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“Winter is coming”: It’s more than a catchy tagline or a handsome inscription on Stark family heirlooms. It’s a reality in the Game Of Thrones universe. All men must die, time marches ever forward, and the tumultuous summer our characters are experiencing must give way to cold winds and walking corpses. Even when Lord Commander Jon Snow isn’t lecturing his men about winter’s inevitable start, this fact remains in the back of the Game Of Thrones viewer’s mind.
It gives the show drive, and it gives the show an urgency—even in a table-setter like “Kill The Boy.” Tonight’s episode is one of maps and proposals, of plans and parade formations. In what’s been one of the show’s most deliberately paced seasons, an episode of this type without a sense of urgency would be deadly. But while Game Of Thrones may have all the time in the world, its characters don’t: If Jon Snow fails in persuading the free folk to move south of the wall, the ranks of the White Walkers can only expand. If Daenerys Targaryen doesn’t quell the violence in Meereen, she’ll be a monarch without sujects. If Jorah and Tyrion dawdle along the coast, the Lord of Bear Island may turn to stone before he reaches his destination. (He’s already missed out on another chance to win Dany’s hand, though ignorance of that fact will also put some pep in his step.)
The scales up Jorah’s sleeve are the sensational stinger at the end of an understated installment. But they’re also evidence that we should still be paying close attention to Game Of Thrones, even in seemingly insignificant character exchanges. Shireen’s bout with greyscale was the topic of two such scenes in earlier episodes: First the princess and Gilly bonding over their shared experience with the affliction, then Stannis detailing how and why his daughter contracted it in the first place. These are the spoils of serialized television: They don’t always pay off, but when they do, they’re a uniquely satisfying storytelling device. Gilly’s greyscale story gives us context for the snarling, snatching Stone Men who attack Jorah and Tyrion as they sail through the ruins of Valyria; Stannis’ explanation of greyscale’s rapid spread puts stakes in Jorah’s cries of “Don’t let them touch you!” and gives precedence for the patch of rough skin he has up his sleeve. And with that image, a new Game Of Thrones doomsday clock begins counting backward.
Such a clock now ticks away for Ramsay, within the womb of Walda Bolton. Developments in Winterfell and at The Wall dominate “Kill The Boy,” re-establishing the cruelty and major-player status of the Bastard of Bolton. Dining for the first time with the woman he will soon call wife and the people who’ve only recently recognized him as their son, he pulls a classic (read: horrifying) Ramsay move: Forcing Reek to face Sansa and apologize for the “deaths” of her two brothers. They’re already aware of one another’s presence: Reek could only hide Theon’s face from the Stark girl for so long, and she ultimately discovers him with “assistance” of Ramsay’s lover Myranda. This is one of those instances where the amount of movement that’s actually occurred within Game Of Thrones is made plain, becuase I’d forgotten that the Greyjoys, not the Boltons, betrayed the Starks first, which is how Theon wound up in Ramsay’s custody in the first place. The volume and frequency of Ramsay’s offenses has more or less patched over Theon’s crimes against his surrogate family.
The awkward family dinner—“That was getting… very tense” Iwan Rheon says with the comic timing of an actor who spends the off-season ankle deep in Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi’s Vicious venom—presents season five in microcosm. At this point, the conflicting houses are engaging in their own versions of the Bolton’s table-side pissing match, from Cersei’s petty campaign against the Tyrells to Stannis’ military might advancing on Winterfell. They’re posturing, and they’re power moves, and they’re methods of declaring victory before a single body has fallen. By presenting Reek to Sansa and forcing him to make an apology, Ramsay potentially endears himself to his fiancée while showing his father the sheer force of his will. The richly deserved irony of it all is that Ramsay’s ability to break the wills of men will matter not if Walda’s carrying a son. That son would be Ramsay’s true successor, the “better alternative” to Roose’s fickle acknowledgement of paternity.
