It’s a weird thing to say about an episode where someone got stabbed through the mouth on screen. But let’s say it anyway: With storylines centered on its stellar cast of women characters, “The First of His Name” — written by showrunners David Benioff & D.B. Weiss and directed by near-peerless action specialist Michelle MacLaren — was Game of Thrones‘ most emotionally sensitive, and satisfying hour so far this season.
Showing surprising depth of character…well, we were about to say that Cersei trying to protect her kids is “surprising,” when even her hated brother Tyrion realizes it’s her one inarguably admirable quality. It’s just that you’d expect “protecting her kids” to mean “telling Margaery to fuck off.” Maybe that will happen if and when she learns about Marge’s nocturnal intrusions into the bedroom of young King Tommen, but for now Cersei turns to the once-and-future queen as a resource, not a rival, for Tommen’s future. Cleverly, the show started the scene with that very funny shot of Cersei swooping into Margaery’s sightline with Tommen, promising a confrontation that, shockingly, never materializes.
Later, Cersei dials down the hostility with Prince Oberyn Martell as well, bonding with him over their love for their distant daughters. True, there might be a political calculation here — win over one of Tyrion’s judges — but Cersei’s tears, marvelously underplayed by the always wire-taut Lena Headey, are sincere. “Everywhere in the world, they hurt little girls,” she tells Prince Oberyn. She should know.
Half a world away, Daenerys Targaryen finds herself in a similar situation. Like the Lannisters, she’s gotten quite good at taking down her enemies, but that’s not enough: The first two slave cities she previously liberated have slid back into tyranny. Dany decides to stay and govern city number three, Meereen, rather than take her newfound fleet and manpower to King Tommen’s doorstep over in Westeros. (If you listened carefully, you could almost hear the groans of the “Get on with it, Khaleesi!” crowd in the audience over the sex screams of Lysa Arryn. Almost.) It’s not a bad idea to do more than conquer if you want to be a queen, and it’s an excellent idea to help actually build a slave-free society instead of saying “you’re welcome” and moving on. But hey, foreign occupier overthrows dictatorial regime and winds up trying to govern a hostile population —we’ve seen this story before, haven’t we.
Not everyone is as close to the center of the action as the three queens, yet they’re all making the same basic calculations about trust. Over on Game of Thrones: The Road Movie, two odd couples (or in one case, a Pod couple) are feeling out the limits of their unlikely partnerships. Arya seems genuinely invested in the Hound‘s hatred for (and obvious fear of) his brother the Mountain, but that doesn’t keep her scarred guardian off her hitlist. Perhaps as payback, or perhaps just because he’s a grumpy bastard, the Hound ridicules Arya’s “waterdancing” swordfighting style, better suited for street fights than taking on giant dudes in armor. (Too bad she wasn’t on hand to help her brother Jon Snow against knife-fighting mutineer Qarl Tanner). Your old tutor got punked out by one of the worst knights in the Kingsguard, the Hound tells her after punching her to the ground, shattering one of the few illusions she has left. Maybe that’s why we get the conversation between Brienne and her superfluous squire Pod where he tells her he killed a Kingsguard by spearing him through the back of the head. Skill is important, but in this world, getting lucky and stabbing someone in the back are even more so.
Arya’s sister Sansa fares little better, though she’s surrounded by genuine power players instead of a thug with a bad attitude. Brought to the impregnable mountain fortress called the Eyrie — last seen in Season One, when Tyrion nearly got tossed off of it — by Littlefinger, she’s greeted warmly by her aunt Lysa. And why would she doubt the Lady’s sincerity? Look at how her sickly kid greets Littlefinger—Littlefinger! —like the Greatest Uncle Ever. What could possibly go wrong after this happy family reunion? Oh, right, Lysa could suspect Sansa of sleeping with the guy and look like she’s on the verge of poisoning her to death for it.
And did we mention that’s exactly what she did to her late husband Jon Arryn — you know, the guy whose murder started the whole freaking story? It was Littlefinger, not the Lannisters, who pulled the trigger on Ned Stark and Robert Baratheon‘s mutual mentor, a feat he subsequently repeated with King Joffrey. And now it’s Littlefinger who’s supposedly got Sansa’s best interests at heart. Twice now, Lord Baelish has said he wants “everything.” What makes him dangerous is figuring out what particular part of “everything” he wants from you.
Once again, we close out the episode beyond the Wall, with a sequence as cathartic as last week’s was horrific. Jon Snow and his merry men make short work of the mutineers at Craster’s Keep — and yeah, we all felt a little swell of way-too-invested-in-this-show pride considering how green those dudes were just a couple seasons ago. Though the dramatic visions of Jojen Reed and the telepathic powers of Bran Stark intrude on the imagery and plotting like such things rarely have before, it’s ultimately the fate of Craster’s daughter-wives that’s most moving as the episode draws to a close. Since the Night’s Watch turned a blind eye to Craster’s abuse of his wives for years before a gang of them tried their hand at it themselves (even a valuable hostage like Meera Reed was just one more potential victim to these men), the women refuse Jon Snow’s offer of so-called safety at Castle Black. They burn the keep and the bodies, and they go their own way. “Everywhere in the world, they hurt little girls,” Cersei had said. But not here. Not anymore.
Previously: Black Flag