Game of Thrones – Review: Cliffhanger
Review of Game of Thrones – Season 3 Episode 6 – The Climb:
Game of Thrones is walking a very tight rope when it comes to the story it’s trying to tell, irrespective of its management of the time it has to tell that story. “The Climb” is an excellent episode, in some respects, while undoubtedly weaker in others, as there’s a certain authenticity to the show’s world that means characters often don’t engage in expository dialogue, since the characters have no reason to explain things to one another. The audience isn’t told who certain characters or families are when they’re referenced in a conversation, because the characters already know who the Umbers are, for example. This could potentially lead to some narrative confusion among non-book readers. But much of this disconnect can be remedied by a closer, more attentive viewing among fans of the show. More than most episodes in the series, “The Climb” demands your full attention.
North of the Wall: Jon Snow (Kit Harrington) and Ygritte (Rose Leslie) prepare to climb The Wall alongside Tormund Giantsbane (Kristofer Hivju) and Orell (Mackenzie Crook). Ygritte reveals that she knows Jon hasn’t really betrayed The Night’s Watch, and uses this as fuel to further cement their bond. It’s one invention of the show that I actually really liked, because while it might initially appear as though Ygritte is simply the crazy girl who took a one night stand to seriously, it becomes apparent pretty quickly that she’s truly committed to Jon. And by episode’s end, it’s just as apparent how committed he is to her, relative to his mission within the Wildling camp. The plot also greatly benefits from the dramatic setpiece that anchors the episode, as Jon and the Wildlings climb The Wall. Given the show’s tendency to avoid blowing through its entire budget wherever possible, I didn’t expect that the Wall-climbing sequence would be as impressive as it turned out to be. More so than most big setpieces from the books, the scaling of The Wall went above and beyond what I could have expected, as it was tense, exciting, and relevant to the character-building: Orell displays his distrust of Jon when an avalanche nearly fells the entire expeditionary team, leading Orell to try and cut the rope tethering him to Jon and Ygritte below. This begins an intense race against time as Jon tries to hook himself to an icy precipice with his pickax before Orell cuts through the rope. Jon is able to secure a position just in the nick of time, holding his place and rescuing Ygritte by holding her rope and pulling her to safety. The moment illustrates the gradually solidifying bond between the two, and it’s a remarkably effective romance, as illustrated when the team reaches the top of The Wall and Ygritte finally gets to realize her lifelong dream of seeing the world from atop the icy monolith. It’s the best storyline of an episode that’s filled with compelling material.
Yet this isn’t the only business North of the Wall, as we briefly check-in with Sam (John Bradley) and Gilly (Hannah Murray). Gilly nurses her son while clueing Sam in on how to properly build a fire. He reveals a dragonglass dagger he found on the Fist of the First Men, and though he isn’t entirely sure what it does (if it even does anything at all), he relishes in making a display of it to the Wildling girl. He then sheepishly sings her a song about the Seven, to ward away his own fear about the noises in the woods, in a wonderfully underplayed scene from John Bradley. The plot is slow-moving, but then, so is the journey, as Sam and Gilly continue on their trek back to The Wall following last week’s ambush at Craster’s Keep, which resulted in the murder of Craster and Lord Commander Mormont.
The North: Also looking to get to The Wall are Bran (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) and his party. Meera Reed (Ellie Kendrick) and Osha (Natalia Tena) really aren’t getting along, as the two women get into an argument about how best to skin rabbits and use the argument as an opportunity to take potshots at each other’s manners. This plotline keeps Bran’s party in the conversation, but it’s mostly there to illustrate the effect of the visions that Jojen (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) frequently has, as they involve violent convulsions during which Meera must place a leather strap between her brother’s teeth to prevent him from swallowing his own tongue. When Jojen awakes, he claims to have seen Jon Snow…surrounded by enemies. Without context, Bran immediately assumes the worse, which will likely have the effect of hastening their plodding journey to The Wall.
