Which isn't to say that there weren't any fantastic moments, because there were (the Theon/Yara scene and Tyrion/Varys exchanges being two standouts), but this week's installments was overflowing with comings and goings... and a hell of a lot of waiting around to see what would happen next.
On the one hand, this is a natural function of the narrative here as preparation are being made by Stannis (Stephen Dillane) and Ser Davos (Liam Cunningham) as they prepare to lay siege to King's Landing with their formidable fleet of ships... while Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) and the small council attempt to fortify the royal city and strategize. In other words: waiting for the inevitable. While it sets up both the inevitable conflict and helps to build tension and a sense of dread, it isn't all that exciting to watch unfold. There's a lot of standing around and pondering what will happen next... which in turn creates similar emotions within the viewer. But rather than ratchet the tension up, "The Prince of Winterfell" kept it sort of humming along, an onion bobbing gently in a still ocean, carried along by a gentle current. We're moving forward... but it's without the crests and troughs of fast-moving waves.
This is the case in much of the storylines glimpsed within "The Prince of Winterfell," which crept the plot along by an inch, rather than a league: Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen) waited for the arrival of his sister Yara (Gemma Whelan), who basically then left as quickly as she came, asking him to return with her to the sea. Brienne of Tarth (Gwendolyn Christie) and Ser Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) set off together as unwilling companions, Brienne ostensibly to rescue the Stark girls by trading them for Jaime, but we saw just the beginning of their journey (they got in a boat!) rather than them in media res, as it were. Jon Snow (Kit Harington) was marched along by the wildlings towards Mance Rayder, but they didn't arrive anywhere, while the men of the Night's Watch continued to wait at the Fist of the First Men. (And wait they did, though the did uncover a hidden cache of dragonglass--or obsidian--wrapped in an old Night's Watch cloak.) Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) and Ser Jorah (Iain Glen) discussed going to the House of the Undying and/or finding a ship and leaving Qarth for Astapor... but they don't actually do either.
Their binary choice--stay or flee, rescue the dragons or forget them--will have to wait until a later episode. And that's how I felt watching much of this week's installment. Decisions delayed, this was an episode of treading water, largely. A lot of set-up for the pay-offs down the road. Even the moment that was intended to shock--the reveal that the Stark boys were alive and hiding in the crypts underneath Winterfell--wasn't all that surprising, even if you hadn't read the books. (Last week, my wife turned to me immediately after Theon unveiled the "corpses" of Bran and Rickon and said, "It's those two boys from the farm." She hasn't read A Clash of Kings and expressed not even one iota of belief that Bran and Rickon had been killed, a possibility I most definitely entertained whilst reading the novel.)
What we're left with here are a few character moments that sparkle all the more for the fact that the episode itself doesn't advance the plot significantly. I loved the Yara/Theon confrontation, in which she admitted that she wanted to strangle him when he was a baby but that when she approached the crib of the bawling Theon, he quieted and smiled at her. It's a small detail but underpins her own efforts to save Theon, to convince him to leave Winterfell and return to the sea. It's also the first time that she includes him among the Ironborn, saying that they are of the sea. But Yara's earlier invective, in which she deems Theon the "Prince of Winterfell," also serves to remind Theon and the audience that the Greyjoy heir is truly a part of neither place: an outsider in both the North and the Iron Islands, fitting in nowhere. By betraying the Starks, he's cut himself off from Robb (Richard Madden) and the people who cared for him. He's a stranger to everyone, including himself.
We're not meant to feel sympathy for Theon, per se. He's a Judas, a betrayer, an upstart with a burning need to prove his worth, weak-willed and cowardly. But there are also tell-tale signs that he's perhaps puffing himself up, pretending to be the self-styled dread lord that he believes he needs to be. His attempts to get Dagmer (Ralph Ineson) to pay off the farmer, to buy his silence, reveal something that remains of the old Theon. Additionally, he doesn't actually murder Bran and Rickon, and it's Yara who gets him to see the error of his quest. Bran and Rickon were "brave," she says, for fleeing their home, which had become their prison. It's not that they're ungrateful, it's that they are not willing to go along with Theon's regime. Bu rejecting it, they reject his authority and his sovereignty. Not just as the self-styled lord of Winterfell, but as a man as well. It's for that he wants to punish them. And yet they manage to slip out of his grasp, though they are hiding, quite literally, under his nose.
The fact that Bran (Isaac Hempstead Wright), Rickon (Art Parkinson), Osha (Natalia Tena), and Hodor (Kristian Nairn) are hiding in the crypts underneath Winterfell is also significant. It is, in many ways, the best hiding place of all, because (A) no one would believe that they would willingly come back to Winterfell, much less to hide, and (B) no one has any reason to go down to the crypts except for Starks, and there are no more Starks in Winterfell. We feel this loss keenly, especially because Theon Greyjoy is no Stark, as we've been reminded of time and again. And, more than likely, his princedom in the North will be short-lived indeed, particularly as Roose Bolton (Michael McElhatton) prepares to send his bastard, Ramsay Snow, to retake Winterfell.
I have to say that I'm not enjoying the Robb/Talisa (Oona Chaplin) courtship in the least. While Talisa is significantly different from her counterpart in the novel, that's not what irks me. One has to imagine that this storyline took place "off camera" within George R.R. Martin's novel is because it's not all that interesting to watch them flirt, bond, and reminisce about their pasts. While their courtship takes a turn for the physical this week, it lands with a deafening thud. I'm not invested in their romance in the slightest and attempts to give Talisa a backstory in Volantis that pinpoints a specific moment in time that propelled her to where she is today (the near-death of her brother while swimming) felt both cheap and too on the nose. While their tryst will have resounding consequences--Robb is, after all, promised to wed one of the Freys after they allowed him use of a key bridge last season--I'm finding their storyline to be tedious at best. (I'm curious to hear what others think of it: are you as bored by Robb/Talisa as I am?)
I was happy to see the return of Ros (Esmé Bianco, whom I interviewed here), though it was--rather sadly--as part of a case of mistaken identity, with Cersei (Lena Headey), having stumbled onto the truth that Tyrion was engaged in a relationship with a whore, and wrongfully seizing Ros as the "guilty" party. There's more than a little double meaning to Tyrion's words that he won't forget about Ros, but there's also an insane relief in knowing that Shae (Sibel Kekilli) is safe... because she, like the Starks, is hiding in plain sight. There are definitely parallels to be found there, in that like the Starks hiding in the crypts, Shae has been kept in the one place that Cersei isn't likely to look: among the handmaidens. Cersei, like Theon, has a hard time looking downwards.
The real joy of the episode was in the interplay between Tyrion and Varys (Conleth Hill), whose scenes together this week positively crackled with wit and playful banter. (Hill has not really gotten the recognition he so richly deserves for his nuanced and exquisite performance as the Master of Whisperers. His Varys is one of the joys of HBO's Game of Thrones, a fantastic and gripping turn that makes Varys incredibly engaging.) I loved the two of them on the battlements together, as Varys tells Tyrion that word has reached him that Daenerys is alive and has three dragons with her.
While this news is slightly out of date (Varys still doesn't know that the dragons have been forcibly taken from Daenerys), it's still significant, made even more so by the flames behind Varys as he mentions the dragons, a nice little bit of direction by Taylor that plays up the fiery aspects of the war to come and the dragon's breath that is so desired by many.
Next week on Game of Thrones ("Blackwater"), Tyrion and the Lannisters fight for their lives as Stannis’ fleet assaults King’s Landing.