Well, that was an oddly paced episode, and not in a good way. We're halfway through the season, and yet in almost every respect this felt like a season opener concerned with pointing out how things were going to develop. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing when you're setting up the back half of a year, but when your first half still hasn't blossomed, the end result is rather frustrating.
(TV spoilers follow)
It's perhaps not surprising that this episode feels a little unsatisfactory. It's basic structure - have an exciting start and finish and spend the rest of the time meandering - is essentially identical to last week's. Perhaps diminishing returns are setting in. Certainly the ambushes in Meereen did a better job of masking the slowness of "Sons of the Harpy" than the attack of the stone men did here. It was a great scene, I admit, and demonstrates just how confident the show has become in tossing out action scenes like this - just compare how good this looks with the massive let-down of Jon's encounter with a wight back in season one. But with a structure long on set-up and with a last-minute burst of activity to keep the watcher hooked, the show seems on the brink of falling into a model entirely too close to that of Lost for my liking (a parallel only strengthened by the show dropping King's Landing for the whole episode just as it was getting interesting).
The central problem here is, appropriately enough, the central segment, some twenty minutes long and set in and around Winterfell. The Boltons simply aren't working, mainly because there's nothing to them except permutations of their obvious nastiness. Roose says something awful, then Ramsay says something awful, and so on forever. The effect isn't even upsetting any more, it's just numbing: my reaction to learning Ramsay was the product of rape wasn't horror, it was an eye-roll, because of course he was. What other route would this show take in fleshing out these cartoonishly evil characters (though in fairness Ramsay's origin is the same in the books)? But that's the problem: you can't put flesh on a cartoon.
Myranda is no more interesting. She seems to have completely taken over Shae's role as "jealous woman complaining about the necessity of a political marriage between her lover and Sansa Stark", and when you can define a recurring theme that precisely you know you've got problems somewhere. Only Walda escapes this pattern of wretchedness. "Nicest Frey" is not a high bar to clear, but she seems nice enough for me to worry about her chances of making it to the wedding buffet. But then again, the show has put precisely zero effort into making me care about her; I genuinely couldn't tell you if she'd had a line of dialogue before. So whilst I'd rather she escape the fate she seems rather too likely to suffer - let's not forget as if we could what happened the last time an inconvenient pregnant wife showed up to a wedding organised by a Bolton - that's simply because I'm rather tired of how this show treats its ancillary female characters. I've got nothing invested in Walda as a person.
All of which means there's basically nothing to the Winterfell plot beyond the extreme sense of unease around Sansa's impending nuptials. Which is certainly a thing - I'm almost positive Sansa will be fine, but that almost is carrying more weight than I'd like it to - but a little goes a long way and even this feels in danger of becoming tired. It's not helped by the fact that we know Sansa is in trouble, and Sansa knows Sansa is in trouble. There's no dramatic irony, no sense that something is going on we don't already know about. Well, there probably is something going on we don't know about, which is how Sansa plans to enact her vengeance. But her precarious position is forcing a return to her standard state of careful passivity. Which I entirely get, don't get me wrong; I'm not going to criticise the strategy a young woman currently into her third enforced betrothal to a seeming or brutally actual monster decides to employ. But as a result we get no feeling for how this scenario might be building to a happier conclusion than it did last time around. Given how far Sansa has come I'm really hoping she's picked up enough skills to effect her own escape this time - to become in Phil Sandifer's words "a self-rescuing princess". Certainly the books (which have Sansa in a very different situation at this point, but still involve her betrothed to a man based on Littlefinger's plans) seem to be pointing towards something similar. And remember how the first season was all about presenting standard fantasy tropes just to smash them? Maybe this one has simply taken longer to develop than most.
But even if Sansa does manage to pull that off - and man, that will be glorious - there's no sense of when it will arrive. It isn't something we're driving towards, seeing landmarks on either side as we approach our goal. It's a parcel we're pretty sure someone has posted, but from another country and by uncertain route. And if we do get to see Sansa extricate herself, what does that imply for Brienne's plot of sitting near Winterfell and trying to send Catelyn's oldest surviving child fan mail? Given Brienne's aim is to rescue Sansa and Sansa's aim is to rescue herself, it seems better then even odds that they can't both get a fulfilling plot-line this season, unless Brienne gets to quickly shift to trying to kill Stannis when he shows up.
