The White Walkers return in a swords-and-sorcery packed hour that would make Tolkien proud (except for maybe that one scene).

By James Hibberd
Updated April 28, 2014 at 03:22 AM EDT

Quests, rousing speeches, White Walkers, conquests, direwolves, dragons and a pyramid to top it all off. This week’s episode was such a full-fledged fantasy show I half expected elves and orcs to battle in Mirkwood for a ring of power. And yeah, I know we didn’t actually see the dragons, but we got everything else, and I’m sure they were around there somewhere.

It was an hour of exciting high-fantasy elements in a series that typically delights in brutally subverting such tropes. Not that every single scene was full of swords-and-sorcery glory, of course. There was yet another bout of awful rape for the blogsphere to debate, and we must talk about Margaery‘s seductive tuck-in of an adolescent king. Plus, I’ll break down that White Walker WTF closer. So let’s unsheathe this week’s recap and swear our fealty to Game of Thrones.

Meereen: We open with a few familiar Thrones devices: images of fire and a literacy lesson. It’s a moment of post-slavery bonding between Grey Worm and Missandei. As she talks, he worms his hand toward hers and she quickly pulls her hand away — it’s tough to woo the ladies when you’re missing key parts. So perhaps it’s not a surprise when Missandei hints of wanting to return home to the Summer Isles, and Grey Worm says he has just one goal: “Kill the masters! Kill the masters!” It’s probably the only phrase she really needs to teach him.

So to penetrate Meereen, Dany has Grey Worm lead an amphibious commando unit of former slaves to sneak into the city. Unsullied Team Six approach by sea, then take advantage of a rather serious security design flaw by opening a sewer gate with an outside lever. Under the city, they find a group of Meereen slaves contemplating revolt and give them bags of swords. Grey Worm makes a speech to rouse them to an uprising. But what the speech really boils down to is this: “Kill the masters!” We get a shot of the slaves descending on one master, then cut to post-battle celebrations.

Which leaves us feeling let down that more wasn’t shown. It’s not TV, it’s HBO … but it’s still TV. The producers, I’m sure, would have loved to make this sequence more elaborate, just as they would have loved for the Battle of the Blackwater to have been even bigger. But they have to pick and choose where to spend that $6-8 million per week. (I suspect they could have had an elaborate city conquest scene OR those White Walkers.)

Dany enjoys cheering crowds of ex-slaves, all happily waving S&M collars. Then she makes a controversial decision.

NEXT: Joffrey’s killers explain their plot, make creepy innuendos Dany decides to celebrate her victory by repaying the masters for their crucified children signposts — via crucifying them in return. Ser Barristan advises mercy, but she declares, “I will answer injustice with justice.” They’re nailed with one hand to the crossbeam and the other to their own body. I wonder if that hurts more or less than the way crucifixion is usually portrayed.

With Meereen under her belt, Dany gets the most pimp real estate ever. You know you’re really in charge when you’re literally living at the top of the pyramid. (At the end of this recap, there’s a link to our exclusive images of Dany’s epic new throne room.)

King’s Landing: Jaime and Bronn practice fight. The Kingslayer is getting better with his left hand, and behind them, the Adriatic Sea looks as unearthly blue as its reputation. Bronn beats Jaime by yanking off his metal hand and smacking him with it — a smart lesson.

They share a sunset drink. Bronn dares to guilt-trip Jaime about not visiting Tyrion. This is interesting, because Bronn always seemed like the type of guy who didn’t really care about Tyrion — that he’s only in this relationship for the money. Yet this scene suggests otherwise. “He named you as his champion,” Bronn says. “You going to fight for him now?” Ser Barristan is called “Barristan the Bold,” but now it’s Ser Bronn who deserves that title.

So Jaime visits Tyrion, and it’s another great dungeon scene, full of comfortable familiarity. Tyrion notes Jaime’s distancing language from Joffrey when he calls the boy “her son” instead of his own. Then Tyrion teases: “The Kingslayer Brothers — you like it?” They gently admonish each other for their lack of trust (“You really asking if I killed your son?” / “You really asking if I’d kill my brother?”). Finally Tyrion comes right out and tells Jaime he did not kill the king, and Jaime accepts his answer. But what can Jaime do to help him?

