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.
I’m rattled. Game of Thrones is in my head. I know we’re supposed to expect anything at any time—the unprecedented ‘nothing is sacred’ element that makes GoT so compelling—but I think we just witnessed the darkest episode of the darkest show on television. I don’t know about you, but between Theon’s agony at the hands of his nameless tormentor and Ros’ gory death courtesy of Joffrey’s burgeoning sadism, there was zero chance that I was making it through to morning without a horror reel of nightmares spinning through my head. And that’s not even counting the vertiginous wall-climbing scenes that punctuated the rest of the show! I’m awake now, and I can’t even remember what I dreamed, but the unsettled feeling remains. Before last night, I liked to flatter myself with the idea that nothing on television could shock me; that I was inured to the plethora of “evil” that writers like to throw our way in the escalating contest to appall us with the debasement of mankind. But GoT proved me wrong. Of course it did.
Let’s start with Joffrey. Last week we talked about the contrast between rigid and fluid thinkers, and clearly the Boy King is on the rigid side of the divide. Unlike his uncle Jaime, there is zero nuance to his wicked tendencies—he’s just a baddie. He didn’t appear in last night’s episode until the very end, and even then he didn’t have a line. We just saw Ros’ naked body strung up by the wrists, arrows piercing her flesh, dead for the foolish crime of betraying Littlefinger by becoming Lord Varys’ informant. That, plus Joffrey’s awful smile. We have to talk about his snarling rictus, because, man, young Jack Gleeson might be one of the sneakiest great actors on TV. Isn’t it strange to consider the fact that a human being even plays Joffrey? You just think of him as Joffrey, the evil little bastard, right? But there’s an artist behind the portrayal, and he’s so good that George R.R. Martin once wrote him a letter with the words, “Congratulations on your marvelous performance, everyone hates you.” He’s so good that I was going to ask you this week if you think he’s a tremendous actor, or if he’s just a psychopath in real life who transfers his pathology to the camera. Then I did some Googling, and it turns out I’m not alone. Everyone wonders the same thing, which is why the rest of the cast goes out of its way in interviews to note that yes, he is a nice person, and no, he’s not exactly like Joffrey. Gleeson himself has to reassure fans that he doesn’t get harassed on the street for his uncanny portrayal of a snotty devil.
So we know Joffrey, and we know he’s only going to get worse as he ages. That scene was a clear signpost (if we even needed one) that he’s more than just an arrogant, entitled kid. There is no possibility for maturity, because he’s a monster who has no problem relinquishing himself to sadistic desires. And once you get by the shocking visual of Ros’ decimated corpse, the real impact of the scene is that it shed more light on one of our fluid thinkers, Lord Petyr Baelish. Littlefinger reveals his intentions to Varys in that scene, at least broadly—he sees chaos as a ladder to be climbed by the most cunning men, and his goal is to help sow that chaos so he can take advantage of the opportunities that emerge. This “climb” is the central metaphor of the episode—Baelish mocks those who cling to “illusions” like God, love, or the realm, saying “the climb is all there is.” The scene had the potential to be heavy-handed, but I thought it came off perfectly as a contrast to the very real climb happening at The Wall. And let’s be honest—any scene between Baelish and Varys that begins with the former staring at the Iron Throne is going to be awesome.
Speaking of The Wall—was there anyone in the world who didn’t sort of cringe and make a low moaning noise while watching Jon Snow and Ygritte and Mance Rayder scale the icy heights? There’s really not much to say about those scenes; the harrowing shots up and down the wall speak to one of humanity’s most basic fears, and it was enough to give me the same absent feeling in my stomach I get when driving down a very steep hill. You knew there would be a near-tumble at some point.
But where this episode really lost its narrative footing, at least briefly, I think, was in the torture scenes with Theon. It’s gone on long enough now that I think we need to know who this guy is, or what the future holds for Theon. I mean, can you justify yet another ‘Theon-gets-tortured’ segment while ignoring Daenerys for an entire episode? That’s my one quibble.
Otherwise, I call this a terrific installment. The very first scene, with Samwise Gamgee—I mean Samwell Tarly—and Craster’s girl was the perfect set-up. It was written as a heartwarming little tribute to his kind and somewhat bumbling nature—screw up the fire, sing to the baby—but the shots from behind, through the dark trees, with the slightest hint of movement, had me expecting a White Walker attack. Then came my favorite part of the hour, at the base of the wall, when Ygritte tells Jon not to betray her. There’s a pregnant pause, and in a weird way, Jon’s response of “I won’t” was Kit Harington’s best acting work of the whole series. Those two words were delivered with such subtlety that I honestly don’t know if he means it or not. And I don’t think he does either. It’s excellent foreshadowing, of course; there will be a time when he’s forced to choose between duty and love. And once he makes his choice, this scene makes you doubt that Ygritte will ever have the chance to follow through on her threat of beheading his other head. Though that would be a surprising turn of events.
