Hello again, everyone, and welcome once again to the great Chris & Nikki co-blog, wherein we gab about the most recent episode of Game of Thrones. This week’s was pretty impressive—I’d place it among the best episodes of the show so far. So much to love: Tommen is crowned, Cersei arrives at an apparent détente with Margaery, Arya learns a harsh lesson about swordcraft, Daenerys enters the queen-in-training program (Mereen campus), Sansa has some thoughts about frying pans and fires, and the Brienne-and-Jaime buddy comedy gets a spinoff.
And of course, one or two things happen north of the Wall.
But I’m getting ahead of ourselves. What shall we start with, Nikki?
Nikki: So let’s start in the Eyrie, that place with the creepy Lysa and her much creepier son, Robin. We haven’t seen these people since season 1, when Robin urged his mother to send Tyrion flying through the moon door. Baelish told Sansa they were heading there, and I watched their entrance with one eye closed because I thought, oh my god, if she’s still breastfeeding that kid I’m switching over to Mad Men. She wasn’t . . . but he wasn’t far from her breast. And he’s even loopier than he was when he was younger: when he wasn’t dancing around Sansa and asking her if it was true that her family was slaughtered, he was taking Baelish’s precious gift of a glass bird (transported all the way from Westeros and up the mountains of the Eyrie without breaking it) and just flings it through the moon door to show them, you know, what he means when he refers to the moon door. (Note to Robin: next time, JUST POINT.)
But we can’t really blame the kid for being more than a little off; look at his mother, after all. She tells Sansa about how Catelyn used to eat so many sweets she was making herself fat (as she’s pushing the same sweets into Sansa’s mouth), then hints at the story of Catelyn being so drawn to Brandon Stark that he forced Baelish into a duel that almost killed Littlefinger (a story from Book 1), then pushes down on Sansa’s rings, seriously hurting the girl’s hands and scaring her by suggesting she’s a whore who’s trying to seduce Lord Baelish before taking her to her breast and whispering “there, there,” reassuring poor Sansa that soon Tyrion will be executed and she will be free to marry Robin and become Lady of the Vale. The “DA FUH?!” look on Sansa’s face when she catches that last part is priceless.
Oh, and then there’s the snogging with Littlefinger, which I could do with never, ever seeing again, where she promises him that she will scream across the Vale when he makes love to her that night . . . a promise that she keeps, much to Sansa’s dismay. The union between Littlefinger and Lysa didn’t seem to make a lot of sense at first; of course, he’s connected to her through his love of Catelyn (if you can’t have one sister, you might as well have the other… then again, switching from Catelyn to Lysa doesn’t quite seem like switching from Brandon to Ned). And Lysa is a powerful woman still, so the marriage could be worth something. But now we discover that they’ve been connected for years, ever since Baelish convinced her to poison her husband Jon Arryn, which then orchestrated the whole Robert Baratheon goes to Winterfell/Ned becomes the Hand of the King/Ned sniffs out the bastardy issue/Robert dies/Ned dies/all hell breaks loose thing. So there’s that.
Wait… WHAT?! Baelish was behind everything?! The entire game of thrones that began with the death of Jon Arryn wasn’t, in fact, executed by Pycelles or Cersei, but Baelish? Ooh… THIS just got more interesting.
What did you think of this episode, Chris?
Christopher: In many ways, this has been my favourite episode so far this season. So much happened—there are an awful lot of exclamation points in my notes. One thing I think worth mentioning is that this episode flipped back and forth between storylines a lot more frequently than we’ve tended to see. The trend for a while has been spending a good chunk of time on one thread, and then moving on … but we had a lot of backing and forthing, which gave this episode somewhat more of a dynamic feel to it.
That being said, we had only one sojourn with Daenerys this go-around, and the final sequence was a long stay with Jon Snow, Bran, and Locke (though to be fair, it did switch quite frequently between their perspectives). I’ll start with Daenerys, who is now considering her options. What to do? She has proved her worth in conquering three mighty cities, amassing in the process an army large enough to challenge King’s Landing. But as Jorah reminds her, King’s Landing is one thing—the entirety of Westeros is another. And she hears disturbing news from Astapor and Yunkai: those cities she has “liberated” have reverted to old practices, old despotisms, with unseemly haste. It makes you remember Tywin’s advice to Tommen last episode: King Robert was mighty in battle, but made the mortal error of mistaking prowess in war for competence in ruling. So much of this show is about the nature of power. Daenerys has shown just how formidable she is, but at the same time just how transient her influence is. Without her actual presence, these cities have no compunction to play by her rules.
