Then there’s the courtly intrigue of the capital, which seems to be manipulated almost entirely by women (and Varys, who I’m counting as a fellow victim of the patriarchy since he doesn’t exactly benefit from male privilege). In one of the better adaptation choices this season, the writers have expanded Olenna Tyrell’s character from a cherished cameo appearance to a full-blown voice of reason. As a result, we get a fabulous shared moment between her and Cersei where the two bond over the frustration of being close to power without ever truly wielding it, watching their sons and husbands make mistakes they never would. Cersei’s not exactly qualified to rule, as her father harshly reminds her, but her mini-manifesto reprimanding Tywin for underestimating her was music to my ears. Meanwhile, Varys and Olenna plot to take Sansa out of Littlefinger’s clutches by spiriting her off to Highgarden to marry Loras. It’s telling that the only dud scene in King’s Landing is the heart-to-heart between Varys and Tyrion, featuring a guest appearance from the sorcerer who castrated Varys decades ago. Funny how Varys happened to be unpacking him just when Tyrion stopped by to chat about revenge, isn’t it?
Up in the North, the Craster situation goes up in smoke, giving Gilly the chance to become an actual character and not just a girl Sam adores because she smiled at him once. Convinced that Craster is withholding food, some of the starving men defy the Lord Commander’s orders and opt to storm the keep. The fight quickly turns into a full-blown mutiny, killing not just Craster but the Lord Commander himself. After Gilly’s no-bullshit reminder that all she cares about is saving her kid and Sam only matters to her insofar as he can help her do that, Sam takes charge, grabbing her and her nameless baby during the ensuing chaos and bolting out of there. Sure, Sam finally shows some initiative, but it’s only because Gilly yelled it into him first. She’s now my second favorite outspoken wildling woman.
Before we get to this episode’s payoff moment, we drop in on Bran, Arya, and Theon. Bran is working his way through some issues via dream, and Arya gets a look at the secret lair of the so-called Brotherhood Without Banners. Predictably, it’s behind a waterfall and comes with a Vigilante Mission Statement from Beric Dondarrion, the people’s champion who challenges Sandor Clegane to a fight to the death. Far more interesting is the dynamic between Theon and his savior-turned-captor Reek. I’ve been unsure where this was going for a few weeks, since in the books Reek is far less convincing and never goes so far as to help Theon escape. Ultimately, however, the way the show introduces Reek is actually more effective in underlining just how sadistic and insane he actually is: I won’t spoil any surprises about his identity, but suffice it to say he’s a mad dog who cares about inflicting suffering and little else. It’s a masterful introduction that’s totally original to the show, demonstrating once again that Benioff and Weiss know what they’re doing.
Finally, there’s the moment we were all waiting for: Daenerys kicking some ass after a season and a third of weighing her options and doing little else. Still, it wasn’t as suspenseful or unexpected as the show clearly wanted it to be. A good three or four friends of mine independently predicted the use of dragons, slaves, or both to bring down Astapor before last night’s airing, making the Unsullied’s battle debut gratifying but not thrilling. The last shot, however, is truly epic: viewers and readers alike have always believed Daenerys will do great things, and she’s finally accomplished something on a truly regal scale. Whether that’s enough to win her the Iron Throne is another question entirely.