It may just be the high from seeing two excellent episodes in a row, but I think I'm ready to sign and wax-stamp the official document declaring Game of Thrones' third season the best of the series so far, a mere four episodes in. Everything is clicking for the show right now and every aspect of it is up a tick from last season: The acting is superb, as everyone has comfortably settled into their characters with confidence and a host of new character actors hit the ground sprinting; the sets, wardrobes, and effects are better than anything else on television right now (admittedly, it's a thin time for TV); and the pacing is taking full advantage of the dense third book in the A Song of Ice and Fire series. On that last bit, several people may still be walking around from place to place, but at least it's become entertaining walking (except maybe for Bran).
But I'll say it again. It's the writing and directing that's really come around in Season 3 and has turned Game of Thrones from television's best genre series into one of television's best series period. In Season 3, Game of Thrones has mastered alternating between the grandiose and the intimate, telling interweaving compelling smaller stories that affect the slowly moving larger picture, and vice versa. The substance of these smaller stories–whether it's the shifting Lannister family dynamics or Tyrion's squire Pod getting laid–is no longer about meeting these characters but about watching them live in this world, and because the show is so crowded with characters and there isn't enough time to sufficiently progress all of them at the pace of a normal series, it's understandable that it's taken Game of Thrones a little longer to grow into itself. Bran Stark isn't the only thing to have gone through puberty between seasons, Game of Thrones has matured also.
"And Now His Watch Is Ended" also had a rare consistent theme running through it, and it bluntly stated that no matter how bad you are, there is always someone worse out there. Jaime ran into the Bolton men, Littlefinger's scheming was disrupted by Varys' interference, Theon was cruelly tricked by his savior, members of the Night's Watch rebelled against Caster, and Dany woke her inner dragon with a slave master flambe. In some of these cases it's new characters bringing the good out of characters considered evil, in others it's previously good characters saying not so fast, mister. But they all remind us that trust is a hard thing to come by in this world, and that if you ever barter for a dragon, make sure the lizard is muzzled and do a background check on their owner.
One last bit of official business here: Now that we're all Game of Thrones pros, these reviewcaps will bend slightly more toward the "view" and less toward the in-depth "cap." So grab a canteen of horse piss and let's discuss "And Now His Watch Is Ended."
"My sword hand... I WAS that hand." —Jaime Lannister
This opening scene is exactly what I'm talking about when I praise the direction of Season 3. It was just a close-up shot of a hand. But it became such an uncomfortable image as the camera panned up to show Jaime, for the first time in the series, completely and utterly defeated. The expression that Nikolaj Coster-Waldau wore could make a thousand babies cry, and Brienne's reaction said it all: The most cocksure man in Westeros lost his confidence with one fell swoop of Locke's blade.
I'd like to think I'd be able to instantly recognize warm horse piss if I guzzled it down, but it took Jaime a few large swallows to realize Locke was Punk'n him, and even less time to barf it back up. And there was the legendary Jaime Lannister, kneeling in the mud, his stomach rejecting and ejecting equine urine out of his mouth, and with it, almost his last fiber of fight. Almost. Jaime went southpaw after he ganked a sword from one of the sloppy Bolton men, and Locke's men toyed with him, kicking him in the ass and toppling him over into the mud again. In another brutal visual, Jaime lay on the ground with his own severed hand brushing his cheek, just mocking him. This is worse than when your hand falls asleep and you're trying to eat.
Has this sufficiently turned you around on Jaime if you still only thought of him as the man who zipped up his pants to push Bran out a window? Certainly Jaime isn't without his faulty past, but the man has shown a different kind of honor that should be respected. We've always seen him through the lens of the Starks, and yeah, he's a real pain in their ass. But he's only a hemorrhoid because he's sticking up for his own family name. It took an even worse group of people to show up, but Jaime showed unexpected class when he lied to save Brienne's virtue last week. It might be hard to swallow, but Jaime Lannister is a decent man at heart. His enemies just happen to be the people we think are the good guys. This is a very interesting case of characters not being black and white from one of the characters we thought was the blackest of all. I wouldn't be surprised if many of you disagree with me and still think Jaime needs a lot more than his hand cut off, but perspective, which is so important in the books, is something that Game of Thrones the show is just tapping into.
I'm not the only one who seems to favor Jaime. Brienne was behind the Kingslayer, giving him a pep talk about not being such an Eeyore about losing his hand. "You sound like a bloody woman," she told Jaime, speaking his language so he could understand. If Brienne could do it, surely you can too.
