Moving the grand narrative forward incrementally as well as (as far as I can tell) addressing long-standing mysteries in the show’s past, “First of His Name” sees “Game of Thrones” narrow the gap somewhat between its writing and directing, with director Michelle MacLaren returning for her second consecutive week and a greatly improved script by showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss. If anything, MacLaren slipped up a bit in the episode’s climactic action sequence, but before we get there, there’s the rest of the episode to discuss.
The episode’s title alludes to the coronation of King Tommen, perhaps “the first king in 50 years to truly deserve the throne,” such a decent kid one can’t help but wonder what hideous fate awaits him, given that regicide seems to be the primary means by which the Westerosi entertain themselves in the absence of HBO throughout the realm. His future is the topic of a cagey, superficially friendly chat between Margaery and Cersei in which Cersei suggests that Margaery marry Tommen, leaving Margaery to pretend she hadn’t just sneaked into Tommen’s bedchamber and incepted him with fever dreams of conjugal bliss. MacLaren, though, establishes a tense undertone for the scene with the very first shot, a lovely bit of blocking whereby the flirtatious glance Margaery and Tommen share from across the throne room is interrupted by Cersei walking into frame and staking out her ground between the two.
In Essos, a check-in with Danaerys after her conquest of Meeren finds that the subsequent necessity of ruling is proving more difficult. The room in which she discusses options with her advisors neatly parallels its counterparts in Kings’ Landing, and indeed almost feels like it takes place there (which it does, in a poetic sense; the problems of rulers are fundamentally the same the world over). Having received word of Joffrey’s death, they discuss the possibility of invading Westeros, which Danaerys ultimately decides is just out of reach, especially with the domestic situation at Slaver’s Bay. Rather than move on, the Khaleesi decides to halt her forward progress and rule the lands she’s already taken, in yet another step in her political maturation. Which, of course, only makes her more scary.
Which, of course, brings us to the Eyrie, where Littlefinger arrives with Sansa, whom he passes off as his niece to all but Lisa Arryn and her son Robert (whom she seems to have weaned, at the tender age of approximately 10). Benioff and Weiss very politely provide viewers who may not remember Lisa’s last appearance from a couple seasons ago with a large, artfully conveyed pile of exposition reminding us that a) she and Littlefinger are planning to marry (a brief aside: Benioff and Weiss make numerous self-aware references in this episode to how awfully weddings usually turn out in Westeros, with this being one of the subtler yet most satisfying ones), b) she’s Sansa’s late mother’s sister, c) she’s perhaps Westeros’ most overtly crazy person, and d) in spite of her cloying hospitality toward her niece, Lisa is deeply jealous and distrustful of Sansa, and poses almost as significant a threat to her as the Lannisters.
The longer one watches “Game of Thrones,” the more one gradually begins to appreciate the tragedy of Sansa Stark. Sophie Turner’s doing a wonderful job with the character’s subtleties, adding to that feeling. Less subtle is the way Charles Dance can transubstantiate exposition scenes into these glorious morsels of stern, iron-fisted aristocratic Britishness, and the brief scene with Cersei whose functionality is simply to remind the audience of the looming threat of foreclosure by the Iron Bank of Braavos and the necessity of (literally) getting in bed with the Tyrells to forestall same is no exception. Rather than being bored by being told the same thing for about the third time this season, the effect is savoring the experience, as well as realizing, “Ah, so this is why Cersei was so friendly earlier to Margaery, whom she loathes.”
Cersei, appropriately, has a line that sums up what’s increasingly becoming one of the show’s central themes during a chat with the beguiling Oberyn Martell, who’s hosting Cersei’s only daughter at his estate in Dorne, after he assures her, “We don’t hurt little girls in Dorne.” Her reply: “Everywhere in the world they hurt little girls.” Cersei’s delivery of the line is as a deeply felt lament — the entire episode sees her ache wearily — but it could be read as a justification of the show’s depiction of violence toward girls and women on the writer’s part, if one were feeling particularly cynical. For my part, I see it as textual indicator that Benioff and Weiss, and transitively George R.R. Martin, are at the very least not depicting these horrors for their own entertainment, but as horrors. Whether that depiction works is a discussion for another day.
After a couple more check-in sequences, with the always entertaining Arya/Hound road trip and the beginnings of Brienne’s misadventures with Podrick, it’s time for this episode’s dose of graphic violence, at where else but Craster’s Keep, at which Jon Snow’s raiding party has arrived. After the ambiguous Locke reconnoiters and finds drunken mutineers and the imprisoned Bran, Hodor, Jojen, and Meera, he very curiously lies to Jon Snow about the prisoners, adding the suspense of just what the man who chopped Jaime Lannister’s hand off is planning to do with them to the already heightened tone of the impending raid.
The second-biggest surprise in the chaos that ensues is that, when Locke sneaks off to do whatever he plans to do to Bran, Bran activates his warg powers and has Hodor smash free of his chains and manually remove Locke’s head from his body, ending both the man’s life and nefarious plot. The biggest surprise, however, was how murky the action was. Nighttime action is not the easiest thing in the world to shoot, but MacLaren and cinematographer Robert McLachlan lit the sequence both adequately and evocatively, with vivid hot reds and oranges — not to mention the disconcerting wetness of the swordplay sound design — but the action itself only reveals that actors get considerably less sword training now than they did a generation or two ago. Kit Harrington throws himself enthusiastically into Jon Snow’s heroics with the blade, but his enthusiasm outpaces his physical skill by quite a bit. These things happen: the script called for a huge sword fight, so there needed to be a huge sword fight. Small consolation: Jon Snow’s ultimate resolution of said fight will greatly please aficionados of grisly violence; the skull in which his sword makes its final resting place has both poetic and cathartic value.
“First of His Name” ends up driving its larger point home in a different way. After liberating the women of Craster’s Keep from their second set of oppressors, Jon Snow offers them protection at Castle Black, but the group’s spokeswoman bitterly rejects this, and indirectly calls back to Cersei’s line “Everywhere in the world they hurt little girls” as she decrees that Craster’s Keep be burned to the ground, a symbolic if empty gesture against the omnipresent threat women face from men.
Closing on that fatalistic down note rather than with Jon Snow being the Night’s Watchmen in shining armor and slayer of bad men certainly seems like a clear statement by showrunners Benioff and Weiss that, in spite of the missteps of the last couple weeks, the story they want to tell on the show they’re personally running is not an empty sex-and-violence exploitation-fest. They’re at least trying to address real issues related to the brutality of existence, and as long as their hands are personally on the steering wheel, that’s what the show is going to be. Although “First of His Name” is far from the best episode in the show’s run, it’s an encouraging episode of “Game of Thrones,” one that implies that, though they may necessarily have to take the odd week or two off here and there, when Benioff and Weiss are writing the show, it’s going somewhere worthwhile.
Criticwire Grade: B