Littlefinger’s Ship: Over the next couple scenes, we find out who killed King Joffrey. We already knew about Littlefinger — but now we get more specifics. He tells Sansa they’re going to her crazy Aunt Lysa Tully, whom we haven’t seen since season 1. (Hey, that’s the same place Arya’s going! Let’s hope she doesn’t try to breastfeed them.)

Littlefinger admits he killed Joffrey, even though he’s one of the few people Joffrey actually treated well. “A man with no motive is a man no one suspects,” Petyr explains. “If they don’t know who you are or what you want, they cant know what you plan to do next.” So Sansa asks Littlefinger what he does want. Littlefinger teases, “Everything,” then creepily pets her like she’s a cute puppy he wants to molest. He does tip that he helped kill Joffrey to forge a new secret alliance between himself and, as we learn in the next scene, the very reasonable, but apparently underhanded, House Tyrell.

NEXT: What worked (and didn’t) about that Joffrey murder plot

King’s Landing: We see Littlefinger’s co-conspirator, Lady Olenna. I like that she openly wonders why Thrones keeps having her hang out in the the same damn garden every week. She tells Margaery about sneakily seducing a young man who was going to marry her sister when she was a young woman, and brags that she had “very, very good” talents. (Thanks for that image, Thrones.) She tells Margaery, “You are even better;” we hope she’s talking about her granddaughter’s ability to charm and not about her bedroom skills. How would she even know about them, unless they both took some kind of Westeros standardized sexual debutante SAT test?

Olenna then lets Margaery know she was the one who poisoned Joffrey, and her granddaughter looks stunned and a little wary — Granny is full of surprises. “You don’t think I’d let you marry that beast, do you?”

As many of you guessed last week, the poison was hidden in one of the gems in Sansa’s necklace. Littlefinger gave the necklace to Dontos, who gave it to Sansa, who wore it at the wedding. The Queen of Thorns “adjusted” it while talking to Sansa, secretly removed one stone, then presumably dropped it into Joffrey’s drink while his back was turned.

Give Thrones credit: They mostly played fair. Clues to the killer’s identity were in the episode for those who looked closely enough. Olenna’s motive is certainly convincing, and we’ll believe Littlefinger will do anything. Plus, the producers had the good sense not to tell us right away, yet didn’t drag out the reveal too long either.

But I have quibbles: Why the necklace? Wouldn’t it have been far simpler for Olenna to have carried the gem on her? It’s not like the stone had an incriminating skull and crossbones on it. The one advantage of having Sansa wear the necklace was that had this plan gone wrong, she could have taken the blame. But that doesn’t quite work either, since part of Littlefinger’s plan was to snatch Sansa away rather than let her get arrested and examined. So why not use somebody else to carry the poison?

Also, I don’t see how Olenna could have gotten the poison into the cup. During her clearest opportunity, the cup was still a few feet away from her on the table. The table was between the royal family and a large audience, so there’s a lot of eyes pointed in the direction of the cup, including Joffrey’s trained guards. It’s hard to imagine Olenna dropping something into the king’s drink without at least one person, if not many, seeing what she did.

That said, the killers’ identities are dramatically delicious — Litltlefinger and Olenna, a dark and a light schemer, a wonderful and unexpected combo. (Remember when I pointed out the irony of Olenna‘s comment to Sansa about how “horrid” it is to kill a king on his wedding day right before he died? Now it’s a double-dose irony.)

NEXT: “Knock-knock.” “Who’s there?” “Boobs!”

Castle Black: Jon Snow is training the men, then interrupted by Ser Alliser Thorne. Last week, these two had a brief moment of agreement — but now Thorne is back to his Severus Snape-like hatred for the highborn bastard.

Janos Slynt slyly suggests sending Jon on his proposed mission to Craster’s, saying his likely demise will rid Throne of a threat to his command. Slynt is like one of those dumb Survivor players who wants to vote out the strongest contestants right at the start of the game. There’s a battle coming, with plenty of opportunities to die. Maybe wait for that to be over before you actively try to kill members of the group protecting you from the Wildlings.

Meanwhile, Jon meets a new recruit: Locke, or “that guy who chopped off Jaime’s hand” for all those trying to keep up at home. He was sent North by Roose Bolton to find and kill Bran, so naturally he volunteers for Jon’s expedition. The sequence also gives Jon an opportunity to make his first Big Speech.