The comic highlight of the episode for me was Ser Loras’ chat with Sansa, who is blissfully unaware of his…predilections. I laughed out loud at how perfectly one of his first lines encapsulated the awkwardness after Sansa compliments his pin: “It’s more of a broach, really…though I suppose a broach is a sort of pin, so…” The way he just looked away, as though he wanted to be anywhere else in the world but was committed to giving it a game effort, slayed me.
And now, having survived my nightmares and talked them out, I’ll turn it over to you, sir. Thanks for being my substitute shrink on this one. Based on last week’s emails, I have a guess as to what your personal highlight was, which I’ll keep in my pocket to see if I’m right…
The research of British journalist Jon Ronson has found that four percent of CEOs are psychopaths—four times the population at large. I wish that was just an element of fantasy like dragons and Dire Wolves, but the scariest thing about Game of Thrones is how it reminds us that the complete lack of empathy among some people is very real (and how those people tend to rise to power). “Monster” is the name we give to those who feel no remorse for their evil actions, and I’m guessing that’s what was plaguing your dreams last night after an episode which lacked any real element of the supernatural.
Where this makes for good TV is in GoT’s Machiavellian quest for power at all costs by those who don’t have it (Littlefinger) and the misery caused by those who do (the scrawny teenaged king). Where it drags and feels gratuitous is in the Theon torture-porn scenes. Did we learn last night that his tormentor was a Karstark? If so, his beef with Theon no longer even makes sense—Robb just put his father to death. If that was just a lie, then this weird rabbit trail has gone on long enough.
But I agree, that’s a minor quibble with an otherwise excellent episode. And while I was giddy watching Olenna and Tywin Lannister go toe-to-toe on the matter of Ser Loras’ marriage (was that your guess about my favorite scene?), these two shrewd players in the Game of Thrones had no idea they were last night’s undercard, a mere warmup to Varys and Littlefinger. A few weeks ago when Varys opened the crate containing the terrified warlock who’d taken his manhood, it looked like he was the reigning champ, but Littlefinger keeps managing to be three steps ahead of everyone else. Olenna and Tywin and Tyrion might all be clever, but it’s Varys and Littlefinger and Daenerys who keep surprising us all. That encounter in the Throne Room between Varys and Littlefinger might not quite have been Pacino and DeNiro in Heat, but their chess match just keeps getting more compelling.
As does the first real love story the series has given us so far (if you don’t count Robb’s rash courtship and marriage). Jon Snow must now be as conflicted as a man can be, torn between duty/honor/loyalty and a fiery redheaded warrior who knows him well enough to understand those internal struggles. As dizzy as he felt climbing that wall, I don’t think it compared to the feeling he got when Ygritte revealed that she knew his secret.
Last night also saw one of the biggest diversions from Martin’s books as Melisandre traveled inland to capture Robert’s bastard Gendry, whose veins run with king’s blood for her sorcery. It allowed for another great encounter—the Red Woman and the Red Priest. Melisandre may be serving the Lord of Light, but her own selfish ambition was revealed for what it is next to the humble drunkard Thoros. She’s aghast to learn what Thoros was able to do—”You shouldn’t have that kind of power!”—and Thoros is quick to dismiss the idea that any power is his to wield. His speech about losing his faith in Westeros, putting up a show and only praying once his friend had died was definitely another of last night’s highlights. The brilliance of this series is equal parts the source material and what HBO’s writers have done with it.
Yes! My guess for your favorite scene was indeed Tywin vs. Olenna, and it was a doozy. What I loved about the writing in that case was how the characters tested each other. I get the feeling both knew the argument’s outcome from the start—Tywin held the trump card, in this case, and the Loras-Cersei marriage was never in doubt—but the way they poked and prodded each other was mesmerizing. Olenna was the playful, unconcerned one, where Tywin maintained the rigorous, moralistic bearing that disguises his shrewdness. I hope these two meet again.
You’re also completely right about how a lack of empathy is the true heart of terror, both in the show and in life. Maybe children fear supernatural bogeymen like the White Walkers, but what gets me are the real humans that lack the social adjustment preventing our species from being a collection of raving murderers. One of the most heartening articles I’ve read recently was a NY Times Magazine piece about the brains of the people we call “psychopaths.” The conclusion that scientists have reached through MRIs and other means is that people behave this way because they aren’t operating at full mental capacity—certain synapses are shut off, certain areas of the brain aren’t totally operational. There’s a tendency in our culture to treat psychopaths as tortured geniuses (see: Dexter), but the truth is that it’s a deficiency. They can still be clever, as we know, but they are working at a chemical disadvantage. It was a comforting thing to read this, in a way, because it showed that the human brain skews toward empathy and kindness; as we grow in intelligence, we gain a tendency to pursue harmony rather than pain. As Patton Oswalt said in his excellent response to the Boston Marathon bombings, “We would not be here if humanity were inherently evil. We’d have eaten ourselves alive long ago.”
