If last night's episode of "Game of Thrones" doesn't get people talking, I don't know what will.
I'm sure dedicated book fans were expecting those final shots, when sorceress Melisandre gave birth to… a shadow baby? As a non-book reader, I'm murky on the details. But I do know that I finished this episode with an audible exhale of breath. Not only was it the most outwardly fantastical scene of the show so far (with the exception, perhaps, of Dany's dragons), but it was wrought with tension. I was expecting the birth of an illegitimate Stannis baby, after their steamy sex scene last week. We see Melisandre, framed in shadows, her exposed baby bump catching the light in an almost intoxicating spectacle. She lays down on the floor of a cave and gives birth, with all the vicious implications of a normal delivery, Davos looking on in awestruck horror. But instead of a newborn popping out, a slinky shadow swoops through her legs and takes a human-like form, before the episode beats into the credits with a pulsating drive. And… breathe.
But let's back it up a bit before we talk about what that shadow baby might mean.
We finally check back in with Daenerys Targaryen and her desert quest. She and her people make their way to the walled city of Qarth, an unseen civilization until this point. The Qarth people are mostly kept a mystery; all we really know is that they want Dany's dragons. Yeah right. Instead of turning over a scaled fire-breather, Dany threatens to burn down the city if they don't let her people inside for shelter. They finally submit, but the foreboding nature of Qarth's grim mystery lines that acceptance in a veiled threat. If there's one thing we know about Westeros, it's that dragons are the Holy Grail of the country's foundation. Where they go, blood and temptation are sure to follow.
The other bit of big news this week (after the shadow baby) is the introduction to Robb's new love interest, a battleground nurse who tends to the fallen after a victorious battle against Lannister men. Robb is stepping into his hero role with prominence, and a pretty girl for his liking is just another testament to that title. Luckily, like most women in Westeros, his new lad isn't a trite, doe-eyed companion. She's fierce and headstrong, and doesn't fall into Robb's good graces on impulse. If Robb is about to face the great enemies of the shadows, it's nice to know he might earn a soft spot in the process. For a character as thinly drawn as Robb has been thus far, here's an opportunity to give him some emotional tie to the war he's found himself in. I'm interested to see how Richard Madden really amps up this role.
In a scene that would seem shocking were we not so accustomed to Joffrey's horribleness by now, Tyrion gifts his nephew with a pair of prostitutes, an endeavor that turns grisly fast. But Joffrey isn't interested in frivolous things like sex. Instead, he makes the girls torture each other while he watches, delighting in their screams of pain and the sound of ripped flesh. This is only moments after he orders Sansa's clothes be ripped off her back in front of his court, exposing her to ridicule in the name of her brother's victory against Joffrey's men (to which Tyrion gloriously intervenes). Joffrey really is a slimy piece of crap, and the show delights in reminding us of just how far he'll go to repel the good graces of his family and his followers in the name of his own self-imposed glory. He's an egomaniac, or just a highly delusional sadomasochist. Either way, there's nothing that could delight me more at this point than watching Joffrey slain like the little worm he is.
Another drab element of the episode is the journey with Arya to Harrenhaal, where her fellow captors are being tortured for information by the Tickler and the Mountain. But the arrival of Tywin Lannister marks a bit of an escape from the suffering. Still, Arya's now just an arm's reach away from another bad guy to add to her growing hit list.
Now, back to that shadow baby.
After a failed meeting between Stannis and his brother Renly – wherein Stannis persuades Renly to join his forces, which Renly so kindly refuses – things aren't looking so hot for our resident royalty outsider. Stephen Dillane has been the best addition to the cast this season, and his brooding power as Stannis is a true marker of that. He's able to play Stannis's heartfelt plea to his brother with an undercut of devious caution. But it's in Renly's rebuttal that something sparks, and Stannis calls for the birth of Melisandre's wispy demon child. Like I said, I haven't read the books. But I've heard mutterings of what this shadow baby means. And it ain't good.