Thus, the hallmark of the Song of Ice and Fire for many fans, supposedly never knowing when another major character will be killed off. This is actually less true than many believe it to be, in the same way that Arya's assertion that "anyone" can be killed is true only so far as one is capable of doing so. Or having the friends to do so.
This episode was rife with excellent character moments and exchanges between the different players. All of the performers seemed to be on their game. One wonders if the direction had any part of it or whether everyone was just given plenty of red meat to toy with in this script. While it lacked some of the powerful one-liners of previous episodes, it exceeded them in story and performance and was the best episode of the season so far; at least for those of us that appreciate the sometimes-dizzying complexity of the story.
I found myself wondering if the shadow scene was too abrupt, in that it is a major turning point of the book. Of course, I kind of felt that about the book, as well, as I remember questioning whether Renly was actually dead and what, in fact, had killed him until I arrived at the next Brienne/Catelyn scene and everything coalesced. Of course, this episode was so packed with people and events and their reactions that one wonders whether it could have been anything but abrupt. For the first time, I wondered whether non-reading viewers were going to have trouble following what was happening, as new characters like Qhorin Halfhand were introduced without much direct indication, and important events were taking place at a pace that may not have allowed the new viewer much time to digest and by which to appreciate their magnitude. That said, I thought the overall pacing felt much less rushed than other episodes this season.
When Littlefinger arrived at the Baratheon/Tyrell camp last episode in a deviation from the books, I thought the producers were doing so in order to make the machinations of Tyrion and Petyr more obvious, since much of that happens off-camera in the books. In a way, it could be seen as ham-handed. But I think it worked well here, especially with Aidan Gillen playing the canny negotiator with an emotional Loras being reminded, as Brienne was, that revenge is difficult when you're dead.
The character development moments were plentiful and almost all were both subtle and involving more than one person coming to a new moment. Davos and Stannis arguing over Melisandre; Tyrion and Cersei continuing Dinklage and Headey's remarkable chemistry; Theon realizing the opportunity for true betrayal and potential glory with Dagmer Cleftjaw; Arya and Jaqen H'ghar striking their deal; Bronn, Tyrion, and one of the Wisdoms of the Alchemists' Guild arguing over the wildfire (with the unintentionally ironic statement "Men win wars, not magic tricks." coming shortly after Renly's assassination); Bran and Ser Rodrik; Xaro Xhoan Daxos and Daenerys; all of these were great scenes that gave real insight into the characters involved and demonstrated the skill of the people playing them.
It was good to see that some of the best material in the book and probably the most intriguing relationship (Arya and Jaqen) was given plenty of screen time. This encounter, more than anything else, sets Arya on her presumed life path and gives her the realization that she can genuinely alter her life and the expectations around her by the force of her own will. Maisie Williams continues to be an absolute treasure as her willful but subservient reaction to Tywin's interrogation wins her his grudging respect and her reaction to the Tickler's death was, by far, the best moment of the episode and, fittingly, the climax.
I thought the detail of Tyrion not wearing the badge of the Hand in the increasingly unhappy streets of Kings Landing was smart. While he and Bronn are obvious to us, they're less likely to be noticed by the smallfolk on the streets.
Although I enjoyed the moment with Theon and Dagmer, the routine of Theon getting treated like an alien is getting a little old. If they're truly moving the story at an accelerated pace, we could probably live without yet another scene of Yara rubbing Theon's nose in the shit that his life has seemingly become.
Dolorous Edd was in fine form: "We'll live another day. Hurrah."
I'm really unsure about the seeming jealousy and cultural conflict between Doreah and Irri. I don't know that the personal conflict serves a whole lot of purpose and the spotlight on the Dothraki being strangers in a strange land was better emphasized by two of them bickering over how to dismantle a golden statue before they leave. Was it really necessary to have the two handmaidens arguing over whether Daenerys is a princess or a khaleesi?
In that same vein: "Valyrian stone"? Really? What's next? Valyrian wood? Valyrian grass, the kind you just can't get out of the crevices in your driveway? I was fine with Valyrian steel. It's a fantasy trope, like mithril and adamantium, but it's based in the history of Damascus steel and provides a nice link to the past in the hereditary swords. Couldn't they have just said that Xaro's vault door was solid granite or 'black quartz' if you really want to invoke the Mohs scale?
On the other hand, I'm glad that they laid a little groundwork for Pyatt Pree. The House of the Undying sequence in the book was not one of my favorites. It felt like going from the "realistic" fantasy of Game of Thrones right into the introspective, New Wave science fiction of the late 60s and early 70s. I'm really wondering both how they're going to handle that scene and what the audience reaction will be like.