I’ve written a book about this episode. But I felt like there was so much I wanted to say. I’m not sure if this was my favorite episode of the season (the last few weeks have been fantastic), but there’s no denying the excitement caused by the mere fact that George R.R. Martin himself wrote the screenplay for this hour. I imagine that opportunity was almost like a way to write “alternate scenes” or to change things GRRM may have thought he would have done a different way after having nearly 15 years to ponder his work (A Game of Thrones was first published in August 1996). For that reason, a lot of what I discuss demonstrates the differences between the text and show.
*This review contains spoilers for Episode 8 of Game of Thrones as well as the first four A Song of Ice and Fire books. Please proceed with caution.*
Arya trains with Syrio as Winterfell men are slaughtered by Lannister guards. Elsewhere, Sansa and Septa Mordane are walking through the castle when the septa hears the conflict outside. She sends Sansa to her bedroom, and she then silently walks towards the men in crimson cloaks. Septa Mordane does nothing except stand in front of the four swords that imply the fate she will soon mate. I found this an incredibly touching scene. In the novels, I never thought twice about Septa Mordane, and her death was eclipsed by Ned’s. However, the changes made to Sansa’s character in the show also changed the septa; just as Sansa is more rude, Septa Mordane is more critical of her young charge. Further, in the show we’re given enough clues to infer how the septa died – protecting Sansa – where as in the book we don’t know she’s dead until Sansa sees her head on the Red Keep’s battlements. Septa Mordane was more humanized, I felt more connected to her, and her death was therefore more tragic.
Someone else is “dead.” Syrio has tricked Arya, and he tells her that unless she truly sees, she is a dead girl. “The true seeing is the heart of swordplay,” Syrio tells her. Suddenly Meryn Trant and his Lannister minions burst through the room asking for Arya. Still slightly naïve, she is about to go with the Lannisters to her father until Syrio intervenes. Arya then remembers her last lesson and quickly sees that Eddard would never send Lannisters to fetch her. The guards insult Syrio’s nationality, ability and height, and he simply replies, “I am Syrio Forel, and you will be talking to me with more respect.” More like “you won’t be talking at all,” because after he tells Arya to flee, he takes out the fully armed and armored Lannister minions with nothing but a wooden play sword for weapon and a leather jerkin for armor. Trant steps forward like the boss enemy in a video game, and when Arya asks Syrio to run with her, he says the First Sword of Braavos does not run. His last words to Arya harken back to their first lesson. “What do we say to the God of Death?” he asks. She replies, “Not today.” With that, she turns on her heels and runs, chanting the same mantra to herself the entire way.
I thought this scene functioned really well as a coming-of-age moment. It is the split second when Arya grows up, and Syrio symbolizes what she leaves behind – her childhood. He can no longer stay with her, but he protects her, grants her freedom and enables her to move forward in life. Arya has to leave him, but the lessons he taught her will always stay with her. Except now, it’s not just training. Now, she has to apply Syrio’s teaching in a real-world way. Our own childhood memories do the same for us: They give us the foundation on which we build our adults lives, and they comfort us and protect us in times when he feel scared or pained. Although we don’t know Syrio’s fate, if he does come back to Arya at some point in the story, his presence could drastically change her story. Syrio represents what she once was and once had, and reconnecting with him could change her current course of studying to be a Faceless Man (Child?).
There is a theoretical level to this scene as well, something only possible when George R.R. Martin is behind the script. Syrio uses his “not today” quote, implying that he will not die today. His fate has been one of the great mysteries of the series, and this scene cemented his survival in my mind. Whether or not he’s Jaqen H’Ghar, Syrio is out there somewhere, and he will reappear. I truly hope so, because Miltos Yerolemou gave us a brilliant performance. His first scene with Arya made me giddy like a schoolgirl. His last scene with Arya pulled at my heartstrings. His chemistry with Maisie was undeniable, his foreign flair was magnetic, and his performance was heroic. He gave us a Syrio who looked completely different from how George describes the man in the books, yet the heart of the character shone through in full force on-screen. All the while, his accent, his movements, and his look went beyond creating Syrio; he also helped create the culture of Braavos on-screen. If/when we see Braavos, we’ll have Syrio Forel as our anchor.
