“A Man Without Honor” is in many ways a quiet episode, more concerned with moving pieces into place than big shocks and surprises… but they manage them just the same, especially in the final ten minutes of the episode. While I can’t say the episode is wholly successful in its aims — there are various niggling problems here and there, and one storyline that simply doesn’t seem to be working at all — it’s an improvement to what I feel was a much more problematic previous episode, “The Old Gods and the New.”
As I’ve remarked elsewhere, but didn’t really explore, thematically this episode seems to be tied together by various concepts of legacies. It’s at the core of Tywin Lannister’s concern about the War of the Five Kings. It’s on his mind when he discusses the fate of Harren the Black and his sons, and the mightiest castle in the realm which was Harrenhal. In fact, you can see that it’s very much central to Tywin throughout the series, and that’s very much in keeping with the novels: his interest is not in personal glory and respect, it’s in the future reputation of his family, in securing its place as the preeminent house in the Seven Kingdoms. The scene with Arya is a good one, with Charles Dance and Maisie Williams always playing well off of each other… but they are starting to feel a little too easy, a little too repetitive. Time that might profitabily be spent with Gendry or Hot Pie, to show some other side of Arya’s existence in Harrenhal, is being spent going to the same well one time too many. It’s remarkable, actually, to realize how radically Arya’s time in Harrenhal has been changed in terms of its tone and structure. The brutality she witnesses and suffers on a daily basis — yes, even with Lord Tywin there — hardens her and shapes her in a way that, so far, this story doesn’t seem too interested in (outside of those first days in Harrenhal, before Tywin’s arrival).
The legacies of the past are also part of what motivates the mistrust between Ygritte and Jon… though that’s doubtless helped along by the fact that she’s his prisoner, and he knows she’d kill him if she had the chance. Though Ygritte uses Jon’s obvious inexperience and interest against him, leaving their scenes largely devoted to innuendo and sometimes rather explicit sexual talk, the most heated point in their scenes comes when they argue over why the Watch is even present in the lands beyond the Wall.
Although what Ygritte expresses — that someone came into the North and built the Wall to claim the lands south of it — is rather confused history (the Wall was raised in the days of the First Men, before the Andals came; strangely, Ygritte seems to change her tune when Jon reveals he’s a Stark’s bastard, suggesting that she believes Andals raised the Wall, which is plain weird), it certainly marks the way that history has created a rift between her people and Jon’s. The free folk were likely descended of First Men who preferred to live a freer life, away from the men who had begun to call themselves lords and kings, but one supposes that in the earliest days of the Watch there wasn’t that much tension. But as the Wall grew taller and taller, the sense of being separate and different must have grown to this present point, where the wildlings are implacable enemies.
On the other hand, the decision to spend so much time on them may have detracted from some parts of the episode, which could have used more time… and, furthermore, really puts in danger holding closely to the novel for Jon’s last scenes, as those last chapters from the book are actually dramatically and thematically among the best and most important in the novel.
To spend so much time with Ygritte may have been felt as necessary by the writers, but at the same time it seems to me that Rose Leslie has more than enough talent to captivate an audience without being dragged onto the screen for ten minutes of screen time, largely going through the same cycle of come-on/put-down until things finally give. If they had stuck nearer to the novel, what we would have had was an increasingly tense chase sequence, as the rangers fall one by one, pursued by the wildings — hard to see how that wouldn’t have been television gold, and might not have helped the concerns of some that this episode felt a little too “talky”.
The biggest surprise for me in this episode is that I finally found a scene with Cersei Lannister that I could genuinely appreciate, despite the fact that I find Lena Headey’s performance underwhelmingly flat and restrained. She’s given a truly meaty scene with Peter Dinklage’s Tyrion, and the two work together to make a truly interesting scene. Not, exactly, a scene that I’d ever imagine would have happened in the novels — Cersei does not admit her incest to Tyrion, and would never dream of it at this particular stage — but the awkward realization that she’s confiding in him, and the awkward realization that he doesn’t know how to console her, is beautifully played by the two. Now, if only Headey’s Cersei had anything like the fire and venom of the character from the novel…
Headey’s scene with Sophie Turner, on the other hand, while played well enough seemed to really lack for the spark and fire of the novel’s Cersei. The edge to her is thoroughly blunted, and I can’t say I find this an improvement. Still, much of the dialog is word-for-word from the novel, and it’s good (though one wishes they had stuck to two of the most remembered lines from that scene — “A woman’s life is nine parts mess to one part magic, you’ll learn that soon enough . . . and the parts that look like magic often turn out to be messiest of all,” and, “Love is poison. A sweet poison, yes, but it will kill you all the same.”
