'Game of Thrones' Recap: Black Flag

After last week's controversy, the show lets fly with one of its most horrific episodes to date

Game of Thrones
HBO
Iain Glen, Ian McElhinney, Emilia Clark on 'Game of Thrones.'
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It's a standard line of criticism to say that Game of Thrones episodes are all over the map. (Literally – it's right there in the opening credits.) But generally, there's nothing about the show's incremental advancement of roughly a bajillion characters and storylines per episode that, say, the five seasons of its HBO antecedent The Wire didn't already do, to say nothing of literally decades of daytime soap operas. Maybe it's the foreign accents or the made-up proper names that make it confusing, but it still feels kind of weird to complain about a storytelling structure that, say, fans of General Hospital have no problem mastering.

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And yet! Despite its provenance with two of the GoT creative team's finest talents, loremaster turned writer Bryan Cogman and veteran Breaking Bad director Michelle MacLaren, "Oathkeeper" felt at times like flipping through your Netflix queue at random and watching one scene at a time. Thrilling? Dizzying? Upsetting? When it comes to rendering a verdict on that question, I know nothing (#jonsnow).

In light of last week's most controversial scene – and arguably the most divisive one in the show's history – it's best to start with the Lannister siblings as they make their way through the post-Joffrey world. Whether you thought it was a bracing exploration of this world's systemic misogyny or a thoughtless contribution to our own, Jaime's rape of Cersei (because that's what it was, the crew's series of confounding and contradictory statements to the contrary) was the elephant in the room. True to the proverb, no one addresses it directly. Could Cersei's ever-increasing consumption of booze, her anger at Jaime, and her treatment of him like an employee rather than a brother/lover be an acknowledgement of the horror of what happened? What about Jaime's try-too-hard jokey demeanor with his imprisoned brother Tyrion, his grand gestures of support for Brienne in her attempt to safeguard Sansa Stark, the frequent pained looks on his face that appear to acknowledge he's never met an oath he couldn't break?

Sure, you could read this as the show recognizing the truth of what occurred. Perhaps that's fairest, considering that in the show's culture, rape in the context of an existing romantic relationship is not even recognized as such when it takes place. Or you could maintain that to look at it this way would be to do the show's own heavy lifting for it. You could argue that what we see here proceeds under the wild assumption either that what we saw last week was consensual — or that it wasn't, but that it's ultimately "no big deal," given the history of the people involved. Certainly it's hard to rally once again for the Brienne/Jaime love that can never be, or the Jaime/Tyrion bromance, after last week. It's not going to settle any arguments, that's for sure, and that's before we get to the rape camp at the edge of the world.

Delicately treading through that rape-culture minefield made the romp through the Sansa-Littlefinger storyline feel all the stranger — or more invigorating, if you're into bad daddies and hot-for-teacher fetishism. Free of King's Landing, her life in the hands of the one man she knows was involved in the death of one of her primary tormenters, Sansa is finally free to speak her mind, candidly assessing the guilt or innocence of various potential parties to Joffrey's assassination. That includes Littlefinger himself, whose treachery runs so wide and deep that even a veteran victim of court intrigue like Sansa can scarcely comprehend what's in it for him. Meanwhile, his partner in crime Olenna Tyrell coaches her granddaughter Margaery on the finer points of consolidating power through blowing a young man's mind (yes, his mind, for the moment). Ever the quick study, Marge sneaks into young King Tommen's chambers that very  night, playing with his pussycat and serving up a ridiculous amount of sexual-awakening realness. All of this plays more or less like one of the better network television dramas in which sexy people play political hardball.

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Compare and contrast with the grandeur and brutality of the show's opening salvo: Daenerys' liberation of Meereen. By starting with a genuinely heartbreaking scene between former-slaves-turned-power-players Missandei and Grey Worm, the show drives home the loathsomeness of the practice Dany's seeking to destroy, and the real emotional stakes for the people involved. The slave-revolt sequence, depicted entirely in two scenes set in dark tunnels and dawn-lit alleyways, used a sense of spatial claustrophobia to drive home the hopelessness first of the slaves, then of the masters. And the image of the black flag of the Targaryen dynasty draped over the slavers' symbolic harpy – how could you not cheer for that? (Perhaps you were too off-put by the screams of the dozens of crucified masters whose death agonies Dany was smirking about? Right.) No wonder old Ser Barristan, veteran of two crazy kings and one just plain lousy one, shot her such a look when she insisted on "serving injustice with justice." Poetic justice often emphasizes the poetry at the expense of the justice.

Taken on its own, the entire closing act, set at the Wall and Craster's Keep, feels like something from a different section of the video store entirely. The gruesome reign of Qarl Tanner, the leader of the Night's Watch mutineers at Craster's Keep, felt at times like a torture-porn horror film from the mid-Aughts, one where you're not sure if the point depicting the brutality in such explicit detail is to decry it or cash in on it. Drinking from a human skull, leaving a crying baby out in the cold, torturing a mentally disabled man, beating a trio of young teenagers, and (most upsettingly, given the recent context) raping multiple half-nude women on camera…by the time a leader-class White Walker turns the baby into one of his own, you're almost glad it's over. That's a sign of effective horror filmmaking, which is to say effective filmmaking, full stop. But that's a highwire act, and not everyone will be willing and able to take all those steps out over the abyss.

Previously: A Feast for Crows

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