A birth, numerous deaths, and more deceit than you can shake a sword at - this week's episode of Game of Thrones, named Garden of Bones (after the land around the city of Qarth), was full to the brim with important developments, and we learnt a lot about our characters.
It's been a couple of weeks since we've seen Joffrey and in that time he's gone from being the Meanest Character on Television™to just plain evil.
Following the slaughter of a bunch of Lannister men at the hands of Robb Stark, Joffrey - sitting comfortably on the Iron Throne while everyone else fights his battles - decides to punish Sansa in lieu of punishing Robb. His whipping of her is cut short by Tyrion, who stops his nephew, shaming him in front of his court.
It may be a kind move on Tyrion's part, but it only backfires on the two prostitutes he sends to his nephew's bedchamber, in the hopes they may loosen Joffrey up. Proving himself slightly more clever than we thought, Joffrey decides the best way to inflict a punishment on Tyrion is to punish the two women he has sent. Or rather, get them to punish each other by forcing one to hit the other until she is bruised, bloody and beaten. At least, I imagine she's bruised, bloody and beaten, because the weapon Joffrey arms one of the prostitutes with looks vile.
Despite only being in a few scenes in this episode, we learn a lot about the kind of king Joffrey is. He enjoys wielding power by punishing those weaker than himself, rather than serving those whose king he is. He is quick to lose his temper, a bad quality in a king who should actually be calm and collected. He is sulky, proving he is still a child.
And most importantly, he is a coward, always commanding others to carry out physical punishments on his behalf. This is in opposition to everything Ned Stark taught his children (and us) in the first season - a decent leader always inflicts punishment himself and doesn't get someone else to do it for him.
While the sadistic Joffrey spirals ever closer to madness - a hint at his mental state is given when Tyrion asks if Joffrey knows the story of the Mad King, who did whatever he pleased - Tyrion is still scheming away. This time he persuades his cousin - who Cersei has taken to her bed now Jaime is being held captive - to defect to his side. And he decides to throw Cersei a bone by releasing Pycelle at her request. Tyrion knows how to make sure his friends are close and his enemies are even closer.
And we caught our first glimpse this season of the head of the family, Tywin Lannister, who at last did something good and saved both Gendry and Arya from being killed.
The Starks have been physically distant from each other for a while, and some of the cracks are now starting to show.
Catelyn is still with Renly, trying to persuade him to join with Robb to fight the Lannisters. She is joined there by Littlefinger, and we are treated to the first confrontation between the two since Littlefinger betrayed Ned, leading to the latter's death. Littlefinger, cunning as he is, falls back onto the most simple of persuasion techniques, talking about how much he loves Catelyn, and always has. Luckily, she's too clever to fall for that.
Unluckily, for the first time we see Catelyn ruled by her emotions. When Littlefinger says he can exchange Sansa and Arya for Jaime, Catelyn considers this, even knowing that Robb will not be happy. And when Littlefinger brings in Ned's body, it's the first time we really see Catelyn break down and mourn over everything that has happened to her family.
Sansa is still with the Lannisters, and seems determined to do all she can to stay alive. Even after being beaten on Joffrey's orders, she still tells Tyrion she is loyal to and loves her king. And she impresses Tyrion by doing so. And she impressed me. As Tyrion says: "Lady Stark, you may survive us yet." While many people in Game of Thrones seem intent on killing, Sansa seems intent on surviving.
Arya, meanwhile, is back in the control of the Lannisters, although they don't know this, and her mother certainly doesn't realise Littlefinger knows nothing of Arya's whereabouts. Having last week heard from Yoren about his desire to kill his brother's murderer, Arya has taken on board his words - and now falls asleep every night murmuring the names of those on her Kill List. And it's growing every night.
She may have spent weeks on the road pretending to be a boy and hiding from Cersei's guards, but Arya is now under more danger, as Tywin Lannister takes her on to be his servant, not knowing who she is and her true value.
While the Stark women are doing their thing, Robb is busy battling the Lannisters. He's clearly grown and is now using all weapons he has to his advantage, sending his direwolf in to battle and then following with his men to slaughter thousands (leaving a field of dead - a Garden of Bones, perhaps?). It seems as though the boy we saw in the first season, and the teenager who needed his mum's advice just a few episodes ago, is slowly disappearing, leaving Robb the man (and king).
