Holy mother of dragons. If you missed out on this week’s “Game of Thrones” episode, shame on you. Yes, the past three have been slow, but they were just one long crescendo leading up to Sunday’s epic climax. The season has finally, truly begun.

“And Now His Watch Has Ended” began with a rather macabre image of Jaime Lannister’s sword hand, gray and rotting, hanging around his neck as he’s made to wear it as a form of sick psychological torture. One swift chop stripped him of everything, and now the Kingslayer is borderline pathetic; mocked and degraded by his Bolton captors, he is far from the gleaming, desirable knight he once was.

Luckily for him, he still has the resilient Brienne by his side, who (much to her own surprise) was able to convince him to eat and live on for revenge. Gwendoline Christie and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau make an excellent pair on screen. From their unexpected chemistry to their miss-matched temperaments, the two are really, really good at portraying their characters’ slow journey to a lasting and important bond.

Elsewhere, Jaime’s other golden twin and lover fares no better. The brutal tongue-lashing that Tywin served Tyrion in episode one comes back full force, and bites Cersei in the ass as well. Charles Dance has been consistent since season one of his portrayal of the Lannister patriarch, and while he is not a likable character, I did enjoy watching him pick apart his own daughter. He makes it clear he mistrusts her not because she’s a woman, but because she’s not as smart as she thinks. We see this in a brilliant scene involving Cersei, Lady Olenna, Margaery and Joffrey as the four take a tour of the grand hall where the royal wedding will take place. Margaery wastes no time to show off that she has Joffrey wrapped around her finger, and Cersei can only watch with resentment as she is strategically usurped. As Tywin notes, when Cersei says, “The Tyrells are a problem,” she truly means, “Daddy, I’m jealous Margaery is better at playing this game.”

This week also saw greater use for Lord Varys, the Master of Whispers, with an impeccable performance by Irish actor Conleth Hill. Personally, Varys is one of my favorite characters. Called “the Spider” with many “little birds” as his skilled spies, Varys has cultured a mystique and reputation about him––one’s he’s proud of and glad to keep. His banter with Tyrion was a welcome return from season two. Varys insists on telling Tyrion the story of how he was cut, and after a season of being teased with the truth, Varys slaps the audience with some displeasing images of castration and blood magic. A captivating story to be sure, but every word out of the Master of Whispers’ mouth holds significant weight and dual meanings.

Speaking of banter, Varys meets his match with the Queen of Thorns. The two razor-sharp characters face off. There is wariness and uncertainty between the two, but Olenna knows Varys wouldn’t have traveled out of his comfort zone for nothing, and was quick in picking up her visitor’s intent. Other than the Sansa plot brewing between them, Varys also speaks a telling line by revealing that Littlefinger doesn’t care about loyalty or the realm because he would “see the country burn if he could be king of the ashes.” This is important because while Varys and Littlefinger both walk in the shadows to manipulate the game pieces, Varys has a goal he’s methodically working towards, while Littlefinger’s ambition is reckless and blind. Oh, it certainly is wonderful to have Lord Varys back and meddling with the lives of others.

No sign of the King of the North this episode, but we do get a glimpse of his younger siblings. Bran is traveling with his group, their destination and location is unknown, but he still dreams of the three-eyed crow––except Jojen has the ability to somehow be in the dreams in order to guide him. It was a short scene that served no purpose in the overall plot, but I’m hoping that it’s just a prelude to the real meat of Bran’s story arc.

Arya and the Brotherhood Without Banners (BWB) travel to an undisclosed cave, where we are finally introduced (again) to Lord Beric Dondarrion, with Richard Dormer replacing the previous actor. Dondarrion is the true leader of the BWB, and claims to have been brought back to life by the Lord of Light. It’s worthy noting that Melisandre worships the same God, and while her worship is dangerous and borders on obsession, the BWB are less fanatical and use it for good––demonstrating the multiple facets of religion.

“The Hound,” Sandor Clegane, is brought before the BWB to be judged for the bloodshed wreaked upon the Seven Kingdoms by the Clegane household––specifically, the head of house and “the Mountain,” Gregor Clegane. It becomes clear from this episode that “the Hound,” while ugly and violent, isn’t as vicious or monstrous as his older brother. Every crime named against him was committed by “the Mountain,” until Arya speaks up about the slaying of her friend Mycah from season one by Sandor. Even then, Sandor spits that it was under the orders of his king. Dondarrion states that since there is proof, he will let the Lord of Light decide if he’s guilty with a dual, leaving viewers on a cliffhanger of what’s to come next episode.