King’s Landing: Cersei is drinking, drinking, drinking. She really wants Jaime to kill somebody. Tyrion, say. Or if not him, how about Sansa? If you’re not taking names off Cersei’s enemies list, she has no use for you. Jaime tells his sister their brother didn’t kill their son, but she doesn’t want to hear that. You just want to say to Cersei here: Don’t you realize that if you’re wrong, the real killer of your son gets away with it?! She dismisses him formally, super cold. Jaime looks hurt by her frostiness, but he really should realize that raping somebody can have that effect.

Later, young King Tommen lays in his royal bed. He hears something. In strolls Lady Wet Dream of Highgarden. Tommen looks somewhat terrified by a vision of gorgeous Margaery in a silky dress and cooing candlelight. She means him no harm, of course, but I gotta say that my opinion of the Kingsguard is really plummeting this season.

She sits on his bed and launches Operation Quasi-Paternal 7th Grader Seduction, working her finely tuned charms on his impressionable mind. Tommen, by the by, is roughly 13 years old on the show; his exact age has never been specified, and characters on the show are generally older than in the books. Also, as one HBO publicist smartly pointed out, the notion of “years” and “time” is not exactly comparable with our world since in Westeros, the summers and winters last for years. Still: This kid is way too young to bang Natalie Dormer.

NEXT: Jaime’s gift

So Margaery sits there, flattering Tommen with big eyes and dropping promises of their intimate secret life together. He starts gawking at her like she’s the best babysitter ever. Frankly, given that he was almost certainly tormented by Joffrey all his life, it’s a wonder Tommen is so normal. His conversation with Margaery is suddenly interrupted when even more pussy jumps on his bed — Tommen’s cat. We learn this fellow is named — and this is just too fantastic — Ser Pounce. Within a month, I’m betting there will be at least a dozen kittens out there named Ser Pounce.

She convinces Tommen that her little nighttime tuck-in visits will be their little secret. She wisely emphasizes this. Can you imagine Cersei’s 100-megaton nuclear reaction if she found out “that slut” Margaery, whom she red-hot hated as Joffrey’s betrothed, is now visiting little Tommen’s bedchamber at night? Neither can I — which is why I really hope we get to see that.

Margaery closes her encounter by moving to kiss him on the lips … then gives him a peck on the forehead instead. Psych, Tommen! Welcome to being played. So smooth; so creepy. Yet it’s all tempered by the fact that Margaery is basically a decent person, and probably would be a good queen for not-too-bright Tommen. Certainly she’s better than anybody his mother might choose for him. But that’s Thrones for you, where once again our opinion of a character’s morality shades our reaction to their sins. If her visit was even a sin? Discuss.

Elsewhere: Jaime gives his Valyrian steel sword and a wicked set of black custom armor to Brienne. He says he had to guess her size (“She’s just really f–king tall,” you imagine him saying). He gives her a mission to find Sansa and return her to her crazy Aunt Lysa, whose effort to sit out the War of Five Kings now looks to make her the host of refugee central.

This is a huge pivot point for Jaime. He chose Brienne over Cersei (who wants him to kill Sansa) and his father (who gave him the sword). He may not be able to free his brother, but he can do this. Brienne is overwhelmed, and looks quite badass in that armor. He also gives her a squire, Podrick, since he’s in danger from those who want to pressure Tyion’s friend to testify against him.

Brienne gives her sword a name, Oathkeeper, which is also the name of the episode. Jaime seems to understand this name doesn’t just reference Brienne’s mission, but also honors him and his decision. It’s the opposite of what everybody says about Jaime as the Kingslayer. Brienne says she will find Sansa for Lady Catelyn — and for Jaime. It’s a heavy moment between them. They’re so bursting with suppressed emotion, they look like they’re about to have a mutual respect-gasm.

This sequence might be the most Tolkien-esque, high-fantasy moment we’ve ever had on the show: The underdog is given a sword with special power, armor, a squire (who gets an ax), and a mission to save a damsel in distress. Jaime tells Brienne goodbye, and we get the distinct impression that he believes strongly he’ll never see her again. It’s hard to find bad performances in Thrones, but in this episode it’s hard to find a better one than Nikolaj Coster-Waldau’s.

NEXT: How do you like Jaime now?

