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'Game of Thrones' Recap: The Punishers

Players get their (un)just rewards in Season Three's nastiest episode yet

Joe Dempsie as Arya, Maisie Williams as Gendry and Ben Hawkey as Hotpie in 'Game of Thrones'
Helen Sloan/HBO
April 14, 2013 10:05 PM ET

It only lasted a moment, but a moment was all it took. At the very end of this episode, the instant after a certain event took place to a certain character, there was a pause, a brief lull, between when what happened to him ended and his reaction to what happened to him began. In that moment, as the eyes of the Kingslayer widened along with the gap between his wrist and what used to be his hand, you suspect his thoughts were similar to much of the audience's before realization finally took hold: "Wait . . . what?"

I got that a lot from "The Walk of Punishment," written and directed by showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss. (I assume Benioff received sole credit due to some guild prohibition against co-directors.) The light touch and the sense of humor that the show had displayed in its first two episodes this season? Oh, that was all still there. Catelyn's impulsive kid brother Edmure screwing up their father's Viking funeral, and their uncle the Blackfish going H.A.M. on him. The awkward-pause comedy of the small council meeting, with Cersei and Tyrion playing passive-aggressive musical chairs. Arya sweetly calling back to her friend Hot Pie, telling him the wolf-shaped bread he baked her as a parting gift was "really good." Talisa teasing the terrified young Lannister captives even while tending to their wounds. Master Kraznys's vulgar insults to Daenerys, helpfully subtitled. Jorah Mormont getting territorial: "Is it 'we' already, Ser Barristan?" The ridonkulous Pod vs. prostitutes sequence, which featured an honest-to-God contortionist and ended with renowned cocksmen Tyrion and Bronn gathering 'round the kid to hear tales of his deflowering like apemen at the monolith in 2001. The closing credits containing a drinking song by the Hold Steady. All this stuff was funny and lively and light on its feet.

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But this was also an episode in which a man threatened to quiet a woman in labor – his daughter, no less, whom he himself impregnated – by punching her in the mouth. An episode in which two attempted gang rapes took place. An episode where slaves crucified for minor infractions against their masters begged for death. An episode where fighting valiantly and nobly was cited as a cause for defeat not once but twice. An episode in which a character's first truly selfless act since we've known him was rewarded by graphic onscreen dismemberment. It's as though Benioff and Weiss kept the first two episodes mostly free of atrocities because they wanted them all to themselves.

Yet even though the emotions were so all over the place you could have used an opening-credits-style map to sort them all, I wouldn't call it inconsistency. I'd call it range. As the show's head honchos, Benioff and Weiss made a conscious choice to put this episode together in this way. There is a through-line here, after all, and it's this: Does the reward handed out, the punishment issued, the sacrifice demanded, actually fit?

This episode asks this question over and over but virtually never coughs up the answers, preferring us to struggle through it on our own. Theon and Jaime both did terrible things to our friends the Starks, but now that it comes to it, do we really want to see either of them tortured and mutilated and begging for their lives? Jaime tossed a kid out a window, but he got his hand chopped off because his captor got a wicked case of "You think you're better than me???" Ser Jorah, no stranger to the slave trade, is probably correct in arguing that Daenerys would be a kinder master to the eunuch slave army called the Unsullied than any other, and that they in turn would be kinder conquerors to any civilian populations caught in their way – but in looking at all those slaves bleeding and suffocating to death on poles in the hot sun, could you really disagree with Ser Barristan's advice to leave the whole bloody business behind? Melisandre demonstrably can create magical shadow assassins to kill Stannis's enemies, so why does her call for blood sacrifice seem not just creepy but crazy? Is Lord Commander Mormont right to tolerate Craster's incestuous, baby-sacrificing repulsiveness in exchange for aid in a tight spot? Is Robb right to chide his uncle Edmure for defending his people's lands because those lands had to be sacrificed for a larger plan? If all Mance Rayder wants to do is lead his people to safety south of the Wall, would it be better for the realm in the long run if Jon Snow stopped him, or let him succeed? Hell, could poor shy young Podrick Payne ever have predicted that squiring for a dwarf would actually require him to go to battle, kill a Kingsguard in the process of attempting to assassinate his boss in the middle of said battle, and get rewarded for it all by getting deflowered in a foursome instead of dying in the muck or rotting in prison? Hero or goat: in all of these cases, in this world at this time, you might as well just flip a coin.

So if the tonal shifts came across as bipolar or even arbitrary, well, so is life during wartime in Westeros. Choices are limited and difficult, and the results of those choices can bear little or no relationship to what you were hoping to achieve. The same soldiers who are singing merrily along on horseback one moment and heeding your advice to stop assaulting one of your fellow captives the next, are busy chopping your hand off in the moment after that. As the Blackfish tells Catelyn, no matter how big the war, in most of the world absolutely nothing's going on. The only reason you've never gotten your punishments and rewards doled out is because you've been fortunate enough to live in the "nothing" section.

Last episode: Ladies' Night

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