The announcement of Walda’s pregnancy is an ably deployed killing blow, a surprise on par to Jorah’s sudden need for an exfoliating body scrub. It presents a better sense of Roose as a heel, beyond the treasonous actions and heartless savvy we’ve come to know him by. It must be difficult for Michael McElhatton to establish his character’s sliminess opposite of Rheon: Ramsay’s actions make the character despicable, but the sinister glee Rheon brings to those actions makes him a quintessential villain-you-love-to-hate. Promoted to series regular for season five, McElhatton now has a greater number of opportunities in which Roose can one-up his son, but his methods of torture are strictly intellectual. This is the man who chose his wife on the basis of a “her weight in silver” promise from Walder Frey, and the tiny cuts he gets in during “Kill The Boy” establish his thought process. Less flamboyantly barbaric than Ramsay, Roose Bolton is ruthless nonetheless.
That concept of the “better alternative” is all over “Kill The Boy.” Jon and Daenerys each face tough decisions where an easier, more convenient path is presented—only Dany sides with the path of least resistance. Inciting an uprising by merely refusing to open the fighting pits, she faces a situation where justice is a bloody, fiery prospect. Bowing to Meereenese tradition (with her own twist: only free men may fight) and suggesting a marriage to the imprisoned Hizdahr, she presents the flipside of Maester Aemon’s “kill the boy” advice to Jon Snow. As stated at Castle Black, the idiom is one encouraging action over hesitation. In Dany’s situation, it’s about overriding the instinct to prevent action, the defeat of the idealism that got Ser Barristan Selmy killed. And so she prepares to make nice with the people of Meereen, a plan that includes marrying one of the city’s proudest sons. “Thankfully, a suitor is already on his knees,” she tells Hizdahr, digging into the sharpest Mother Of Dragons Day gift the writers could’ve given to Emilia Clarke.
Jon’s “kill the boy” moment involves the Droopy Dog of the Night’s Watch pursuing his plan to alert and unite the Free Folk. He’ll make no allies deferring entirely to the opinions of Stannis or Tormund—he must command Tormund to address the Free Folk, in addition to accompanying his red-bearded emissary on the journey. These are the choices a leader makes, even if we’re only getting to see the lead-up to and declaration of those choices this week. Sticking by his guns while conceding some ground to Tormund demonstrates Jon’s increasing comfort with his position as lord commander; the rewards and consequences of such will have to wait for another week.
He can’t hesitate, because forces greater than any human opposition are forcing his hand. In Valyria, such forces take the zombie-movie-like form of the Stone Men: Attacked by their fellow exiles, Jorah and Tyrion have no time to think before they act. In his first time behind the Game Of Thrones camera, director Jeremy Podeswa stages the scene as “Kill The Boy”’s tensest sequence (non-Bolton dinner division), the suspense naturally and automatically heightened by Tyrion’s contraints. The assailants’ craggy hides and inhuman ferocity put them in league with the living dead of Lucio Fulci’s Zombi 2; the underwater photography draws the parallels even tighter, give or take a killer shark.
The Stone Men’s attack is preceded by the neatest trick in Tyrion’s guided tour of the Valyrian ruins: After watching Drogon fly overhead (something only Jorah is accustomed to), the camera holds on Peter Dinklage’s face. An indistinct shape stirs in the background, dropping into the water with an attention-grabbing splash. In the immediate wake of Drogon’s majestic flight, it’s a chilling confirmation that something—be it “the Doom” or not—is amiss in Valyria. It’s something just a little ways ahead of the duo, a threat whose unknown nature puts an otherwise gentle cruise in life-or-death terms.
- “Kill The Boy” also features some splendid overhead photography, with the camera gazing down upon characters who are hurt, searching, grieving, or some combination of all three. From these vantage points, the characters feel even like game pieces being moved into place to await their next turn.
- Sam, still the only person known to kill a White Walker, is devoting all his time in the library to determining how he did it and why it worked. It earns him an audience with Stannis in “Kill The Boy,” one of the most entertainingly high-status/low-status scenes of the season thus far—especially when the dynamic switches, since Sam’s the one who triumphed over the walker, and Stannis is just some dumb king who hasn’t killed a White Walker.
- Sansa speaks to the surreal experience of going home for Thanksgiving after half a semester of college: “This isn’t a strange place, this is my home—it’s the people who are strange.”
- Season five could use more of Davos interacting with Shireen: “When the battle comes, promise you’ll protect me.”
- Tyrion dreams up the copy for a T-shirt with a bear sigil on it: “Long sullen silences and an occasional punch in the face: The Mormont way.”