For the majority of Sunday's episode of "Game of Thrones," those at the peak of power use their influence and intelligence to make moves in Westeros's political chess match. Yet in one fiery display, a key player may not only have called checkmate, but taken a sledgehammer to the entire board.
Before things go up in smoke, pieces are set in place to prevent a potential power grab. Varys, wielding his ability to hear, see and know all that happens in Westeros, uncovers Littlefinger's plan to take Sansa Stark to the Eyrie, granting her a form of asylum should Robb Stark and the Lannister family finally come to blows.
Varys sees the power play Littlefinger is attempting and enlists the help of Olenna Tyrell. Wise to the web of deception Varys likes to spin ("There's a spider in the garden," she quips upon his arrival), the two enter a charming verbal fencing match before Varys lets it be known that Sansa's future husband would wield an enormous amount of power if Robb Stark loses his fight.
So Olenna turns to her granddaughter, Margaery, who goes on to pry Sansa away from a prayer session in order to plant the seed of marrying her brother, Loras, and spending the rest of her days in the Tyrell stronghold of Highgarden.
This is not the only showing of Margaery's manipulative ways, as she spends an earlier portion of the episode cozying up to King Joffrey while he gives her a grisly history lesson on Westeros's past wars. Upon hearing crowds in the streets of King's Landing, Margaery convinces an otherwise nervous Joffrey to make an appearance, telling him, "If you give them your love, they will return it a thousandfold." Standing by Joffrey's side, the royal couple emerges, and a once-seething population has been turned to a fawning mass.
Knowing a thing or two about manipulation, Cersei Lannister grows increasingly wary of Margaery's relationship with Joffrey. She relays her fear to her father, Tywin, who uses Cersei's concerns to belittle her about her ability to control Joffrey up until this point. When Cersei presses on about her suspicions, Twyin again cuts her down, saying, "I don't distrust you because you're a woman. I distrust you because you're not as smart as you think you are."
Cersei's concerns do not solely lie in the Tyrell's motives, as she also inquires about Jaime's whereabouts. While Tywin still has no knowledge, viewers find the downtrodden Kingslayer strung up on horseback with his newly-severed hand tied around his neck. Locke and his minions go onto subject Jaime to hordes of shame and ridicule, letting him wallow his own filth while also using him as a receptacle for horse urine.
With his will to live broken, Brienne of Tarth, who is also a hostage, hands Jaime a reality check, informing him that the brutality he's suffered is all too common in Westeros, and people with a lot less gravitas to their names have been dealt similar hands (or lack thereof) and still find the courage to carry on.
Suffering is an understatement for the Night's Watch, who are slowly starving to death in the bitter conditions at Craster's Keep. After a funeral pyre for one of their own, the watch confronts Craster about his gluttonous behavior, demanding more food or lethal consequences. Seething over this demand, Craster loses his cool, demanding that he be treated as a god, with death serving as a punishment for anyone that fails to do so.
It is here where a mix of hunger and hatred comes to a boiling point. A member of the watch continues to curse Craster's name, which sends him into a murderous rage. The scene descends further into chaos as rangers murder both Craster and their commander, Jeor Mormont. As the bloody fight unfolds, Samwell Tarly flees with Gilly and her newborn son.
As much as hatred was responsible for the Night's Watch's actions, justice is the driving force behind Arya Stark and the Brotherhood Without Banners. The brotherhood is in the midst of putting Sandor Clegane on trial for various war crimes when we are introduced to their leader, Beric Dondarrion.
Clegane becomes very vocal about the brotherhood, calling the members deserters of prominent houses. Dondarrion counters The Hound's argument by saying the brotherhood is a group of born-again vigilantes, ready to fight for those who are powerless to fight for themselves.
The brotherhood then goes onto to claim Clegane killed a number of innocent people over the years, including children. Clegane denies all of it, saying he was carrying out sworn duties and never used a sword upon any child.
Arya then recalls a scene from Season 1, where Clegane killed Mycah after it was thought he drew a sword upon Joffrey and Sansa. Arya confesses that she drew her sword, which Clegane denies. With Arya's word against Clegane's, Dondarrion decides the only option is a trial by combat, where The Hound and Dondarrion will fight to the death.
Three themes that run through the entire episode - deception, justice and chaos - culminate in the final scene. In Astapor, Danerys Targaryen is ready to part with one of her dragons in exchange for her legion of unsullied soldiers. Even as the transaction is finalized, Kraznys continues to belittle Danerys in his own language, dismissing her with a wave and taking possession of her dragon. He would immediately regret his dismissal.
Danerys reveals that she has understood Kraznys (who has been speaking in Valyrian, Danerys's native tongue) the entire time. She then commands her slave army to take the lives of any and all masters and unleashes her dragon upon Kraznys, sending Astapor into myriad scenes of mayhem.
After asserting her might, she gives her army a choice: Go forth with their freedom or join her quest for the Iron Throne. The unsullied bang their spears against the ground in unison, standing in solidarity with their new queen.
In Season 1, Varys warned the Magister of Pentos that war between the Starks and the Lannisters was imminent. When the magister said he needed time to prepare, Varys repiled, "Delay, you say? Move fast, I reply. This is no longer a game of two players."
The all-knowing eunuch was correct, as a number of houses have attempted to seize power. However, all the strategy needed to take the Iron Throne may be for naught, as Danerys Targaryen is ready to make sure there is only one player left standing when the game ends.
– A commenter said last week I am misguided in my pity for Theon Greyjoy. (I haven't read the books, so I don't know what's coming.) However, for some reason, I cannot help but feel sorry him when he says, "I made a choice and I chose wrong." His father despises him, the Starks want him dead and he's back in the torture chamber. His life is pretty terrible, so I can't be that misguided.
– I thought the scene where we learn Varys's backstory was particularly powerful in that it was ruthless without being gratuitous.
– In the coming weeks, these recaps will be published later, as this was the last episode was that HBO let the media screen. Look for future recaps around noon on Monday for the remainder of the season.