Inside Television with Alan Sepinwall

Review: 'Game of Thrones' - 'Kissed by Fire': Why Davos can't read

Oaths are tested, names are changed, and the Lord of Light intercedes

<p>Oona Chaplin and Richard Madden in &quot;Game of Thrones.&quot;</p>

Oona Chaplin and Richard Madden in "Game of Thrones."

Credit: HBO

A review of tonight's "Game of Thrones" coming up just as soon as I offer to scream loudly...

"Jaime. My name's Jaime." -Jaime Lannister

"Kissed by Fire" doesn't have anything quite as awe-inspiring as Dany taking command of the Unsullied and laying waste to the slavers of Astapor — though the fiery Beric/Hound duel that opens the episode is rather splendid — but in many ways, I think it's an even better episode of "Game of Thrones." At the very least, it does a better job than most "GoT" installments of demonstrating how the material can work as an hour of television per week.

The episode, written by Bryan Cogman and directed by Alex Graves, visits the usual number of locales and characters(*), yet the scenes flow together more nimbly than they often do, and each place feels more connected to the one glimpsed before it, rather than a random tour of Westeros and Essos. 

(*) Robb, Catelyn, Stannis, Davos, Jon Snow and Ygritte are among those returning after being absent last week, while we don't get to see, among others, Joffrey, Theon, Bronn, Melisandre, Bran, Sam and, of course, Hodor.

A lot of that success is simply structural. We toggle back and forth between stories a bit more frequently than usual; while the individual stops in each place are shorter than we sometimes get, when we return again and again to what Arya's up to, or Jaime and Brienne or Tyrion, everything feels like part of the same picture, rather than a piece over here, and then an unrelated piece over here, and over here, etc. And the transitions between sequences have a bit more thought put into them: the way we cut from the Brotherhood discussing the Lord of Light around their campfire to Stannis' wife Selyse praying to the same god in front of her own fire, or the way we cut from Stannis' daughter teaching Davos how to read Aegon Targaryen's name to Daenerys Targaryen leading her impressive new army through the deserts of Essos. Benioff and Weiss have talked about how they sometimes have to take scenes from one episode and place it into another; whether or not that happened here, it feels like serious consideration was taken into how all the individual pieces fit together to make an hour of the show, rather than simply making sure there everything fit to time.

And even though Benioff has said that "Themes are for eighth-grade book reports," and not for episodes of his show, "Kissed by Fire" was an hour that very much felt like the different stories had themes in common — that we were seeing these particular stories not just because they took place at roughly the same time in the narrative, but because Jaime, Jon Snow, Robb and so many others are all dealing with different versions of the same question: what oaths and principles must I be loyal to?

In our magnificent opening scene, Beric and the Hound have a duel to the death, complete with a (magical?) flaming sword that of course upsets our favorite Westerosi burn victim. The goal is to see whether the Lord of Light judges Clegane guilty of his crimes, and by winning — and briefly killing Beric before Thoros asks his god to resurrect his leader — the Hound wins his freedom, to the outrage of Arya. That's how deep their spiritual commitment is — and given what we see happen to Beric, can you blame them? And given the powers that Melisandre has demonstrated in service to the Lord of Light, can you necessarily blame Stannis' wife for declaring that his dalliance with the red woman is okay because, "No act done in service of the Lord of Light can ever be a sin." This isn't faith ascribed to a long-absent deity, but to a being apparently responsible for signs and wonders throughout the land.

The Stannis scenes on Dragonstone — including a visit to his sweet, disfigured daughter Shireen — also do a better job than the series has in a long time (since we heard about the siege at Storm's End, probably) in giving us a sense of who Stannis is beside the rigid leader and religious fanatic. When we see that Selyse keeps fetuses of their sons in jars in her room, and hear her suggest that seeing their daughter would be a terrible distraction, we get a sense of just what kind of personal horrors this man has had to endure, and why he might have been so eager to follow the charismatic redhead and her powerful god. (And yet the humanizing of Stannis only goes so far, as he tells Shireen to forget all about the traitor Davos, even though that seems to be one of the few friends she has.)

It's actually a very good episode for a number of characters the show has had problems making compelling and/or human in the past. Jon Snow's been a drag on the series for a season-plus, but his scenes with Ygritte tonight popped, and not just because she talked him into breaking his vow of chastity in a conveniently located day spa cave. (**) It's clear Jon is still conflicted, given that he lies through his teeth to Mance's people about how many men are still back at Castle Black — a lie that could very easily get him killed if he doesn't suddenly turn out to be much more clever than he's been to this point — but his post-coital demeanor with Ygritte suggests a man happy to cast off at least some of the obligations the Night's Watch placed upon him.

