After the emotional closure of last week’s episode of Game of Thrones, it was almost inevitable that “Blood of My Blood” would take a more subdued step back to reset the table for the next big event. The largest problem with tonight’s episode is that it either changes course so abruptly or restates certain theses so redundantly that it feels like a bit of a tease, especially for those who aren’t too invested in Samwell Tarly’s (John Bradley-West) storyline.
After a tense dinner in which Sam’s father, Randyll (James Faulkner), sternly judges his disinherited son and wildling “whore,” Gilly (Hannah Murray), Sam apologizes for not standing up to him, and then departs with his new family (Gilly and her son) in the middle of the night. “I’m angry that horrible people can treat good people that way and get away with it,” remarks Gilly, and while awful fathers aren’t anything new in the world of Game of Thrones, the show gains little by dwelling on them. Sam’s heroism and love for Gilly has already been well demonstrated up to this point, so these scenes seem like nothing more than a needless opportunity to reiterate Westeros’s cruelty.
Similar wheel-spinning occurs when the series checks back in at the Frey keep in the Riverlands. David Bradley plays the crotchety and malicious patriarch Walder Frey with gusto, but his commands to his henchmen/children, Lothar (Daniel Tuite) and Walder Rivers (Tim Plester), come across as dim echoes of the heinous orders he gave them during the Red Wedding. There’s new plot information here, in that the elder Frey plans to use the still-captive Edmure Tully (Tobias Menzies) as a bargaining chip with Edmure’s uncle, Brynden, who’s retaken Riverrun. But with nothing new revealed about the Freys, these scenes are a crude way to remind audiences about characters not seen since season three.
Another uninspired check-in comes on the road to Meereen, when Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) calls for her Dothraki army to halt as she reunites with her dragon, Drogon. Her newfound army has already seen her emerge from flames without a scorch on her, and has already sworn allegiance, and yet the writers deem it necessary to have Daenerys once more demand their loyalty when it comes time to cross the ocean on “wooden horses.” At the very least, this scene could have waited until she actually had the thousand ships she’d need. That the series chooses to dwell redundantly on Daenerys rather than Euron Greyjoy, the man who’s actually building her fleet in the Iron Isles, speaks to the sometimes limited vocabulary of the show’s writers.
The latest episode of Game of Thrones takes a more subdued step back to reset the table for the next big event.
Compare this to the episode’s most successful plot, in which Bran (Isaac Hempstead Wright), a character absent for an entire season, is saved by his uncle, Benjen (Joseph Mawle), a man not seen since he went missing back in the first season. The fact that we’re not constantly seeing these characters makes their interactions seem all the more meaningful, especially since, unlike the Freys, there’s been a meaningful shift in the relationship between these Starks, one that leads to new and promising conversations instead of the tedious restatements of facts shown elsewhere in this episode. The television series has the ability to edit down George R.R. Martin’s overwritten text in a way that focuses the storytelling around a thematic focus (like the sense of predestination throughout “The Door”), or enhances it with a healthy dose of action (as when Benjen fends off the wights with a flaming flail). When the series stretches things out, things tend to disappoint.
That’s certainly the case with the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it confrontation between the King’s Guard, backed by Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and Mace Tyrell (Roger Ashton-Griffiths), and the Faith Militant, led by the unflinching High Sparrow (Jonathan Pryce). The two armies are primed to go at one another, and the High Sparrow even teases at the possibility of bloodshed, reminding Jaime that his fanatics would be all too happy to die in the service of their god. Instead, however, he announces that none of that will be necessary, as Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer) has already “atoned” for her sins by convincing her husband, King Tommen Baratheon (Dean-Charles Chapman), to side with the faith rather than his own family.
This clever move leads to Jaime being stripped of his command and exiled, but it’s a too-abrupt shift in tension after episodes of build-up. It’s unearned narrative trickery that comes from the writers pretending to show both sides of the conflict in King’s Landing, and the disgust in Olenna Tyrell’s (Diana Rigg) voice as she tells her dimwitted son that the High Sparrow has won (without a single blow) is bound to resonate with at least a few bloodthirsty viewers who also didn’t see this coming. The subtext of Margaery’s earlier scene with Tommen, in which much emphasis is placed on her innate “goodness” and contrition (despite her words of defiance and encouragement to her imprisoned brother in “Book of the Stranger”) suggest that violence is still certainly on the way, especially when she tells Tommen, “It’s such a relief to let go of those lies,” a thing that she’s almost certainly lying about. But this now marks the third time that a confrontation in King’s Landing has been quietly averted, and whether that’s realistic or not, it remains frustrating.
Arya (Maisie Williams) also backs down from violence in Braavos, this time refusing to complete her contract after her target shows her some unasked-for kindness. The difference is that this isn’t some surprise twist, as when the High Sparrow dramatically introduces his new ally, King Tommen. Instead, it’s a well-earned moment for her character, and Williams has spent several episodes subtly showing Arya’s discomfort with her role as an emotionless assassin. Her struggle to reconcile her two halves is well-matched by the actress she’s been tasked with killing; she can pretend to be as cold-blooded as she wants, but the moment before she slips backstage with a vial of poison—when she’s wide-eyed, watching the players, unable to keep a smile off her face—is what reveals her autonomy. As opposed to the momentary disarmament in King’s Landing, this choice also suggests an immediate consequence. For her betrayal, Jaqen H’ghar (Tom Wlaschiha) reluctantly gives the Waif (Faye Marsay) permission to pursue and murder Arya, and there’s no way to talk the Faceless out of a contract.
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