And I think that’s why the characters we respond to the most are ones like Daenerys and Jon Snow and Bran Stark, who have kind natures without being simpletons. There’s very little intelligence in Joffrey beyond the sadistic impulse needed to pursue his next atrocity, and last night we saw that kindness only registers in a man like Baelish when it advances his rise. He’s not cruel for no reason, but he also won’t hesitate to send someone like Ros to a hideous death if he feels betrayed. This is ambition, but there’s a blindness to it. The writers made a choice to erase whatever was left of Baelish’s humanity. What we’re seeking, as viewers, are the characters who can play the game of thrones while maintaining their inner goodness, in a world where displays of goodness often betray weakness and lead to death.
But now I’m rambling. Still, I think a bit of rambling is appropriate after Episode Six. The more I think about it, the more I think it may have been just a tad uneven. As with the wall itself, the highs are what you remember—Tywin vs. Olenna, Baelish vs. Varys, Jon vs. Ygritte (?)—but there was also a bit of running in place. We talked about the endless Theon misery (torture-porn was a great way to put it), but the Melisandre scene and the near-fight between Meera Reed and Osha now seem a little aimless in hindsight. But the truth is that I’m so fascinated by this show that I have to dig deep to summon any complaints. I hereby vow to become more detached and critical. (Note: I will forget this vow the minute the theme music for Episode 7 begins.)
I think both of us are fairly optimistic humanists at heart, so thanks for that NYT Magazine article, which I’ve now skimmed and saved for later. I’ve been fascinated and disturbed by Ronson’s studies since I heard about them—yes psychopathy is a deficiency, but as GoT reminds us every week, not caring about others can give you a distinct advantage in climbing Littlefinger’s ladder. That’s another place where the show excels—how many other villains on TV are this well-developed? Or this scary?
And while I’m with you on the wasted screen-time from the Theon and Meera/Osha scenes last night, I thought the presence of Melisandre did wonders to further develop the spiritual meta-narrative going on. I wrote last week how bothered I was that the ostensible “good” side of the Brotherhood Without Banners could be serving the same god as the creepy fanatic Melisandre. The Brotherhood seemed less good—or at least more fluid to use your parlance—this week after selling Gendry for two bags of coin, and the way which Thoros and Melisandre viewed their service differed in a way that anyone calling themselves a Christian and looking at the actions of the folks at Westboro Baptist understands all too well. Even the subtlety and nuance of this particular “good vs. evil” battle offers plenty of complexity and mystery.
And how great is Maisie Williams as Arya Stark? The kids keep stealing the show. Arya sees through the bullshit that surrounds her so quickly, but when Melisandre talks about the darkness in her eyes, it doesn’t seem that far off from reality. Arya is justifiably full of so much hate, and I worry for her where that will lead. To quote Inigo Montoya, “I have been in the revenge business so long, now that it’s over, I don’t know what to do with the rest of my life.”
You know, it seems so basic that I feel extremely dumb for saying this, but I haven’t really given much thought to the religious parallels to our world in GoT. It only makes sense—GRRM has plenty of historical parallels in his books, so it’s not a huge jump to believe he did the same with the spiritual side, but the gods of the book and show seemed so foreign to me that I never really gave it a good think. But you’re right—Melisandre and Thoros are like two distinct sets of Christianity, and both are endowed with complexities and hypocrisies. What always sort of confused me, or maybe ‘distracted’ is the better word, is that the gods in this universe don’t feel like they have a very moralistic element. They seem almost like the Roman/Greek gods in that they exist to aid human schemes rather than influence how people behave or usher mankind away from evil. These guys seem to actually encourage evil. Melisandre wants to birth a weird shadow baby to assassinate Renly? The Lord of Light is at your service. All the gods just give me that feeling of having a force rather than a purpose, if that makes sense.
Maisie Williams is brilliant as Arya. I’ll leave you with my loose ranking of my Top 10 GoT child actors, and say goodbye for this week. I am 100% positive there will be at least one embarrassing omission in this list. Counting down:
10. Rickon Stark/Tommen & Myrcella Baratheon (not their fault, there’s just not a lot of screen time)
9. Gendry – Boring.
8. Sansa Stark – Didn’t love her in season one, but she’s kinda winning me over
7. Jojen Reed – Enigma, Elvish, Epileptic
6. Podrick Payne – Loyal servant, top-notch lover of prostitutes
5. Meera Reed – Liked her spunk against Osha, even if it was a filler scene
4. Hot Pie – WE NEED MORE HOT PIE!
3. Bran Stark – Underrated, could move up this list easily as the story progresses
2. Joffrey Baratheon – Still a possible real-life psychopath
1. Arya Stark – The Best
As with last week, I sign off with a plea: Please don’t die, George R.R. Martin.
Podrick Payne at #6? Way underrated. And your omission, Shireen Baratheon—the Onion Knight’s new reading tutor—is quickly moving up the Game of Thrones Children Power Rankings to at least #5.
Looking forward to next week,