As with most first episodes for a season of a continuing series, you have to skip around a bit and this one did quite a lot of that, even though it was lacking Bran and Theon and Stannis entirely (Shades of book 4?) That said, I thought the pace remained pretty consistent and it was interesting to see that DB (and Dan, since they do everything together) decided to direct the first episode of the season rather than one with more momentous events. One wonders if their overall attitude toward the series has changed, given that they've reached and surpassed the one scene that compelled them to not only make the series (the Red Wedding), but the one that they assured GRRM would mean that the series was here to stay if they could pull it off. Are they feeling more like overall managers than the ones driving it forward? Does it have a life of its own now, such that they can direct the episodes that lay the groundwork, rather than the big splashes? While openers always mean a lot of setups for future episodes, and this one was no different, it still had some real meat and a couple moments that I'd been really waiting for, as well.
It was a nice touch to see the last image we've had of Ice (executing Ned) when they did the season 3 recap since, after all, the episode opened with its reforging and the most prominent man in Westeros, one Tywin Lannister. And, of course, with the Rains of Castamere as the continuing Lannister score. The scene was a good reminder that he is essentially still reshaping the realm as he wants it and now has the Valyrian steel to prove it. Also, while I expected the opening sequence to introduce Meereen (For how many seasons...?), I was a bit surprised to see not only the Dreadfort (although that's where Reek and the Bastard will be appearing, of course) but also the continued focus on Winterfell when there is no action there and hasn't been for some time. Again, it could just be a concession to the audience's overall image of the story and the distress of the Starks, in general, but we get plenty of that. Perhaps just a reluctance to break form?
One thing I had been waiting for was a Jaime and Tywin scene, since we haven't had one of those since episode 7 of the first season and that one was classic (Tywin skinning the stag.) This one is almost as good, with Jaime demonstrating just how different he has become. However, like many of the characters, he has a certain resonance with Brienne, just as Tyrion has the best exchanges with Tywin. Jaime and Tywin just don't match that energy, unfortunately.
The other thing I'd been waiting for was the arrival of the Red Viper and that extended scene, from Tyrion's embarrassment outside the city to Oberyn Martell's display at the brothel, had plenty of energy. They pulled no punches at all, showing both Oberyn and Ellaria's diverse appetites, as well as the former's deep-seated thirst for vengeance. Pedro Pascal did a fantastic job and I'm expecting that he'll be a fan favorite, even of the people who didn't read the books.
The Daenerys scenes were also good, demonstrating the growing (literally) threat of the kids, the simmering frustration of Jorah Mormont, and introducing the new actor playing Daario Naharis (Michael Huisman.)They're clearly stressing Dany's transition into her more commanding role as queen with her dismissal of both Daario and Grey Worm for their show of machismo (yes, one can question the motivation of Grey Worm in that respect, being a eunuch) and, consequently, I'm not sure the flower scene worked so well. It was an object lesson in understanding the people she's now leading, but I thought her chemistry with the previous actor (Ed Skrein) was superior, even though Huisman is a better physical match for the character from the books (still lacking the blue hair and beard, though.) Missandei's glance at them after they dropped the sword game was excellent, though. Also, I understand that Drogon always gets the close-ups, as he's the dragon that Dany is closest to, but it wouldn't hurt to occasionally see Viserion or Rhaegal get some attention.
The dual scene with Shae insisting that Sansa eat to teasing Tyrion in bed was also really well done. Sophie Turner continues to impress as an actress with her emotional delivery, which outshines the later appearance of Ser Dontos. Tony Way really didn't deliver and I was hoping that that scene would be a bit more tender as he appoints himself her watchdog (as one really can't say "champion" and I'm glad that they avoided that implication) while handing over the necklace that is his only remnant of his former life, paralleling the transformation of the sword at the beginning of the episode. Tyrion and Shae's interaction is, of course, emblematic of the setups that comprise much of this offering.
Another interaction I was really wanting to see is that of Cersei and Jaime. Their scenes in the books are fairly dynamic and I'm expecting no less here as things continue. The first go-round was excellent and I'm wondering what some of the feedback from the audience will be. Since most people are interested in seeing relationships move forward, will there be glee at the clear breakdown in this one? Has Jaime developed enough of a fan following for them to feel dismay at the fact that he's not getting what he so obviously wants or will there be satisfaction that he's becoming separated from his still fairly despicable sister? The whole exchange and the reaction highlights what makes this story so compelling: the everpresent and constantly shifting shades of gray (a lot more than 50 and more interesting, from what I've heard.) What's even better in this episode is the clear contrast between the halting and finally halted interaction between the twins, the lovers, the people that Cersei once claimed to be one person and that of the ultimate odd couple, Brienne and Jaime, who are clearly more comfortable and closer with each other than the brother and sister. Life's little turns and all that. After all, who hasn't had to confront losing one's incestuous relationship for a woman who used to despise you? Just watching Lena Headey explore Cersei's newfound disdain for her now-incomplete lover will be a treat.
