I never thought I'd see the day when Sam Tarly had something in common with Cersei Lannister and yet here we are, two major characters both totally screwed, and I couldn't be happier. Ahhh, blessed day.
After the previous episode induced rage so blinding red spots flittered at the corner of my corneas for days, this one felt rather tame by comparison.
Sure, Cersei's end awaits and Sam got his end away, but it seemed to be an episode of few winners and mostly losers, and the eternal coin-tossing between the two states.
Remember, spoiler spoiler spoiler etcetera etcetera, leave now or forever hold your piece, you know the drill, sweet, so let's start as we mean to finish - with a bang.
The death of Maester Aemon, the last of the "classic-era" Targaryens, flavoured this whole episode not just with a sense of loss but the feeling of losing it.
The centenarian veteran of the Night's Watch has been an infrequent but calming presence throughout the series, passing on wisdom as well as messages from the ravens. But nothing lasts forever and the fact that Aemon can die relatively comfortable in bed is something of a miracle in this world.
Sam Tarly and Gilly made his final moments peaceful and even happy, with the old man remembering his younger brother - the future King Aegon - as a bouncing baby very similar to Gilly's son Little Sam, before having something of an Inception moment and dreaming that he was old.
Gilly's practicality and strength are the perfect foil for Sam's sensitivity during these final moments - she urges him to sleep and be strong and it's not just because he'll have to speak for Maester Aemon at his funeral pyre.
For Gilly is much more aware of potential treachery at Castle Black than Sam, arguably even more than Lord Commander Jon "Phwoar" Snow himself, who began the episode by farewelling Sam and receiving another jibe at his judgement from Ser Alliser Thorne In My Side (you know that's all he'll ever be). After telling Jon he's reckless to try to make peace with the Wildlings and then sneering at Sam that he was losing all his friends, the First Ranger really does make me shiver to the bone.
Sure enough, the little influence Sam had at Castle Black was soon challenged by a couple of skeevy Night's Watchmen who got all up in Gilly's grill and demanded a kiss, you know, a bit of affection, come on love, it's a lonely job up here at The Wall, gah, vom.
Sam, because he is honourable and kind and wonderful and adorable, stands up to them and cops one of the most brutal bashings of the show. "I killed a White Walker, I killed a Thenn, I'll take my chances with you," he tells the grubs, instantly winning the love of anyone who was ever bullied.
Awesomeness aside, Sam probably would've been killed had it not been for Ghost making a nick o'time appearance to scare off the greasy creeps. While I did wonder why Jon didn't take his direwolf with him beyond The Wall - surely Ghost would have been useful up there - it did make for a great, ahem, climax.
For Gilly nursed Sam back to health with a very special kind of bedside manner. She wasn't beyond scolding him, for she sees Sam as her baby's great protector, and he needs to be alive to do that. But she's also rather fond of him in her own way, and after seasons of sweet unrequited love, decided to break his vows to the Night's Watch when he was in no position to stop her.
Sam's response was a few groans of pain before a soft yet matter-of-fact "Oh, my". Sam's just lost something very important, but goodness gracious hasn't he found something very interesting indeed (assuming he found it under all those layers).
It's dangerous, if delightful, territory for the two young lovebirds, who will still face challenges in a Castle Black without Jon or Aemon on their side.
Further down from The Wall, Stannis is marooned in a sea of white, as winter snows threaten to derail his campaign to capture Winterfell before it can even begin. As Davos informs him their supply lines are shot, horses are dying and sellsword recruits are up and leaving in the night.
He's losing time and the advantage he had hoped to press, but Kate Bush has a solution, and unfortunately for Stannis it does not involve any tent-based nookie. Melisandre shut that down faster than I shut down Andrew on Grade 8 camp who decided we should totally "snog" even though he ignored me in normal school hours. Well I'm sorry, Andrew, but girls aren't readily seduced by the "I've got limited options so I pick you" line. 13-year-old Natalie had some RESPECT for herself. (Clearly that's gone, as I now fantasise about fictional characters, but hey, life happens, you know?)
Melisandre reckons Stannis should consider sacrificing Shireen to the Lord of Light because… I really don't know. That woman is more confusing than the instructions on flat pack furniture. Clearly the equation "Kill Shireen + ??? = Stannis Victory" makes sense to her, but she's operating on a level of maths I could only dream about failing. All I know is Stannis' recently acquired goodwill in my eyes will be lost the instant he decides to harm a hair on Shireen's head. That girl is golden, Stanny, and worth a thousand of Kate Bush (yes, even Babushka-era Kate Bush).
Further south again, we reach Winterfell, where BOO! HISS! Ramsay Bolton continues to smugly breathe air like some kind of human being, rather than the foetid stain on the side of a privvy bowl that he actually is.
