So before we get started, just a word about these recaps. I've read all of George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire that's been published to date, including preview chapters from Winds of Winter. But for the purposes of these recaps, I usually pretend I haven't. I don't include spoilers for anything beyond this episode, and I sometimes speculate about things, even when I know the answer (from the books, anyway.) Please don't post spoilers from the books in the comments, so we can make this a welcoming space for everyone. Thanks!
All in all, this was a pretty nifty episode of Game of Thrones — we start with an ominous warning that everybody you've ever met will soon be dead, when winter falls and the White Walkers head south. And it ends with Daenerys having finally met one person from Westeros, besides Jorah, who believes in her and (more importantly) her claim to the throne.
Alliances you'll live to regret making (if you're lucky)
The episode is also bookended by two people getting into bed with unsavory customers.
At the start, after we visit the terrible condition of the Night's Watch (more on them in a moment), we join Jon Snow, who is trying to join the sworn enemies of the Watch, the Wildlings. Of course, Jon Snow is just there to infiltrate the Wildlings and spy on them, so he can report back to the High Commander on their plans — but his ruse wouldn't be very effective if he didn't at least partly want to join them, deep down. And he's going to have to be one of them for weeks or months, gaining sympathy for them.
This is our first proper look at the Wildlings in their encampment, with makeshift tents in the tundra. And, oh yeah, the tents are being built by an honest-to-gods giant! We're warned that giants are shy, until they're not. There are plenty of reminders that "crows" like Jon Snow killed a lot of Wildlings, who got too close to the Wall that the Night's Watch defends.
Ygritte and the Lord of Bones take Jon Snow to see Mance Rayder, the leader of the Wildling army. Mance Rayder was once a member of the Night's Watch like Jon Snow, but he defected years ago and has inspired the quasi-anarchist Wildlings to join into a single fighting force. Jon kneels to Tormund Giantsbane, thinking that's Mance Rayder — which is two mistakes in one, because nobody kneels to anybody, not even the King Beyond the Wall.
Jon Snow has to prove to Mance Rayder that he actually wants to join the Wildlings, and isn't just an infiltrator. At first, Jon claims he wants to be free, but Mance knows that's not true — Jon wants to be a hero. So Jon is forced to tell something closer to the truth. The Night's Watch has been depending on Craster, the guy who marries his daughters. Jon saw with his own eyes what Craster does with his sons — give them to the White Walkers. Jon told the High Commander this, and Jeor Mormont already knew. So Jon wants to be on the side that is actually committed to fighting the White Walkers instead of making deals with people who, in turn, make deals with them.
Meanwhile, Daenerys is finally on a boat, heading West, and her dragons are growing fast — in one of the episode's standout sequences, we see them flying over the ship, catching fish in the water and (in one case) cooking a fish with dragonfire. But they're not growing fast enough, and Daenerys still needs an army. Jorah Mormont pushes the idea of buying an army of the Unsullied, who are basically castrati soldiers whose humanity has been stripped away. And they're slaves.
What would Viserys, Daenerys' brother, say about all this? He'd be all for it. Viserys was all set to conquer Westeros using an army of Dothraki, whom he despised. In fact, he wouldn't see any difference between the Dothraki and the Unsullied — they're all just savages. We get a reminder that Daenerys is different, when she looks out at the deck of her ship at her last remaining Dothraki followers, who are so devoted to her they've ventured the "poison sea," where they battle the one foe no horselord can overcome: seasickness. Daenerys would way rather have a Dothraki Khalasar, bound together by respect for bravery and strength, than an army of mindless slaves.
But she still goes to inspect the merchandise. And it's very... impressive. Missandei, a slave translator, hilariously fails to convey the exact meaning of anything Kraznys mo Nakloz, a slaver, says. But his contempt for Daenerys, and his cruelty, are still very apparent. Kraznys explains how the Unsullied have a training regimen so intense, only one boy in four survives — and that's before the baby-slaughtering. To prove that his soldiers fear nothing, he does an impromptu nipple-removal. It's all suitably awful, and you have to wonder how the Westerosi would feel if Daenerys arrived at the head of an army of baby-killing slaves.
