Shane Ryan and Josh Jackson team up to review each new episode of Game of Thrones. Ryan writes for Grantland as well as Paste, and Jackson is Paste’s co-founder and editor-in-chief.
About 52 minutes into Episode Seven, I was all set to kick off this first email by pronouncing it the weakest of this season. It was slow, but not the good kind of slow, where personalities are fleshed out, narratives are advanced, and you can sense the fireworks an episode or two away. The slow episodes in Game of Thrones are usually masterful—I’m thinking of season one, and how Arya’s relationship with Syrio Forel ratchets up the tension as the chaos in King’s Landing approaches, or how the inklings of Joffrey’s evil nature set the stage for his decision to behead Ned Stark. It always gave you that feeling of being riding uphill on a roller coaster; you’re moving slow, but you sure as hell aren’t bored. But this episode, I thought, was meandering. We had more gratuitous torture porn with Theon and his mystery antagonist (more on that later), a weird extraneous plot with Ygritte and a jealous Orell—who, holy crap, I just realized is played by the great Mackenzie Crook, aka Gareth Keenan from The Office—and a Tywin-Joffrey scene that felt out of place and unbelievable.
So, like I said, I was ready to denounce this episode, at least by the show’s own high standards. And then…
The dude went back to Harrenhal.
The dude went back, Josh.
You could always sense that it was going to happen, but man, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau just marked another notch in his “transcendent Jaime Lannister moments” belt. Imagine you’re an actor about to start a huge role in a new show, and the director came up to you and said something like, “Hey Josh, we’re really excited about having you on board. Just to let you know what’s ahead, the first thing you’re going to do, in the very first episode, is push an innocent kid from a tower because he saw you having sex with your sister. Then, by season three, we expect everyone watching the show to love you. Good luck!”
You’d probably freak out, because it sounds like a ridiculous challenge for even a very good actor. But the way Coster-Waldau has introduced humanity into Jaime Lannister, from his beginnings as a malevolent rich kid, has been remarkable. I’m still not sure exactly how he’s made it work, but I think it’s because he’s hit every subtle step along the way, from the humility that came with being captured and outsmarted by Robb Stark, to the humiliation of being imprisoned in the mud, to the defiance and cruelty in his words to Catelyn Stark (basically a death wish that she wouldn’t honor), to the horror of losing his hand, to the anger and depression that followed, and now, finally, to resilience and loyalty. He was born with brains, money, and ability, but the one thing he never had to do was endure. Losing his hand, though? That required a physical and psychological effort, and it was Brienne who showed him that there was something tough and salvageable in his depths.
(Quick aside for a sports reference that I can’t ignore: Is it a coincidence that Jaime Lannister was fully redeemed on the same day that Tiger Woods captivated a golf gallery and won a huge tournament for the first time since returning from the depths of his own shame? Yes? Almost a definitely a coincidence, since only the most disturbed conspiracy theorist could find a connection between a television show and a golf tournament? Okay then. Thanks for your indulgence.)
So, of course Jaime had to go back. But the return was staged so beautifully, in the sublimely repulsive muck and grit of Harrenhal, that it hit me in the gut like it was a total surprise. And let’s talk about the confluence of music and action after they escape the bear pit. When Jaime delivers his classic line—”Sorry about the sapphires”—and the first strains of The National’s “Rains of Castamere” drift through the grime, the show was back in peak form. If nothing else, it left you with a good impression. It reminded me a little of reading Tom Clancy books when I was in middle school. I had to slog through pages and prose about the layout of a submarine or how the hydraulics on a fighter jet worked, but I did it because I knew the last 50-100 pages would always deliver the goods.
But here’s my worry—I don’t want Game of Thrones to be a Tom Clancy novel. Like, I really, really do not want that. And please tell me if I’m sounding the panic alarm way too fast, or being too reactionary based on one episode. I can accept that. But the truth is that I thought last week’s episode verged on losing focus (though it always recovered nicely), and this week’s is a shoe-in for a top three worst Game of Thrones episodes ever. I hasten to point out that a bad hour of GoT still beats the pants off almost anything else on television, but the geniuses behind the show have led us to expect a lot, and I don’t think they delivered last night.
Let’s start with Theon, although I’d almost prefer to just ignore this whole thing. Last week we complained that the torture was getting a bit over-the-top and unnecessary, and this week I think it officially jumped the shark. Here’s the thing—we love GoT because in the midst of the action and intrigue, it explores the subtleties of human behavior in a super intelligent way. This torture stuff is the exact opposite. It’s an attempt to shock, and a pretty decidedly juvenile one at that. Theon’s mystery tormentor has already staged an escape to bring up his hopes and dash them. He’s already faked losing an identity game so Theon would think he saved his pinky finger. What’s the next logical step? Sure, we tempt and tease him with two beautiful girls before we cut his dick off so he can never have sex again. Great. It takes ZERO creativity to come up with that. We get it, GoT writers, this guy is a bad dude. He’s ruining Theon’s life. Next week he can have an Asha Greyjoy lookalike pretend to rescue him before, I don’t know, taking his eyes out and making him strangle his beloved childhood dog to death.