If he shows up at all, of course. It's a long way from the Wall to Winterfell, and if Stannis is right and winter shows up, it will be a hard march, especially since none of his troops are likely to have ever been north of Harrenhal before they sailed for Eastwatch. Are we headed for a second episode ten Stannis-save in as many seasons? Or will we instead get an inverted image of the siege of Winterfell at the end of season two, where this time the Boltons are within and the lord of an island stronghold to the south waits without? Either way, as with Myranda's Shae-ifying and another horrible fiance for Sansa, there's a growing sense that the show, in attempting to break from Martin's admittedly bloated and under-powered fourth and fifth books, is relying on reshuffling and repainting its own past.
This isn't helped by Jon's decision to travel to Hardhome and rescue the free folk. This is the third time Jon has headed north of the wall (I'm not counting his visit to Mance at the end of last season), and his second time in command of a mission many of his sworn brothers consider folly. The big difference is this time he's Lord Commander, of course, but this only serves to highlight how strange it is that Jon is going at all. He's got an entire organisation filled with men vastly more experienced with dealing with the Wildling's lands and their people. Well, not "filled", exactly, as Edd took pains to point out this episode. But Jon's ranging record so far is to get captured by Wildlings, find himself forced to murder a fellow ranger, and avoid being stabbed to death only by being saved by someone with precisely zero combat experience. It is pretty difficult to believe that Jon is literally the most competent man the Night's Watch has left.
And yes, I know that he's going because Tormund demanded it. Jon didn't even try to argue him down or point out the Watch would be just as unlikely to set fire to Stannis' fleet if some other officer was on board. We wouldn't get Kit Harrington waving a sword around then - which I suspect is the main reason he's going, rather than sending others as he did in the books - but it would be the prudent course of action; if he wants to fundamentally alter the way the Night's Watch works he should probably stick around to actually introduce and enforce the changes he wants.
So why is he going? Why not just send someone else, and point out to Tormund just how ridiculous his paranoia is? Why not ask him why the Watch would risk a perilous journey through autumn storms simply to enrage Stannis by destroying his fleet just to kill a bunch of people marked for death anyway?
To answer this, we have to consider why the mission is being embarked on in the first place. It most certainly isn't all that tactically sound. Yes , the obvious response to "why burn people doomed to die anyway?" is "so that they won't become wights", and Jon explicitly references this as the underlying justification for the rescue mission. You don't have to give a shit about Wildlings to know you don't want their reanimated corpses coming for you in the night, after all. But on closer inspection this makes no sense. Every person you send north is one fewer person you have on the Wall, possibly permanently if they don't make it back. And every person on the Wall is worth, at the barest minimum, one hundred people beneath them. As Steven Attewell has pointed out at his spectacular but spoiler-filled blog, the Wall is the most extreme defensive multiplier imaginable. How many men were lost atop the Wall during the battle for Castle Black? I'm not sure it was in double figures, and that's only because Mance brought his giants along. There can't be many of those left, if only because you wouldn't expect their King to attack a gate alone unless manpower (giantpower?) was at a colossal premium. And fighting wights is even easier than fighting men, if they're stuck at the foot of the massive structure you're standing on; the enhanced endurance and strength of a wight means nothing if you can pump fire arrows into them as they shuffle around hundreds of feet below.
