Without doubt, this was one of the longest awaited moments in the show's 4 years, as the reign of Joffrey Baratheon, first of his name, finally comes to an end and Jack Gleeson (likely not first of his name) is now free to retire from acting and the culture of celebrity that he disdains and continue on the road to being a scholar of philosophy. Good show and all that. It also opens one of the story's real mysteries: who poisoned the king? I think the clues are there but it remains to be seen. Fittingly, then, that this episode was GRRM's contribution to this season and, again, fitting that it saw the exit of yet another major character. Martin's reputation for bringing the sword to his books (just like Joffrey) will last forever.
But we open with Ramsay and Reek on the hunt. It's going to be a delicate situation for D&D this season, as it's where a lot of threads truly branch off from one another given the momentous events in the latter half of Storm of Swords (which this season largely covers) and the need to keep actors employed. The appearance of Roose Bolton in the Dreadfort, despite it being his seat, was kind of a surprise to me. His subsequent order of Ramsay to Moat Cailin was even moreso. How does one keep Michael McElhatton employed when the Flayed Man show is on the road to the Moat? That said, that scene was also the one where the episode really opened up with the theme of glances telling thousands of words. Roose's penetrating eyes on his bastard, Reek processing the news of Robb with a razor in his hand, and Ramsay clearly struggling under the bonds of social order were all played very well and set the tone for what followed.
One side note is that the Dreadfort set was the first one where it really stuck out to me that it was Castle Black redressed... and really not so redressed. Granted, you can only have so many sets and architecture in the North does tend to blend together, out of need for function, if nothing else. But the Dreadfort is thousands of years old, as the Boltons are one of the oldest (and oddest) families in Westeros and you'd really kind of expect their home to have its own very obvious character. I really hope that wasn't an effect of the wonderful Gemma Jackson having been replaced.
Meanwhile, the lunchtime meeting of two of the last genuinely noble men in Kings' Landing and the first Tyrion/Jaime scene since Winterfell in season 1 was excellent. Following it up with the first ever Jaime and Bronn scene (with expectation for more) was even better. Not only do we get to see the only real swordplay of the episode (a couple friends have dubbed this kind of GoT action 'Sexy Murder Time' and declared that it should be a new band name; I offered the first album title: As the Clock Stabs Twelve...) but it's an even better excuse for more Jerome Flynn screen time, especially since it was right about here that Bronn is written out of the books (no, it's not really a spoiler since he doesn't die; he just wanders off with a title and a rich wife; would that we could all do that.) This was the only real carryover from the first episode's trend of setup scenes.
The brief scene of Varys and Tyrion bickering over Shae was really kind of forgettable except inasmuch as it seemed to show Conleth Hill sweating through his robe as he walked away. Kings' Landing does get pretty warm and the actors have all commented on how Dubrovnik does, as well, especially since they're all loaded down in brocade and leather and often plate armor, too. It was just an elaborate pattern, but it's not the first thing that came to mind. That was the intro to Tyrion and Shae's subsequent flashpoint. Like the Dreadfort this, too, was a departure from canon, so it seems that they're going to be coming a bit more frequently than before (again, understandably.) It was also a scene upon which I'm kind of conflicted. While it's obvious that Tyrion was forcing the issue and they both knew it was a kind of bullshit even as the words had their horrible impact, it really left me feeling like Dinklage was forcing the issue and outside of his normal deft handling of his role. In every season there's a scene or two that leaves me feeling kind of non-plussed for various reasons but this was, by far, the worst of them. The performances felt off and, if the thread remains as it does in the books, this moment kind of let the air out of the sails of a really powerful event later in the story. There's opportunity to repair it, certainly, but I have to say that, for the first time, I was kind of put off.
The return to Dragonstone was pretty pro forma, although Melisandre's brief smile during the death screams of the Florents was both chilling and in keeping with the 'glances' theme of the episode. I'm left intrigued as to what they're setting up with her interaction with Shiree and waiting to see who can be the first on the Interwebs to create a real recipe for Book Binding Soup.
Likewise, speaking of returns and interesting meals, the appearance of Bran and Co. was a welcome one. Bran's vision is rife with opportunity to drop spoilers, which I'll avoid for non-readers, but it lays the groundwork for much of the season in the far North. I thought Isaac Hempstead-Wright's performance, staring into his food and furs, was brilliant. He was every bit the caged animal, his human and warg sides fighting with each other as Meera tried to keep him grounded. His eyes told everything that was happening, just as the raven's almost does...
