They say "Winter is coming," but for readers of A Song of Ice and Fire, the epic fantasy novels upon which Game of Thrones is based, it's already here. Written by series mainstay Bryan Cogman, tonight's episode — "Kill the Boy" — is the first in which every single storyline has been altered so substantially from the books that it may as well be brand new. Sansa Stark's stint in Winterfell, Brienne's quest to save her, Ramsay Bolton's girl trouble, Jon Snow's mission to the wildling village of Hardhome, Princess Shireen's ride south to war with her father Stannis, Daenerys' execution-by-dragon and shotgun betrothal to her aristocratic adviser Hizdahr, the death of Barristan Selmy, the romance between Grey Worm and Missandei, the dragon and Stone Men–haunted journey of Tyrion and Jorah: None of it happened in author George R.R. Martin's original texts. Like the exile knight and fugitive Lannister, readers and newcomers alike are now all in the same boat.
This leaves the show free to explore its primary obsession: power, and the at-times vulgar display thereof. No one specializes in that kind of thing quite like Ramsay Bolton, the would-be Lord of Winterfell. Perhaps the shithouse-rat-craziest player of the game we've yet encountered, he's pleased as punch with his newfound status as a legitimized heir to his father Roose, and the future husband of the lovely Lady Sansa. His girlfriend and partner in crime, the lowborn Myranda, is understandably less excited. But her attempt to play mind games with her replacement by introducing the Stark sister to "Reek" — aka the broken Theon Greyjoy — backfires. Ramsay simply parades his pet around his fiancée all the more flagrantly, even forcing him to apologize for the murder of her little brothers Bran and Rickon — knowing full well, of course, that the boys are still alive, and that his dad did far worse to her mother and brother Robb. To this nasty, newly minted noble, this kind of control over another human being, body and soul, is such a delight that he's happy to show it off even to quite possibly the least receptive audience imaginable.
Far to the east, Daenerys Targaryen is somewhat less enthusiastic about power's bloodier manifestations. Still, she possesses a flair for theatrics that puts the Flayed Men of House Bolton to shame. After losing her treasured confidant and guardian Barristan the Bold to the rebels known as the Sons of the Harpy, she drags the Great Masters who once ruled the city down to the dragonpit and feeds one to her "children" — pretty much just to show she can. But this is more a fit of pique than it is a counterinsurgency strategy, which she's quick to recognize; her Small Council is growing smaller by the day, and she needs to act decisively to keep the peace. So Dany approaches her jailed ex-slaver consigliere with a proposal — quite literally — demanding his hand in marriage and offering to reopen the city's cultural center, a.k.a. the gladiatorial fighting pits. You could call it soft power if she didn't have a few tons of diamond-hard scales, teeth, and claws lurking in the darkness to back her up.
Jon Snow, too, is presiding over a divided land, and the natives on both sides of the Wall are restless. The far North, he knows, is full of wildling stragglers — from warriors who fled before King Stannis to the women, children, and everyone else they left behind to fight. But even the weakest among them will be a deadly foe to the living once the White Walkers kill/convert them into zombies. So in a conversation that parallels Dany and Hizdahr's — theirs lit by the glow of firelight, his illuminated by the icy winter sun — the Lord Commander frees Tormund Giantsbane; he needs the Free Folk's senior commander for a mission to the ominously named Hardhome. Ultimately offering both the Baratheon fleet and his own participation, Snow makes an argument that's equal parts pragmatic and progressive: The Night's Watch are "the shield that guards the realms of men," and are not the wildlings men? He'd better hope so, since Stannis is abandoning the Wall to ride south with his family and take back Wintefell from the Boltons. It's the start of his reconquest of the Seven Kingdoms, and an overdue comeuppance for Roose's treachery. But what good will a victory be if the dead are riding right behind him?
On their long strange trip back to Meereen, Jorah Mormont and Tyrion Lannister discover just how fleeting the triumphs of monarchs and militaries can be. Together they sail through the ruins of Valyria — the mightiest empire in history, brought low by a cataclysm called the Doom that slaughtered all of its dragon-riding lords save the Targaryens. Its once-proud towers and archways are an overgrown ruin, surrounded by waters that still steam with the heat of the volcanoes that leveled the city. And its sole inhabitants are the Stone Men, driven mad by the greyscale plague that ravaged their skin and their brains. The city that once ruled the world is now its collective leper colony, where the diseased and unwanted are sent to die. Joran and Tyrion recite a rueful poem reminiscent of Shelley's ode to a civilization's hubris and collapse, "Ozymandias," before the attack; in place of the king of king's shattered statue stand the infected, and they leave in Mormont's skin a reminder of the fate awaiting all men. Look on their works, ye mighty, and despair.
Previously: You Gotta Have Faith