Well, only one kind of horrible thing happened in this episode, and no one got raped (or even attempted raped), which is nice. Lots of story happens, but it didn’t feel nearly as rushed as last week’s episode, which chewed through probably a thousand pages of source material in an hour and didn’t do 95% of it justice. This week’s episode moves at a much more reasonable pace and is probably the strongest episode of the season so far (for what it’s worth, which isn’t much in this turd of a season).
In Meereen, Tyrion gets a proper interview with Daenerys, who isn’t entirely sure what to do with him. Jorah, on the other hand, she tells to shut up, so he just stands around looking sad. Tyrion tells Daenerys the story of her own life, as he’s observed it, and says he thought it was at least worth meeting her. Why is he worth meeting, though, she wants to know. He offers himself as an adviser, telling Daenerys that she can’t hope to make a better world all by herself.
The first piece of advice she wants is what Tyrion thinks she ought to do with Jorah. Tyrion gives a touching speech about Jorah’s devotion to Daenerys, but he can’t or won’t advise Daenerys to keep Jorah around. I’m not entirely sure if Tyrion is maneuvering here, to secure his own position with Daenerys, or if he sincerely believes his advice to her, and I’m also not sure if he is being kind or cruel to Jorah. However, I really did enjoy the scene. After the mess that has been the Tyrion and Jorah show the last couple of episodes, it’s nice to see it pay off.
This also gives Emilia Clarke some time to shine in her role as Daenerys. I’ve always felt her portrayal tended to be a bit wooden and soulless, but she was excellent here, and I thought she did a wonderful job of conveying her conflicted feelings of anger and pain and love and hatred about Jorah. Additionally, she’s so far managed not to say anything embarrassingly horrible to Tyrion, which gives me some hope that the writers are moving away from obnoxiously self-righteous and possibly insane Dany and towards a more sympathetic and sensible characterization of her.
Ser Jorah is escorted from the city, though he doesn’t complain or struggle. He just looks back sadly, then checks to make sure his greyscale is still there (it is) and then goes on his way.
In King’s Landing, Cersei’s fortunes have taken a decided turn for the worse. She’s in a cell that is even darker and danker then Margaery’s, and her only visitor so far is a tall, grumpy-looking septa who alternates between telling Cersei to confess and beating Cersei for saying anything that’s not a confession. To be fair, the things Cersei has to say seem to be requests to see her son and threats against the septa’s life, so I can kind of see why the septa may not take very kindly to her.
Meanwhile, in Braavos, Arya has become “Lanna,” a girl who sells oysters near the dock. Jaqen H’Ghar instructs her to start taking a different path than what she usually takes and to watch the docks and report back with her observations. In her rounds, she observes an insurance salesman–a “gambler” Jaqen explains–who has, apparently, refused to pay the family of a man who died. This man, “the thin man” as Jaqen calls him, is to be Arya’s first assignment as a servant of the Many-faced God. As Arya leaves, smiling, the waif approaches Jaqen to object–Arya isn’t ready, she says–but Jaqen just replies that, even so, “it’s all the same to the Many-faced God,” whatever that means.
This is the first time Arya’s storyline hasn’t bored me this season, and it’s especially nice to see some more of Braavos, even if it is just the harbor areas that we’ve already seen before. I love the new costume, and it’s nice to see Maisie William’s face when it’s not covered in dirt or obscured by gloom. I think we also get to see her smile more in this episode than we have since the first episode of season one, and it makes me happy to see one of the Starks having even a fleeting moment of happiness at this point.
Back in King’s Landing, Qyburn comes to visit Cersei, and we finally get to hear the list of charges against her: fornication, treason, incest, and the murder of King Robert. “All lies,” Cersei says, and Qyburn doesn’t disagree–he may be Cersei’s only true ally in the world.
Otherwise, however, things couldn’t be much worse for Cersei. Qyburn’s concern is that the Faith’s standard of proof is very different than the Crown’s–his line, ”belief is so often the death of reason,” is no doubt going to turn Qyburn into a New Atheist icon, which is great. There’s seldom another group of people on whom irony is so often completely wasted. There has been no word of Jaime, Tommen has withdrawn to his chambers and isn’t eating, her uncle Kevan Lannister has taken over as Hand of the King, and no one else is coming to see Cersei before her trial.
Qyburn actually advises Cersei to confess, but she rejects this idea vehemently. There’s no way she will confess to the High Sparrow. When the septa–I’m going to say it’s Septa Unella from the books–returns, Qyburn takes his leave of Cersei. “The work continues” are his parting words, in case anyone has forgotten that he’s basically Frankenstein. I really, really love Qyburn on the show. He’s the most sinister kindly old grandpa sort of guy imaginable, and every one of his lines is delivered in a weirdly nice-sounding voice. There aren’t many things that I’d say the show has done perfectly, but I think the way they’ve cast and written Qyburn is one of them.