But there are more pressing concerns in the North, as Robb (Richard Madden) organizes a new deal with representatives of House Frey. This involves surrendering Harrenhal to the Freys once the war is over, but it also includes a new marriage contract to make up for the one Robb broke by marrying Talisa (Oona Chaplin). Robb’s uncle, Lord Edmure Tully (Tobias Menzies), must marry Roslin Frey, the 19-year-old daughter of Lord Walder Frey. Edmure is resistant to the idea for the same reason Robb had initially been: Freys are a notoriously unattractive lot. But the deal must be made to secure the fealty of the Freys, and Edmure has little recourse but to accept, at the urging of his father, Brynden Blackfish (Clive Russell), and of his King, who details his immense gratitude at his uncle’s sacrifice.
Meanwhile, Arya (Maisie Williams) is learning archery from Anguy (Philip McGinley), the finest archer of the Brotherhood without Banners, when Melisandre (Carice van Houten) arrives. Thoros of Myr (Paul Kaye) takes Melisandre to meet with Beric Dondarrion (Richard Dormer), and much of this portion of the episode involves an involved discussion of religion, as Thoros recounts how he came to be a true servant of the Lord of Light, R’hllor. Melisandre, for her part, shows a jealous disbelief at how many times Thoros has proven able to bring Beric back from the dead, exclaiming that it should have been impossible. And yet, there Beric is, alive and whole (for the most part). The parties discuss business, and it isn’t long before we discover what they’re here for: Gendry (Joe Dempsie), who possesses the blood of King Robert Baratheon in his veins. Thus, he’s of use to Melisandre, who plans to use the boy’s blood to craft a spell that will wipe out Stannis’ enemies.
Of course, Gendry doesn’t know why they’re taking him, and resists Melisandre’s notion that he’s of any importance to anyone. Arya, meanwhile, accuses Thoros and Beric of selling Gendry for money, which isn’t entirely off the mark: while Thoros claims that he’s doing it in service of the Lord of Light, he admits that they need money for armor and weapons, in order to better defend the people. The Brotherhood without Banners remains morally dubious, defending townsfolk from rape and murder at the hands of Gregor Clegane, but hardly hesitating to hand over an innocent young man to those who would slaughter him for magic. Arya confronts Melisandre, and the red priestess immediately senses the darkness in the young girl, claiming that she can see many eyes within Arya’s eyes, all of shifting color. She predicts that she and Arya will meet again, in that creepy, surefooted tone of voice that only Melisandre, at her most righteous, can muster.
But we’re still not quite through with the North just yet, as Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and Brienne (Gwendoline Christie) break bread with Roose Bolton (Michael McElhatton), Robb’s creepy bannerman. Brienne has been stuffed into a ridiculous pink dress, in accordance with what Lord Bolton believes to be proper for a highborn lady, despite its poor fit and questionable style. Lord Bolton makes a deal with Jaime to send him back to King’s Landing, provided he explains to his father that Jaime’s disfigurement wasn’t his doing. Brienne, however, will have to stay behind. Jaime argues against this, insisting that Brienne be allowed to come with him, but Roose rightly surmises that Jaime is in no position to make demands. And that’s that.
Yet we still have one last bit of business in the North, as Theon (Alfie Allen) continues to suffer the torture of his captor (Iwan Rheon), who plays a sick game with the Iron Islander. The captor promises not to cut off Theon’s finger if he can guess who his captor is and why he’s being tortured. Theon guesses that he’s the son of Lord Rickard Karstark, and that he’s torturing him because Theon betrayed Robb Stark, the Karstarks’ liege lord and King. though the captor pretends that Theon has answered correctly, he reveals that everything he’s said to Theon is a lie. He’s no Karstark, and worse, there is no reason for his torture other than the captor’s own sick pleasure. Watching the captor flay the skin off of Theon’s finger is truly stomach-churning stuff, and though we don’t get the reveal of the captor’s true identity this week, he’s already one of the most detestable villains in the series.
