Unusually, though, these traversals lacked the wry metaphorical dimensions that often give meaning to the show's complex elaborations. Here, they stood as elements of construction, driving forward key storylines whose outcomes–and meanings–are far from clear. It was a wandering episode, lacking a sense of progress even as characters criss-crossed the world.
The exception: after the episode (and season's) most brutal smackdown yet, two very different characters found themselves united in a strikingly metaphorical way, over a pile of corpses.
The viewer's journey begins with Awesome Dwarf Tyrion, kidnapped by Handsome Knight with a Dark Past Jorah Mormont, who drags him east toward Generic Near-Asian Epic City Mereen. There, Mormont, the disgraced and exiled retainer of Vaguely Unconvincing Colonial Queen Danaeris, hopes to use his illustrious Lannister captive to buy his way back into her favor. But Tyrion is, if nothing else, intelligent and perspicacious: despite Mormont's silence, the little fellow figures out who he is, what his motives are, and explains how bad his plan is.
At the opening of the show, we'd already been given a concise insight into Mormont's nature. In the murky twilight outside of Less Conspicuously "Oriental" Asian City Volantis, he stole a boat, knocked out its owner, then dropped a coin on the man's unconscious body in recompense. Is it an act of genuine honesty, or vain self-regard?
"Risky scheme," Tyrion cheeks. Mormont retorts with his fist.
Back in Westeros, Tyrion's brother, Jaime Lannister, heads out toward Dorne with rough but likeable mercenary Bronn, to recover a Lannister princess who has become, effectively, a hostage of the Martells. Context: the House Lannister rules the seven kingdoms, but Dorne is its most far-flung province and the Martells, its own ruling family, have many, many reasons to hate the Lannisters.
Bronn, of course, has been retraining Jaime in the art of swordplay. Context: Jaime had his hand chopped off and went from being the kingdom's greatest swordsman to being crap at swords, and the loss of his self-image is another journey in itself, softening and deepening a man once ruthless enough to glibly kill children.
Meanwhile, Queen Mother Cersei—presiding over the seven kingdoms as quasi-Hand of The King—manipulates the Small Council. She sends Lord Tyrell off to the Iron Bank, across the sea, to renegotiate a bad loan. She's getting him out the way—and she's not finished with his family, another powerful potential enemy, by any means.
"The small council grows smaller and smaller," quips one of the remaining ministers. "Not small enough," she mutters, pacing off to a more amenable discussion with the High Sparrow, leader of a sinister religious cult that's become disturbingly popular among the poor of King's Landing.
Last week, we saw Cersei mocked and lorded over by Margaery Tyrell, who had just married her very young and inexperienced son, King Tommen, to become his queen. But we see here just how clever and swift Cersei's retaliatary manoevering is, and that while she is not de jure regent, she has plenty of firepower to bring to bear on her enemies.
Under the guise of resurrecting an ancient and disbanded knightly order, the "Faith Militant," Cersei arms and unleashes the Sparrows as "an army in service to the gods"—and herself. She uses it immediately to move against Margaery and House Tyrell.
Thus armed, these theocratic madmen ransack the brothels of King's Landing. But their key target is Sir Loras Tyrell—the queen's brother—whose sexual interest in other men is an open secret. He is arrested and imprisoned.
Mortified, Queen Margaery explains to her husband the petty political realities in play. Poor, childish King Tommen, however, is simply not cut out for the exercise of power. Packed off to deal with his mother—"you gave the High Sparrow an army!"—she simply challenges her son to deal with the High Sparrow himself. She knows Tommen lacks the experience and the wherewithal to deal with her cult.
"There was no way to free Loras without violence," he pleads to Margaery after being publicly humiliated by the High Sparrow. She immediately realizes that she has been outflanked—and must leave, fleeing her own family's base of power: another journey.
Though clearly afraid and shocked at how suddenly Cersei has her beaten, there yet seems a degree of assurance in Margaery's departure. It wouldn't be the first time, after all, that Cersei's crude retaliations seemed to promise only her own self-destruction.
Up north, at Fantasy Hadrian's Wall, Jon Snow, Lord Commander of the Night's Watch, frets over the lack of men he has at hand to defend it. In particular, he's unhappy about his dependence on muscle offered by the Warden of the North, Roose Bolton, inveterate murderer and usurper of Jon's family's ancestral rule of the north. It's all very complicated, but if you've read this far I figure you had a pretty decent chance of understanding that last sentence.
