To understand a show full of natural born killers, sometimes it pays to consult the original article — specifically, Oliver Stone’s hyperviolent, hyperstylized 1994 mass-murderer movie. There’s a very funny exchange between Robert Downey Jr.’s tabloid-TV sleazeball Wayne Gale and one of his show’s editors, played by a young, pre-Sex and the City Evan Handler. The exasperated staffer complains that they’ve shown the same over-the-top reenactment of one of superstar serial-killer couple murders over and over again; Downey’s character barks back “Repetition works, David” — at which point Stone cuts backward in time, so the line “Repetition works, David” repeats all over again.
Much of what happened on tonight’s oddly off-kilter Game of Thrones episode — “The Book of the Stranger” — depends on whether you believe the point of the joke. Yes, repeating ideas and imagery can heighten their impact, reveal subtle variations, or emphasize the cyclical nature of events. But there’s also such a thing as diminishing returns; if you go to the same well too many times, eventually it’ll run dry. For every Mad Men viewer who believed Don Draper’s semi-regular California vision quests were crucial to understanding who he was, there was another who thought “Okay, ‘go west, young man,’ we get it!”
In GoT‘s case, there’s an argument to be made that Ramsay Bolton‘s murder of Osha, a character who seems to have been reintroduced simply to get killed, drives home his sociopathic disregard for human life (and crushing audience hopes). But there’s an equally compelling case that having already seen him get the better of Theon, Sansa, Stannis, his father Roose, and his poor young stepmother Walda — usually in spectacularly cruel fashion — this latest killing told us nothing we didn’t already know.
You could say the same about Daenerys and her fiery slaughter of the khalasars. By burning down the temple of the Dosh Khaleen, the Breaker of Chains proves she’s still the single-minded conqueror who emerged from the flames of her husband’s funeral pyre years ago — just as confident, driven by destiny, and as supernaturally fireproof. Insofar as her conquest of Meereen was something of a disaster, leading her to flee on an out-of-control dragon and landing her in the clutches of her old enemies, this actually constitutes something of a revelation regarding her current state of mind. (Vompare that to “Ramsay is a bloodthirsty bastard” is in no way new news.) However, the khaleesi has now ignited her way out of trouble nearly once per season, often with that same serene smirk on her face. in fact, this isn’t even the first time her divine act of arson ended with her naked in the ashes, surrounded by kneeling Dothraki while a lovestruck Jorah Mormont looks on. An audience groomed on the idea of “character arcs” may well sour on the Targaryen queen’s repeated peaks.
Even Tyrion can’t escape that old familiar feeling that we’re seeing something old and familiar. Watching him hold court with the Masters of the other slave cities, attempting to persuade both them and his skeptical ex-slave associates Grey Worm and Missandei that it’s in everyone’s interest to peacefully phase out slavery, you can’t help but recall how the Imp played one faction against the other to advance his goals back in King’s Landing. Then, his skillful playing of the game saved the city, though it earned him many enemies and set him up for the fall from grace that led him half a world. It’s genuinely revealing that the little Lannister has the self-confidence to try it again — but since this time his rivals are simply a bunch of interchangeably awful slavers, it can’t hit with the same impact, win or lose.
Whether these scenes worked is an ultimately open question, determined by the resolution of the storylines — one reason among many why it’s best to engage each episode as it comes, rather than attempt to predict the future or put your faith in fan theories. However, some sequences with very similar set-ups truly did feel cumulative. Both Petyr Baelish and Cersei Lannister used cunning, cockiness, and a knack for finding people’s weak spots to turn potential enemies into allies, a throwback to their first-season talents in this department. More movingly, we saw three brother-sister reunions — Margaery and Loras Tyrell, Theon and Yara Greyjoy, and especially Jon Snow and Sansa Stark — in which siblings kept apart by cruelty were forced to strike a balance between seeking comfort and continuing the struggle. In each case, the women were in the power position, encouraging men with no fight left in them to find a long-lost steely resolve.
And come on: The mere sight of those gates opening up and the Lady of Winterfell riding through to see the Lord Commander was such an unexpected delight you could all but hear the cheer go up from HBO viewers everywhere. (Same as you could hear the laughs when Tormund Giantsbane started making bedroom eyes at Brienne of Tarth.) Something on Game of Thrones turned out right for the first time in ages.
Previously: The Snake, the Cross and the Crown
Watch ‘Game of Thrones’ top 10 characters of all time.