"Breaker of Chains" opens exactly where "The Lion and the Rose" closed: on Joffrey's purple, breathless face, his lifeless eyes staring up at his screaming mother.
It's a good place to kick off the events of the episode, a unifying theme for many of the disjointed segments that make up this week's Game of Thrones, and one that helps remind the audience of the chaos that has now gripped Westeros once again. The king is dead, his uncle is arrested for the crime and King's landing has been closed off to prevent any more conspirators from getting away while the shock waves ripple out towards the rest of the kingdom, leaving everyone scrambling to react.
It's the citizens in King's Landings who understandably react most strongly to those waves, starting with Sansa, who is spirited away from the wedding feast by Ser Dontos to a ship that's waiting for her in the harbor. The plot, it turns out, was devised by Littlefinger, who returns briefly with a distractingly awkward accent to take care of the witnesses (Ser Dontos, we barely knew ye) and fulfill the promise he made to Catelyn Stark to protect her daughters. As he guides her below deck to sail off somewhere safer, it's hard to feel as if Sansa is truly safe with him, no matter how many times he tries to reiterate that she is. She's finally out of the Lannisters' clutches, and with Joffrey dead, there's no longer the imminent threat of death and torture hanging over her head... but Littlefinger has never been a man to be trusted, so it doesn't look like poor Sansa is out of the woods just yet.
Meanwhile, her husband is in prison, awaiting news about his upcoming trial. Tyrion's been imprisoned for a crime he didn't commit before, and he's frantically efficient in laying out an attempted plan of defense with Podrick, who comes to bring him food and some basic accoutrements, and - more importantly - news about the ways Tyrion's family intends to take him down. Peter Dinklage bounces from beat to beat within the scene with the kind of effortlessness that make all of his scenes such a delight to watch, and it's when he's pacing around his cell, trading barbs and plots with Pod that the episode truly comes alive. Hopefully the the date of his trial arrives quickly, as Game of Thrones really does need him to give the episode a shot in the arm every so often, and his imprisonment will drastically cut down on Dinklage's screentime.
But what starts as a manic conversation exploring possible options for escape and defense eventually slows its pace as Tyrion learns that Pod has been asked to testify against him. He's resolute in his decision to send his squire away for his own protection, and Dinklage's blank stare as he gives his last orders betray just how badly this particular blow has hurt him. Pod's reluctant to leave his master behind prove he truly is the most loyal squire who ever lived, but we're hoping that he won't be gone for too long. What would we do with all of our "Pod for the Iron Throne" buttons otherwise?
Meanwhile, the rest of the Lannisters are coping with Joffrey's sudden death in different ways. Tywin is, as expected, all business, lecturing Tommen about what makes a good king over the body of his dead grandson. Tywin is all about power, and this tragedy gives him plenty of opportunities to gain more, as everybody is in far too much shock to stop him from digging his claws into the new king. Charles Dance tears into his big monologue in the sept with relish and tackles his conversation with Oberyn with the same kind of zeal. Tywin is usually a despicable character, and his all-encompassing desire for the throne blinds him to the feelings or morals of others, and while Dance never shies away from these aspects of Tywin, he is always wonderful to watch.
Which brings us to the other Lannister children, and that terrible, uncomfortable, unnecessary scene. After Tywin finishes his first royal lesson, he escorts Tommen out of the sept while Jaime makes his way in, sending all of the priests and guards away. It's ostensibly to give Cersei a moment alone with Joffrey, but it's really a chance for them to mourn their child together, and it turns into a rape scene, as Cersei confronts Jaime about killing Tyrion to avenge the king and Jaime confronts the fact that the woman he loves is a hateful one. Of course, that doesn't explain why a man who has thus far established himself to be against sexual violence to attack his sister/lover right next to the body of their dead son, but nothing about this scene seems to make any sense.
In the books, Jaime and Cersei's encounter is a consensual one — although it is regarded by fans as being uncomfortably comical — a jarring expression of grief from two characters who don't know how to react to things the way normal people might. Here, it seems gratuitous, a horrific act added in for the sake of being shocking and appalling. It changes everything we know about Jaime, the Kingslayer who killed people for the right reasons, even knowing what it would do for his reputation. It takes any kind of affection out of his twisted love affair with his sister, and undoes all of the work that both the books and the show do to re-frame him as a complex, flawed human being rather than a complete monster. And it's a unnecessary and cruel punishment for Cersei, as regardless of the writers' intentions, it does read as a punishment for Cersei's wickedness, despite the fact that nobody deserves to endure such a horror, no matter what evils they themselves have committed.
"Breaker of Chains" leaves you reeling from that scene, but never follows up on it, leaving you shocked and uncomfortable for the rest of the episode, forcing you to attempt to pay attention to whatever the Wildlings are up to through the outrage you're still feeling. The fact that it's left completely unacknowledged colors the rest of the episode, which is already all over the place in terms of story and tone.
The ripples of discontent that Joffrey's death causes reach Dragonstone first, giving Stannis the perfect opportunity to attack the throne and reclaim his birthright. Davos, as usual, attempts to use logic against Stannis' religious fanaticism, as he's convinced that he can simply have Melisandre pray for his army to take the city and it will become true. His hand, however, understands that armies take money, and it's Shireen who gives him the idea of where to get it. The bond between Davos and Shireen continues to gives the show some much-needed sweetness, but we're still a bit worried about what might happen to the princess now that Melisandre has set her sights on her. Davos is the only one who would be be able to protect her from the Red Priestess, but we're hoping tht things won't get to a point where he needs to. Is it too much to ask for one child to make it through the series without being traumatized and corrupted?
Word about Joffrey's death hasn't seemed to make its way too far North or South, as neither Arya and the Hound (whose double act had the unfortunate task of serving as comic relief after Jamie and Cersei's scene this week) nor the Brothers of the Nightswatch seem to be concerned about the ramifications the lack of king could have on the land. Granted, with the Wildlings terrorizing villages and slaughtering whole families within running distance of Castle Black, they might have more pressing matters to attend to at the moment. Unfortunately, both plots seem to be spinning their wheels at the moment, waiting for the right moment to steal attention away from King's Landing.
And on the other side of the sea, Daenerys and her army have finally stopped their seemingly-endless marching to challenge the people of Mereen and attempt to free their slaves. Daario effortlessly takes down Mereen's champion with two quick slashes of his knife, impressing the Khaleesi in a way that foreshadows some major romantic developments. I'm less impressed by him, as there's still something about Daario that just screams "sleazy." The big ending moment of the episode came when Dany catapulted the broken chains of her former slaves, and while it was meant to be a major iconic moment, it felt flat and repetitive, which meant "Breaker of Chains" went out with a whimper.
With so many characters and plots running simultaneously on Game of Thrones, there's never going to be an easy way to keep every storyline moving without completely overwhelming the audience. The show is still having difficulty finding the right balance between action and exposition, resulting in episodes like "Breaker of Chains," which feature one or two big moments surrounded by long stretches of tiny developments. Any kind of frustration felt about that pace is only exacerbated by episodes like this one, where there shoehorned-in shock factor doesn't make up for the way the rest of the episode stalls. "Breaker of Chains" started out as a solid episode, but devolved into a perfect example of so many criticisms that fans have about the show.
Episode grade: C, or Two Pouting Jon SnowsFollow @hollywood_com Follow @julesemm