By Rowan Kaiser | Press Play May 14, 2012 at 8:53AM
What makes for a great Game Of Thrones episode? What stories can it tell that could put it on the rarefied level of, say, HBO’s holy trinity of The Sopranos, Deadwood, and The Wire? I’m not sure how I would have answered this question before seeing “A Man Without Honor.” I would not have expected to say that arguably the show’s best episode would have only one major event combined with a series of dialogues. This isn’t a surprise, given that the dialogue and characters are some of the strongest components of the show, but it is somewhat odd, given how many different storylines are going on at once, that so few move directly forward.
Instead, in scene after scene, we’re shown reasons why these characters are important, and why the stakes are so high. Not many of the metaphorical poker hands are fully played out, but watching them progress gives us insight into most every major character as well as a few minor ones.
Take, for example, the centerpiece of the episode, Jaime Lannister, in his cage, talking to a cousin he barely remembers. The cousin squired for Jaime once, and clearly worships Jaime as a hero. They reminisce. They bond. Jaime supplies us with a bit of exposition, a reminder of the currently missing Barristan Selmy. They discuss their current situation. “I’m not well-suited for imprisonment.” Jaime has a plan of escape. The cousin wants to know what he can do. Jaime says “die” and then kills the man he just charmed.
There are two good reasons this scene shouldn’t work. First, it’s been done before. In the middle of the first season, Jaime talked with Ned Stark’s guard, Jory Cassel. After initially dismissing Jory, the two men ended up bonding over past war stories. Shortly afterwards, Jaime killed Jory with no regrets. For this reason, and because of the slow buildup of danger via the blocking, lighting, and music cues, Jaime’s violent turn isn’t a surprise. It's still a great scene, though.
Nikolaj Coster-Waldau’s performance as Jaime Lannister deserves the credit here. From the beginning, he has imbued Jaime with the charisma and power that the novels tell but don’t show until much later. He’s been largely off-screen this season—there's only so much you can do when chained in a cage—but Coster-Waldau’s cheerful cynicism dominates anytime Jaime is on-screen.
Only writing this now do I realize that Jaime didn’t say much to the poor boy he promptly murdered, beyond generic platitudes. Perhaps he did remember the boy, and spoke to him as a friend because he wanted some pleasant human interaction even as Jaime planned his cousin’s murder. Perhaps he didn’t remember the lad, and simply told him what he wanted to hear in order to get him within arm’s reach. Jaime was built up as the primary villain in the first season, but here, imprisoned for months and covered in his own shit, plotting a desperate, doomed escape, he seems even more dangerous.
This may have been the standout scene of the episode, but “A Man Without Honor” is filled with one-on-one interactions, most of them good, some of them brilliant. Arya Stark’s dangerous sparring with Tywin Lannister is dramatically improved this week, after the too-farcical physical comedy last week. Instead, tonight it’s a game of wits. Seeing both Charles Dance and Maisie Williams take each other on is a joy, and further confirmation that Williams is a potential star. This is one of the show’s funniest-ever scenes, with Dance’s slight facial expressions showing how impressed he is with the girl’s audacity, and Arya just barely staying ahead of Tywin’s probing questions.
Almost every major character gets a scene where the tension of their surroundings is built and detailed. Sansa Stark continues her awkward, tense relationship with The Hound, who seems to have adopted her as a pet of his own, saying “You’ll be glad of the hateful things I do when you’re queen, and I’m all that stands between you and your beloved king.” This may be Sophie Turner’s best episode as Sansa, and it’s also the one where she’s had the most to do, as Sansa’s first period shows up, making her betrothal to Joffrey much more likely to be completed. With this known, she meets with Queen Cersei, whose odd mentoring of Sansa is even more explicit than The Hound's, thanks to Tywin’s parallel relationship with Arya Stark.
Cersei then meets with Tyrion Lannister, and finally shows vulnerability, admitting that her children were born of incest and how troubled she is by Joffrey. During the first season, I thought Lena Headey was the weakest actor in the ensemble, constantly relying on her “scrunchyface” to convey any emotion, genuine or manipulative. With a bit of vulnerability on display, Headey manages to make a scene where Tyrion and Cersei bond a bit seem honest and even sympathetic. It also serves as a reminder that Stannis, with his huge fleet and new army, is less than a week away from the capital, and close to the climax of the season.
Some of the most fun comes from the romantic comedy Beyond the Wall, where Jon Snow continues to hold the wildling Ygritte prisoner. Much like Jaime Lannister’s scene, there are lots of reasons to dislike this storyline: Ygritte’s sexual manipulations are so transparent as to be downright wacky, and the part where she argues about who owns the land struck me as overly-modern, with its anti-colonial discourse (“You lot just came along and put up a big wall and said it was yours!”). The acting, once again, helps—Rose Leslie sells both the sexuality and the wildlings’ different norms—but I think the real work is done by the location. The scenes north of the Wall were shot in Iceland, and the craggy hills, tundra, and cold, cold snow and rain imbue the apparently comic scenes with seriousness and even danger.
Also, impressively enough, several episodes in, Jon’s half-brother Robb Stark and his infatuation with the nurse Talisa has finally gotten to the point where it doesn’t stand out as the worst part of the episode. That, surprisingly, goes to Dany’s adventures in Qarth, where her pursuit of her dragons’ kidnappers leads her deeper and deeper into a storyline where she lacks agency, which she attempts to make up for by screaming, in increasingly petulant and shrill fashion. (She sounds like Mel Gibson in the commercials for Ransom, yelling “GIVE ME BACK MY DRAGONS.”) It’s disappointing given the depth Emilia Clarke brought to Danaerys in the first season.
And then Game Of Thrones tosses in a sucker punch. After an hour of scenes consisting almost exclusively of two people talking to one another, the action returns to Winterfell and Theon Greyjoy’s pursuit of the younger Stark boys. After a day of fruitless searching, Theon returns to Winterfell, claiming to have found the boys, and offers proof: two charred, dismembered children’s corpses. The grim music rises as we see that a character who began the season as a sidekick to one of the heroes is now a child-murderer. That doesn’t relieve the tension built up over the course of the episode—it hammers it in. That’s what will make Game Of Thrones worthy of inclusion in the tevevision pantheon.
As far as I can tell, every single scene in this episode was significantly altered, or simply invented, compared with the novel. Robb’s, Arya’s, Dany’s, Jorah’s, and Jaime’s scenes with the cousin are totally new. Jon and Cat have had their scenes altered chronologically, and their motivations have also been changed due to alterations in previous episodes: Qhorin didn’t leave Jon with Ygritte for days in the novel, instead disappearing for a while, then returning.
Missing characters change the structure and meaning of Bran’s main scene in the episode—a friend with a premonition of the dead bodies has been deleted and has had his character merged with Osha, who doesn’t have that gift. Meanwhile, Theon’s worst impulses are being exacerbated by one of his crew, instead of by another major character (who will apparently be introduced later). Sansa’s scene with Cersei may be the only one to be relatively unchanged from the novel.
I would quibble with some of these decisions—in fact, I almost certainly will next week when we see the fallout from Cat’s confrontation of Jaime—but overall, I think this marks a turning point for Game Of Thrones as an adaptation. It has fully detached itself from the source material. It still uses the books' themes, characters, and overall story, but it now has the confidence to be tell that story in its own fashion.
Rowan Kaiser is a freelance pop culture critic currently living in the Bay Area. He is a staff writer at The A.V. Club, covering television and literature. He also writes about video games for several different publications, including Joystiq and Paste Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @rowankaiser for unimportant musings on media and extremely important kitten photographs.