I wonder how many people decided to stop watching Game of Thrones after this week’s episode. While I think it was maybe the best episode of the series to date, it was also without question the most f***ed up episode of the series to date featuring even more torture and psychological abuse than usual. And this time, sociopathy isn’t just for the adults. The kids get in on the game either as the perpetrators (Joffrey… sweet Maker… Joffrey), victims (poor, poor Sansa), or witnesses (Arya, Gendry, their fat friend whose name I don’t remember). Hell, Gendry got to be a witness and a partial victim so we would say he was the victim of the most mental trauma this week but we haven’t even talked about the prostitutes yet. I’ve always wondered how the show was going to show just how evil/damaged its children protagonists/villains become (it had never shied away before) but tonight, we learned just how committed the show is to staying true to that aspect of the source material, and it just dove head first into the sadism department tonight.

 

After some starting banter between two Lannister soldiers, Robb Stark’s direwolf shows up and devours some people and a full-scale battle (which we of course don’t see) breaks out between the Lannister and Stark forces with the Starks emerging victorious. The next day, we’re introduced to Roose Bolton, one of Robb’s bannermen who suggests that the Starks torture Lannister soldiers for information by flaying them alive. Yeah, he’s not going to be an issue down the road. We also meet a young nurse tending to the soldiers who chastises Robb for the price of his war against the Iron Throne. Robb is obviously attracted to her but as of yet, she can’t seem to stand him. Back in King’s Landing, Joffrey (the little Ted Bundy in the making) decides to take out his frustration with his continued losses against Robb Stark out on Sansa. He has one of his Kingsguard, Ser Meryn Trant, strip Sansa and beat her, and it’s only the intervention of Tyrion that spares her from even more abuse and humiliation. Reminding Joffrey that the Mad King’s sadism was what led to his betrayal at the hands of Jaime, Tyrion wants to try and keep his nephew from making the same mistakes/being a giant psychopath. Bron has a great quip but more on that later. Tyrion thinks maybe getting Joffrey laid will calm him down, but to call that plan a failure would be the understatement of the century. Tyrion has two whores (one of which is Ros) delivered to Joffrey’s chambers, but Joffrey proceeds to have Ros viciously beat the other whore so he can get his jollies. You know, good all American fun…

We transition to Renly’s camp where Littlefinger offers his services to Renly (opening the gates to the city when Renly decides to invade) in exchange for Renly’s protection should King’s Landing fall. However, this was all a ploy to get Littlefinger in touch with Catelyn (maybe, it’s sort of vague) so he could offer her a deal sanctioned by Tyrion himself to go behind Robb’s back and release Jaime in exchange for Sansa and Arya (even though they have no idea where Arya is even though she’s technically in their capture). Next, we get our first sight of Harrenhal which is even more rundown and creepy in this series than it was in the books. It’s run by a group of mercenaries called the Brave Companions who are built along the same lines of Joffrey and who torture and execute one prisoner a day for information they know no one really has access to. Their sadism has resulted in Arya saying a list of names every night of the men/women who have hurt her and her family as people she will one day kill. Oh Arya, you used to be so cute and adorable. Now, you’re just broken. One of the lovely interrogation techniques was using a rat to burrow into a man’s chest (even after he had broken under interrogation). Sweet Jesus. Ironically enough, Tywin Lannister arrives and saves Gendry from being the next man to get Alien backwards (the rat goes in instead of an alien bursting out of your chest). He instantly realizes that Arya is a girl and tells the Brave Companions to put all of the prisoners to work and he names Arya as his new cupbearer.

We return to Renly’s camp where he is having  a parlay with his brother, Stannis. This is the first time the two have seen each other since both claimed the right to the throne (though to be honest, Renly does have zero claim besides his natural popularity). The two brothers couldn’t be more polar opposites with Renly’s youthful energy and confidence and Stannis’s dour and hard as stone personality. The only thing either has in common with the other is sheer arrogance. Stannis offers Renly one last chance to surrender which Renly turns down because he knows how much he outnumbers Stannis. We go to another new location, Qarth, a city in the middle of the desert ruled by a mysterious group of merchants/oligarchs known as the Thirteen. They offer shelter to Dany only if she shows them her dragons. She realizes they’re her only trading chip and wants to keep them safe for as long as she can although if they don’t get into the city, they’ll die of starvation and thirst. Dany threatens to kill everybody later (when her dragons are bigger) if they don’t let her in which isn’t going to win her any friends when one of the Thirteen, Xaro Xhoan Daxos, invokes some rite to get her people in the city. Back in King’s Landing, Tyrion has been able to deduce that his cousin Lancel has been porking Cersei ever since Jaime was kidnapped and he uses this information to blackmail Lancel into being his spy against Cersei. Lastly, we get the big twist/shock of the episode. After we get some backstory on why Davos is so loyal to Stannis, Stannis has Davos smuggle Mellisandre near Renly’s camp where she gives birth to a smoke monster baby (maybe he’s FLocke’s brother! that was a semi-obscure joke I guess). Yeah, she’s not evil at all.