(**) Bonus points for turning "You know nothing, Jon Snow" on its head by having Ygritte say it again just as Jon is about to demonstrate how much he knows in this one particular area. He's no Podrick, but he'll do.

Jaime's become a much more complex character since we first met him throwing a little boy off a roof to protect his incestuous secret, but he's almost always presented himself as arrogant bordering on cruel, and the story of his nickname has always suggested a kind of cold pragmatism: Jaime saw which way the rebellious winds were blowing and acted accordingly at the right opportunity. But as he tells Brienne — in a superb scene for both Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Gwendoline Christie — it was both a more difficult decision for him and a more compassionate one. Jaime was loyal to that crazy monster, because he had taken an oath to be so, but even he couldn't stand by and let Aerys burn down the city and its people. It's a selfless act, and one that's left him with a nickname he would very much like to leave behind by now.

Jaime's confession meets its mirror opposite twice over when we check in with Dany's new army. First, you have Barristan Selmy talking about the absolute loyalty he gave to multiple terrible kings, because that is what he swore to do. (Presumably, Barristan had many opportunities to take out Aerys and didn't so much as consider it.) Second, you have Grey Worm, the newly-elected leader of the Unsullied, who would prefer to keep his new name (which he had when Dany freed him) versus returning to his old one (which he had when he was taken into slavery).

The episode even manages to do mostly right by the King in the North, who's been another of the series' flatter characters, by showing just how seriously he takes his own sense of principle, executing Lord Karstark even when he knows what will happen to his army in the process. Robb knows the cost of this; he just believes too fervently in the lessons of his father to do anything else. But just as I was preparing to start up a Stupid Robb Stark Tumblr, he comes up with the very clever idea of seizing Casterly Rock — and realizes that the only way to pull it off is to somehow unruffle the feathers of Walder Frey. Does he have the diplomatic grace to pull that off? Nothing we've seen from Robb thus far suggests he does, but we have to hope that he's brighter than Jon Snow and Theon.

It's an episode full of people accepting or rejecting new situations, whether it's Grey Worm's name, Gendry's new job with the Brotherhood (and Arya realizing she's once again a hostage), or Stannis' daughter teaching Davos how to read. And in the concluding scene, Tywin suggests a very interesting, if uncomfortable, new position for Tyrion: Sansa's husband. Sansa figures she gets to choose between the Knight of the Flowers and Littlefinger,(***) but the choice seems about to be taken away from her, in an arrangement that should be mortifying for all parties involved. Tyrion is a good man, but he's not what Sansa wants. Nor does he want a child, let alone one whose handmaiden is his actual lover. I do not wish this three's-a-crowd situation on any of them, but as a viewer, I do look forward to seeing how the characters have to deal with it.

(***) Because Cersei goes directly to Littlefinger for her intel (leading LIttlefinger in turn to use one of his whores to seduce it out of Loras), she and Tywin only see potential Tyrell motives for the marriage, but not the idea that Littlefinger himself has designs on both Sansa and the North. It's less of a betrayal by the Tyrells with that information.

So even without a large-scale rebellion involving fire-breathing dragons and a righteously angry army of freed slaves, "Kissed by Fire" was an extremely satisfying episode, and one of the series' better examples of how well the source material can be turned into a television show that works as a television show. Excellent work all around.

Some other thoughts:

* The main titles no skip past Astapor to the neighboring city of Yunkai, which Dany's army is presumably marching towards. She's going to need a lot of ships to get all the Unsullied over to Westeros. Also, it appears the map has gotten more detailed overall this season, as sometimes you can see glimpses of other locations (some sort of town or complex in between Riverrun and Winterfell, for instance) that presumably will be identified down the road.

* Westeros math: Olenna + Tyrion = win. What's particularly delightful about that scene is how thoroughly the old lady outclasses the imp, who usually at least gets off a few clever lines even when Tywin or someone else is getting the better of him. Seeing him completely at a loss for words as she starts rattling off the numbers of men and materiel that the Tyrells have donated to the cause was marvelous. I'm hopeful they get more scenes together now that he'll be reluctantly ruining her plans for Sansa.

* The last time we saw Melisandre, she said she needed a king's blood to work her magic, but not necessarily Stannis' own. Is she referring to his daughter? To the fetuses in jars? Would a Baratheon bastard like Gendry qualify? No matter who it is, I have a bad feeling about this — and not just because someone needs to keep teaching Davos the alphabet.

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 sepinwall@hitfix.com

Alan-sepinwall-sm
Alan Sepinwall
Sr. Editor, What's Alan Watching
Alan Sepinwall has been reviewing television since the mid-'90s, first for Tony Soprano's hometown paper, The Star-Ledger, and now for HitFix. His new book, "The Revolution Was Televised," about the last 15 years of TV drama, is for sale at Amazon. He can be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com
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