Game of Thrones: The Prince of Winterfell

“The Prince of Winterfell.”

This is the one.

This is the very last episode before the colossal battle that’ll be the culmination of this entire season.

It’s not bad. Certainly not the greatest episode in Game of Thrones history, but it’s not bad. It’s just suffering from a severe case of “I want the battle to happen NOW” syndrome.

Allow me to elaborate.

A show called Justified (it’s on FX, it’s fantastic and I heartily recommend it if you’re not watching it already) often featured episodes remarkably similar to “The Prince of Winterfell.” The episode before some kind of big, climactic moment would usually feature a big mess of plot threads all moving at hyperspeed, introducing new characters, new team-ups and new situations that would all come to a head with a big payoff in the next episode. It’s often painfully obvious with these setup episodes that the writers are just trying to get all their pieces in position before the game actually starts next week. The conclusions of those setup episodes, however, are so overflowing with crazy anticipation that it was super easy to look past any very small flaws. All these new elements are introduced, and all these characters are poised and ready to go nuts, but you have to wait for next week to actually get to the real action.

“The Prince of Winterfell” is our last glimpse of normalcy before things go absolutely insane in Game of Thrones‘s penultimate episode. Unlike Justified, however, we’ve spent the entire season building to this one event, so there’s no last-minute place setting that needs to happen before we get to the battle. So what this episode contains, besides one fairly major plot point (Tywin marching to counter Robb’s forces and Arya escaping Harrenhal), is a handful of small changes in the story and a whole lot of musing about the battle that’s about to take place.

On the one hand, it’s sort of an admirable decision. On the eve of the battle, most of our characters are stuck with nothing to do but wait for the end to draw near. And we as an audience must do the same, with an episode that’s a little slower and a little more contemplative then the last few have been. The idea is that the emotional connections we already have with these characters are give us a sense of worry and excitement and anticipation for all the action that comes next week.

But while “The Prince of Winterfell” succeeds in the whole “emotional connection” aspect, what it doesn’t really do is build our anticipation for the battle.

Don’t get me wrong- I’m totally looking forward to that. And I have the feeling that just about every singleGame of Thrones fan is. But it seems like that nervous, slathering excitement for an actual big-budget war episode would be there no matter what kind of an episode came before it. And “The Prince of Winterfell,” on it’s own, adds very little to the build that’s already there.

Especially because as far as the actual plot is concerned, this episode doesn’t really move much in any particular direction. The vast majority of our characters are still locked in the same positions they were last week, and there’s very little that can be done to change that. Tywin and Arya are on the move. Robb’s now holding his mother under careful watch. Halfhand’s got some kind of plan to get Jon to infiltrate the Wildlings. Cersei thinks she’s found a piece of leverage to use against Tyrion.

And that’s it, really. A part of me wonders if we couldn’t have taken the necessary parts of this episode, lumped some of them onto the one last week, and then freed up a whole bunch of time to let those frantic first few episodes cool down a little bit.

But the character work we get in “The Prince of Winterfell” is still pretty great, so let’s dive into that for a little while.

First up? The Prince of Winterfell himself, Theon Greyjoy. As amazing as it sounds, I’m actually starting to sympathize with him. All horrible, child-murdering atrocities aside, Theon’s in a pretty awful situation himself- stuck between his real family, which treats him like dirt, and the Starks, who treat him better but where he’ll never truly be accepted, Theon’s simply the product of terrible circumstances. He just happens to have made the worst possible decisions every step of the way. And Yara’s somewhat tender “don’t die so far from the sea” is about the best Theon’s ever going to get, now (and of course, this whole moment started with a story of Theon being a horrible baby and Yara wanting to strangle him). No one likes him. No one respects him. And yes, that’s partially his fault (what with the child-killing, and all), but rewind back a few episodes and he was still in this same situation. I don’t really have any idea what the future holds for Theon, but he’s definitely one of the more nuanced characters I’ve seen on TV in a long time.

Now for something I didn’t like quite as much- our one and only scene across the Narrow Sea. I was already under the impression that Dany and Ser Jorah were headed into the House of the Undying to rescue them some dragons. But it seems we needed an entire scene just to get a confirmation that, yes, that’s where these two are headed. I could just be making assumptions I shouldn’t be making, and maybe everyone else out there didn’t jump to that conclusion and didn’t find this scene so redundant. I don’t know. Still, I stand by my original statement.

And I know I went on for a while on the whole “this feels too slow this late in the game” thing, but a lot of the actual slow and reflective scenes work incredibly well.

Like Tyrion and Varys, conversing as two honest, intelligent men. It’s great to see Peter Dinklage back in large quantities after the largely Dinklage-less “A Man Without Honor,” and even more so when we can see a real, genuine moment of friendship like we do here. Both men love the game, but there may not be a game to play if Stannis takes the Iron Throne. And both men spent the vast majority of this season immersed in that game, so it’s not only refreshing to see both of them step back from it for a second. But it also imbues this scene with an air of mourning for how things used to be, and dread of what’ll happen when everything changes.

If every scene in “The Prince of Winterfell” was as strong as that one, this would be one of the standout episodes of the season. As it is, it’s an episode I doubt I’ll have the desire to revisit (at least compared to other episodes) once this series has come to a close.

But the important thing is that now we can get on to the battle already. Have some closing thoughts on your way out.

  • It’s both incredibly sad and incredibly frustrating that Joffrey thinks he could actually take Stannis in a fight.
  • Both Talisa and Stannis get to tell their own heartwarming stories this week, and in both cases I found myself connecting with the character to a much greater degree. It’s a shame we couldn’t have had this kind of character development a month or two ago.
  • Where exactly is Arya headed? To warn Robb of Tywin’s counterattack? To… return to Winterfell? I really have no idea.
  • Jaime mentions that there are probably three people in the Seven Kingdoms that could take him in a fight. My guesses: The Hound, The Mountain, and Stannis Baratheon. Bronn’s probably on that list too, but I’m not sure if Jaime’s even aware of Bronn’s existence.
  • The conversation where Dagmer and Theon talk about paying off the farmer for his troubles was a really great, subtle way to reveal that Bran and Rickon are still alive. That last shot where we pan over to Bran in a surprising way? Not so much. I’m not quite sure if that was the point where we’re supposed to gasp and say “they’re still alive,” or if we were all supposed to know that by now and that last shot was just about Bran hearing Maester Luwin and Osha talk about his fragile emotional state.
  • Peter Dinklage does some incredible nonverbal acting in his reaction to Cersei nabbing someone other than Shae. First shock and surprise, then a seamless transition into playing along with the part.
  • I also really like Arya’s shrug after “A girl lacks honor.”

Well, that’s all for now! I’ll see you after the battle.

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