A handful of main storylines go under the microscope for this week’s episode as we reach the halfway point in this season of Game of Thrones.
“Kill the Boy” isn’t the most dynamic or exciting of episodes the show has ever done. But it is one of the most interesting, and frequently one of the most tense. I was simultaneously miserable with dread and enjoying the hell out of it.
Spoilers follow for “Kill the Boy”:
1. For an episode with a fairly low body count (by Game of Thrones standards), death hangs pretty heavily over much of “Kill the Boy,” right down to its title. Most of the characters this episode focuses on are either reeling from recent deaths, anticipating the deaths that will surely come with war, reflecting on an ancient cataclysm, or fearing a very immediate threat to their own mortality.
The episode gets even more economical than the last two weeks in terms of the number of locations and stories featured, limiting it to the Daenerys company at Meereen, the Nights Watch and Stannis’s army at Castle Black, Sansa and the Boltons at Winterfell, and Jorah and Tyrion sailing the coast of Essos. It also limits the amount of jumping back-and-forth between stories, giving each of them long, solid chunks of screen time.
The result is that all of the featured stories get more breathing room, and are able to do more interesting things within themselves rather than just work in service of the next big thing. The slower burn of the last few episodes isn’t what I had expected from the season, especially considering that it is condensing the events of two books into its ten episodes, but it has been a thrill to watch so far.
2. So, I was right. Barristan bit it, but Grey Worm survived. Sad, but less sad than it could have been.
Daenerys’s reaction is understandable if not exactly sympathetic. Lacking Barristan to counsel mercy or Jorah to counsel her on the whole of human knowledge, she orders the heads of Meereen’s great families rounded up and brought to the dungeons where she’s keeping two of her dragons. The buildup as her Unsullied march the former masters to their presumed dooms is fantastic, and she gives a monologue that is delightfully menacing and, as others have pointed out, a little on-the-nose for an episode that aired on Mother’s Day.
“They will eat you, if I tell them to. They may eat you even if I don’t.
Children. Some say I should give up on them. But a good mother never gives up on her children.
She disciplines them if she must. But she does not give up on them.”
And then they eat a guy, even though she didn’t tell them to.
Again, it’s understandable why she’s doing this, but it all seems a little rash for a character who has spent so much of the past two seasons grappling with what it means to be just. The rule of Daenerys Targaryen has so far been defined by a certain streak of caprice and unpredictability. Not the most desirable characteristics of a monarch.
3. Across the Iron Sea, Maester Aemon is getting briefed on the latest crows from Meereen*, and, still concerned by what he heard from the crow, offers to counsel Jon Snow. The advice he gives he may well have been contemplating for his far-off great niece:
“You will find little joy in your command. But with luck, you will find the strength to do what needs to be done. Kill the boy, Jon Snow. Winter is almost upon us. Kill the boy, and let the man be born.”
Okay, so in the context of Daenerys, he probably would have said “girl/woman,” but still. Also, this quote, which I presume is from the books, is probably more impactful there where Jon is a teenager and actually on the threshold between boyhood and manhood. But still! The point remains that both Jon and Daenerys are at a crossroads where they need to take decisive action and decide what kind of a leader they are going to be, even if the consequences mean them taking no joy in their respective roles.
For Jon, this means bringing the Wildlings under the protection of the Night’s Watch. In a scene with Tormund — much of which is shot with symmetrical framing, the two men on either side of the screen staring directly at one another, barely breaking eye contact, underscoring the opposition between them – Jon is able to convince him of this plan.
There is a condition: Jon has to ride north with Tormund him to prove to the Wildlings that this isn’t a scheme. It’s more interesting than Jon spending the rest of his time at Castle Black signing stacks of letters handed to him by Sam, but at the same time, ugh another range north of the wall?
Jon has less success convincing his own men of his plan, because even after being elected Lord Commander and even after chopping off a dude’s head for insurrection, Jon Snow cannot convince the Night’s Watch to listen to him or do anything that makes sense.
The conflict does set up a nice, sad little scene with Olly. I had mentioned previously that the filial relationship between the two of them was potentially very interesting, given that they each had reason to hold a grudge against the other. Also, given that we had four seasons of “the Night’s Watch are jerks to Jon Snow and don’t trust him,” it’s nice to have someone with a real, human, sympathetic motivation pushing back against Jon’s idea. Having my boss change 8,000 years of rules to go save the folks who killed my parents? I’d be miffed.
4. Stannis the Grammar Pedant is my one true king, and I am prepared to swear an oath of fealty to him.
5. Speaking of Stannis, his little scene with Sam is pretty great as well. Sam probably doesn’t much care for being reminded about his father, what with having spent his whole life being compared disfavorably to him and also being disowned and all. So you could see him tensing up when Stannis started telling the story of Robert’s defeat at the hands of Lord Tarley.
But then, Stannis, in his oblique, Stannis-y way, compliments Sam for being exactly unlike his father. Sam has just told Gilly that his father was “not the most literate man,” and Stannis, knowing that “we have to know how to fight” the army of the dead, tells Sam to “keep reading.”
