kimberlee rossi-fuchs gets in the game…
“The Night Lands,” this week’s episode of Game of Thrones, takes its title from the Dothraki concept of heaven, a land where the dead are reunited and ride with their warrior ancestors. While Daenerys’ handmaid worries that the unceremoniously beheaded Rakharo, one of the outriders sent out to scout for a welcoming place to camp, will be deprived of such a reunion, it’s Theon Greyjoy (in his biggest episode of the series to date) who learns that one can never truly go home again.
When we last left Theon, he was headed to his ancestral homelands to persuade his father, Balon, to take up the Starks’ cause in their war against the Lannisters. En route to the Greyjoy stronghold, Pyke (another brand new location on the opening sequence map), Theon amuses himself by bedding the ship captain’s young, unattractive daughter. His pillow talk – which consists of alternating boasts of his own nobility and degrading insults, telling the girl as she flashes him a goofy, unappealing grin, “Try smiling with your lips closed” – reveals an arrogance and nastiness that wasn’t quite so apparent in previous episodes.
While the naïve captain’s daughter may have been impressed by his self-proclaimed royalty, once off the ship, Theon soon discovers that the titles and finery that denote a prince on the mainland just make him seem silly and effeminate in the rough Iron Islands. After nine years in Winterfell, Theon doesn’t recognize his sister and last surviving sibling, Yara (known as Asha in the books), and on a horseback ride to their father’s castle, gropes her and commands her to spend the night with him as “an order from your future king.” Actress Gemma Whalen has the right athletic, tomboy look for the part and also the necessary coolness, as Yara’s calm demeanor when putting up with Theon’s sexual advances and bragging serves to embarrass and emasculate her cocky brother once he learns her true identity. Theon’s father, Balon (steely Patrick Malahide), doesn’t welcome him with open arms, either. He instantly mocks his appearance and clothing, asking him if he paid the “iron price” for his jewelry and took it off a man he killed in battle or brought it with gold, like a woman. Balon rejects Theon’s offer to win him back his crown and makes it clear that he views Theon as little more than a traitor whose loyalty lies not with his family, but with the Starks. Much to Theon’s dismay, Balon views Yara as a more worthy heir, partly because, “She knows who she is.”
Back in King’s Landing, Tyrion is also grappling with his family and the influence of Ned Stark. He goes to visit Shae, whom he’s brought to Kings Landing in secret against his father’s command, and finds her entertaining Lord Varys. It’s a passive-aggressive move on Varys’ part, one designed to show just how good he is at finding out others’ secrets. Tyrion rightly perceives this as a threat and reminds Varys, “I am not Ned Stark. I understand the way the game is played.”
Indeed, Tyrion begins to show that he is quite adept at the political maneuvering and scheming that the noble-minded Ned Stark eschewed in favor of honor. He begins to dismantle Cercei’s power structure, sending her hand-picked commander of the City Watch, Janos Slynt (the charming fellow last seen murdering King Robert’s baseborn infant son) off to the Wall and replacing him with his own sellsword, Bronn. Although Tyrion has no problem acting the part of calculating schemer (when Janos becomes angry about Tyrion’s casting aspersions on his honor, he keeps cool and calmly tells him, “I’m not questioning your honor, Lord Janos. I’m denying its existence.”), he privately questions whether or not he possesses the ruthlessness to suppress his enemies at any cost. In a pensive moment, he asks Bronn, “If I told you to murder an infant girl, say, still at her mother’s breast, would you do it without question?” When Bronn replies, “I’d ask how much,” Tyrion wonders if Bronn is any better than Slynt and, if not, does that make him any better than Cercei or Joffrey? It’s yet another testament to the strength of Peter Dinklage’s performance that he can convey Tyrion’s moral quandary with little more than a flash of the eyes.
Elsewhere in Westeros, Dany and her khalasar are still stranded in the desert after one scout returns without his head, Cercei ignores dire warnings from the Wall, and we finally get to catch up a bit with Arya aka Arry in her travels on the Kingsroad with Yoren and his ragtag batch of new recruits for the Night’s Watch. After royal henchmen come searching for Gendry (Yoren is pretty bad-ass in that scene, sending them away without the King’s last surviving bastard and stealing their weapons for the Night’s Watch, to boot), Arya shares with him her secret about both her gender and her nobility. We also get our first glimpse of some pretty essential new characters, including comic relief Hot Pie, the mysterious Jaqen H’ghar and his dangerous cage-mates, Biter and Rorge, who, unlike in the books, has a nose instead of a gaping hole in his face. Typically, disfigured or monstrous characters like Rorge or the Hound look much less gruesome in the series than they are described in the books and while I understand that the makeup and CGI effects needed to recreate the book’s descriptions could hinder the actors performances or be a bit distracting, it’s still a little disappointing.
Again, this week’s episode took some liberties with the source material. A sexual relationship between Melisandre and Stannis may have been just barely insinuated in the novels, but here it happens on screen and right on top of Stannis’ war-room table. Their tryst is a bold addition and one that I was surprised to see, but I think it will play out nicely in the weeks to come. Beyond the wall, Jon Snow stays up to discover what becomes of Craster’s sons and winds up getting knocked out by Craster, ending the episode on a cliffhanger that doesn’t occur in Martin’s novel and has me very interested in seeing what happens next week.