The brutality inflicted upon Sansa in last week's shocking wedding night sequence has not let up, with the Stark heir subjected to degrading and damaging abuse by her so-called husband. She begs Theon to help her, refusing to call him Reek and restoring to him some of the dignity and humanity Ramsay stole.
Theon agrees to place a lit candle in the top window of the Broken Tower, but woe, alas, the bastard has struck again. I'm sure I'm not the only one whose face fell when Theon opened the door to the top room only to find Ramsay sitting at a dinner table like Lord Muck.
The torture continued (SO Ramsay) with the Bolton bastard showing off his latest flayed victim - the kindly servant who told Sansa what to do if she needed help. It's another mental blow for Sansa, on top of his physical ones - he has further isolated her from the outside world and any potential help. And yet he continues to sugar coat his violence with phrases like "I'm so glad we are married" and "You're so beautiful" and by thunder will nobody crossbow this guy in the nads?
The candle option might be gone, but there is still a shining light in all this mess (aside from my favourite Warrior Princess Brienne waiting patiently in nearby Winter Town). Sansa still has iron in her Stark blood, enough to undermine Ramsay's feelings of absolute power by referring to the possible claim on Winterfell of his soon to be new trueborn half brother. The veins nearly popped out of the bastard's scummy neck he was so peeved by the truth bomb.
More importantly, Sansa also quietly and neatly pocketed some sort of weapon while Ramsay boasted and bragged - it looked like a corkscrew to me, but I'm happy to be corrected, as long as the implement has some sort of natural advantage when it comes to potential stabbing. Fingers crossed Sansa will secrete it under a pillow to be used to stab off Ramsay the next time he attempts to get near her.
Jorah and Tyrion are experiencing the wins and losses of life as merchandise, as despite Danaerys' best intentions, it appears the fighting pits are still happily using slaves for entertainment. Put up for a quick sale, Jorah's cashed-up new owner agrees to shell out a few sheckels for Tyrion as well, because he's funny and does a passable job beating up on a fellow slave in chains.
The result is the pair ending up at a Fighting Pit Qualifying Match, which is expected to kill most of them. But you know, dying in shitty one on one combat is some kind of heroic ambition to the people of Meereen. I don't get it, and I'm not alone, because Daenerys turns up with her intended, Whiny Fighting Pits Guy, aka Hizdahr the Lorax, to watch.
Hizdahr should have "It's tradition" just tattooed on his forehead and be done with it, as that seems to be his response for everything. Dany is quite rightly disgusted at the brutal blood sports, which are totally not an appropriate place to be rocking such an amazing white dress. Imagine getting blood or gore on that fabric, it would be hell to get out.
After hearing cries honouring the Queen, Jorah looks out of the cell doors and sees his beloved Dany watching this hot mess. Oh! The look of joy on his face was just beautiful (fellas, you should look at your ladies like that when they get home, just a handy tip). Not wanting to lose his chance of finally talking to her again, Jorah wades out into the fray. Noticeably, he doesn't seem to kill fellow fighters, just knock them out and down as warranted. Dany is impressed by this warrior, who exudes nobility rather than savagery. But once his helmet is off, she's back to hating on him, telling guards to get him out of her sight.
Somehow in the hullaballoo Tyrion manages to get free, his chains broken by a silent and mysterious guard. Into the fray he strides, backing up Jorah's claim that he brought Dany a gift. "I'm the gift," he declares to a stunned Dany. "My name is Tyrion Lannister."
Ooohhh, two of my favourites actually meeting! What may come of this wonderful joining of two storylines? Please let it be glorious, not gory. With such intelligence, class and relative kindness in common I desperately want Dany and Tyrion to be new BFFs.
Finally, let us away to King's Landing to discuss some of the most gleeful events of the week.
Lady Olenna Tyrell is still campaigning to get Kate Middleton and Slow Lorus out of the slammer and takes her case to the High Septon or High Sparrow or whatever, she's the Queen of Thorns, doesn't have time for formalities, bitches.
There's a sweet exchange between the pair about the trials of age ("My knees, you?" "My hips"), before the Queen of Thorns presses the High Sparrow to confess his true motivation for getting all righteous on everybody. Olenna's a canny lady with a lot of credible cards to play but even she doesn't know how best to deal with someone who is a genuine loopy loony fanatic. Big Bird has a sack to wear and gruel to eat, so he's fine. He doesn't want Olenna's gold, he just wants to serve the Seven in much the same way Kevin Spacey did back in the 90s.
At least she's doing better than Cersei, who's quite proud of how efficiently she's disposed of Margaery. Sure, Tommen is distressed, because he actually loves his bride and despite being king cannot help her. Cersei smooths his ruffled feathers by saying she'll talk to the High Sparrow to help secure their release.
