Plenty of big ensemble dramas hit a point mid-season where it's all they can do to keep all their balls in the air. Game of Thrones is the only one where they can toss a dragon up there, too.
Written by showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss and directed by Alan Graves, "And Now His Watch Is Ended" is the first episode of the season that showed the strain of maintaining all those storylines in all those places with all those different emotional tones. There's a long stretch, between Jaime's humiliation by his captors and the Night's Watch mutiny at Craster's Keep, in which characters pair up and chit-chat with such frequency that it felt like flipping through the channels during Westeros's Sunday morning talk-show circuit.
Most of these pairings were too friendly to generate the sparks that GoT's usual "put two interesting people in a room and watch what happens" modus operandi for such things. Margaery humored Joffrey's bloodlust and showed him it's actually kind of fun to be adored rather than feared, Olenna and Cersei pretended to be friends and talked about motherhood, Brienne tried to rally Jaime's spirits, Margaery became Sansa's new BFF, and Varys (the great Conleth Hill, who in a just world would get his own Frasier-style spinoff when this is all over) became BFFs with everyone he talked to – Ros, Tyrion, Olenna, maybe even the sorcerer he keeps in a box once the camera stopped rolling, I don't know. All these actors are good at their jobs, the writing was solid, and the settings were at times spectacular – how about that magic-hour lighting during Margaery and Sansa's chat? How about the massive marble sept? But this was all just heavy plot-lifting, and it showed. The show sputtered a bit without major conversational heat being generated.
Still, I can't imagine too many viewers came away from this thing thinking "Meh," can you? Whatever its faults, this episode ultimately served as a showcase for the kinds of intense imagery inherent to the epic fantasy genre, and that trumped all. Start where the ep itself started: With Jaime Lannister, once the greatest swordsman in the Seven Kingdoms, now a broken man staring in glassy-eyed shock as his severed hand bounces and jostles on a rope around his neck. Jaime is a huge dick, and an attempted child-killer, and an oathbreaker and a murderer, yet when you end a sequence with him in it the way this one did – his muddy, defeated face, nestled at a disturbingly wrong angle against his severed hand, no fight left in either – you can't help but be upset on his behalf. More than being held prisoner by the Starks for a year, losing his hand is a direct hit to his entire self-conception. It's arguable that "Jaime Lannister" no longer even exists.
Theon Greyjoy's in a dead zone now, too. Few sights and sounds from the series have been quite as "uggggghhhhh"-inducing as Theon looking up to discover that his mysterious "rescuer" had delivered him right back to his torture chamber. Now he's not just the turncloak who sacked Winterfell, he's a runaway, and he's been framed for the murderers his supposed friend committed. He knows, right away, that terrible, terrible things are about to start happening to him, with no end in sight. Strange as it may be to say, I love that "X"-shaped torture rack he's being strapped to. Like the cross upon which a very different prisoner was once hung, it's not just an object: the very shape takes on a symbolic, psychological value – in this case, a nightmarish one. Not quite as nightmarish as the demented grin of the false rescuer as Theon gets strapped back into place, though. What kind of person frees a prisoner, kills everyone who was sent out to capture him, convinces him he's a friend, leads him back to jail, and blames him for the killings? I have a bad feeling we're going to find out.
Nasty business went down pretty much no matter where you looked, and none was nastier than the squalid, short-tempered mutiny in the home of the incestuous wildling called Craster. Thank the smart, smart casting of Burn Gorman, whose otherworldly features you might remember from his role as an executive who makes a deal with the devil in The Dark Knight Rises, as the man whose insults to the Night's Watch's hair-trigger host spark an all-out bloodbath; his "You are a bastard – a daughter-fucking wildling bastard" is the Game of Thrones equivalent of "Now go home and get your fuckin' shinebox."
This was always one of my favorite passages in the books, a crystal-clear encapsulation of the pointless destruction wrought by violence. As Sam flees with Craster's daughter-wife, Gilly, and her male newborn, it's not even clear who's fighting whom and why; the dying Lord Commander Mormont seems confused as to why he's even dying, or at least why he's unable to choke his murderer to death before he does. The trial of the Hound by guerilla leader Beric Dondarrion in the next scene, in which the crimes of the Clegane brothers are dragged out into the light only for the Hound to point out that everyone in that cave had killed people on someone else's orders, is pretty much just a verbal articulation of what the mutiny demonstrates: War and murder don't have much daylight between them.
And yet! When Daenerys shocks everyone and unleashes hell on the slave masters, you'd pretty much have to be diagnostically brain-dead not to fucking cheer. It's such a delightfully done sequence: the mounting sense that something's going on as she reviews the troops and the Great Master struggles with Drogon the dragon, the reveal that she spoke his language all along, the looks of amazement and approval on the faces of Ser Jorah and Ser Barristan (finally, something they can agree about), the order to kill everyone holding a whip and free everyone wearing a chain, the magic word that unleashes death from above, and that final glory shot of Dany and her ragtag khalasar leaving the burning city with 8,000 of the world's best soldiers in tow, the three dragons patrolling the skies above them.
The books' author, George R.R. Martin, has often said that war is both a horrible thing and a glorious thing, and right now Dany's the glory part: overthrowing tyrants, administering rough justice, freeing the oppressed and, y'know, dragons. What's more, there's nothing in it for her to attack Astapor's brutal ruling class in favor of its suffering slaves, meaning she (and Beric Dondarrion, I suppose) is the first military-political leader we've met who's truly using her power on behalf of others. Is Dany's behavior enough of a Game-changer to rewrite the rules of war established by the likes of the Hound and the mutineers? Or is the glorious catharsis of her sneak attack destined to burn away like so many slavers?
Last episode: The Punishers