But the real parade of glances came, of course, at the wedding, which took up almost the entire second half of the episode. Royal weddings are always rife with symbolism and politics and, as one would expect in the game of thrones, this one was suffused with them. Even before the actual scene, there were all kinds of little hints about what had happened and what was to come. Fantasy geek that I am, I was tickled to hear that Martin had dropped in a nod to one of the legendary writers of that genre in the gift-giving scene preceding the wedding. Just as in season one, when he had Viserys listing off dragon names and mentioning Vermithrax from the 80s film, Dragonslayer, in this moment he had Joffrey asking for names for his new blade to which someone helpfully offered "Stormbringer!", the soul-devouring broadsword of Michael Moorcock's anti-hero, Elric of Melniboné.
Martin has mentioned before that he feels slightly chagrined that, of all the sets, they couldn't make the Great Sept even larger, since it's supposed to be the size of Westminster Abbey. I think they've done a good enough job in the scenes leading up to the wedding (since it's basically half built and they just shoot it from different angles), but I could feel a bit of that disappointment in that the royal wedding could only fit a crowd that was perhaps a few dozen more than appeared at Tyrion and Sansa's intentionally sparsely-attended affair. You do what you can do.
Thankfully, the reception offered all the character action you could hope for: Olenna treating Mace Tyrell like a child while sparring again with Tywin; Jaime and Loras verbally fencing over Cersei; Oberyn falling just short of an outright challenge to the Lannisters; and, of course, the struggle between Joffrey and Tyrion. All of these encounters were sprinkled with those powerful looks and silent messages that spoke volumes about what was actually happening and speaks again to the excellent performance of the cast as whole. Even brief moments like Oberyn and Loras sharing a sly nod were great (especially since no such relationship is ever referred to in the books, as the Martells and Tyrells, and especially Loras and the Red Viper, are not fond of each other) or hilarious, like Pod noticing Kayla, the whore who can do a Meereenese Knot from last season.
Perhaps no moment more exemplifies that trend than when Cersei buttonholes Brienne as she leaves the head table and accosts her about having spent so much time with Jaime. The conflicting emotions that both of them are trying to express and hide at the same time were fantastic. Had circumstances and culture been different, you could easily see the two of them grabbing swords and begin hacking each other to bits (Sexy Murder Time!) But there were many others: Tywin's look of restraint during Joffrey's antics and his look of controlled confusion when the latter keeled over; Varys obviously dismayed at the idea of what Margaery was trying to accomplish by directing the leftovers to the poor, perhaps knowing what Cersei's response would be, and on and on.
But, as so many times before, the people who completely crush it during the reception scene are brother and sister, Tyrion and Cersei. The former's sparring with Joffrey while choosing both words and actions carefully was fantastic. The latter's simmering frustration and then shock and dismay at the death of her son almost instantly transforming into rage and the urge for vengeance against Tyrion may be Lena Headey's best performance in 4 years of great ones. Fitting that it should come just as her station in life transforms irrevocably.
Quotes of the week:
"Try the boar. Cersei can't get enough of it since one killed Robert for her." and "A toast! To the proud Lannister children: the dwarf, the cripple, and the mother of madness." - Tyrion, killin' it.
"He tells me you shit gold, just like your father." and "Right here's where I fucked his wife. She's a screamer, that one. If they don't hear her, they won't hear us." - Bronn, keeping pace.
"I hate a good many things, but I suffer them all the same." - No one suffers like Stannis. One wonders what will happen if he ever succeeds.
"You ought to try enjoying something before you die. You might find it suits you." - Maybe Olenna should offer Tywin some cheese?
"Now, go drink until it feels like you did the right thing." - More wisdom from Bronn.
"Luckily, none of this will ever happen, because you'll never marry her." "And neither will you." - Nikolai Coster-Waldau is rapidly becoming one of my favorite actors.
"In truth, he rescued me, your Grace. More than once." "Did he?" - Those lines aren't particularly great but the looks and performances that accompanied them were amazing. I'm surprised that the frost on that second line from Lena didn't cloud the camera lens.
And the winner:
"People everywhere have their differences. In some places, the highborn frown on children of low birth. In others, the rape and murder of women and children is considered distasteful. How fortunate for you, former queen regent, that your daughter, Myrcella, has been sent to live in one of the latter places." - the Red Viper, two weeks in a row.