As was the case last season, episode eight of season two of "Game of Thrones," "The Prince of Winterfell" was all about the calm before the storm. A chance to catch the breath, and flesh out some of the characters before things kick off. Stannis Barratheon closes in on King's Landing, Theon Greyjoy clings to Winterfell as repercussions get nearer, Jon Snow is in the hands of the wildlings, Arya Stark is escaping from Casterley Rock, and Jamie Lannister is on his way to be exchanged for the Stark girls. That's the plan, anyway. Not a lot actually happened this time around — this was one of the shuffle-the-pieces around episodes. Which is fine, but it did feel a little like filler in places.
Probably the biggest development came in Robb Stark's camp. It seems that last week's cliffhanger with Catelyn in Jamie's cage was something of a fake out; without telling her son, she's let Jamie go, sending him off with Brienne of Tarth to be exchanged for her two daughters. Of course, she's seemingly unaware that 1) only one daughter is actually at King's Landing, 2) the city is about to come under siege by Stannis, and 3) Cersei is a massive bitch, and will probably take Jamie, and keep Sansa. But if the viewers were angry at Catelyn's stupidity, her son was doubly so, even putting her under armed guard (in part to placate disquiet in his camp). Robb's been on a good run of late, but he's at his lowest ebb: or he would be, were it not for him declaring his love (reciprocated) to his lovely nurse lady Talisa, the two making love on the floor (and fulfilling the HBO nudity quotient that's been surprisingly lacking for the last couple of episodes. They're a sweet couple, but we can't see this ending well, particularly as the writers keep reminding us how he's betrothed to the daughter of the janitor from the "Harry Potter" films.
Meanwhile, it sadly seems that the chats between Tywin Lannister and Arya Stark are done — Tywin's left his castle for battle, just as Arya was about to order his death. But any loss we feel at the lack of the scenes that have been some of the second season's finest was compensated for by Arya continuing to be a total pre-teen badass, forcing Jaqen to help her and her friends escape by ordering him to take his own life. From the looks of her face early one, it sounds like she'll be heading to try and meet up with Robb, but best laid plans and all that.
Meanwhile, Theon (who's virtually had more screen time than anyone else this season) continues to find himself in a deep hole of his own making: his sister arrives, and rather than congratulating him, she tells him that his father's upset at his move, ordering him back to court, and that it was stupid to take the land-locked Winterfell when the Greyjoy's strength is at sea. The show fleshes out the relationship nicely between Theon and his sister: she's previously mostly been smirking, but she shows a little love for her brother, even as she continues to demonstrate why Theon is ill-suited for leadership, or pretty much anything else. That's something hammered home in the final moments: as we suspected, Bran and Robb Stark are alive and well, and are actually hiding away inside Winterfell itself. Perhaps not the safest place for them, but with Theon's position increasingly perilous, we can't see that revelation going particularly well for him.
Brothers and sisters also clashed in King's Landing, with the simmering hatred between Cersei and Tyrion finally coming to a head: Tyrion wants King Joffrey to lead his men into battle (something that Joffrey wants to, foolishly claiming he'll kill his uncle Stannis), but Cersei wants to protect her son, and has taken insurance, kidnapping and threatening to torture her brother's courtesan lover. She's definitely found his weakness, but she's made one crucial mistake: she's got the wrong whore, with Shae, Tyrion's true love, safe at home, and poor Ros the one in captivity. It's clear Tyrion aims to rescue Ros, but at the same time, Cersei's trump card isn't quite what she wants it to be.
Elsewhere, things were brief: Jon kept marching with the wildlings, led by a man in a skull mask, Stannis and Davos cropped up after a couple of episodes, and Daenerys… well, Daenerys was there, but didn't really have anything to do, which after the last episode's dramatic events, felt like a severe anti-climax. Her plotline's been much weaker this year, in part, we suspect, because there's simply less for her to do in the source material. We don't know how long it takes dragons to grow, but if we have to put up with several seasons of her hanging around Qarth, we're going to start getting pretty bored with all of it.
We suspect that things will really kick off next week, but again, we do wish that we'd seen more of Stannis in the last few episodes: we keep being told that there's a threat coming, but we haven't seen much of it. As for now, we appreciated the fleshing out of the world and backstory, and there were many entertaining scenes (Peter Dinklage had a pretty great episode — his look as he sees that Cersei has Ros, not Shae, was typically brilliant acting). But it's unlikely to figure anywhere near the highlights of the season when one looks back. [B-]
Bits & Pieces
– Next week should be the blockbuster: the episode's written by the writer of the books, George R. R. Martin, and directed by big-screen helmer Neil Marshall ("The Descent," "Centurion"), brought on for his action experience. So it sounds like we might get a battle for once.
– As for this episode, it was directed by Alan Taylor, who also took the first and second episodes, and helms the finale. That's likely to be his last contribution to the show in the near future; he's going to direct "Thor 2" for Marvel at the end of this year.
– Are you an arthouse fan who recognizes Shae? That's because she's played by Sybil Kekilli, the German-Turkish actress who starred in Fatih Akin's "Head On." The actress caused a stir around that time when tabloids revealed that she had a past in bona-fide porn movies.
– Oona Chaplin, who plays Robb's lady-friend, has a decidedly more wholesome background: the British-Spanish actress is the daughter of Geraldine Chaplin, and the granddaughter of Charlie Chaplin. She's racking up the prestigious TV credits quickly: she plays Dominic West's wife on "The Hour," and turned up in "Sherlock" as well.
– Gosh, the c-word got a lot of use this week, didn't it? Best use: "Why are all the gods such vicious cunts? Where are the gods of tits and wine?"
– Fantasy Joffrey death of the week: Ros escapes, finds that mace he forced her to use on her friend a few weeks back, and goes to town on him.