Game of Thrones: “The Old Gods and the New” Review

This was either the best Game of Thrones episode yet… or the absolute worst, depending on who you ask. For me? It’s somewhere in the middle. Great start—possibly the best start yet—but finished with one of the most wasteful endings I’ve ever seen on this show. I’m a little deflated. But I’ll get to my thoughts in a sec.

If you thought this episode was the best ever… well, you may not have read the books.

If it was the worst

Well, then you’re a book purist of the most anal-retentive sort who deserves only the kind of death usually reserved for stoic older men with fabulous mutton chops.

Because seriously? This one may have strayed the furthest afield of any Game of Thrones episode yet. But oh, as far as compelling television goes, it was meaty.

(Insert The Soup sound bite: “Mm, meaty!”)

“The Old Gods and the New,” written by Vanessa Taylor and directed by David Nutter, had some truly great moments. The writing was crackling good, filled with some fantastic dialogue; Taylor has improved leaps and bounds, for me, from her tepid episode 3 debut. And Nutter (known more for Entourage, though I really loved his work on The Pacific) really knows how to draw us into a scene. The transitions were great, and the pace was up to Game of Thrones standards, which is to say breakneck and breathtaking.

We opened right in the middle of—or really, at the tail end of—Theon’s invasion of Winterfell.

“I’ve taken Winterfell. I took it. I’m occupying Winterfell,” Theon (Alfie Allen) told Bran (Isaac Hempstead-Wright), apparently thinking that by saying it over and over again it would somehow justify the act.

(Somewhere out there, the #OccupyWesteros hashtag on Twitter did a gleeful little summersault.)

Theon gathered the people of Winterfell into the courtyard and—Holy Hell, is that all the people they have left? Talk about bare bones. What are there, like… nineteen people remaining? No wonder Theon took the castle so easily. He’s lucky Old Nan isn’t still around (R.I.P. Margaret John) or he’d have had a real fight on his hands.

“It grieves me that you’ve less honor than a back-alley whore,” Ser Rodrick (Ron Donachie) said, before spitting in Theon’s smarmy face. And then, in perhaps his greatest act, the old master-at-arms reassured the Stark children that he was going to see their father. Donachie was great, and if he’s ever been under-appreciated before, well, let that be no more. What an exit.

Hell, everyone was great. Donald Sumpter as Maester Luwin, attempting to be soothing as a voice of reason while fighting quiet desperation … and my god, I already knew what was going to happen, but Isaac Hempstead-Wright made me tear up. And I almost never tear up.

Way to go, kid. Make a grown man cry.

This was like a frickin’ acting, directing, visual, musical clinic. They should make viewing this bloody scene mandatory in film school, and just title it “How To Do It.”

Lastly, how good is Alfie Allen? Screaming at Luwin as though screaming at his own conscience, staggering after that last blow to Ser Rodrik’s neck (purists rejoice: Theon kicked a severed head!), eyes all freaked out… Seriously, Alfie bloody Allen. What an insanely great choice for Theon. Nina Gold and the showrunners couldn’t have truly known what a diamond-in-the-rough they had in him, right? I want to say they already knew he’d be this good in season 2, but there’s just no way they could have known. Shot in the dark that he’d step up this big.

Submit Theon’s beheading scene to the Emmy voters. Dude might steal one from Peter Dinklage.

North of the Wall, Jon Snow (Kit Harington) finally meets Ygritte (Rose Leslie)… and promptly gets lost in the frozen wilderness with her. I like the chemistry already, and love the fact that Ygritte’s accent is almost exactly the same as Osha’s, the only other wildling we really know.

The logical side of me would argue against Qhorin Halfhand (Simon Baker) leaving Jon alone to kill Ygritte—if it weren’t already there in the book. I should admit to that flaw in any review; I tend to be more lenient of logic hiccups if they were “already in the book.” I guess it is what it is.

Later, we got a rather interesting one-on-one scene between Ygritte and Jon. I guess inauspicious grinding is the wildling way of flirting. Insert any “stick ‘er with the pointy end” or “he doesn’t know where to put it” jokes as needed.

(LOL “insert.”)

At Harrenhal, Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish (Aiden Gillen) joined Lord Tywin (Charles Dance) and his new cupbearer Not-Arya (Maisie Williams). Yes, I too did note how quickly Baelish seemed to travel from the Stormlands to the Riverlands. Perhaps he was spurred by curiosity to look upon the plot of burnt land Tyrion had (briefly) promised him?

In all seriousness, I’d like to take a moment to discuss the passage of time on this show—something that I think is hard for some people to get their heads around. I’ve read various comments about how certain characters tend to get from point A to point Z with seemingly ludicrous amounts of speed (they’ve gone plaid!)…

But the truth is, a lot of time does pass. Not just in-between episodes, but during them. (What the hell else accounts for these kids growing up so fast, eh?) The show doesn’t feel compelled to tell us exactly how much time has passed between any given scene, but I’ll note that it also doesn’t seem to note days, weeks, or months aloud. Even the seasons are stretched, so in a way, this feels right. We pretty much know one thing: Winter is coming. And that’s it.