But unlike other tyrants we’ve seen—unlike King Robert, or Joffrey, or Viserys—she recognizes as much and rejects her advisors’ urgings to sail for King’s Landing. “How can I rule the Seven Kingdoms,” she asks, “when I can’t rule one city?” How indeed … and so she opts to stay in Mereen—and prove her worth as a ruler.
The nature of kingship (and queenship) is much on display and in debate in this episode. We begin with Tommen’s coronation—and can I say just how Christian and British that sequence is? The prevailing seven-pointed church of Westeros is an obvious analogy to Christianity, but I don’t think it’s been quite so explicit prior to this bit. But that parallel is quite significant, as it reminds us of the principle of divine right of kings. Hence, the conversation between Margaery and Cersei is, to put it mildly, somewhat loaded. Before I get into the substance of it, let me praise Natalie Dormer and Lena Headey for some extraordinarily understated acting. Anyone who had not seen the series to that point could be forgiven for thinking, “Oh, nice … they’re helping each other through their grief, and they’ll work in concert to aid Tommen.” HA! What a lovely depiction of honeyed barbs, especially on the heels of Margaery’s secret shared smiles with the new king, and Cersei’s rather pointed intrusion into her line of sight,
All of which helps to highlight the series’ troubling of the very notion of divine right. Margaery, looking at the diminutive Tommen on the Iron Throne, offers the saccharine platitude that “he sits the throne like he was born to it.” What I loved about this sequence was how blunt Cersei is: “But he wasn’t,” she asks, “was he?” What followed floored me: Cersei admitting, to her dead son’s bride, that her dead son was a monster. Though she doesn’t use those precise words, the meaning is plain. What an incredible moment of incommensurable conflict: the acknowledgement that Joffrey was a monster, alongside the mother’s fierce love for her first son. It’s obvious here that, though she obviously loves Tommen—who is, by all indications, a far superior human being to Joffrey—she cares far less for him than she did (does) for the wee prick.
But her admission is staggering, as is her suggestion that Tommen might be the first king in centuries who is actually good. “Who was the last decent king, I wonder?” she muses. A question to our readers: how many of you had the hair on the back of your neck stand up at that moment?
Of course, all of Cersei’s seeming commiseration with Margaery (not that we believed it) was belied by her conversation with her father. What did you think of that scene, Nikki?
Nikki: This was definitely Cersei’s episode. So much so, in fact, that near the end I began to worry she was about to be killed off. (“Let’s give Lena some great scenes and then… off with her head!”) I think this season has gone a long way to making Cersei a more sympathetic character. That wine goblet is ever present, as much a constant accessory for Cersei as her rings and braided hair, showing how much she needs liquid courage just to get through her day. The conversation with Margaery was exactly what you said it was: staggering. In fact, I was so enthralled by what was happening that my note-taking ceased, and I scrambled to catch up after and had to rewatch that scene. Those two actresses are marvelous together, and as you pointed out, the moment of Cersei stepping between Tommen and Margaery as Margaery flirted from above and Tommen giggled on his throne was so powerfully symbolic.
And yet, for the first time, we got a real admission from her. Yes, as you say, the sincerity was undercut by the later discussion with Tywin, but for her to respond to Margaery’s loyalty to Joffrey with the curt, “He would have been your nightmare” was shocking. She’s gleaned what Margaery’s been up to, and so Cersei decides to take the reins rather than let Margaery get away with it: she encourages her to marry Tommen, forcing Margaery to act coy and say she’d have to ask her father, and then Cersei admits she’ll have to do the same. Of course they do: for all the power they wield, they are nothing.
And then we cut to the Tywin conversation where he confirms that the Tyrells are their “only true rivals” when it comes to resources, and they need to get them on side. The Lannisters had the gold, but it’s dried up completely and has yielded a total amount of zero gold (no ounces, pounds, or tons). Tywin admits that Robert Baratheon had created a tremendous debt now owed to the Iron Bank of Braavos (I couldn’t help but picture Gringotts). We knew this already because Tyrion pointed it out when he became Master of Coin, and it was in fact Littlefinger who did the drawing on the bank to cover up Baratheon’s massive spending and hide the mess he was making. He explains to Cersei that the weddings are necessary: despite her disgust, she must marry Renly to tie them to the Tyrells, just as Tommen must be with Margaery.
