“Fighting bravely for a losing cause is admirable, but fighting for a winning cause is far more rewarding,” –Jaime Lannister
To state the obvious: Game of Thrones is a surprising show. Its first episode ended with the a defenseless child to cover up royal incest. The end of the first season saw the beheading of the show’s de facto main character. And the second season even included a gratuitous shot of…*ahem* an emission on a naked woman’s body a full season before Girls thought it was cool. But in a certain light, “Walk of Punishment’s” opening scene is more surprising than any amount of beheaded Neds.
After the bombast of the show’s always-excellent, and loud, opener, we smash cut to the stillness of water lapping back and forth and slowly pan up to reveal a body decked out in ceremonial armor, resting in a floating funeral pyre. Robb, Catelyn, Edmure Tully, Blackfish and an assortment of other Riverunners stand on the dock and watch in grim silence as Edmure attempts to fire a flaming arrow into his father’s final resting place, only to fail miserably. The only sounds we hear are the water, the wind, and Edmure’s increasingly frustrated breathing. Finally Blackfish has to step forward grab the bow from his nephew and properly send his brother off to meet the Seven Gods. Game of Thrones made a name for itself during its first two seasons for shocking and satisfying final scenes, but this the first time I can remember the beginning of an episode being equally as satisfying as its conclusion.
No Tully other than Catelyn Stark has appeared onscreen for 22 episodes, so it’s astonishing that within the span of four near-wordless minutes Edmure Tully, Blackfish, and the Riverruners reveal lifetimes worth of insight into their family dynamic, seamlessly fit into the fabric of the show and set the pace for an excellent episode.
And “Walk of Punishment” is a truly excellent episode of Game of Thrones. Writers and directors David Benioff and D.B. Weiss take season three from a walking pace to a brisk, pleasant jog without feeling rushed or impatient. Truth be told, almost every scene in “Walk of Punishment” is a close cousin to the beautifully understated and carefully paced opener.
We next cut to what looks like the set up to an improv exercise in King’s Landing where five characters wordlessly reveal their personalities and current political strategy solely through a “Game of Chairs.” Minor characters like Talisa and Podrick Payne pop up in very short and very seemingly inconsequential scenes that are charming, even if only just for their cheery pointlessness. Blackfish looks out at the vast and serene Riverlands with his niece and observes “even in war’s darkest days…in most places in the world absolutely nothing is happening.”
This show must be an absolute bitch to pace. The first two episodes suffered from pacing problems where they couldn’t seem to balance just how much time to spend with each characters or how to parcel out kinetic scenes with more languid ones. It could very well be that the only thing keeping good episodes of Game of Thrones from great ones (there is no such thing as a bad one) is when are where to put scene A in relation to scene B in relation to scene X and so on and so forth.
When it works, like “Walk of Punishment” does so well, seemingly unconnected scenes finish each others sentences. “Punishment” opens with a Edmure Tully failing a crucial task that he’s been given only because the society he lives in dictates that it’s his duty and honor as a son to do so (House Tully: Family, Duty, Honor). The episode ends with Jaime Lannister, miles away, finally understanding just how much he’s relied on those social mores when “wait til my father hears about this” doesn’t work against the knife that takes away the part of him that makes him Jaime Lannister.
Jaime tells Brienne that he would make his would-be sexual assaulters kill him if he were a woman, though thank the Gods he’s not. Then Theon a few scenes later faces the same sexual violence no man in Westeros ever assumes they’ll be the target of.*
*Side note: Game of Thrones has a good understanding of what bloodthirsty fucks we all are and feeds our bloodlust accordingly. But it’s increasingly creative strategies to side-step around depictions of rape onscreen, while not really fitting the savagely realistic tone of the series, are much appreciated.
Much like the waters that carry old Hoster Tully downstream, “Walk of Punishment” just flows well. Even Dany’s scenes, which are always the most disconnected from the rest of the show, features a decent sense of escalation. Her situation in Astapor is developing as quickly as it should be. And perhaps more importantly it feels like we have our KHALEESI back and not the overwhelmed tourist of season two. As she assures Missandei that “all men must die…but we are not men” you understand why Jorah, Barristan a whole host of Dothraki and three dragons see her as a true queen. The thought of her with even two dragons (though I find it hard to believe she will actually sell off one of her “children”) and 8,000 nippleless warriors (look I know there’s just the one dude sans one nipple, but this is now the Unsullied’s reputation to HBO viewers and they just need to get used to it) is a frightening one.
Jon Snow does get more of a short shrift again but Mance Rayder seems to have positioned himself as the real protagonist to watch Beyond the Wall. For as little we know about him he seems just as compelling as a player in Westeros as any other character. It’s also fairly satisfying to see the Night’s Watch retrace their steps and shuffle back to Craester’s Keep dwindled and defeated.
One thing Thrones is always good at is highlighting how we give meaning to the intangible. Power is a frequent target of this. What is it exactly? What tangible means can we use to describe this abstract concept? This week, the show’s intangible target was money. “There only numbers on paper. Once you understand that, it’s easier to get them to behave,” Littlefinger tells Tyrion. Then Bronn uses the, “oh yeah? you and what army?” argument on Tyrion to illustrate how debt really means nothing unless someone has the muscle to collect. Unfortunately for the realm, the Iron Bank of Braavos can afford to buy said muscle. On any other show turning the most colorful character into the Secretary of Treasury would be a painfully boring but does anyone doubt for a second that Tyrion having access to the government’s coin purse is going to be anything but awesome?
Not every episode of Game of Thrones can be “Blackwater” for budgetary and plausibility issues (Stannis is too busy trying to hit that sexy red witch up again to build another army to be destroyed). And for every episode that can’t be a spectacle, we can only hope that it will be as smooth as this.
BULLET POINTS FROM HERE ON OUT:
- How awesome was the juxtaposition from Jaime losing his hand to The Hold Steady launching into “The Bear and the Maiden Fair?” Answer: Very awesome.
- I think I speak for men everywhere when I say Podrick Payne’s experience is pretty much exactly how every man usually loses his virginity. They nailed every detail right down to the three immensely satisfied hookers and a “Mereneese Knot.”
- “We need our men more than Tywin needs his,” Robb Stark. It seems like every week the show tries to impart on us just how impressive Robb’s been with what he’s got. The tide is starting to turn towards the Lannisters post-Blackwater but this kid was absolutely kicking Tywin Lannister’s ass for a long time with fewer troop and fewer funds. He’s like the Robert E. Lee of Westeros…minus the slaves.
- AWWWWWEEEEEEEEEE BREADWOLF AWWWWWEEEEEEEEEE
- “Your fire’s running low,” Melisandre. Fucking women, am I right? Stannis knows what I’m talking about.
- The quote I chose to begin the review with might not pack as much for the show since the show hasn’t spent as much time mythologizing Rhaegar as the books have but when it’s hard to overstate just how awesome it sounds in the books.
- My nerd skills are a little off so I had to Google what language they speak in Astapor. Turns out it’s a Ghiscari dialect of Valyrian. Point is the Valyrian word for “ass” is apparently just “ass.”
- The Bolton bannerman who de-hands Jaime looks a little like Marc Maron.
- *ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT “LOOSE SEAL JOKE” GOES HERE
(photo via TV.com)