AND SO, TIME marches on. Joffrey Baratheon is no more, and Tommen, "First Of His Name," owner of the cuddly Ser Pounce, rises to take his place on the throne. But he's just a boy, able to be pushed around by the blustering of his advisors and those who seek to gain power in King's Landing. Tywin has Tommen's ear—especially after that birds and bees talk—and Margaery has her secret visits, but according to Olenna Tyrell, she'll have to out-maneuver Cersei to finally secure her place beside the Iron Throne as Queen.
That opening scene, between Margaery and Cersei (though it's still mostly about the other men in their orbits) is some of the best and most honest dialogue in the series. Instead of all the political blustering, they get to the root of the conflict between them. Joffrey was a demon, and everyone knew it, but Cersei couldn't help but love her first child. Again, like just about everything these characters do that goes against a moral grain, it's not an excuse for bad behavior or ignorance that harms other people, but it's a plausible and sympathetic explanation for a calculatingly callous character. She expresses grief, while accepting Margaery's condolence, and they reach a sad but hopeful conclusion for Tommen: he could be the first decent king in years, which "would be some consolation, for all the horror that put him there." And to top it off, they even talk about the politics of marriage while pursuing the Lannister/Tyrell alliance without threatening violence. A scene that begins with Cersei interceding between Tommen smiling at Margaery ends with an agreement so civil that Margaery once again jokes about whether she'll call Cersei her sister or mother—and gets away with it. That's a far cry from, "If you ever call me sister again, I'll have you strangled in your sleep."
It's from that point that Cersei goes to meet her father, still upset at the prospect of marrying Loras Tyrell, but resigned to it for the good of the family. She does have an ulterior motive though, since she's trying to go along in order to influence her father's power as a judge in Tyrion's trial. Tywin states definitively that he can't discuss the trial, but his feelings against Tyrion are well known to anyone familiar with the situation. But this conversation nibbles at one of the other problems resting on the outskirts of this world: the Iron Bank of Braavos, the most powerful financial institution in the realm, and a significant problem for the Lannisters now that their gold mines aren't producing anything. That's a nice glimpse into the fact that there are other factors affecting this world other that political machinations. Cersei can appeal to anyone she wants for the vengeance to quench her grief—even reaching out to Oberyn Martell to talk about her daughter Myrcella (who was shipped off to Dorne in a marriage pact)—and it looks like she'll get her way. But there are larger factors at play north of the wall and in Braavos that threaten to dwarf all the infighting in the capital.
I think it's useful to keep in mind that Game Of Thrones is a massive international production that shoots across multiple countries with an enormous cast that barely interacts with each other as a whole. A show like this can't pivot and respond to criticism on a week-to-week basis in the same way that a major broadcast network show could do. (Just for one example, The Good Wife altered an unpopular narrative path in its fourth season by excising a woefully unsuccessful new character.) So in the maelstrom of voices crying out about "that scene" between Jamie and Cersei two weeks ago, and all the assaults happening at Craster's Keep under the mutineers, there isn't a way for the show to alleviate fears within the narrative on a step-by-step basis. (That's not to say that interviews with episode directors and the creators couldn't serve this purpose. Part of the outcry over "Breaker Of Chains" was definitely due to a lack of recognition that the assault even took place.) Unlike broadcast networks, this is television produced much closer to the way the novels are released, with an extended narrative completed in advance, without audience participation affecting it in any way. I'm also hesitant to view the Game Of Thrones series through the lens of a grand scorecard that judges it against the books upon which it's based. While I think there's a value to pinpointing where the two stories differ and discussing why they succeed or fail based on those decisions, I don't see it as a list that adds up to better quality on either side.
Yes, "Breaker Of Chains" featured some fiercely problematic depictions of sexual violence, the latest in a long series of moments where the show has diminished the complexity of characters (like Khal Drogo in season one) in favor of flashier brutality. But two weeks later, scenes between Margaery and Cersei, or Lysa and Sansa, not to mention the arcs for Daenerys, Arya, and Craster's wives, reveals that the show is indeed concerned with women in relation to and separate from the men who dominate the power structures. All we had to do was demonstrate a little patience in getting there without dispensing with all the judgment before the midpoint of the current season.
All of those scenes with Cersei maneuvering for the upper hand in Tyrion's trial obfuscate what is perhaps the biggest reveal of the entire series up to this point. Petyr Baelish, now Lord Protector of the Vale, did not only switch his allegiances to the Tyrells by conspiring to end Joffrey's reign. He also initiated the events that began the entire series. The inciting incident to the entire series is the death of Lord Jon Arryn, the man who mentored Robert Baratheon and Ned Stark, serving as Robert's Hand in King's Landing. When he was poisoned, Robert sought out Ned to join him in the capital, which started the entire spiral of savagery up to this point in Westeros. All of that apparently stems from Lysa Tully's obsession with Baelish, a man who remains so in love with her dead sister Catelyn Stark that he rescued Sansa from King's Landing. Baelish not only coerced Lysa into killing her husband Jon Arryn, but also into sending a letter to Catelyn stating that the death was no accident—effectively kicking off the whole bloody mess that has spun out from that one deceptive murder.
