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.
The Game of Thrones writers just served up the third straight slow-drip episode with “Second Sons,” and to me, this was the best of the bunch. As opposed to last week, which triggered my panic reflex because I thought it was a bit on the gratuitous/sloppy side, I thought the ominous sense of what they’ve been building toward all season was palpable here. Almost without exception, the scenes were pregnant with the tension of whatever the next two weeks hold in store. A GoT season is like a mountain stage at the Tour de France—sprint at the beginning for position, settling into a rhythm for the mountains, and another sprint at the end. This week, unlike last, I think the clouds parted so we could see the top of the mountain, and really feel the anticipation of the final sprint.
Before I get into specifics, though, I’d like to introduce a new and very important feature to our email exchanges:
The Penis-Related Violence Scale
Call me crazy, but I’m noticing a theme emerging in GoT regarding the desecration of a man’s…manhood. I’m not sure if it’s a metaphor for something (the flaws of masculine ideology, which maybe predicts the eventual ascension of Daenerys Stormborn?) or if the writers are just into that kind of thing, but it’s becoming predominant and we need a system for tracking and rating. So I’m going to go back a couple episodes and get us started. Feel free to add anything I’ve forgotten.
Episode 6: Ygritte threatens to cut off Jon Snow’s penis.
Penis-Related Violence Scale: 3.5. I think she was joking, mostly.
Episode 7: Weird torture guy actually does cut off Theon Greyjoy’s penis.
Penis-Related Violence Scale: 10. If there’s something beyond this, I don’t want to imagine it.
Episode 8: Melisandre places a leech on Gendry’s penis, which is presumably erect. (Sorry, everyone, I’m just trying to be thorough here.) (Also, did anyone else expect Stannis to pause before he picked up the leeches to throw on the fire, and be like, “wait, which one is the penis leech? Because frankly, I’d prefer not to touch that one.”)
Penis-Related Violence Scale: 7.2. No permanent physical damage, I think. But serious psychological damage. Season 12 of GoT will have a scene with Gendry explaining to a girl he likes why he’s a little screwed up about sex.
Something to keep an eye on, anyway. Now let’s move on before this gets too awkward.
Sometimes I think the success of any given GoT episode is all about which actors are paired up, and “Second Sons” knocked it out of the park in the very first scene with Arya and Sandore Clegane. It’s hard to predict where you’ll find chemistry in a show, but these two are perfect. A good measure of that came as she approached the Hound with a boulder. I absolutely knew, with 100 percent certainty, that he’d wake up calmly and make some vaguely threatening comment as she was about to hit him that gave her pause, and then she wouldn’t hit him, and then they’d grumble at each other for a little while. We’ve seen that scene a hundred times in different movies and shows, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying every second of it. When a dynamic works, it just works, and I hope these two stay together for a while.
Josh, you and I have both read the books, which essentially takes away our ability to spot “foreshadowing.” It would be like going back in time and gambling on sporting events you’d already seen—very accurate, possibly impressive to those who don’t know any better, but also cheating. We already know what lies in store. So I have to walk a tight-rope here in order not to spoil anything or seem too clever. But I get the distinct feeling that when the Hound and Arya arrive at their destination, it will be scene-of-the-season material. And now I’ll shut up.
Speaking of tremendous scenes, the wife and I were both pretty moved by the 30 seconds or so of Ser Davos reading by himself in the cell. I think Liam Cunningham, who portrays Davos, is a little under-appreciated just because he’s had limited screen time so far. But the more he appears, the clearer it becomes that he’s a heavyweight even in a show with very few weak links. The characters that survive in this show always develop in some form, but the development can be toward the deep or shallow end. Cunningham endows Ser Davos with depth at all the right moments, and the touching struggle as he tries to read a children’s book in the cell might be his best effort yet. A near tear-jerker, that one.
On the shallow end of the spectrum, we have Cersei. I think she confused me for a little while because there are moments when it seems like she may have the faintest glimmering of a heart; a flash of humanity to distinguish her from Joffrey. But what I learned this week is that she’s really more like one of those annoying kids in elementary school who are always threatening you with their fathers. The cliched “my dad could beat up your dad!” dialectic that hints at a vacancy in the person’s own soul. I realized the full extent of her daddy issues when Margaery took her arm and called her sister, and it immediately led to a threatening story about Tywin slaughtering a rival family like the Tyrells. When Loras approached her on the balcony after the wedding and brought up a quote from his own dad, she dismissed him immediately with a classic, “nobody cares what your father once told you.” Funny line, but again, a further revelation that she’s just a brat who idolizes her father but doesn’t possess the wit or intelligence to become him. Sure, she can imitate his icy veneer, but when the ice is cracked there’s a scared little girl underneath. If it comes down to her against Margaery and Olenna, women with real confidence and brains, she can only lose.
