This was by far the most satisfying episode of "Game of Thrones" so far -- the first time it's really felt like the walls are closing in on everyone, and like absolutely nobody is safe.
That's partly because its focus is almost entirely on the Stark family and the political machinations going on around them. (This week, we don't get a sequence in which we check in at the Wall and find that, surprise!, it's still cold; we also don't get a sequence in which we check in with the Dothraki horde and find that, surprise!, Viserys is still a jerk.)
And it packs in a lot of plot: something on the order of 20 major scenes in an hour, almost all of which push the story forward significantly without suggesting that we've missed important things happening.
On top of that, we get a string of terrific character moments: the hissing pas de deux
in the throne room between Baelish and Varys, Ned fulfilling his weekly allotment of cop-show tropes by tearing off his badge, King Robert and Queen Cersei having a surprisingly warm and intimate discussion of the fact that their marriage was doomed from the start, Arya asserting herself despite the fact that everyone keeps calling her a boy, Theon Greyjoy and Ros in a scene that goes from hot to cold to creepy to creepy-hot in a matter of seconds, and -- maybe most of all -- Lysa and her son establishing themselves as a pair of clammy horrors in even fewer seconds ("Mummy, I want to see the bad man fly!"). For the Tullys, as with the Bluths, the family that "always comes first" seems to get conflated with breakfast
Then, of course, there is the king of all beefcake scenes in the show thus far: the Loras-and-Renly chest-shaving sequence. I gather that George R.R. Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" novels play rather coy about the possibility of whether the two of them are a couple or just good friends, folks. This is significantly less ambiguous, and bless HBO for it.
Not only does a Lannister always pay his debts (a catchphrase the script writers make sure we hear twice this week), Tyrion Lannister is clearly the sort of guy one wants on one's side in a fight, because look out below. Like Baelish and Varys, he perpetually makes it clear that he knows a lot more than he's letting on, and is prepared to use his book-learning and gossip-gathering as a weapon; unlike them, he doesn't struggle for control of every situation, because he already has it. (When Catelyn's party is attacked, it's less a threat to him than an opportunity.) He also hangs a lantern on the problem with the murder plot as the Starks understand it, and as we've understood it so far too: "What kind of an imbecile arms an assassin with his own blade?"
As a couple of characters note, if the Dothraki cross the Narrow Sea, it's game over
for the Baratheon dynasty. The question that remains is why we viewers are supposed to think that would be a bad thing. Robert Baratheon's government is, let's face it, totally corrupt -- if the king is supposed to be a metaphor for the state, then this is a state grown so corpulent that its armor no longer fits. His counselors are very big on the idea of honor, until the moment when it appears that it's a good idea to do something that violates that code, when they suddenly start talking about how "we who presume to rule must sometimes do vile things for the good of the realm."
The heir apparent is a nogoodnik; the royal marriage is a sham. The Dothraki even take better care of their horses. Don't you think they could whip the Night's Watch into shape before winter comes?
The sex and violence tally:
Bare breasts: Five, courtesy of good old Ros, an anonymous courtesan at Littlefinger's cathouse, and ghastly political-stage-mom Lysa.
Fatalities: Quite a few -- at least five on the road to Catelyn's sister's place, at least three more in the courtyard outside the brothel. And then there's Gregor's horse, who has the misfortune to throw him and pays for it instantly.
-- Douglas Wolk
Photo: Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) prepares to demonstrate an unusual use of a shield as an offensive weapon. Credit: HBO