In terms of pure action, the season’s third episode didn’t have a ton. There was but one on-screen death (well, two if you count that dude in the House of Black and White) but in terms of setting up future episodes, lots of foundations were laid here.
The five biggest takeaways from the episode…
1. Jon Snow means business
Jon Snow has always been a righteous and honorable young man. To a fault, almost. His sense of duty — clearly inherited from his late father — is admirable, but to achieve greatness in the Seven Kingdoms, you’ve got to be more than just dutiful. Now that he’s not just another foot soldier, but the newly elected Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch it’s time to see what kind of leader he is.
This is something that’s on the mind of Stannis, as well. He and his army are still taking up residence at The Wall, and Jon would kindly like to know how much longer they’ll be there. It takes a lot of food to feed a second army, after all. Stannis tells Jon he’ll be marching on Winterfell within a fortnight and he’ll leave it to Jon to figure out what to do with the captive wildlings, since they’d rather burn than march with Stannis. He suggests Tormund (that’s our red bearded friend) might be more open to compromise than the late Mance Rayder, but Stannis truly has no time for this anymore. He does wonder what Jon will do with his rival, Ser Alliser Thorne. Jon will keep him around, which Stannis finds a bit puzzling. “I heard it was best to keep your enemies close,” Jon says. “Whoever said that must not have had many enemies,” Stannis replies before walking out on a Costanza-like high note.
Davos hangs back for a bit to talk with Jon a little more, and to ask once again for some help invading Winterfell. He even invokes the Night’s Watch oath to help convince Jon that aiding Stannis is the right thing to do. If they have a duty to be “the shield that guards the realms of men” perhaps sitting in a frozen castle at the end of the world isn’t the best way to accomplish this. Davos says as long as the Boltons rule the North, the North will suffer, leaving Jon with something to ponder.
Later, Jon is leading his first meeting as Lord Commander. Maester Aemon isn’t there, which seems random to note so that’s probably something to store away. It’s time for Jon to delegate some tasks and he throws a couple of curveballs — he doesn’t make Ser Alliser leader of latrine duty, but instead names him First Ranger. Not as lucky in his assignment is that little snake Janos Slynt. Jon orders him to guard some far off ruin, exiled to irrelevance. Slynt — the former commander of the King’s Landing City Watch, whose exile to The Wall was insult enough in his mind — refuses Jon’s order. More specifically, he tells Jon to “stick your order up your bastard a–.”
We’ve all wanted to say something like this to a new boss that we didn’t quite see eye to eye with, but we’ve thought better of it. Janos let his anger and pride get the best of him and it is a decision he will live (very briefly) to regret. Jon jumps into action and asks Olly to bring him his sword. Janos thinks that Alliser will protect him, but he’s quite wrong on that front; Alliser steps aside and lets some men of the Watch take Janos to the chopping block. Soon enough Janos’s defiance (“The boy thinks he can frighten me! He’s mistaken!”) turns into terrified bawling and begging for his life with his head on the wood: “I was wrong! I’m sorry not only for this, but for all I’ve done! … I’ll go, I will. I’m afraid. I’ve always been afraid.”
Some might call this a pathetic display, some might call it an incredibly vulnerable human moment. A man is confronted with his mortality, pleads for mercy and admits his lifelong failings. As Jon stands above him, sword in hand, we expect the empathetic Jon to show mercy. Maybe the old Jon Snow. The new version lops Janos’s head off with one clean whack. Stannis, who watched this all transpire from a nearby balcony, shows his approval in the most enthusiastic manner possible for him — half a smirk and a quarter nod.
While there is some initial shock to Jon going through with this execution, there’s also plenty of poetic justice to it. It was Janos Slynt who, as commander of the City Watch, sold out Ned Stark, which eventually led to his beheading. And the scene also recalls the moment in the show’s first episode when Ned himself had to carry out a beheading of Will, the member of the Night’s Watch who abandoned his post in a fit of White Walker-inspired fear.