Come on, though, how hilarious is Loras? All he wants is for people to stop bothering him so he can be gay, and all everyone else wants to do is set him up with rich, beautiful women. That’s a situation that could be played for tragedy or comedy, but Loras is attacking the comedic side with gusto. The way he sighs and tries to gamely go through the motions with Sansa and Cersei, only to be sighed at or brusquely set aside, has been utterly brilliant. He’s like a younger, better-looking Rodney Dangerfield—he gets no respect.
I’ll leave it there for now, Ser Josh of House Jackson. There’s much left to be discussed, but I want Davos to be able to read this post in 24 hours or less once Melisandre throws him back in the dungeon because he objects to leech-based penis-related violence.
Who’d have imagined that an episode without the Theon the Tortured would have me squirming quite this much? Or that Melisandre, Mother of Smoke Monsters, could get even creepier? And while I have no quibbles with your Penis-Related Violence Scale, I really, really hope we can finish the season without revisiting it. But let’s take a moment to think through how the Red Lady chose to go perform her king-slaying voodoo.
First, she leads Stannis to believe she’s going to sacrifice Gendry—slaughtering the lamb. This might be an Abraham-and-Isaac test of faith to see how far Stannis is willing to go, but it comes off more as a sadistic, controlling ploy to string him along by a woman who’s still resentful that she wasn’t at the Battle of the Blackwater, where she believed she belonged. Then, when apparently all she needed was to slap a few harmless leeches on the boy, she seduces him, ties him up and puts one of them on his manhood. (Which of the three kings really needed penis blood? Certainly not Joffrey.) At one point Stannis asks of Ser Davos, “I saw a vision in the flames, a great battle in the snow. I saw it. And you saw whatever she gave birth to. I never believed, but when you see the truth, when it’s right there in front of you, as real as these iron bars, how can you deny that her god is real?” The unstated answer is, he may be real, but is he good?
And yes, Liam Cunningham has been exceptional as The Onion Knight, one of the best-written and best-acted characters on the show. In addition to his reading triumph, I particularly enjoyed the exchange where he promises not to raise a hand against Melisandra, but “I can’t swear never to speak against her.” When Stannis says, “You have little regard for your own life,” Davos responds, “Quite little, Your Grace, verging on none.” Characters like this, even minor ones, are why the show gets you so invested in some semblance of justice ever prevailing.
I agree, too, that it was another slow-burning episode but better than the last two—and not just because we were spared from more Theon Greyjoy’s House of Pain. The pairings this week—Arya and the Hound, Stannis and Davos, Tyrion and Sansa, Daenerys with both Missandei and Daario Naharis—were all engaging, and the show was filled with some wonderful subtle moments like the look Shae gives Tyrion when she sees the bedsheets are clean, and yes, every moment poor Ser Loras was onscreen. His grandmother provided more of the comedy this week, rattling off the ways in which her grandchildren will be related after the all the weddings have been held. “Your brother will become your father-in-law,” she tells Margaery with cynical glee. “That much is beyond dispute.”
You’ve left out the best moment of all, though—worth noting after you hated on the pudgy, whiny, useless Samwell Tarly a couple of weeks back. After his least awkward conversation with Gilly last night, he proved himself brave enough to take on—and defeat—one of the White Walkers. “Stay back!” he manages to yell at the monster who knocks him aside like a bug. But for Gilly and her son, he finds the courage to charge it with his small obsidian dagger. The “dragonglass” proves to be the White Walkers’ kryptonite. How do you like him now, Shane?
One of my favorite British/English/Scottish phrases is “I like ya,” which is used as a synonym for “nice job.” At least I think it is—I’m having trouble finding any references on Google, but I swear I’ve heard Malcolm Tucker use it more than once on The Thick of It. Anyway, this is a perfect time to deploy it and atone for my past sins:
I like ya, Samwell Tarly.
What I also like is that the White Walker in question was not a mere killing machine like the zombies of every other show in history. If he was, he would’ve dispatched with Samwell after destroying his non-dragonglass sword. Instead, he had the very human thought of, “screw this fat dude, he’s not a threat, I’ll just be arrogant and swipe him aside.” CLASSIC MISTAKE, WHITE WALKER! I like to think there’s a White Walker school somewhere with an instructor just shaking his head, and telling his students, “Guys, I want to emphasize again that we are very, very vulnerable to dragonglass. You never know who’s going to have it, okay? You have to be so careful. Take Paul as an example. He was so close to capturing a baby, but he had to show off and leave the fat one alive. Next thing you know? Dragonglass. HEY! Quiet in the back! Is anyone even listening?? deep sigh This is why we keep losing to the humans, guys.”
By the way, do we know what the White Walkers do with the babies? Eat them? Use them to raise an army? I Googled it, and there seems to be no consensus. In my searches, I also found a product called a “Baby Activity Walker – White.” I wonder if GoT has killed their profit margins?