And here, once again, that theme of kingship in this episode comes to the fore: Baratheon was a terrible king who spent so much money that he’s left the kingdom in terrible debt to a bank that sounds like quite the formidable foe (“It is a temple, and we live in its shadow,” says Tywin), and now all sorts of alliances must be made with other houses that have nothing to do with military power, and everything to do with paying off old debts.
But for all of Cersei’s campaigning in this episode — first talking to Margaery, then to Tywin, and finally to Oberyn, and to each one repeating that her brother Tyrion killed Joffrey and he must pay for his actions — little does she know that the real killer is in the very House with whom she’s making these alliances.
The scene between Cersei and Oberyn further heightened my sympathies to her. I know she’s conniving, but just as she explained her love of Joffrey to Margaery — “You never love anything in the world the way you love your first child, no matter what they do” — her love for her other children is deep, too. She was devastated when they shipped Myrcella off to Dorne, and she goes to Oberyn to ask if he’s seen her. He tells of her laughing and playing in the water with his daughters and loving life, which, given the hellhole that Westeros has become, is like a dreamworld in comparison. (Is it possible he’s lying, or can we hold on to the hope that he’s telling the truth?) She asks him, “What good is power when you cannot save the ones you love?” When we first met Cersei, she was trapped in a loveless marriage but finding solace with Jaime; she had her children around her, Tyrion was in his place, Jaime was by her side, Robert was off fondling other women and barely noticing her existence, and her son was going to take over as king. Even then, she was an unhappy woman because of the alliance made to Robert, who made her life a constant misery. But now her father barely tolerates her, Jaime hates her and he disgusts her, her beloved first child is dead, and her daughter has been shipped elsewhere. As I said in last week’s recap, the women on Game of Thrones often have the look of power, but very little of it is actually theirs to wield, which is not the show necessarily being sexist, but providing an example of the sad reality around us every day. I literally gasped at the beauty and harshness of the next line Cersei uttered:
Oberyn: They don’t hurt little girls in Dorne.
Cersei: Everywhere in the world, they hurt little girls.
Cersei might be cold, calculating, and lack empathy, but in this episode we are reminded of how she was turned into that person: she has been used as a pawn her entire life, and everything she’s ever loved has been taken from her.
And similarly, everyone that Arya has ever loved has been seemingly taken from her. In this episode, we see her recite her list once again before sleep, and the final name (which I knew was coming all along) adds an extra punch. Everywhere in the world, they indeed hurt little girls. But not all little girls know how to wield a sword.
Christopher: Not all little girls wield a sword, it is true, but Arya’s showdown with the Hound reminds her (and us) of the great chasm between theory and practice. Arya is like a kid who thinks he can fight because he’s got his brown belt in karate, and proceeds to get his ass handed to him when he provokes someone who actually has experience fighting. The Hound’s amusement in this scene is brilliant.
Arya: No one’s going to kill me.
Hound: They will if you nance around like that.
Also brilliant is the utter contempt in his voice when Arya tells him Syrio was killed by Meryn Trant. We of course saw what happened, and we know that a fake sword is no match for actual steel and plate armour—no matter how brilliant the swordsman—and we further know that Syrio sacrificed himself to spare Arya … none of which really stands up to the Hound’s derision and his brutal confidence in his own abilities. I think, perhaps, we can safely say that our sympathy for the Hound is ebbing? Certainly the contemptuous backhand he deals Arya reminds us just how unsentimental this man is. And he cares nothing for Arya’s hate, sleeping soundly by her even though he has made her list of death. It doesn’t do to underestimate Arya, but neither should we overestimate her: Needle’s failure to so much as poke a hole in the Hound’s armour would have been hilarious if it wasn’t so pathetic. Never has Arya’s beloved sword looked more like a toy.
That’s one of the things I love about this series and the novels on which it is based: GRRM doesn’t merely not shy away from the brutal calculus of life and death in this world, he makes it a central theme. In some ways, Arya is practically archetypal: the young hero with a unique talent, who through determination and spunk bests seasoned warriors. Except that when you think about it, she hasn’t: everyone she has so far killed, she has killed by accident (the boy in the stable back in King’s Landing) or by trickery or stealth. All of which is entirely appropriate for a slip of a girl with a toothpick sword, but like the fact that even a brilliant swordsman like Syrio cannot defeat a mediocre one like Meryn Trant when the latter is encased in steel, so too the Hound’s size, strength, and utter willingness to kill will always trump Arya’s skill.
