Remember those midseason shockers I mentioned in my first review? The ones that we pay for in boring premieres and endless conversations about motherhood and/or cheese? Last night’s Game of Thrones left fans with plenty to talk about, but it’s safe to say that upwards of 90 percent of today’s water cooler conversations will have to do with that final, incredible minute.
That’s right: after a solid couple of scenes tailor-made to finally help us empathize with Jaime, the character who’s committed some of the most objectively terrible acts in a show full of terrible people, the golden boy got his right hand chopped off. As first-time viewers can probably guess and book readers already know, this is the beginning of a long and wonderful character arc that defines George R.R. Martin’s talents as a storyteller. What does a rich kid do without his famous dad? How does a man whose reputation and self-perception depend on his skill in battle survive without his good hand? Why do we feel genuinely awful when a would-be child murderer gets less than a tenth of what he deserves? Good questions all, but by the time The Hold Steady comes on for the closing credits, we’re too shocked to care.
The other Lannister son has a slightly better day trying to hold down the capital. In one of the best examples of the silent, ruthlessly efficient characterization this show does so well, the mini-arc’s opening scene speaks volumes about the Lannister family dynamic. Tywin’s the authoritative leader, Cersei’s the golden girl who gains auxiliary power from her proximity to the real deal, and Tyrion is the cynical, irreverent outcast who makes himself necessary by being extraordinarily competent. Which is why he gets saddled with Sisyphean task of managing the royal family’s finances while Littlefinger peaces out to woo Catelyn’s crazy sister.
(A brief aside: I’ve never had an issue with Game of Thrones’ frank portrayal of sex and prostitution before, but this week’s scene with Podrick literally made me cringe. The way Tyrion treats women like dog treats is sketchy enough on its own, but considering how the last time he did it two women ended up physically abused and psychologically traumatized, he should know better. Where’s his trademark empathy for outsiders, like Jon Snow, Shae, or, uh, himself? End rant.)
Speaking of deft characterization, this episode’s opening scene fleshes out two new Tully family members in less than a minute. Edmure, Catelyn’s older brother, is well-meaning, blustery, and ineffectual; Uncle Blackfish is gruff and pragmatic. By far the best scene at Riverrun — new opening sequence alert! — is his speech to a grief-stricken Catelyn. Blackfish first opts for a stock, unconvincing reassurance that Bran and Rickon are probably still alive, then quickly tosses it out in favor of emphasizing why Cat needs to keep herself together. It’s not about how she feels, it’s about how she can help her son win the war he’s fighting. Tough stuff, but a world where Cat genuinely believes her kids are still alive is a world where Ned Stark would still have his head.
Our last major plotline takes us back to Daenerys, who’s treated to a lesson in Machiavelli for Dummies courtesy of Jorah and Barristan. The two men are a little too conveniently polar opposite, slipping all too easily into a devil/angel-on-the-shoulder-style debate over whether to use a slave army. Jorah wants to use a soulless but obedient slave army; Barristan wants brave men committed to the cause, never mind the raping and pillaging. Daenerys shuts them both up by offering to trade a slave army for one of her dragons, plus striking a blow for feminism by taking in a translator slave in the process. This scene wasn’t quite as well executed as Jaime’s limb loss, so while I’m sure this was a great will-she-or-won’t-she cliffhanger for newcomers, it just left me excited for the real action to come. Still, watching Emilia Clarke switch Empowered Dany on and off is one of the great pleasures of this show.
Finally, we skip through a captive Arya, a sexually frustrated Stannis, and Theon’s escape with the help of his mysterious knight in shining armor to land on Jon and Sam’s adventures in the North. Jon and the wildlings stumble across a giant, creepy murder-spiral of dismembered horses, which for some reason prompts Mance to send Jon on a loyalties-testing mission to climb over the Wall. Sam gets the more interesting scene here, when the remaining members of the Night’s Watch invite themselves to Craster’s Keep, home of daughter-wives and soon-to-be-murdered babies. After he’s had enough of being insulted for his weight, Sam casually walks in on Cassie from Skins giving birth. I honestly bought that this wouldn’t have been a big deal; the feeling of misery and hopelessness that pervades everything about Craster’s Keep makes it seem like no one has much of a stake in otherwise sacred rituals like birth. The look on Gilly’s face when she realizes it’s a boy is absolutely crushing, but I couldn’t help but think I wouldn’t have been much happier if my firstborn was a girl who’d be forced to marry her own father.
Which brings us to the end of the best installment of Game of Thrones we’ve seen this season. We’re still not on the level of the best of Seasons 1 and 2, but unlike last week’s disappointment, “Walk of Punishment” left me confident — and flat-out excited — that there are better days in store for our favorite characters. Until next week, when Daenerys will kick ass and Jaime will have to figure out life after two hands.