But how do you explain Jaime's apparent change in behavior? Brienne doesn't know, and asked him straight to his face why he lied to save her from being raped. Yet Jaime didn't have an answer, possibly because Jaime doesn't even know himself. Away from his father and sister, maybe Jaime doesn't have to pretend to be the man everyone thinks he is all the time.
"Influence grows like a weed." —Varys
The problem with having power is holding onto it, and those at the top swat wildly at flies as they desperately maintain their grip on their position. But the immediate threats are only half of it, as there are others who spin their webs and wait patiently for those in power to fall. The not-so itsy-bitsy spider with the itsy-bitsy bits Varys is a particularly patient man (he waited decades to get revenge on the sorcerer who took his frank and beans in an awesome and conveniently timed reveal of his backstory), and we had to be patient to see him at his best. After not appearing in the first two episodes of the season, Varys was huge tonight, taking us along for one of his schemes from start to finish.
One of Varys's birds, my future wife Ros, did a little detective work and decided that no man, no matter how vain, needs to travel with two feather beds. Thinking two steps ahead, Varys and Ros deduced that the extra bed must be for Sansa because she's the key to the North. If Littlefinger could somehow put a ring on Sansa's finger, it'd be the next big rung for the ladder-climber to ascend. So Varys set to cock-blocking straightaway, scheming with a particularly sassy Queen of Thorns (Olenna Tyrell) to make sure Sansa was unavailable. Next thing you know, Margaery Tyrell, Olenna's granddaughter, was seeking out Sansa and offering Ser Loras's dainty hand (I doubt Loras is even aware of any of this). And Sansa, boy-crazy teen she is, was all over that plan. Forget the Starks versus the Lannisters, this is all about Varys versus Littlefinger!
This is probably also a good space to mention that Conleth Hill should be included in the Emmy conversation. Conleth Hill should be included in the Emmy conversation.
"My real father lost his head in King's Landing. I made a choice, and I chose wrong." —Theon Greyjoy
Theon's bad times—or as I call them, "Ye Olde Karma Kick in the Arse"—continued this week, and I don't think anyone was too upset about that. Theon has always been a terrible person, and every sniveling decision he's made—sacking Winterfell, killing the two orphans as stand-ins for Bran and Rickon, bringing a woman onto his ship as a sex toy, putting his ding-a-ling in anything he could catch—has been motivated by selfishness. When we talk about honor on this show, Theon is only mentioned in the conversation as the worst example.
Theon got a taste of his own medicine (Theonex – active ingredients: deceptive cowardice for the purpose of gaining other's favor, murder) thanks to his supposed mystery helper who orchestrated the most complicated plan to extract a simple bit of information about the conditions and whereabouts of Bran and Rickon Stark. The unknown youngster freed Theon from his captives, let him march out on his own in the wilderness, killed three guys to pretend like he was on Theon's side, ran Theon around in circles in just right way so Theon wouldn't know he was going back to the torture room, and then handed him back over to the Bolton men and took the credit for capturing and blamed Theon for the murders!
And you know what? I didn't feel bad for Theon one bit. Even if he came to terms with his poor life decisions. I feel sympathetic towards Jaime because he exhibits some shreds of decency; I delight in Theon's suffering because he's shown no reason for any of us to feel compassion.
I'm still going to assume that the mystery kid is Roose Bolton's bastard son Ramsay Snow, and hope he sends a text to his dad about the Stark boys so that info gets to Catelyn so she'll stop looking out windows. You're too old to be looking out windows, Catelyn, and you've suffered enough!
"What's left of her is buried in the crypts right down there" *giggle giggle* —King Joffrey Baratheon
Margaery has done in about a week what no one else has been able to do with Joffrey in however many years he's terrorized the world. Joffrey is a spoiled psychopath well on his way to becoming a serial killer, but instead of being repulsed by his bellicose hobbies and preferences for violence, Margaery has used his narrow-mindedness to her advantage and feigned interest in slaughtering animals and looking at corpses. So here's Joffrey running around the main sanctum showing off dead bodies to his new friend and no doubt confused about the feelings he's having, and it's just perfect for Margaery. She's working him like a piece of Silly Putty, bending him into shape so there's more room for her atop King's Landing.
She earned enough influence over him to get him to do something he would never do, which is ingratiate himself to the people of King's Landing as Cersei looked on in horror. Acknowledging the commonfolk? Ewwww!
