Last week’s episode of Game of Thrones made an unfortunate case against the show’s writers straying too far from the source material. Deviations acknowledge that an adaptation in a different medium must address the context of that medium before strict faithfulness to the text, and the episode’s additions admirably attempted to give focus to George R. R. Martin’s weaker plotlines. Most obvious, and nominally welcome, of these alterations is Bran (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) getting to interact with other characters instead of endlessly wandering the forest with his usual, bland companions, the most interesting of whom is a giant who can only repeat his name ad infinitum. In execution, however, none of the changes seemed to do anything but pad out an hour of television, and a week later, only Michelle MacLaren’s brilliantly composed coda with the White Walkers sticks in the memory.
MacLaren also directs this episode, “First of His Name,” and once again her skills are on prominent display. Opening on Tommen’s (Dean-Charles Chapman) coronation, the episode switches between shots of the new king and his presumptive betrothed, Margaery (Natalie Dormer), eyeing each other. After the ceremony ends, a POV shot of Margaery looking at Tommen is interrupted by Cersei (Lena Headey), literally putting herself between her son and the new queen to maintain her slipping authority.
Compared to last week’s sizzle reel of the director’s talents, MacLaren talents are employed more subtly here, though this can largely be attributed to this episode sporting a much stronger script than that of “Oathkeeper.” One of MacLaren’s greatest contribution to “First of His Name” is a pervading sense of coldness. The mood befits an episode broadly devoted to the arranged marriages that make this world go ’round. For Margaery, the latest change in husbands works to her advantage, something even Cersei admits in a moment of candor as she describes fiercely loving her firstborn while also fearing what he would have become.
No one else, though, seems to be as fortunate. Cersei herself must contend with her impending nuptials to Loras Tyrell (Finn Jones), something Margaery references (in Dormer’s reliably unreadable delivery) when she says she doesn’t know whether to call Cersei “sister” or “mother.” Cersei’s father, Tywin (Charles Dance), discusses the wedding he’s imposing on his daughter as a line item in a budget, along with the now pointless expense of Joffrey’s ceremony and outstanding war debts to the Iron Bank. Meanwhile, Sansa (Sophie Turner), secreted away from one forced marriage, finds herself set up to marry her cousin, the sickly oddball Robin (Lino Facioli). Only Robin’s mother, Lysa (Kate Dickie), looks forward to her own upcoming wedding, though as she reverts back to a flighty, aroused girl in Littlefinger’s (Aidan Gillen) presence, she reveals just how much she’s done to win his “love,” her own desire blinding her to how thoroughly Littlefinger takes advantage of it.
MacLaren’s direction shines in the airlessness that categorizes these scenes, a vacuum seal that drains any talk of betrothal of joy and leaves only the feeling of someone being screwed over. The episode returns to Bran to conclude his stay at Craster’s Keep with more intimated rape and violence, yet the most gripping thing to happen in the whole episode is Lysa’s conversation with Sansa. Initially pleasant with her niece, Lysa escalates the tension when, in a fit of jealous rage, she presses Sansa on whether or not the girl slept with Littlefinger. Lysa’s hands tighten around Sansa’s arms, and even the two-shots of Lysa interrogating Sansa convey a vice-like constriction around the young woman.
With “First of His Name,” Game of Thrones papers over the previous episode’s listless plots and callous sexual violence to return to the season’s intriguing strategy of studying the aftermath of the War of Five Kings by way of the show’s women. Apart from the marriage-planning, the episode moves across the Narrow Sea to find Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) resolving to stay in the East to quell the slaver reprisals against her conquests, putting her plans of invading King’s Landing and taking back Westeros on hold in order to adequately rule the lands she already upset. It’s a prudent gesture that shows the young queen taking charge, but it’s also a move that a male ruler likely wouldn’t have made with his birthright still awaiting him. Daenerys has sacked multiple city-states, but she understands that unless she can prove herself a fit queen in the East, she will return to Westeros still seen as nothing but a jumped-up little girl.
But the episode’s defining scene occurs between Cersei and Oberyn Martell (Pedro Pascal). The adversarial relationship between the Lannisters and Martells momentarily dissipates as the two bond over the children violently taken from their families. The conversation eventually turns to Cersei’s daughter, sent to live with the Martells back when the war approached King’s Landing. Now steeped in paranoia, Cersei fears what might happen to her child, and Oberyn attempts to reassure her, “We don’t hurt little girls in Dorne.” Cersei’s response, “Everywhere in the world, they hurt little girls,” could well be the tagline for the show’s fourth season.
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