Empire, and of the wider world. There was no Sparrow-like figure in that story—all stories of an influential pope are apocryphal—but the central theme of religion gaining legitimacy through the crown, rather than over the crown, is the same. This is religion as politics, and the way Game of Thrones set up the Sparrow’s story and then delivered in a scene of brilliant, bloodless triumph, was just exquisite. This is why we love this show.
That word, bloodless, could describe much of this episode. Arya can’t bring herself to kill the actress playing Cersei (also, how did I not realize last week that one of the actors is none other than Richard E. Grant, star of the incredible black comedy Withnail & I?), but that choice brings more consequences than letting her drink the wine ever could. She’ll never be one of the Faceless Men now, and she’s also in imminent danger from Lady McStickFace. But this next battle won’t be fought with sticks, and I basically stood up and cheered when she dug Needle out from the stones. About f’ing time!! In fact, I’m so looking forward to seeing that sword buried in McStickFace’s heart that I’ve written a spec script for that scene alone. HBO, please feel free to use this:
(Lady McStickFace enters with her stupid stick, and gets ready to deliver some annoying monologue in which not a single proper noun is used.)
Arya: Two things. One, my name is Arya Stark. Two, fuck you.
(Arya stabs McStickFace, and we linger on her dying for 30-40 minutes.)
That’s going to be awesome.
And, hmmm, anything else of note? Oh yeah, one small matter…COLDHANDS IS BENJEN STARK, JOSH. That’s huge, especially for book-readers, and confirms what has to be one of the most common fan theories outside of R+L=J. We knew Bran was going to need a savior, but we didn’t know if we’d ever see the face of Coldhands, or if they’d string us along the way Martin had. (By the way, Martin seemed to have disavowed this theory by accident in correspondence with his editor, so this is even more interesting.) We were not strung, at least not for more than like ten minutes before Benjen lowered his hood. He’s back, baby, and he brings the knowledge that if you get stabbed by a White Walker, simply have a friend stab you in the heart with dragonglass and you’ll be good as new.
Oh, and holy shit, we saw the Mad King! “BURN THEM ALL!” Sure, it was brief, but it was awesome. One thing I love to do after writing this first email is to go to the Game of Thrones Subreddit, and I’m sure I’m going to learn all about the significance of that scene and the actor and the the green wildfire and etc. So I’ll kick it your way to talk about dragons and Sam’s asshole dad and my hero, Lord Walder Frey. Over to you, Ser Josh of House Jackson.
Hopefully HBO is reading this, but I would love to watch your scene come to life. I was so glad to see Arya snap out of the grip of the creepy assassin cult. Last week I wrote, “Arya is better than that, and hopefully the play reminded her that the name Stark is worth keeping.” Lady McStickFace has no name, but Arya’s sword sure does. I can’t wait until they meet next week.
The big reveals this week may have been that the High Sparrow has King Tommen in his pocket and that Benjen Stark is Coldhands, but I could have watched an hour of just Samwell and Gilly in Horn Hill. From Sam’s nervous approach to his home to the lovely welcome he receives from his mother and sister to seeing Gilly all cleaned up like Anne Hathaway in The Princess Diaries, I was a little giddy. And then we met dad. Sam can’t stand up to the man who has made him feel worthless all his life, but Gilly and Lady Tarly can. Gilly has quietly become one of my favorite characters on this show, and I’m so thankful that in a world overstuffed with suffering and heartache, Sam gets the love of a woman of this caliber. Her declaration “I’m angry that horrible people can treat good people that way and get away with it” is enough to finally get him to cross his father.
And I’m glad you brought up Lord Frey. In a show this stocked with great acting, no one is currently delivering better performances than David Bradley. I love the way the showrunners have surrounded him with meek, featureless extras from Monty Python’s The Holy Grail. Whenever he speaks, it’s only to hear the sound of the only voice he thinks is worth a damn. But there’s a pettiness there and a paranoia that people are laughing at his failures. I’m just thankful that we’d never elect anyone like that in this country (oh right, damn it).
So we got a breather, but even if the only action was Coldhands laying waste to some helpless zombies, there was much here to enjoy.
Daenerys has her dragon back, as well as the entire Dothraki army. Now all she needs is some ships. Bran has his uncle to guide him through the North. Things are in motion, and I have no idea where they’re headed. I’m loving it. So let’s talk about Bran’s latest visions. We’ve seen a glimpse of the Mad King. We’ve seen the green wildfire and Ser Jaime preparing to commit regicide. I know you’ve had fun speculating about where this is all headed. What can we learn from what we saw tonight?
In my frame-by-frame DVR analysis of Bran’s visions (yes, I really did that), I have a few things to report:
1. At first, I thought the Mad King was played by Ian McShane, but that was just me getting over-excited since I know McShane makes an appearance at some point this season. Basically, I wanted Aerys Targaryen to be a blond Al Swearengen, and I won’t apologize for that.
2. Most of what we saw was just Bran binge-watching everything he hasn’t seen thus far in Game of Thrones (including the deaths of his mother and Robb, which, as far as I know, he never heard about). There was also the Mad King, of course, and Jaime stabbing him in the back and taking his seat on the Iron Throne, which is where Ned Stark found him when he entered later. And one shot of a bleeding hand that may be from the Tower of Joy (Lyanna, anyone?), but may also be from the Red Wedding.
