The star of tonight’s episode of Game of Thrones never appeared on screen, unless you count his name in the opening credits. He’s Bryan Cogman, the show’s story editor, unofficial master of minutiae, and occasional screenwriter. To hear many critics tell it, the episode he wrote for the show’s first season – number four, “Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things” – was where the show truly took on a life of its own, largely through the stories characters told one another about the world and the horrible things that have happened to them in it. Cogman understands that more even than thrones and swords, it’s words that hold the Seven Kingdoms together. They’re what make Game of Thrones great TV, too, and Cogman’s return to the writer’s chair for “What Is Dead May Never Die” is a case in point.
This episode’s one real storytelling moment arrives in its final minutes. In an unwitting echo of last week’s Mad Men, Yoren takes a page from Grandma Pauline Francis‘s Book of Wildly Inappropriate Bedtime Stories for Troubled Tween Girls Played by Precociously Talented Child Actors and teaches Arya Stark to get through her long dark nights of the soul – of which there are about to be many more, if the Lannister forces’ brutal attack on Night’s Watch recruits is any indication – by ritualistically chanting the names of people she’d like to revenge-murder. Perhaps she can start with the swaggering, smirking thug who steels her beloved sword Needle, then puts it through the neck of Arya’s wounded young frienemy Lommy. “‘Carry him,’ he says,” the guy chuckles to his compatriots in a chilling line lifted verbatim from the books, encapsulating author George R.R. Martin’s take on war’s impact on the innocent. Speaking of which, there’s a fearful symmetry to the scenes that begin and end the episode, both involving the Night’s Watch and their dealings with men who kill children. Because he needs Craster, the Lord Commander lets the children in his care die; Yoren dies defending his. Live by infanticide, die by infanticide.
Fortunately, there are children on this show who haven‘t been killed yet, and they dominate much of the proceedings in King’s Landing. During Sansa‘s My Dinner with Cersei scene, we learn that the Queen Regent enjoys exercising her power over her future daughter-in-law/current hostage just as much as her awful son Joffrey does, albeit in a subtler way – her weapons are words rather than the fists of the Kingsguard. In turn, Sansa takes control over one of the few parts of her life she still can by bullying her new handmaiden, Tyrion‘s incognito kept-woman Shae. The sequence is a showcase for teen actress Sophie Turner, who finds fresh ways to convey Sansa’s dead-eyed damage every time she’s on screen. And it pays off later, when the prospect of Tyrion utilizing Cersei’s daughter Myrcella as a bargaining chip the way Cersei herself utilizes Sansa drives the queen as wild as we’ve ever seen the show’s version of the character get, bringing her closer in line with the rageful ruler we see in the books.
By contrast, I’m not sure Tyrion’s roundelay with the other members of the small council tells us anything about them we didn’t already know (other than Pycelle‘s hands-off treatment of King Robert and Lord Stark‘s poisoned mentor Jon Arryn, whose murder we’re reminded isn’t quite as solved as it seems). But with writing and acting this wickedly tight and delightful, who cares? One of the great unsung pleasures of this Golden Age of Television is simply watching interesting charaters, played by interesting actors, be interesting together – Peggy and Roger’s playfully competitive banter on the current season of Mad Men, say, or Mike and Gus and Jesse’s three-amigos routine last year on Breaking Bad, or the When Weirds Collide conversations between Agent Van Alden and Mickey Doyle on the second season of Boardwalk Empire. This season, Tyrion’s opponents aren’t desperate Catelyn Stark and crazy Lysa Arryn, but Pycelle, Varys, and Littlefinger – three practiced players and experienced survivors of court intrigue – and it’s thrilling to watch character, actor, and filmmakers all raise their game accordingly. The cheeky crosscutting from one hatchling conspiracy to the next was Game of Thrones at its breeziest and most playful, and these aren’t adjectives we get a chance to toss in the show’s direction very often.