I was a bit concerned that, with the loss of Gemma Jackson, the production designer who's been with them since the beginning, who left because her life had been consumed by the show for too long, some of the little details might be left out. But my concern was misplaced, as those details, like the hilarious statue of Joffrey and his crossbow over the dead direwolf were all still present. The actor's performances were all still there, too (Pascal waving his hand over the candle flame as he approaches the two Lannister guardsmen and Jaime waving at the departing Qyburn with his new golden hand were two of the best.) And, as before, some of the added details and scenes often turn out to be the best.
Martin makes brief mention of the Thenns and their tendencies in the books, but D&D decide to explore a bit more of that while showing what Tormund and Ygritte are up to without Jon and while waiting for Mance to arrive. There are a lot of themes explored here that have little to do with the cannibalism: the polyglot army that Mance has assembled, how it will stay together, IF it will stay together, and how the shifting alliances and opposing tendencies among the savage horde of the north are just like those of the noble houses of the south. Humans are humans wherever you go (and they probably taste the same, too.)
That dynamic is evident in Jon's brief moment on trial in front of Alliser Thorne (played by the returning Owen Teale) and, of all people, Janos Slynt. Here are these contemptible fools, condemned to the Night's Watch, but still finding themselves the judges of others because of their highborn status (even if Slynt only has it by dint of being the lord of Harrenhal for a few days before he was shipped off.) But one of the overall themes of the story is the struggle by the common folk under the yoke of their so-called 'betters' and it continues to play out here, even after Sam and Jon's brief exchange about their mixed feelings for people who actually are better than them at many things. That's what helps make these characters into real people that the viewers relate to and understand and, again, delivers the show its power and its longevity.
Thankfully, they saved the best scene for last. Arya's adventures with Sandor Clegane are the point in the books when I truly began to appreciate her character. My interest had been piqued by her interaction with Syrio Forel and her experience with Jaqen H'ghar, but both of them seemed more interesting and she was there simply to bring her chapter-heading perspective. But combining her with the character whom, as I've mentioned before, is far and away my favorite of the story is what also showed me the depth and genuine fascination that Arya presents. This scene brought that out in almost every way possible. Their comedy routine while watching from the trees cracked me up from start to finish and Arya's expression of mild glee as she finished off Polliver spoke volumes both about what she already is and where she's so obviously going; again, a brilliant setup for an episode filled with them.
Quotes of the week:
"A one-handed man with no family needs all the help he can get." - Judgment has been handed down from the greatest judge in Westeros.
"No need for cynicism. I happen to be an accomplished diplomat." - Tyrion speaks truth, if only others would listen.
"You're famous for fucking half of Westeros. You've just arrived at the capital after two weeks of bad roadway. Where would you go?"
"I'd probably go to sleep. But, then, I'm gettin' old." - speaking of comedy routines, Tyrion and Bronn remain priceless. It was interesting to see how Daniel Portman, playing Podrick Payne, had grown, too.
"Everyone who works for Littlefinger is on offer."
"Which way do you like it?"
"My way." - Speaking of truths...
"Now I'm a knight."
"How did that come to pass?"
"Killed the right people, I suppose." - The law of Westeros.
"I'd rather have no brains. And two balls." - Pros and cons.
"Of course. Prayer can be helpful, I hear." - Tyrion again.
"Thenns. I fucking hate Thenns." - Tormund, OTOH, is great.
"You always know when a man is telling a lie? How did you acquire this magical power?"
"I grew up in Kings Landing." - Egg, bringin' it, especially in an episode where his boon companion, Duncan the Tall, is finally mentioned.
"Look me in the eye and tell me she'll be safe in Kings Landing." - Brienne and Jaime's rapport continues to grow.
"You're fine with murdering little boys but stealing is beneath you?"
"Man's gotta have a code." - Arya Martin and Sandor Lewis, ladies and gentlemen.
"I understand that if any more words come pouring out your cunt mouth, I'm gonna have to eat every chicken in this room." - I really appreciated some lengthy discourse by the Hound, but the best quote and moment, by far, goes to the Red Viper:
"When I pull my blade your friend starts bleeding quite a bit, I'm
afraid. So many veins in the wrist... He'll live if you get him help
straightaway. So... Decisions."