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Game of Thrones review: Season 3, Episode 3

Posted by msunyata on Sunday, April 21, 2013

Based largely off of the first half of George R.R. Martin’s behemoth of a book, A Storm of Swords (which is longer than the entirety of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy!), the third season of HBO’s Game of Thrones brings all of the plot lines, character beats, and thematic developments from the first two years to a climatic head.

And as the show’s lingering questions are answered and bombshell revelations are dropped, this column (It Is Known: An Analysis of Thrones) will help wade viewers and book-lovers both through the narrative overload that will be at hand.  What it won’t do, however, is spoil the story; the hope and intent is elucidation, not ruination.

Given the death, destruction, and – gasp – hope that await in the next 8 episodes, such illumination will be needed.

It is known.

Tyrion Game of Thrones

 

Episode 303: Walk of Punishment

 

There is one small, simple truth that tends to get lost in the clutter that is Game of Thrones’s hugely complicated story and production:  it is funny.  Or, at least, it can be – and not just merely humorous, but genuinely, laugh-out-loud hilarious.

And “Walk of Punishment” is, by far, the funniest installment yet.

Like all real comedy, it is juxtaposed – and even starts – with somberness, which the episode’s opening eight minutes (or so) hauntingly establish with their long stretches of overwhelming silence.  It not only makes for a stark contrast that is highly effective in heightening both the humor and seriousness, it also provides one of the most dramatic openings in recent television history (perhaps only matched by the teaser of “Winter Is Coming,” the series premiere, which was completely dominated by silence until the second scene after the opening credits).

Indeed, the game of musical chairs at Lord Tywin Lannister’s first Small Council session is made as humorous as it is by being preceded by Lord Hoster Tully’s funeral (which is itself punctuated by [uncomfortable] comedic relief, as is evidenced by King Robb Stark’s reaction to his uncle Edmure Tully’s repeated misses with the fire-arrow), although the scene’s staging, pacing, and pitch-perfect performances – particularly by Peter Dinklage, of course – are superb no matter their greater context.  On the one hand, this is almost outrageously comical ground for Thrones to venture to, particularly in what is already shaping up to be the darkest season yet; on the other hand, the scene is handled firmly and steadily by the cast’s unfailingly understated deliveries, working to ground so many (rightly or wrongly) over-the-top moments.

Then there’s everything that follows after:  the small bit of slapstick humor in the form of the Hound smacking his hooded head on the wooden patty wagon that will haul him off to his ultimate fate; Craster, nestled in his keep, brandishing his own particular form of crude stand-up for an audience of just himself (which may or may not expand to include the audience at home); Podrick Payne, Tyrion’s faithful squire, turning the tables on his whoremongering masters; and even the music over the closing credits, which is a rip-roaring punk rendition of the fan-favorite “Bear and the Maiden Fair – which may not be the first time the series has closed with a song but is the first that it is out of (pseudo-) historical context.

(The best of all these comical bits is, by far, the gem of an inside joke that was meant squarely for the most diehard of George Martin fans.  The “Meereenese Knot” that Tyrion casually mentions one particular prostitute is capable of is actually the name the author had given to a specific jumble of story threads at one point in his most recent novel, revolving around the city of Meereen, which caused an untold amount of grief for Martin and ultimately helped to delay his book by a considerable amount of time, possibly years.)

That such a wide breath and – most especially – depth of comedy is present in “Walk of Punishment” is particularly impressive given its large degree of pathos, ranging from Hoster Tully’s aforementioned funeral to Hot Pie’s farewell to both Brienne and Theon’s(!) just-barely-averted rape scenes.  When capped by Jaime Lannister’s brutal disfigurement, the ep unquestionably leaves its mark as one of the series’s most disturbing, ranking right up there with “Garden of Bones’s” (episode 204) torture sequences at Harrenhal.  That David Benioff (who made his directorial debut this week) and Dan Weiss can deliver on several notes in several directions simultaneously is testament to their increasingly adeptness at not only translating Martin’s work, but also at showrunning a television seires, generally.