In another part of the castle, the Hound intercepts Sansa. She threatens to tell her father or the Queen, and the Hound jokes and asks her who she thinks sent him. San/San subscribers got their due in this scene, although it was so short it feels almost negligible. Sophie Turner and Rory McCann were both on point despite the brevity.
Arya has made her way to the stables, where a stableboy tries to take her so he can ransom her to the queen. Arya pulls Needle from her chest and instinctively stabs the boy. She goes wide-eyed before running off. This is unfortunately one of the WORST scenes in the entire series. Maisie exceeds expectations as usual, but nothing else works. The stableboy’s lines are delivered with a certain smug “I’m on a TV set” tone, the scene is seconds too short, and the editing is terrible. I actually felt as though my TV had glitched when she stabbed the boy.However, Maisie’s reaction salvaged what it can. She looked shocked, scared and unsure of what to do next. I would say that TV Arya is actually more childlike than book Arya, so I think they’re going for a more gradual “descent” with her, making her killing of the stableboy seem more accidental and less intentional.
Darkness. Ned is in the black cells. A hooded Varys appears with a torch and a flask. He sips to prove it’s not poison, and Ned takes it and downs it greedily. Varys informs Ned that Arya has escaped the clutches of even his little birds, and Sansa is being held close to the Queen. When Ned asks Varys why he didn’t intervene when the Lannisters ambushed the Starks in the throne room, Varys simply says he isn’t a hero. Here, Varys serves as a direct foil to Ned. Ned had an advantage on Cersei, yet out of honor and the “madness of mercy,” as he puts it to Varys, he confronted her and told her about his plan. He essentially threw away his safety and the safety of all he cares for by giving Cersei the time to plan her attack. Varys, on the other hand, faces the world with a much more realistic, if more cynical, perspective: Getting himself involved would have only led to his death, and then what good could he do? When Ned asks Varys who he truly serves, the eunuch replies, as though it is the obvious answer, “The realm, my Lord. Someone must.” It’s far too early in the show and possibly still too early in the novels to know if this actually is Varys’ intent, but if you believe that Daenerys will be the savior of Westeros, then you can find at least some truth in his statement.
There’s a detail in this scene that I find extremely interesting. Earlier we heard Syrio Forel say “not today” to the God of Death when he faced Meryn Trant. Deep in the dungeons, upon finding out that Cat no longer holds the Imp, Ned tells Varys to slit his throat and be done with it. “Not today,” Varys replies. While Varys’ backstory has not yet been explored in the show, the text tells us that he was a child in Pentos and/or Lys. If this is true, the fact that both characters use the phrase “not today” to respond to death, within the same hour of the TV show, builds the culture of the Free Cities in the most subtle way. And with GRRM behind this episode, we know this link is possible. But does it say more? Is there some other possible connection to explore between the eunuch and the dancing master? Is George embedding clues in the show to give the most dedicated of fans a chance to pick up on things not put forth in the novels? I can’t answer any of those questions, and regardless, that would be an essay for another time.
Sansa sits in front of the queen. She mirrors Cersei in gown and hair. But while Cersei is manipulative and collected, Sansa is gullible and fearful. The council accuses her of treason, but she again affirms her love for Joffrey and her desire to be like Cersei. Littlefinger, arguably in pedo-mode, says she deserves a chance to prove her loyalty. Cersei instructs her to write to Cat and Robb, urging them to keep the peace. They must come to King’s Landing and swear fealty to Joffrey. Sansa asks what will happen to Ned, and Cersei says that depends – on Robb, and on Sansa.
She writes the letter, and sometime later, enters the throne room. Before she can plead for her father, Pycelle reads a few edicts. Tywin has been named Hand in place of Ned. Cersei calls Barristan Selmy, and asks him to remove his helm. She then removes him from service, and when he objects, rubs salt in the wound: The Kingslayer will replace him. Barristan, now relieved of his Kingsguard duties, can finally see that Joffrey is a total douchebag. The Bold removes his white cloak and helm and draws his sword. The five remaining Kingsguard also draw, but Selmy says that even now he could cut through them all like carving a cake. No one challenges that, and he leaves in a fury.
