We've reached the point in Game of Thrones where you could easily spend entire episodes fixated on the differences between the show and its source material. What a waste of time that would be.
Sure, loyalty to the books is my default preference, because I frickin' love the books. Obviously the filmmakers (for tonight's "The Old Gods and the New," director David Nutter and writer Vanessa Taylor) do too, or they wouldn't be adapting it. But if that's the case, then who the hell is Lady Talisa? Why are Ser Rodrik Cassell and Ser Amory Lorch getting killed by the wrong people at the wrong times? What's with all this dragon-napping and handmaiden-murdering in Qarth? Why is Xaro Xhoan Daxos a handsome, hetero black man instead of the whitest, gayest guy in the story? Are there any Starks Littlefinger won't bump into in his Westerosi World Tour, or is he headed north of the Wall to cockblock Jon with Ygritte next episode? Why does the Hound always seem like he's on Xanax? I could spend the entire hour trying to answer these questions to my own satisfaction.
…Or I could just evaluate how they're handled on their merits as filmmaking and storytelling. By that metric there are winners (by all means, more sinister warlocks and dandy Spice Kings and magnificent shots of staircases slicing diagonally across the screen in Qarth) and losers (no way Littlefinger would survive back-to-back brushes with Catelyn and Arya without finding himself either under arrest or on Jaqen H'gahr's hitlist). But the only thing that matters is the quality of what ends up onscreen, not where it came from. And compared to this episode's two harrowing setpieces, the fall of Winterfell and the riot in King's Landing, as well as its quietly devastating take on how women are forced to use sex to survive, the changes are all small beer.
As a unit, Theon Greyjoy's shabby conquest of Winterfell was the show's finest moment since the execution of Eddard Stark, and it's no coincidence that it included several direct callbacks to Ned and his demise. Theon claims he'll treat the people he's conquered just as well as Lord Stark did, a claim he turns into a lie with the threat he issues in the very next sentence. He swings the sword of execution himself just as Ned once did, but he's punishing a man for upholding an oath rather than breaking one. Ned's one clean stroke becomes a gruesome, grueling butcher's job, as if Ser Rodrik's neck knew it didn't deserve to be severed. (Compare Theon to Jon, who can't bring himself to behead the enemy at his mercy.) And once again a Stark child is forced to watch an execution in screaming, sobbing horror. (Bran's cries in turn were echoed by those of Daenerys's dragons in the final scene.)
Every detail drove home the pettiness, joylessness, and unforgivable betrayal of Theon's supposed masterstroke victory. Watch actor Alfie Allen's body language as he sits down on Bran's bed, literally lowering himself to the level of a crippled child in order to persuade the kid to help him seal his claim on the castle and its people. What kind of conqueror has to treat a little boy as an equal? Or simply listen to the crescendoing sounds of Ser Rodrik's execution: The relentless rain, Bran's screams and cries, the wet hacking and tearing, composer Ramin Djawadi's never-better score. Allen's eyes seal it in the final shot: This is Theon's "My God, what have I done?" moment.
But for catharsis, you can't top the screaming match between Joffrey and Tyrion. Weeks of slow-boil scheming, rivalry, contempt, and cruelty suddenly overflow in much the same fashion as the riot that caused the blowout itself. Now Tyrion's free to shout it all to the rooftops, mocking not just his loathsome nephew but the entire system that forces others to suffer for his mistakes. He even comes close to revealing Joffrey's true father. (Peter Dinklage's delivery of the line about "Uncle" Jaime – "You owe him quite a bit, you know" – was the line reading of the night.) And Joffrey reveals himself to be even more broken than we thought, literally incapable of reacting to adversity without falling into paralyzing paroxysms of vindictive rage.
The scene even provided justification by way of contrast for the show's taciturn take on the Hound, who in the books is literally the angriest, most frightening man alive. Compared to his supposed betters' shouting and flailing, his near-mute Terminator-style attack on Sansa Stark's would-be rapists is all the more frightening. Sandor Clegane finds violence neither horrifying (like Theon) nor exhilarating (like Joffrey) – he tears men apart like he'd scrape horseshit off his boots.
As a bonus, the show split a mini-treatise on the use of sex as a way to exercise power, both by and against women, between the storylines. Unfortunately the most noticeable element was also the shakiest: Osha seduces Theon to, I dunno, distract him while Hodor gathers Bran and Rickon and the wolves to escape, or something? I'm frankly not sure why she needed to bone Theon to accomplish this. (And since I'm in a mood, I have no idea why Qhorin Halfhand's grizzled-veteran banter with Jon contradicted itself every other line for no good reason, either.)
Now, I'm not about to complain about seeing Natalia Tena naked. You're more likely to see me personally leading a Dothraki horde into battle than you are to find me kvetching about bare bodies or gore; I like my art cranked up to eleven. But I could have done without the show's umpteenth "camera lingers on a woman as she brazenly drops her robe to show some guy the glories beneath" scene. Shae's done it for Tyrion, a whore did it for Ned's man Jory, Melisandre and Margaery did it for the Baratheon brothers…it's all very Bored of the Rings. It's not the nudity that's the problem, it's the predictability.
But sexuality is one of the few weapons available to the women of this world. The wildling warrior woman Ygritte grinding her well-padded behind into Jon Snow's righteous crotch while they spoon for warmth felt ridiculous at first, but it's a surefire way for her to take her opponent off guard. "Woman bamboozles idiot enemy with her ladyparts before killing him" is an even hoarier cliché than the "see something you like?" robe-drop, but Theon's men view sex as a primary goal of warfare, so Osha's fake-macking on them is sound, successful strategy. Daenerys waxes outraged about the merchant who'd give her a ship if she slept with him – she's a different kind of woman, as she tells the Spice King during her excruciating attempt at the hard sell – but she wasn't above ordering her handmaiden Doreah to fuck Qarth's movers and shakers in order to extract information last episode. (This despite her own painful history of being sold into sexual slavery to Drogo.) Both Sansa Stark and Myrcella Baratheon owe their lives to their marriageability, and Sansa discovers to her horror that her gender and sexuality are a bullseye on her back should she ever fall into the wrong hands. But this is Game of Thrones, and there are wrong hands all over.