Anyway. After Littlefinger scampers off to who-knows-where (and don’t tell me he didn’t recognize Arya—rat bastard has tucked that information away for his own later use, I guarantee it)… Arya and Lord Tywin discuss the merits of reading. The Kingslayer is dyslexic! Who knew?

Arya’s later encounter with Amory Lorch resulted in her using her second “death wish” for Jaqen H’ghar (Tom Wlaschiha)—which begat the funniest death on the show to date.

A man moves quickly!

At King’s Landing, we’re really seeing the results of this shitty Lannister rule. The best part of course being the epic rescue of Sansa (Sophie Turner) by Sandor “The Hound” Clegane (Rory McCann), a show of all-too rare heroics that had every “San/San” ‘shipper squealing and squirming in their Hello Kitty pajamas.

(Personally I think I tend toward being a Sansa/Young Griff ‘shipper, but YMMV.)

This was yet another absolutely perfect scene, and for Sophie Turner especially; I can’t imagine the physical toll that scene took (or how many takes it took), but for me that was more intense and horrifying than Sansa’s public stripping at the hands of Joffrey. Nutter’s direction here was fantastic too; it was almost filmed like something from a very dark, bloody vigilante film. Loved.

Speaking of Joffrey (Jack Gleeson), Game of Thrones hardcores will note Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) got in another epic slap. I guess the challenge now is to loop it to a longer song.

At Robb’s camp we got to spend a little more time with Talisa (Oona Chaplin), who is quickly (or slowly, depending on the passage of time) winning the heart of Robb (Richard Madden).

“I always thought I was a brilliant liar.”

“Better at amputations, really.”

Robb has a nice little sparkle in his eye—Madden glows in even the shortest scenes—and the Volantis-born (?) beauty is an excellent addition to the story, in my opinion (though perhaps not if you’re part of Team Frey).

Back at Winterfell, Osha (Natalia Tena) has convinced Theon she would make a better bed-mate than a spear-wielder. (By the looks of her unclothed I might tend to agree!)

But ah, no one said anything about knives.

Lesson, boys: If you’re making out, playing tonsil-hockey with a randy wildling chick while you’re supposed to be watchful and on duty, and she reaches down toward your belt and grabs something hard on your leg… and you can’t feel it… that’s probably your knife she just snuck from your scabbard and—oops. Another greyshirt bites the dust. First of many, I assume.

(Props to Tena. Don’t know if she’ll take it as a compliment, but… she looks like she’s really good at cutting throats.)

We ended at Qarth, and that’s really where I have my only problem with the episode.

“Hmm, she has a talent for drama, this one,” the Spice King (Nicholas Blane) murmured.

Indeed she does! Quite a bit of drama, and teeth-gnashing, and eye-flaring, and all that. And some people want to take Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) to task for all the “Fire and Blood!” posturing, though I see it as reasonable. Dany is emotional—always has been—and now she’s feeling the weight of expectations. She’s channeling every loss she’s been forced to swallow into her need to return to Westeros, and the nobles of Qarth are really her only option. And they’re stymying her at every turn.

So I’d say she’s understandably miffed. Let’s see how miffed she is after she discovers her dragons have been whisked off to the House of the Undying!

Perhaps as miffed as I was to find poor Irri (Amrita Acharia) dead at the end of the episode.

Now understand, this isn’t a case of book purism. I am perhaps the last person to be accused of that. I love the books, yes, but I applaud any change if it makes the story better. Stealing the dragons? That didn’t happen in the book—and it’s better than the book. Hell yes, motivate Dany more! Feed into the awesomeness we will see in season 3!

In fact, making the show better than the book is tied in with my criticism. Irri is basically devoid of personality in the books, yet the show (and Acharia) strove to make her viable and interesting. Game of Thrones gave her an electric spark of chemistry with Rakharo in season 1, and made his passing in season 2 actually mean something. Rakharo had a farewell scene (two really), and even though he died offscreen, his death had an impact.

Irri? Just laying there like mortified window dressing, her death a rotten cherry on top of the stolen dragon cake. We can’t even expect Dany to be in full mourning for this, because her dragons—her babies—are missing. Dead Irri isn’t even given the chance to be the focus.

Look, I’m not saying every character that develops a nerd following needs some sort of heroic on-screen death. But this was almost disrespectful of the writing and acting that paved the way for this character. The episode wasn’t that long. They could have given us something; perhaps even a final scene: Irri, alone with the dragons… a shadow falls over her… she looks up, surprised—and cut to black.

Something. Anything.

If you’re going to kill a series regular, make something of it. Irri’s death as a throwaway cheapens the fear the show has worked so hard to cultivate—that anyone can die at any time—because it breaks the trust we have in the narrative. You made us care for this character. Don’t suddenly disregard your own hard work.

Anyway. Without that last little jarring bit, this may have been one of the top 5 Game of Thrones episodes, and that’s counting both seasons. Not bad at all for Taylor and Nutter. I can’t stress enough how good this was.

Four more eps left, people! The greatest television show on the air today. Bank it.

If you ‘ship San/San in your Hello Kitty pajamas (or in nothing at all), follow me on Twitter! That’s @Axechucker!