This episode might start with a not-so-subtle metaphor in its title, but that metaphor pays off in compelling scenes for a whole host of supporting characters.
Beyond the Wall, Jon (Kit Harington) and Ygritte (Rose Leslie) embark on an ambitious climb of The Wall with their fellow Wildlings. In the North, Bran (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) tries to make peace among his friends, Sam (John Bradley) tries to take charge, Theon (Alfie Allen) plays a game with his captor and Arya (Maisie Williams) learns a dark secret of the brotherhood. At Harrenhal, Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) gets some welcome news. In Riverrun, Robb (Richard Madden) makes plans for a new alliance. And in King’s Landing, Tywin (Charles Dance) and Olenna (Diana Rigg) square off, Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) bonds with Cersei (Lena Headey) over mutual pain, Sansa (Sophie Turner) gets some unwelcome news and Varys (Conleth Hill) gets a surprise from Littlefinger (Aidan Gillen).
The episode’s centerpiece is the literal “climb,” a daring scaling of the hundreds of feet high ice Wall that separates the North from the “real” North. It’s beautifully shot, but more importantly it provides a very different kind of action than what we’ve seen in most of the show so far. It’s more of an adventure story, less about military exploits or court intrigue, and that makes it refreshing. Unfortunately, apart from a predictable gesture of loyalty between Jon and Ygritte and a few knowing looks from their comrades, it doesn’t provide much in the way of characterization. Still, it’s damn fun to watch.
The real meat of this episode, like so many before it, is in King’s Landing, where deals are being made yet again. The most enjoyable scene in the episode, by far, is between Dance’s Tywin and Rigg’s Olenna, two of the show’s most fascinating and entertaining characters. Remember that scene in The Dark Knight when The Joker says to Batman “this is what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object”? It’s like that, but with more wine. Seriously, though, it’s an example of how much fun this show can be when all the characters get to play in this massive sandbox. I really do feel like a lesser writing stuff would spend all its time playing Dinklage for laughs or having Joffrey behead anyone who looked at him funny. Instead we get a show that’s richly layered with personalities. That means that the show is not only a grab bag of fascinating characters, but that it’s also a source of surprising and often stirring combinations of those characters. We got that here.
The second-best scene of the episode comes when Tyrion and Cersei have a quiet moment together to talk about the fact that they’re both now promised to marry people they definitely don’t want to marry. Over the last few episodes they’ve shown nothing but malice toward one another, and while that’s definitely not going away, this scene is a powerful example of the bond they share, which largely comes from their overbearing, cold-blooded father. Both feel like outcasts in his eyes somehow, and they see that in each other. Plus, they make each other laugh, and that’s something this show always needs more of.
And finally, the show brings things home with a square-off between Varys and Littlefinger, as they slither around one another once again. The scene is largely about something Littlefinger did that Varys must now find a way to get revenge for, but the key moment comes when they discuss (as both so often have in the show’s run thus far), the nature of power and success and failure in this world. Littlefinger contends that “the realm” is merely a lie built on legends that everyone keeps choosing to believe. Varys argues that the alternative to such a story is a pit o “chaos,” to which Littlefinger brilliantly replies “Chaos isn’t a pit. Chaos is a ladder.” Last season Varys made a similar thematic proclamation when he told Tyrion that “power resides where men believe it resides.” Last season was very much about power, who had it and how much they had, and who could take it from them. This season is also about power, but it’s about power that less couched in loyalty and honor and force of arms and more about ambition. We’re watching a large collection of characters – Jon, Margaery, Melisandre, Daenerys and Olenna among them – climb toward something. We know they won’t all get there. We know some of them will fall quite dramatically, but like many characters before them they’re attempting “the climb.” It sounds a bit corny, but this show can get away with corny if it does it elegantly enough. This episode was definitely elegant, but more importantly, it was a compelling series of often unexpected conversations between characters of all stripes. It gave us a chance to step back and look at the depth of this world again, and it still delivered some action along the way. Overall, a very entertaining hour.