For the longest time, I've felt that The Wire was the best thing ever put on TV. There have been a few close seconds: seasons 3-7 of The Simpsons, Breaking Bad, and now Game of Thrones. However, since I read the books long before the series ever emerged into the force that it has now become, I've never quite been able to separate one medium from the other. The Wire is the best television show ever. Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire is still more book series to me than TV series and this is one of those episodes that kind of highlights that. So far this season, each episode has had kind of a stunning event (as D&D had implied during the pre-season interviews; "each episode has a kind of 'Red Wedding' moment") that sets the Interwebs abuzz.
That said, for the first time I'm at a bit of a loss in terms of thinking about really powerful scenes because a lot of this was just progression or bridging. In a narrative sense, it's difficult to continually have "wow moments" (DaveBrandonCreatingTheFuture™) one after the other because your audience will become inured to them and your story will begin to suffer from requiring yet another peak, followed by the inevitable come down. In Hollywood, they tend to "solve" that problem by just blowing up more stuff. Not possible in the more limited scope of TV budgets and yet expanded scope of a serial production (if one chooses to look at the series as a sequence of 10-hour films, which seems reasonable to me.)
Even so, there were high points in this episode. They were just a bit more subtle than usual. For example, both scenes with Arya and Sandor were, as usual, excellent. Arya naming the Hound at the end of her list, even though likely expected by most watching, book-reader or not, was great. Rory McCann's continued concern over the way his pseudo-charge is developing, even through the haze of his general disdain for all things, is great. You could see the thoughts moving through his raised head as she finished: "Did she just name me? Well, alright, then." It's an excellent student-teacher relationship that I'm sure GRRM is kicking himself for not exploring further.
The later scene with the swordplay was almost better. Much as I appreciate the essentials of Eastern sword technique (and was a practitioner of it for several years), there is something to be said for simply overpowering your more nimble opponents with solid steel and irresistible force. The fact that said opponent is a young girl without much of a chance to develop the strength to try to counter that armor (especially when worn by a nearly 7-foot man) just makes the point that much more obvious. The Hound is such a cynic that he continually tries to reinforce the point that nothing she does will make things better, whereas Arya is determined to make them so, even if she has to take a relatively morbid path to do so. In that way, they're as alike and as disparate as two characters can get.
But did D&D jump ahead of the books again? Tywin tells Cersei that the last of the Westlands' gold mines was played out three years before. That doesn't mean the Lannisters are broke. It just means that they're not as liquid as before. Thus, the greater emphasis on the Iron Bank this season, which is a much larger presence in the current thread of the TV series than it ever was in the books. Is this a way of creating a bit more dramatic tension about the crown's debt or is it a way to keep the audience intrigued since the power of the Bank is so similar to our own current times? Either is acceptable from a storytelling perspective, but I wonder if Martin did drop them a hint of the Lannisters' impending financial troubles and they decided to run with it?
Sticking with that perception of "lacking a big moment", the lone scene with Dany and Co. seemed to introduce the notorious Meereenese Knot in just a few short moments. How does one keep slaves free in a culture that is utterly reliant upon them since time out of mind? If one is going to rule, what makes Westeros that much better than Slavers' Bay and however much of Essos one can conquer (and without half the politics)? For that matter, if one is trying to be just and free people from their bondage, what entitles one to do it anywhere other than the strength of the sword? Wouldn't freeing people from bondage mean ending the serfdom of Westeros just like the slavery of Essos? Once again, the gray areas of both story and character dominate, especially in the case of Dany. At least we got the name drop of Cleon the Butcher, too.
I will say that the one scene I was genuinely disappointed in was that between Oberyn and Cersei. Here are two of the most interesting (and volatile) characters and two of the strongest actors with extended time together and they spend it largely rehashing Oberyn's slights against the Lannisters and Cersei's despair over Myrcella's absence. Those are certainly valid topics, but I was hoping for a bit more in the way of fireworks. Once again, peaks/valleys/how many can you tread, etc. The little tête-à-tête with Margaery was, in contrast, more interesting for its lack of flames. One has to assume that Margaery is wary enough to understand that a sympathetic Cersei is akin to dealing with a sleepy viper. Lena Headey is doing great things this season and that's saying quite a bit considering what she's done to date.
So we come to Craster's. My main concern with the deviation with Bran's story was that he would actually link up with Jon and the impact that would have on the two characters. In the end, they wrote their way out of that and the whole thing became a bit of an unnecessary sideshow. There were interesting points, certainly, in that the fight scene between Jon and Karl was well done (and the counterpoint to the assertion by the Hound about big swords versus faster ones) and it was definitely exciting to see Hodor get the killing blow on Locke, despite it being a case of him being warged by Bran (the gentle giant looking in confusion at the hands that just committed murder was a very nice touch.) But, in the end, it felt a bit too obvious that this was a scene inserted to try to cover for long stretches in the book where, again, Bran's story is the trek north and Jon's is getting ready for Mance and the Wildling army to appear. Again, you do what you gotta to keep the ball rolling. I just think that, as a capper to an already intermediate (as it were) episode, it kind of highlighted some of the story problems that they're already running into.
The extended applause for Not-Joffrey's coronation reminded me of the gushing for Obama shortly after his first election. The fact that he wasn't his predecessor was enough to win him a completely farcical Nobel Peace Prize. It was, of course, notable that Cersei was the only one not applauding the death of her firstborn.
It was interesting to see the Bloody Gate, despite not seeing it on our trip to the Vale in season 1. One assumes that was a budgetary issue. That said, in the books, Sansa and Petyr stop off at his old home before proceeding overland through the gate. Having just sailed from Kings' Landing, one would have expected them to stop at Gulltown where we could have skipped the Gate sequence entirely.
Brienne and Pod's scenes were similar. There's some development going on in that Brienne reverts to her pre-Jaime distance and aloofness while the ever-earnest Pod does his best to screw up and break her out of it. But this odd couple can't hold a candle to the previous Brienne pairing or Arya and Sandor, of course, and that made it seem a little like filling time.
To go even further with the Hound's comments about fighting styles (tank-like knights vs. faster blades), I really want to play Crusader Rex again... /wargamenerd.
Quotes of the week:
"Who told you to take the Meereenese navy?"
"No one told me."
"Why did you do it?"
"I heard you like ships." - Forget roses. Queens want ships.
"You know what stories poor men love best? Ones about rich girls they can't have." -Petyr with the little biographical note that batshit-crazy Lysa elaborates upon later with Sansa.
"What do you think will happen if you leave?"
"They'll say I wasn't a very good squire." - Pod the pragmatist.
"Mostly I poured wine." - Pod the realist.
And the winner and still champeen:
"Your friend's dead and Meryn Trant is not, because Trant had armor. And a big fucking sword." - It's mildly terrifying seeing how mature Maisie Williams is in that scene. What's she going to look like in three years?