Monday, June 01, 2015


This week's Game of Thrones was easily the best of the season. In fact, for a book reader like me -- who knew the biggest plot twists of seasons one through four ahead of time -- this may even have been the best episode of the series so far.

Some of the events of the first half hour were taken straight from the novels. Cersei's torment in her tiny prison cell, in many ways only increased when Qyburn brings her word of the deteriorating events in the outside world, quickly brought her low. Watching her defiantly refuse water, only to end up sucking drops from the filthy floor, tells you everything you need to know about her: appearances are important (especially appearing strong), but she's going to have a hard time maintaining them.

Over in Braavos, Arya is finally succeeding at "the lying game," and receives her first assignment as an assassin. It was a bit of a surprise to me not seeing this plot development played to completion this week. But expecting more scenes there was part of a very clever writing structure that kept me from expecting the episode's big (and I mean BIG) finish. I love that Arya's first job is to kill an insurance salesman. There's something so wonderfully mundane about that, so real world and not "the World of Ice and Fire."

The rest of the episode is invented for the show, and once again improves over the books. Sansa found a flame of hope to nurture in her hopeless situation. In her defiant berating of Theon (good for you, Sansa!), she extracted the truth: Bran and Rickon are still alive! It oddly strips her biggest motivation from her (getting vengeance for her slaughtered family) at the same time it gives her an even bigger one (getting free so she might somehow reunite with them). After reading about the Stark kids on their solitary adventures in book after book, wishing for any glimmer that they might cross paths again some day, this is a huge moment of fan wish fulfillment.

Though not as big as finally getting conversation between Tyrion and Daenerys. Tyrion deftly talks himself out of execution and into a job. He even more deftly saves Jorah's life, convincing Dany to commute a sentence of death and send him back into exile. (Of course, Jorah has greyscale now and nothing left to live for, but Tyrion didn't know that.) Lots of great dialogue between these two power players, comparing parents and histories.

It's funny that here on the show, when Tyrion floats the idea not to go to Westeros at all, it makes so much sense. (Whereas in the novels, we spent chapter after chapter screaming at Dany to leave the quagmire of Meereen.) But while Dany is willing to hear Tyrion's counsel on other matters, her mind is set upon this. She lays out her vision to cross the sea and bust up everything about the world of Westeros. (Of course, another power is coming from the north with a far more deadly version of that agenda.)

At the Wall, when Sam lays out how important Jon's negotiations with the Wildlings are, it's another wonderful bait-and-switch within the script. It really sets the stage for a lot of talk. So when things transfer to Jon for the last half of the show -- and the next fifteen minutes of it are all spent on talking with the Wildlings -- it feels like this plot thread is all building to a diplomatic triumph for Jon as the big moment of the episode. The episode fully plays out this idea, with wonderful moments like the dispatching of the "Lord of Bones," a conventional but moving "I'm with you" scene with the Wildling leaders, and shared grousing about the Thenns.

But then the surprise. The last 15 minutes of the episode are non-stop action that undoes nearly everything Jon has just accomplished. Just over 15 minutes, but it feels like far more, in the very best way. Many blockbusters don't deliver quality action like this. And it just keeps building and building. There are moments of creeping dread, from when the snow first careens down the mountains, to the pounding on the city gates and the army of the dead punching holes through the walls.

As if to say "top this" to The Walking Dead, the super-fast wights come on with a vengeance. It's one fantastic set piece after another. We get a massive fight between Jon and a White Walker, which is looking quite bleak until the sudden revelation of what Valyrian steel can do. There's the so-creepy mob of zombified children that takes down one of the Wildling leaders. There are lots of exhilarating moments with the giant, carried off incredibly well by the visual effects team. And the mind-boggling turn when an entire army of the dead throws itself off a cliff, only to get up and charge.

It all culminates in a moment that really defines the stakes of the entire series. Left chillingly without music by composer Ramin Djawadi, the leader of the White Walkers silently raises from the dead everyone just slaughtered to join his army. He defiantly stares at Jon as if to say, how are you possibly going to defeat me? In all the fun machinations to seize or hold the Iron Throne (and they have been fun), it's easy to forget that the real problem facing whoever sits on it will be the inexorable approach of winter and the White Walkers.

The books desperately, desperately needed a chapter like this. Instead, the Walkers have been talked about more than seen. The best we got at this point in the story was an off-handed mention in a Jon Snow chapter that something like this had probably happened (or would happen) at Hardhome -- a distant place never visited by any main characters. Putting a main character in the thick of the chaos and showing us what the stakes are? I can't overstate how great an improvement this is in telling the story.

"Hardhome" thrilled me, and left me wanting to watch it again as soon as it ended. It's an absolute top-notch episode of television, a grade-A installment of the show. And we get two more before the season is over!

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