It's not all blood and battles for Robb though. At last, there's a bit of romance for a Stark. And it seems all it takes to impress the King in the North is a woman who's not squeamish and who tells it like it is. I like seeing this different, slightly flirty side to Robb, and it's good for him to have someone who challenges him and forces him to try and justify his actions, and to think of what happens after the war is won (he doesn't know yet). I hope we'll see a lot more of Talisa and that she continues to question Robb, and that they're all cute and flirty together.
And so the Baratheon brothers (the still alive ones) are together at last. Finally getting to see Stannis and Renly opposite each other really brings out both their best and worst qualities. We've always known Renly loves beauty, but seeing him decked out in an elaborate crown while meeting Stannis makes him seem frivolous. And we know Stannis is now under the command of Melisandre, but seeing her have her say during the meeting makes us realise just how pathetic he is under his hard exterior.
And seeing Renly and Stannis together made me realise the departed Robert was the best of both Baratheons. He had the power, command and focus of Stannis, and the charisma and people skills of Renly all rolled into one. The scene with Renly and Stannis showed that even when Robert was drunk, he was a better king than either of these two will be.
Despite being grown-ups Renly and Stannis acted like they were children during a meeting to try and negotiate a truce, a fact Catelyn Stark was all too quick to point out. And they resolved absolutely nothing, each heading back to their camp to sulk.
Well, Stannis probably wasn't sulking. Instead he sent Ser Davos Seaworth out to row Melisandre to near Renly's camp. In a disturbing final scene Melisandre "gave birth" to a horrifying creature made of black smoke (if you're thinking Lost, think again), which seemed to travel in the direction of Renly's camp. Uh oh, this won't be good for Renly.
There is at last some small salvation for Daenerys and her khalesar, who have been wandering the desert for what seems like years, but is probably only weeks. One of her outriders comes back, telling of a town where they have been guaranteed shelter.
It's not that easy though, and the Thirteen, who look after the town of Qarth, demand Daenerys show them her dragons before they let her and the khalesar in. After weeks of looking tired and weak, it's good to see Daenerys back to being kick ass. She doesn't give in, and the risk pays off, as one of the Thirteen steps forward to stand up for her and let her into Qarth.
And the quick glimpse we catch of Qarth - gorgeous blue water, masses of colour in the midst of the desert, glinting sunshine - makes it look beautiful. Too much of a good thing...
No Jon Snow this week. My heart is broken and as cold as the winter that is coming.
Nothing from House Greyjoy. Ah well, it's raining enough outside, no need to see miserable skies on screen as well.
Violence and (gratuitous) nudity tally
The gore this week doesn't really come from fight scenes, although one is linked to a battle.
First up is the scene where Talisa amputates a Lannister fighter's foot to save his life. Although we don't see it, we can see the panic and pain on the fighter's face, his struggle as Robb Stark holds him down and forces a bit between his teeth, and we can most definitely see the movement of the saw as Talisa cuts his foot from his body.
The most horrifying violence this episode, for me anyway, was the scene where Joffrey forced one prostitute to hit another. The whores' flirty, silly ways quickly disappear as they realise just how sadistic he is. And the looks on their faces show that they know there's no way out of this situation, that they must do as Joffrey says. It's the sound of metal hitting flesh, and the sound of what I think is flesh breaking, that ends this tough to watch scene.
The final violent scene featured a rat, a bucket, a fire and a poor boy captured by the Lannisters. It wasn't pleasant, but Joffrey's punishment of the prostitutes overshadows all the other violence this time around.
There wasn't a huge amount of gratuitous nudity this week - one of the prostitutes was naked, but that's her job, and being unclothed made her seem even more vulnerable as Joffrey's temper was turned on her.
I say there wasn't a huge amount of gratuitous nudity, but I'm wrong. Right at the end Melisandre took her clothes off for her "giving birth" scene, which was just horrifying in all kinds of ways.
When you play the Game of Thrones...
Whew, a busy episode this week. The story was moved rapidly along for Arya, Renly, Stannis and Daenerys, and our other characters showed us a lot about themselves. We got to see Littlefinger and Renly's wife Margaery battling with their wits - more of this clever pair's verbal sparring and mind games please. As we head into episode five, Game of Thrones shows no sign of slowing down.
Game of Thrones recap/review masterlist