(The eighth and final season of Game of Thrones debuts on April 14th, marking the beginning of the end for HBO’s cultural touchstone. Over the years, we’ve covered all 67 episodes of the series, and are revisiting those original reviews in our new retrospective series titled, “Winter is Coming”. We’re pulling these straight from our vacuum sealed digital time capsules, so step into the virtual time machine with us and read our impressions from way back! With the benefit of hindsight, there is plenty of reasons these reviews will raise some eyebrows)
As in last week’s “The Ghost of Harrenhal,” Game of Thrones once again explores just about every corner of its world over the course of a single installment; the result, however, is a little more uneven this time around.
“The Old Gods and the New” opens with one of its strongest sequences. With Theon having quite suddenly taken Winterfell with his “skeleton crew,” Bran Stark is once again tested. The young leader’s early scene with Theon is wonderfully written and acted, with the boy quickly cutting to the heart of Theon’s betrayal, making clear just how arbitrary their conflict is. The execution of Ser Rodrik is bloody and brutal, but the sloppy work Theon employs in the simple task of removing the spiteful man’s head speaks perfectly to Theon’s tenuous grasp on the situation at large. (It also can’t help but recall a certain decapitation-centric conversation from the Spartacus: Vengeance finale: cutting off someone’s head with a single blow takes practice!)
“The Old Gods and the New” thrills at King’s Landing, but stumbles beyond the Wall
And then we’re far north, beyond the Wall, with Jon Snow and his fellow Night’s Watchmen. It’s a setting we return to several times over the course of the hour, and it turns out to be a real momentum-killer, for a few reasons. First, there’s the general issue with the Night’s Watch crew and their isolation, plot-wise; yes, Dany and the horde are off in a distant land far from the battlefield, too, but Dany is very clearly on a (eventual, distant) warpath aimed at the Iron Throne. The offensive against the Wildlings allows for extended looks at some extremely picturesque wintry vistas but doesn’t yet connect to the show’s master conflicts in any meaningful way at this juncture. That might not matter if what was on offer here was particularly compelling, but Jon Snow’s little sojourn with a fetching lass named Ygritte (Rose Leslie) seriously lacks in urgency compared to the rest of the episode.
Contrast those scenes, for instance, with a bravura sequence that takes place at King’s Landing. Building on the civil unrest introduced in previous episodes, the city seems on the verge of a full-scale riot this week, with Joffrey’s violent reaction to getting a (viewer-satisfying) heap of cowshit to the face nearly getting Sansa gang-raped and murdered. (Her rescue at the hands of The Hound is a satisfying bit of follow-through on his longstanding – and seemingly innocent, if that’s possible in Martin’s universe – affection for the girl.) And who’s expect another Tyrion-Joffrey smackdown so soon? It seems very likely that Tyrion will pay for his insolence next week, but for now, we can all delight in the little King’s defeated face as he cowers helplessly, perhaps feeling something close to shame for the very first time in his wretched little existence. (It’s likely, however, that he lacks the requisite perspective for that sort of basic human response.)
The Dany/Qarth scenes can’t compete in terms of intensity, but the episode-ending twist is a potent one. After her attempt to negotiate with and/or threaten the Spice King (the hilariously decadent Nicholas Blane) falls flat, she returns to find all of her men (save for the unaccounted-for Jorah Mormont) murdered and her dragons gone. The notion of Dany fighting back against those who stand in her way without the aid of the mighty Doth’raki horde is a fascinating one and holds great promise for next week. Hopefully, similar gains can be arranged beyond the Wall, as well.