“The Prince of Winterfell” feels very much like a calm before the storm episode. We know from trailers (and from what the characters are saying and doing) that “Blackwater,” the much-hyped battle we’ve been waiting for all season, is on the way next Sunday, putting this week’s hour, by default, into prelude mode. So, with all the anticipation built up over what’s going to happen next week, how do you keep this week’s episode relevant and compelling and more than just a placeholder? Answer: don’t try. Just tell your story.
WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD!
In Winterfell: Theon (Alfie Allen) continues to work to consolidate his power as the new lord of Winterfell, while his sister Yara (Gemma Whelan) isn’t convinced. Meanwhile, Bran (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) and company try to stay alive in hiding.
Beyond the Wall: Jon (Kit Harington) is turned over to the Wildlings by the crafty Ygritte (Rose Leslie), and finds his parentage has saved his life. Sam (John Bradley-West) makes a discovery that could prove very useful to the men of the Night’s Watch.
In the Stark Camp: Robb (Richard Madden) butts heads with his mother (Michelle Fairley), and gets closer to Talisa (Oona Chaplin). Brienne (Gwendoline Christie) deals with Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau).
In Harrenhal: Tywin (Charles Dance) finally makes his move, which sends Arya (Maisie Williams) into desperation mode.
In the Narrow Sea: Stannis (Stephen Dillane) readies his ships for the siege of King’s Landing, reveals the bitterness behind his bid for the throne, and makes a promise to Davos (Liam Cunningham).
In Qarth: Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) schemes to get her dragons back from the warlocks.
In King’s Landing: Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) fights to prepare the city for siege as Stannis approaches, while Cersei (Lena Headey) is happy to continue scheming against him, Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) remains completely unaware of the seriousness of the situation and Varys (Conleth Hill) continues to be frustratingly evasive.
It seems that the most compelling of these storylines, by default, is what’s going on in King’s Landing. That’s where everything’s about to go down. The walls are being readied for a siege, but it seems the only person inside the walls making a sincere attempt to survive what’s to come is Tyrion. Dinklage does some of his best work of the season here, ranging from anger to sensitivity to absolute terror, and plenty of the usual wise-cracking smoothness we’ve come to love. But that’s not the most interesting part. What’s most interesting about watching the Lannister/Baratheon family’s maneuvers as an army that seems impossible to beat draws closer is their ability to continue their absolute self-absorption and self-destructiveness. Stannis is ready to destroy them. He’s confident, he’s strong, he knows what he’s after. But even as he knocks on their doors, the rulers of King’s Landing seem happier to be at odds with each other. It’s a powerful insight into the family, and it’s bound to make for an interesting outcome next week.
The other key to this week’s episode, for me, was Stannis. He gets very little screen time, but what he gets might be the most important piece of his character we’ve seen yet. In a single speech about his role during his brother Robert’s rebellion, Stannis’ motivations for seizing the throne, his uncompromising ways and his coldness toward his own family are all seen in a new light. He’s determined not just to beat the Lannisters, but to beat his own past, to beat back all those times that he’d placed last among his brothers. Stannis is after more than just a crown. He’s after vindication, which in a way explains a lot about the odd religious kick he’s on.
But back to what we were talking about at the start of this recap. “The Prince of Winterfell” was always going to be a prelude to something bigger. It’s unavoidable when the next episode promises to be so bloody and so epic. But Game of Thrones is not about to waste an hour waiting for what comes next. It’s not too heavy on plot, but this week’s episode is, like last week, packed with character moments just waiting to pay off in a big way. Even as the fantasy elements of the series ratchet up, Game of Thrones refuses to rely on them to make things interesting. Next week things might get bigger, but with storytelling like this we don’t have to worry if they’ll get better.