And the award for longest amount of time to pass between an episode of Game of Thrones airing this season and me actually doing my review goes to episode number six, “The Old Gods and the New.” I had a concert Monday, an Occupy Wall Street album release party Tuesday, and while I watched the episode last night (Wednesday), I didn’t actually have an opportunity to do my review. It’s a shame because much like “Garden of Bones,” this episode was one of the best of the season (not that I haven’t been thoroughly enjoying the whole thing) because it showed just how committed HBO is to dark and morally ambiguous storytelling and that it isn’t going to shy away from any of the most gruesome aspects of the books (in fact, it’s prepared to make some of them even worse, i.e. Joffrey making one prostitute torture another). Because… wow. “The Old Gods and the New” did not hold back one bit and delivered some of the most disturbing and explosive moments of the whole season. I knew going in that season 2 was going to suffer from a lack of flagship moments (having read A Clash of Kings), but it’s great to remember that sometimes enough small moments of horror can make up for not having a single “Ned Stark is executed” moment.
After hinting at Theon’s plans to capture Winterfell last week, Game of Thrones takes the budget-friendly route and begins this week with Theon crashing into Bran’s bedroom to inform the young prince that Winterfell now belongs to the Greyjoys. Theon convinces Bran to surrender to his men to prevent any further bloodshed, and in a rain-soaked proclamation in the castle courtyard, Bran hands over control of Winterfell to Theon. Theon tries to assert his dominance over the castle that he once called home (though he was also technically a hostage), but it’s obvious that everyone in Winterfell despises him (and it’s only going to get worse). Cue the arrival of Ser Rodrik, dragged bruised and bleeding into the courtyard by Theon’s men. Rodrik spits in Theon’s face and wishes he had killed him as a child rather than trained him to fight. Theon wants to lock him up in the cells for the rest of his life but under pressure from his first mate, Theon decides to execute Rodrik to prove a point to the people of Winterfell. Of course, Theon’s life being one tragedy after another (I honestly believe he’s one of Martin’s most complex characters but more on that later), even his execution of Rodrik can’t go well and it takes him about six swings of his sword (and his foot) to finally lop off Rodrik’s head. North of the Wall (shot in Iceland with scenery as stunning as a Lord of the Rings film), Jon Snow and the group of rangers (led by the grumpy Qhorin Halfhand) attack a small group of Wildlings. They take the scouting party out easily until Jon realizes one of them is a woman. The rangers question the woman (Ygritte) and leave Jon Snow to execute her when they’ve taken all of the information from her they can gather. Jon (being the anti-Theon in this scenario) can’t bring himself to execute the defenseless Ygritte and purposefully misses his sword swing. Ygritte tries to escape and Jon has to chase her through the frozen wastes. Jon is able to capture (and hogtie) Ygritte but he’s now separated from his men and is forced to huddle up against Ygritte for warmth and must fight off her obvious sexual advances (because chastity is part of his Night’s Watch vows).
Over at Harrenhal, Arya’s real identity is nearly spoiled by the arrival of Littlefinger who proposes to Lord Tywin that the Lannisters set up a profitable marriage for Margaery Tyrell to gain the support of her family (to help turn the tides of the war). Arya gets her hands on military orders detailing Tywin’s plans to defeat her brother when she is caught with the plans by Ser Emory Lorch (one of Tywin’s knights) and she is forced to use her second death wish (cut Charles Bronson a check) from Jaqen H’Gar to stop Lorch before he can cause Arya’s likely death. Back at King’s Landing, the Lannisters (and Sansa) are seeing Myrcella off at the ports where Tyrion has had her sent to Dorne for marriage (and to protect her from the coming battle in the city). Things get out of hand on the way back to the castle when a mob begins heckling King Joffrey and even throws a mudpie at his face. When he orders the execution of whoever attacked him, a full-scale riot against the starvation and cruelty in the capital breaks out and one of the men in the royal procession doesn’t make it back to the keep alive. The Hound and the Kingsguard have to fight their way through the crowd to get everyone back to the castle safely (though Sansa gets separated from the group and chased down an alley by a group of rapists). Back in the castle, Tyrion proceeds to slap the shit out of Joffrey for his behavior being the catalyst for this situation. Joffrey won’t send anyone to search for Sansa (which is their only bargaining chip to get Jamie returned alive) when she is miraculously rescued from the edge of gang-rape by the Hound. At Robb’s camp, we see him making googley eyes at the nurse from the season premiere (maybe? I forget which episode honestly) when his mother (and Brienne) arrive and Robb is reminded of his duties to House Frey and his betrothal to one of their daughters. He also discovers Theon’s betrayal and vows to kill him himself (though he has one of his bannermen, Lord Bolton of the flaying men alive ideology, send word to begin an attempt to capture the castle and take Theon alive).
