You’re Melisandre and Beric Dondarrion, bartering a bastard’s life for the greater good. You’re Tywin Lannister and Olenna Tyrell, wielding both innuendo and the laws of inheritance like a sculptor’s mallet as you try to hammer the most powerful alliance in the realm into a shape that better serves your needs. You’re Littlefinger, able to see the swirling chaos of government as a ladder to be climbed rather than a whirlpool to drown in. You’re Jon Snow and Ygritte, gazing out united at a divided world.
You see the big picture, and last night’s episode of Game of Thrones rewarded you for it.
A frustrating hour if taken piecemeal, “The Climb” – written by showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss and directed by Alik Sakharov, cinematographer for Season One’s premiere and finale and director of Season Two standout “What Is Dead May Never Die” – gelled, as most Game of Thrones episodes do, when you choose not to take it that way. Looking at the big picture is the winning strategy for characters and viewers alike.
I mean, yeah, this is a “meanwhile, over in that other storyline” episode if ever there was one. Brief visits with, say, Bran and his posse, or Sam and Gilly, take place just to remind you that these people exist. Theon’s torture at the hands of his mysterious, completely unhinged captor feels worlds apart from Tywin and Olenna‘s tete-a-tete in King’s Landing, which looks and sounds like a different show than the one on which Melisandre traipses into the Brotherhood Without Banners’ secret hideout from her home base half a continent away. It doesn’t feel like a unified whole, mostly because it isn’t.
But the disunity can be delightful, and nowhere was it stronger than in the episode’s closing minutes. At first, Lord Baelish’s voiceover, and the accompanying score by Ramin Djawadi, came across overheated and unsubtle. Sansa’s tears helped sell it, though, through another powerfully wordless Sophie Turner performance. So did the sad death of Ros, the rags-to-riches prostitute-turned-advisor-turned-double-agent who at long last crossed the wrong sociopaths; the staging of her corpse, riddled with bolts from King Joffrey’s crossbow, radiated the fervid sex-and-death fetishism of medieval martyr portraiture. (BTW: Two and a half seasons spent building up a character the show effectively invented, and they can’t even give her an on-screen death?)
Then we emerge from the squalid, tear-streaked, blood-soaked hellscape of Littlefinger’s monologue montage into the cold open air atop the Wall. We watch Jon and Ygritte collapse onto their backs, exhausted, looking up at the sky. We watch them stand up and take in first the view of the frozen forest to the north of this massive, magical structure; then of the comparative paradise to the south, a boundless world full of possibilities and danger for them both. As the camera cuts across the 180-degree line to flip their positions in the frame, they kiss. Alright, they straight-up make out, silhouetted against a glorious sky and magnificent view. Eventually, even as the camera keeps pulling back, they run out of steam and just stop and hold each other and gaze. It’s a feverishly romantic image – and without Littlefinger’s nasty speech, it wouldn’t have hit like such a blast of fresh air.
That’s the way to watch Game of Thrones, I think – to watch all the little pieces moving in all those directions and see how each new move affects your view of all the others. Tywin and Olenna’s maneuvering, for example, is a fascinating glimpse of how the realm’s top power players really hash things out – working with the laws of marriage, the stuff of rumor campaigns, the vows of the Kingsguard and so forth to bluff and bluster and that’s-not-a-threat-that’s-a-promise each other. But it’s all the more fascinating when juxtaposed against the three scenes that preceded it.
In the conversation between Robb’s sly bannerman Roose Bolton and his captive-slash-guests Jaime and Brienne we see a bizarro-universe version, in which the subtext of might makes right is placed right there on the table for all to see. Before that we watch Robb and his family’s tense, clumsy negotiations with the Freys and with each other, a reminder of how low-level and ham-fisted this stuff can be, and a grim point of comparison between the leaders of the rival camps. And before that we watch, in excruciating close-up, as Theon is tortured for no reason by a man with no name: power for power’s sake, power over another human being, power with its mask off. (Which, wow, the single most horrifying human being on Game of Thrones, worse than Joffrey, holy shit.)
And immediately following all these contests of wits? The series’ biggest visual effects shots since the wildfire explosion in “Blackwater,” as the wrath of the Wall rains down on Tormund Giantsbane’s raiders. The Wall looks imposing and impossible, the stakes are pure physical survival, there’s hatred and romance and man vs. nature and all that big emotional stuff. After that? Loras Tyrell failing at acting straight, but nevertheless being quite obviously sincere and endearing when he tells Sansa he hates the capital city too. After that? Tyrion’s fingers nervously twitching as he prepares to ruin a girl’s life by marrying her, an announcement he’ll be making in front of the woman he loves.
Streamline this episode, cut away on storylines, try to wrap everything up in a neat thematic bow, and you’d lose that accumulation of detail, that range of emotion, that sense that each new scene can present you with an entirely new look at the world.
Last Episode: Perfect Game