Sansa, ever beautiful and ladylike, is desperate for friends. So desperate, in fact, that it’s frustrating to watch because it’s glaringly obvious that her and Margaery are two different breeds of women. If Sansa just possessed an ounce of her mother’s strong will or even half of Margaery’s shrewdness, she would immediately understand her worth as a Stark, and what her name means for Winterfell and the men that wish to wed her. Alas, that is not the case and the eldest Stark girl quickly accepts her soon-to-be-Queen’s proposal that they shall be best friends, and sisters, if Sansa agrees to wed Ser Loras Tyrell.

Ever the romantic, Sansa practically swoons at the prospect––a prospect that’s doomed to fail because let’s be real: “Game of Thrones” doesn’t do happy endings, or much of happiness for that matter. I’m also a bit irked that they replaced Willas Tyrell, the heir of Highgarden and the one with whom Sansa was actually paired, with Loras. It’s probably for the best because HBO wanted to keep new characters to a minimum, but Willas’ character had more substance than his pretty-boy younger brother.

We don’t get to see Jon Snow in this episode, but we do go beyond the Wall, back to Crastor’s Keep, where a mutiny occurs. It was a solid scene, but also the one that left me the most disgruntled. Starving and freezing, the Nights Watch––a brotherhood––turn on each other and their Lord Commander. Sam, who in the book stays with the dying Jeor Mormont (played by respected Scottish actor James Cosmo), instead immediately flees with Gilly and her baby boy. The woman and child do serve a later purpose, but it’s unsettling how the writers were so quick to negate an otherwise traumatizing and emotional scene that many readers held dear to their hearts. “And now his watch has ended” is a phrase spoken by the Night’s Watch to their deceased brothers, and it seems fitting that the title alludes to the heinous betrayal of what was once one of the most sacred brotherhoods in the Seven Kingdoms.

Poor Theon. He gets set free by a helpful, kind servant boy only to have the lad lead him back to another torture chamber. Hopeful that his sister will accept him, Theon gives a moving speech about being overshadowed by Robb, his sorrow and regret at betraying the only father he knew (Ned) and burning Winterfell to the ground––right before he gets strapped down in another cell. Alfie Allen is a great choice to play the ironborn, and was able to mold well into Theon’s ever changing personality. Allen is able to grasp the severity of his character’s actions and what it could possibly mean for him in the future. Theon will evolve, both physically and mentally, and it would appear that Allen is a skilled enough actor to stay true to the evolution.

Before we get to the best part of the episode, let’s take some time to applaud the crew of “Game of Thrones” for always bringing the most jaw-dropping, eye-catching locations and sets to their fans. George R. R. Martin’s world is extremely realistic and lavish; from the sweeping Dothraki Sea, to the Wall and to King’s Landing, every location was described in perfect detail and the show wasted no time (or money) in replicating every setting in all its glory. HBO really wanted to immerse its viewers in the world to make it believable and awe-inspiring. One of the most expensive TV series ever, HBO spends anywhere between $5 – 10 million per episode on their biggest money making franchise, with last season’s “Blackwater” being the most expensive episode ever made of any TV series. It’s definitely paying off, though. “Game of Thrones” is amassing legions upon legions of obsessed fans, which is certain to keep the show going for several more years.

Now onto the best scene so far of the season: Khaleesi taking the Unsullied and unleashing her dragons upon Astapor. Looking fierce and determined as she faces the slave-traders, she waits for the Master to declare that the deed is done. She then commands the Unsullied in High Valyrian, a language she has understood all along but pretended not to know. The look of surprise and sheer horror on the Master’s face says it all as he listens to the young queen declare her identity and her intentions in flawless Valyrian, and is burned to a crisp by Drogon as more than 8,000 trained killers take down one of the three great cities in Slaver’s Bay. It was epic; it left me speechless and wanting more.

What made the moment so much more perfect was the proud looks on Jorah’s and Barristan Selmy’s faces as their queen not only outsmarted the rulers in Astapor, but also set free all the slaves within the city, including the Unsullied. A true sign of a great and just leader, she has won their admiration and their esteem. They were right in putting their faith in her. But most of all, she has every single Unsullied on her side, even though she offered them the choice to leave unharmed. The last image of Dany astride a white horse—not unlike her deceased, beloved Silver (the mare Drogo presented to her as a wedding gift)—as she rode out of Astapor with an army at her back and three dragons circling overhead, was sensory overload. Now that “Game of Thrones” has got the ball rolling and cut into the meat of the season, one can only hope that the following episodes will live up to this week’s success.

 Rating: 5 stars