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This show just keeps getting better, doesn't it? Things went from bad to worse in last night's episode of Game of Thrones, written by George R.R. Martin, the author of the books himself. Everybody got something to do, the monologues were less lengthy and preachy, and they never felt the need to resort to bare breasts to grab the viewer's attention (though there is a very different sort of nudity in there). The action is reaching a fever pitch, and while a lot of it must take place off screen due to the concerns of TV budgeting, Westeros is definitely becoming a very unsafe place to be.
It felt like there was more of a connection between the various members of the Stark clan this week despite the vast distances between them, thanks to a lot of messages being flown in every direction (I liked the shot of King's Landing from a distance as hundreds of birds take off for their destinations at once) and the magic of editing allowing enough time to pass between scenes for them to arrive. Ned is in jail, Arya is missing, and Sansa is being held by Cersei, and the rest of the family knows about it because they allow her to send them letters. There is a political purpose to this; Cersei lets the Starks know that she holds all the cards, and their only chance to keep their family together is for Robb to swear fealty to Joffrey. He refuses and calls all his bannermen to war, convincing them to stick with their oaths to his house and marching to meet the Lannisters in battle. Catelyn leaves the Eyrie and reunites with her oldest son, where they reflect on what's happened and the danger that lies ahead.
While trying to reunite with his own family, Tyrion and Bronn are surrounded by tribes of wild men, but manages to convince them that if they help him return safely, they will get all the equipment they need and the Veil itself, once it is taken from Lysa. Tywin holds to his promise, but they force Tyrion to go along with them into battle against the North, something he wasn't expecting. Up at the Wall, they've found a couple frozen bodies that the commander wants studied, and while confined to his quarters, Jon follows his wolf's instincts and manages to save his master from one of them, who has apparently risen from the dead. He's another of the zombies created by the White Walkers that were seen in the first episode, and can only be killed by fire. Finally, people from Westeros have seen that the legends are true and are living to tell the tale. Back with Dany, her husband is laying waste to a village so he can grab some slaves and sell them to get ships for her, when she prevents some men from raping the women. One confronts Drogo about it, and he kills him pretty brutally for it, but receives a cut on the chest that one of the women promises to treat properly.
The episode ends with a scene of triumph for the bad guys in the throne room, as Cersei wields her son's power to make her father the new Hand and her brother the new leader of the King's Guard, publicly humiliating one of the only good men who wasn't against her in the process. Sansa tries to get Joffrey to show mercy to her father, and he says he will, but only if Ned admits that Joffrey is the king and swears his loyalty. It's a pretty dark hour for the good guys, though we have to remember how gray the morality in this series is. Tyrion is easily the series' most likable character, and he's clearly not cool with some of the things his family is doing, but he's still essentially one of them. Not everyone allied with the show's central family is good either, Lysa is too nuts to be helpful to anyone but her baby boy, and sometimes nobility for its own sake is just as damaging as being a horrible person. We see shades of that in Robb this time, though he was so brazen about letting the spy escape that perhaps he has something up his sleeve. And it's not really obvious who's side we should be on with Dany - while we probably wouldn't want her to new army to lay waste to the good people of Westeros, the throne she's after for her son is currently in the hands of pretty despicable people, and she has a pretty good claim to it anyway.
What works about this series is that while a lot of its elements could have been presented as typical fantasy fluff, they get treated with much more seriousness and weight that makes them work anyway. There's definitely a faction we're supposed to root for, but as I said, there's good and bad on every side, and the way the complexity and danger of this power struggle builds over time is incredible. Just what we've had in these eight episodes is a lot more entertaining than you usually ever see from olden days politics on TV. The zombie-like reanimated corpses could be boring, but they're used sparingly and effectively enough that their presence has meaning, and the way so many tropes get flipped is very interesting. The main character is sitting in a jail cell for this entire episode, and it carries on without him perfectly.
As is usual, there were a few scenes that stood out more than others. I like any time the show brings up the coming winter, even if it's a bit repetitive at this point, just because it's one of the most interesting ideas in this world. Plus this time we have the perspective of someone who's actually lived beyond the Wall her whole life, and it makes the danger seem even more real. I also liked that they connected it with the worship of the old gods, as opposed to the seven that are popular in the south. The various religions haven't gotten much attention in the show, but when they have it's been effective. Tyrion talking himself out of capture was yet another great scene for Peter Dinklage, who is making you feel his plight as a dwarf in a harsh world and selling his keen intellect, making a scene where he talks bandits out of having their way with only the promise of a reward down the line in a couple minutes somehow believable. I also liked the sacrifice of Septa Mordane and Syrio Forel, trying to protect the Stark girls. The Septa has gotten short shrift in the show but it was still a strong moment, and Syrio's last stand against the guards who came for Arya was a powerful send-off for a character that only had a few scenes, but was clearly important to her growth as a person and gave us an idea of this world's cultural diversity. Just a couple harsh moments in an incredibly harsh story, but they never lose their impact.