Sansa goes before the King. She asks for mercy for her father through a quivering voice. She does not deny his crime, but says Eddard must regret what he did, and that Renly or Stannis must have lied. Joffrey asks why Ned said he wasn’t the King, and Sansa reasons that milk of the poppy clouded his mind. Sansa pleads with Joffrey; if he still has any affection for her, can’t he do her this kindness? He says her words have moved him, but says Ned must confess and say he is the king, or he will receive no mercy. Sansa says he will.
Sansa’s naivete is a lot like Eddard’s eternal quest for honor. Both father and daughter choose not to face the truth because they are too busy pursuing the perfect, most proper resolution to their problems. Sansa makes a lot of promises that she must have known she had no way of keeping, yet she also must have believed there was a way for things to work out. The same goes for Ned with his reveal to Cersei. This is possibly the first episode in which Sansa doesn’t have a bitch moment, and from here on out, I think people will start to feel for the character more. Sophie Turner carried all of Sansa in her eyes. Her weariness was clear.
Winter is Close
Robb has gotten Sansa’s letter. Luwin says what we have just seen – it’s his sister’s hand, but Cersei’s words. Robb brazenly states to Luwin and Theon, “Joffrey puts my father in chains, and now he wants his ass kissed? His Grace summons me to King’s Landing, I’ll go to King’s Landing, but not alone.” This line was added for the TV show, in what I think is an effort to make Robb seem a bit older than his fourteen-year-old book counterpart. TV Robb, at least this early on, is a bit bolder and more raucous, than book Robb. In what I consider one of the greatest scenes so far in the entire series, he commands Luwin to call the banners. Donald Sumpter’s eyes convey every emotion we will see unfold within Robb’s storyline – hope, pride, love, as well as fear, loss and despair. In a chill-worthy scene looking at Winterfell from afar, we see a black swarm emerge from the castle. The ravens have burst out to carry the Young Wolf’s order to all the North.
Greatjon Umber, one of the Stark’s chief bannermen, demands to lead the van, and whines that if he doesn’t, he’ll take his men and march home. Robb says that’s fine, but after he’s done with the Lannisters, he will root out Umber and hang him as an oathbreaker. Jon draws his blade, but Grey Wind pounces, taking a few fingers as a souvenir. The Greatjon brushes it off and laughs, and we have the first of many classic Greatjon scenes, all played fantastically by Clive Mantle.
Robb leaves in the middle of the night to avoid Lannister spies. He says goodbye to Bran and tells him there must always be a Stark in Winterfell. Rickon has been hiding, and when Bran says Robb will bring back father, and mother will return, Rickon sadly, simply and sincerely says, “No, they won’t.” How incredibly foreboding, and as we know, foreshadowing. Based on how the youngest Stark boys take Ned’s death in the book, I believe Rickon has some sort of greensight or ability that he doesn’t really understand as a toddler. But maybe TV Rickon, who’s a few years older, can actually comprehend his ability and knows no one will return. It would be doubly painful and eerie if not only we readers know that the Starks won’t return to Winterfell, but if their youngest son actually knows this as well. The only comment I have about that scene that isn’t completely positive is that Art Parkinson and Isaac Hempstead-Wright look more like twins than boys with five years between them. It’s not a big deal, because we’ve been told that Bran is older, and Rickon is so different from the text anyway, but I guess it was just something that lingered in my head from reading the books.
Bran prays for his brother’s safe return at the heart tree and Osha comes up. Bran says she’s not a slave and she shakes her shackles; he responds, “Well your friend did put a knife to my throat.” I have to say, I do love sassy Bran. She asks if he can hear the gods in the rustling leaves. Bran is incredulous, but Osha tells him the gods send the wind. She goes on to say Robb will get no help from them where he’s going. Hodor stumbles up naked and Osha says he must have giants’ blood in him. Bran asks if giants actually do exist, and she says beyond the Wall there are giants and more. Robb’s going to wrong way; he should be going North, because not all those things beyond the Wall are as good-hearted as possibly half-giant Hodor.
