Tuned In

Game of Thrones Watch: Speak Softly and Carry a Big Crossbow

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Spoilers for this week’s Game of Thrones follow:
“He should have stayed well out of all of this, if you asked me. But once the cow’s been milked there’s no squirting the cream back up her udder, so here we are to see things through!”

Meet your new favorite character in Game of Thrones, Lady Olenna (Diana Rigg), matriarch of the Tyrell family and new resident real-keeper of King’s Landing. In my viewing notes, immediately after her first appearance, I wrote the phrase “the Dowager of Highgarden,” not exactly a fair description since George R.R. Martin wrote Game of Thrones’ source books well before the world knew Downton Abbey.

Regardless, the old lady free to say what we’re all thinking is a beloved character type for a reason, and it’s fitting that her above line also sums up the spirit of “Dark Wings, Dark Words.” For all practical purposes, this was the second half of a two-hour season premiere, revisiting to a few scenes of last week’s “Valar Dohaeris” while catching up on characters that episode didn’t have room for: Arya, Bran, Theon, Brienne and Jaime.

So it’s a bit of a grab bag, but there’s something of a common theme. The cow has indeed been milked, all over Westeros, and this week we visit some of the people left to see things through after last season: the losers of war, the dispossessed, the imprisoned, the rebels, and those left to seek new alliances after the Lannisters have come out on top.

This being Game of Thrones, there are a lot of them, so I’ll just focus on two here. Besides introducing the marvelous Rigg, the scene among Olenna, Margaery and Sansa is remarkable for the way it suggests that war and politics in Westeros are not conducted only on battlefields and royal councils. And power, to paraphrase Chairman Mao, does not always proceed from the barrel of a crossbow.

Sounding out Sansa on Joffrey’s true nature, Olenna–who cares more about her granddaughter’s happiness than an alliance–is both tender and penetrating. And yet, once she wheedles out the confession they feared from Sansa (“He’s a monster”), he answer is dry and no-nonsense: “Ah. That’s a pity.”

The quick little eyebrow-raise that Margaery returns suggests that quick wits and adaptability run in the family–and indeed, by episode’s end, she’s playing the part of the monsteress to her crossbow-loving fiance. (“I imagine it must be so excited to squeeze your finger here and watch something die over there.”) He’s the guy with the weapon. But which one of them has the power?

Sophie Turner deserves credit in the scene, too, for demonstrating the bravery and relief with which Sansa finally lets the words cross her lips. It may have been a good thing that she has been honest with the Tyrells or a horrible mistake, but either way, she is something that she has not been since the distant days of the first season: free. Speaking your mind will do that for a person. It may be she’s already learned something from Lady Tyrell. (This is, in general, a strong episode for GoT’s women, including Catelyn, who often got lost in the piece-moving of last season.)

Far away, in a much less comfortable setting, “Dark Wings” caught up with another storyline in a way that gives me hope for the coming season. Bran’s story has been an especially challenging one for the HBO series to adapt, because it involves a lot of internal struggle, visions, and mythology that’s easier to dramatize on the page than on the screen. (I’ve read the source books but am writing these reviews assuming you haven’t and trying to ignore them as much as possible.) As depicted in the past two seasons, the series has given me the impression that Bran’s role is supposed to be very important—all those visions of death and three-eyed crows—without really making me feel its importance.

“Dark Wings” brought it to life, with the introduction of the mysterious Jojen and Meera Reed, more than the show has its first two years. Game of Thrones does a lot of its narrative work through dialogue, and Bran needed someone to talk to about his visions. Jojen connects them to the series’ longer mythological game by telling Bran that he’s a “warg”–which, we’ve just seen with Jon Snow beyond the Wall, is a mystic able to inhabit the minds of animals shamanically.

Now that’s interesting. But equally as interesting is how the subplot echoes a theme of this episode: that the losers of the war, the weak, the weaponless, the crippled, possess an importance of their own—and maybe a danger of their own too.

But to wield it, they have to stick together. Meeting Meera, who essentially serves as her brother’s bodyguard, Osha scoffs at the idea of a boy Jojen’s size needing protection in the wild. “Some people will always need help,” Meera answers. “That doesn’t mean they’re not worth helping.” Paralyzed Bran and captive Sansa haven’t been together since the days of season one, but in that moment, with that idea, they suddenly seem very, very close.

Now for the hail of bullets:

* On the one hand, I know that condensing George R. R. Martin’s massive books into a 10-hour season of TV requires skillful compression. On the other hand, I would basically watch Jaime and Brienne’s insult-comedy tour of Westeros in real time.

* In a way, Mance Rayder’s conversation with Jon about the various tribes of Wildlings also echoes the theme of the (relatively) powerless finding strength in cooperation: “You know what it takes to unite 90 clans, half of whom want to massacre the other half for one insult or another?” In this case, the fear of extinction. Whatever works.

* The irony in that, of course, is that the more “civilized folks on the south side of the Wall have not been united by the fear of extinction, despite the warnings of the Night’s Watch. Of course, civilization is a relative term: as Talisa tells us, the cultures of the Eastern continent see the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros as a bunch of smelly barbarians. They have a point!

* Like more and more complicated TV serials (see Lost), Game of Thrones is in a dialogue with its fans, and occasionally it gives voice to them. Gendry’s conversation with Arya, in which he asks why she didn’t just pick a different set of three names and end the war, seems to be voicing an entirely reasonable plot question of fans from last season.

* Because I’ve read the books, I’m at a bit of an advantage, but even to me it feels like Game of Thrones has muddied up the sequence of events and players at and around Winterfell. So I’m curious what viewers who haven’t read the books think: do you have a sense yet who’s torturing him Theon and why?

The usual reminder: If you’ve read the source books, be considerate in the comments of those who haven’t. Feel free to discuss how this (or any past episode) compares with the source material, but please, no references to events from the books that haven’t yet happened in the series. Thanks.