But if every man atop the Wall is worth several hundred wights below, then every man lost means the White Walkers need a few hundred fewer zombies to defeat the Watch. And out in the cold, salty shadows of Storrold's Point you're doing well if you can finish off more than a couple of undead assailants before they drag you down and rip your throat out. Simply put, in strategic terms the people at Hardhome are not worth risking even the galley crews it would take to pick them up . The only reason to rescue them is because it's a nice thing to do. Jon is smart enough not to admit that - maybe not even to himself - but it remains true nevertheless. And indeed Jon has form here; the mission to kill Carl Tanner and his deserters didn't make strategic sense either. Oh, Jon spun some line about how it was necessary to kill Carl to prevent him revealing the truth to Mance about how few men the Night's Watch had left, but that never struck me as sensible. Mance's plan to take Castle Black - a plan Jon knew intimately, of course - was clearly not designed to work against the thousand men Jon had claimed remained at the Wall. Tormund's band and the Thenns were obviously never going to be enough to overwhelm a force of that size, unless the Thenn contingent was vastly larger originally but they took horrifying casualties climbing the Wall. Further, by committing to a plan of simultaneous assault, the limiting factor wasn't just how quickly Mance could be ready, but how long it would take the raiders to get into position. Accelerating the schedule on the basis of the deserters' intel would just risk attacking the Wall without anyone on the other side running interference, and a one-sided massacre. I'm not sure why Mance let Jon get away with lying to him, but it's simply not credible Mance didn't know a lie was exactly what it was.
No, Jon risked the the Wildlings and the White Walkers to save Craster's wives, not to save the Watch. He's risking storms and dead things in the water to save the Wildling refugees, not to save on fire arrows when the dead come knocking. Because this is what Jon does now: he rescues people. Or he fails to rescue them and broods endlessly. It sees clear Eddard Stark has raised one more noble fool happy to die whenever the chance of saving some women shows up . He's willing to risk not just his life for this, but his plans for the Watch. Indeed, he's risking the Watch itself; Jon will want to take competent, trustworthy men with him to Hardhome (though he'll tap Thorne too if he has any sense), which means the Wall will be left manned by the kinds of people Stannis was so nervous about here he took his wife and daughter on a march to war against sociopaths because that seemed safer. The last Lord Commander was murdered by his own men, and yet Jon wants to leave the thieves and rapists to guard against giants and White Walkers whilst attempting to get along with the people who were trying to chop their heads off a few weeks earlier. Because that's the only way he gets to do what he wants, and play the hero.
So whilst there's a whiff of familiarity about this development, I can see an argument that we should give it a pass, because it's so in character for a Stark to keep doing the honourable, tremendously stupid thing until eventually it comes back to bite them. On the other hand, even if we grant that, it suggests that we're in for a few weeks of more action sequences standing in for plot; it's not Jon's journey that's intriguing, but his return.
And speaking of leaders struggling with their ostensible inferiors, let's not forget to call in on Daenerys as she experiments with new forms of motivational speaking. Here at least is a plot we can get our teeth into (he says, 2,200 words into this essay). I mentioned last time around that Dany was risking heading towards Cersei's approach to government, and she certainly seems to have at least taken a stroll in that direction. What could be more like Cersei than executing a man because it's possible he's guilty? It may even be that King's Landing doesn't appear in this episode precisely because there isn't room for two queens getting their enraged collective punishment on.
But it's not just Cersei who Dany resembles this week. It's her father. The king who as Ser Barristan himself pointed out to the Last Dragon just a couple of episodes earlier liked to burn his enemies alive and label it "justice". The subtext here is barely worthy of that first syllable: with Selmy dead his last advice might be buried with him. In the books of course he offered still more counsel, telling his queen:
King Jaehaerys once told me that madness and greatness were two sides of the same coin. Every time a new Targaryen is born, he said, the gods toss the coin in the air and the world holds its breath to see how it will land.
It may be that Daenerys now stands at a crossroads between greatness and madness. Or, if that sounds too simplistic (and it is) she is rapidly reaching the point where her actions will determine whether her reign will be held aloft by her people's love, or if she will feel compelled to rule through fear.
