I believe it was noted nuclear physicist Dr. Emmett Brown who once sagely exclaimed: “It’s your kids … something has to be done about your kids!” Of course, he was speaking to a teenager in a life preserver at the time, not the soon-to-be-headless head of the Stark family, and the good doctor’s preferred conveyance was a sports car with a fusion reactor soldered to the back of it, not a 7-foot simpleton who runs on walnuts. But the advice was universal and sound. Children need to be parented. The more time they spend unattended at critical ages, the more likely they are to make mistakes. Like falling headfirst into an icy ginger’s frozen honeypot, say, or choosing exactly the wrong moment to procure poppy milk with a comely field surgeon, or, I don’t know, eating mutton. Ned’s neck wasn’t the only thing severed that sunny day by the Baelor statue. So, too, was the final link between the Stark kids and their relatively peaceful childhoods. As last night demonstrated, the whole, scattered lot of them — young, old, male, female, bastard, and serious bastard — have been forced into a grown-up game before they’ve had nearly enough time to study the rulebook.
Still, even with this focus on the family, “A Man Without Honor” was a strange and digressive episode of Game of Thrones. It featured as many wonderful character moments as there are murderous Dean doppelgangers in Qarth. But the pacing felt stiff and uncomfortable, like it had just woken up from a long night next to Ygritte. In many ways, the episode functioned as an extended version of Jaime’s little family reunion in the polar bear cage. Meaty monologues like the one about the “painter who used only red” add much-needed shading to the otherwise monochrome grimness of Westeros, and give gifted actors like Nikolaj Coster-Waldau a chance to flex their muscles, even if they are chained to a post and sitting in their own filth. But it was all obvious prologue to a very unsurprising — if brutal — payoff. Jaime’s benighted squire was dispatched almost as quickly as Jaime himself was recaptured, but too many of the show’s other meanderings are beginning to feel years away from resolution. “Those in the margins often come to control the center,” purrs the once-and-future Qing of Qarth, but in a sprawling place like Westeros the margins can often feel very far away indeed. Winter could come and go again before Jon Snow’s misadventures beyond the wall have any bearing on his southern siblings, and, at this rate, Daenerys’s fire-breathing babies will be older than Pycelle before she ever sets sail for the mainland. I admire the world-building, but it would be nice to start seeing the map begin to fold over onto itself. It didn’t help that the episode’s two set pieces that were meant to shock merely confused. Is Ducksauce a dragon-napping power-grabber in league with Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar winner Jim Rash? Or is he just angling for a seat at the warlock’s multiplication table? And were the burnt ends on display in the final moments meant to be the house special at the Stark family BBQ? Usually when we see people who’ve been smoked, there’s also fire. But this episode as a whole never ignited.
At least there were the continuing growing pains of the Stark kids to follow. Manhood is what Jon Snow is both struggling to attain and to hide from Ygritte, but as anyone who’s ever slow-danced in middle school can tell you, no, that’s not Valerian steel in his pocket. Rose Leslie is too pretty and too clean by half to be believable as a wild woman with loose morals (and even looser fur pants), but she’s still tons of fun, strutting around on her leash moaning and groaning about how Jon’s icicle bruised her tailbone. I was all set for a few more weeks of this sexually charged The-Sun-Is-Still-Out-at-Midnight Run — the tension rising and rising even as the temperature falls, until poor Jon’s walnuts feel like a hungry Hodor’s been pawing at them — but it’s not to be. Ygritte leads him directly into one of her people’s hidey holes — and not the one she was bragging about just moments before. As crestfallen as Jon appeared, I can’t help but think part of him is a little excited. The more Ygritte talks about Wildling life, the better it sounds: a 24/7 arctic orgy of stones, bones, and, for the so inclined, the occasional spear up the ass. The sheep-less chastity of the Night’s Watch can’t compete with that. Poor Sam spent five minutes making googly eyes at a sister-wife and he’s taken up scrapbooking. Will it really take Jon so long to thaw out? Between this and Robb’s un-kingly decision to, ahem, “go to the Craig” with his illicit anesthesiologist at precisely the wrong moment, it appears that Ned Stark taught his boys how to decapitate a man, but not how to flirt like one.
Poor, traumatized Sansa has less of a choice in her maturation. A series of stabby dreams coupled with the Hound’s creepy conflation of murder, pleasure, and her father lead to her first period, something she’s desperate to hide from the Queen. But not even Shae and her pocketknife can change the sheets fast enough: The Hound is keeping track of Sansa’s cycles more vigilantly than Abed over on Community. Showrunners David Benioff and DB Weiss, who also wrote the episode, did a nice feint in what came next. Rather than popping corks and preparing the royal nursery, Cersei speaks to Sansa as if welcoming her into the world’s saddest sorority. “The more people you love, the weaker you are,” she cautions. And while her advice about only loving one’s own children is admirable, it also rings hollow. She knows exactly who Joffrey is and what it means for Sansa. Later, Cersei weeps quietly to Tyrion, comparing her forbidden brotherly love with Jaime to the insanely incestuous Targaryens. Though she doesn’t know it, she and Daenerys do have one thing in common: They’ve both given birth to monsters.
Over in Harrenhal, that melty fortress/occasional human kiln, Arya must be hoping her Dial-a-Dart service doesn’t charge for collateral damage: Last week’s murder request has led to an investigation with a rapidly rising body count. But she seems oddly placid. Maybe it’s because she knows she’s unlikely to get a scene partner this good again. Charles Dance has stood out this season as perhaps the finest actor in a cast full of them — and he’s done so by barely leaving his mead-stained man cave. It’s a treat watching Arya’s pride poke through her servant’s disguise, even as she fantasizes about poking Tywin in the neck. Still, even the history-loving daughter of a made-up illiterate stonemason isn’t immune to the charms of a powerful man taking such an interest in her. “You’re too smart for your own good,” he tells her. Which kind of seems to be a recurring theme.
Of course, being smart still beats being whatever Theon is. After starting the season with just the right amount of sister-touching ambiguity, he’s now gone full heel, kicking over old farmers and using his best groping hand for knocking out insubordinates’ teeth. As I said at the top, I don’t believe for a second that Bran and Rickon are cooked, but Theon’s goose will be soon enough. The most self-aware characters on this show, when referring to the grand game at the center of it all, do so with humility — after all, any pawn or knight on the board is a potential threat. But not sloppy, pampered Theon. “Don’t look so grim. It’s all just a game!” he grins to Luwin while the hounds go Stark-hunting in the woods. Even if there are winners and losers, not every contest is meant to be fun. I have a feeling Theon’s about get his battleship sunk long before the Sea Bitch — the boat or his sister — can ferry him away. Nothing makes children seem more immature than when they’re playing at being adults.
Note on these recaps: I have not read the books and I have no intention to do so. My goal is to analyze and enjoy Game of Thrones strictly as a television show. So please, no spoilers or “I told you so”’s in the comments, OK? OK!