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The Queen in the South

Down south, Queen Cersei does what she does best: she plots and she schemes and she gets shit done. The most frightening thing about Cersei is that she’s as sane as she is dangerous. Despite foolish decisions in the past, she knows what she wants, she always has a plan, and she is ready and willing to sacrifice anyone (except Jaime) to make it happen. Daenerys may have a dream team of advisors and soldiers backing her up, but Cersei Lannister has Cersei Lannister – her total commitment to her mission makes her the most dangerous adversary in all of Westeros.

We catch up with her in a new map room in the Red Keep – the continent of Westeros has been painted (and mostly finished) across an open courtyard, allowing the new queen to literally lord over the lands that she considers her birthright. But as she makes clear to Jaime, no longer a member of the Kingsguard and now the general of the royal army, they are literally surrounded by enemies: a vengeful Dorne, a vengeful Highgarden, a vengeful Dragon Queen, and a vengeful North. Jaime, always the more level-headed (but no less vicious) of this incestuous duo, points out that Cersei needs allies. And fast.

Enter Euron Greyjoy, looking one guitar away from being an ’80s rock star. With the death of Ramsay Bolton, Game of Thrones needed a new splash of undiluted crazy and the new king of the Iron Islands, who killed his brother before attempting to turn his sword on Theon and Yara last season, is ready to ally with the throne. He just, you know, would like to be king as well. But Cersei is a master of dealing with crazy. It’s her speciality. She turns down his offer of an alliance, citing his past treachery. In return, Euron rushes off to win her trust. Cersei gets what she wants: the strongest navy in the Seven Kingdoms and no new crazy husband. She plays the game and she plays it well.

And while this scene is ultimately about plot, about maneuvering Euron into the corner of Team Hear Me Roar, it’s the details that make it sumptuous. The dialogue between Jaime and Euron is a thing of vicious beauty. During the Greyjoy rebellion, Euron personally witnessed the Kingslayer cut down his own kin and he was nothing short of impressed. Jaime is disgusted that this pirate, this scoundrel, would look up to him, a man that murdered members of House Greyjoy. Jaime isn’t crazy, but he’s certainly a hair or two away from evil. In his more psychopathic allies and adversaries, the one-handed knight sees reflections of himself and his past deeds. He killed a king to save a kingdom, while Euron killed a king because why the hell not? Once again, Jaime Lannister stands with one foot in two worlds. He’s vile enough to be seen as kin to Westeros’ most awful citizens, but self-aware enough to feel really shitty about it.

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The Trainee at the Citadel

In an episode so focused on plot, Samwell Tarly’s maester internship at the Citadel in Oldtown provided some much-needed comedic relief. Via a Breaking Bad-esque montage, we bear witness to his new existence: rather than learn about science and medicine and defeating ancient evils, he’s changing bedpans and cleaning out toilets and re-shelving books and cleaning up after dissections. It’s a hilariously miserable, repetitive existence, once again making Sam Westeros’ most unfortunate punching bag. By the time the montage is cutting fast enough that Sam’s daily meals of broth begin to resemble the contents of the bedpans he’s cleaning out daily, we’re fully immersed in his new world of repetition and misery and so, so, so much poop. Honestly, no segment on all of Game of Thrones has felt more in tune with the graphic and upfront work of George R.R. Martin, whose prose rests on a mountain of feces and gore and feasts.

But while Sam may be a coward, he’s a coward on a mission! He pulls a Harry Potter, sneaks into the library’s restricted section, and makes off with books to help him learn more about the White Walker threat. And he learns something big: the island of Dragonstone is home to a massive deposit of Dragonglass, material that can kill the otherwise unstoppable White Walkers (something Sam knows from personal experience). Of course, Dragonstone isn’t empty. It’s only, you know, occupied by an invading queen who has no reason to bow to the requests of the people she plans to conquer. Welp.

And now, a few other notes about the Citadel. First, Oldtown has officially joined the locations highlighted in the opening credits, which inspired much cheering and fist-pumping from the group I watched the show with. Second, one of the maesters training Samwell is played the great Jim Broadbent, which means that he’ll surely have a great deal to contribute to the season beyond kind-of, sort-of being kind to Sam and asking him to weigh organs.

And oh, there’s a mysterious man with a skin condition in a cell at the Citadel, wondering if Daenerys Targaryen has made landfall yet. If your beloved queen ordered you to find a cure to your incurable condition, wouldn’t you journey to the center of all knowledge and research in Westeros? Welcome back, Jorah Mormont.

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The Hound and His Demons

Sandor “The Hound” Clegane is probably the best and richest character on Game of Thrones. He’s a summation of the show in general: a violent brute who thrives on murder, but whose past traumas make him as tragic and pathetic as he is terrifying. Sandor is a pathetic creature, transformed into a monster by the world around him, unable and unsure of how to change or even if he’s capable of changing. He exists in a deep well of grey – you cannot love him and you cannot hate him. You can only pity him. You can only find him fascinating. And yeah, you can laugh a whole bunch because he’s probably the funniest character on the show and actor Rory McCann is a treasure.

Pairing Sandor with the Brotherhood Without Banners is an inspired choice. How does a man with no direction and no mission gel with a group of outlaw vigilantes who have dedicated their lives to a very specific mission with a direction dictated by a god who has brought their leader back to life time and time again? Sandor himself has witnessed this firsthand, having killed Beric Dondarrion back in season 3…only to watch red priest Thoros of Myr bring him back from the dead like it was no big deal. But the Hound’s cynicism may be faltering. After staring into the flames at Thoros’ request (literally facing his one and only fear), he sees a vision of the undead amassing north of the Wall. Could Sandor Clegane, the Hound, the ultimate nihilist, find purpose in the upcoming war against the dead? Can a broken man fix himself? Can an unmovable object be nudged?

Baby steps. Thoros later finds Sandor burying the bodies of the dead father and child they found in the home where they’re sheltering for the night. We know that the Hound (and Arya) stole this family’s money back in season 4. We know that this is what almost certainly killed them. Thoros doesn’t know this, but he knows his new ally (friend?) is in pain. He’s fighting his demons. The two of them bury the bodies, putting two souls to rest. Or maybe three. Because Sandor Clegane, for the first time in his miserable, bloodstained life, looks like he has a purpose.

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