Between Margaery, Cersei, and Olenna "Queen of Thorns," the women of King's Landing have never been so powerful. Game of Thrones has always put more power in the hands of men (Dany being the major exception), but the tide is shifting greatly thanks to the crafty Tyrells. We barely see any male Tyrells, in fact. Margaery and Olenna have no interest in romance, only in scooting in closer to power, making them a more powerful House than initially seemed.
"There are no laws beyond the wall." —The guy who called Craster a "daughter-fucking bastard"
Holy jeez, guys! Things escalated VERY quickly beyond the Wall at Craster's Inn of Incest as the guests were not content with the breakfast portion of the Bed & Breakfast. Rast seemed to be the only one ready to give Crasters a one-star rating on TripAdvisor early on, but by the end of this storyline, it appeared as though half of the Night's Watch were ready to eat Craster's daughters if Craster didn't open up his pantry. I get that spooning pig poop in the snow and getting a loaf of sawdust in return is cause for a proper riot, but it still seemed to come on strong and without much warning.
But there was plenty of instigation. That Craster has a mouth on him, and frankly, he's a bit rude! So him getting the shank in the chin was a long time coming. But Mormont? Not Mormont! Rast cowardly poked him in the back, setting off chaos, and I don't know how it came to this point at all. Were half of the crows plotting a coup unbeknownst to us? Because by the end, it was brother fighting brother as Craster's erupted in an old-timey bar brawl with no rhyme or reason to who was fighting for what. This is why it's always important to carry a Snickers bar or a Tupperware container of quinoa salad, because hunger can turn people into real jerks. Was it awesome? Yes. But was it perhaps a tad on the insane side? Yes again.
Samwell used the mayhem to sweep his dear Gilly off her feet with a promise of getting the f outta there to safety, but Gilly would have a better chance with her baby as her survival guide unless their big obstacle to overcome is a marshmallow wall. Sam, Gilly, and a newborn baby against the harsh north? Good luck, kids! Don't forget to wear your thimbles to stay warm!
"Stark deserters, Baratheon deserters. You lot aren't fighting in a war, you're running from it." —Sandor "The Hound" Clegane
There may not be any donkeys or elephants in the political landscape of Westeros, but there is something of a two-party system going on with lions and wolves (we'll assume Stannis' support is on the fringe after his buns got toasted by wildfire at Blackwater) as Robb and Joffrey claim kingship. But there's a grass roots Green Party rising in the Brotherhood Without Banners, a collection rebellious hipsters who focus on local issues by cleaning up their countryside with their own brand of justice. Their Ralph Nader? One eye-patched Beric Dondarrion. And their corporate America? The Hound!
This is technically Arya's scene, but aside from piping up with evidence against The Hound, she's really a bystander to a clubhouse meeting of The Brotherhood. There's a lot of great back and forth between Beric and The Hound, as Beric accuses The Hound of being a no-gooder mostly by association with his brother and Joffrey, and the dog howls about the misunderstandings of being born a Clegane and having a terror for an older brother. But really it's a lot of well-masked exposition on the Brotherhood and some great character establishing of The Hound, one of the series' most complex characters. He's been cruel (he killed Micah), compassionate (he saved Sansa), honorable (he protected Loras against his brother), and cowardly (he quit after seeing fire at the Battle of Blackwater). The man probably needs to go backpacking through Essos to find himself, if we're being honest.
With neither side willing to budge on their stance, it's time to rumble in another edition of Trial By Combat! And in a ballsy move, Beric took his poor depth perception and put it up against The Hound like a true leader. But we have to wait until next week to see the clang-clang of swords. Even without the fight, this was a tremendous scene of tough guys chest-bumping.
"A dragon is not a slave." —Daenerys Targaryen, in Valyrian, punk!
I'm sorry, but it's impossible NOT to get goosebumps when Dany says, "I am Daenerys Stormborn of the House Targaryen," even when it's not in another language. She heard slavemaster Kraznys call her the B-word and the S-word all along, but kept that fact in her back pocket until the time was right to rub it in Kraznys' face. And fire. A lot of fire rubbed in Kraznys' face. It was awesome and ultra-satisfying.
It was apparent Dany had something in mind when she agreed to buy the Unsullied for her dragon, but I didn't think it would end this violently. While I should be dancing around the ashes of the slavers and looting Astapor's shops, all I can think about was how calculated and comfortable Dany was with turning this into a black-and-white (and flame orange) situation once she got control of the Unsullied. I keep wanting to picture Dany as Snow White or Cinderella, but she's obviously very hardcore and has very strong opinions on slavery. I'm kind of scared of Dany now! She broke bad! Do not mess with Dany. In this episode full of players outdoing each other, Dany's actions may be the scariest.
