Through much of this episode, I wasn't feeling it. Most series have those moments somewhere in the season where it's clearly a "bridge" episode; keeping storylines aloft as they build to their various climaxes and needing details explained or character development to take place. And Now His Watch Has Ended had much of that feel as we saw Margaery continue her manipulation of Joffrey and we had yet another Bran dream put forth and Varys continued to scheme and plot.
None of that is bad, of course, and when one is attempting to tell a story that currently stands at over 4200 pages, you need those moments if you're going to convey the richness of the world and the plot and its players. One could argue that part of the downside of the first half of the episode was the large portion of it that was made up of scenes that don't exist in said pages. At no point did Theon ever bemoan the fact that he'd made the wrong choice and claim that his "real father lost his head in Kings Landing."
I don't particularly mind the extra material, especially in the case of Theon, who's become a much stronger and more interesting character with it added. But it is a case of adding material to a story that really needs no such help and that certainly contributes to the feeling of nothing truly moving forward this week until the second half of the episode and, especially, the final scene, which was transcendent.
Something else that may have contributed was the heavy presence of Varys. Conleth Hill has been brilliant at presenting the character and, even in scenes when he's had lengthy dialogue, has kept a very light touch. He's been honest with Tyrion but still kept his real motivations something of a mystery, as appropriate for the Master of Whispers. But in this episode, he was effectively wearing his heart on his sleeve in his moments with Tyrion, Ros, and Olenna Tyrell and that's just... wrong. It's not as if Varys doesn't get outfoxed occasionally, even in the books, but he's always light on his feet when it happens. Here he simply wasn't and I don't think it was Hill so much as the script that was written for him. It was too earnest and too direct and that was most obvious in the exchange with the Queen of Thorns.
Of course, everyone is supposed to be verbally disarmed by Olenna. She's a political master and a cynic, which is why she's one of my favorites; as is Sandor Clegane, for at least the cynic part. Both Diana Rigg and Rory McCann had brilliant moments this week and I'm looking forward to more. Also on that performance list is the ever-redoubtable Charles Dance, who can simply ignore one of his needy children ("You're still here...") and put on a gripping show. Furthermore, Coster-Waldau continues to do great things with Jaime. The absolute malaise and the properly fumbling swordplay with his left hand (just competent enough to wield it, but not enough to win with it) were excellent. Margaery's sly glance back to Cersei as she encouraged Joffrey to greet the crowd was another shining moment. Natalie Dormer has been better in that role than I ever expected.
But it's the final three scenes that make everything else work. Mormont's death and the fight amongst the Night's Watch is handled with the right amount of anguish and confusion. The former's almost-literal deathgrip on Rast as he begins to spit up blood was great and the return of Beric Dondarrion and the Hound's bitter dialogue in the cave has me really anticipating a scene that in the book I found to be far less interesting. And, of course, the climax.
What more can one say? It played out almost exactly as it did in the book and it was fantastic from the opening. I was waiting for "dracarys" through the whole thing, but there were a dozen phenomenal elements to it; from Emilia Clarke's very self-assured performance to the obviously outraged dragon shrieks as she walked away. I found myself actively wondering if they had hired the same group to create Valyrian as a language as they had with Dothraki, since the words flowed so naturally from Clarke as she made the revelation about her "mother tongue." Credit to Ramin Djawadi for the ending music for the second week in a row, as well, as it perfectly conveyed the ominous nature of the Dragon Queen finally obtaining her completely loyal army and is, of course, the perfect counterweight to the discussion that Olenna and Cersei had in the Great Sept about how the incompetent men around them are completely in control of everything, including them in most cases.
Lines of the night:
"I feel the need for actual revenge." - Tyrion weighing in with the obvious. I was a bit put off by this whole scene. Varys has been willing to be open with Tyrion, but not THAT open.
"No more climbing!" - Catelyn with her lone moment, bemoaning the second trigger to this whole mess (the first being the death of Jon Arryn.)
"Prodigies in odd places, indeed." - Varys agreeing with the odd nature of Podrick's subtle conquest of the bordello.
"I don't distrust you because you're a woman. I distrust you because you're not as smart as you think you are." - Tywin with the smackdown. How frustrating must it be for Cersei to hear the same words from her father that she's heard from Tyrion?
"What happens when the non-existent bumps up against the decrepit?" - Theoretical physics from the wisest old woman in Westeros.
"Never knew Bannon could smell so good." - Dolorous Edd strangely making the best of a bad situation.
"You're fighting for ghosts." - The Hound, still tearing down the foundations of anyone and everyone's beliefs in the system, no matter how unusual or genuinely altruistic.
Nice attention to detail on the Unsullied, as well. While their helmets don't match my vision of their very prominent spike (and because they have a very Roman cast to them), the fact that their shields are very Greek/Eastern in style tends to conform to GRRM's general geography (in which Westeros is the fight between Lancaster and York and things east are, well, Eastern.) Of course, every time I see one of their steely gazes behind those faceplates, all I can think of is this guy:
Win the Internets if you can tell me who that is without Googling the pic address. Nerd.