Up at Winterfell, Sansa is pretty murderously furious at Theon after last week’s betrayal. I hate that Sansa being impotently angry and menacing Theon is apparently what passes for female empowerment on this show now, but it’s nice to see her looking a bit more put together. In any case, she manages to berate Theon until he lets it slip that he never killed her little brothers, Bran and Rickon, although he flees the room before she can make him tell her anything else.
Elsewhere in the castle, the Boltons are discussing battle plans, which might explain why Sansa‘s looking somewhat better. Ramsay is too busy planning some colossally stupid act of military jackassery to rape and beat her. His father, Roose Bolton, is of the opinion that they’d best just sit tight in Winterfell, where they have provisions for six months and they can just watch from the walls while Stannis’s army dies in the snow. Ramsay wants to lead some kind of no doubt terribly conceived (and, knowing this show, terribly anticlimactic) attack that he says he only needs twenty men for.
Back in Meereen, Tyrion and Daenerys are having a meal together, although it looks like it’s mostly wine. This long discussion is possibly the greatest highlight of the season so far, and again Emilia Clarke is at her best. Stiff and self-righteous and slightly mad-seeming works here Daenerys lets Tyrion in on her plan, such as it is. After Tyrion tells more of his story (although he demurs on the subject of why he killed his father), commiserates with Daenerys over being the terrible child of a terrible man, considers what is the “right kind of terrible,” and extolls the virtues of Varys, he points out that Daenerys would have a hell of a time taking Westeros with just the support of the common people–if she could even get that support. The Tyrells might be swayed to her cause, but they wouldn’t be enough. Daenerys replies with the “wheel” speech we heard in early trailers for the season. While I like it, and it sounds good, it’s not exactly a real plan if you think about it for more than a couple of seconds. That said, of all the many self-righteously tone-deaf motivational speeches that have come out of Daenerys’s mouth, this one is the best.
Outside the city, Jorah has decided to go back to the guy who bought him last week. Because, somehow, he has decided that the way to get back to Daenerys is by participating in the fighting pits that she reopened much against her will. Right. A+ thinking there, Jorah. I have a feeling it’ll be too much to hope that he ends up dragon food, though.
Once more in Cersei’s cell, Septa Unella has returned again with water and the command to confess. Cersei starts with bargaining but quickly turns to threats, which leads to the Septa dumping a ladle of water on the floor and walking out. Lips cracked and bleeding and seemingly starting to be a little delirious, our last image of Cersei this week is her lapping water off a filthy stone floor.
The front half of the episode ends at Castle Black. Gilly is tending to Sam’s wounds from the beating he received last week when Olly pops in to bring Sam some food and ask a question. The boy wants to know why Jon Snow would want to save the Wildlings, so we’re treated to another iteration of the “Wildlings are people, too” speech. There’s not a lot of new ground being covered here, although Sam might have just pre-absolved Olly of (attempted?) murdering Jon Snow later on if things go down on the show like the do at the end of A Dance With Dragons.
I’ve been saying that I might be done with the show after this season, but I’m starting to think that if anything can bring me back it’s the thought of seeing all the doubters and assholes at the Wall facing down ice zombies. Jon Snow is one of my least favorite characters in the books, but he’s one hundred percent right on the issue of the Wildlings and the zombies.
Speaking of Wildlings and zombies, the back half of the episode is all Hardhome. It’s a really enjoyable bit of horror action, but it’s nonsensical once you look past the spectacle of it.
First up are some long shots of Jon Snow and company sailing into the small harbor that are a little too reminiscent of Washington crossing the Delaware for me to take entirely seriously. There’s really only so much of Jon Snow’s glorious hair blowing in the breeze that I can deal with, and this goes over my limit.
As Jon, Tormund, and company stride into Hardhome, they are surprisingly not killed on sight, but the first person they meet is Rattleshirt, who has some of the most badass armor in the series. Rattleshirt calls Tormund a traitor, tosses in a homophobic accusation about Tormund’s relationship with Jon Snow, and quickly gets his head beaten in by Tormund. This felt like a small anticlimax to me. Rattleshirt was a minor character in the books, but I’ve always felt like his presence loomed large. It’s kind of a bummer to see him go down so easily and quickly here.
It’s on to a sort or council of Wildling elders, though, for some talking. It’s here that we’re introduced to a new character, whose name I don’t think is mentioned in the episode, but she’s credited as Karsi. She’s the chieftain of one of the Wildling clans, and it’s nice to see the show finally recognize that Ygritte isn’t the only Wildling woman ever, even if it’s only for one episode. Karsi is a voice of reason in Jon Snow’s discussion with the Wildlings, and it’s largely to her that we owe the eventual decision for at least some of the Free Folk to move south of the Wall. Notably, a Thenn leader disagrees, and some others also seem to side with him.