Only three paragraphs on this week’s recap. YES! It actually leaves me with time/energy to do a real review of the quality of the episode, and since I definitely believe that if this isn’t the series’ best episode yet, it’s certainly in the top three, it deserves the full review treatment. There’s always a fine line to walk between gritty depictions of evil and inhumanity against Eli Roth-esque “torture porn.” This was one of the most graphically violent and disturbing episodes of the series, but every single moment of sadism and cruelty served to advance either the mythology of the world or to further develop specific characters. We knew how bad Joffrey was but watching him get off while having Ros torture another hooker is pretty much as low as this crazy man can sink. I can’t think of him doing anything especially worse than this in the books (this wasn’t in the books though) so we have officially seen Joffrey at his most evil. Kudos to Jackie Gleason to fully committing to this dark and mature material despite just being a teenager. Joffrey is evil incarnate but Jackie Gleason does a great job of bringing him to life. Similarly, Roose Bolton discussing flaying people alive and the rat torture scenes all served to show that most people in Westeros don’t adhere to the same notions of honor as the Starks (even when they’re the Stark allies) and that even villains like Tywin Lannister (who is arguably one of the series’ Big Bads) have redeeming sides compared to the even more psychotic people that serve beneath them.

This episode was chock full of serious business (it was almost unwatchable at times. Especially the torture scene with the prostitutes [that scene is going to stay with me for a long damn time]), but there was one moment that had me literally laughing so hard that I had to call my dad to discuss it (though he was watching a rerun of the HBO so we never really had the discussion). When Tyrion and Bron were talking about whether getting Joffrey laid would make him less of a prick, Bron said “There’s no cure for being a cunt.” Cue me laughing hysterically. Not since Deadwood has a show been able to use that word for comedic purposes so well (I miss Al Swearangen. I should review Deadwood at some point). Similarly, while most of the episode was still super dark, Tyrion got his own scene of brilliance when he intimidated Lancel Lannister. Tyrion may be tiny but there are few people in all of the Seven Kingdoms that can stand up to him intellectually, and watching him mentally overpower his dimwitted cousin was a treat. Lancel is actually one of the series villains that you wind up feeling really bad for because of the way that everyone in that damn kingdom uses him however they please.

For people who haven’t read the books, this season of Game of Thrones must be a confusing challenge to end all challenges. Not since Oz and The Wire have I seen a show take such pure delight in introducing as many new characters, locations, and plot dynamics as Game of Thrones. You would be forgiven for needing to have a pen and paper handy to jot down the various relationships between the main characters and why X hates Y but has a begrudging alliance with Z but would betray Z in a second to help out Q. Except, in that particular algebra problem, you would need to start incorporating characters from other alphabets to cover the enormous cast of Game of Thrones. This episode alone introduced two new locations and quite a few new named characters who all become absurdly important at one point or another. It’s so crazy that this is almost the halfway point of the season (next week is episode number 5 of 10), and the season still feels like it’s laying a million different pieces of a puzzle in front of us. While I’ve always loved that about Game of Thrones (though this season has been forced to excise much more material from the books due to time constraints though it’s also added a ton of things so I don’t really know what their plan is), it can be frustrating for many people and I hate to tell this to anyone who willing to stick with it for now but finds themselves worried. Each future season is only going to grow the world/cast exponentially.

Alright, I’m going to stop this because I still have a pretty awful headache and I’ve basically been staring at a computer screen or a TV screen ever since I got home from work. Needless to say though, shit is getting real in Westeros, and while I honestly foresee a lot of people who haven’t read the books giving up on the series soon (just because things are really only going to continue to get worse for everyone with very little in the way of victories for the good guys), to me, it was great to know that the TV show refuses to pussy out from the more challenging material from Martin’s novels. I’m waiting with baited breath for episode 9 of this season which has the potential to be one of the most epic episodes of television ever (supposedly the budget for that episode nearly equaled all of Season 1!), but for now, I’m willing to wallow in the mud that is the hellhole of Westeros (and now Qarth) because the writing, acting, and directing is as razor sharp as ever.

Final Score: A

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