"Oathkeeper,” the fourth episode of "Game of Thrones"' fourth season, has the burden of last week to overcome, an episode instantly notorious for a scene departing from the original source material where, on the show, Jaime Lannister abruptly and without any reason at all, raped his sister/love of his life Cersei as she held their dead son's hand. This week's installment also departs quite a bit from the books, and text-wise seems as though it's trying to top that scene in terms of gross shock value.
What keeps it from solely being that is Michelle MacLaren's direction. The Canadian TV veteran achieved cult status for her work directing some of the more memorable episodes of "Breaking Bad," and joined "Game of Thrones"' directing rotation last season. What makes her work so notable is less ostentatious flash -- although she's certainly capable of composing astonishingly huge shots, both in physical size and dramatic impact -- than that every shot and cut has a distinct purpose, and every choice serves the narrative. (It would not minimize her other accomplishments in the slightest if the last scene in "Oathkeeper," in which the White Walkers make an appearance, went down as her career apex, as she's the first director on "Game of Thrones" who's managed, through a combination of well-chosen angles and manipulation of focus, to make them not look stupid.)
In terms of event, "Oathkeeper" is the standard mid-season table-setting "Game of Thrones" episode, where the writers check in with characters we didn't see last week, push the story incrementally closer to the season's climax, and do their best to hide the fact that what's taking place is largely wheel-spinning. There's a certain amount of slack "Game of Thrones" fans agree to cut the show in this regard, though that amount varies individually, mid-season is when if someone's going to bail on the show, they will.
The episode picks up immediately after the last one leaves off, with Daenerys' attack on Meereen. Grey Worm, after a language lesson/subtle flirtation with the Queen's translator Missandei, sneaks the Unsullied into the city in the dead of night and arm the city's slaves -- not just with blades, but rhetoric -- leading to a brutally efficient and successful coup. Daenerys, advised to show mercy by Ser Barristan, instead "fight[s] injustice with justice," nailing the exact number of defeated "masters" to crosses on the road approaching the city as those masters had previously nailed slaves.
A beautiful pull out from a triumphant Daenerys segues back to Westeros, where Bronn is continuing his pragmatic sword fighting lessons with the not-yet-fluently-left-handed Jaime. Bronn, ever loyal to Tyrion, urges Jaime to visit his imprisoned brother, which he does, in a scene where for the first time in the history of the show a sense of the two as brothers is conveyed, courtesy of some lovely acting by Peter Dinklage and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau.
The next scene, where Jaime goes to speak to an enraged, drunk Cersei about his visit with Tyrion, is where a problem of continuity is introduced. This is, in practical terms -- in terms of the show that actually exists -- the first time the two have met since Jaime raped Cersei. This is important to mention because in the show the writers -- and certainly George R.R. Martin --planned, this would be the first time they met after having creepy, yet nominally consensual, incest sex, which is a radically different thing. It affects not only their relationship, but the entire way the audience (or, more bleakly, the audience that cares) views Jaime. It's pretty clear from the fierce interest MacLaren's camera takes in Jaime, and from his interaction with Brienne later after he knights her and sends her off with Podrick to protect Sansa with the Valyrian sword Brienne names "oathkeeper," that the writers, and MacLaren, were not a party to any decision to make Jaime evil again; indeed, from all accounts it seems as though that wasn't a decision at all, merely an atrociously insensitive bit of direction by episode three director Alex Graves. That mistake annoyingly intrudes on some lovely filmmaking, not to mention the story.
A neatly constructed series of scenes follows in which, first, Littlefinger confesses his role in Joffrey's murder to Sansa, without telling her the identity of his accomplice, although after a quick edit hinting that it's so, a pleasant conversation between Margaery and Olenna concludes with the latter confessing to the former, adding, "I couldn't let you marry [him]." The upshot of that conversation, pertaining to Margaery's fate to seemingly be a professional fiancee to kings and aspirants, is a scene that pulls off some heretofore unknown balance between creepy and adorable where the decidedly adult Margaery sneaks into Joffrey's younger brother and King Manque Tommen's bedchamber and not-entirely-chastely seduces the lad. While it's certainly true that the only reason such a scene could even be broadcast legally derives from archaic, discriminatory gender constructs, it's just as true that Tommen's reaction shots where he processes the idea of conjugal relations with Margaery are some of the funniest things to ever appear on "Game of Thrones."
Comedy's in short supply once we shift our focus northward, where Jon Snow is dealing both with encroaching Wildlings and a commander jealous of his popularity among the Night's Watch, especially after he manages to recruit a significant number of volunteers for the raid on Craster's Keep. However, even within that force there's the problematic element of Locke, whose previous appearances in season three spoke to an agenda not entirely in line with Jon Snow's (no shortage of people would have hesitated at chopping Jaime Lannister's hand off, but he did not appear, even by heavily diminished Westerosi standards, to be a nice guy).
At Craster's Keep we find some truly nasty pieces of work, though, in the mutinous remnants of the Night's Watch left behind way back at the beginning of season three. Drinking out of Jeor Mormont's skull, sexually assaulting Craster's wives because they can, killing babies, these scenes -- bookending the first bit of business Bran has had that's been relevant to the narrative at large since season one, it seems -- almost could have been written as anti-"Game of Thrones" satire by its detractors. The show often walks a tightrope with its sexual and violent content, not to mention, as Christopher Guest put it in "This is Spinal Tap," "between clever and stupid," and the Craster's Keep sequence in "Oathkeeper" doesn't keep its balance very well. It's pointlessly ugly, employs cheap stakes-raising techniques (all the worse that they involve Bran, Hodor, and the Twins) that should be beneath a show of "Game of Thrones's" ambitions. It's only in the very end, when the White Walkers not only make an appearance but reveal heretofore unknown nuance, that the show regains its footing, although the stark, precise majesty of MacLaren's staging of that scene only makes the preceding few minutes seem cheaper and more pointless by comparison.
To close on a similarly up note as the episode, it's rare that "Game of Thrones" has two consecutive episodes that stall for time as much as "Oathkeeper" does, so it's likely that next week's will prove more eventful. MacLaren's back to direct, and hopefully Benioff and Weiss' teleplay will be more worthy of her talents.
Criticwire Grade: C