King Joffrey aims his crossbow at his future queen, insisting she must pay for her brother Robb's treason.

★★★★☆

One might have guessed that the tone of this week’s episode would be grave when the end of the last promised a “cursed castle,” but I was not prepared for that. Decisively brutal and haunting, many characters we’ve come to respect confronted the darkness that lies within those they’ve sworn to protect. And for others, narrowly escaping death and agony does not ease their suffering, vengeful spirits. Tyrion learns that King Joffrey isn’t just selfish and impetuous, but sadistic and cruel, and Ser Davos watches in horror as he realizes the extent of the sorcery his commander’s lady dabbles in. Arya is sent to a torture camp where she’s rescued by the unlikeliest of allies and Daenerys finally finds civilization, but resists their hospitality when they wish to see her fire-breathing babies.

As has become customary, with an increasing number of locations and competing forces at play, not all locations can be serviced in a single episode while giving the proper heft to each. So this week, we turn away from Winterfell, what lies beyond the wall and Pyke to focus on the so-far neglected Daenerys, witness a fruitless conference between the Baratheon brothers and visit the charming, dragon-melted towers of Harenhaal.

Since a few scenes a occurred in imprecise locations, some sections will be associated with a person or persons.

Robb Stark’s army

The kickstart to the gruesome events shows two Lannister foot soldiers goofing off on their watch. One tries to spook the other by pretending to hear something in the brush only to fart at the other. But when the victim of this tomfoolery is not convinced that there isn’t something rustling about, Robb’s direwolf, Grey Wind, pounces on them. There’s a cut to black and then, amid the morning fog, Lannister bodies are strewn out on the dewey ground. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the use of the growling direwolf as an imposing and theatrical start to the battle, but there has yet to be a fully-staged battle in the series. There has been more intimate sword fights and there’s been no shortage of carnage, but it would appear the limited (though not modest) TV budget has put some constraints on the GoT team. It’s not so much a critique as a disappointment. I was geared up to see at least a few takedowns and I got a quick transition instead.

The one development I was awarded was a slick commentary on the inner turmoil of Robb Stark. Though Richard Madden has played this increasingly confident young commander with great poise, I haven’t had a clue what kind of conscience he has. Ned Stark was a man who strove to be mindful, and Robb seems to abide by his father’s principles. But since all I’ve seen him do is conquer enemies, I have yet to see that heart. To that point, we are treated to a scene where by contrast we’re able to glean that maybe Robb doesn’t relish in these assaults. His values show when he says he won’t torture men because “we don’t flay men in the North” and because it would only give the Lannisters reason to harm his sisters. Then, a nurse (who keeps her affiliation hidden) chastises Robb a bit for his mindless killing. Most of these men have no ties or loyalty to Joffrey and only do as they’re told. Why should they die because of his personal vendetta? She also pokes at his lack of plan when the fighting is over. He has no interest in the crown for himself, but no idea of who will replace the boy king either. It’s clear by his remorseful expression that this woman’s disapproval got to him. Will he be able to maintain his bravery and battle savvy as the fields get bloodier?

King’s Landing

Speaking of the crybaby ruler of the realm, Joffrey has a hissy fit when he learns of another defeat at the hands of Robb Stark. His unleashes his fury on his future queen and Robb’s sister, Sansa. While he’d like to shoot her on sight, he can’t break the engagement. What a charmer. So instead he has his knight, Ser Meryn, rip her clothes and beat her. And who comes to put an end to the ferocity but TYRION, the shortest, but baddest mofo in Westeros.

He “educates” his nephew about acting honorably on the throne, again channeling Ned Stark. As I’ve mentioned, I believe that these principles won’t be his undoing like they were for Ned, because he knows how to con others into loyalty or snuff out those who betray him. Despite the humiliation, Sansa still swears her love for Joffrey, and Tyrion says what I know I was thinking, “Lady Stark, you may survive this yet.” There’s no doubt in my mind she is simply playing the game, while inside she rues the day she can decapitate her groom-to-be.

Bronn, Tyrion’s guard and right hand, suggests they gift Joffrey some whores. He is an adolescent, and maybe that pent-up aggression can be abated with some pounding of the flesh. This seems Tyrion rubbing off on Bronn, a well-calcualated move, until we see Joffrey go hardcore S&M. He forces Ros at crossbow-point (seriously, who gave the twerp a freaking crossbow) to spank the other whore with his belt violently. Then he dials it up by handing her his stag-headed staff (not a euphemism). I think it’s safe to say everyone who watches this show hates Joffrey, but during this cringe-fest I know I had that primal urge to go beyond voyeuristic loathing and end him myself. He went from an entitled brat, to a heartless and unquestionable villain on par with his mother in terms of disregard for others’ pain. His message to his uncle has been sent: I will do as I please.

