Usually when I call a show “visceral,” I mean it figuratively. It’s a convenient adjective to have in the ol’ word holster to describe emotional beats that land not through dialogue, but via images of shock or “aww,” tear-inducing scenes like a beloved character’s death on The Wire or crying over every single thing that ever happened on Friday Night Lights. By comparison, Game of Thrones is literally visceral: “The Old Gods and the New” featured more violent probing of innards than a foie gras protest video. I’d say I didn’t have the stomach for what the Hound did to Sansa’s would-be rapist, but, then again, by the time the Hound was done with him, neither did he. Maybe I’m just venting my spleen here, but what this episode accomplished took real guts: The chaos and animal savagery that has always lurked just below Westeros’s scrim of courtliness and gentility has finally broken through the surface and is bleeding out everywhere. While Cersei and Tyrion bicker over how best to arm King’s Landing, the starving wretches in the street are more interested in disarming royalty — or at least their assorted priests and hangers-on. All hopes the littlest Lannister may have had for neatly resolving this crown controversy were lost the minute Joffrey’s impatient subjects transformed into flesh-rending extras from The Walking Dead. In medieval times — the actual era, not the novelty restaurant — wise men would consult the entrails of the recently deceased to divine the future. We learned last night that the subjects of bloodthirsty Westeros aren’t ones to stand on ceremony, or even wait for the test subject to be all the way dead before treating his body like Indiana Jones treated the Temple of Doom. And you don’t need to be a visionary to predict what it all means. Even Hodor could tell that it’s only going to get worse.
Of course, not all of the ferocious cuts came from the broadsword of Sandor Clegane. Some originated in the writers' room. It may have seemed sudden that Theon managed to prance his way to the gates of Winterfell in the time it took Daenarys to change from one gown to another, but it was actually a relief. The continuing misadventures of the Sea Bitch sounds more like Hagar the Horrible fan fiction than like interesting television. And, to steal a page from Bran’s dream journal, why waste time watching the waters rising outside the walls when we can fast-forward to the flood? Regardless of how he got there, it’s clear the neediest Greyjoy burned up the last bits of his humanity along with the Dear Robb letter a few episodes back. Theon claims his old stomping grounds with Joffrey-esque villainy. (Bran, to his credit, does yield, but not before greeting his quasi-adopted brother with what appears to be a classic case of lazy Sunday girlfriend face. Seriously, Bran was so chill about this whole surprise invasion thing I expected him to start listing potential brunch spots and making catty jokes about the "Vows" section of the Times.) When crusty knight/beard-braid visionary Ser Rodrik Cassel (no relation to Ser Matthew Cassel of House Arrowhead) gets fresh with his former charge, Theon threatens him with imprisonment. But Finchy, his deputy, raises the stakes from the last time he had to deal with disrespect like this back in Slough. It won’t be enough to toss Ser Rodrick’s boots over the castle. He must pay with his head. And so, in one of the more disturbing scenes in a show that specializes in them, Theon hacks and slashes with all the grace and subtlety of a Fruit Ninja armed with a rusty katana. The macho swordsmen of Westeros put a high premium on “good” deaths not because they’re swaggering figments of a machismo-starved imagination — though they are that, too — but because it’s something to look forward to at the close of an unpredictable life that’s likely to be miserably short. By denying Roderik a clean end, Theon has most likely guaranteed the same fate for himself.
Quite honestly, it was amateur hour for all of our current baddies. Theon is easily seduced by the goodies Osha has been hiding behind her wall, and, exhausted from a night of doing the wild thing with a Wildling, he lets his guard down and allows the two mini-Starks to escape. (Actually, it’s his guard who lets him down, by falling for the classic kiss your face/slit your throat grift. Come on, dude. Haven’t you ever been to Vegas?) And what more can we say about the cartoonishly evil Joffrey? If Jack Gleeson were even remotely capable of growing a mustache, there’s no doubt that he’d spend every moment of screen time twirling it. This week’s greatest hits include mocking his brother for crying and escalating a lone instance of flying manure into a homicidal shitstorm. When Sansa is separated from the group and trapped in an alley by some vengeful 99 percenters, only Tyrion and the aforementioned Hound even bother to remember her. “We’ve had vicious kings and we’ve had idiot kings, but I don’t know if we’ve ever been cursed with both,” the imp spits just before slapping his useless nephew. As enjoyable as it will be to see both Joffrey and Theon get their inevitable comeuppance, it’s impossible to shake the feeling that whatever nemeses are lurking around the bend will be even more cruel, and a good deal more capable.