My point is that it really makes me worry when the show is trying to SHOCK us. I even find it a little insulting to my intelligence, as if they expect me to be so impressed that they can think up such depravities. Any 15-year-old with a little angst could cook up a scene like that. And I have to wonder: Are they running out of tricks?
Let’s end this first email on a positive note, though. I loved Tormund’s advice to Jon Snow on lovemaking (“you need to be patient!”), and I thought Jon’s mini-confrontation with Ygritte, when he told her that the wildlings were doomed, was a really nice piece of acting. Also, Gregor Clegane and Arya Stark are one of the most underrated good-chemistry duos on the show, so I’m psyched to see them back together.
I now turn to you, sir. Talk me off the ledge. Tell me I’m worried for nothing. And tell me this Jaime Lannister neck tattoo was a great idea that’s only going to get cooler with time.
When last season ended, I read the second novel in George R.R. Martin’s series to get me level with the first two seasons of the HBO show. And then. And then. ...I just couldn’t help myself. I read ahead.
I’d bought the four-pack of paperbacks, each little brick packed with tiny type and about 1,000 pages. And I couldn’t put them down. About halfway through the fourth book, I couldn’t begin to imagine how Martin was going to wrap up all the loose threads, explain all the teased mythology, bring any sort of resolution to any of the hundreds of characters who he hadn’t brutally killed off. Three-quarters of the way through it became obvious that this story wasn’t about to end, and I turned to the Internet. Sure enough, there was a fifth book available in hardback. Towards the end of that one, my reservations returned and I was back at Wikipedia. Yep, there were more books coming, still more story to tell.
How? How is HBO going to be able to tell it all? You keep ending your emails with “Please don’t die, George R.R. Martin.” But while I share your concern for the wellbeing of the Game of Thrones author, my plea is as much, “Please don’t give up on this story, HBO.” The House of Stark may have let you know that Winter is Coming, but the one secret I’ll let you in on—no spoilers here—is that it’s taking its bloody sweet time getting here.
So your concern that the episode dragged? I have to think that A) There will be others like this. I’m a little surprised there haven’t been more already. There are a lot of characters that have to get from point A to point Z, and there are tables to be set, banquets to be prepared. But B) The lulls will not last long. Martin isn’t Tom Clancy. Nobody meanders without reason. The mythology is deep and complex, but you learn about it through storytelling, not submarine schematics. During points B through Y, shit happens.
Still, it’s up to showrunner David Benioff and his producers and writers to keep our attention every week, pace the unfolding events and choose which of the many threads from the source material to weave into a very different tapestry. And until Jaime jumped into that bear pit, the main thing that stood out was Theon Greyjoy recreating what I can only imagine was a scene from Hostel V or Saw IX.
The mystery jailer is just putting in too much effort to be believable. There’s enough evil and cruelty in our world that Joffrey’s sadistic games feel like the result of sociopathy plus power. Some two-bit lord cutting off Jaime Lannister’s sword hand? Shocking, but worse happens in war. Varys having the man who castrated him shipped to him overseas in a crate? The man cut off his junk.
But this guy who fakes Theon’s escape and kills the men who recapture him—his men we have to assume—just to mess with his head, and now presents him with two beautiful temptresses just to make his castration that much worse? The definition of gratuitous.
So Jaime’s return to Harrenhal rescued the episode as much as it did Brienne. And it was all set up by three powerful words, “Goodbye, Sir Jaime.” Not “Kingslayer.” He told Brienne he’d keep his promise to set the Stark girls free. And she believed him. Tyrion Lannister used to be my favorite character on the show, but now he’s not even my favorite Lannister. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau has played this surprising story arc masterfully, but the character has been written in such a way that no action of his has felt like a stretch. He’s the Kingslayer, always mocked for betraying the man he was sworn to protect. But there’s always been a sense of loyalty baked into his character—to his sister, to the people of King’s Landing. And his redemptive journey has been slow and convincing.
(Also, I don’t watch golf. But I was at my parent’s house yesterday to celebrate Mother’s Day, so of course my father and I watched Tiger. And of course I found myself pulling for him. We all love a good redemption story.)
The only other theme that emerged this week was that of the star-crossed lovers—Tyrion and Shae, Jon and Ygritte, Sansa and Ser Loras. Okay, just kidding about that last one, but Kit Harington and Rose Leslie have developed an amazing chemistry as the Crow and the Wildling, and it just keeps getting better—and more Shakespearean. “If we die, we die. But first we’ll live.” Thanks for letting me know that creepy eagle-talker was Gareth from The Office, by the way! How’d I miss that?
