Game of Thrones ups the sadism, the humour and the dialogue

Game of Thrones Season 7, Episode 3 Review: Free of the unwieldy fantasy books that inspired it, the show is thriving

The mood of Game of Thrones (Sky Atlantic, Monday, 2am & 9pm) is always likely to swing. We've had whole series charged with fighting spirit and delicious wit, then others that lingered in the wearisome depths of trudging processions and torture chambers.

Here, in the third episode of the penultimate season, we get a taste of both; a fondness for sadism that is hard to excuse as belonging to the characters alone, and a dollop of good humour that persuades you the showrunners will not get mired in the stuff.

Anyone whose childhood ever involved a horribly dispelled moment of make-believe, like a grown up casting doubt on the interstellar capacity of your cardboard spaceship, will find it hard not to cringe in empathy when Jon Snow, asks, rather pathetically, “So you believe me, then, about the Night King and the Army of the Undead.”

He’s always banging on about those guys, as though they were his favourite and under-appreciated metal band, but NK&TAU really remain a Northern thing. He is in Dragonstone, partly through the agencies of priestess Melisandre, briefly glimpsed explaining that she has “brought ice and fire together”, a little like Spinal Tap’s Derek “Lukewarm Water” Smalls.


Here, though, we have a whole court that believes in fire-breathing dragons who find the idea of zombies just a bit too much to swallow. Instead, we witness some very competitive CV rattling.

Behold Daenerys Targaryen! Mother of Dragons, Breaker of Chains, Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, The Unburnt! (“The Unburnt?” That’s just padding.)

Behold Jon Snow! Reluctant King of the North, apparent Metal devotee and secretly a little undead himself!

And while Daenerys gets the hump that Jon will not kneel before her, Jon delivers the major insight of the episode: everyone in this war is behaving like a child.

Take a suspiciously pink-lipped Cersei, whose Dornish enemies are delivered to her by strutting pantomime villain and Village People style icon, Euron Greyjoy. She spends much time taunting her enemies, while also chiding a gagged and bound Ellaria that her slain lover should never have wasted so much time taunting his enemies. Sometimes you need to be a kid to follow this bitter logic.

Given the pink-lipsticked kiss of death – typical of the show’s combination of the erotic and sadistic – Tyene is left to perish slowly before her mother’s eyes, shackled opposite her.

But what damage has been done to Cersei, who is growing ever more deranged among the immensely fickle baying hordes of King’s Landing? After all, they enjoy nothing more than pelting veg and misogynistic abuse during a walk of shame, or a parade of captives, and have been known to turn against mad royalty before.

Now, even the Iron Bank of Braavos is getting jumpy. When Mark Gatiss’s unctuous envoy applauds an emboldened Cersei for incinerating religious tyrants (bad for business), he is less assured by her warfaring prospects: “Daenerys Targaryen has three full-grown dragons,” he says, easily the most thrilling statement ever delivered by an actuary.

In some stereo moping by the windswept clifftops of Dragonstone, Jon Snow complains about his hopeless situation while Tyrion Lannister unleashes a salvo of witty rejoinders: “You look a lot better brooding than I do.”

It’s just like the old days. “How can I convince people who don’t know me that an enemy they don’t believe in is coming to kill them all?” asks Jon, which both bolsters the belief that the whole show is a metaphor for climate change, or Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, while also delivering belly-laughs of arch self-reference.

Yes, there’s another big battle scene (assisted by Tyrion’s old prostitute-smuggling tunnels, the Unsullied take Casterley Rock in less time than it takes Cersei to torture Ellaria) and, of course, an obligatory switcheroo.

The Lannister armies have instead gone to Highgarden, leaving the Unsullied stymied.

There, Olenna Tyrell, our favourite tart-tongued matriarch, gives an already shaken Jaime a no-nonsense appraisal of Cersei's even-by-Game-of-Thrones-standards excessive wickedness, glugs down a poisoned tipple, and lastly tells him that it was she who poisoned Joffrey. For all the toxins, it's a deservedly classy exit for Diana Rigg; some eye-for-an-eye vengefulness, gratefully spared from sadistic excess.

It's also another indication that Game of Thrones, George RR Martin's unwieldy fantasy book series, is under the firmer control of its more fleet-footed fans, namely writers David Benioff and DB Weiss, who have outpaced the published legend by two series.

This, you have to suspect, is why there has been such a sharp increase in good dialogue ever since, and also why the vestiges of torture porn will always be with us. (Even Bran, now the all-seeing Three-Eyed Raven, can’t help picking at humiliating wounds when reunited with Sansa).

To discover Benioff and Weiss’s formula, just listen to Sam Tarley, who is asked to explain his miraculous de-greyscaling of hopeless cause Jorah Mormont: “I read the book,” he says, “and followed the instructions.”