After last week’s thematically spastic episode, it’s refreshing to see that a simple and direct, albeit unambitious, theme unites the various plot strands in “The Old Gods and the New.” In this episode, the truly powerful characters are the ones who are best equipped to handle a crisis; the rest are just blustery and uncertain. This becomes apparent when Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen) is told, “Now you are truly lost,” by a man he executes in the episode’s first few minutes. Theon doesn’t understand that there will be consequences to his half-assed attempt at impressing his family by laying siege to Winterfell, so he kills the insubordinate prisoner and, in so doing, totally disregards the Starks’ eldest advisor, Maester Luwin (Donald Sumpter), who suggests that executing a prisoner after storming Winterfell is a bad idea. And he’s right, as is foreshadowed in the episode.
Given the events that occur in “The Old Gods and the New,” it’s easy to see why a soon-to-be-dead man’s admonishment to Theon is a sturdy framing device. Everyone in a position of power is unsure of what they should do next and in desperate need of a stern talking to. Still, the man’s warning makes for a fairly obvious theme. It only calls attention to clear similarities between characters like Theon and Joffrey Baratheon (Jack Gleeson), the latter of whom learns there’s a time and a place to flex his muscles as king of Westeros’s Seven Kingdoms. Joffrey typically overreacts when, as Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) previously predicted, Joffrey’s subjects turn against him. So the crowd of peasants riots, which results in the attempted rape of Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner), Joffrey’s understandably reluctant betrothed.
In Joffrey’s case, the two people who hold the most practical power are, like Maester Luwin, the ones who know how to comport themselves in a crisis: Tyrion and Sandor “The Hound” Clegane (Rory McCann). Tyrion predictably gives Joffrey an earful, going so far as to give the young king a slap just to prove how unimportant the power that goes with Joffrey’s title is if he doesn’t know how to use it. But the Hound goes farther, reflexively murdering a bunch of guys, disemboweling one of them. Then he slings Sansa over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes and brings her back to Joffrey. The Hound doesn’t just know what should be done, he’s doing it and not speculating about it.
That shut-up-and-come-at-me-bro attitude is why the Hound is more interesting than Tyrion and, by extension, any of the Jiminy Cricket-like advisors chirruping at this week’s batch of lost would-be leaders. For example, Qhorin Halfhand (Simon Armstrong) sagely advises Jon Snow (Kit Harington) to only treat the Night’s Watch oath as a guideline and not something to die for. Qhorin’s not only right-minded for giving Jon this advice, he also does it with snappy dialogue too: “And they’ll never what you done. They’ll never know how you died. They won’t even know your damn name.”
But it’s infinitely more fun to watch Ygritte (Rose Leslie), a captive wildling, indirectly teach Jon how to behave. Like the Hound, Ygritte instructs by example. She shows Jon how to survive in his new frozen environment and has a good time rubbing that knowledge in his face. Leslie’s performance is so fierce you can practically hear her saying the catch phrase (“You know nothing, Jon Snow”) George R. R. Martin gave her in A Clash of Kings when she devilishly smiles and spoons with Jon at the end of the episode.
But the staid nature of “The Old Gods and the New” really becomes apparent when the episode shifts its focus to Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) and Robb Stark (Richard Madden). Neither Daenarys nor Robb has the luxury of having a backup advisor like Joffrey and Jon do. Also, Daenerys and Robb both get advice they’ve already figured out for themselves and don’t agree with. Robb knows he has to marry for convenience and Daenerys knows she has to sell out a little to get anywhere with the merchants of Qarth. So it’s not especially surprising to hear other characters reestablish those two respective points.
Where, then, is a character like Jorah Mormont (Iain Glen), a reluctant but usually right-minded advisor-cum-man-of-action, when we most need him? Better yet, why can’t Robb get some much-needed guy-talk from Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), who we haven’t heard word one from since the season premiere? “The Old Gods and the New” desperately needs more characters who pull people’s guts out and fewer protagonists who stop short of simply speaking truth to power.