Shane Ryan and Josh Jackson review Game of Thrones each week in a series of letters.
Ser Barristan, noooo!!!!!
What. An. Episode. I guess we’ll begin at the end, since there’s no ignoring that tremendous action sequence resulting in our first glimpse of Barristan Selmy’s fighting prowess, and, unfortunately, his ensuing death. I’ve always thought there should be a term for the sweet, affectionate monologue a character gives just before he goes somewhere to die, because it’s become a very common tactic to heighten the tragedy of a character’s death. When Selmy finished telling Daenerys about Rhaegar Targaryen’s singing exploits, and then Daenerys excused him, rather than summoning him to the throne room (another common trope: A character making a seemingly innocuous choice that leads to his death), I knew Selmy was about to go out in a flash of glory.
My first idea for the term: The Gone-ologue or the Gone-versation. The best example came with Robb and Talisa’s sweet talk about naming their baby “Ned”—complete with a placid smile from Catelyn—just before the red wedding earned its adjective. There was also that time Joffrey was like, “Hey, I wonder if I shouldn’t have been such a dick?” just before he choked. (Note: One of those didn’t happen.)
But for Ser Barristan, what a way to go! Even in his… sixties? seventies?...he had plenty of moves for the Sons of the Harpy, who needed about a dozen masked creepers to finally bring him down. The other big consequence of Selmy joining the battle was that he saved Grey Worm’s bacon—the king badass of the unsullied is wounded, but I don’t think he’s a goner quite yet, and that’s down to Ser Barristan’s intervention.
Great as it was, the final battle was only a button on another very good, very thoughtful episode. Last week, you and I picked out our favorite pairings, and one I left out on purpose was Jaime and Bronn, since we’d only seen the barest hints of their upcoming adventure. Now that we’re in the midst of it, though, my goodness, what a hilarious team. From the very first scene in the bowels of the boat, Bronn challenges Jaime in ways that nobody else would dare. “Your niece?” he asks incredulously, when Jaime brings up Myrcella, and Jaime can only scowl at an implication that would mean death for anyone else. Bronn also reminds us all of how sharp he is when he immediately realizes that Jaime was the one to free Tyrion. That’s all a prelude to the most entertaining battle scene we’ve seen since Jorah, Grey Worm, and Daario kicked some ass in Yunkai. This was less thrilling from a technical standpoint, but it was pretty hilarious—”how many can you take?” “One…if he’s slow”—and had a classic ending with Jaime getting about as lucky as one person can get in close combat.
It must be insanely fun to write for these two, because the dialogue is constantly incredible. I think my favorite was this one:
“That would’ve been a shit way to die.”
“From what I can see, they’re all shit ways to die.”
It’s worth noting, too, that even among the increasing diversions from the book we’ve seen this season, Jamie going on a kidnapping mission to Dorne is by far the most pronounced. When we last left him in the books (BOOK SPOILERS AHEAD!), he was breaking some of the last sieges in the north and cleaning up the mess left behind by Robb Stark. Here, he’s going on a commando mission to take back his “niece.” That’s pretty significant, right?
And let’s talk about the Sand Snakes—bastard daughters of Oberyn Martell (“Sand” being the standard bastard surname in Dorne, as “Snow” is in Winterfell)—who are conspiring for war. I may need to dust off my memory from the last time I read the books, but weren’t they far less… awful? It seems like HBO is out to make them into terrifying stereotypes in the show, which is fine with me, but it definitely goes against my expectations. I thought for sure they’d be portrayed more as Arya-type badasses and less as Ramsay-like sadists. I mean, who buries a dude alive, and then spears him for giving you valuable information? That just seems like bad policy. I almost get the feeling that HBO realized there wasn’t time to fully develop the Dorne part of the story, and their solution was to turn the Dornish into cretins, send Jaime and Bronn to kill the important ones, and just be done with it. Which, again, would be okay by me—in the books, Dorne is almost like Meereen in terms of stagnancy, but instead of Daenerys, they have Myrcella… not a great trade-off.
Speaking of the Khaleesi, Josh, I would personally pay $100,000* to finance a spin-off where Tyrion Lannister solves Westeros mysteries a la Sherlock, using pure deduction. If anybody can live up to Benedict Cumberbatch, it’s Peter Dinklage, right? The scene where it takes him all of ten seconds to correctly identify Jorah Mormont was spectacular, and suddenly, we have a new dynamic twosome to talk about. Granted, Jorah at this point is a bitter, desperate man, and his repartee needs a lot of work (unless smacking a dude unconscious is ‘repartee’), but the personality clash between he and Tyrion is terrific.
(*As usual, of Paste’s money)
But perhaps Jorah will benefit from Ser Barristan’s death—he might be arriving just when Daenerys needs a trusted advisor… even one who’s fallen from grace. He just better hope he gets there before Varys, and that Tyrion doesn’t out-talk him, because matching wits with either one of those men is not his best bet.
