Shane Ryan and Josh Jackson review Game of Thrones each week in a series of letters.
After four blazing episodes to start the fifth season, we were probably due for a slow-cooker, and “Kill the Boy” was definitely that. Everywhere we looked, minor plots were being resolved and major confrontations foreshadowed, but for the most part, we were around the action rather than in it. In other respects, it felt like we were watching a pale imitation of events we’ve already seen this season, and these imitations never hit quite as hard as their predecessors.
Let’s start with Ramsay Bolton. The Joffrey of the North was never a very pleasant character, and Game of Thrones has relished the chance to show the true extent of his evil. When Reek first fell under his control, HBO unleashed all its sado-sexual fury on their interactions, and it got to the point that you and I were both 50 percent nauseated and 50 percent fatigued with it all. Now he’s back in focus, and although the content is less gruesome, it’s still vaguely annoying to watch him maneuver in his evil-yet-clumsy manner. After subjecting Theon and Sansa to some psychological terror, he’s confronted by his father, who has managed to impregnate Fat Walda. We learn his origin story, which is not surprising—Roose Bolton raped a peasant, and only spared the baby that came because he saw the resemblance. That moment was supposed to be powerful, albeit in a dark way, and it came with a definite echo to Stannis’ speech to his own daughter earlier this season. The difference, at least to me, was that Roose’s justifications fell flat—”you were my son,” he says, with the sternest voice he can muster, as though it excuses the behavior of someone who, even by Bolton standards, is a psychopath, and who is well on his way to alienating the entire north. And, as far as we know, it’s not like he has redeeming qualities, like military acumen—though I suspect that will be put to the test soon.
Jon Snow made his big decision to incorporate the wildlings into the “realms of men,” and he got his “kill the boy” speech from Aemon, and the move was as divisive as he thought—he’s managed to completely polarize the Night’s Watch, because even if what he’s saying makes sense, it’s not easy for a group of men to accept that people they’ve been warring with for thousands of years are now their allies. Even Olly is pissed off. He frees Tormund and is about to set out, and while I wouldn’t argue the importance of this plot point, it’s still a sort of plot diversion—Jon Snow is going north when the red-hot action is to the south.
The diversions continue with Jorah and Tyrion. The bout with the stonemen was our one bit of physical conflict for the episode, and it ends with Jorah coming down with greyscale—another difference from the book, when that fate befalls a character called Jon Connington who has clearly not made the cut on TV. (For 22 more big differences between the TV and book versions, click here.) Again, though, this is a sidetrack, keeping the two of them from Meereen and Daenerys. It’s hard to complain, since their journey just started, but I have a clear memory of how long this action is delayed in the book, and I have to say, Josh, that I was half hoping they’d just cut to the chase.
Speaking of the Khaleesi, she’s torn between reigning with terror or mercy in the aftermath of Ser Barristan’s death, and the critical moment here comes when Missandei tells her that she often comes up with a solution “that only you could see.” As it turns out, this choice was exactly what Hizdahr zo Loraq has been preaching from the start—open the fighting pits, and show the fallen masters that you at least respect some aspects of their culture, as long as they don’t involve slavery. She not only spares zo Loraq from the dragons (one noble was not so lucky), but she actually decides to marry him.
Again: Not a small decision. And again: A diversion. This does not take her to Westeros.
There’s more to cover, Josh, but my major takeaway here is that for the first time this season, the show is more or less spinning its wheels. That being said, the first four episodes were outrageously good, and I can’t imagine that this is anything more than a stutter step as we reach the halfway point. I’m confident that the wheels are in motion, but I have to admit, there’s a part of me that fears five more episodes of Daenerys governing Meereen, Tyrion and Jorah stumbling around trying to find her, Jon ensconced north of the wall, Sansa trying to dodge Ramsay’s advances, and on and on. I don’t want this holding pattern.
However, there was at least one very cool scene in this episode: Valyria. How beautiful were those ruins?
Only Game of Thrones could have a “slow-cooker” episode that involves diseased and insane stone men attacking Tyrion’s small boat and nearly drowning the imp and a pair of dragons torching and tearing apart one of the nobles of Meereen. But you’re right; compared to the first four episodes of the season, that doesn’t equate to much action.
And yet, there were several great moments last night, particularly at the Wall. I thought Aemon’s “kill the boy” speech was fantastic. As was Ollie’s heartbreaking reaction to Jon’s hard decision. Jon is his hero, and his hero is now preaching peace with the raiders who slaughtered Ollie’s family. “It isn’t real,” he says pleadingly. “You’re going to trick them.” Aemon was right that Jon would find little joy in his position, especially when it involves disappointing his protege so throughly. I also enjoyed Samwell’s nervous encounter with Stannis. He seemed as scared of the king as he was of the White Walker.
Brienne and Pod’s scene was certainly a slow-burning set-up with no action, but it posed a question I hadn’t considered before. Brienne’s two greatest desires may be about to come into conflict. She’s sworn to protect Sansa, but she also would love to avenge Renly by killing Stannis, whose shadow creature murdered his brother. But Stannis represents the best hope for Sansa’s salvation. You definitely get the sense that Brienne is going to either have to make a difficult choice or unknowingly get in the way of Peter and Sansa’s plans.
