If there's anything that unites the golden age of cable drama in the last decade or so, it's the way that their characters — often the ones you're meant to be rooting for — are responsible for some truly terrible, terrible things. On even the best network dramas — "The Good Wife," to name probably the top of the tree right now — the characters are fundamentally good people, who occasionally make mistakes. On cable, it tends to be a question of watching people we like slowly lose their souls via abominable acts, from Tony Soprano and Al Swearengen to Walter White and even Jimmy McNulty.
"Game of Thrones" tracks in a slightly clearer sense of good and evil: the Starks and their allies are pretty much on the side of the angels, while the Lannisters, Tyrion excluded, are very much not. But at the same time, the show's never painted its characters with a single color, and episode seven of season two "A Man Without Honor" was all about giving some of the darker, seemingly irredemable characters a chance to round out, even while they find themselves further and further away from the light.
First among them is Theon Greyjoy, who at the start of the season was a firm ally of Robb Stark. But after returning home to try and win his father over to the Stark cause, he's found himself plotting against his adoptive family, to the point of taking over their home, Winterfell, and in the last episode, messily beheading one of their most faithful servants. He's fallen, and fallen hard, and this time around he's only becoming more and more irredemable: kicking an underling to death, sneering and plotting, and by the end of the episode, displaying the burnt, dismembered bodies of two children who seem to be the youngest Stark kids, Rickon and the crippled Bran.
We suspect that that wasn't really the Stark duo strung up barbecue-style at episode's end: it'd be an odd way of killing off two crucial characters, even for this show, and even if the characters were mostly absent from the latter stages of the episode, there seemed to be enough hints that Theon torched the farm where the children's friends lived, that we're confident Bran and Rickon are alive and kicking. But even so, Theon has killed two children in an incredibly brutal way, and ranks only behind Joffrey in terms of despicable behavior.
And yet it's hard not to feel for him a little. Watching him is reminiscent of that crucial line at the end of "The Social Network" — "it's not that you're an asshole, it's that you're trying so hard to be one." Alfie Allen's really grown as a performer across the second season, and it's clear that his play for villainy is an act: he's way over his head, trying to show his father that he's worthy of his name. He's already paying the price for it, and we suspect that there's much worse to come
Speaking of over their head, there's Cersei Lannister. Her plotting, not to mention her inability not to fuck her own brother, is responsible for virtually everything that's happened across the last season and three quarters, but here, she got a real showcase to demonstrate the why and the wherefores. Poor Sansa Lannister has had her first period, which means she's now able to bear children for the monstrous King Joffrey, and is brought to Cersei for counsel. But the relationship between the two has always been a fascinating one; for all her evil deeds, the Queen Mother was in the exact same position as Cersei herself, marrying a man she didn't love. It's clear the way she's brittled and hardened over the years, telling her young hostage "The more people you love, the weaker you are," and advising her only to love her children, because you have no choice in the matter.
She sees the monster that she's birthed (hammered home in another fine scene with her brother, Tyrion, who otherwise sat the episode out, pretty much), but genes mean she has no choice but to love him anyway. Lena Headey never got much critical acclaim on the big screen, but she's been continually terrific as Cersei (her scenes with King Robert in season one were among the very best), and if she's making a very strong case for Emmy recognition in this episode. And her scene even managed to create a little sympathy for Joffrey, likely driven insane by his inbreeding parents rather than through any fault of his own.
Returning after a long absence was Cersei's brother-lover, Jamie Lannister, who's been trussed up in the Stark camp all season. Thanks to the arrival of a cousin, we finally got some nice character development, and some plot movement: Jamie reminds us that he's still a ruthless son-of-a-bitch by bashing in his cousin's head, then throttling a guard to escape. But his scheme didn't work, and he's back in a worse position than he ever was before, the Starks' men baying for his blood. With Robb away gallivanting with the nurse he's been flirting with for the last few episodes, it comes down to Catlyn to administer some justice, left alone with him in the closing episodes. We can't imagine that he'll be killed, given his piece as a bargaining chip, but it's not looking so great for him these days.
We also got further development in the Lannister family as Catlyn's daughter Arya continues to serve, and impress, patriarch Tywin, who got to fill out a little of the history of the seven Kingdoms, even as he looks for the infiltrator in his camp. We could honestly watch a "Community"-style "My Dinner With Andre" homage starring only these two characters for an entire episode: they've been written and performed to a tee. But we suspect things are about to shift drastically there too: Tywin's starting to cotton on to his young cup-bearer's identity, and he's certainly underestimating her, especially as he doesn't realize that she's got one more favor from a master assassin to call in.
Away from the Lannisters and the Greyjoys, things weren't quite so strong in this episode. Jon Snow's snowy adventures continue to feel like biding their time, with no clear end-game in sight. The performance of Rose Leslie as his seductive wildling captive has lifted things no end (she's pretty much speaking for the whole audience when telling Jon "God, you're dull"), but it's still been a little repetitive, particularly in an episode where the storyline featured so heavily. Perhaps the payoff will be worth it all, but it seems eminently fast-forwardable so far.
Also taking a slightly questionable turn were events in Qarth, where Daenerys discovered that her benefactor and suitor Xaro Xhoan Daxos has been plotting with the Richard O'Brien-looking warlock guy to take her dragons. While the power play and murder of the ruling council of the city was a neat move, it's also been a relatively obvious one, and the whole thing, right down to the teleporting villain, has started to feel like something out of "Krull" more than the rest of the series (to say nothing of the sinister masked lady, who just looks kind of silly). Again, we hope a payoff is coming, ideally a fiery dragon-powered one, but this week's excursion was a little unsatisfying.
It also feels like the writers lost sense of the general narrative sweep this time around in favor of juggling the characters. The war for the throne seems to be biding its time, and we've now not seen Stannis Baratheon, who's sailing towards King's Landing with a mighty fleet, and possibly a shadow-vagina monster, for a couple of episodes. We got a tossed-off reference to him arriving in five days, but any tension about it seems to have been squandered a little; no one seems terribly concerned about him, and losing track of him for a couple of episodes hasn't helped. It says something about how strong the show is across the board that an episode without him (or indeed stand-out character Tyrion, for the most part) can still be mostly satisfying, but we know we'd have swapped time with either of them for Jon Snow trudging through the tundra. Not a terrible episode then, and with only three left in the season, we suspect things are about to get really crazy. But this was more about shifting the chess pieces about then any major moves. [B]
Bits And Pieces
– Perhaps our favorite bit of acting this week came from veteran Donald Sumpter, as Maester Luwin; his anguished cry when the burned corpses were revealed was a heartbreaker. Sumpter's got credits going back to "Sunday Bloody Sunny," but he's been a highly familiar figure in Hollywood fare of late, thanks to the likes of "The Constant Gardener," "Eastern Promises" and "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo."
– Yes, that is Finchy from the original U.K. version of "The Office," aka actor Ralph Ineson, as Theon's right-hand man. He was also on the dark side as Death-Eater Amycus Carrow in the last few "Harry Potter" movies.
– Budget limitations are always going to be an issue for a show of this kind of scope, but our main thought when it came to those charcoal-y corpses was how fake they looked, rather than horror at the possible death of children.
– We have to confess we cheered a little when Daenerys told Xaro as he launched into another rags-to-riches story "I don't care where you've been." Another moment of meta-commentary.
– Writing credits this time around go to showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, while this was the second of two episodes in a row directed by David Nutter. The latter's directed virtually every TV series around after getting his start on "21 Jump Street."
– Joffrey fantasy death of the week: Vic Mackey from "The Shield" locks him and Theon in a container overnight, and they kick each other to death.