It's a moment that certainly feels hidden within the creepiness of Lysa's existence at the Vale, with her son Robin flitting about, a hurried marriage, and haunting screams of pleasure. And as opposed to other points in the series, this drops out with all the preparation of a Rick Perry "oops." But there it is: Petyr Baelish, Architect of Westeros' Destruction. He's the world's most adept social climber, switching sides, making friends, breaking alliances, zigging when expected to zag, and climbing ever higher in his quest for "everything." Sansa, so tortured as a captive in King's Landing, toyed with by Joffrey, unprotected and even chided by Cersei during the Battle of Blackwater Bay, has now landed in tenuous protection under Baelish at the Aerie. Lysa knows who she is, though to everyone else she will be Petyr's niece, but doesn't trust why she's there—since she's still frightfully jealous about Peytr's ardent love for Catelyn. It's always interesting to me how some of the scenes most fraught with meaning are giant expositions dumps about the past between characters who have almost no reason to divulge a giant history. (Jamie telling Brienne about how he got his nickname, or Varys telling Tyrion the story of the sorcerer who made him a eunuch.) But this was fascinating, since it conveys all of Petyr's personal hangups, the little things that could undo him—from taking Lysa's virginity all those years ago to his continued affection for anything related to Catelyn now—mixed with his rapid ascension to power in a stronghold that has never been conquered.
OVER IN MEREEN, news of Joffrey's death has crossed the sea to Daenerys and her advisors. There, she's faced with a decision to make her big move on King's Landing. Daario helped to secure almost 100 ships, and with the soldiers already at her disposal, it's possible that they could make a successful assault on the capital through Blackwater Bay, now that the supply of wildfire has been used up. But then she gets the news that although she conquered the three major cities in Slaver's Bay, the other two major cities (Astapor and Yunkai) have descending into more unrest, instead of simply using Daenerys' army as a flashpoint for utopic, democratic independence. It's the first moment of real recognition in the would-be queen's face that she doesn't yet know the difference between conquering and ruling. So instead of rushing to a throne she can't hold on the other end of the world, sitting on the Iron Throne while houses in Westeros size up which side to join in an ever-expanding age of war, she must stay in the east and attempt to quell the uprisings in Slaver's Bay to prove her worth as a ruler.
IN THE NORTH, Jon Snow and his group of Night's Watch brothers scope out Craster's Keep. Locke, a mercenary who joined up with Jon's anti-mutineer group with a decidedly ulterior motive. When the assault begins—why does a stealth attack always end with the soldiers screaming right as they arrive into battle?—Locke goes straight for the hut where Bran, Jojen, Meera, and Hodor are being kept prisoner, in order to take Bran and cut out. Thanks to the "Previously on…" montage at the beginning of the episode, we know what's coming: Bran wargs into Hodor, and uses the gentle soul's untapped fighting prowess to break Locke's neck. A rather ignoble end for the wonderful Noah Taylor on the series, but it keeps that little group out of the central fray. It's another sad moment in this prophetic journey for Bran and the Reeds, as he can't stay to see Jon, or else be prevented from finding the three-eyed raven and that tree everyone keeps seeing in visions. The closest the brothers get to one another is having their direwolves locked up together—at least Ghost reunites with Jon after killing the last mutineer.
And to remind us all that Game Of Thrones doesn't just do explicit sex scenes, it also has gleefully detailed violence as well, Jon Snow Shoves his sword through the back of Karl's head, penetrating him in a final way that at least somewhat recalls the forcible acts of violence perpetrated by the mutineers. Craster's wives, held captive first by Craster and then by the mutinous night's watch Brothers, want no part of the place anymore. They won't go to Castle Black, and they won't stay: they want the filthy place burned to the ground. That's another moment of agency and independence in an episode that features some dispiriting developments but more than a few bright spots. A house of violence and torment erased from existence, the survivors freed and the Night's Watch protected for now against the upcoming Wildling assault. At the midway point of this fourth season, there's at least one big battle and a tense trial on the horizon—as well as whatever will happen with Stannis in Dragonstone, or Roose Bolton, Ramsay, and Reek as the new Warden of the North attempts to secure those lands. Whatever the rest of the season has in store (fans of the books seem tense for another big reveal, which should fit with the newbies who basically wait for the giant turn in episode nine each year), it's a good thing HBO divided this third book into two seasons. If it had been condensed into 10 episodes, there wouldn't have been any time for the world to breathe.
• Noah Taylor did a lovely interview with Vulture on the occasion of his final appearance on the show.
• Those scenes between Podrick and Brienne don't really add much except to make Podrick more endearing. But they bond nicely over Podrick's battlefield story. Their back-and-forth makes me want to bring back the #TrueDetectiveSeason2 hashtag.
• Some people avoid spoilers of any type like the plague. If you'd rather not talk about the preview for next week's episode, then navigate away. All done? Holy crap, Mycroft Holmes from Sherlock is running the Iron Bank of Braavos! And since Stannis is venturing there, does that mean we get a shiny new city (with the Titan statute) in the beautiful credits sequence as well?