3. I thought there were a couple exceptions that might come from the future, but the vision of the White Walkers advancing on the wall is actually from Season Two, and the shadow of the dragon’s wings over King’s Landing is actually a vision Bran had in Season Four. That doesn’t mean the latter isn’t actually a vision of the future, only that we haven’t seen it yet. (And as an aside, I think the mystery of why the Walkers let Sam go in that first clip is going to play a central role in things to come.)
4. Which leaves one peculiar image—the Wildfire going off in the bowels of King’s Landing. My understanding of history is that while King Aerys wanted his people to set everything afire, and had actually prepared to do so, Jaime’s assassination prevented that. So what’s this explosion we’re looking at? Is it a premonition, a vision, or something else entirely? To me, this is the most intriguing and least explicable shot of his entire sequence of visions.
And it tells us…well, not much. Which is as it should be—the measure to which they keep us guessing is one pretty good barometer of success in Game of Thrones, where everything is carefully plotted and planned and every revelation will be satisfying and earned. The plot just keeps getting richer and richer, and I guarantee our minds will be blown when we see how it all comes together.
Now, a few quick parting shots:
—Randyll Tarly definitely wins the Aliser Thorne Memorial “You Need to Chill the Fuck Out” award for this episode. You gotta give this to Game of Thrones—when they depict an asshole, they don’t go halfway. In this universe, you’re either a pretty okay person with a few understandable flaws, or you have a whole plan about how to murder your son on a hunt if he refuses to be sent to die at the Wall. And yes, Gilly acquitted herself nicely in that whole scene, and I’m glad her retort to Randyll didn’t include something like, “actually, I’m not a whore, Mr. Smart Guy. I was impregnated by my father. So now who feels like an idiot?”
—Yes, oh my God, you could comb the Earth and hold three billion casting calls, and you would never, ever, ever find a better Walder Frey than David Bradley. I will be both happy and sad to see that character die, if it ever happens, and both of those emotions will be a credit to him. I actually just joined this trivia thing online called “Learned League,” where you can design your own flag, and I chose this image because I thought it’d be funny. I want to be the world’s first and only House Frey fan. Love those wackos!
—Edmure Tully? Doesn’t look great. Then again, Game of Thrones fans are hard to impress when it comes to dungeon torture. Here’s another scene I wrote that the show is more than welcome to use.
Edmure Tully: My life is terrible. I was kept in a dungeon, and now I’m going to be used to force my uncle to surrender Riverrun.
Ned Stark: Cry about it. I’ll see your dungeon captivity, and raise you a beheading while your daughters watch.
Theon: Either of you guys have your dick chopped off when you thought you were about to get laid?
Edmure, Ned: Um…no?
Theon drops his pants
Ned: Fine, you win.
Edmure: Yeah, I’m actually feeling a lot better now.
Varys: I’m not.
—I have to laugh at the way this show keeps going back to Daenerys at the end of episodes for these “dramatic” conclusions that just keep telling us what we already know. Yes, she can survive fire. We saw that before. Yes, she has dragons. We know. Yes, she wants to take over the seven kingdoms. It’s not that they don’t do the scenes well, it’s just that once you get past the spectacle, we’re still running in place with Dany, just like we have been for about three seasons. And that’s my one niggling complaint for this week.
So, question for you before I go—let’s say you’re an infant being born in Thronesland, and you get to choose your own father and mother. Give me a top three and a bottom three for each. Obviously I’m picking Walder Frey for my pops, so he’s off the table.
I don’t know who Ian McShane will play but I’m really hoping he’ll have tons of scenes with Peter Dinklage. Please? All I want them to do is insult each other while Varys quietly shakes his head. Is that too much to ask?
As for my potential parents in Thronesland, I’m going to assume that currently dead couples are fair game, otherwise my choices are way too narrow. Let’s start with my bottom three (assuming you’re the latest Frey son to be born to a 13-year-old bride, and Walder is off the table).
3. Any slave couple in Slaver’s Bay – With Unsullied initiates walking around, I could get murdered in the market at any time. And if I survive that gauntlet, I’m property of the Masters, who may choose to castrate me and make me Unsullied.
2. Roose Bolton & Walda Frey – Forget for a moment that we know I’m going to get fed to the dogs on the day I’m born. Even if I live, I’m going to be the son of a murderous traitor, the product of a loveless marriage and my big brother is a psychopathic sadist.
1. Craster & any of his daughters not named Gilly – If I’m a girl, I’m forced to marry my abusive father. If I’m a boy, I get adopted by the Night King. I think I’d actually rather be a boy in that family.
And here are my top three choices for parents in Westeros/Essos:
3. Daenerys & Jon Snow – I’ve always wanted a pet dragon. And seven kingdoms to rule. Of course, the pressure to live up to the accomplishments of Mom and Dad would be a burden. And there’s no way they’re getting me to marry my sister, bloodline be damned.
2. Samwell & Gilly – My parents would be awesome people—struggling in life, sure, but I know I’d be loved and educated. We wouldn’t talk to Granddad, but Grandma would be always welcome to come up to the Wall for a visit.
1. Brienne & Tormund – First, this would mean Brienne and Tormund found true love, something I think we can all agree would be awesome. Second, in a world that values strength and fighting prowess, I would be a god. I would crush the Mountain with my fists and win renown at Tournaments before retiring to my beautiful island of Tarth, where the water is as blue as sapphires.
Please don’t die, Sam & Gilly,
Follow Shane Ryan and Josh Jackson on Twitter.