It’s a nice little bit of redemption for Sam, who has mostly been the object of ridicule for most of his life. The rightful king of the Seven Kingdoms just – in his way – told him that he isn’t like his father, congratulated him for killing a white walker, and told him his intellect and curiosity was vital for protecting the realm.
If only someone would offer the same kind of recognition to poor Gilly.
Wearing her handmade Maleficent gown**, Sansa visits the broken tower, glancing up at the highest window where she’s been told to light a candle if she needs saving. There’ no dialogue to hint to it, and Sansa was pretty oblivious of what was going on back when it was all going down, but she seems to be realizing that she’s looking at the place where this whole awful thing started: Bran’s fall. In this moment, she’s wishing she could turn back time.
Then the jilted Myranda invites her over to the kennels and things get creepy. This was the first of three scenes in a row involving Reek that were absolutely tense as hell.
First, Sansa slowly creeping down the kennels at the bidding of a woman who doesn’t like her, with the sounds of the dogs barking ringing louder and louder, glancing over her shoulder at the gate that could close any minute.
Second, the scene with Reek telling Ramsay that Sansa saw him. I swear I thought he was going to break a finger or tear off a fingernail or something awful when he asked for his hand, and everything about the scene sold it – the performances, the framing, the creeping string crescendo in the score.
Finally, the dinner scene when Ramsay makes a show of making Reek “apologize” to Sansa for “killing” Bran and Rickon.
It’s a testament to the show that it has created the kind of stakes where the audience can feel that nervous about a scene, and it’s also disorienting how all three of these scenes abruptly deflate the tension at the end. It reminded me of the scene from last season when Ramsay gives Reek a bath. Reek – and by extension the audience – has become so conditioned to believe that something bad is going to happen that the anticipation alone is agony enough, and even when nothing bad happens it is excruciating.
But after three consecutive visits to the wellspring of dread that is the Ramsay-Reek relationship, even Ramsay has to hang a lampshade on it:
“There, over and done with. Doesn’t everyone feel better? I do. That was getting very tense. Whew.”
By this point, Roose has had enough, and decides to drop the bomb about Walda’s pregnancy to put Ramsay in check. Sophie Turner does some great work though when Walda announces she is pregnant, barely suppressing her pleasure and lacing her “I’m very happy for you” with just a hint of gleeful venom before slowly turning to smile at the glowering Ramsay.
7. Real talk, though: “Poor Sansa” started out as a joke about a character who, perhaps more than any other, doesn’t get to actually do anything for herself and just gets kicked around at the mercy of everyone else. The end of last season and the first few episodes of this one have promised us a different Sansa who takes her fate into her own hands. But we’ve yet to see that promise delivered on.
Sure, she’s spending less time feeling sorry for herself, and is asserting herself more in dialogue as she’s biding her time with the Boltons, but as Elliot said after watching the episode, “it’s time for Sansa to make a decision and do something.”
I really hope that when she finally does, it’s something more interesting than lighting a candle to call for a rescue.
8. Speaking of the plan to rescue Sansa, I’m actually pretty nervous for Brienne here. Last season, Pod advised against talking too much to strangers about who she is and what she’s doing. She got lucky at the time when it ended up paying off okay with Hot Pie, but luck has a way of running out on this show.
9. It’s easy to forget, given what a monster Ramsay is by comparison to basically anyone, that Roose Bolton is also a monster.
Roose assures Ramsay that his claim is not conditional, but it clearly is. Roose expects his heir to not “disgrace” himself and act like the heir to Warden of the North should act. Not that he’s a great role model, but Ramsay was being pretty ridiculous at the dinner table, almost to the point of being silly to the audience.
Roose’s story about executing a farmer, then raping his wife next to his corpse, then contemplating whipping her and drowning his bastard is horrifying***. The scene is like the hideous mirror-image version of the one from last week’s episode with Stannis sharing a story with his daughter about her past to demonstrate how he loves and accepts her as his own. Ramsay is doing the same here, but where that scene was oddly heartwarming, this one, just… good God.
It’s interesting, given that these two are about to come to battle, how the last two episodes have gone out of their way to remind us that Stannis is an okay guy, while also reminding us how awful Roose Bolton is.
The contrast being set up between Roose and Stannis is underscored as the scene ends with a somewhat Lord of the Rings-y shot of Roose’s war table, letting us glance briefly at a map showing where Stannis’s army is relative to all of the places the Boltons now hold. Between that and Stannis’s army marching out the gates of Castle Black, it seems like “the wars to come” are coming pretty soon.
10. Back in Meereen, it’s Misandei’s big day, as she and Grey Worm finally kiss (yay!), and she gets asked to offer Dany counsel, because asking for advice is Khaleesi’s favorite pastime. Misandei tells her exactly what’s been wrong with most of her scenes from Season Two on:
“I can only tell you what I have seen, Your Grace. I have seen you listen to your counselors. I have seen you lean on their experience when your own was lacking and weigh the choices they put before you. And I have seen you ignore your counselors, because there was a better choice. One that only you could see.”
This line actually made me laugh out loud, because it is absolutely true: basically every time Daenerys has a tough decision to make, she either does exactly whatever the last person who spoke to her told her to do, or she pointedly does not! and that’s okay, too.
