Take a look at those two faces. Those are probably the two smartest, and most well-connected men in King’s Landing, and even they’re confused and unprepared. They don’t really have a handle on what’s coming next week. The capital isn’t prepared for Stannis’ impending invasion fleet. But, as with most story threads laid out in this week’s otherwise hollow episode, the hint of hope is teased for much more to come in the final two episodes of the season.
Hollow might be a bit of an understatement, actually; not much happened this week. As I struggled to make time to write about “The Prince of Winterfell” over the last few days, I found myself without much to say on my mind. There wasn’t as much of an impetus to say something; it was rather self-explanatory. The ep was as much a preparatory chapter as any other episode of the series, and rather devoid of real meat itself.
The title was a little disappointing too, a feature I often look forward to as a frame for a story. If nothing else, the title this week foreshadowed the obvious.
Bran, Rickon, Hodor and Osha are alive and semi-well. The ‘prince’ is hiding beneath Winterfell itself, while the castle’s impostor prince prances around upstairs with his right-hand thug and not much of a clue how to proceed.
Theon hands Dagmer a bag of gold to pay off the farmer whose orphans were kidnapped, charred and hung to pose as the northern princes. The gold is to pay for his ‘trouble’. Dagmer: “His troubles are done. He’s feeding the crops now. His wife too. You want to keep a man silent, you silence him.” Theon is as naive as ever, unaware of how much killing follows just one bad move in a world like this.
Yara visits the North briefly to try and reign in her brother; he’s incurred the wrath of fatal doom from Robb Stark for his actions. That wrath can only multiply tenfold if news of the princes’ ‘deaths’ found their way to the Starks. Yara’s plea falls on deaf ears, in no small part to the slightly touching, but mostly irrelevant story she tells Theon about his behavior around her as an infant. This prince is likely doomed, one way or the other, with every party around him either telling him he’s doing it wrong, or calling for his death. Bets should be taken on just where Theon’s story will find itself by season’s end; a lot of guesses are viable.
The rest of this episode is governed by three major stories, and a surprisingly high number of small ones that merely serve as anchors and waypoints in the slow and steady build to next week’s “Blackwater”.
The most immediately relevant plays out from where we left Cat last week, Brienne’s sword in hand. She has freed Jaime to buy back her girls from King’s Landing.
This is trouble for Robb. A house-arrest for his mother, a prized and dangerous captive loose on the road, and his own camp now in disarray over the disappearance of the Kingslayer. But then, we saw most of these events playing out or predictably coming to pass last week. The real door that’s opening this week is the one into Robb’s head, as a leader and as a king.
A memory of his father is a classic way to build more of Ned into his son. On ruling Winterfell: “He woke with fear in the morning, and went to bed with fear at night.” Robb says he asked his father, “How can a man be brave if he’s afraid?” To which Ned replied, “That is the only time a man can be brave.”
In his fear over keeping some vows and trying not to break others, Robb throws a lot of this caution and apprehension to the wind, and does exactly what we thought he’d do when we first saw him lock eyes with Tailsa a month ago.
And this ties him to his father a rather unexpected way: Ned himself broke a vow, while at war, while likely drowning in fear, and followed his impulse to a whore of the North, with one bastardly bundle to show for it afterward.
In place of learning much of Jon’s mother, however, we learn quite a lot about Talisa. A desperately long monologue, which is strange for a character who’s been a minor one at best to date, gives us some strong world-building of the life in the nations away from Westeros, and shows us that the distinctions of class aren’t so different there.
The line has been blurred between this woman and the Starks. Even Roose Bolton knows to hastily exit the room when she enters. She’s Robb’s woman now, and even if that goes as planned, the show’s made enough of a fuss about Robb’s vow to the Freys to marry one of their daughters that he’s undoubtedly inviting a new shit-storm into his life as a result. This love may have to go unrequited if he’s to keep to his vow; we have to wonder if the Frey girl he’s to marry is as good with a hacksaw as Talisa, though.
And speaking of girls and death:
The girl whose words mean murder has escaped with her companions, thanks to some crafty wordplay with her genie-assassin, Jaqen H’ghar. “Please”, the enigmatic Jaqen begs of Arya. That vow he made was real, hot as his god’s fire; death is demanded, and he had to comply. Arya knew better than to kill off her own veritable sellsword, though — he’s her ticket out, and she’s out, amidst another pile of bodies to mark her exit.
Before marching off to meet Robb on the field, Tywin orders the Mountain and Arya to stay behind; when he notices her gone, I’d expect the Mountain to give some kind of chase. ’Arry, Hotpie and Gendry are miles from being in the clear.
And the place in Westeros least likely to be anywhere near ‘clear’ for the coming weeks?
