A review of tonight's "Game of Thrones" coming up just as soon as I explain the distinction between pirates and smugglers...
After the show devoted half of last week's episode to the wedding, "Breaker of Chains" has some catching up to do, and we return to guided tour mode, bouncing all around Westeros, then stopping over in Essos, to see what most of the characters are up to, and how those who know of Joffrey's murder are reacting to it. Because of that plot thread, it doesn't feel as disjointed as the show sometimes can as it whips from place to place and character subset to character subset. And it helps that nearly everyone we see, whether they are aware of Joffrey's death or not, is in the midst of regrouping and figuring out how they will survive under circumstances that are changing rapidly.
We get confirmation, for instance, that Dontos was in on the poisoning plot, but the mastermind is revealed to be Littlefinger, who makes a dramatic season 4 entrance aboard a mist-shrouded galleon, seeming less like a king's trusted adviser than a cutthroat pirate, taking what he wants and sailing away while others deal with the consequences of his actions. Varys once warned that Littlefinger would burn the nation to the ground to get his way, and this — both killing Joffrey to destabilize the South and kidnapping Sansa (not that she entirely recognizes yet that that's what this is) to make inroads in the North — is a gigantic first step towards that goal.
As I suggested last week, Joffrey's death for the moment is more of a problem for the grieving, vengeful Cersei — and imprisoned patsy Tyrion — than for House Lannister as a whole. Cersei's younger son Tommen isn't the sadistic bully his older brother was, and Tywin has already masterfully walked him into playing his grandfather's obedient puppet king. It's hard to imagine him capriciously instigating a war with the North because he wants to watch a teenage girl suffer.
While his sister/lover mourns the death of their monstrous son, Jaime in turn seizes the moment to finally perform the act he's been denied of since the war with the North began, even if he has to get very rough at first to get what he want. It's an intense scene, and beautifully shot (just look at the glow surrounding Cersei after she's left alone in the sept with Jaime), and rekindles the sick, complex relationship between these two — an unholy union in the holiest of places.(*)
(*) When I interviewed Alex Graves about "The Lion and the Rose," we also spoke briefly about the Jaime/Cersei scene and about how the encounter starts out as Jaime forcing himself on her, then turns into something else. This is what he said:
"Well, it becomes consensual by the end, because anything for them ultimately results in a turn-on, especially a power struggle. Nobody really wanted to talk about what was going on between the two characters, so we had a rehearsal that was a blocking rehearsal. And it was very much about the earlier part with Charles (Dance) and the gentle verbal kidnapping of Cersei's last living son. Nikolaj came in and we just went through one physical progression and digression of what they went through, but also how to do it with only one hand, because it was Nikolaj. By the time you do that and you walk through it, the actors feel comfortable going home to think about it. The only other thing I did was that ordinarily, you rehearse the night before, and I wanted to rehearse that scene four days before, so that we could think about everything. And it worked out really well. That's one of my favorite scenes I've ever done."
UPDATE: Though there aren't comments on these reviews at the moment, the reaction I've seen on Twitter, in emails and on other blogs suggests nobody is agreeing with Graves' interpretation of the scene and are viewing it as rape, plain and simple. Given the nature of this show and how far in advance it's made (and in such complicated fashion, as Graves described in that interview last week), there's no way there will be any in-story acknowledgment this season of how the audience perceived it compared to how the storytellers intended it. And I wonder if Benioff and Weiss will address it in interactions down the road between those two. When a similar schism between audience and creators happened on "Rescue Me," it eventually turned into a source of meta humor (whether you found it funny likely depended on how you felt about the scene in question), but "Game of Thrones" isn't particularly built to do meta. Regardless, Jaime became one of the show's most beloved characters by the end of season 3, and it'll be interesting how the audience views him going forward from this.
UPDATE #2: I mentioned the similar "Rescue Me" incident, but I had forgotten about two others at first: Pete and the au pair on "Mad Men" and Walt and Skyler in the kitchen at the start of "Breaking Bad" season 2. And "Girls" also went into similar territory with Adam and Natalia late in season 2. Given that there is no such thing as "a little bit rape-y," I'm surprised so many shows have been willing to go to this place.
Tywin moves very swiftly throughout the episode to shore up his power base, not only taking Tommen under his wing but recruiting Oberyn Martell to fill one of the open spots on the Small Council in exchange for helping him get to his sister's murderer. In listing all the potential dangers to the crown — including the Greyjoys, the wildling army and Dany and her dragons — it's clear that Tywin has not been dismissive of what's happening elsewhere in the series the way that Cersei was when she was running the show, but for now most of those threats are very far away and can only be dealt once the order of succession is concluded and his allies are secured.