Osha is a great character to have at Winterfell, because she has finally given the weirwoods and the Old Gods their due. If we had a GoT Superlatives Award Ceremony, Natalia Tena/Osha would win most changed. Natalia’s Osha is wildly different from book Osha, but I’ve liked her from the beginning, and she only gets better with each passing week.
Cat is angry Lysa has kept a message about Ned from her. Lysa says she will not risk her son’s life to aid Ned. Cat tries to plead with her sister, but Lysa clearly exists outside the realm of reason. The knights of the Vale will stay in the Vale. The North and the Riverlands will face Tywin Lannister alone. Apparently, Lysa forgot her Tully words, because she displays no concern for family, duty or honor.
Tywin and Bronn bromance through the woods. The greatest thing about Tyrion Lannister is that he recognizes who people are – really are – almost immediately, and he accepts them for it. Just as he knows he is a dwarf, he sees that Bronn is a sellsword and nothing more. Tyrion promises to beat the price of anyone who attempts to buy Bronn’s services to get one over on the Imp. Later, while Tyrion sleeps, the mountain clans approach with Shagga, Son of Dolf at their head. Tyrion bargains his way out of death by promising to deliver the Vale to the clans if the clans deliver him to his father.
The Dragon Rules All
Daenerys sees destruction all around her. Houses are burning, people are dying, women are being herded up in a rape pen. She learns that Dothraki raid other tribes regularly, but that these particular raids are intended to finance their trip across the Narrow Sea. The princess focuses on the women, one in particular, who are being beaten and forced to the ground. She orders Drogo’s men to stop. Jorah says she has a gentle heart, a statement she refutes immediately. Drogo asks why she claimed the women as her own. Mago, one of Drogo’s men, asserts that the Dothraki honor the “Lamb Men” by mounting them. Dany snaps that the dragon preys on horse and sheep alike. Drogo is amused, until Mago challenges Dany’s role as khaleesi and calls her a foreign whore. Drogo is no longer laughing. He makes his bloodriders stand aside so he can kill Mago on his own. When Mago strikes him, Drogo intentionally lets the blade run into his flesh. Proud beyond measure, Drogo pulls out twin daggers and then throws them down. After a quick fight, Drogo slits and literally rips Mago’s throat out. Dany rushes to his side and sees the extent of his wound. Mirri Maz Duur, the woman Dany focused on back at the pen of women, comes forward as a healer. She speaks the Common Tongue, and perhaps for this reason Dany trusts her. The khaleesi persuades her khal to let Mirri clean his wound.
This was a completely different scene than in the novel (just re-read that chapter a few days ago), but I liked the changes a lot. In the book Khal Drogo takes an off-screen injury while fighting Khal Ogo, and when Dany makes her dragon comment, he only silences his men. But in the show we get to see Khal Drogo in all his glory one last time – completely powerful, dominant and fighting for the honor of the woman he loves. I think this was inserted to do a few things: really promote Drogo’s strength and abilities; prove how he loves Dany beyond even his own men; and make us “cheer” for defending her honor…..all with the purpose of making his upcoming death more shocking and emotionally resonant for viewers. Dany stops a bunch of women from a life of gang-rape…Mago calls her a foreign slut…Drogo kills him. It’s a chain reaction of righteousness in a way, and I think it was linked together to later make viewers feel a lot of sympathy for Drogo and Dany when the khal dies. As a sidenote, the last few episodes have given Jason Momoa a chance to prove himself, and he’s made Khal Drogo a more multi-faceted character than we get in the novels.
At the Wall, two dead bodies are dragged into Castle Black. They’re the two Black Brothers found beyond the Wall. Everyone thinks they’ve been dead for ages until Sam points out that they haven’t rotted (but, if we’re going to impose real world physics on Westeros, would the ice have preserved them?). Jon says burn them; there’s no need to know how long they’ve been dead. But Mormont sees something curious and orders that Maester Aemon examine the corpses before they are incinerated. Back in his solar, Mormont receives a raven. He asks Jon to pour two horns of ale and take a seat, and then he unloads the weighty news of Ned’s capture and alleged treason. Without a word, Jon gets up and leaves. When Mormont tells him not to do anything stupid, he says his sisters were in the capital as well.
