The character who I feel benefits the most from their on-screen time in this episode is Theon Greyjoy. In last week's episode we saw that Theon's homecoming didn't go as he had planned, and this week we see more of Theon's reaction to the cold reception he faced from his family. Theon has never been portrayed as an especially virtuous character, but Alfie Allen's strong performance in this episode builds a lot of sympathy; even if we might condemn his decisions, we're nonetheless getting a much better idea of why he's making them, and we might even feel a bit sorry for Theon.
We also get our first season 2 view of Renly Baratheon and company in this week's episode, but I didn't feel that these scenes were especially compelling. Loras Tyrell comes across as being quite petulant, and though Margaery's character is interesting I didn't feel that I had much cause to sympathize with her yet, since she's just being introduced. Part of my general disappointment here may be due to the differences between the portrayals of Renly Baratheon in the books and on the show. In the books he comes across as being quite genuinely charismatic and confident, and it doesn't seem that much of a surprise that he'd be able to rally the banners of the Stormlands and the Reach to his cause. The television series, however, shows us a conflicted man full of hesitations who relies on Loras to be his strength. I don't think the latter approach is necessarily worse, nor am I bothered that the series is deviating from the books here and there (nor am I the only one to have noticed this particular difference). I just think the television-Renly comes across as more of a hopeless pretender than book-Renly does, and I'm not sure whether or not that's a change for the better in the long-run. Perhaps seeing more of Renly as this season progresses will change my opinion, as there's still a ways left to go...
We're also treated to an amazing montage with Tyrion and the remaining members of the Small council in which the Halfman shows off his aptitude for playing the political games of King's Landing. This is the sort of intricate plot where you'll think there's no way they could do it justice on television after reading it in the books, but yet again the writers, directors, and producers behind Game of Thrones have exceeded expectations by distilling the essence of a fairly complicated ploy into a single scene. The resulting encounters Tyrion has with Petyr Baelish, Maester Pycelle, and Varys are all quite satisfying as well; I was especially pleased to see how pathetic Pycelle looked after they cut off his "manhood".
That said, this episode wasn't without a few flaws. Despite all the brilliant work that went into Tyrion's plot with the councillors, there were also a number awkward moments in the direction and editing. In particular, there were a few shots that seem to linger far too long without really having much to say. There's a close-up shot of Margaery Tyrell when Renly walks away with Catelyn that doesn't seem to say anything about the characters involved. The scene where Pycelle is dragged away by Bronn and Timett (?) features two close-ups of the prostitute, the first of which gives us a moment of questionable continuity when she appears to be looking in a different direction when we cut away. Perhaps they felt it necessary to give her extra screen time to affirm to the viewer that this was the new girl introduced just before the bastard-hunting montage of season 1, but it felt clunky to me. The close up of Balon Greyjoy works because of the intensity of Alfie Allen's performance behind him, but even that seemed a bit awkward - a bit of a reaction from him, even if small or subtle, would have been welcome. Finally, the episode's closing shot on Gendry's bull helmet lingers on for nearly 7 seconds, which is a lot of time for a still shot with no characters or dialogue. Again, perhaps this is an attempt to make things glaringly obvious so that viewers aren't confused, but it just feels awkward to me.
Some short-form observations:
- We see more of Gemma Whelan's take on Yara Greyjoy this week, and she shows a menacing, almost stoic confidence. Her body language when she confronts Theon - standing uncomfortably close to him - is a subtle but effective way to show that she won't be intimidated by her brother.
- The scene where Cersei confronts Tyrion regarding his plans for Myrcella was another strong one for Lena Heady. These scenes showing her temperamental side really help to show how much self-control Cersei is exerting to appear calm most of the time.
- Speaking of Cersei's calm side, I really loved the dinner scene with her, the younger children, and Sansa. This helps to reinforce the relationship between Cersei and her children (which, of course, becomes important later on in the episode), and it's one of Sophie Turner's best scenes yet as Sansa.
- The scene with Sansa and Shae, however, came across as a little awkward. This is somewhat appropriate since both characters are obviously quite appropriate in that situation, but it's a bit unclear exactly what Sansa thinks or feels about her new maid.
- I find Shae less likeable on the TV series than I did in the books. It would be nice to reinforce the positive sides of her relationship with Tyrion, to show why he's going through all this trouble for her.
- Showing Gwendoline Christie as Brienne side-by-side with Michelle Fairley as Catelyn does a great job of emphasizing just how immense "Brienne the Beauty" is.
- Francis Magee's performance as Yoren in this episode was excellent, and I'm glad we got to see a bit more of him before he met his end.
Overall this was an enjoyable episode with some really amazing scenes, but a few low points brought it slightly down. This season is still doing a lot of stage-setting for things to come, and things might feel a bit less dramatic at this point due to the number of characters being introduced, but it's still very enjoyable to see this story brought to life on-screen.