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Review: ‘Game of Thrones’ Keeps The Violence Off Screen As Battles Build

The word for this week? Anti-climax.

Gwendoline Christie as Brienne of Tarth

HBO

LAST WEEK’S REVIEW: ‘Game of Thrones’ Spotlights Some Subplots — And What It Takes to Survive

Every week this season, Indiewire will be bringing you a unique collection of viewpoints on “Game of Thrones,” as it is a show that elicits a unique sort of reactions. Our writers are well-versed in the world of the show and the culture surrounding it, and we look forward to seeing how their opinions fare in the cutthroat world of Westeros… Sorry, that is, the cutthroat world of television criticism.

What Happened This Week?

Much of the episode was a continuation of storylines. The Hound continued his quest for vengeance against the Brotherhood Without Banners jerks who slaughtered his friends last week (rest in peace, Ian McShane), which ended with some relative sort of partnership between him and the actual Brotherhood. Though Sandor Clegane has never been much of a team player, so we’ll see how long that lasts.

Meanwhile, Cersei learns that her plan for escaping judgement by the High Sparrow won’t work out, because trial-by-combat — honestly, not that great a system for justice — has just been disbanded by her son the king. And Meereen falls under siege… but Daenerys returns, so maybe things will be okay there?

Beyond those walls — Jaime manages to retake Riverrun with some offscreen violence that reportedly slays the Blackfish (this week is full of similar off-screen violence). But he also lets Brienne and Podrick sail away to reunite with Sansa. Technically Brienne failed in her mission to enlsit the remaining Tullys in the Stark family crusade, but she did succeed in reminding us how much we wanted her and Jaime to hook up, back in the day.

Finally, Arya might have begun the episode recuperating from getting stabbed a whole bunch last week, but by the end of the hour she’s not only killed the Waif (who was sent after her because she refused to kill her target) but informed Jaqen H’ghar that she’s heading home. Godspeed, Arya, as you return to Westeros. What could possibly go wrong there?

This Table-Setting Needed More Meat

Essie Davis and Maisie Williams in "Game of Thrones."

Essie Davis and Maisie Williams in “Game of Thrones.”

HBO

Another episode of mostly table-setting. I generally don’t mind that, but every so often you get a clunker, like this one, that simply falls short. The Arya plotline, which has taken up way too much time and could be seen coming a mile away, finally limps into its conclusion. They’ve unwisely turned Arya into something like a superhero, with the way she survives those grievous stab wounds and is still able to run and jump and fight without any impairment. This whole storyline feels like a missed opportunity, and the best thing that can be said about it is that it’s finally over.

The non-Arya portions of the episode also felt lackluster. Do we really care about the disposition of Riverrun? Did the fate of the Tullys need to be seen on screen at all? If that whole plotline existed simply to engineer another meeting between Jaime and Brienne, could it have been done more economically? Even the return of Daenerys was anti-climactic.

It’s the small things that I appreciated in this episode, like Faye Marsay auditioning to be the next Terminator, and the return of Beric, Thoros and the Brotherhood. The incredulous look on Lancel’s face after the Mountain ripped off his comrade’s head was a lovely piece of performance.  And every scene between Jaime and Brienne sings — plus, it’s great to hear that Bronn totally ships it.

So while table-setting is important and necessary, I wish this one had more meat. Or even chicken, the way Sandor likes.

Grade: C

— Jay Bushman, Award-Winning Multiplatform Writer/Producer (@jaybushman)

A Brutal Amuse Bouche

Eugene Simon as Lancel Lannister

Eugene Simon as Lancel Lannister

HBO

Was this a brutal amuse bouche to prepare our palates for the battle to come in Episode 9? While The Hound and Mountain’s beatdowns were played alternately for cringes and laughs (the “Oh shit” expression on Lancel’s face!), they also reminded us what is at stake — not swordplay, not dragons, not thrones, but lives. Even the seemingly kind actress, Lady Crane, showed just how casual violence is in her comment, “She’ll have a hard time finding work as an actress after what I did to her face.” Chills.

What felt less geniune and more hurried, however, was how other stories were resolved. My suspension of disbelief was stretched micron-thin when it came to Arya’s health post-stabbing. No amount of Crane’s medieval doctoring would have allowed Arya to be able to stand, much less parkour all over Braavos. Similarly, Jaime and the Blackfish’s posturing came to nothing. The “siege” of Riverrun petered out in such an anticlimactic way, I wonder at the point of the whole plot, except to provide entertaining pairings on screen.

