A review of tonight's "Game of Thrones" coming up just as soon as the shrubbery has ears...
"I have no doubt the revenge you want will be yours in time — if you have the stomach for it." -Varys
The secret origin of Varys, delivered in riveting fashion by Conleth Hill, serves neatly as a metaphor for both "And Now His Watch Is Ended" and for "Game of Thrones" as a whole. It's a story of pain and degradation, but also one of unwavering patience. Varys the boy was taken, horrifically violated and discarded, but he figured out how to play the long game for his revenge, painstakingly moving step by step to a position of influence and power that might allow him to get his hands on the man who tried to destroy him — to have absolute power over the magician in the way the magician once did over him.
Throughout the episode, we see characters waiting for the perfect opportunity to spring their revenge. Some, like Jaime Lannister (who's on the receiving end of a "Get busy living or get busy dying" style pep talk from Brienne), seem a long way from that opportunity. Others, like Theon's mysterious ally/enemy, are playing a game we really can't understand yet. But Varys finally gets his hands on the magician, the bitter crows finally get a chance to take out their frustration on both Craster and Commander Mormont, and in the episode's awe-inspiring climax, Dany gets her army, gets to keep all of her dragons, and gets to serve her revenge very hot against the cruel and condescending slaver.
Because of how dense the books apparently are, and because of the logistics of production, "Game of Thrones" inevitably winds up with more story than the time to properly tell it all. Maybe there's no solution to this problem, or maybe the show could be structured differently so that the same stories, in the same amount of screen time, take on greater weight. But I watch an episode like "And Now His Watch Is Ended" and find it hard to take much issue with how Benioff and Weiss are telling their stories, because the episode's big moments all feel completely earned through very patient set-up.
We've watched Varys operate in the shadows of King's Landing, with many allusions to how he became a eunuch but no concrete detail. And we've seen enough of him in action to find him among the more complicated and sympathetic figures of power in the Westeros capital. His story, and the life-sized prize in the box at the end of it, paid off all of what had come before.
Similarly, we've spent a season-plus watching the crows trudge back and forth through wildling country, growing increasingly frustrated with the terrain, the violence and their treatment by the likes of Craster. And because we know that many of these men are reluctant members of the Night's Watch at best, their rebellion against Mormont — a good (and, as we can see from the way he dies, tough) man better suited to leading a more traditional army — flows out of every little snippet of their trek we've seen over the last several episodes. It's a remarkable free-for-all, and one that seems destined to make life even more complicated for Jon Snow, Sam, Gilly, and the others of note north of the Wall.
But it's Dany's absolute victory in Astapor that's the episode's masterpiece, and its best example of how the show's deliberate, fragmented storytelling can pay off so beautifully at times. Dany's travels through the Red Waste and Qarth were among the weakest parts of season 2, but her entire journey over the last two-plus seasons feels like it's led to this moment. Daenerys Stormborn has found a way to combine the ideals that Jorah Mormont finds so appealing with the ruthlessness she's going to need to retake the Iron Throne. She gets her unstoppable army and sets them free in a way she suspects will only make them more loyal to her. She makes it clear to Jorah and Barristan why they should never again question her judgment in front of outsiders. And by waiting to reveal her grasp of Valyrian rather than confronting the slaver pig with it upfront, she gets everything she wants,(*) including his death and the destruction of the inhuman culture he's fronted here in Astapor.
(*) That scene was also a reminder of how great Emilia Clarke can be in this role when she's given good material. I don't know that Meryl Streep could have done much with all that "Where are my dragons?" whining from last season. Here her big moment comes in a (fictional) foreign language, and the subtitles are barely necessary. That's how good she is.
It's a sequence operating on a bigger scale than anything "Game of Thrones" has done before, including the Battle of Blackwater (where we only saw small sections of the fight at any one time). And though the scene ultimately has to lean on a whole lot of CGI to convey the size of Dany's army and the scope of what they just did to Astapor, it does the job. This was big — the sort of moment I could easily imagine as the climax to an entire season of this show, and it comes in the fourth episode.