So a little slow? Yes. But it still had its moments. Let’s just hope that we’ve seen the worst for Theon.
I can’t believe I forgot to mention “Goodbye Ser Jaime”!!! That was one of the most moving moments of the whole series so far, and Coster-Waldau’s brief look of gratitude—he was going to say something, and then he stopped—was just tremendous. Again, that’s where this series goes above and beyond.
Thank you for talking some sense into me. I wrote that first email and 1 am and let my thoughts get carried away by visions of Theon’s enforced agony. Speaking of which, have you noticed that there’s a sort of cosmic connection on the show right now between Jon/Ygritte and Theon/Mystery Tormentor? Last week we had Ygritte playfully (I think?) threaten to go all Lorena Bobbitt and Jon, and this week it happens with Theon and The Sadist. And we keep seeing one scene follow another. I might be reading too much into this, but it seems like the writers are going after a specific contrast there.
Anyway, you’re obviously right that we’re in for some imminent action. The books are too good, and too full of material, to let things lag for very long. I too read the books in a blind frenzy, never stopping until finishing my hardcover copy of A Dance with Dragons in an Atlanta hotel room in between ACC basketball games last March. I actually have a friend who routinely infuriates me by saying things like, “George R.R. Martin needs a good editor” and that he “can’t get through book five.” I couldn’t disagree more, and I want to make it clear to you and all the readers that my criticisms of the show don’t reflect how I feel about the books. I’m not even a big fantasy guy, but I think what Martin accomplished has been pretty perfect so far. Which is why I don’t want him to die—HBO has the details of the rest of the story in case that happens, so the tv show will last as long as the network allows, but it would be sad if we never reached the end of the books, or if someone else finished them.
But since I galloped off to a negative start with the first email, there’s something that compels me to keep going. I might be the anti-Jaime, where I get less and less likeable as this email chain continues. But you mentioned Tyrion and Shae, and that was another moment for me where I thought, “Wow, I am really sick of Shae.” With that in mind, here’s my list of the 10 characters that, at least to me, have run their course. This has nothing to do with whether they’re good or evil…it’s all about how much boredom they inspire. Counting down to the worst:
I AM SICK OF YOU, GAME OF THRONES CHARACTER: TOP TEN LIST
10. Ned Stark
I kid, I kid! Seriously:
10. Samwell Tarly – By default, mostly, but John Bradley always walks the line between likeable and annoying
9. Osha the Wildling – can’t believe I’m saying this, but she’s grating on me on the journey north…that voice!
8. Lysa Arryn – hasn’t appeared in a long time, still sick of her
7. Robin Arryn, her weird son – Try as I may, Josh, I cannot forget the breastfeeding (I ADVISE YOU NOT TO CLICK)
6. Theon Greyjoy – I want it on record that I felt this way before he lost his manhood
5. Gendry – All women disagree with me
4. Melisandre – Blech
3. Robb Stark’s wife – Last night was a classic “oh, we’re supposed to care about her now” moment
2. Shae – Triple blech. I want Tyrion to be free of her!
1. Theon’s Mystery Tormentor – Of course
Last thing I’ll mention for now- the only part of the Tywin-Joffrey scene I really liked was how Joffrey pulled the classic Hitler move of making someone walk a long, uncomfortable path under his silent scrutiny before they meet. A lot of despots (and CEOs, probably) have used that technique to make a visitor feel intimidated and uncomfortable, and thereby gain some advantage. And I loved how Tywin walked the path with his head high and his eyes smoldering, full of menace, and how Joffrey was the one who ended up rattled. The man is a badass!
HOW CAN YOU HATE ON SAMWELL?!? He didn’t ask to be shipped to the Wall! Just because his little brother was the better fighter, he was stuck with a bunch of dudes in the freezing cold. Now he’s getting attacked by zombies and betrayed by his brothers. And still, the man who won’t stand up for himself still steps up to rescue Gilly and her son. I’m happy to take more Samwell.
I’d offer Catelyn Stark in his place. So great in Season One and now she’s reduced to naive meddling and constant STEWING.
But to end on your more positive note—once again Tywin owns his progeny. Suggesting that he can arrange for Joffrey to be carried up to the Small Council meetings almost made me laugh at loud. And how he climbed the stairs up to the throne, peered down at his grandson and reminded Joffrey who really rules? Even a weak episode of Game of Thrones still provides little moments like this that make you long for next Sunday night.
PS – Next week I promise to talk more about the dragons, whether they show up or not. Daenerys is starting to look like the badass she is with three adolescent dragons hanging out in her tent.
PPS – Shane also wanted you all to know that the next time a friend suggests something even borderline unsavory to him, he’ll be stealing this excellent line from Tyrion: “I don’t pay you to put evil notions in my head. The ones already there don’t need company.”