Not content to simply be episode 209, HBO has actively advertised next week as its own kind of event. ”Blackwater” is happening on Sunday, May 27, and hopefully, all of the dollars saved by hiding away Dany’s dragons will come into play to give us something rather spectacular when Stannis’ fleet arrives at King’s Landing.
“Pigshit”, Tyrion recalls, when ask what they have enough of to fling at the Baratheon fleet. This is a nice and smarmy callback to a joke from at least two weeks ago, just for all the astute viewers paying attention. Seven thousand-odd jars of pigshit — wildfire — a chemically produced tool of destruction, magical in nature and wildly unpredictable in use, are sitting in the stores beneath the capital, and that word tells us Tyrion means to use them.
He’s got little else, except a solid warning of everything that’s going to go wrong: Joffrey means to ride out to the field and give his Uncle Stannis a red smile from ear to ear, which no one takes seriously. Bronn, in all his practicality, warns that the civility of King’s Landing will collapse as the people turn to thievery and murder to survive the scarcity of food and supplies. And of course, Tyrion’s personal life is under threat as well, as Cersei means to protect her son by way of granting every injury he suffers to Tyrion’s whore in captivity.
Only she’s got the wrong whore. Tyrion plays it off perfectly, keeping it together until he permits himself to fall apart in Shae’s arms later. This is his vice, his real weakness, just as his sister said. This is suddenly the only thing he might really, truly care about, and the reason he himself might raise a sword next week.
If it was mere rivarly and petty hatreds that stood between Tyrion and Cersei before, it’s now a vicious and subtle war. They are well and truly nemeses at this point, and in a game of wits, we can trust Tyrion has the upper hand. Bitch played the wrong card. Keep smiling bitch.
The episode is then peppered with minor beats in stories that are largely tossed to the wayside, each undoubtedly climaxing in some way this Sunday or the next.
Jon Snow, once with a primacy rivalling Dany’s, has been reduced to a mewling quim (thanks Joss), the runt of the Night’s Watch, passive, reactive, taking a lick and a beating from anyone and everyone, including this impressive son-of-a-bitch:
Rattleshirt wears the bones of his enemies over his winter clothes, and leads the small gaggle of wildlings taking Jon and Qhorin to meet Mance. Qhorin is 100% transparent in his attempt to sow a feigned discord between him and Jon, but this apparently actually fools Rattleshirt, and possibly Ygritte. Wildling home-schooling at its finest.
A brief interlude back at the Fist of the First Men shows Sam, Pyp and Edd discovering some dragonglass weaponry buried in the snow. Weapons, made of volcanic glass, fiery lava made solid, discovered buried in the icy cold. Dots are presented to be connected!
A second minor interlude takes us to Dany in Qarth, who sets a record for bleating “my dragons” in one scene, before reminding us and Jorah that dragons aren’t all that makes her special; this was the girl that walked through fire unscathed. Maybe she’s made of volcanic glass herself.
A third puts us on the river with Jaime and his apparent escort to King’s Landing, Brienne. This is Cat’s play to get her daughters back, but damn if it’s a long road there. The back-and-forth between the two is mischief, bile, comedy and irony all rolled up into one fun little ball of shit that rivals Tyrion and Bronn’s adventures in King’s Landing. We can hope these two stay together for some time.
And a fourth and final snippet acts a sort of final preview for next week. A training exercise aboard Stannis’ flagship seems to come to an end as the would-be king gives us another personal story (we’ve got a lot of personal stories this week) that does a lot of things in a very short time. It re-establishes who Stannis is, his relationships with his then-estranged, now-dead brothers, the new bond between him and his veritable Hand, Davos, and his very real intent to scour King’s Landing and take the Iron Throne.
It’s as tight as any scene this season when it comes to delivering a lot of information in a very short time, even if it treads uncomfortably into exposition territory. At least we now know why Davos calls himself the Onion Knight.
The fun question is: where’s good old Mel been? I half-expect her to be with shadow-child again the next time we see her.
And a final thought: comedy aside on Tyrion’s ruminations of a “God of Tits and Wine”, what gods could save King’s Landing if Dany’s dragons did grow to maturity? The chat Varys and Tyrion share near the end of the episode reminds us about the eponymous game in the show’s title, the one that’s still being played, even if it’s players are now scattered across the world instead of huddled in the King’s Small Court. It also reminds us that “the game is over” if the dragons ever show up. They’re a one-stroke checkmate, and one that’ll char the chessboard too if unleashed.
It might be many years before that ever comes to pass, but with the ratings for this show remarkably solid and consistent week on week, and a renewal for a third season well past, it’s a good bet we’ll get to find out, one way or the other.
“Blackwater” airs this Sunday, May 27, and is HBO’s flagship event for the spring by the way their advertising is being rolled out. Grab the popcorn, a flagon of booze and let’s do this. See you next week!
Budrickton, First of His Name, Warden of the Actual North (Canada)