I’ll kick it back to you, Josh, but only because there’s only so much space in one email. We still haven’t talked about Stannis becoming likable with that beautiful speech to his daughter, Tommen getting ping-ponged back and forth between two women he can’t begin to handle, Jon Snow resisting Lady Fireface, and, worst of all, Littlefinger leaving Sansa with Sir PenisCutter. We’re cruising right along, Josh, and if I haven’t stopped to be turn a very critical eye on the show, it’s because the whole season has been too enthralling to step outside its grasp.
I love the idea of the “Gone-alogue.” This is a more specific version of what I called the “T-Dog Effect” in The Walking Dead. If you’re going to kill off a character, you’ve got to make him especially likable just before he goes—which means anytime a secondary character starts to get more screen time, I start to worry. Ser Barristan was the one of the few good, strong men in Game of Thrones that hadn’t been a victim of his own honor. I didn’t see this one coming until the Sons of Harpy set the ambush, though. And honestly, as much as I hated to see him die, at that point I was mostly just relieved for Grey Worm.
And here we have yet another diversion from the books, where last we saw Selmy, he was ruling Meereen as Queen’s Hand—definitely a better fate than getting killed by masked former slave-masters.This was another great episode in what’s shaping up to be a strong season for the show, in part because of its diversions from the book. For those of us who knew the Red Wedding was coming, the stakes are now just as high as for everyone else. Jamie’s rescue mission, Sansa’s betrothel to a psychopath, Meereen without Ser Barristan—all bets are now off on where we’re headed.
And the show has earned the right to take the story to new places. There’s no part of me that wants a purist retelling when the choices the writers have made so far have been good ones. There’s little I’d rather watch than Jaimie and Bronn’s commando invasion of Dorne, even as I pull for the Dornish people to rise up against King’s Landing. Which leads us back to the Sand Snakes. The best monologue of the episode belonged to one of Oberyn’s daughters. She chooses the spear of her father and then proceeds to send it through the head of the ship’s captain who mistakenly tried to sell her information about Jaime’s arrival, rather than give it freely, especially after ferrying a Lannister to their shores. There’s a cruelty there certainly, but these are the women who are trying to start a war, after all. Not a lot of room for empathy in that particular vocation.
While I’m sad that Varys and Tyrion have been separated and we’ll miss their quick back-and-forth, Tyrion is the one character on the show who doesn’t need an equal to let his wit shine. And Jorah could use a little wit in his life.
But we haven’t gotten to the rise of the Sparrows yet. For ones who’ve chosen a simple life serving the poor, they sure seem to take to self-righteous violence pretty quickly. The High Sparrow didn’t seem like a man ready to start revolution, but arming the Church has markedly changed King’s Landing. Lord Peter Baelish may be three steps ahead of everyone, but he’ll be getting a rare surprise when he returns to the capital. Cersei has just enough cleverness to cause pain to her enemies, but never enough for the control she assumes like a birthright. Poor Tommen can’t stand up to his mother, can’t please his wife and may just be too good and gentle to reign. His mother has put him in a terrible position out of jealousy and spite.
Melisandre’s advances toward Jon Snow were pretty creepy, no matter how starved for female companionship the Night’s Watch may be. I’d have been so disappointed in Jon if he gave in, not because of a betrayal of his love for Ygritte, but because she’s fond of burning people alive. I imagine she won’t give up so easily.
So my question for you, since we haven’t really discussed it yet: Is Sansa up for the challenge? Neither she nor Peter knows just how wicked Ramsey Bolton is, but she’ll find out when she sees how low Theon has come. This is the strongest Sansa we’ve seen, but will she be strong enough? All of a sudden it’s time to root for Lord Stannis, which is probably why we got to see a more human side of him with his daughter. We need him to get to Winterfell quickly for Sansa’s sake.
I don’t know if anybody can ever be “up for the challenge” when it comes to Ramsay. That was the awful subtext of the otherwise sweet-ish scene between her and Littlefinger—he’s basically telling her to be resilient and make the best out of a bad situation, without realizing that she’s now in the arms of Westeros’ foremost sadist. As we’ve talked about before, this is a departure from the book in the sense that Martin had a fake Arya Stark married off to Ramsay, and the most we can hope is that Ramsay’s treatment of Sansa doesn’t follow form. In the book, he was brutal to poor Jeyne Poole (fake Arya), and while Martin mostly left the details to our imagination, there were references to the fact that she spent most nights screaming in a tower, and that her screams haunted Winterfell (where they move for the wedding). HOWEVER, both he and his father knew this was not really Arya Stark, so maybe the fact that Sansa is a legitimate heiress will curb his horrible desires? We can only hope—if Ramsay pulls his weirdo shit on her, I almost feel like there would be a nationwide revolt. We put up with the beheading of Ned and the Red Wedding, but this is a bridge too far, Josh.