Jorah Mormont, of course, was exiled from Westeros and lost his lands and titles after he sold some people into slavery. So he doesn't really have an ethical problem with any of this — it's a means to an end, and he presses Daenerys hard with the argument that she'll be a better master for these slaves than anyone else would. It's almost like she'll be saving them!
But just at the exact moment when Daenerys seems to be wavering, she gets a reminder of what actual loyalty and dedication to duty looks like. Ser Barristan Selmy, last seen a couple years ago in the court of King Joffrey, shows up to save her from a magic manticore wielded by one of the evil sorcerers from Qarth. The greatest fighter ever, Ser Barristan was fired as a member of Joffrey's Kingsguard, and ever since then he's been searching for Daenerys so he can serve her, as the rightful ruler. Of course, if Joffrey had kept Ser Barristan on, he'd probably still be in King's Landing — but he still seems to believe the rightful ruler is the Targaryen heir. And he's like an army of one!
That still leaves Daenerys with a decision to make about the Unsullied, however. And just like with Jon Snow having to confess to his real, actual reservations about the Night's Watch, she's faced with the possibility of having to own up to a part of herself she'd rather not acknowledge: the part that's a lot like Viserys.
Oh, and there's a third alliance in the offing in this episode — Sansa is getting ready to get into bed with Lord Baelish, better known as Littlefinger. He makes some ultra-vague promises about being able to get her away from King's Landing when he's sent away on a distant assignment. Sansa seems to trust him, which is always a mistake. She no longer has any of the romantic illusions that she brought to King's Landing, but part of her still wants to cling to fantasy, as she shows when she and Shae are playing a game of making up fake destinations of sailing ships. Shae has a pretty shrewd idea of where one ship is actually going, but Sansa says it's still better to make up a story. Because the truth is usually boring or terrible. Of course, with Littlefinger, the only way to survive is to face the truth.
(Oh, and Littlefinger says he's recently seen Sansa's mother and sister. Does he know that he's actually telling the truth? Hard to say.)
The Sansa/Littlefinger scene is capped off by a lovely little moment, where Ros (who's now Littlefinger's P.A.) talks to Shae about how they've both come up in the world from their humble beginnings. Shae tries to pretend she doesn't know what Ros is talking about. But Ros still warns Shae to watch out for Sansa — with Littlefinger, in particular.
When alliances get old
Tyrion cast his lot with Bronn back in season one, when Bronn saved Tyrion from Catelyn Stark and her bloodthirsty sister Lysa. But by now, Bronn seems to have gotten pretty sick of being at Tyrion's beck and call — especially now that Bronn has become a proper knight. Tyrion sends for Bronn while he's in the middle of some important business, and Bronn almost doesn't go. Bronn demands twice as much money to keep protecting Tyrion, who's paranoid after his close shave during the battle.
"I sell my sword," Bronn explains. "I don't loan it out as a favor."
Tyrion is paranoid, in part, because his sister is out to get him — and when Bronn gets there, Tyrion is in conference with Cersei, who is worried about what Tyrion will say about her to their father. Cersei accuses Tyrion of having slandered her in the past — to which Tyrion responds, "It's not slander if it's true."
Tywin was the one who sent Tyrion to King's Landing to become Hand of the King and keep Cersei and the rest of those idiots in line. But now that Tyrion has done pretty much exactly what Tywin wanted, he's been smacked down and put in a shabby cell. Tywin mocks Tyrion for wanting some acknowledgement for his heroism, saying that only singers and jugglers require applause. When Tyrion asks for his birthright as heir to Casterly Rock, Tywin finally lets loose with his true opinion of his son: "You are an ill-made spiteful little creature, full of envy and low cunning." Twyin not only won't make Tyrion heir to the family seat, he also promises to hang the next sex worker Tyrion sleeps with.
Meanwhile, Davos gets rescued from a rock in the middle of the ocean, and has a conversation with his friend Salladhor Saan that's uncannily similar to the conversation Tyrion has with Bronn: Salladhor is a sellsail, just like Bronn is a sellsword, and he doesn't loan out his ships to friends. Salladhor joined up with Davos and King Stannis for glory and gold, which didn't materialize. Now, he refuses to take Davos to Stannis, so Davos can get himself killed by the Red Woman, because there's no profit in it for him. Until Davos basically begs.