2. Cersei knows her allies and enemies
Cersei Lannister can feel her power slipping away, but she is not one to let it go without a fight. Her influence over King Tommen is waning more and more — every, let’s say, 47 seconds? — now that he and Margaery have officially tied the knot and everything that happens after that. Margaery tries to use some very basic and emasculating reverse psychology on Tommen to convince him to try to get Cersei out of their hair (“It’s so great to have her here watching over you … a lioness guarding over her cub”) but Tommen’s heavy-handed approach with his mother makes it quite clear who’s delivering the message. (“Do you miss Casterly Rock? … Wouldn’t you be happier in Casterly Rock?”)
So Cersei decides she may as well cut out the middleman and go speak with the Queen herself. Margaery and her pals are chatting away about the new Queen’s new nightly routine when Cersei drops in. Margaery immediately starts with the burns — “I wish we had some wine for you, it’s a bit early for us” — and the two have one of those overly-polite confrontations in which their total antipathy for each other is made more evident with each smiling dagger. Margaery gets one last dig in, asking whether Cersei should be called Queen Mother or Dowager Queen, before suggesting that it she’ll be the Queen grandmother soon enough. The message is clear — out with the old, in with the new.
So if Cersei is losing her power and influence within the traditional structure, it’s time to search for some help in other places. Enter the Sparrows, the fundamentalist religious group that has become a major force in King’s Landing in the wake of Tywin’s death. They continue to make their presence felt in the capital, this time by interrupting the High Septon’s role playing sex game in a brothel and parading him out in the streets to be greeted with chants of “sinner, sinner.” The High Septon goes to complain to Cersei and the small council (that old rascal Pycelle is on his side: “A man’s private affairs out to stay private!”) and demands the High Sparrow be executed.
But that’s the opposite of what Cersei does. She wades through the pungent masses to visit this mysterious High Sparrow, who is busy ladling out soup and passing out bread to his hungry followers. Unlike Lancel, who comes off as a reprogrammed zealot, this High Sparrow fella seems pretty down to Earth and salt of the Earth. Cersei informs him that while the High Septon has asked for his execution, Cersei has instead thrown him into the Red Keep for unbecoming behavior. And she hints at allying with the growing Sparrow movement, saying the faith and the crown are the two pillars of society, and they must do everything necessary to protect one another.
3. Tyrion gets kidnapped by Jorah Mormont
The Tyrion/Varys roadshow on the way to meet up with Daenerys makes a pit stop in Volantis. This wasn’t a joint decision; Varys is all, we’re making great time, why stop now? And Tyrion is all, I’m literally losing my mind. Varys is worried that someone will spot the fugitive Tyrion, but Tyrion argues that they are thousands of miles from Westeros (Volantis is on the southern coast of Essos) and he’ll be seen as just one more drunk dwarf.
Varys and Tyrion make their way through the marketplace and Tyrion briefly disappears to observe a woman preaching to a small crowd about the power and glory of the Lord of the Light. She says the Lord has sent a savior — the Dragon Queen. The preacher spots Tyrion and seems to stare deep into his soul before a spooked Tyrion heads off with Varys to a seemingly safer place — a brothel. In this fine establishment, the most popular of the ladies is in full Daenerys cosplay mode. Tyrion sidles up to an ignored girl, one with what he calls a “skeptical mind,” but when she takes his hand to lead him to the back, Tyrion is unable to go through with it, no doubt pangs of guilt and remorse from what happened with Shae.
But not being able to take part in his favorite pasttime doesn’t end up being the worst thing to happen to Tyrion. In the midst of one of his other favorite activities — urinating off a ledge — who should come up from behind and abduct him but Ser Jorah Mormont. Varys knew they shouldn’t have stopped…
4. Littlefinger has a plan
If there’s one thing we have learned through 43 episodes now, it’s that Littlefinger always has a plan. He probably has multiple plans, contingency plans for all of those plans and is already thinking three steps ahead of everyone else. So when he and Sansa ride towards Moat Cailin and he tells her that she will be wed to Roose Bolton’s son, Ramsay, we kind of have to trust that he knows what he’s doing even if this sounds on the surface like an awful idea.