As far as the legitimacy of these detours and sharp left turns from Martin’s content, I’m with you: Not only does HBO have the right to do it, but I’m quite glad they are. For a long time, watching the TV version for us was an act of seeing what we already knew. The show was so good that it barely mattered, but I have to admit that I felt pangs of envy watching the reaction videos to the Red Wedding, and even though we fortified ourselves with the smugness of book readers, I would’ve loved to experience things in that visceral, emotional way. Well, now I fished my wish, because not only are Benioff and Weiss throwing some curveballs at us, but they’re actually catching up to Martin, and will soon overtake him. This is absolutely new territory for book readers, and I couldn’t be more thrilled. I’d even go so far as to say that if Martin’s new book came out today, I might not read it at least until this season was done. (Luckily for us, it’s not coming out until 2035 at the earliest, so we’ll never have to make that choice.)
The moment I’m most looking forward to is when our main characters finally converge on Meereen. We’ve waited so f’ing long for Daenerys to MATTER again, and since the dragons hatched, it’s been one long tour of the hinterlands with virtually no contact with the other main players. Martin’s writing and HBO’s action has still been compelling, to an extent, but the isolation went on too long. Now, it’s almost at an end, and I’m dying to see the moment when Tyrion and Varys and Jorah stand in front of the Khaleesi.
And yes, let’s talk about the Sparrows. You and I both believe that Cersei is over her head in general—she mistakes the ability to scheme with the wisdom of doing so, especially when Lannister power is seriously on the wane. She’s all about short-term solutions, and her bitterness at the presence of Margaery has led her to take on some pretty strange bedfellows. So she arms the Sparrows, who by all appearances are dangerous zealots that will root out their version of evil where it exists. It pays off in the short term when she gets Ser Loras thrown in jail for homosexuality, but you never get the sense that Cersei sees very far beyond the moment. It’s disturbing, to say the least, that when Tommen tries to visit the High Sparrow, he’s shouted down by the poor and wretched as a “bastard.” If immorality is truly the bugaboo of the Sparrows, then everyone is fair game, right?
Oh, and speaking of intrigue, Cersei is going to have Meryn Trant waste Mace Tyrell, right? I can’t say I’m upset, Josh… that dude is beyond useless, though I’ll miss his awful little jokes and his general spineless, accommodating demeanor. How did Olenna produce a son like that? And how did he produce Margaery? The badass gene must skip a generation with the Tyrells.
Throwing it back to you—if Benioff and Weiss are staying firm with their seven season commitment, when do you think we’ll see Dany start to make her way to Westeros? Is that happening this year, or are there still too many loose threads to be resolved? Also, did you notice the moment when Stannis showed some private doubt about Jon Snow being a bastard. “That wasn’t Ned’s way,” he murmurs, when his wife says that Jon is the son of some tavern floozy. I’ve long been a believer in the fan theory that he’s [SPOILER] the son of Lyanna Stark and Rhaegar Targaryen and I saw this as a definite “laying the groundwork” moment by HBO. I wonder when the truth of his origin will emerge?
You’ve just sent me down a rabbit hole of conspiracy theories about the origin of Jon Snow. I agree with Stannis that he was not some tavern wench and the interest that Melisandre shows him certainly hints at royal lineage. “We can create shadows,” she says, something that takes royal blood as far as we know. If he was indeed the son of Rhaegar and Ned Stark’s sister Lyanna, Eddard could have soothed his own marriage by telling his wife. But we know he promised Lyanna something on her deathbed, and that may have kept Ned, a man of his word, from telling his wife the truth—that Lyanna died giving birth to Jon Snow, the true heir to the Iron Throne. It would also make Daenerys his aunt, but that wouldn’t stop a potential marriage as the Targaryens were notorious for marrying relatives.
Of course, the truth could be much less dramatic—the mother could be Ashara Dayne, the lovely sister of Ser Arthur Dayne, who was pregnant in the days before she threw herself from a tower in Starfall. But where is the fun in that?
But back to Daenerys: There’s nothing pointing to an imminent return to Westeros, but things are finally moving more rapidly on the Eastern continent. If it happens, I think it won’t be until the season finale. And I don’t think it’ll be with an army of Dothraki, Unsullied, Second Sons or Stormcrows. It may just be her and her dragons. And it may not be to King’s Landing but to her possible nephew on the Wall. Or… who the hell knows?
I guess George R.R. Martin does, and the HBO writers, and maybe anyone who read that spoiler-filled pitch letter that circulated on the internet (I resisted the temptation to read it). But I don’t think this is the season we find out.
For now there’s plenty else to hold our attention, from Tyrion’s eastern adventures to the horde of Wildlings and White Walkers still north of the Wall. And Arya! There was no Arya in “Sons of the Harpy.” Hopefully we return to Braavos next week.
Please don’t die, George R.R. Martin.
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