Underneath all the scandal and shock, Game Of Thrones season 5 is an exquisite exercise in pace and planning…
5.6 Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken
At certain points in a season, all the careful pacing in the world doesn’t pay off and you get what I like to call a chess match episode. There’s no checkmate, just a lot of pieces moving into place to power the rest of the season. The last two episodes of Game Of Thrones have felt like set-up work, both for good and for ill. Given that Game Of Thrones show gurus, Benioff and Weiss know how to pace their season out to prevent slower episodes and to ensure something interesting happens in just about every episode, this is a good sort of chess game, with plenty of eye-catching things happening along the way to keep tongues wagging throughout the Seven Kingdoms.
For a relatively sedate episode, a lot of things get moved around this week. No Daenerys, but she’s as much of a character in this episode as she is in episodes in which she appears thanks to the presence of Ser Friendzone, Jorah Mormont. There’s no Brienne, but her vow to protect Sansa Stark seems to be meaningless given just what the poor girl undergoes this week. Arya has vowed to lose everything she has in her goal of becoming a Faceless Man, but she can’t quite forgive or forget just what she’s been through. Littlefinger’s schemes put the North in focus, but very little of the episode concerns itself with matters of politics. The game of thrones is wheels within wheels, the very definition of chaos theory, and everyone’s jockeying for the next rung on the ladder or trying valiantly to keep from getting trampled by social climbers.
Nobody is as skilled at navigating treacherous waters as Petyr Baelish, and Aidan Gillen is making the most of his chance to smirk, preen, and lie. His meeting with Cersei gives him a great opportunity to maneuver his way into a second powerful position, taking the role of Warden of the North thanks to his careful use of Sansa Stark and Ramsay Bolton as ammunition. His offer to take the North for Cersei and the Lannisters is helpful, too. Should the Boltons repel Stannis, he’s got them in his pocket. Should Stannis trounce the Bolton, he’s got Sansa Stark on his good side. Should both sides be battered and weakened, he can sweep in and win the day for the Lannisters. Littlefinger is in the hottest of all possible seats, but he’s definitely working hard to control his destiny and win this game the only way he knows how.
Of course, Cersei on your side is a liability, as we find out this week. Her little plan to disgrace Loras and get out of her arranged marriage has only succeeded in dragging down both Loras and Margaery (AKA the Queen of the Seven Kingdoms), and worse, it’s awakened the wrath of the Queen of Thorns, Olenna Tyrell (AKA the most vicious player of the game alive). She’s got Tywin’s years of practice and Littlefinger’s ruthlessness, plus the buying power of being the richest kingdom in the realm, controlling the crown’s purse strings, and controlling the food supply from the cushy green walls of Highgarden. And yet there’s Cersei, lobbing bombs without the slightest idea that she’s swimming in a gasoline pool; it’s no coincidence that Littlefinger gets a look at Lancel Lannister on his way to visit Cersei. That’s just future ammunition for when Cersei inevitably tries to outsmart him. There’s a reason Littlefinger has clawed his way up the ranks, and it’s not because he’s so charismatic.
That’s one of the big credits to this episode, and to the way, the season has been structured as a whole. Everything we see this week has some sort of repercussion on the characters we don’t see. Brienne, Dany, Varys, little Lord Robin… just about anyone, not Bran, Meera, and Hodor are going to be feeling the repercussions of the events of this episode, for one reason or another. Brienne is going to have to do something about Sansa’s marriage to the Bastard of Bolton. Dany’s going to get a very familiar face in the slave pits. Varys is going to have an even harder time of finding Tyrion unless he goes straight to Meereen, then he might see and purchase the magical dwarf from the slavers. Stannis is going to have to deal with the possibility of Littlefinger and the Knights of the Vale riding against him after his forces are weakened by a prolonged clash with the Bolton (and perhaps the Greyjoys?).
The show is building in a way it excels at, and that’s a credit to Bryan Cogman’s ability to keep things moving without getting bogged down. Arya and the Faceless Men eat up a good half of the episode, but we know Arya’s going to be important sooner or later; she may profess to be no one, but she’s Arya Stark of Winterfell, and she’s being honed into the ultimate weapon of revenge while learning the powers of dishonesty from the masterful Jaqen H’Gar in Braavos. It may take a season or two, but she’s slowly gone from egg to growing dragon, and before long she’ll have a body count befitting her new status. She’s our slow burn; our quick explosion is Myrcella (Nell Tiger Free) in the Water Gardens.
This particular bit is masterful from Jeremy Podeswa. On one side of the Water Gardens, you have Jaime and Bronn. On the other side, you have Sand Snakes Obara (Keisha Castle-Hughes), Nymeria (Jessica Henwick), and Tyene (Rosabell Laurenti Sellers). On the third hand, you have Aero Hotah (DeObia Oparei) and Doran Martell’s guards. The first two hands clash in spectacular fashion, with Jaime and Bronn holding their own despite being outnumbered (or the Snakes holding their own despite being faced with stronger, more experienced opposition). Call it a draw—though Bronn did get a worrying scratch during the fracas—but a very exciting, cleverly staged draw that avoids the obvious (the third Sand Snake takes off with the Princess) in favour of something more interesting: nobody escapes with Myrcella, who doesn’t particularly want to leave the side of the handsome Prince Trystane (Toby Sebastian).
In the second season of the show, there were pacing issues. Dany got too much time on screen in comparison to her importance. The third season is notable for the extended torment of Theon/Reek, which some felt was excessive. This season, though, the pacing seems dead on. Nothing overstays its welcome, the threads stay bundled together by some sort of unifying idea per episode, and everything seems to be clicking on cylinders despite the logistical problems with making a television show in three or four different countries at the same time. Regardless of your feelings about the show, it’s a phenomenal achievement in planning if nothing else.
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