One of the things that makes HBO’s “Game Of Thrones” so engrossing is how surprising it can be. Not just with regard to the storylines — even the most well-versed student of Martin’s novels has now accepted that the stories are changing well beyond what they found on the page. No, what continually surprises me are how often the performances and the writing deftly combine to create new favorite moments. We think we’ve got the show pegged — we have our favorites and we’re certain we know who they are. And then, a new episode airs and it’s as if we’re discovering regular characters for the first time, because the show excels at giving characters their moments to shine, and the actors are all skilled enough to embrace those moments.
We’ll get to those moments in a bit. First, let’s talk about Tyrion. Praising Peter Dinklage’s performances week in and week out is almost getting ridiculous, but god damn it, it can’t be helped. The last two episodes have served to show new sides of Tyrion, the more emotional, less conniving sides, and this one — by using his fondness (love, even?) of Shae — showed yet another painfully sensitive side. It’s bolstered by brilliant vignettes with Conleth Hill’s sly, yet almost strangely affectionate Varys (who I miss desperately whenever he isn’t featured prominently) and Lena Headey’s quietly simmering, sweetly vicious Cersei. Cersei sees threats at every corner, yet unfortunately seems to lack the good sense to know who to trust and more importantly, to know when to show her hand. I’ve mentioned it before, but Headey has really grown into the character of Cersei, moving beyond simply cold, steely stares and into becoming a genuinely fascinating, though often repellent character.
In the North, beyond the wall, there was little to report. We met Rattleshirt, the Lord of Bones, and we saw Ygritte returning Jon Snow’s favor by not letting him be killed. And we saw the beginnings of a clever, dangerous plan by Qorin Halfhand, the consequences of which remain to be seen. Elsewhere, a far more intriguing, if also brief confrontation was that between the captive Jaime Lannister and the almost uncomfortably earnest Brienne of Tarth. Jaime seems hell-bent on being the most vitriolic bastard imaginable, a stark contrast to the noble intentions of Brienne (and can we just go ahead and call Gwendolyn Christie some of the best casting… ever?). Christie effectively conveys the essence of Brienne, a powerful, strong-willed, yet strangely gentle-hearted woman in a world where everything seems to be the opposite of what she strives to be. Jaime, on the other hand, is almost the embodiment of that world, even if his sneering arrogance sometimes feels as fragile as her determination.
Short shrift was given once again to Daenerys, whose character seems to get weaker (both in writing and in performance) with each passing week. It’s odd that she was such a strong character in the first season, and yet in the second seems more prone to petulance and childish fury. It’s possible that it’s deliberate, intended to show how she is actually a child in the grand scheme of things and her youth can sometimes affect her actions — except that Robb, and Jon Snow, and Arya and Sansa and Bran are all also young and are acquitting themselves far better of late.
But we talked about moments earlier, moments when some of the seemingly lesser characters suddenly steal scenes and thrust themselves into the bright, glaring light of the show. There were three such moments this week, and the first belongs to Tom Wlaschiha’s intense yet subdued Jaqen H’ghar. The sight of an increasingly frantic Arya stirs him not at all — he simply wants to pay his debt, something he’s happy to do with a wry grin on his face to mask the deaths on his hands. Yet Arya has no time for it, and her naming scene was a stunning bit of maneuvering and manipulation at the hands of one so young. Wlaschiha’s face conveyed a wealth of emotion with great subtlety, the visage of a man of coldness and violence and devotion whose faith is shaken by the grim, almost savage single-mindedness of a young girl.
The second moment surprised me because I didn’t realize there was enough potential depth in the character to warrant such attention. Oona Chaplin’s Lady Talisa was a character who presented a great deal of frustration to viewers. To those who’ve read the novels, it was frustration due to the character being a sizable diversion from the original character, and to the more casual viewer, Talisa seemed too simple a character, an unfocused, underwritten and purposeless character. Yet this week, in that moment in the tent with Robb Stark, Chaplin’s Talisa showed she was capable of more than simply being judgmental and overly simplistic. Rather, she showed more intelligence and compassion than the prior episodes had hinted at and as a result, while the (surprisingly tasteful) love scene between her and Robb may have felt a bit rushed, it also felt like it happened organically and logically. It’s also worth noting that her character is far more interesting than her counterpart in the novels. Robb, meanwhile, had the chance to be both the sensitive soul and the hardened lord as he once again was forced to confront his mother (who I can never decide whether to love or to hate), and again showed a strength that made his rule in spite of his youthfulness make sense.
But for me, the finest moment of the episode came early, and it belonged to Gemma Whelan’s Yara Greyjoy. The character has been an unusual one since the first moment we saw her, a powerful woman who plays the game as well as anyone, strong and determined and at times utterly ruthless. It’s no secret that she disdains her brother Theon, and her razor sharp jests were far more harsh than humorous. And icy, deadly lines like “Go on then. Warn me.” were delivered note-perfectly to create a moment where you learned everything you need to know about both of them. Yet that venom was complimented by a remarkable show of gentleness, at odds with the Ironborn coldness that pervades her character. It added a new dimension to her, the simple tale of a sister’s resentment — and love and understanding — of her baby brother, that made her instantly into a new favorite. In a show filled with favorites, that’s damned impressive.
“Don’t die so far from the sea.”