Later, the young Night’s Watchmen complete their kitchen chores. Thorne bitches at Jon Snow and smugly proclaims Ned Stark a traitor. Jon flies off the handle, literally; he throws down his cleaver and lunges at Thorne. Thankfully, Pyp and Grenn are there to check him. Mormont oversees the scuffle and grounds Jon – he’s confined to quarters.
Ghost is uneasy that night (YES, he barks, get over it!) and Jon awakes. He knows that whatever the direwolf senses can’t be good, so he straps on his swordbelt and opens the door. The wolf breaks out toward the Commander’s chambers and Jon follows. Everything is calm, dark and quiet. And then Othor – the frozen corpse with the blue eyes – rushes Jon from behind. A well-choregraphed fight ensues (I fell a bit more in love with Kit Harington here), until Mormont shows up with a lantern. The Old Bear has a firm grasp on the top handle, so Jon has no choice but to grab the hot metal frame and fire. He flings it at Othor and the corpse finally submits to stillness.
The Black Brothers burn the wights’ bodies. Sam says he read somewhere that the bodies were touched by white walkers and only fire will stop them. “The white walkers sleep beneath the ice for thousands of years, and when they wake up…I hope the Wall’s high enough.” And then we see just how high the Wall is. This scene was purely an “in case you missed it” explanation of what the wights are and what the white walkers are up to. I don’t ever remember reading about their hibernation. Interesting, as I had never considered them to be sleeping, but rather just slinking around the Haunted Forest killing any humans they encountered.
You and Whose Army?
Cat and Ser Rodrik reach the Northern camp. Robb is reviewing maps with his battle council when his mother appears. He eagerly calls out to her. Yet the two do not embrace until all his men have left the tent. Like any mother, she reflects on how her first baby has grown so much and is now leading men in war. Robb shows Cat Sansa’s letter, and Cat points out that Arya receives no mention. Realizing the dire nature of the situation, she understands that Robb must go to war. They go over his strategy, and she stresses the importance of victory: Just as Tywin Lannister had Rhaegar Targaryen’s young children murdered, so too will all the Starks die if the North does not win.
Meanwhile, Tyrion, Bronn, Shagga and company find Tywin with his brother Kevan. Immediately, the tension between the pride of the pride (lion jokes!) and the Imp feels palpable. His son has been held hostage, accused of murder, subjected to beatings, and almost killed by barbarians, and all Lord Lannister can muster is “the rumors of your demise were unfounded.” But, as I mentioned before, Tyrion already knows what his father is. What he did not know, however, was that Joffrey now sits the Throne (and, as Tyrion immediately notes, Cersei rules as well). A scout bursts in and says the Northerners are coming down the Kingsroad. Tywin asks the mountain clans to fight for him, but they say yes only as long as Tyrion fights with them. Tyrion finds himself a hostage once again. Although in the sky cells, the hostage chooses death, but on the battlefield, death may choose the hostage.
Later, Robb runs through plans. Northern guards drag in a Lannister scout, who says he has estimated 20,000 soldiers in Robb’s army. Robb says Ned understands mercy, honor and courage. He lets the scout go, but asks him to deliver a message “Tell Lord Tywin Winter is Coming for him – 20,000 Northerners to find out if he really does shit gold.” If you remember from AGOT, Robb only sends half his men in that direction, while he takes the other half across the Twins to fight Jaime in the Riverlands. Robb’s using Tywin’s arrogance against him to get an advantage. But Tywin isn’t stupid, and Robb knows this. So he makes sure, before he lets the scout free, to say that Ned believes in mercy, honor and courage. When the scout relays that message to the Lannisters, there will be no question as to why Robb let the scout go. Tywin will just assume he acts as honorably and/or foolhardy as Ned. Robb is then left to move to the Twins, and Westeros is only one bridge away from civil war.
One final note: THANK YOU GRRM!