With not much for Tyrion to slay with his biting wit and clever maneuvering, we have to settle for him exposing a scandal. He discovers that while Jamie has been away, Cersei has shacked up with another willing family member…the pretty and dimwitted cousin Lancel. Tyrion uses this as blackmail—no doubt Joffrey would not approve—and thus acquires a new spy. He makes a splendid joke too, referencing last week’s imprisonment of Maester Pycelle. Lancel was originally sent to request his release on Cersei’s behalf, and after Tyrion strikes his “deal” with Lancel he grants the release saying, “I would say something about not having harmed a hair on his head, but that isn’t strictly true.” Of course he is referring to Bronn severing his flowing, gray beard before they threw him in the Black Keep. Ha! Oh Peter Dinklage, you’re a hoot and a half.

Renly’s camp

As promised, Lord Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish visits Renly Baratheon and Catelyn Stark, and isn’t received well by either. Renly doesn’t particularly like his face or “the words that come oozing out of [his] mouth,” but Lord Baelish expresses his loyalty hoping to ensure he’ll live and perhaps maintain his position in court in the event Renly wins (he does have the greatest numbers). Littlefinger then speaks with Margery, Renly’s devious, sexy queen, wondering why she has a separate tent. Margery, as I expected, doesn’t succumb to his questioning of her marriage, but I doubt Lord Baelish stops digging there. Also, you gotta appreciate the man’s way with words. His conversation with Margery was like an innuendo sandwich. I enjoyed his line to Renly: “If war were arithmetic, mathematicians would draw the world.”

He also meets with his childhood crush, Catelyn Stark: his main objective as assigned by Tyrion. She’s infuriated because she believes his treachery led to her husband’s death. Well, she’s half right. Lord Baelish advised Ned on how to handle the succession of the throne, but he chose not to listen. It was only then, when he knew his life would be endangered for supporting a traitor, that he double-crossed him. As badly as Catelyn wants to cut his throat, she spares him since he can help keep her daughters safe. He tries to broker a trade, but she knows Robb won’t settle. So Baelish respectfully presents her with her late husband’s remains as a gesture of goodwill (Tyrion’s suggestion).

Then we get my favorite small-scale talking scene, a meeting between Renly and Stannis Baratheon. A lot of barbs are exchanged, including Renly’s insults of  Melisandre’s religion. Stannis asserts he is the rightful heir, and then Renly retorts that no one wants him for their king, ending with what I have been saying since this clash began, “A man without friends is a man without power.” As much as I appreciate Stannis’ stoicism and his firm command, he doesn’t have much support besides his army. Stubborn, he issues the ultimatum that either Renly surrenders or he will destroy him. Renly immediately refuses and then Stannis ships back to Dragonstone. I also can’t say enough about the precision of the dialogue. It was such a sobering completion to the meeting when Renly added, “And I used to love him.” So simple, yet so effective. In a flash, we know that Renly regrets the turn things have taken since Robert’s death, but there’s no going back now either.

Harenhaal

The first of two new locations to pop up in the wonderfully animated opening credits is the fortress of Harenhaal, the Guantanamo Bay of the Lannister House. Arya, Gendry and company are shackled, awaiting their fate of torture. “The Mountain,” the vicious brother of Joffrey’s guard, “The Hound,” picks which kid or exile will be the next victim of his obscure coercion methods. Though I was unsure what they expected to learn from this pack of misfits, it makes sense that in war times there would be camps like these.

We learn that Arya has developed a new habit, she recites the names of those she wishes to kill before bed, something she must’ve picked up from Yoren, R.I.P. The names include, Joffrey, Cersei, The Hound, Polliver (the knight that killed Yoren), Ser Ilyn Payne (her dad’s executioner) and The Mountain—he is added after watching him strap a pail with a rat inside to a prisoner’s chest and then heating it (they actually used this same method in 2 Fast 2 Furious, weird). The next day Gendry is chosen, but who should appear but Tywin Lannister! Though he is the patriarch of the enemy, he still had the most riveting character intro ever—cutting open a stag as he talked to his son about how to hold onto power? Amazing. Tywin’s smart enough to decipher that Arya is a girl and essentially rescues her and appoints her as his new cup-bearer (am I the only one who thinks that sounds creepy coming from an old man?). He’s not cunning enough to figure out who she is though. Awfully convenient for her, but then again how would he know what she looks like?