Question: Coming after last week’s controversial rapecest scene, how do you feel about Jaime? Last week, I disagreed with those who felt Jaime’s actions were totally out of character. I suspect the producers would argue (they’ve been silent on this subject) that a convincing and interesting redemption story is not told in a straight line. And that would be quite logical. Yet after this week, I find myself leaning more towards those who felt the rape scene was ill considered, because there was no apparent follow-up or consequence to it. I can imagine all of Jaime’s scenes this week — including the one with Cersei — playing the exact same way without last week’s violence. And speaking of…

Craster’s Keep: From that warm, uplifting, heroic scene, we go to a depiction of evil debauchery the likes of which we’d never see in The Shire. Brutality, drinking wine from a skull and, yes, more rape. The Night’s Watch mutineers are cavorting like winter is never coming.

The wives/daughters of Craster have gone from being abused by one horrible old man to being abused even worse by a gang of young outlaws. This sequence bothered me far more than last week’s Jaime/Cersei scene. The Lannister brother and sister are murderers with a twisted incestuous relationship. These battered, dead-eyed victims are disturbing. To make matters worse, they have to listen to their captor monologue about his glory days as a hired killer in King’s Landing.

That guy’s name is Karl, a name I double checked with HBO because it sounded so un-Thrones; we getting Ser Brian next? Outside, they have Jon Snow’s direwolf Ghost in a cage, and I’m surprised they haven’t eaten it yet. Or raped it. Or both.

Bran, Hodor, and the Reeds find Craster’s house, then get captured by the mutineers. Karl torments them until Bran declares, “I’m Brandon Stark of Winterfell!” which is a relief. But what will the mutineers do with them? Will Jon Snow rescue Bran and be reunited with his brother? We have been set up for so many Stark family reunions fake-outs, are we being teased with another near miss?

The last of Craster’s babies is born, and one of the mutineers puts it out in the snow to sacrifice it to the “gods.” A White Walker scoops it up. You’ve wondered what happens to Craster’s babies. Why do the White Walkers take them? Where do White Walkers come from? Thrones gives us answers when we least expect it.

NEXT: Why I wish White Walkers were not in this story

Turns out the White Walkers bring the babies to their Fortress of Solitude and put them onto an altar for a blue-eyed White Walker king. He turns each one into a White Walker with one touch of its gnarled fingernail.

For hard-core Thrones book-reading geek-com, this is a big reveal: The White Walker/Craster’s baby connection has long been speculated and hinted, but never made entirely clear in the books. (Many readers couldn’t quite picture a seven-pound White Walker crawling around … though that’s actually super unnerving.) And Bran arriving at Craster’s is a big departure from the books, as well.

The usage of the babies also touches upon a thread we’re seeing in the show’s portrayal of magical beings. Dany’s dragons were born in the wake of her grief over the unintentional “sacrifice” of her own child, and the demise of her husband as well. Melisandre said she needed to sacrifice the king’s bastard Gendry to give Stannis a dragon. Melisandre’s smoke monster assassin was portrayed as a baby that she created with Stannis. Now we learn that Craster’s scarified babies are turned into White Walkers. It seems that magic can be used to create magical beings in this world — but in each case a living component must be sacrificed.

Still, I’ve long wished Thrones did not have White Walkers. Martin agonized over whether to include dragons in his grounded fantasy story when writing his first book in the series, A Game of Thrones. He obviously made the right decision. But I’ve always felt he should have stopped with dragons.

I realize many of you will object, particularly because you just watched the most interesting White Walker scene we’ve ever had across four seasons. In fact, it’s probably the dumbest time in the history of this show for me to try and make this argument. But “The Others” (as they’re called in the books) have been a tangential and jarring background threat. They are so supernatural-looking and zombie-like, they feel like figures in a different show. There is so much story in A Song of Ice and Fire, so many compelling characters and locations, that there’s more than enough going on without the White Walkers.

At some point, after winter comes, you figure all these characters will have to stop what they’re doing and deal with this supernatural threat. To me, that sounds like a terrible day for all the stories we’re following in Westeros. I have so much invested in the conflicting agendas of all these characters; I want them to battle each other, not some external CGI demons.

Of course, I’m making a major creative assumption. Maybe the White Walker threat will be deftly handled in some way that doesn’t intrude upon our other stories, or doesn’t significantly alters those outcomes. But to build up the White Walkers all these years, only to have them quickly dismissed would be unsatisfying too. Maybe I should have more faith.

What did you think of this week’s episode? Is anybody else hoping Ser Pounce gets promoted to series regular next season? After all, he’s the only knight protecting the king! Oh, and here are those great promised photos of Dany’s new throne room.