The decision she makes, marrying Hizdahr zo Loraq, is a kind of surprising one, but it’s the first big strategic decision she’s made in awhile that didn’t involve killing somebody, so that’s nice.
Well, I say that, but she’s also opening the fighting pits, so.
Anyway, Jorah is not going to be happy about this.
11. Oh Jorah. Can I just say that I loved basically everything about this episode from the moment it cut to Jorah and Tyrion to the end?
I expected Tyrion pleading “I am a person who drinks” to be a line that launched a thousand GIFs, but I had trouble finding one, because I think people realize that it’s actually kind of sad. Fortunately Tyrion also gives us another funny line that is a little less tinged with charming-addict-in-physical-withdrawal pathos: “Long, sullen silences and an occasional punch in the face: The Mormont Way.” I want a t-shirt.
I’m sure folks who have read the books had a different experience, but as a show-watcher only, there was something kind of eerie and beautiful about seeing Valyria — a place we’ve heard mentioned not infrequently, but always vaguely and shrouded in mystery. More than any of the other new locations this season has shown us, Valyria feels intrinsically connected to the mythology of the show.
As they arrive at the ruins and everything is beautiful and still and (seemingly****) bereft of human life, the two men bond over reciting a poem about the Doom of Valyria:
Tyrion: “They held each other close and turned their backs upon the end. The hills that split asunder and the black that ate the skies; The flames that shot so high and hot that even dragons burned; Would never be the final sights that fell upon their eyes. A fly upon a wall, the waves the sea wind whipped and churned –”
Jorah: “The city of a thousand years, and all that men had learned; The Doom consumed it all alike, and neither of them turned.”
It’s beautiful and sad and wonderful, these two men discovering that they are more than just captor and captive. The irony is them discovering that they share a love of history and letters and culture as they sail into this ruin from a dead civilization. Tyrion seems genuinely moved by the experience, despite his snark.
And then perhaps the highlight of the episode — Tyrion seeing Drogon come flying out of the mist.
There’s a lot going on here in this scene. Up until now, the idea of the returning Targaryens has been something that Varys has talked to Tyrion about and something that Jorah has dragged Tyrion into, but now, in the ruin of this city the Targaryens once called home, a dead place where the beginning of the end for the dragons took place, Tyrion sees one in the flesh. The driving purpose of his post-exile life is suddenly very real for him — he’s not just following along someone else’s fantasy. This is real. The experience is, well, sobering.
Jorah, meanwhile, hasn’t seen Drogon in a long time. The fact that he’s so much bigger now, and so far from Meereen, must suggest to him how much has changed since he left Daenerys’s court.
The scene isn’t dulled at all for having been telegraphed in the season’s promotional art. It’s a great moment.
Then there’s an ominous sploosh, and now the show has two different kinds of zombie-type people. Cool.
The fight scene with the Stone Men is fantastic and creepy. I also genuinely bought that the long blackout after Tyrion went underwater was going to be the end of the episode. I had time enough to write “great cliffhanger!” in my notes before we came back to the POV shot of Jorah on that gorgeous sunset-lit beach.
And good thing, too, because as much as I would have respected the episode ending on that cliffhanger, ending the episode instead by setting up a tragic ticking clock for one of our favorite characters is a great way to go out.
Trying not spoil it, but this reminds me very much of a similar ticking clock that propelled a recent video game into its heartrending final act — if you’ve played it, you know. It’s a great device and it charges Jorah’s story with some urgency as we head into the back half of the season.
NOTE: The Great Sept is taking a hiatus next week and possibly the week after while I’m on vacation. Thanks to everyone who has been reading these! It’s great to have a (non-work-related) writing project, and I’m happy that I get to share it with you all.
* – Who sent that crow? It read like news copy. Is there, like, someone who runs a Westeros news agency, sending crows across the continents letting people know what’s going on with all the big players and stuff? Does Maester Aemon have a subscription? I want to meet a Westerosi journalist.^
** – It wasn’t until re-watching the last season that I realized that Sansa was in fact stitching that dress together herself in the scene where Littlefinger asks her why she protected him in front of the lords of the Vale. I had thought she’d just raided her dead aunt Lysa’s closet after she flew out the Moon Door, which, not that stitching that dress yourself isn’t, but that would’ve been a very take-charge-of-your-own-destiny thing to do.^
*** – The story he recounts is like a messed up version of the rite of Prima Nocta, which was the subject of a dust-up on the internet after it was referenced in Avengers: Age of Ultron. It also almost certainly isn’t a real thing, but then, as I discussed in my rant last week about the Faith of the Seven and homosexuality, Westeros isn’t actually Medieval Europe.^
**** – The erstwhile internet quickly discovered that the Stone Men were hiding in plain sight the whole time.^
Game of Thrones and all images belong to HBO. Dragons torching a master GIF via CinemaBlend. Jon and Tormund GIF via ScreenCrush. Stannis GIF via imgur. Sansa image via Momentum Books. Ramsay toast and Hizdahr zo Loraq images via Morning After. Drogon GIF via The Big Lead. Grayscale GIF via TechTimes.