Arya’s feeble confrontation with the Hound reflects a broader reality as well, one acknowledged by Tywin: stuff matters. Having just spent a semester teaching a class on The Lord of the Rings, GRRM’s emphasis on the material necessities for war and governance is particularly striking. Tolkien’s novel is a masterpiece, but has little concern for questions of logistics. How does Gondor feed its armies? How does it pay them? From where do they procure the raw materials for weapons? And so forth … these questions are never raised by Tolkien, much less answered. Game of Thrones, by contrast, functions on the basic principle that armies must be fed, paid, provisioned, and that the money for that has to come from somewhere. Littlefinger’s ostensible mismanagement of the Iron Throne’s finances takes on a rather more sinister character, doesn’t it? As you point out, the revelation that Jon Arryn—whose assassination essentially put this story in motion—was killed by his wife at Littlefinger’s behest is one of the more shocking revelations in a series that raises shocking twists to the level of art. I remember nearly dropping the book when I read that. Littlefinger does seem to be behind everything, and has been working toward all of this for a very long time. But rest assured when I tell you his is only one of the conspiracies shaping the destinies of our favourite characters.
Speaking of our favourite characters (how’s that for a segue?) it looks as though we’re getting a new buddy comedy starring Brienne and Pod … though this one looks like it will feature much less sharp banter and a lot more slapstick. What did you think of the way Brienne’s new storyline is proceeding?
Nikki: As you know, my love of Brienne runs deep. And I think much of that love stems from the fact that her story is a perfect blend of comedy, tragedy, pathos, sadness, and triumph — moreso than possibly any other character on the show (save, perhaps, Tyrion), her story runs the gamut of emotions. This week there’s a lot of comedy — Pod unable to keep his horse straight, Brienne trying to convince him to just go away but he’s unwilling because it would make him a bad squire, Pod catching a rabbit on fire because he didn’t realize he needed to skin it first — but within that comedy we get a very big revelation for Brienne: that one of the Kingsguard tried to kill Tyrion during the Battle of Blackwater. This seemingly unimportant piece of information that Pod tosses off in the midst of explaining to her that he killed a man once to save Tyrion’s life could end up being a very valuable piece of information later. It’s possible Brienne could be killed (noooo!) before she’s able to actually use this piece of information — after all, GRRM often brings us to the brink of something happening and then shatters it — but here’s hoping that it becomes useful to her. What definitely happens in that scene is that Brienne develops sympathy for Pod, and realizes that what he might lack in skills he makes up for in loyalty. It’s a lovely moment when she allows him to remove her armour for her. But you can see from the look on her face that she’s rather shocked by what he just told her.
And, as you said above, that’s the thing I really enjoy about Game of Thrones and the books upon which it is based: that so often what would be a “dun-dun-DAAAAHHH!” moment on any other show — quickly given, used, and resolved — just becomes a puzzle piece on this show that might be used, or might be a dangling red herring. As you so rightfully point out, Arya could be a coming of age story of a girl who proves that a person is a person, no matter how small… or, in the world of GRRM, she can be a girl who longs to prove that, but will still end up dead in a ditch because her sword is about as useful as a twig my son would pick up in the woods and pretend to swordfight with. (In fact, I didn’t actually recognize Needle at first and wondered why she was parrying with a twig rather than Needle, and then realized… “Oh.”)
But the same goes for Daenerys. As much as I adore her (I repeat: my fealty lies in the House of Targaryen), I’ve always thought it rather convenient that she frees the slaves and has some of them follow her and… then what? What about the people left behind? Are the people really better off? What about the ones who don’t follow her? Aren’t they vulnerable right now? She just took all of the Unsullied out of Yunkai, isn’t that their only defense?