 

Jaime Game of Thrones

  

The Differences between the Episode and the Novel:

 

Typically, when Weiss and Benioff condense the various storylines from the page to the screen, they simply make a trim here and a cut there, whether it be several lines of dialogue from a conversation (say, Jon Snow and Mance Rayder meeting for the first time) or collapsing an entire, elongated sequence down into just one short scene (Arya’s capture by Lannister forces in seaston two).  It is not too often that they feel obliged to do a complete restructuring from the ground up, though, when they do, it <i>is</i> a total reworking.

Harrenhal is, arguably, the biggest such example.  In the novels, there are several story threads that all converge at the ruins of the castle and which have ramifications among several more, but the single strand that anchors them all together is the Brave Companions.  A sellsword company originating from Essos, the Companions – also called the Bloody Mummers and the Footmen, for their practice of lopping off the feet and hands of their prisoners – read more like a comic book supervillain team than a medieval troupe of mercenaries:  a pedophile septon (Westeros’s version of a priest), a psychotic court jester, an exiled Dothraki, a speech-impaired commander, and, of course, a disgraced former maester-in-training named Qyburn (who makes a brief appearance as the sole Northern survivor at the castle in “Valar Dohaeris” [episode 301]).

The Bloody Mummers are brought across the narrow sea by Lord Tywin to complement the Mountain That Rides’s campaign of terror and to help House Lannister hold Harrenhal – until King Robb starts piling victory upon victory in the west, that is, and the sellswords start thinking twice about their allegiances.  By the time Tywin departs to take up the fight again, the Brave Companions help a small garrison of Northern fighters – who were brought into the castle on the pretext that they were prisoners taken while out in the wild, foraging and harassing – slaughter the remaining Lannister forces and open the gates for Lord Roose Bolton, who has remained in the Riverlands to prevent Tywin’s army from invading the North.  Harrenhal is now a Northern possession.

It’s a major reversal of fortune, but there are more twists to come.  The deal struck between Lord Bolton and Vargo Hoat, the leader of the mercenary company, is only for temporary Northern control; Roose is soon to march back North, linking up with King Robb’s forces to retake their homeland from the Ironborn.  In his absence, the castle is to be given over to Vargo, who has rather grandiose designs of being a “lord” and permanently settling in Westeros.  By this point, however, both of the rebellious Baratheons have been bested in the field by the Lannisters, Robb has broken his marriage pact with the Freys, and “Lord” Varo realizes just how untenable a sustained defense of Harrenhal would be against an invading host – making him reconsider his prospects yet again.

It is amongst all this treachery that Ser Jaime Lannister and his captor, Brienne of Tarth, come waltzing into the Mummers’ midst.  As in the television series, the pair is come upon just as they are finishing a prolonged – and much overdo – sword duel, and Jaime, embarrassed at his defeat by the monstrous strong Brienne, is happy to see what he thinks are friendly faces that will assist him in finally turning the tables on her.  His hopes are dashed when they tell him the current state of affairs, however, and they’re completely obliterated when Vargo Hoat gives the abrupt command to lop off his sword hand and to send it along as a token to Lord Tywin back in King’s Landing.

In one fell swoop – no pun intended – “Lord” Vargo has permanently damaged the strength of the Lannister host, throwing out a short-but-desperately-needed lifeline to the Starks, while simultaneously opening a possible line of communication with a Lord Tywin that is now seriously worried about the continued safety of his son and, thus, may be (somewhat) willing to negotiate.  It is a bit of Clintonian triangulation in the existential context of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

That such a tangled web of interlocking narrative pieces (all of this is forgoing Arya Stark’s rather prominent role in the ever-shifting control of Harrenhal) would be systematically stripped down comes as no great surprise.  Neither does the brand-new rationale for first bringing King Robb to Harrenhal and then leaving it behind in Lord Roose’s care – but the large remaining question was always who would end up doing the deed to Ser Jaime and, much more importantly, why.  While we still have some way to go before fully finding out the answer to the latter question, we can safely answer the former, and the fact that the responsibility for such an act has shifted to one of Robb Stark’s bannermen should leave both neophyte viewers and grizzled literary veterans very much on the edge of their seats.

 
Dany Game of Thrones walk of punishment

 

Season Three Reviews:

 

 

Season Two Reviews:

 

Season One Reviews:

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