Stannis, meanwhile, seems to have forgotten entirely about the threat coming from the North — which feels a bit frustrating, given that his acknowledgment of that danger was one of the best moments of the season 3 finale — but he and Davos are similarly plotting another move to take the crown that he believes should rightfully be his. Sure enough, Olenna's(**) warnings from last week about the Iron Bank come into play, as it appears Davos (with some writing help from Stannis' daughter) is going to ply them for money to buy a mercenary army to take another crack at King's Landing.
(**) Olenna pops up briefly to counsel Margaery on where exactly she stands after being twice widowed by kings. Given that the Lannisters and Tyrells still need each other, I'm guessing young King Tommen is about to get some excellent news about his home life.
For Tyrion, the pressing matter isn't acquiring allies, but protecting them. He took care of Shae before the murder, and while Bronn remains under suspicion for assisting Tyrion (and I hope this doesn't mean the end of the Jaime/Bronn dueling lessons), Tyrion is at least able to see Podrick off in touching fashion. ("There has never lived a more loyal squire.") Our favorite imp spent part of the first season locked up for a crime he didn't commit, but that was both brief and easily-remedied by the crazy rules of the Eyrie. I fear his own relatives won't be so easily manipulated, and I hope Peter Dinklage's presence for the rest of this season isn't greatly reduced while we await his trial.
We head to Castle Black and the nearby surroundings to get confirmation that Jon Snow was lying through his teeth to Mance Rayder about the number of men serving there, which only raises the level of pressure on the area up there, especially with Tormund and the other wildlings trying to bait them into leaving the fort. Sam trying to protect Gilly from the advances of his fellow Rangers is, in the scheme of things, a much smaller story, but a more interesting one right now because Sam's such a fully-realized character, and their relationship gives you a strong sense of how damaged Gilly was growing up with Craster — she can't even fathom the idea of a man doing something solely beneficial to her, and just assumes Sam has lost interest. Will she wind up with another Ranger, anyway? Will she now fall victim to Tormund or Ygritte or one of the cannibals? Doesn't seem like anything is safe in that part of the world right now.
Not that things are dramatically better a bit further south. We get another Arya And The Hound Adventure, this time with them crashing with a farmer and his daughter, whom the Hound then robs under the justification that they'll be dead by winter anyway, given the increasingly harsh landscape and the farmer's obvious weakness. Given what he and Arya witnessed (and did) in the season premiere, it's an understandable — if cruel and cold — attitude. The war has not only placed a lot of bad men in power, but their badness has trickled down among their troops, who feel free to take what they like and assume no one will stop them. Of course, by robbing the farmer, the Hound is being just as bad as the rest, even if he wraps it up in a lecture on pragmatism to a furious Arya.
And we close with Dany's army making it to the gates of Meereen, where we discover just what a formidable strategist and propagandist she's become. Daario 2.0 easily takes out the local champion (in a sequence reminiscent of the famous swordsman vs. gunfighter scene from "Raiders of the Lost Ark"), and then the real fun begins as the Unsullied begin pelting the city not with fire or stones, but simply with barrels full of broken chains and collars to send a very clear message to the local slaves of what the Mother of Dragons can do for them. Ending the episode on one slave considering his options and then turning towards his master is a really elegant — and darkly funny — way to make clear how this battle is going to go without having to devote time, money and production resources to a big battle sequence.
I'm always going to be more partial to a more focused episode like "The Lion and the Rose" than to a pinballing one like this, but I also recognize that there are many stories that need to be advanced, and the creative team maintains its gift for providing memorable individual moments in many of our stops in the Seven Kingdoms.
A couple of housekeeping notes before we go. First, as of now this is the last episode of season 4 I'm expecting to get in advance. If that changes, I'll let you know, but otherwise, I'm going to have to juggle this show and "Mad Men" live for the next five Sundays, and odds are I will have neither the energy nor the desire to do both, and that "Mad Men" will likely win out most weeks and "Thrones" will have to wait until sometime the following morning.
Second, I'm told that a moderated commenting system for this show is in the works, and hopefully it'll be in place before too much more of the season goes by. It'll be nice to have the discussion back, even if the pace will be slowed to weed out the book spoilers.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org