Those pairings were the highlights of the tonally erratic episode: Tyrion and Missandei/Grey Worm; Bronn and Pod; Brienne and Jaime. These excellent moments of dialogue and acting remind me why I want more episodes: “Game of Thrones” doesn’t need more action scenes, but it needs more time to let its characters breathe. Why we like Tyrion so damn much is that he gets to be Tyrion — a drinker, an enabler, a talker, and “the most famous dwarf in the world.”

Grade: C+

— Hanh Nguyen, Contributor: The Hollywood Reporter, LA Weekly, GameSpot, Tech Republic (@hanhonymous)

READ MORE: ‘Game of Thrones’: Ian McShane Reveals Why He Was Cast In His Dramatic & Pivotal Role

“How do love and violence motivate each other, and prevent each other?”

Faye Marsay in "Game of Thrones."

Faye Marsay in “Game of Thrones.”

Macall B. Polay/HBO

On a day of horrific violence in our own world — violence of deed, first and most obviously, but also word and thought — it was a little hard to gear up for an hour of imaginary brutality. And, after last week, that’s what I was expecting from this week’s episode: a good old Westerosi blood bath. So perhaps I should find myself disconcerted by how completely transporting, almost reparative, I found this episode of “Game of Thrones”? But reader: I am not sorry, today, about being mesmerized by an amazing hour of television.  And indeed: “No One” was, to my mind, nearly perfect: a transfixing mix of story and action, strategy and spectacle.

Although there was a lot of blood — spilt by the Hound’s axe, and the Waif’s knife — the show also pulled back enough to make us think about violence, its different ways and means, the ways it is and isn’t personalized and “civilized” and exacerbating by our actions. Is Jaime more or less cruel, the show asks, when he (nearly) bloodlessly takes a castle, after threatening to murder a baby? How do love and violence motivate each other, and prevent each other? These are real questions, and “No One” asked them through story — making that, in itself, a sort of comfort. What I’m saying is that, unlike the last two episodes, “No One” was smart about what it makes happen, and how: smart enough to make conversation swell with the force of what’s happening in hearts and (with Arya, with the Blackfish, with Dany’s dragon) off stage. White walkers are riveting and battles are badass, but “No One” is “Game of Thrones” in its most compelling pocket: parsing the hard choices humans make about how to balance the existence of brutality with the pursuit of home.

Grade: A

— Sarah Mesle, Senior Humanities Editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books (@sunsetandecho)

Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson as The Mountain and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson as The Mountain and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

HBO

Real Talk About Watching Murder

For me, the one thing which has separated “Game of Thrones” from sword and sorcery fare like “Lord of the Rings” can be summed up in a single word. Brutality.

In the world of “GOT,” heroes usually wind up with their head on a pike. There are few last-minute saves by magic. And when combat comes, it usually involves lots of blood and screams and ugliness. We saw this, once again, in savage detail in Sunday’s episode, where The Mountain finally lived up to his name by ripping the head off a religious fanatic stupid enough to test him, and The Hound delivered the retribution we expected for Brother Ray’s massacre, burying his hatchet in the heads of several deserving laggards.

I’ve always felt this was a message of sorts. In the “LOTR” films, thousands of soldiers clash with no blood shown. Most of those we see get skewered or beheaded are nameless Orcs who already look like the bad side of a traffic accident. The violence is antiseptic in a way, and visited most often on those who seem to deserve it. In contrast, GOT makes you feel the deaths in a way that is jarring, visceral and more realistic; a statement, perhaps, that we should consider every death we see in this world, despite its brutality.

But a close friend who is Canadian reminded me that this is still glorifying violence in a way. And as I took a break from mainlining coverage of the mass shooting in Orlando to catch this latest “GOT” episode, I couldn’t help wondering if my friend from across the border had a point.

Story-wise, it was frustrating to see, once again, that Cersei seemed to get outmaneuvered by the High Sparrow (though I’m wondering if the rumor she was whispering about involved some priestly infidelity of some sort). And it was gratifying to see Arya finally find her mojo and kick ass to win her freedom — in a sequence that might have been much more bloody but wasn’t, I’ll note.

But at a time when mass shootings are so common we have grown used to seeing our President speak out about them, I’m also beginning to question where America’s culture of violence is truly rooted. And the violence in Sunday’s episode left me wondering: Is the gore it takes to make modern TV audiences feel a death really worth it?

Grade: B-

— Eric Deggans, TV Critic, NPR (@deggans)

Summation

For fans of the show, this episode was enjoyable enough — but we’re not tuning in every week for the offscreen action. Hopefully, this is the end of that dry spell.

Final Grade: B

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