A review of tonight's "Game of Thrones" coming up just as soon as I forbid you to die...
"He's a monster." -Sansa
"Dark Wings, Dark Words" begins with Bran Stark dreaming of the first time we saw him in the series: that carefree moment — one of the last the entire Stark family had together — when he was trying to master archery. We even hear Ned's voice for a moment, which seems fitting for a rare episode that features all of his children (plus Theon, who spent much of his childhood in Winterfell). Though they may be spread far and wide across Westeros, they have each other in common, and they also have the lessons of their father, who was a very good man and yet horrendously-equipped to be a participant in the game that the Lannisters, Tyrells and others play so masterfully.
"Dark Wings, Dark Words" isn't exactly an hour of Stupid Ned Stark Jr., and some of Ned's kids are in better circumstances than at the end of last season. (Arya, for instance, is out of Harrenhal and away from Tywin and the Mountain.) But most of them are prisoners in some way or other, and all of them are surrounded by people who are worldlier, wiser and more ruthless than they are.
Bran and Rickon are away from the charred ruins of Winterfell(*) with Hodor (Hodor!) and Osha to protect them, but they have no sense of what to do other than heading towards the Wall — not realizing, of course, just what a mess things are up there at the moment. And already, their convoy seems to have been taken over by the Reed siblings, Jojen and Meera, who know a whole lot more about what's going on and where Bran needs to go next.
(*) Does the explanation that Robb received — that Theon's men burned the place and killed everyone before escaping — track with the circumstances we saw them in at the end of last season? I remain puzzled by this. (Note: if it's only explained in the books, please don't tell me. In that case, I don't care.)
Arya is loose of Harrenhal and heading towards Robb's camp with Gendry and Hot Pie, but three kids traveling alone through the country are always going to be at the mercy of powerful men — particularly when one of those kids is among the most wanted fugitives in all the Seven Kingdoms. Arya is brave — even if her skill with a sword (particularly given her size) doesn't match her courage — but Thoros from the Brotherhood Without Banners (the group the torturer was dropping rats into buckets about at Harrenhal last season) can basically do whatever he wants with her, especially now that the Hound has turned up and identified her.
Regardless of which side he's really on at this point, Jon Snow still seems in way over his head as a member of Mance Rayder's army, and Theon's busy being tortured by captors unknown, for information he doesn't have. Sansa has many people — Littlefinger, Shae, Tyrion, Olenna and Marge(**) — expressing an interest in protecting her, but only some of their motives are pure, and Sansa is still too young and naive to know whom she should and shouldn't trust. Though Olenna and Marge don't seem to mean her any harm, her tea with them is one where they seem like they're playing the game and she's just a tiny piece on the board, to be moved around at their whim.
(**) Our nickname winner by acclimation. Mags is dead. Long live Marge!
Of all the Stark siblings, Robb has the most control of his destiny, but his recent decisions — marrying Talisa, allowing his mother to set Jaime free, now heading to Riverrun for his grandfather's funeral — have caused quite a bit of unrest. Where once his bannermen had unwavering support for the King in the North, now their confidence in him is shaky at best.
At one point, Catelyn tells her new daughter-in-law that this is all her fault: her family's misfortune all stems from the broken promise she made to the seven gods about being a mother to Jon Snow if he lived through the night. And while it's easy for a mother to think this way — especially as she's grappling with the news of her own father's death — I would say most of the Stark family's misfortune can be pinned on Ned, who had a good heart and absolutely no political savvy, and seems to have passed his forthrightness-to-a-fault on to his children. (And if Cat wants to take some of the blame for the current situation, better it should be about her taking Tyrion prisoner, no?)
Again, it's instructive to look at how the various Starks conduct themselves versus, say, the Tyrells. Sansa had no idea how to deal with Joffrey, and lived in terror of him. Even Cersei often seems at a loss for how to control the animal she raised. Marge, though, almost instantly understands how to speak to — and manipulate — the man she's due to marry. Others think they can appease Joffrey, or bend him to their will, where Marge knows that he just wants someone who will see the world through the same sadistic eyes he uses. Her seduction of him — if you can use that word in regards to a boy who seems only interested in inflicting pain, not enjoying sex — is among the most memorable, and disturbing, scenes of this young season.
Some other thoughts on "Dark Wings, Dark Words":
* I'm reluctant to say much about Theon's brief appearances, because my understanding is that a lot of this material in the show pertains to things that happen a few books down the road. So even before we get to the standard warning down below, let me remind you: If something hasn't been revealed on the show yet (whether plot, motivation, character identity, etc.), don't so much as hint about it in your comments. Thank you very much.
* Jon Snow gets his first look at a Warg, a wildling with the power to see through the eyes of animals — which sounds much like the ability that Bran is developing. Hmm...
* In addition to several of the Stark kids, this episode offers us our first glimpse of Brienne and Jaime, still getting on each other's nerves as they take the long walk to King's Landing. Their climactic swordfight is a terrific bit of direction and fight choreography. Though Jaime's supposed to be the greatest fighter in Westeros, Brienne's taller, has a longer reach and has been in much better shape over the past months, which makes it plausible that she'd largely thrash him until some of Robb's bannermen turn up to take them prisoner.
* Speaking of women warriors on TV, as much fun as it is to watch Dame Diana Rigg play Olenna, I kind of wish we had a time machine that could import the Rigg who played Emma Peel to play some kind of character who introduces the ways of karate chopping and bad guy flipping to the people of Westeros.
* Jeor Mormont, leader: even though Sam screwed up the one job he had by not sending the ravens, the old man still makes sure to protect him by ordering the other soldier to make sure Sam stays alive — or else.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org