Game of Thrones' earlier seasons on HBO were excellent at dragging out emotional payoffs. The delicate dance of political intrigue and personal affections never slowed tempo, creating hour-long experiences that were tense, warm, and in many ways anxiety inducing. The drama of the series is what draws that emotional reaction from its audience, the way dozens of characters all trying to stay alive and protect their own interests clash with one another, frequently resulting in some being knocked out of the game altogether.
I've been very critical of Telltale's rendition of Game of Thrones. At times the story of the Forresters dips into that of the Starks, moving beyond imitation into something like a copy-paste job of themes and character arcs. I was concerned that my choices were arbitrary, that the identity of House Forrester's unknown traitor was not something I would mold with my decisions, that Mira's relationships with the nobles of King's Landing were destined to always stack against her. But Episode Five, A Nest of Vipers, unhinged my doubts and then smashed them, brutally, as I watched bad decision after bad decision at my own hand undo House Forrester's remaining hope.
Episode Five is an emotional rollercoaster, similar in crescendo and payoff to what I described of the HBO show earlier. I went into the episode expecting a cataclysm--something I've come to expect of the tail end of Telltale's series--and got what I wanted and sadly much more. It's a whirlwind of hurt. As the credits rolled the idea of drowning came to mind; The people of House Forrester are in over their heads, desperately clawing for the surface, as watery demons born from their own cunning and the unyielding meanness of others--factors all completely out of their hands--clutch their ankles and threaten to drown them.
Plot-wise, Game of Thrones has been an exercise in the futility of counting on others, as told through the stories of our protagonists. Rodrik tries to balance his individual family members' demands and well-being while dealing with a hidden traitor, the Whitehills mounting threats, and the woman he loves. Asher desperately tries to build an army to bring home while placating his best friend Beskha, who grows more and more uncomfortable as Asher drags her deeper into his mess. Mira is playing the game of thrones with the Lannister and Tyrell families in King's Landing, caught in a mess with the Queen and Queen Regent and completely abandoned by any friends she once had. And Gared is still ever marching beyond the wall, looking for the mysterious North Grove that could potentially save the Forrester family from ruin. In all these scenarios, the company you choose to keep won't necessarily be there for you when your luck runs out, and it's maddening to watch the allies you thought you had, some whom you've taken great risks for, either walk away or hinder your progress.
It's that idea of futility of counting on others that drives this episode and ultimately lingers after its conclusion. You may be conniving and selfish in a bid to save your family, but if it means your own skin you may choose to behave differently. You can sacrifice allies' well-being and dignity to get what you want, and at the end of the episode it's hard to really justify if any of that kicking, screaming, and backstabbing was worth endangering your life--or the life of someone else.
The plotline at Ironrath, in which the villainous Whitehill clan runs circles around the Forresters as now-head of house Rodrik struggles to keep his family afloat, has up to this point been the least interesting. The endless cycle of standing up and then getting beaten down was monotonous. But Episode Five, through several unexpected and well-orchestrated plot points, throws this thread into the foreground.
How you've been playing Rodrik up to this point--as a cautious pushover to the Whitehills' bullying or strong lord that spits in their faces at every turn--will also determine several scenario-altering choices throughout Episode Five. In vague terms so as to avoid spoilers: How this particular story concludes this episode genuinely feels like it will have a large impact on the finale.
Many other smaller choices made early in this episode will affect how well you are able to execute your plans later on. It genuinely feels like you have a heavy hand in how these situations pan out. Depending on how you speak to the Mother of Dragons, you could net some extra resources. How merciful you are in combat could lose you respect among the rabble of newly liberated Meereen. Whether or not you comfort someone who has hit rock bottom could affect how much he or she supports you later. The butterfly effect of what you do in the moment coming back to haunt you later is a real threat through Episode Five, providing for a tense, and riveting, two-hour ride.
One of these strings of choices is how Asher treats his best friend and confidant, lady sellsword Beskha. Asher has been given options to keep her secrets and protect her in the past, or reveal what he knows about her and use her knowledge of Meereen to further his goals of finding an army. His story is turning into this awful thing where you are either abusing your relationship with her and going against her wishes for privacy, or shielding her at all costs and potentially screwing up your mission. Remember, Asher's family exiled him before the events of the game because he fell in love with a Whitehill girl--are these people worth fighting for? Is Beskha, who has stood by him through everything, worth more?
There are actually quite a few scenes in Episode Five that are hard to watch. Think The Walking Dead, Season One; Telltale doesn't shy away from gore, nor are they precious about whom they kill off. This mentality married to Game of Thrones just guarantees some really harrowing stuff, but Episode Five manages to first build up your hopes for victory and success, only to quickly and mercilessly wreck everything you've been working towards. It's a sadistic episode.
But more importantly, many of these scenes make you think harder about those dialogue choices. There is no way to tell which choice will placate someone and which will anger them, which will save you and which will damn you. This push to think harder--and sometimes panic and choose quick choices in the limited time you have--does an excellent job of building tension, creating situations that don't just pluck at the nerves but sometimes genuinely make you feel sick.
I'm still not sold on the depictions of some characters from the Game of Thrones television show. Daenerys is still weirdly out of character, snarky, mean, and generally worlds away from the benevolent despot we've come to know her as. She's hard and cold, and the behavior breaks the immersion. Cersei and Tyrion both make appearances in this episode as well, and while they're not as out of sync as Daenerys, I can't help but feel for them as boiled-down hyperboles of their show characters. It's a bit distracting, but the way they are written is passable enough to get the point across to players. The standout addition continues to be Ramsay Bolton, who feels like he was meant to be creeping around Ironrath and calling the shots. He feels organic, his performance engaging, and it's an utter and terrible delight to have him on screen.
A Nest of Vipers ends on a heart-shattering note and the promise of an explosive finale. Thing are getting lively, and with quickened pacing to match the action, it's hard not to end this episode without your brain spinning in anticipation. With most prominent character arcs at their highest peaks, it's a perfect penultimate episode.