So now Dany is a major player in the scene, with an army of skilled soldiers, a trio of dragons, and the attitude of a conqueror of worlds. But how will her army feed itself? How will it house itself? Can she just walk through the desert with 8,000 killers and destroy everything in her path like a swarm of locusts? Or will she settle back into her less bloodthirsty self? Dany's at a fork in the road. One path is lined with the rose petals of a beloved queen, and one path is lined with the blood and guts of anyone who gets in her way. But which path leads to the Iron Throne?
Each week, I'll rank the episodes of Season 3 from best to worst. But remember, these are just my opinions! Feel free to post your own in the comments!
This week: This is a tough one! "And Now His Watch Is Ended" was a grand follow-up to "Walk of Punishment," and probably the most eventful episode of the season. Mormont died! Dany practically burned a city to the ground! And for you soap fans, Varys worked his magic to hook up Loras and Sansa! Yet I still can't get over a few of last week's amazing scenes, like Edmure trying to light his father on fire, the small council meeting that devolved into strategic chair maneuvering, and Arya saying goodbye to Hot Pie. I'll place this week's episode atop the list for now because the plot advanced with big surprises, but it's only in the number-one spot by a single wispy Lannister hair.
1. "And Now His Watch Is Ended" (Episode 4)
Jaime vomited horse pee-pee, Varys crafted a plot to derail Littlefinger's plan to marry Sansa, the Brotherhood Without Banners brought the Hound to trial, Dany got her army with a little trickery, and anarchy took over the Night's Watch.
2. "Walk of Punishment" (Episode 3)
Dany concocted a plan to buy the Unsullied from their slave master and offered a dragon as payment. Jaime and Brienne found out that being untrue will cost them a lot more than their honor. Tyrion got a new job as Master of Coin, Catelyn attended her father's funeral, Hot Pie said goodbye to Arya, and Jon was headed to the Wall.
3. "Valar Dohaeris" (Episode 1)
The season premiere found Tyrion wondering why he wasn't getting dap for saving King's Landing, Jon getting pledged into the Wildling fraternity, Davos pissing off his friend's girlfriend, and Dany shopping for an army.
4. "Dark Wings, Dark Words" (Episode 2)
We saw Arya, Jaime, and Bran for the first time in the season. But the most exciting parts of the episode were the introductions of the Queen of Thorns, Thoros of Myr, and the Reed super siblings. And we may as well mention that Joffrey got a boner from imagining Margaery killing things, that pervert.
NOTES FROM THE RAVENS
– Bran had another dream about chasing a three-eyed raven, and once again, I wasn't new-agey or stoned enough to understand it. What say you, Freud? Mommy issues? Catelyn did make an appearance in the dream, once again telling Bran not to climb. I don't think she has to worry about that anymore.
– "We're the sons he never had." —Dolorous Edd on their stay at Craster's. Someone get this guy his own sitcom PLEASE.
– Tywin not giving a shit about one of his children? Typical and nothing really new from the conversation between Cersei and her dear old dad, but I do want to highlight one awesome thing: During their exchange about the worthiness of the Tyrells (Cersei is anti, Tywin is pro), the writers used a nifty trick to show how far apart father and daughter are on the subject. Cersei and Tywin couldn't even agree on a pronunciation of the Tyrell family name. Cersei says TIE-rells. Tywin says TUH-rells.
– This is also probably a good time to mention that Charles Dance, who plays Tywin, should be mentioned in the Emmy conversation. So I will. Charles Dance should be mentioned in the Emmy conversation.
– Varys talking to Olenna was one of the highlights of the episode, even if it put all sorts of disgusting images in my head. "What happens when the non-existent bumps against the decrepit? A question for the philosophers."
– I'm really liking Richard Dormer as Beric Dondarrion. He gives Ser Jorah Mormont stiff competition in the contest for gentleMANliest voice in Westeros. I'd like to see/hear those two chat away with each other in a My Dinner With Andre spoof, or at least do some books on tape.
– Wait a sec, I thought Dany's horse Silver died. She rides another white horse now, I guess?
– Back to Littlefinger's apparent plan to marry Sansa... Umm, what about Lysa? If Tywin wants Littlefinger to marry Lysa, then Littlefinger is going to marry Lysa. So how does Littlefinger change Tywin's mind without getting strangled to death?
– Is it too late to vote for Podrick to sit the Iron Throne? He's obviously the most qualified.
Follow TV.com writer Tim Surette on Twitter if you want to: @TimAtTVDotCom