So in this episode, when her advisors explain that actually, things turned to shit in Astapor and Yunkai after she “liberated” them (definitely a commentary on recent world events), I was rather delighted. It’s not all sunshine and light, and GRRM shows the downside to military victory: his novels might be in the fantasy genre, but he shows the very real trials and tribulations attached to these circumstances; the military occupation and triumph might be done with the best of intentions, but sometimes with disastrous results. I was also very happy to hear her talking about Westeros — she’s always been so removed from the goings-on in the rest of the Seven Kingdoms, with her own story being entirely separate from the others (excepting the occasional references to her whereabouts that are mentioned in small councils) that hearing the two of them come together was rather wonderful. Unlike the men who reign over these other areas, she will stop, strengthen, and rule, getting to know her people and her kingdom before moving forward. “I will do what queens do: I will rule.”
Daenerys — her power and intelligence — is the perfect antidote to the sad lot of the other women in the story. And with that… we move to Craster’s Keep. Whoa. Talk about a crazy suspenseful sequence, where both my husband and I started to worry that Jon Snow might die next (NO! Not Jon Snow!) simply because Bran was this close to reuniting with him, and we remember what happened to the other Stark brother when Arya got that close to him. Eep! But first there’s Jojen’s revelation that they’re all just accompanying Bran to the weirwood; then the threatened rape of Jojen’s sister; then Bran turns Hodor into a killer, which resonates so deeply as Hodor stares at the blood on his hands in confusion and heartbreak; then the return of Ghost (YES!); then the horrifying death of Tanner… I literally had my knees pulled right up to my chin and was holding my hands out going, “Geeeeyaaaaahhh noooooo!” as Jon Snow s-l-o-w-l-y pulled that sword back out of his head GOOD GOD. Seriously, between that and the horse episode of Hannibal, which I just saw this week, I think I’m giving up eating popcorn while watching television. But what an insanely amazing end to the episode. You had revealed to us that Locke was a construct of the show, so I figured he wouldn’t last long on the show, but I really thought this entire sequence was rather spectacular nonetheless. What did you think, Chris?
Christopher: I completely agree—it instantly became one of my favourite sequences on the show thus far, and is remarkable on two fronts: first, it was not in the books (I’m hard pressed to think of any of my other favourite bits that weren’t), and second, it had Bran in it! The last time Bran was in an awesome sequence, he was in a coma as his direwolf killed his would-be assassin.
It also renewed my faith in the writers. I should have known better than to worry about the appearance of Locke at the Wall and the apparent collision course between Jon and Bran. They sidestepped a potential rupture in GRRM’s overall story with a certain narrative elegance and a lot of brutal violence (as is their wont). And in the process they emphasized both Bran’s importance to the story and the cost of their mission—both in terms of what his protectors are willing to endure, as well as the actual human cost of blood spilled. But it was the Hodor moments that made this sequence as brilliant as it was. Poor Hodor … it’s quite an accomplishment to inspire that thrill and triumph of Hodor’s sudden badassery, while simultaneously cringing because we know just how much of a violation it is to make the gentle giant a killer. As you say, Nikki, the aftermath as he’s looking at his hands in hurt bewilderment is heartbreaking.
As is the necessity of Bran slipping away without having a reunion with Jon Snow. We recall from season one that they’d had a warm relationship, with Jon gently encouraging during his archery lesson, and the genuine hurt on his face when he sits next to comatose Bran’s bed to say farewell. Bran must desert one of his few remaining family members; and Jon will not know that the brother he thought dead by Theon’s hand is very much alive.
In other words, this final sequence is exemplary of what Game of Thrones can do when it’s on its game: exciting, suspenseful, and deeply satisfying on a visceral level, but also riddled with pathos and regret (but also love and warmth—if Cersei’s grief and Arya’s hate are the emotional low points of the episode, Jon’s reunion with Ghost is certainly the high one). For all the blood that’s spilled at Craster’s Keep and the deep satisfaction of seeing Tanner and Locke get their comeuppance, there’s a powerful ambivalence, best embodied by Craster’s wives … effectively imprisoned and enslaved by Craster, then imprisoned again by Karl Tanner and his mutineers and repeatedly raped, they nevertheless refuse Jon Snow’s offer of asylum. But neither can they return to the only home they’ve known, with its memories of Craster. “Burn it,” says the leader, in spite of the fact that that will leave them with no shelter as winter encroaches. Their wounds run deeper than winter’s chill.
Do you realize we’re now at the mid-point of this season? As with all good things, this goes too quickly. So thanks once again, Nikki! And thanks to all of you following the show with us. In the meantime, be good and work hard, and remember that if you suddenly wake up to find yourself choking a Night’s Watch impostor, don’t panic. Just go with it. He was probably an asshole anyway.