As Free Folk are being loaded onto boats to be ferried to larger ships offshore, Jon Snow frets that they are leaving too many behind. Tormund philosophically reminds him that, though it took Mance years to unite the Free Folk, they’ll soon change their mind when they realize they’re running out of food.
Meanwhile, Karsi is saying goodbye to her daughters, who she is putting on a boat to leave while she stays behind to help organize the exodus. I love this character, but I hate how heavy-handedly the show telegraphs what is going to happen to her in just a few minutes.
Back in the building where the elders were talking, Dolorous Edd is marveling at the giant, Wun Wun, and I’m so pleased they subtitled Wun Wun speaking in the old language. The moment is interrupted, though, when the dogs outside start barking.
The snow outside starts to thicken, there are some weird noises, and then people start screaming outside the walls of the village. The young Thenn leader who didn’t want to follow Jon Snow yells for the gates to be closed, which locks hundreds of people (at least) outside. For a little while, people are still yelling and beating at the gates, but there’s more snow and more swirling noises and then just dead (get it?!) silence. When the Thenn peeks through the gate, all he can see is some vague shadows moving in the snow, and then a skeletal hand shoots through the wood and almost gets him in the face.
Because everyone outside is now zombies. And they still want in.
Next up is twenty minutes of chaos with most people desperately trying to get to the boats, some people running to fight, and just zombies and white walkers everywhere. It’s honestly incredible to watch, and it’s one of the best-filmed fantasy fight scenes I’ve ever seen.
What I liked about it:
- Wun Wun. I love the way the show does its giants. They look amazing, and it’s really awesome to see one in action like this.
- The reveal that Valyrian steel will also kill the white walkers. Very nicely done.
- The look of the zombies. I know they aren’t really zombies, and it doesn’t make a ton of sense how many of them come back as basically skeletons, but it looks cool as shit.
- The white walkers up on the cliff on horseback, looking like the four horsemen of the apocalypse. Kind of cheesy, almost too on the nose, but this actually worked for me.
- The Night’s King standing on the dock at the end, just staring right at Jon Snow while raising up a whole new army of the dead.
- The overall frantic pace of it. It sure didn’t feel like twenty minutes had gone by, and when the credits started rolling I felt like I could have watched another twenty minutes like this.
I have a few problems with it, though:
- It didn’t look or sound like the people outside got killed by zombies. It looked like they just got covered in snow, went silent, and then came back as murderous undead.
- If people can be made into zombies like this, why would a gate stop the magic?
- Especially with several white walkers and the Night’s King himself up on the cliff above the town. Couldn’t they just zombiefy everyone from up there?
- Too many bows and arrows. This is another thing that looks really cool, but anyone who’s ever played Dungeons & Dragons knows that you use bludgeoning damage against undead.
- Not enough fire. These people burn their bodies to avoid becoming zombies. They know that fire will hurt them. Why is literally no one using fire until Wun Wun picks up that flaming log right at the end?
- On the note of fire, that white walker that Jon fights seems awful comfortable for a guy made out of ice who is inside a burning building.
The Worst Thing
Why did they have to kill Karsi? And why did they have to kill her the way they did?
First off, in the books the Free Folk are fairly egalitarian. While not entirely free of sexism, they definitely treat women a lot better than in most places in the rest of the world. However, the show has failed over and over again to communicate this to viewers, and to this point the only wildling women we’ve seen have been Ygritte and Craster’s wives (including Gilly). Finally, the show includes a wildling woman as a leader of her people, and she gets less than half an hour of screen time before dying.
And Karsi is really wonderful. She’s funny and smart and a warrior, but she’s also a mother of two daughters and a responsible leader who is instrumental in making Jon Snow’s plan work to the degree that it does at all. All of this adds up to the makings of a really great character, but then she gets killed off.
And the way Karsi is killed is bullshit. People are fighting zombies everywhere. She herself is chopping them down left and right. Until she sees a bunch of little kid zombies. And she’s not even scared, exactly. Rather, she just looks heartbroken, and then she just stands there while the little kid zombies run over and kill her.
The thing is, I feel like this could just be a totally human reaction to seeing a bunch of children turned into evil zombies. I get it. It’s traumatizing. But they make so much of Karsi being a mother herself, they really play up her goodbye to her daughters, and then this is the thing that makes her lose her will to live so she can get back to her own children? And of course there are no men being similarly disarmed by the child zombies. Just Karsi. Because of course a woman would die like this.
Who wants to bet on whether we ever see her daughters again or if the show writers consider them just as disposable as their mothers?