The Red Waste/Qarth

Our second new locale is the walled city of Qarth. A living bloodrider finally comes back with news that they are three days’ journey from a place that will welcome them. Apparently this gated community is notorious for shutting people out and the area that surrounds the wall has been ominously called the “Garden of Bones.”Upon arrival, they are greeted by The Thirteen—mostly fat, white dudes (apparently Westeros and us aren’t so far apart, they looked like Congress).

They seem hospitable enough until one demands that they see her dragons before permitting entry to the “greatest city that ever was, or will be.” Daenerys denies them, protecting her young like the Mother of Dragons she is. She also keeps in mind that her starving Dothraki should take precedent, demanding they be allowed inside or they will die. She boasts that if they don’t comply, when he dragons are grown this shall be the first city they burn to the ground. One elder does stand up for her, the only black man Xaro Xhoan Daxos. After some in-house bickering, she’s escorted in. “The greatest city that ever was, or will be” does look magnificent, from what little we could glimpse when the gates opened, but this can’t just be some luxurious respite for our Dragon Queen.

Stannis, Melisandre and Davos

Here is where all the sinister vibes collected and were eventually unleashed in the most extravagant and fantastical scene of the series so far. As Stannis sails back to Dragonstone, he confers with his number two, Ser Davos. I must note that I couldn’t help but smile when Stannis corrects Davos’ grammar—it’s fewer fingers, not less fingers. Maybe, this ruthless warmonger is okay after all! I mean, no stickler for grammar can be evil, right? But honestly I also enjoyed seeing them interact for a bit, seeing how Davos’ skepticism of Melisandre comes from a place of mostly pure loyalty. I mean for Christ’s sake, he keeps his knuckle bones as a reminder of Stannis’ just punishment. If that’s not dedication, I don’t know what is.

Stannis orders Davos to bring Melisandre ashore, but isn’t specific for what purpose. On their canoe to shore, Melisandre tempts Davis, insinuating that he wants to see what is underneath her robe and that he’ll get to see soon enough. So we enter this cave on unsure footing, wondering why would she want to seduce Davos. Then, she sets down a lantern, disrobes, and reveals that she is extremely pregnant. She plops herself on the hard ground, spread her legs and after a couple pushes a black, shadowy, wispy kind of creature seeps out of her. Davos can only look in horror as he wonders what the hell she has just brought into this world.

What’s even more miraculous, is that this doesn’t seem completely far-fetched. This Lord of the Light didn’t seem like a pleasant god, but shadow babies seems darker than I’d anticipated. But with how frightening and alluring Carice van Houten has played Melisandre I was convinced. And I hate to brage, BUT, for someone who hasn’t read the books at all, I predicted this shift in the narrative awfully well. A world that seems to be run by the mighty just might be overrun by the magic they’ve long denied. As bizarre as that scene was, it felt necessary to explain why the cosmos had allowed all the horror that had preceded it. Without being obvious, it was evident that the episode’s somber air was a foreboding of some sort, so I’m glad it paid off. It was almost unbearable how little there was to cheer about. Yeah, Tyrion gained a minor leg-up on Cersei, and Arya wasn’t tortured, but Joffrey’s still a repulsive runt and Arya’s only temporally safe—how long before you think Tywin senses that she got some wolf in her? And let’s not forget two brothers committed to eliminating each other.

I mean, I wasn’t expecting uplifting material, but I usually walk away from a GoT episode with a surging feeling that something epic is imminent. We got a taste of awesomeness though—inexplicable and definitely wicked but cool nonetheless— and the writing on this show continues to delight and intrigue. With every syllable, there’s motivation seething out into the ether just waiting to be ensnared by the listener and boy, is it thrilling to have complex, well-built fantasy combined with such ambitious dialogue and storytelling. Though this might have been the weakest episode so far this season, even a down week in George R.R. Martin’s universe is a welcome adventure.

Remember, don’t discuss elements of the books that haven’t aired yet. Don’t spoil it for everyone else in the comments section!

About The Author

Christopher Peck is a former Blast television editor

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