And that's why I watch "Game of Thrones," and why I ultimately forgive it for the parts that drag, or the parts that are too fragmented to make any impression at all. Because every now and then, a moment comes where my patience, and the show's patience, pays off as majestically as it did here.
I understand that you can't have these sorts of moments in every episode, or else they would lose all meaning and impact. But if this is episode 4, I can't wait to see what kind of mayhem the rest of the season has in store for us.
Some other thoughts:
* This is the last episode I received in advance. Review schedule may be all over the place for the rest of the season, especially since "Mad Men" (which doesn't send non-premiere screeners out) is airing on the same night. We'll see what gets done when, but follow me on Twitter, Facebook, RSS, sign up for an instant email alert, etc.
* All Buster Bluth jokes aside, it's remarkable what a sympathetic character Jaime's become these last two episodes, first with the way he saved Brienne (through what's revealed here as a big lie) and now with the pain and humiliation he's enduring from his captors. Though, again, some of it is simply the transitive property of Brienne of Tarth.
* I still have no idea what the hell is going on with Theon's rescuer/torturer, but I did like Theon's reflection on the mistakes of season 2: "My real father lost his head at King's Landing. I made a choice, and I chose wrong." I would wonder if that confession is what led the mystery man to return Theon to captivity, but they'd already returned to the building, right?
* The Tyrells really start making some power moves here, as Marge continues to demonstrate her gift for manipulating Joffrey (much to the dismay of his mother), while Olenna teams up with Varys to decide they're better off with Sansa becoming Loras' beard than a pawn in Littlefinger's quest to amass power. And though he wouldn't be her ideal husband, Loras is probably the best of Sansa's recent options.
* Tywin punctures his daughter's persecution complex by telling her, "I don't distrust you because you're a woman. I distrust you because you're not as smart as you think you are." On the other hand, he's absolutely kidding himself (as Cersei tries to tell him) if he thinks he can do any better controlling Joffrey.
* The episode sheds no more light on the mystery of Podrick and Littlefinger's prostitutes, as even Varys can't get a clear answer from Ros on what happened. Their conversation at least seemed to dismiss the theory that Podrick was too shy to do anything, and they simply refunded the money.
* It seems each episode is going to offer us one character who appears incredibly briefly. Tonight, it's Bran's turn, as we get to see another of his animal dreams — this time with a guest appearance by Catelyn yelling at him to stop climbing — before he wakes up covered in sweat. Not even a long enough visit for Hodor to speak. Oh, well.
* Arya's on camera only slightly longer, mainly so she can meet a new character in Beric Dondarrion (played by Richard "No relation to Natalie" Dormer), the apparent leader of the Brotherhood Without Banners. What's most interesting about the Brotherhood is that they seem both reasonable and potentially good, and yet they worship the same god as Melisandre and Stannis' people, who've largely been depicted as fearsome zealots.
As always, I'd like to keep the book/spoiler issue as simple as possible, however difficult that may be for some to understand. We are here to discuss "Game of Thrones" AS A TV SHOW, NOT AS AN ENDLESS SERIES OF COMPARISONS TO THE BOOKS. Therefore, here's the only rule you should remember: if your comment contains the phrase "the books" without it being immediately preceded by "I haven't read," then you should probably delete what you've written and start over. Anything even vaguely questionable will be deleted, and if you see something that I haven't already removed, please feel free to email me. You may think you're being clever and not giving too much away; in almost every case, you are wrong.
As usual, I've set up a message board discussion thread where you can do as much TV vs. books discussion as you want. And if you don't want to go to the message boards, by all means go to one of the dozens upon dozens of sites (whether "Thrones"-specific or not) that provide a venue to discuss the books to your heart's content. In these comments, everything book-related that has yet to come up on the TV show (plot, characters we haven't met, motivation, etc.) is verboten.
Based on the comments to that initial review, a lot of people are having a hard time understanding this, so I will put it very simply: If people cannot stop themselves from discussing the books in the comments, then there will no longer be comment sections for these reviews. Life's too short.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com