It is not, of course, easy to predict which actions will lead to each result. It's certainly not as simple as arguing that the less harsh approach is always the best one. Grow too lax and you encourage others to ignore your laws, which means that sooner or later you have to clamp down hard, and a long period of laxity followed by sudden explosion of harsh sanctions is about the worst possible combination if you want your subjects to respect you and the order you demand. That said, I've no problem staking out the position that Dany's actions at the top of this episode were tremendously ill-advised, and her more measured approach later on far smarter. This of course underlines the two routes Dany can take, a dichotomy so pronounced the very structure of the episode underlines it by having Dany be the only focal character we return to (we go back to the Wall as well, but the focus is Jon in the first segment and Stannis in the second). If there's nothing more Cersei than having someone only possibly guilty killed as a lesson to other people who are also only possibly guilty, then what could be less Cersei than volunteering to enter into a loveless political marriage in order to maintain peace? Her actual motivation here does get rather swallowed, unfortunately; in the book it's Hizdahr who suggests the union, specifically promising he can get the Sons of the Harpy to back off once Dany proves to them she cares enough about Meereen tradition to marry into one of its Great Houses. But on the other hand, as @GeekPlanetDave pointed out to me over Twitter, having Dany suddenly break the news to Hizdahr as he begs for his life gives all the agency to her. Which is a lovely inversion of Dance With Dragons, and gender relations in general. If you're looking for a symbol of how feminism can shake up our culture, watching a man get down on his knees whilst a woman does the proposing is a pretty great one.
Shaking up culture is what Dany's decisions here are all about of course, more specifically her desire to not do so any more than she has to. This is, to say the least, a very recent decision. Her metaphor about ill-behaved children early in the episode was an extremely ugly one, the classic "White Man's Burden" rhetoric of the conqueror. Her pivot to cultural respect is an entirely welcome one in terms of avoiding a central component of imperialism. And yet there's a limit to how far Dany can go in this direction, too. After all, if she wished to fully embrace the culture of Meereen she would have to re-legalise slavery, which is exactly what she fought to end. Her decision to open the fighting pits in this sense is perhaps a worrying one; I assume her concession will be to allow only volunteers to risk their lives (did she say that, actually; I forget), but dire economic circumstances act as their own form of coercion, and if the former fighting slaves of the city feel compelled to return to the bloodstained sands to earn their crust - because the former slave-masters refuse to pay sufficient wages to the newly-free workforce for them to actually survive - then the argument that things are better now because they are at least technically no longer slaves starts to sound pretty weak.
Dany is playing a dangerous game here. The most obvious analogy here - and again, credit to Steven Attewell for this - is the Reconstruction-era American South. The carpetbaggers who had come in from the north to try and "assist" the defeated Confederate states in restructuring their society to allow for the sudden loss of a massive unpaid workforce had a difficult balance to maintain. They needed to secure the freedom of African American citizens, but they also had to persuade southern whites that their world wasn't about to be utterly swept away in favour of the culture of the industrial north. To do otherwise would have been to risk a new rebellion and a return to the butchery of the last four years. And whether the interlopers were just terrified of a new war, or it they were also entirely too sympathetic to their southern cousins, there seems little doubt now that aside from still being allowed to hold slaves officially, there was very little the erstwhile Confederacy was actually required to give up, to the point that 150 years later many states still can't wait to push through new laws aimed at denying black people food, housing, or the vote.
This is the new challenge for Dany. She has, at least for now, stepped back from the brink; not even Grey Worm's wounding or Ser Barristan's death was enough for her to fully embrace her father's approach. But totally inflexible maximal punishment isn't the only way to go wrong when you play the game of thrones. Hopefully Daenerys Stormborn will finally strike the right balance. She is, after all, running desperately short of time.
 Actually, there's a potential flaw in Attewell's position, which is that I'm not convinced the next wight attack need come from the northern frontier. The wights don't need to breathe, and season one showed they can happily operate far from their masters. Why not just have them pull a Curse of the Black Pearl and burst from the Bay of Seals?
Even so, though, you can make an argument that an undead sea landing might make whatever vessels the Night's Watch/Stannis has left even more important, though I confess it's not immediately obvious how they could help.
 As someone pointed out on Twitter, Jon was living beside Ygritte for weeks at least and yet he still tells Tormund they need to save the Wildling women because they don't know how to fight?
That said, I'd put money on this being about Arya; the little sister he couldn't save, who's apparently dead despite her skills with a bow, or the sword Jon himself gave her. After Robb, she was clearly the Stark child Jon felt closest to, and the gift she gave her for protection wasn't enough. This, I'm, thinking, is something Jon does not intend to happen again.