King’s Landing: All the interesting political maneuvering is happening in King’s Landing, as Tywin (Charles Dance) and Lady Olenna (Diana Rigg) discuss the potential marriage match between Cersei (Lena Headey) and Loras Tyrell (Finn Jones). It’s a wonderful battle of wits, with Tywin revealing just how much he knows about Loras’ secret inclinations (“he’s a sword-swallower through and through”) while Lady Olenna retorts with the knowledge of Jaime and Cersei’s incestuous relationship. Ultimately, the two parties come to a head, with Tywin vowing to put Loras in the Kingsguard (preventing him from marrying, holding titles, or owning lands) if she should refuse the match. Lady Olenna breaks a quill in agitation at Tywin’s political double-dealing, segueing into a scene in which Sansa (Sophie Turner) and Loras talk about their upcoming nuptials. In what turns out to be the funniest scene on the show in quite some time, Sansa fails to catch on that Loras’ childhood obsession with having a lavish wedding is a bit unusual for the most eligible bachelor in the Seven Kingdoms. She’s just so starstruck at the possibility of being the new Lady Tyrell that she blinds herself to some of the grimmer realities surrounding her, particularly the inevitability of the match being too good to be true. After a moment of awkward bonding between Cersei and Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) where the Queen reveals that Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) was the one who tried to have Tyrion killed in the Battle of Blackwater, Tyrion meets with Sansa and Shae (Sibel Kekilli) the grim news: Sansa is to become the next Lady Lannister. Her tears say more than words ever could about her devastation.
But hey, at least she gets to live, which is more than we can say for Ros (Esmé Bianco), who is revealed to have been killed (in a montage, no less!) by Joffrey, whose sick obsession with crossbows resulted in him launching a quarrel into the prostitute’s chest for no discernible reason other than his own need to exert his twisted power. This is dramatically presented during a climactic conversation between Varys (Conleth Hill) and Littlefinger (Aidan Gillen). Lord Baelish talks about chaos being a ladder instead of a pit, detailing the lengths to which people will climb to reach the top. For Littlefinger, climbing that ladder is the only thing that really matters in life, and he surmises that it’s kind of true for everyone: all people in the Seven Kingdoms are looking for a better position in life. Varys can claim all he wants that his scheming is in service of the realm, but there is no “realm” anymore, and it’s doubtful there ever was. The “realm” is little more than a fictional construct to which citizens cling, simply because they’ve clung to it for so long that they’ve forgotten it’s bull****. And Varys should probably realize this, seeing as how he was the one, last season, who said “Power resides where men believe it resides.” Of course, the second half of that quote is “A shadow on the wall, yet shadows can kill. And ofttimes a very small man can cast a very large shadow.” In essence, the powerbrokers in the Seven Kingdoms risk being undone by their failure to recognize that everyone, both high and low, is on the ladder — and nobody bothers with the climb unless it’s to reach the top.
“The Climb” is a solid, though occasionally complicated episode of Game of Thrones, but it retains the visual and thematic power of some of the series’ best episodes. The Wall sequences alone are enough to put the episode over-the-top, and we’re really in a nice position to finish the season with a bang, as the plot retains momentum. We’re always moving forward with this show, and it’s evident with each passing week.
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Nick, Thanks for the exceptional recap and review .. as always. Unfortunately, I received an important phone call during this episode, so I wasn't totally focused on the goings on. Wrong episode to be distracted because it was one of GOT's most complicated. Thanks to your piece, however, I am with the program once again! :)
Yes, the Wall climbing sequence was breathtaking in its tension, excitement and cinematic beauty.
BTW, Nick, do you write for other online sites or major print publications. If you don't, you really should!
Nick, great points about "the ladder"! I keep having to remind myself that the novel series is "A Song of Ice and Fire" not "Game of Thrones"… the chair doesn't really matter in the end. Awesome review!