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‘Game Of Thrones’ Recap: Peeling Off The Layers

Everyone revealed their true selves this week.

This is a recap of Game of Thrones. Spoilers!

As Game of Thrones hurtles to its endgame with all the finesse of Qyburn’s giant dragon-spearing catapult, its leather-clad characters are discarding the furs and skins of old allegiances and uncertainties, revealing who they truly are.

The sweetest moment this week was Missandei and Grey Worm’s sex scene, in which two of the show’s most reserved characters finally show themselves completely to one another. Perhaps Grey Worm is right, and his love for Missandei will prove his undoing. But that Game of Thrones — a show about the ruthless exploitation of weakness — should find pleasure in vulnerability without punishment was something to cherish.

It’s ironic that Varys — the spymaster and dealmaker whose allegiances are widely thought to be mutable and unreliable — is remarkably consistent about what he wants: “the good of the realm”. While Littlefinger views governance as arbitrary, preferring to sow chaos to elevate himself to power, Varys has told various characters throughout Game of Thrones that he aims for stability.

Heeding his counsel, and reluctant to “rule over the ashes”, Daenerys rejects Lady Olenna Tyrell’s suggestion that she dragon-strike King’s Landing immediately. In her grief, the Queen of Thorns is thornier than ever, but then she’s long witnessed the miserable inadequacy of soft politics. She knows this isn’t a soft time… which was made abundantly clear by the end of this episode.

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“Kill all men.”

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Somewhere in the distance, Olenna sighs deeply.

Like Olenna, Ellaria Sand and the Sand Snakes are keen to retaliate with ultraviolence, but they lack Olenna’s strategic intelligence. Let’s face it: the collective IQ in Dorne dropped 50 points when Ellaria murdered her brother-in-law Doran. She and her daughters have always been the show’s least nuanced characters, and it was embarrassing but utterly predictable to see them ambushed and defeated so easily by Euron Greyjoy in full berserker mode.

Yara Greyjoy also faces the dismal realisation that she’s been unable to peel away her brother Theon’s trauma to make him a decent protector. After all, there are far worse ‘foreign invasions’ than the one Ellaria had planned. I’m no expert on PTSD, but Theon did make a pretty dramatic switch from gamely fighting off Euron’s ironborn to quivering and jumping pathetically overboard. He seems utterly stripped of dignity and meaning as he watches his uncle sail away. What’s left of him?

Euron is emerging as the season’s key villain because he can doff and don different personas, depending on what he needs to be: from roguish and fashion-forward to woo a queen, to brutal as a sea-fighter smashing a fleet. Other characters, however, are making the mistake of thinking they understand their allies and opponents.

Tyrion correctly anticipates the xenophobic rhetoric Cersei will use to rally the remaining southern nobles — Cersei is in her way as predictable as the Sand Snakes, because like any lion she’s driven by pride. So Tyrion plans to use the Dothraki or the Unsullied to sap Cersei’s morale by attacking the Lannister seat of Casterly Rock. But he hasn’t anticipated Euron — who could? Euron’s more stormborn than Daenerys: he’s mercurial, he appears suddenly at the least convenient moment, he’s at home amid fire-strikes and violent water.

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Melisandre, whose true self we’ve previously glimpsed, slinks back to Dragonstone, the castle whose previous inhabitants she’d sacrificed after misjudging Stannis Baratheon as the prince that was promised. Now, she’s saying it might be Daenerys — and Missandei sounds like a Reddit thread when she says, “Well actually, that noun has no gender in High Valyrian, so the proper translation could be ‘prince or princess’.” Much like me reading my horoscope, Dany’s all, “I like it better.”

Having previously played with prophetic fire and been burned, Melisandre’s hedging her bets by telling Daenerys that Jon Snow also has “a part to play”. And Jon is staking his claim to be the prophesied bringer of the dawn. He freely acknowledges that he only agreed to be King in the North because it positioned him to better fight the true war against the cold encroaching hordes. Worldly power is increasingly irrelevant in the face of a terrifying foe only he has seen.

Jon and Tyrion separately believe they know one another, based on their trip to the Wall back in season one. Tyrion’s the one who invites Jon to Dragonstone, which is convenient for Jon to check out his future dragonglass mines. But Jon’s trust in a Targaryen and Lannister has several worrying precedents in Stark family history, as all the northern lords and ladies are keen to remind him.

And before he leaves, he makes the crucial mistake of choking Littlefinger down in the crypts. Jon is right, of course, to feel disgust towards Littlefinger’s sleaziness — Lord Baelish doesn’t belong down here, among the honourable Starks — but do you really want to piss off the Lord of the Vale just before leaving him unsupervised at your house? Brienne might soon have to make good on her vow to protect Sansa.

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Still, perhaps Sansa, with her knowledge of realpolitik gained through painful experience, is the best King in the North. (The proper translation could be ‘King or Queen’.) And perhaps Jon sees her, knows her true nature, knows she can make the right kinds of hard choices that eluded the Starks of the past. That’s why he delegates leadership to Sansa in a rather Night’s Watch-ish way: “The North is yours.”

Back in King’s Landing, Jaime sweet-talks Sam’s awful dad Randyll Tarly — who’s without a sword, seeing as Sam stole it, ha ha – into supporting Cersei, with promises of appointing him Warden of the South. And in his first semester of medical school, super-nerd Sam literally peels another layer off Ser Jorah — hopefully without spraying himself with greyscale-infected pus. (Oh boy, that scene transition from Sam going in with the scalpel to a punter digging into a pie at the Inn at the Crossroads was a thing of beauty!)

The scene at the inn between Arya and her old friend Hot Pie was a little forlorn. Hot Pie is the same sweet guy he’s always been, while a slow rage has baked away the old Arry’s impulsiveness. But beneath the crust, the meat of their friendship persists. When Arya learns Jon’s back at Winterfell, she swiftly decides to head north again — Cersei will keep.

As soon as wolves began to surround Arya, I got excited, remembering there’s a vast Riverlands pack headed by a savage female direwolf — Arya’s own Nymeria, whom Arya had driven away back in season one to save her from being killed by the Lannisters. It was lovely to see this recognition dawning on the fierce pack leader.

Game of Thrones has never capitalised on the direwolves’ links to the North’s mysterious old magic, using them in a more prosaic way as allegories for the Stark children. Sansa’s Lady, sacrificed by Ned to save an ill-fated political alliance. Robb’s Grey Wind, who tried to warn Robb of the impending Red Wedding and ended up a macabre spectacle. Rickon’s Shaggydog, traded like his helpless master to Ramsay Bolton. Summer, who saved Bran’s life twice! (I get emotional about Summer.) And Jon’s wandering Ghost, helping Jon’s friends more than Jon himself. Ghost didn’t appear in last season’s Battle of the Bastards because it was too expensive. Now Jon himself is roaming again, perhaps Ghost will find him.

While it would’ve been cool for wolf and girl to head north as two seasoned killers, Arya realises with joy that Nymeria rejects the offer because she understands her place in a way that Arya, who’s worn so many identities, is still figuring out.

“That’s not you,” Arya whispers admiringly. Which leaves the question: when the layers are peeled away, who’s underneath?

Game of Thrones is streaming on Foxtel Now and airing on Showcase at 11am and 8.30pm every Monday. For more on this week’s episode, check out Sinead Stubbins’ power ranking.

Mel Campbell is a freelance journalist and cultural critic. She tweets at @incrediblemelk.