Oh, and Salladhor promises that after Davos is burned alive, Salladhor will give his bones to his widow to carry in a bag — a reference to Davos' fingerbones which he carries around as a reminder of his past as a smuggler and his redemption at Stannis' hands.
As for Stannis' alliance with Melisandre, Stannis has ample cause to regret that — but he doesn't seem to. He's doubled down, buying into Melisandre's argument that he lost at King's Landing because she wasn't there to save the day. He's been burning prisoners alive at the stake while Melisandre sings to them, and seems to believe that's how he's going to win this thing. Davos pulls a knife and tries to kill her, and it goes slightly better than Salladhor predicted — he's not burned alive, just dragged off to a cell. "I will pray for you," Melisandre promises.
And then there's the alliance between the Lannisters and the Tyrells. The Tyrells were in bed with Renly, Stannis' brother, until Melisandre killed Renly. And then they showed up, with Loras in Renly's armor, and helped turn the tide in the Lannisters' favor in the huge battle. So now everybody is best friends, and King Joffrey is betrothed to Margaery, Loras' sister.
Except that it's not all good — Margaery is a cunning minx, and she's chipping away at the Lannisters through their weak spot: the fact that everybody hates them. She and Joffrey are riding across town in two separate palanquin thingies, and she abruptly gets out of hers and goes to visit an orphanage in Flea Bottom, the site of that riot where Joffrey had poop thrown at him. Joffrey can't get out of his carriage, because he'll be torn limb from limb, even with all his guards. So he's stuck watching — the visual of Joffrey looking through the grating of his window recalls Tyrion, peering through the barred window of his little cell earlier.
Margaery is obviously play-acting as she makes nice with the orphans. (It's a nice touch by Natalie Dormer, showing us just how fake Margaery's performance is, without overplaying.) And later, she makes nice with Cersei, too — making Cersei seem like an overprotective mother, subtly mocking the armor sewn into Cersei's dress and driving more of a wedge between Cersei and Joffrey. These two families are going to get along famously!
Oh, and I love this exchange:
Margaery: The lowest among us are no different than the highest if you approach them with an open heart.
Cersei: An open heart is what you'll get in Flea Bottom if you're not careful.
So yeah, that's the trouble with alliances of convenience, whether with sellswords, priestesses or noble families — they tend to go bad, and then you're stuck living with the results for a long time.
Armies marching to nowhere
And finally, there are two sets of armies marching to nowhere in this episode — the Night's Watch, out in the middle of the snowy wasteland beyond the Wall, and King Robb's followers, who would love to engage the Lannisters in battle but can't seem to find them.
The Night's Watch is kind of screwed because Samwell Tarly didn't dispatch the messenger ravens the way he was supposed to — leaving the crows with no choice but to walk all the way back to the Wall and warn their brothers in person. That's when Jeor Mormont delivers that sonorous warning about how everybody will be dead before winter ends, unless they do something.
Meanwhile, King Robb has won nothing but victories, but it's left him with an exhausted army and a home in ruins. And then he comes to Harrenhal, where 200 northerners were executed and left laying in the courtyard. Richard Karstark, who was pissed about Jaime Lannister being let go, is now even more pissed. But Roose Bolton, that flower of human kindness, says his "best hunter" is tracking Jaime.
In the face of all this horror, Robb is forced to lock his mother in a cell again, because this is all a reminder that she's the one who let Jaime go. And there's one survivor, a kindly old man named Qyburn who seems horrified by the slaughter in his midst.
One final thought: a theme that jumps out in this episode is the question of what makes someone a knight. When Margaery is making nice with the orphans in Flea Bottom, she gives one of them a knight figurine to remember his dead father, and says that a knight protects the weak and serves the good — so in a way, anyone who does that is a knight.
Meanwhile, Bronn has a hilarious confrontation with the despicable Ser Meryn Trant, in which the newly knighted Ser Bronn points out that all Ser Meryn is good for is stomping about in his shiny armor and beating poor Sansa Stark. It nearly comes to blows, as we all wish it would.
And once again, the episode ends with the arrival of Ser Barristan, the truest knight of them all, who seems to think that being a good knight means that sometimes, you have to admit you made a colossal mistake in whom you chose to serve. Food for thought there.
Screencaps via WICNet.