One of those baddies is already here, of course. Charles Dance is so imposing as Tywin Lannister that he even makes a movie-of-the-week memory about teaching his dyslexic son to read sound terrifying. Tywin hates illiteracy almost as much as he hates the Starks, as we learned when he banished his one uncultured cousin from his council. So it seems he’s developed a soft spot for the educated Arya — a relationship she uses the second of her magic murder wishes to protect. As for the other Starks, they’re torn between defending their home base and continuing their assault on King’s Landing. Even though a compromise is made — something about a bastard going north to deal with that bastard Theon — I can’t shake the feeling that Robb’s chances would be improved if only his mother were still wandering in the woods somewhere. Catelyn’s just bad mojo, barely back an hour before she’s cock-blocking her eldest son, who just wants to play field hospital with his new naughty nurse pal. (This was in keeping with what my podcast partner Chris Ryan calls Cat Stark’s ruinous habit of freelancing. “Everything she does ends up backfiring,” he wrote in an e-mail yesterday. “She is Queen Makes Things Worse.” To which I added, “She is Queen Makes Things Worse in the North.”)
The biggest threats, of course, are the ones none of these silly quibblers takes seriously, the ones no one seems to see coming. To the north, Jon Snow and his mates pull a successful surprise raid on some Tuskan Raiders, er, Mance Rayders. The lone survivor is revealed to be why, it’s Gwen from Downton Abbey! It wasn’t a typist’s job she left for after all — it was a new career as an ice hunter! Sure, the hours are bad, but you really can’t put a price on the opportunity to freeze to death on your own terms. There are no glass ceilings north of the wall. Of course, there are no ceilings at all. But still: Progress is progress! (Side note: Between Rose Leslie and Iain Glen, I’m hoping we’re witnessing the beginning of a dedicatedly incestuous relationship between the casting departments of Game of Thrones and Downton Abbey. I know I’m not the only one interested in seeing the dashing Mr. Pamuk as the world’s prettiest Dothraki, Daisy the scullery maid as Daeysey, a scullery maid, and Burn Face as a plot-wrecking monster that would terrify even Melisandre.) Anyway, left alone to deal with his prisoner, Jon Snow establishes that proper decapitation technique just wasn’t part of Sanford Meisner Luwin’s curriculum at Winterfell Academy. Ygritte, the fiery redhead, melts his frigid sympathies, and soon the two are sledding down a fjord like a couple of doomed kids in a depressing Edith Wharton novel. Abandoned and alone, the only way for them to stay alive is by spooning. But the closer Ygritte wiggles, the more likely she is to wake up Jon’s sleeping direwolf. I think all of us who have seen The Blue Lagoon know where this is headed.
And to the east, in the still-delightful fresco that is Qarth, Daenarys has managed to transform Ducksauce from suitor into secretary. But the meeting he arranges with the Spice King doesn’t go according to plan. When asked for a fleet of ships in return for future Queenly considerations, Captain Cardamom gently de-myrrhs: “I cannot make an investment based on wishes and dreams.” This is not a good line to use on Dany, who explodes like a delusional American Idol contestant in the audition rounds, screaming, “I’m no ordinary woman! My dreams come true!” (Sure they do, honey. Now calm down. We can’t all be Bikini Girl.) Dany’s tantrum is impressive (she rages about her treatment at the hands of the Spice King, Silk King, and Copper King, yet remains strangely silent about her audience with the Mattress King), but short-lived: While she was breathing fire, someone was stealing her dragons. Even worse, her entourage has been completed turtled; it appears she now has as many friends in Qarth as she does in the strange Kingdom she intends to rule. Halfhand’s words to Jon Snow seem as relevant here as they did beyond the wall — or anywhere the game of thrones is being played: “You start thinking you know this place, it’ll kill you.”
Violence and death aren’t the inevitable destinations for those who desire the crown — they're clearly an inescapable part of the journey. Sure, the first season wasn’t exactly a model study in Quakerism, but it seemed as if there were rules; Ned’s head never should have been detached from his body, but at least the executioner’s blade was sharp and true. If there’s one thing Sandor Clegane — and, in fact, the entire episode — taught us, it's that nowadays once you start cutting people, there’s no telling what might come spilling out.
Note on these recaps: I have not read the books and I have no intention to do so. My goal is to analyze and enjoy Game of Thrones strictly as a television show. So please, no spoilers or “I told you so”s in the comments, OK? OK!