Speaking of Turner, though, she has truly been blossoming as an actress, playing her scenes quite beautifully. Most notably, the scene where she did her best to remove the evidence of her “flowering”, showing her terrified desperation. Shae’s involvement is a new detail, nothing from the novels, but it’s an interesting turn on what is, so far, one of the most enigmatic characters in the television series. One hopes the writers mean to spend more time with her at some point, to give viewers more of a sense of the character and why she warns against trust while risking herself to protect Sansa.
Of course, for many, the most significant scenes of the episode are less about legacy and more about… blood. Jaime Lannister’s brutal murder of his distant, worshipful cousin was certainly a shocking moment… though I can’t help but think that the writers became enamored of Jaime doing something so shocking that they skipped an obvious step: the tried-and-true prisoner’s ruse of a faked fight or a sudden illness, which surely would have been more sensible for Jaime to try under the circumstances (after all, if you’re escaping, Ser Alton — a knight — was not too likely to be a liability). And then, when that ruse fails, the step of killing him becomes more conceivable, the last option of a desperate man. The Lannisters in the novel are rather clannish, and it would have been nice to see Jaime feel something similar. Instead, his choice — bonding with Alton, trading recollections of past days as squires, and then calluously murdering him — seems inhuman and beyond the pale.
On the other hand, all the actors involved in these scenes turned out worthy performances, from the departing Karl Davies as Alton to Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as Jaime… and also Michelle Fairley, again showing Catelyn’s steely mettle in the face of a hard situation. I was very concerned when I realized that they were greatly changing the circumstances of her decision to deal with Jaime, to ask for that sword… but by framing it as they did with a camp growing increasingly tense, I think they resolved the problem neatly.
The true highlight of the episode for me, however, was Theon Greyjoy’s narrative at Winterfell. Alfie Allen has been performing tremendously well this season, conveying the mixture of Theon’s arrogance, moral cowardice, and desperation to prove himself. It’s all played very well by the actor, and by his supporting cast, especially Donald Sumpter as Maester Luwin. The key moment is the final scene when we see what Theon has wrought… and he’s forced to look at it as well, part of his pantomime of the ruthless lord, until that moment when he can’t do it any longer. He looks away, and in his eyes you see the roil of emotion of someone who’s already wrestling with what he did. A magnificent scene, enhanced by that portentous music from Ramin Djawadi, like the tide of the sea sweeping away Theon’s arrogant mask.
If only all the episode was as well-wrought as that moment. But there was blood in another quarter, and that one was largely surrounded by problems. It seems that many believe that Daenerys’s storyline in A Clash of Kings would not be compelling television. Well and good — I won’t belabor the point of the fact that I strongly disagree, but rather lets consider what actually is there. Qarth remains in the series, as in the novels, a place where we only scratch the surface. Its history, its politics, the lives of its leading figures — these things are such a mystery that only three Qartheen characters are named on the show… and one of those is a Summer Islander, and the other has only a title.
The series has, perhaps unwittingly, retained the enigmatic absence of detail about the place… and then it’s attempted to draw viewers into Xaro Xhoan Daxos’s political maneuvering, his bloody coup. Not only does this leave Daenerys purely as an observer, but it leaves the audience bemused: why should we care, after all? Neither Xaro nor Qarth itself can really sell the coup as anything genuinely important — it’s merely an obstacle thrown out in front of Daenerys, one that doesn’t seem to particularly tie into any sort of character development for her.
Matters aren’t helped by Dany’s scene with Jorah, which was simply all over the place in terms of her character. Clearly, she’s great stressed and doesn’t know what to do without her “children”… but the leap to questioning Jorah and his desire for her to trust him seemed to come from nowhere, to be something that was never really developed. Indeed, the question of trust basically never comes up before this point. Why bring this element in now, instead of later on where there’d be more build-up and supportably context? Why have Daenerys swing from grief to wild accusation and back to grief with little reason? I’m not sure what could have been done differently, but this scene felt like it could have used one or two more drafts to really get at the heart of Daenerys’s motivation, and perhaps to see if there were some other problem than the question of trust that might have been thrown out there without contradicting.
A return to form? Certainly, despite the problems and the very real concern that is the Qarth storyline as thoroughly revised by the writers. It’s interesting to note that at our forum’s episode poll this one isn’t quite matching the best of the season. Last year, the back four episode proved to be among the most popular, so it will be interesting to see if episodes eight through ten (especially the last two of those) will reach the same highs as “The Pointy End”, “Baelor”, and “Fire and Blood”. Next week, we’ll discuss “The Prince of Winterfell”, an episode that promises to be heavy on Theon Greyjoy’s dilemmas in Winterfell.