Back at Winterfell, Osha offers to sleep with Theon in exchange for her freedom. We see Natalie Tena naked (who played Tonks in Harry Potter) and a little part of my childhood died. However, this plan was all a ruse for her to be able to sneak Bran and Rickon (along with Hodor) out of Winterfell before any harm could befall them. Finally, we get to see Dany again (who honestly doesn’t have much to do this season). She’s at the home of the Spice King (the wealthy merchant who refused her entry into Qarth before Xaro Xhoan Daxos invoked some ancient blood rite to secure her access). After making her wait an eternity for an audience, she asks him for ships in return for a payment of threefold when she retakes Westeros. Because she doesn’t have an army, her dragons aren’t yet fully grown, and she has no allies in the Seven Kingdoms, the Spice King makes the wise decision to turn down this potential investment invoking a full-on Dany rant which makes her sort of come off like her crazy brother. Things get worse though when she returns to her villa to find her khalasar massacred and her dragons missing. Oh snap (a major deviations from the book)!
Only three paragraphs of recaps! Huzzah! Anyways, Alfie Allen… Man. Is time for this guy to be an obvious contender for Best Supporting Actor at the Emmy’s? Theon has finally been revealed to be one of the Big Bads of the season, doing more harm to the Starks in between episodes than the Lannisters were able to accomplish all season, and while I occasionally bristle at the changes the show makes from the books, the show’s decision to make Theon a more sympathetic (if still incredibly douchey and egotistic) character has been one of the best decisions of the season. Alfie Allen sells every second of Theon’s emotionally torn state as a man who has to choose between what he knows is right and what he thinks will earn him the respect and love of his family. He constantly makes the wrong decisions but you can see Theon literally being torn in half on every line of Alfie Allen’s face, and for an actor whose worth I seriously questioned last season, he’s more than managed to pull his weight. Jackie Gleeson has also really come into his own in terms of his ability to up the evil quotient significantly each and every week. This show knows how to cast its villains.
One of the things that I’ve always appreciated about the series is that each character is supposed to be a deconstruction of a very specific fantasy archetype/historical figure. Tyrion is meant to be a sympathetic take on the cunning cripple ala a good version of Richard III. Sansa brutally subverts the fantasy princess/damsel in distress. Actually the entire point of her character (and why I like her character so much at a textual level) is to show just how bogus those fantasies are as she learns over and over again just how ugly the world she over-romanticized truly is. Jamie tears apart the idea of the noble swashbuckler (but he doesn’t really develop until next season so no more spoilers there). Ned was supposed to show how dumb the idea of honor above reason is. I could go on and on. Which brings me back to Theon. What makes his character so interesting (though no less despicable) is that he doesn’t fit neatly into one single fantasy archetype. Outside of Tyrion, he’s one of the most well-rounded and complex characters on the show and the fact that he’s a villain only makes him more compelling. If I have any one complaint about the show, it’s that some of the heroes can become a little too static (Jon and Dany specifically), and Theon’s character arc is one of the most complex and tragic of the whole story.
How about those scenes beyond the Wall? Along with Mad Men and Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones has always had one of the most cinematic and breathtaking visual styles on TV, and those shots were among some of the most memorable of the entire series. Watching Jon and the rangers trek through the winter wastes or seeing Jon chase Ygritte over hills of snow and ice were simply breathtaking. The show’s visual style translates just as well in artificial environments (i.e. the cities the show has had to create from scratch) because every town in this show has its own unique identity and style. Even if they never showed you Dany or Jorah, you’d know you were in Qarth because of the African/Egyptian decor and the Mediterranean flavor of King’s Landing is impossible to miss. Game of Thrones is almost shot like a movie that just happens to be broken up in to hour long segments and it lends the series that gravitas that can occasionally make up for scenes (or very rarely, an episode) that don’t work especially well. Game of Thrones is dripping with style and, most importantly, identity and it never ceases to amaze me how they do such a great job translating Martin’s words to the small screen.
Okay, I promise that I’ll stop rambling now. I still have to watch Tuesday’s episode of Glee (which I’ve heard is very lackluster and I’m dreading. There’s no way it can be worse than last year’s prom episode is there?). First though, I’m going to eat dinner and watch another episode of Angel (I’m so excited that I’m finally back to reviewing a Joss Whedon series and I’m seeing The Avengers in theater as soon as I get back to WV so I can see it with my dad and sister). Anyways, there are only four episodes left of this season of Game of Thrones. It feels like it is just flying by which is a great sign. The last season of The Walking Dead felt like it would never end with its sluggish and mostly awful storytelling/character development. It’s good to know that high-quality fantasy storytelling is still possible on television.
Final Score: A