Note: Do not read on if you have not yet seen Season 3, Episode 8 of HBO's "Game of Thrones," titled "Second Sons."
"Game of Thrones" can be a relentlessly dark show, one where evil always seems to find a way to eke out a victory over good. Though this episode certainly served up plenty of doom and gloom, it also gave the optimists among us new reason to hope, as Tyrion, Sam and even Ser Davos notched some unlikely victories over the generally ascendant forces of destruction.
The opening interlude between Arya and the Hound set the tone. Arya, who never met an enemy she didn't want to kill, is ready to crush the Hound's head with a rock -- but she loses her nerve when he dares her to do it, warning that he'll break both her hands if the blow proves less than fatal. So it's back on his horse she goes. Only instead of King's Landing, they're off to the Twins, where Edmure Tully is about to wed Walder Frey's daughter -- and where the Hound plans to ransom Arya to Robb and Catelyn. "Quit trying to bash my skull in and we might just make it there in time for the wedding," he tells her, after sharing the charming tale of how he saved Sansa from a gang of murderous rapists.
Maybe the Hound is right: It could be a lot worse for Arya. We'll find out if she decides to see it that way.
Next we meet the so-called Second Sons -- after whom this episode is named. Mero of Braavos is exactly the kind of vulgar, misogynistic creep that Daenerys lives to punish, and it's fairly obvious from the outset that he's not going to make it out of this episode alive. More promising is Daario Naharis, who's handsome in that cover-of-a-romance-novel way Khaleesi seems to like. (Khal Drogo, anyone?) Emilia Clarke plays the tent scene gorgeously -- gamely laughing along with the repulsive Mero and then, once he leaves, instructing Ser Barristan to "kill that one first." I'm guessing every woman alive can relate.
Later, we learn that Daario believes the gods have blessed men with two great pleasures: "The thrill of fucking a woman who wants to be fucked and the thrill of killing a man who wants to kill you." I guess that's a long way of saying that he's not a whoring low-life like Mero, but the philosophy also fits reasonably well with Dany's anti-slavery thing. The scene where he interrupts her evening bath felt a bit contrived -- if he had already killed the other "Sons" and opted to serve the Mother of Dragons, why bother sneaking around and putting a knife to Missandei's throat? And yet, there was something grand and impressive about the way Dany climbed out of that (weirdly small) tub to face him, unabashedly naked. Clearly, she's attracted to him, and he to her, but the crucial point is that the Khaleesi blushes before no man.
So yes, what had been shaping up to be a very unpleasant battle turned into another cake walk for Daenerys, thanks to Daario's simple strategy of doing what he wants, whenever he wants. I do wonder, though, what will happen when Khaleesi gives him an order he doesn't like. And something tells me Jorah Mormont isn't going to like this dude one bit.
I was worried that Stannis would be jealous of Gendry, but then it seems I had misinterpreted Melisandre's plans for the boy. I thought she was going to make him impregnate her so she could produce another one of those murderous smoke monsters, but apparently, she just wants his blood.
I have never liked Stannis. If you ask me, he's a self-important prig who pursues his own gratification and aggrandizement under the guise of destiny and religion. So I was pleasantly surprised to see him free Ser Davos and even take his advice on the topic of Gendry. Sure, it's only Gendry's Baratheon blood that makes Stannis even remotely interested in whether he lives or dies, but we'll take what we can get with this guy. And it seems that, between them, Stannis and Davos persuaded Melisandre to extract Gendry's blood in small doses, at least for now -- hence the kinky S&M leech scenario that rather uncomfortably echoed Theon Greyjoy's last sexual hurrah.
Of course, only on "Game of Thrones" are you winning if you only have a leech full of your own blood ripped from your genitals.
I have one more thing to say about this, though: I despise Melisandre and suspect her Lord of Light is actually something closer to Lucifer (a name, after all, that can be translated "light-bringing"). But if a few drops of Gendry's genital blood can bring harm to Joffrey, then by God I say, "Slurp away, leeches!"
Speaking of Joffrey, how does he even come up with all these new ways of being an evil little shit? Like, where did he get the idea of giving Sansa away? And how would it even occur to him to remove Tyrion's little step ladder? (If Peter Dinklage wins an Emmy, it'll be for this episode.) The "bedding ceremony," on the other hand, is vintage Joffrey: It's an opportunity to humiliate and destroy just about everybody, all at once. How could he resist?
We'll come back to that in a moment, but first, attention must be paid to Cersei, who sets new records for bitchiness at this wedding. I hope Lena Headey enjoys playing these scenes because, in their own twisted way, they are a joy to watch. I loved the way Natalie Dormer's Margaery had to fake-smile her way around the room as Cersei told that terrifying story about the Rains of Castamere. And then, the threat at the end: This woman does not want to be called sister! And what about that little interlude with Loras? "Nobody cares what your father told you" -- and yet her entire life is dictated by what Tywin tells her. I believe they call that irony.
But back to Sansa, poor girl. I thought the nuptials in Lars Von Trier's "Melancholia" were nightmarish, but this wedding from hell might be worse -- except that, for all his drunkenness, Tyrion actually saves the day, twice. First, he foils Joffrey's wicked plan to strip Sansa naked in front of all the guests (and rape her later), and then he chooses decency over filial loyalty and elects not to consummate the marriage after all. This has the added benefit of scoring him points with Shae, who arrives in the morning to find Sansa's sheets pristine and unbloodied. Is it too much to hope that these three will work out an "arrangement"?
There was so much good acting in this episode, but I think Sophie Turner deserves a special mention for her portrayal of Sansa. In the first season, before her father was killed, Sansa seemed like just another vain, spoiled, rich girl. But she's been through hell, thanks to Joffrey, and has acquired a measure of character -- without ever quite losing the impatient-princess vibe that always set her apart from Arya. In a way, it wasn't surprising to learn that she's just 14. She's still naive and still arrogant, but she never stops growing. I wonder what she and Tyrion will achieve together.
Of all the achievements I might have imagined for Samwell Tarly, killing a White Walker was never one of them -- although, in retrospect, I probably should have guessed that this was coming. This whole sequence was brilliantly done, and I loved how the Hitchcockian cacophony of crows ratcheted up the suspense, only to go dead silent as the blue-eyed monster approached. Even the kitchen-sink drama inside the hut (OK, there's no kitchen sink, but you get my meaning) was engrossing. Gilly may not even know how first and last names work, but she's got an earthy appeal that definitely works for Sam. And she doesn't mind keeping warm with him under the furs, as long as he doesn't use too many fancy words.
I'm not clear what was going on with those crows, or why they wound up chasing Sam and Gilly through the night. But on the basis of this episode, I'm not going to assume the worst. Not yet, anyway.
"Game of Thrones" airs Sundays at 9 pm on HBO.