In a couple of cases, Cogman teaches us things about these people the books have only hinted at, if that. Yoren’s backstory’s one example; the Greyjoy Family Circus is another. Theon Greyjoy‘s no peach, but it’s not his fault that his father picked a fight he couldn’t win, then handed over his only surviving son to his enemies to save his own skin. Theon’s mounting dismay over his treatment, culminating in his painfully honest outburst over being discarded by his own dad, made for actor Alfie Allen’s finest hour on the show so far. And by staging so much of that agonizing freakout with the camera close up not on Theon but on his father Balon, director Alik Sakharov (a veteran Sopranos cinematographer who shot the first and last two episodes of Game of Thrones‘ first season) sent the message that Lord Greyjoy sees the return of his son not as a joyous occasion but as a painful reminder of his own failure. This is smart, smart writing from Cogman, giving us a stealthy peek into the psyche of one of the books’ coldest and least sympathetic characters while also explaining why his son is so desperate to please him. It’s even more effective than the gorgeous Dutch Master lighting as Theon burns his warning to Robb, or the mythic staging and wording (“What Is Dead May Never Die” gives this episode its title) of his baptism to the ominously named Drowned God.
Another unorthodox family dynamic plays out in the person of Ser Loras Tyrell, King Renly‘s boyfriend, and his sister Margaery, King Renly’s queen. If casting Natalie Dormer, a veteran of the Showtime bodice-ripper The Tudors, made readers of the books think her Margaery would be both older and more openly a power-player than the mysterious teen queen of the novels, her breast-baring performance in this episode removes all doubt. But as with the similarly Skinemaxy new scene between Stannis and Melisandre last episode, Margaery’s conversation with Renly about their political marriage’s sexual dimension broadly aligns with what could be read between the lines of the books. More importantly, the cracking good Dormer takes lines that could come across like sleazy slashfic and reads them as promises from a people-pleasing retail politician, discussing the prospect of servicing a royal wang fluffed into action by her own brother the way a small-state senator talks to his constituents about job-creating highway-construction projects.
For some characters, though, no words are necessary. One look at the towering, glowering fan-favorite Brienne of Tarth tells you all you need to know about her: She was born into the wrong body in the wrong place at the wrong time, and the result has not been pretty. Even more than her blunt statement to Catelyn Stark, “I’m no lady,” it’s the pointed silence of the previously bleacher-creature-loud crowd at Renly’s tourney that communicates the warrior woman’s outcast status. Even Renly, who genuinely is a more tolerant (for obvious reasons) and refined leader than his rivals, appears to indulge her rather than truly accept her. Say what you will about the Ironborn – a race of Cthulhu-worshipping Vikings who view rape as a sacrament, pretty much – but on Pyke, the tough and tomboyish Asha Greyjoy (with whom Brienne is implicitly juxtaposed in the show’s next scene) is a leader, not a freak. All this is embodied in the physical presence of 6’2″ model-actress Gwendoline Christie, as pitch-perfect a casting job as any in the series and the most physically imposing character since actor Conan Stevens brought Ser Gregor “The Mountain That Rides” Clegane to roaring, horse-beheading life in season one (before being recast this season, sadly). Walking through Renly’s camp next to Michelle Fairley’s Catelyn Stark, she looks less like a supporting player and more like a special effect.
Brienne towers over Catelyn in more than one respect, however. One thing I wish the show would do, and Cogman could do it if anyone could, is make its version of Catelyn Stark interesting. The Catelyn of the novels starts out with an instinctive grasp of realpolitik that surpasses her husband Ned’s and remains a potent part of her personality even in the face of her family’s mounting misfortunes. In first book it was at her insistence that Ned accepted the Hand of the King gig at all, on “keep your enemies closer” grounds; in the second it’s she who suggests the alliance with Renly to Robb, not the other way around. More than wanting to end the war, book-Cat wants to win it, knowing that’s the only way it would ever really end for her family at all. By contrast, the show’s only ever given her the chance to interact with people toward whom she’s either motherly or stern, frequently both at once. The only glimpses we’ve gotten into another, livelier kind of Cat were in her two or three moments of intimate laughter with Ned in the series premiere. Consequently we’ve got no idea what actress Michelle Fairley can do with the character beyond putting on a stiff-upper-lip mama-bear front, protecting her cubs and growling at the other predators, from Littlefinger to Tyrion to her sister Lysa to Jaime and now to Renly and his court. Cogman excels in coaxing character revelations out of conversations between characters, but Catelyn doesn’t get a pairing that benefits her here. Hopefully we won’t have to wait until his next turn behind the writer’s desk in Season Three for her to have a conversation worth talking about.