Episode four’s title, “Garden of Bones,” left me feeling like I was myself wandering a garden of bones: both the weird feeling that I’d missed something significant, and the unsettling anticipation about what must follow, without anything much happening at all. True there were three shocking grotesqueries, but in terms of plot advancement the other foot is, as they say, yet to be lopped of.
Like its source material, much of the ‘big action’ of Game of Thrones happens off-screen. Robb (Richard Madden) wins a great victory against the Lannisters: we get a shot of a wolf attacking a comedic guard, then northmen trudging the battlefield as victors. Far from an outright criticism, this is text-book HBO, just as David Simon’s The Wire, (and precursor Homocide on NBC before that), turned down expensive car chase stunts to instead fund quality writing, acting and cinematography. It might be the most interesting text-book ever put together! Yet, even by the merits of ‘quality’ serialisation, in terms of pace, conflict, drama and revelation, episode four feels like either a big inhalation or a big exhalation.
This may or may not have to do with several bold new scenes and rearrangements. This week Robb’s moral quandaries about leading his bannermen to battle are brought to life. This new material pays off immediately for creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss. Robb is a figure in the distance for most of George Martin’s novels, but here I enjoyed seeing him listening humbly to field nurse Talisa’s (Oona Chapman) stinging accusations, as much as hearing him rule out torture to Roose Bolton (Michael McElhatton), on both humanitarian and practical grounds. In a couple of minutes, we see him fearless, strategic and compassionate about the costs and realities of war, open to feedback from his subjects, decisive with his older veteran officer Bolton, and still with enough heart left over to be a little smitten. It doesn’t spoil to note that Talisa is Chekov’s gun here: the playwright insisted that a gun appearing in the first act must be fired by the third. It doesn’t take a literary genius to see that Talisa will be back.