Week after week in its fourth season, Game of Thrones is giving us episodes filled with bleakness and bitter truths that always manage to include a triumphant note, be it Daenerys' efforts to rid the world of slavery or, in this episode, Jon ridding the North of the gross Night's Watch mutineers. As satisfying as it was to see Karl (Burn Gorman) and his band of creepy rapists dispatched in a bloody fashion, this episode reinforced the dark, chaotic world that's calcifying around our heroes.
But we still do have heroes to root for. Even though Thrones puts so many characters to death and so many others in morally compromised positions, we're still supposed to be rooting for them. The Stark children, especially, continue to be the moral bedrock of the show even as they are taught lesson after harsh lesson about how to survive in Westeros. Bran Stark got a real hero moment this week while tied up in the shack, but he accomplished it (saving his companions from the villainous Locke) with a real violation—mentally jumping into Hodor's body and using him to kill. It was easy to cheer when Hodor snapped Locke's neck, but the episode made sure to show us Hodor's haunted face as Bran left him and he examined his bloody hands.
We're in the middle of the season, which always means lots of table-setting, so the episode made sure to give us the big showdown at Craster's Keep just to punctuate the episode with something really memorable and compelling. It tied off that very nasty, dark storyline very nicely. Karl and his band of mutineers were barely characters, just totems of evil, existing only to rape and torture the poor women they're holding prisoner. They had no future outside of their final showdown with Jon Snow and his merry men, although the episode made the symbolically important choice of having one of Craster's daughters help finish off Karl.
The fourth season continues to teach tough lessons to Arya and Sansa, the separated Stark sisters who move from one difficult situation to another, serving parallel sentences as prisoners, although Sansa's cage always remains a gilded one. Smuggled out of King's Landing, away from the tormenting Lannisters and her miserable husband, Sansa should be in much better circumstances at The Eyrie, where she's in the hands of her Aunt Lysa.
We quickly understand, in one of the season's biggest revelations so far, that Lysa is just as unpredictable and dangerous as the world Sansa was just extricated from. She is entirely in Petyr Baelish's pocket, and we learn that it was she who poisoned her husband, Jon Arryn, at Baelish's request, then blamed it on the Lannisters in a letter to her sister. This was the inciting event that began the whole series, with Ned feeling incumbent to go down to King's Landing to solve this mystery, and Catelyn going on her own journey to protect Lysa. Littlefinger told Varys last season that chaos was a ladder, and he's been sowing chaos from minute one, trusting that he can remain one step ahead of everyone and end up on top.
So much of this depends on Lysa's mad love for him, which seemingly traces back to their childhoods and her jealousy of Catelyn. One of the episode's creepiest scenes sees her forcefully interrogating Sansa about Petyr's desire to keep her safe (we've been told over and over that Sansa looks like her mother as a young woman). Lysa is convinced that Sansa is the real apple of Littlefinger's eye, and we've seen what a paranoid, jumpy woman she can be.
Meanwhile, Arya has settled into a weirdly co-dependent relationship with her captor, the Hound, even as she names him on her list of people she wants to kill as she falls asleep in front of him. Later in the episode, he slaps her down and mocks her sword dancing abilities, telling her that brute strength wins battles and wars, not the craftiness she learned from Syrio Forel way back in the first season. But is the Hound right? Look at Petyr's growing influence (he's now married to Lysa and is Lord of the Vale, one of the seven kingdoms).
Then compare it to Daenerys, who took each of the cities in Slaver's Bay by force and overthrew their evil masters, but is watching her gains crumble in front of her as she leaves the cities behind. She only had one scene this week, a summit with her council of advisers, but it set her on a definitive plot path—she can't look to conquer Westeros without keeping these cities in check and reinforcing her gains. As she tells Jorah, she has to learn to rule, not conquer.
Along with the Starks, right now the show's other hero is Lady Brienne, the closest Thrones comes to a traditional definition of chivalrous knighthood. She's a warrior on a quest, now accompanied by a noble squire, who is motivated not by a desire for power or influence but simply because she wants to do the right thing. Brienne is tough and more and more worldly, and the same goes for Podrick, her squire, who is stout of heart and utterly heroic, but just spent a year pouring wine for Tyrion and learning the dark ways the world is run. Put shortly, they make for an adorable couple and will hopefully remain one of the bright spots to watch as this season goes on.
This episode's biggest and most impressive move was its continued efforts to add shading and sympathy for Cersei Lannister, who so easily could be a witch-like villain. She opens the episode by admitting to Margaery (whom she despises) that Joffrey was a monster and Tommen will need a good wife to help him rule. This is not some long con. As she discusses with Tywin later, the Lannisters needs the Tyrells to hold their alliance, especially given the shocking revelation that they don't have all the gold people think they have and are deeply indebted to the Iron Bank of Braavos (more on that next week). Jaime has given up on Tywin's obsession with the family legacy, and Tyrion has been kicked to the curb, but Cersei for all her flaws knows where her father is coming from.
But she is not just the cruel, canny operator that Tywin is. Cersei's conversation with Oberyn Martell was a highlight of the episode, where she discussed her daughter Myrcella (shipped off to Dorne in season two) and practically begged Oberyn to keep her safe and happy. Oberyn, still on his high horse but acknowledging her compassion, assured her the Dornish don't hurt little girls. "Everywhere in the world they hurt little girls," Cersei replied, silencing him. He knows, and we know, that it's one of this show's utter truths.