You can’t judge a book by its cover, but it’s hard not to judge a Game of Thrones episode by its color palette. “Kill the Boy” takes place almost entirely in the North, meaning it’s dominated by blacks, whites, greys, and blues. After scene upon scene in a dirty kennel, dark hall, or dank library somewhere in the bowels of Castle Black, it’s hard not to miss the bright reds and golds of King’s Landing or Dorne. Even Meereen, normally a dependable source of blues and yellows—come to think of it, isn’t it odd for an entire city to color-coordinate its outfits?—is comparatively drab this week to match Dany’s mindset.
This wouldn’t be a problem, or anything more than a minor aesthetic complaint, if four seasons of conditioning hadn’t taught viewers to associate flat, muted colors with some of the show’s least compelling characters. That’s truer than ever this week, as viewers are asked to care about the relationship troubles and daddy issues of none other than Ramsay snow. Interestingly, the black-and-white North is also currently home to almost all of the characters who either see the world or are seen by the audience in terms of black and white. Jon and Ramsay have been there all along; now Brienne and Stannis have made their way past the Neck. Stannis’ fate remains to be seen, but the North is certainly more welcoming of Brienne’s heroics than King’s Landing ever was.
Between Sansa’s servant, Brienne’s quest, and Aemon’s old-school “buck up, you’re a leader now” speech, there’s quite a lot in “Kill the Boy” that smacks of more traditional fantasy and fairy tales—the episode even ends with a marriage proposal, albeit a highly unorthodox one. A trapped princess, told to light a candle in a tower? A knight valiantly, and patronizingly, setting out to save said princess? A newly minted leader, venturing into parts unknown to save humanity? This doesn’t feel very Game of Thrones, or at least it doesn’t until we dive into Ramsay and Miranda’s weird S&M dynamic.
Ramsay is one of extremely few characters in Westeros viewers are encouraged to see as pure, irredeemable evil, so it’s odd that he’s placed at the center of this week’s Winterfell interlude. That Reek, now barely a person, takes a backseat isn’t a surprise, but even Sansa has been moved several squares back on the chess board to right where she was in King’s Landing: enduring the whims of a horrifying sadist who killed her family. Having Reek give her away is a classic Joffrey move, and even the scene with Miranda plays like a bizarro version of Tyrion consoling Shae. Sansa is clearly better equipped to handle the pressure now, and Sophie Turner does an excellent job of communicating it without much dialogue.
Yet it’s still Ramsay, and his relationship with Roose, who gets the most screen time as Team Literally No On Is Rooting for Us prepares to face Stannis’ onslaught. Ramsay is worried his new sibling will replace him; Roose responds by telling him he’s a child of rape. It’s neither compelling nor humanizing—if Miranda is funhouse-mirror Shae, then this speech is the twisted version of Stannis’ lecture to Shireen last week. It does, however, confirm “Kill the Boy” as a transitional episode: Stannis prepares to attack Winterfell; Jon prepares to rescue the wildlings still north of the Wall; Dany shifts gears after Barristan’s death. Even Tyrion spends the episode in transit, providing historical background on the Doom of Valyria while his traveling companion picks up a fatal disease to give his plot line some time pressure.
The good news is that Daenerys has managed to break her stasis without Tyrion’s impending help. Having gotten to know both her mad father and noble(-ish; don’t forget the alleged rape) brother through Barristan, the knight’s death leads Dany to experiment with each of her relatives’ leadership styles. First, she goes full Aerys, feeding one Meereenese noble and imprisoning the rest with neither evidence nor trial. But after a pep talk from Missandei, who finally kisses Grey Worm this week after some of the ol’ Nursing a Wounded Warrior Back to Health stuff—remember what I said about “Kill the Boy” and fantasy tropes?—Dany opts to meet Hizdahr in the middle by opening the fire pits. Oh, and marrying him.
I could feast on the power dynamics of Dany demanding marriage from a cowering man in a prison cell for days, but however forcefully announced, Dany’s decision represents her first significant compromise as leader of Meereen. Missandei praises Dany’s ability to hit on outside-the-box solutions. Reopening the fighting pits, however, is exactly what everyone from her now-fiancée Hizdahr zo Loraq to Daario have been telling her to do for weeks. The decision is simultaneously a retreat from her hard-line idealism and an important step forward as a leader: the recognition that she has to adapt to her new people’s customs, like fighting, just as they have to adapt to hers, like banning slavery.
She’s even found a way to use her inability to control her dragons to her advantage. Drogon, on the other hand, is still flying free, and Tyrion’s one-on-one moment with him before the Stone Men attack might be the most emotionally resonant moment in an episode otherwise preoccupied with place-setting. Tyrion has spent the first half—and as of now, we are halfway through—of the season a broken man, essentially going along with Varys’, and now Jorah’s, plans to deliver him to Dany because he’s got nothing better to do. A real live dragon, a creature that’s as mythical to 99% of the Game of Thrones universe as it is to us, though? That’s something powerful enough to break through years of trauma and defensive cynicism. And of the many emotions we’ve seen Tyrion experience, slack-jawed wonder is certainly not one of them. It’s one fantasy cliché that’s more than welcome.