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After an inconsistent and occasionally frustrating couple of episodes, ones where the stories’ movements were stilted and stuttering, Game Of Thrones came roaring back this week, with an excellent episode that showed new directions for many of the major players. Those paths are, as is often the case, wickedly complicated and filled with shadows.
It was an episode mired in political complexity and desperate plans, and that was apparent right from the beginning. We began with Stannis and Davos on a ship, bound for Braavos and the legendary Iron Bank. Braavos was gorgeously rendered in its stark, austere setting of stone and harsh angles, yet offset by a surprisingly whimsical — if wickedly cynical and pragmatic — reception. It was unsurprising that Stannis’s dour, repetitive accusations would fail to stir the emotions of a group of financiers renowned for being unemotional, and Stephen Dillane played his part perfectly. Yet it was the vigorous and impassioned defense by Davos via Liam Cunningham’s performance that owned the scene, and that ultimately may well turn the tide. This scene was a perfect return to the fascinating relationship between these two men, revisiting the strange and compelling loyalties that they share, loyalties that have been missing or unapparent in recent weeks, and a return to that most curious, unfriendliest of friendships was refreshing.
The episode’s lone bit of action came from the Dreadfort, where we began with Yara reading Ramsay Snow’s missive with its horrific demands on the Ironborn. In an episode full of great speeches, Yara’s tension and barely-contained anger was certainly near the top of the list. But despite her best intentions and the blades of her men, all is for naught, for we see that Theon Greyjoy is well and truly broken, and only Reek remains. Yet it’s the aftermath of that battle where one of the most intense and unsettling moments took place. There was something unnerving and terrifying about Ramsay’s kindnesses, particularly when juxtaposed with his cruelties, revealed when Reek removes his clothes. The entire scene, filled with shadows and rippling waters, cold and dark and dreadful, was brilliantly staged. And after all of the manic insanity of Ramsay, all the cocksure stupidity of Theon, it’s this scene that had the two actors at their best, two amazingly subdued performances (particularly the shuddering, tormented depiction by Alfie Allen), in a moment full of horror and loathing and gut-churning tension, where we get to see that Ramsay’s vicious inventiveness extends well beyond his gift for pain and suffering. It is full of fear and loathing and nightmares, and there’s a terrible genius in Ramsay’s plan, and we’re dying to see how it plays out.
Across the narrow sea, Daenerys’s crown lies heavy indeed. Her dragons torment her subjects, and the price of her justice is far more serious than she could ever have imagined. This was a solid, if unspectacular scene, one that made good on her promise from the previous episode. Yet ruling is perhaps more than the young queen is ready for, and the lessons she must learn — born from dragons and goatherds and the son of an artist who died for being a noble — are brutal and unforgiving ones. Daenerys must now learn that simply freeing slaves isn’t ruling, and that there are crucial differences between justice and vengeance, and that even the most merciless can sometimes show you more than expected.
Yet the highlight of what was already a very strong episode was of course Tyrion’s trial, a sequence that was so grimly and relentlessly depicted that it practically left me gasping. Presented with minimal fanfare, completely without musical accompaniment, it was absolutely riveting from start to finish. The overwhelming collection of truths and lies, the masterful manipulations and machinations as we see all of Cersei’s brutal plans come to light, and the unflinching, relentless gaze of Tywin Lannister as he sits in uncaring judgment against his son, all result in the deck being well-stacked against Tyrion. Dinklage was amazing in this episode, whether he stood unbowed in silence, or lashed out at those who always hated him, or simply endured, mired in bitterness and hopelessness.
And then. that final and cruelest betrayal, the one we all should have seen coming but didn’t, not until the boom of that door opening, not until the spread of Cersei’s triumphant glare, not until Tyrion’s broken heart is exposed right in the open. It’s worth noting that after four seasons of up-and-down performances from Sibel Kekilli (in no small part due to some lazy and rote writing), she absolutely killed it in this scene, equal parts fearful and bitter and hateful and even a little bit sad, as she twisted the knife inside the only man who ever truly loved her. All of this led to the final unleashing of Tyrion’s fury, and for a few minutes, it was glorious to behold. Dinklage held nothing back, and it was a smoldering disdain that became a burning rage that transformed into a white-hot, seething, hateful rage, with venom and loathing and righteousness dripping off of every self-destructive word. It was marvelous, and it ended with the most unlikely of requests.
There has never been a bad episode of Game Of Thrones, but the past couple have certainly been some of the weakest. Yet the show came back with a searing intensity this week, demonstrating everything that makes it great. Stellar performances, deeply affecting and nuanced writing, and a gift for capturing every subtle hue in the range of human emotions, all on the massive palette of a world at war. It set all-new events into motion, and provided even more reason for us to become completely enamored of this universe, all as we desperately wonder what will happen next.