All this occurs under the eye of Stannis Baratheon, commander of the last remaining rogue army in the seven kingdoms, who is ready to set out from the wall to attack Bolton and establish control over the North in its entirety. He spars intellectually with Melisandre, his sorcerous supporter, who later tries to manipulate Snow into accompanying Stannis' army south. Her strategy—sexual seduction-fails. Snow is able to resist precisely because he still loves Ygritte, the last woman with whom he broke his vow of chastity. The witch mocks him: "You know nothing, Jon Snow."
Elsewhere, Stannis and his young daughter talk. She asks him if he is ashamed of her, for her disfigurement. He shows—with the directness and moral force that sits so ill-at ease by his association with Melisandre—how much he loves her. It's a touching exchange. When told his daughter was doomed…
"I told them all to go to hell. I called in every maester, every healer, every apothecary… they saved your life, because you are the Princess Shireen of House Baratheon, and my daughter."
Stannis "Supposedly Unlikeable But Actually Rather Charismatic On Television" Baratheon is a fine father, if not so fine a candidate for rule.
The Boltons, in control of the North but far from secure given Stannis's well-armed force at their border, are holed up in Winterfell. There, Sansa Stark—Jon's sister—is to be married off to Bolton's cruel, crazy son. She talks with Petyr Baelish, whose obsessive love for her mother, transferred to Sansa herself, manifests calmly yet unpleasantly in the torchlit catacombs beneath the citadel.
He's off to King's Landing, at Cersei's summoning, and Sansa is not eager to see her slimy but capable advisor depart. He's is not only aware that Stannis is on his way to attack Bolton, but also that Stannis—an excellent general—will most likely succeed in taking the North.
"You are the last surviving Stark," he reminds Sansa, and he drills her in the plain fact that with some common sense, she can't lose. If Stannis wins, he'll need her to legitimize his standing. If Stannis loses, she'll still be married to the victor's son. While she thinks it over, he kisses her. On the lips! It's all very icky, a grim knot of romantic and political exploitation where even the best-imagined roads out are lined with corpses and self-loathing.
In Dorne, Bronn saves Jaime from a snake.
"It would have been a shit way to die," Bronn pipes up.
"They're all shit," murmurs Jaime.
Surprised by a patrol of Dornish guards, Jaime, one-handed, is finally forced to do single combat with a capable swordsman. His moment of victory takes advantage of his disability in splendidly symbolic manner, using his prosthetic hand to defect a killing blow while delivering likewise to his opponent's heart.
"Luck," he disclaims.
"You had a wonderful teacher," says Bronn.
Whatever pleasure the moment contains is doused by the need to dispose of the bodies. Unbeknownst to them, even that effort is wasted: their presence in Dorne has already been revealed to the Martells, or at least to the faction most interested in their blood: the widow and daughters of Oberyn Martell, recently killed in circumstances that both exposed Lannister awfulness and compounded it.
Together, the women make a collective decision to indulge their desire for revenge rather than support the diplomatic status quo favored by Oberyn's brother, the province's King. Its another questionable journey, embarked upon with no clear destination in sight.
Finally, Danaeris—the inappropriately British Queen of Mereen—is entertained by retainer Sir Barristan Selmy, who remembers her slaughtered and dethroned family with greater fondness than most in Westeros. But it's a fleeting moment: the Sons of the Harpy, a local faction opposed to her rule and her imposition of Westerosian values upon a traditional slave economy, finally makes its move.
Sparking chaos in the streets, they lure a group of her Unsullied soldiers—including her likable captain, Grayworm— into a trap. The professionals outclass the masked rebels, but numbers get the better of them, and Grayworm is ultimately the last man standing. Barristan arrives in the nick of time, and the two polish off the last of the attackers. Alas, both seem mortally injured.
These two men, so very different—Barristan a grizzled Westeros knight and Grayworm an unerringly capable and youthful slave-turned-general—are finally given the same perspective on life. They've fought together for Dany, and their journeys seem to have converged, together, in death, to that end.
It's a touching moment, not least for the fact that it isn't belabored.
Yet that outcome only makes her journey less clear—how can she possibly proceed (or succeed) without them?