Plus: how sweet was it to see Grey Worm and Missandei finally snuggle! There are surprisingly few love stories in Game of Thrones, and none that haven’t already ended tragically: Jon and Ygritte, Tyrion and Shae, Robb and Talissa. So watching two shy, likable characters slowly dance around their obvious mutual affections has been refreshing. And after almost losing Grey Worm last week, the moment when Grey Worm confesses his love in his own Unsullied way was especially satisfying.
None of the threads we saw last night look like they’re in for quick resolution, but we didn’t see Arya learning the art of death (for two weeks in row—not cool, HBO) or Cersei’s army of zealots taking over the capital or Obara’s sand ninjas trying to start a war. Hopefully there will be plenty of action there. Plus, I’m up for any part of Tyrion’s journey (especially if it involves more Valyrian poetry), and the dragons are beginning to play a bigger role in Meereen. I’m not too worried.
And yes, the Valyrian ruins were everything I hoped they’d be from the books. So my question this week to you is, what are the coolest cities or towns in the Game of Thrones universe? We’ve now seen just about every place mentioned in the books.
Great point about Brienne, and it ties back into a theme we’ve explored before—rigid vs. fluid thinkers. (As a side note, Paste readers should stay tuned tomorrow for an awesome graphic on that very topic.) Brienne has always been rigid, but she’s going to have to bend that brain a little bit if she wants to fulfill her “protect Sansa at all costs” vow. If she can’t, it’s a fair bet she’ll fulfill none of her two main ambitions—she’ll whiff on Stannis and leave Sansa to rot in the hands of Ramsay.
I, too, enjoyed Aemon’s “kill the boy” speech, just as I’ve enjoyed every other scene with Aemon since the series began. I just looked up the actor who plays the “last” Targaryen (i.e., not the last at all), and HOLY SHIT JOSH, he’s 92 years old in real life!! Peter Vaughan is a British actor who is, according to Wikipedia, “best known for his role as Grouty in the sitcom Porridge.” I don’t know, Josh, I’d say he’s now best known for playing Maester Aemon, wouldn’t you? And, uh… talk about a late-career revival! Anyway, he’s now my favorite person in the world, and he really electrifies the screen anytime he appears. I just told my friends who are staying with me this weekend about him, and one of them said, “I bet they’ve already shot his death scene, just in case.” Cynical! But also probably true, right? And if it is, how weird must that be for the actor?
Moving on, you hit on another great moment I overlooked—Tyrion seeing a dragon for the first time. He’s a natural skeptic, which we first saw when he scoffed at Aliser Thorne’s mention of a Wight when he journeyed to the Wall, and I believe we’ve seen him poo-poo the idea of dragons too. So it was satisfying to watch him stare in wonder as the beast flew overhead—for once, he didn’t have the answers, and he couldn’t even speak. The combination of the dragon and the ruins of Valyria made for one of the show’s most beautiful moments, I thought, even if it was cut short by the stonemen debacle.
So, to answer your question, here are my rankings of best and worst cities in the GoT world, based purely on where I’d want to live. I’m leaving out Valyria, which stands on its own. Here are my six worst:
6. Winterfell — Nope. Freezing, with a bunch of somber people telling me that winter is coming.
5. Meereen — It seems like the fighting pits are the tourist highlight here. Also slavery, and masked assassins. No thanks.
4. The Eyrie — I’m not scared of heights, but if I saw enough people “fly,” I could get there fast.
3. The Twins — This is mostly about the Freys, but I think that’s reason enough.
2. The Iron Islands — Weird people who smell like fish.
1. The Wall — Miserable weather, full of killers and rapists, and other cast-offs from the seven kingdoms.
And the six best:
6. Casterly Rock — Way too many Lannisters, but it’s on the “Sunset Sea,” which sounds gorgeous.
5. Braavos — They have the Titans, the canals, and it basically seems like Venice.
4. Vaes Dothrak — My friend Mariela pointed this out to me—it’s where Daenerys almost got killed, but otherwise it looked cool, on the water, lots of markets, GREAT SHOPPING!
3. Pentos — I want to live in Ilyrio Mopatis’ house.
2. Highgarden — Home of the Tyrells, we haven’t seen it yet, but it frankly sounds awesome.
1. Sunspear — Capital of Dorne, looks beautiful, always warm, vicious people, but I can deal, because the water gardens are nearby.
What do you think? Where did I go wrong? Would you want to live on the Wall? What’s the equivalent of urban New Jersey, where George R.R. Martin comes from?
I’m pretty sure Martin’s New Jersey hometown was the inspiration for Flea Bottom (*ducking). Just kidding, but King’s Landing would knock Winterfell off my list of worst places to live, especially now that the Moral Majority is armed. It’s certainly been one of the worst ruled cities in Westeros ever since the Lannisters took over. And despite everything you say about the wall (and the lack of women, which you don’t even mention), last night gave us a new #1 worst place to live: Valyria. Sure, it’s gorgeous and historic, but it’s essentially a leper colony if leprosy was much more contagious and made you go insane. I’d take even a life of frozen celibacy over that.
But right now, I’d just like the show to return to Braavos to show us how Arya is fairing in the Temple of the Dead now that she’s been promoted to corpse cleaner. If the show is going to linger on any one story, hers gets my vote.
Please don’t die, George R.R. Martin.