The critically-acclaimed (and jaw-droppingly brilliant) HBO series Game of Thrones has returned to screens on both sides of the Atlantic. Each week, Richard Browne reviews each episode as the stakes in Westeros rise even higher.
We open with a charming rom-com scene featuring Samwell and Gilly: “Is that a dragonglass spear in your pocket, or are you just pleased to see me?”
Our other wandering Night’s Watchman, Jon Snow, has to climb over the Wall, a perilous task that nearly proves fatal.
In the Riverlands, Melisandre appears to the Brotherhood without Banners. This is highly confusing (my reaction was to say ‘What?’ at the screen several times), as nothing like this happened in A Storm of Swords. It’s an interesting development though, with ramifications for Arya and Gendry both.
Then some more torture for Theon. Iwan Rheon (as ‘Boy’) is a sadistic delight in this scene – but we still don’t know for sure who he is, nor is there any more hope for Theon to get out of that dungeon.
King Robb has to be at his most diplomatic to keep the fragile Stark-Tully-Frey alliance together, but Walder Frey’s price for his support is a high one.
Roose Bolton is slimy as ever as he negotiates with Jaime and Brienne – quite aware that he holds the upper hand in the discussion.
In King’s Landing, Lannisters and Tyrells play at marriages, with Sansa Stark caught in the middle – emphasised perfectly by her cringingly awkward conversations with Loras and Tyrion. Awkward isn’t the worst of it for her though, as her sweet dreams are crushed by the players of the game.
After a slow opening – the scene with Bran and his travelling companions seems quite pointless – this episode blossoms into one of my favourites.
For one, there’s the development of the Jon-Ygritte relationship. “Do you think I’m as dumb as all those girls in silk dresses?” says Ygritte, indicating a better-rounded character than what we get in the books, and demonstrating that she actually understands Jon. She even goes and redefines loyalty for him. Clever. And their attachment to one another is only strengthened by their near-death experience on the climb and the view from up top.
Nonetheless, the very best of this episode – as it often does in Thrones – takes place in King’s Landing. We finally have a head-to-head between the maestros of Lannister and Tyrell – Tywin (Charles Dance) and Olenna (Diana Rigg). It is a chess match played with reputations, loyalties and titles, and it is enthralling, as each player turns the table on their opponent back and forth.
But even that is no match for the climactic Littlefinger-Varys scene. Aiden Gillen and Conleth Hill are brilliant as ever as they stare each other down in front of the Iron Throne. More so than Jon’s scaling of the Wall, the climb that the episode title refers to is about the ambition of the intelligent, the adaptable, the ruthless – in other words, Littlefinger.
As the background music cranks up, we flit between scenes showing characters smashed and heartbroken by the ladder of chaos – death, pity, regret. My word, it is fantastic.
The only flaw – in my view – is that the episode doesn’t end there, but trots back up north to see Jon and Ygritte kiss again. It’s nice and all, but it just doesn’t come close in terms of intrigue and drama, the things Thrones does so well, and never better than here.
“Do you know what the realm is? It’s the thousand blades of Aegon’s enemies, a story we agree to tell each other over and over until we forget that it’s a lie.”
There’s a lot of good lines in this episode. Indeed, it could have been any of Littlefinger’s quips about the realm and the climb of ambition. But this one is as profound as it is perfectly set up.
Winning the game
I know I’m repeating myself, but this episode screams Littlefinger. Lord Petyr Baelish may only be on screen for a short amount of time, but his fingers are in several pies across the kingdoms. A powerful wedding match, betrayal rooted out and triumphing over Varys – at least for now. Playing it perfectly.
Here be dragons?
No, not a sniff. According to the trailer for episode seven, however, that will change soon enough.