Stars: Peter Dinklage, Lena Headey, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Michelle Fairley, Emilia Clarke, Aidan Gillen, Iain Glen, Kit Harington, Ciaran Hinds, Isaac Hempstead-Wright, Richard Madden, Sophie Turner, Maisie Williams, Alfie Allen, Diana Rigg, John Bradley, Jack Gleeson, Charles Dance, Rory McCann, Stephen Dillane, Carice Van Houten, Conleth Hill, Sibel Kekilli, Liam Cunningham, Natalie Dormer, Gwendoline Christie, Finn Jones, Julian Glover, Joe Dempsie, Nicholas Blane, Oona Chaplin, Rose Leslie, Jerome Flynn, James Cosmo, Ian McElhinnie, Thomas Sangster, Ellie Kendrick, Iwan Rheon, Noah Taylor, Daniel Portman, Robert Pugh, Nathalie Emmanuel, Dan Hildebrand, Richard Dormer
Writers:
David Benioff & D.B. Weiss, series created by David Benioff & D.B. Weiss, based on George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire”
Director:
Alan Taylor
Network:
HBO, Sundays @ 9 PM
Airdate:
April 21, 2013

GAME OF THRONES episodes so often end in doom, or at least gloom, that it’s an even greater contrast that the climax of “And Now His Watch Is Ended” makes us cheer for Daenerys (Emilia Clarke), who is a much better strategist – and greater humanist – than either her advisors or most of the audience supposed.

Remember that apparently awful bargain Daenerys struck last week when she agreed to exchange the largest of her dragons for eight thousand Unsullied slave warriors? Well, first of all, silly slave trader Krasnys mo Naklaz (Dan Hildebrand) – and silly us, too, if we forgot for one moment that one of Daenerys’ titles is Mother of Dragons. In other words, the dragons will listen to her, but they’re dragons and don’t give a flame what any other human has to say. Secondly, Daenerys has been assured that the Unsullied are loyal to whoever holds their whip. Thirdly, it turns out that Daenerys has understood every insulting word Naklaz has been saying about her during their negotiations.

Once Daenerys has been giving the symbolic whip that the Unsullied follow, and Naklaz has the leash for the airborne Drogon (the largest dragon), and Daenerys is assured that she does indeed command the Unsullied, she simply orders them to kill every slave master they can find and any overseer holding a whip, but not to harm any children or fellow slaves. When Naklaz screams a protest, Daenerys says a single word to her dragon, Drogon emits a blast of flame and Naklaz is incinerated. Daenerys then offers the Unsullied their freedom and says that anyone who wants to leave is free to go. None of the soldiers stir. Daenerys asks if they will fight for her as free men. For a moment, nothing happens. Then one Unsullied begins thumping his spear against the ground. Then another, then another, then all eight thousand. Daenerys rides triumphantly forth from Astapor, eight thousand freed soldiers behind her, three dragons flying above.

Hell, by now, we feel we’ve won a victory, and all we’ve done is just watch the episode. Clarke exudes utter confidence and determination, the writing (the episode is scripted by series creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss) and direction (by Alan Taylor) are superb, and it all seems very true to the essence of the text by novelist George R.R. Martin. It is absolutely great television.

Not that the rest of “And Now His Watch Is Ended” is slouchy, by any means. There’s more spying and scheming in King’s Landing, with Queen Cersei (Lena Headey) becoming increasingly unhappy with how much influence future daughter-in-law Margaery (Natalie Dormer) has with young King Joffrey (Jack Gleeson). Tyrion (Peter Dinklage), meanwhile, wants vengeance on Cersei for trying to have him killed and consults with Lord Varys (Conleth Hill), who counsels patience. Varys also meets with Margaery’s grandmother Olenna (Diana Rigg) to suggest she do something to prevent Lord Baelish from trying to marry Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner). Margaery offers friendship to Sansa – and delights her new friend by suggesting that Sansa marry Margaery’s brother Loras.

In the custody of the Brotherhood Without Banners, Arya (Maisie Williams) accuses fellow captive Sandor Clegane (Rory McCann) of murdering her friend on orders from Joffrey. Brotherhood leader Beric Dondarrion (Richard Dormer) decrees that Clegane’s guilt or innocence will be determined via trial by combat.

One-handed Jaime (Nicolaj Coster-Waldau) is further abused by his captors, to the point where he almost loses the will to live. Brienne (Gwendoline Christie), unable to help him in any other way, thanks him for saving her from being raped and goads him into deciding to survive.

Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen) expresses sorrow and regret at having two orphan boys killed to make people believe that Bran and Rickon Stark were dead. He also regrets siding against the Starks, calling the late Ned Stark “my true father.” Theon is horrified when his apparent escape leads him back to the dungeon he left, with his apparent rescuer telling the sadistic Ramsay (Iwan Rheon) that Theon killed some of Ramsay’s men.

We see another of Bran’s (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) and Jojen’s (Thomas Sangster) shared dream visions, with Catelyn (Michelle Fairley) so earnestly warning Bran not to climb that he falls in the dream and wakes.

Then there are the events that give “And Now His Watch Is Ended” its title. As what’s left of the Night’s Watch scouting party continues to take shelter at the homestead of the incestuous wildling Craster (Robert Pugh), tensions rise. One of the Night’s Watch, Karl (Burn Gorman), gets into an argument with Craster that becomes violent. When Night’s Watch Lord Commander Mormont (James Cosmo) tries to make Karl stand down, Karl kills Craster, Mormont is stabbed by rebellion members of the Watch, who are in turn attacked by their brothers. All hell breaks lose. In the chaos, Sam (John Bradley) seeks out Craster’s daughter/wife Gilly (Hannah Murray), who has just delivered a son, and informs her, urgently and accurately, that they need to leave now.

We share Sam’s grief and panic at the loss of Mormont, who is not only a good man but all that seems to be holding the Night’s Watch together. Who will lead them now? What will happen if they are leaderless? Will the Others and the walking dead pass the Wall and come south? Clearly, stay tuned, but it’s a powerful piece of storytelling. Craster, though, has been one of the most villainous characters on the Westeros side of the story – having him die because he’s an arrogant, insulting and absolutely vile thug is satisfying development.

Jaime and Brienne continue to be entertaining as a duo and the scenes in King’s Landing are once again thoroughly engrossing. Hill deserves special commendation, taking Varys from smooth gossip to master manipulator to still soft-spoken but scary badass when – making a point about patience to Tyrion – he opens a box and displays a prisoner, the live sorcerer who castrated Varys as a boy. Hill doesn’t change Varys’ manner much, but he lets us see that he’s as formidable as any of the players in the GAME. Then he has a delicious scene with Rigg, where both of their characters banter, maneuver and weave like the master schemers they are.

The one slightly iffy sequence here is Bran’s dream, which seems more like a place-holder to remind us he’s got a storyline than anything that has weight on its own, as this neither moves the plot forward that we can see (we already know he has visions) nor is particularly vivid.

Then again, any sequence would have to be very striking to stand out against the rest of what’s here. This is glorious TV.

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