(Extended Cut posts are articles where I’ll exceed my usual 200-word limit to allow for more detailed discussion)
Game of Thrones tells the story of a world with a rich and detailed history, and this history – both recent and ancient – weighs heavily on this week’s episode, “Kissed by Fire.” Much of the episode is spent with characters questioning their loyalties, and the shadows of two dead men – noble Stark patriarch Eddard Stark and the “Mad King” Aerys Targaryen – stretch across a brisk, entertaining hour.
Ned Stark’s memory is most keenly felt in the impotent rage embodied by Arya Stark (Maisie Williams once again putting in excellent work). It’s clear that her fury towards the Hound is less about the death of the baker’s boy back in Season One, and more about the gaping chasm left by her father’s execution, even before this is made apparent in her fireside conversation (with another – briefly – dead man, Bedric Dondarrion). That same rage exudes from Robb Stark as he strides from Karstark’s headless body, a scene that evokes both Ned Stark’s execution and his first scene on the show, the execution of a Night’s Watch deserter.
Speaking of Night’s Watch deserters, Jon Snow’s storyline took a brief detour from grim, all-encompassing chilliness for a brief spa detour with Ygritte, which was entertaining (and not just because of a nude Rose Leslie), if predictable. That said, Snow continues to bore me. We should be pondering how Ned Stark would feel about his bastard son becoming a traitor to the Night’s Watch, an oathbreaker travelling to attack The Wall rather than defend it. Instead, I remain unclear as to what his motivations even are; Kit Harrington’s performance is too cold, too opaque, leaving me in confusion as to the motivations behind his internal conflict.
The last half of the episode is dominated by the memory of the Mad King. Stannis Baratheon seemed like a good man, a little weird, but intelligent and noble, in season two. Now he seems like he’d be little better than Joffrey as a candidate for the Iron Throne; obsessed with an admittedly formidable religion and locking away his family to avoid embarrassment. His devotion to the Lord of Light is inextricably linked to fire; the same fire that Aerys Targaryen worshipped.
Jaime Lannister, looking truly wretched and evoking real sympathy, had the strongest moment of the episode in his speech about this obsession of the Mad King’s, and how it led him to make the decision that earned him the name Kingslayer. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau deserves an Emmy for this speech, if nothing else, imbued with bitterness, regret and – significantly – a steely core of honour. Not something I’d expected from a character first introducing tossing a boy off a tall tower and infamous for his own broken oaths. I just wish they’d omitted the “Call me…Jaime,” conclusion, which was clunky and totally unnecessary.
The Mad King’s daughter, meanwhile, shows why she’s the best option for the Iron Throne out there. We’ve heard Selmy’s rhetoric, about wanting to serve a good ruler – for once – before, but it’s not hard to see why men like himself and Jorah are drawn to Daenerys, who combines a sense of justice and morality with an intelligence and ruthlessness (that Ned Stark sorely lacked) that allows her to truly lead. She, too, is burdened by history – the reputation of her mad father is undeniably going to be an obstacle for her, particularly as she marches towards King’s Landing with a slave army and an ex-slaver at her side.
Overall, “Kissed by Fire” was one of the stronger episodes of the season so far, eclipsed slightly by last week’s tour de force. The storytelling was astoundingly brisk, but it never felt rushed thanks to a consistency of theme – something rarely seen in this show. Not only did the show explore the influence of the past, across it scene it continued to pose the question – what makes a good leader? Robb Stark, it is becoming increasingly apparent, is a good man not suited to leadership: much like his father. It’s not hard to sympathise with his decision to marry for love, or to punish the murderers of children, but these decisions continue to erode the strong position he held in season two. It’s hard to imagine him controlling the seven realms if he can’t even maintain the loyalty of the North.
The significant weak spots in the episode occurred in King’s Landing. I have no doubt that the schemes set in motion here will go on to be of great importance, but the battle for Sansa’s hand in marriage – and, ultimately, the North – necessitated some clunky storytelling. The pseudo-montage where Littlefinger’s spy ferretted out Loras’s planned marriage to Sansa was deftly directed but why on earth would Loras be discussing his “fiancé’s” naivety to his lover? And do we really need to see an extended conversation about paying for the royal wedding? No matter how great the actors involved, a conversation about accounting is never going to be thrilling.
The payoff came in the final moments. Tywin Lannister is a fantastic character, an example of a ruler who has one goal – to get his way – and is spectacularly good at achieving this goal. The pairing of his children was a surprising twist and was a great capper to the episode, with both Cersei and Tyrion left sulking like infants. I somehow doubt we’ll see these marriages go smoothly, but it’s a plotline I’m keen to follow.