It's an interesting scene, with nothing super new about it save to remind us that Cersei is now down a kid and her whole lioness identity has only grown stronger because of it. But devoted motherhood is surely not her only motivation. She hides behind it but ultimately she's a selfish, power-hungry leech.
This becomes quite clear after she visits Kate Middleton in the Black Cells, where the younger more beautiful queen languishes without her hair stylist. Margaery is immediately wise to Cersei's faux-Samaritan act, tsk-tsking about the conditions and begging her to eat some of her own food. "Get out of here, you hateful bitch!" Margaery cries, throwing her food back at her face.
Cersei, appearing distraught and concerned, turns and leaves, breaking out into the smuggest of smug smiles since Arnold Smugzenegger won the Mr Smugniverse body-smugging competition.
And then… oh, and then…
All of Cersei's power layers were stripped away as the High Sparrow turned his beaming eye of justice straight onto her.
It was glorious. It was like Sauron but without the yonic imagery. The High Sparrow, espousing the simplicity of the preachers who came before Baelor and his "gilded monstrosity", the sept above them. There in the chapel, Big Bird told Cersei of a broken young man who had been healed since 'fessing all to the brothers. Then out popped Lancel and it was all over, red rover.
I mean, you've got to hand it to Cersei for being deluded enough to think that she actually had the High Sparrow and his cult under control. She knew her cousin Lancel was involved; he'd confronted her about their assignation after all.
Surprised for Cersei is one thing, but humbled is another, and she's not going to head down that path quickly. "Look at my face," she spat at the Silent Sisters as they threw her into her own Black Cell. "It's the last thing you'll see before you die." Don't write her off completely - sure, I'm glad to see her cop some sweet, sweet comeuppance, but Cersei is a survivor.
Unless the High Sparrow finds out about the whole Jaime thing. I mean there's incest and then there's incest, am I right?
Yay! Best Moments
There were some corkers, but I just adored Bronn's encounter with the Sand Snakes in the Sunspear cells.
Tyene Sand distracts our favourite sellsword by slowly undressing, tempting him to admit that she is in fact, the most beautiful woman he's ever seen.
Bronn tries playing hard to get, until he finds it rather hard to see, and finally rather hard to breathe. It turns out the dagger Tyene slashed him with during their fight was laced with an Asshai poison, and only she has the antidote to save him.
It was a delightfully silly bit of one-upmanship, made all the more delicious by Nymeria and Obama, sorry, Obara Sand rolling their eyes at their saucy sister. Let's hope they all join forces at some point - having said it was against his code to fight women, it would be marvellous to see Bronn acknowledge the skill female fighters can have.
Zing! Best Lines
Jaime had a brief audience with his daughter-niece Myrcella Water in Dorne, in which she got stroppy about his attempts to remove her from Dorne for her own safety. As far as she's concerned, she was doing her duty as instructed by Cersei, and her mother has quite a cheek demanding she return to King's Landing now.
Myrcella: You look different. You had more hair. Jaime: And more hands.
Littlefinger is back in King's Landing and creeping about his old fleshmarket like a creepy fleshy thing. The ever-practical Olenna Tyrell joins him there to discuss their joint fate - if her house falls, she will take him down with her. After all, they did conspire to bump off Joffrey (which if anything should get them a parade, not prison).
But Petyr Baelish still believes he's the kind of ally a smart gal like Olenna needs, and claims to have information about another young man who could be of importance. Who's he referring to? Jon Snow? Ramsay Bolton? For crying out loud, Littlefinger, I know you're just playing "I Win Everything Always" but jeez I'd love a bit more insight into the rules. Be careful, OIenna. This guy is a Class 1 Creepazoid.
I could watch Dany and Maario macking on all day. Clearly macking on with Maario himself would be preferable and obviously I can make myself available if needs be, but being a third eye in their cosy bedroom is a close second to the action.
What's not so cool is Dany's sense of being trapped by her status, as evidenced by her refusal when Maario suggests she marry him instead. "You're the Queen, you can do what you like," he says, half covered by an irritating bedsheet. And yet, Dany can't, because she needs to have the city on her side to future-proof against potential threats.
Maario's final suggestion is that she round up all the good burghers of Meereen and slaughter them, an idea that horrifies Dany. She ain't no butcher, she tells Maario, who remains decent despite me pausing the replay several times in an attempt to see more flesh. "All rulers are either butchers or meat," he replies. It's a horrid truth, and I hope it's not the only way for Dany. What's helped make her so different is her relative mercy towards enemies; but her grasp on her personal philosophy seems to be slipping (even if her grasp on Maario's glutes remains strong).