Never let it be said that the show runners behind HBO’s “Game Of Thrones” don’t take their time building the story. Episode Two of this third season, “Dark Wings, Dark Words,” was another leisurely paced sixty minutes, filled with some crackling dialogue and the return of some of our favorite characters, as well as the introduction of some that may well become new favorites.
Episode Two abandons Daenerys Targarean and her adventures across the sea, and instead focuses on the ongoing saga of the fractured Stark family and the various other characters who are linked to them. We start with young Bran and younger Rickon, travelling North to the Wall in search of sanctuary after the sacking and razing of Winterfell. One of the more refreshing elements of the television show is that Isaac Hempstead-Wright has brought a sense of quiet, sad resignation to Bran Stark, and made him quite a sympathetic character — a feat, considering that he’s one of my least favorite characters from the novels (it always seemed like every Bran-centered chapter ground the books’ pacing to a halt). There’s a mysteriousness to Bran, as if there is a bizarre, mystical greatness hidden within his broken little body. The appearance of the strange Reed siblings, particularly the young mystic Jojen (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), finally gives a sense of direction and focus to those curious abilities that confuses the youngster so. All of a sudden, a solid foundation has been built once you add in the dogged loyalty of Hodor, the sharp-eyed wit of Osha, and the pint-sized lethality of young Meera Reed (Ellie Kendrick) to their party.
Speaking of the destruction of Winterfell, the tale of Robb Stark, the King of the North, gets a little more tragic with each passing week. With forces scattered, allies losing faith when they aren’t flat out resenting him for his marital gaffe, and a mother he himself has clapped in irons, one wonders how much more our young king can take. And yet he finds himself on the receiving end of more grim news, learning that Catelyn’s father has died, and worse yet, that Winterfell is destroyed and her other two sons missing. Catelyn herself is one of the more complicated characters in the show, one who was initially handled rather clumsily, but Michelle Fairley has grown into the part with a wan, regal grace. Her moment with Talisa was one of her most impressive bits of acting, a woman wracked with guilt over her inability to love the child that wasn’t hers. Most poignantly heartrending was this line: “And everything that’s happened since then, all the horror that has come to my family, is because I couldn’t love a motherless child.” It was a beautifully delivered little monologue, full of heartbreak and self-loathing and tragedy. Catelyn is the character that links the Stark children together — their individual storylines focus on their own respective plights, but it’s Catelyn that ties those threads together.
In King’s Landing, we are given another glimpse behind the eyes of the boy king we all love to hate, Joffrey Baratheon. He is truly a loathsome little creature, and we should take a moment to acknowledge the absolutely killer performance of Jack Gleeson, a young man with the unenviable task of portraying one of the least-liked characters on television. There’s a new element to Joffrey, too, one that’s been riveting to watch, and that’s his growth into adulthood. His petty cruelties are evolving into a harsh and vicious venality, and how that venality is addressed and manipulated by the women in his life is fascinating. Queen Cersei is desperately trying to hold on to Joffrey, to mold him into her image and show him how to rule and who to trust, as Joffrey shrinks more and more from her motherly ministrations. On the other hand, Margaery Tyrell is proving herself to be quite a brilliant manipulator as well. One would have assumed that her meeting with Sansa, with Sansa blurting out the truth about the young king, would have given her pause if not outright an outright reversal when it comes to Joffrey. Yet there’s a stunning, sexually charged kind of Machiavellian brilliance to Margaery. With a combination of doe-eyed innocence, sultry seductions, slinky sycophancy mixed with a sense of strength and pride, she deftly corners Joffrey by playing into his depravities and slowly begins to make him her own.
One realizes that Margaery doesn’t want a husband, doesn’t want a grand title — she wants to rule — and perhaps what Cersei distrusts most is the warped image of herself she sees within her. Yet that cunning is clearly a family trait, as the introduction of Lady Olenna Redwyne, the Queen of Thorns (Diana Rigg), demonstrates just where that strength and guile comes from. Rigg was absolutely terrific in her debut as the salty, brazen and blunt-spoken Olenna, an undiplomatic schemer who is virtually the anti-Catelyn. The Tyrells hunger for power and leverage, and Olenna and Margaery played a woeful, anxious Sansa perfectly in order to gain the tools and information they need to turn the events to their favor.
There were other, smaller pieces to this week’s stories that weren’t quite as successful. Tyrion’s scene in his chambers with Shae wasn’t particularly affecting. It served to show Tyrion’s weakness when it comes to his ladylove, but Shae’s ridiculous jealousy and petulance was off-putting and not helped by a fairly pedestrian performance by Sibel Kekilli. Similarly, while I enjoy Sam Tarly as a character and John Bradley’s depiction, the scene of the stumbling, pathetic Sam didn’t really give us anything new about any of the characters involved. However, elsewhere north of the Wall, I did enjoy the quiet, frost-breathed dialogue between Jon Snow and Mance Rayder — I’m very much enjoying the slow indoctrination of Jon Snow via the laconic, sharp-eyed Rayder. And the scene of Orell, the skin-changer, watching the skies was wondrously creepy and intense.
The two best things about this week were, for me, the return of Arya Stark and the Brienne & Jaime Show. Arya and her little band of intrepid cohorts, Gendry and Hot Pie, encounter new challenges with the appearance of Thoros of Myr and his gang of warriors. Thoros, portrayed with a bright-eyed insouciance by Paul Kaye, is an excellent and lighthearted addition to the show that I look forward to seeing more of, a bawdy yet dangerous bravado that adds a needed bit of levity, even in the most serious moments. Yet most importantly, Arya continues to grow and impress, and her gifts of cleverness and courage, even in the face of clearly insurmountable odds, remain a joy to behold.
Yet my favorite moment was the battle between Jaime and Brienne, something that they’ve both likely secretly been thirsting for since day one. Brienne is such an amazing character, with a childlike innocence and a fierce nobility, two traits that have no place in this harsh and unyielding world. Jaime Lannister is the perfect foil, a corrupted and bitter noble who appears to lack even a shred of nobility. They are oil and water and they are perfect together. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Gwendoline Christie each devour their roles, becoming their characters completely, and much like the show’s other great rivaliries — Arya and Tywin Lannister, Varys and Littlefinger, Tyrion and almost everyone — their pairing gives off a crackling intensity. Jaime’s goading and eventual tricking of Brienne into a fight was great, and the fight itself was nicely choreographed, only to end with danger overtaking them and Brienne’s sad realization that perhaps Jaime’s awful inclinations might have saved their lives, had she only heeded him.
“Game Of Thrones” is taking a slowly simmering approach thus far, gradually reintroducing the sprawling cast and gently immersing us back into the world. I appreciate the slow burn, though I confess that I thirst for a bit more action now and again. Yet it’s so much fun to simply sit back and observe the interactions that by the episodes end, despite little of substance always happening, you barely notice or even mind. Each week brings more loose ends — none so dangling and baffling as the gruesome torture of Theon Greyjoy — yet does so by engaging us viewers so thoroughly that we eagerly lap it up, waiting each week to see where they will take us.