Nice biblical catch on Melisandre and the Abraham-Isaac parallel. I wouldn’t doubt for a second that there was some element of that in the writers’ minds when they created the situation. And I think we’ll see it play out to fruition at the inevitable moment when Melisandre wants to do more than just leech Gendry’s blood, and Stannis has to decide whether to kill him. And unlike the Old Testament God, I don’t see the Lord of Light intervening on Gendry’s behalf. But I tend to agree that the main theme here is more sadism on Melisandre’s part. She plays a mystic who tries to present herself as two or three metaphysical layers distant from earthly matters, but you’re right, she seems very much like a woman scorned here.
Also, I feel comfortable speculating about the big moment where Gendry’s fate is decided because, unlike almost every other major plot point on the show, this is a huge divergence from the books. I’m not even sure how much we want to fixate on that—it seems like most reviewers ignore the books completely, and that’s probably wise—but it’s fascinating to me that this is the first big change that’s more than just superficial creative license. I’m quite curious and would love to hear your theories.
I think you nailed Davos’ line about his own self-regard as the episode’s best, but I have a nomination for second place. I thought Peter Dinklage did yeoman’s work in the chamber scene with Sansa, because you could tell that even though he retains his decency, there’s a definite part of him—the lecher—that would definitely enjoy her “company.” You can see it in his sidelong glance and lines like, “astoundingly long…neck…you have one.” So when he finally caves to his better nature, and she quickly informs him that it’s very likely she’ll never want to share his bed, he delivers a classic line of resignation:
“And so my watch begins.”
Last, I have a question for you—have we passed the threshold of maximum hate for Joffrey? Last night he humiliated Tyrion by taking away the stepping stool, and then, with his hideous leer, threatened to rape Sansa on her wedding night. And while I felt the requisite rage for the little wretch, I’m starting to wonder if we’re not approaching a point of diminishing returns, where he’s just so evil that I can no longer feel the true extent of it. Are we inured by virtue of being overwhelmed?
I loved, too, how, presented with the wide open back of the White Walker, our hapless hero buries his knife in the monster’s…shoulder. If not for the Walker-shattering properties of dragonglass, he’d have screwed that up too. I somehow like Sam even more for that.
The best guess we have for the babies is that they become Baby Others—White Crawlers, if you will. Walkers aren’t really zombies like the wights they command—the reanimated bodies of wildlings and rangers—so they’ve got to come from somewhere. And when Jon first saw the baby getting carried away in the books, Gilly’s sisters claimed that Craster’s sons will be returning. But Craster also claims the Walkers are his true gods, so I guess only George R. R. Martin [drinks to his health] knows.
I’m glad you brought up the way Gendry’s storyline diverges from the books—I wanted to talk about that without spoiling anything. I’ve enjoyed not knowing what to expect there. It’s one thing that the writers of The Walking Dead have done well—stay true to the spirit of the characters and the world, but keep everyone guessing, even if they’ve read the comic books. For Game of Thrones, I assumed the reasoning behind this particular treatment was to limit the number of people they’re introducing—the show has given new meaning to “140 characters” already. But apparently it was also so they could put a leech on Gendry’s royal salute.
As for Joffrey, I think his embodiment of pure evil certainly peaked a few weeks ago with target practice. Last night he just seemed more like a little shit. Or more specifically, his mother’s son. I’m rooting for that one leech, at least, to get the job done.
Thanks for the distinction between Wights and White Walkers, I think that escaped me somehow. Probably because “Wights” is a much cooler name for a group of fighters, and I bet there’s some bitterness among the White Walkers that they have to settle for a very zombie-like name while the actual zombies get the sweet monosyllable. And I’m on board with the White Crawlers. We know George R.R. Martin loves historical parallels, and I’m thinking this will be like the disastrous Children’s Crusade of the 13th century. (Note: I actually typed ‘disastrous’ before looking it up in Wikipedia and seeing they used the same adjective in the first sentence. I’m not a Wiki-Plagiarist!)
I have one more question for you, and then I’ll let you go: How much old man rage are we in for with Ser Barristan and Ser Jorah now that there’s a young stud in the mix, and he and Daenerys are almost certainly going to get frisky? There’s a lot of vanity in those two codgers, and you have to think they preferred a world where they didn’t have to compete with the likes of Daario Naharis. That is a losing battle.
As always, please don’t die, George R.R. Martin.
I’m not sure Ser Barristan the Celibate has any old-man rage left in that department, but Jorah’s flame has been burning pretty bright. He’s never presented Calisi with the heads of her enemies, though, so it may be hard to compete with Daario.
I just hope one Jon Snow (himself a second son) was off enjoying a week of uneventful bliss with Ygritte on the march to Castle Black. And that no penises will be harmed in the making of Episode 9.