About that Ramsay — in case you thought being officially named a Bolton brought an end to his sadistic bloodlust … well, nobody really thought that, I suppose. Moat Cailin isn’t the most scenic outpost but it’s even less inviting with flayed bodies being raised into the air on the regular. Ramsay tells his father (all while barely stopping to chew his food) that his latest victims met their fate for not paying taxes and pledging loyalty to the Starks. So Ramsay did what any insane person would do — he flayed father, mother and brother living, while making another son watch. Roose Bolton can’t really be bothered with this nonsense as he has more important things to worry about. He doesn’t have enough men to hold the North if there’s an uprising and his pact with the Lannisters is pretty much worthless in the wake of Tywin’s death. The Boltons have reached the almost-top by forging alliances, and it’s time for another one. Enter Sansa.
She is appropriately horrified at the prospect of aligning herself with the Boltons, given, you know, that they are responsible for the death of her brother and mother. And she doesn’t even know what she’s getting into with Ramsay, the one man in the Seven Kingdoms even more sadistic than her former husband-to-be, Joffrey. But Littlefinger has a way with words. He convinces her that this union in her best interests and that, ultimately, this will be the best path toward avenging what has happened to her family.
When Sansa and Roose Bolton first come eye to eye, she stares him down in a manner that cannot be misinterpreted before politely curtseying and playing nice. As she’s introduced to Ramsay, we see Myranda — Ramsay’s favorite plaything, who is as violent and retributive as he is — look on, displeased. This will likely spell trouble for Sansa in the near future. (That sentence may as well be her new motto, honestly.)
While Sansa gets a welcome return at least from her a handmaiden (“The North remembers,” she tells her) Roose Bolton and Littlefinger get down to details regarding this arranged marriage. Bolton is skeptical of Littlefinger’s motives, but he explains that the Lannister name is growing weak — Jaime has one hand, which is still one more than he has allies, Tommen is a “soft boy” and Queen Margaery adores Sansa. As a message arrives from King’s Landing, Bolton remains in doubt but Littlefinger drops one of his Littlefingerisms on him to end the line of questioning: “Every ambitious move is a gamble.”
5. Arya gets impatient in the House of Black and White
Is Arya ready to say goodbye to Arya Stark? This is the existential question presented to her during the first days of her stay in the House of Black and White. She’s an impatient little kid and is basically: enough with the floor sweeping, let’s get on with the face swiping. Jaqen H’ghar preaches patience and lectures her in his annoying Yoda speak which has to be annoying. A recapper gets frustrated listening to that.
Arya goes through a bit of a hazing process, getting viciously whipped by one of the other young apprentices (and hilariously throwing the c-word at her) before Jaqen intercedes. He asks Arya: How can you become No One when your possessions are all Arya Stark’s? So Arya grudgingly takes all of her belongings and tosses them into the sea. Except for Needle, her beloved sword. She simply can’t part with it, so she buries it in some rocks. Back inside the House, Arya gets back to sweeping before being put to work washing the body of a seemingly-dead man who was seen inside the House earlier. Her and Whipping Girl get to washing the body, but Arya’s questions about what happens after that go unanswered. We’re with Arya — get to the face swiping already.
The Brienne and Podrick exposition backstory tour continues. Brienne explains why she was so devoted to Renly — basically, he treated her like a human being, which was a rarity back when she was a gawky young woman. She knows that Shadow Stannis killed Renly and she will get her revenge. Meanwhile, she’s going to teach the poor dude how to ride a horse … Qyburn is up to some shenanigans in his laboratory. We see a vicious spasm come from something under a large sheet. A Frankenstein Mountain? … Theon/Reek is still a servant at Moat Cailin. We have to assume he’ll cross paths with Sansa at some point … Nothing on the Khaleesi front, but it’s safe to assume she made some blundering political decision offscreen.