Westeros is infested with wannabe kings. And on last night's Game of Thrones, we explored more of just what makes men powerful: the ability to make children, or control the children they already have. Whether it's marrying your kids off, or just throwing them away, everybody is treating their children like pawns.
To a large extent, Game of Thrones is a show about families being shattered beyond repair — but last night's episode showed the flipside of that. People try to create families, or control the ones they already have, as a means of gaining power or safety. Spoilers ahead...
There are some seriously unusual family units being showcased in this episode. There's Craster, who marries his daughters and sacrifices his sons. There's King Renly, who's married his boyfriend's sister and is having a hard time consummating. There are the Greyjoys, where Theon has basically been adopted by the Starks for nine years and is now treated as less of a man than his sister Yara. There's Sansa Stark's betrothal to Good King Joffrey, who's sworn to murder her brother. And finally there's Arya Stark and the tiny band of criminals and fugitives being escorted to the Wall by their surrogate father, Yoren.
Unlike the first couple of episodes of this season, this one suffered much less from "Meanwhile-itis," with only about half a dozen storylines running throughout the episode in pretty decent-sized chunks.
Craster's Patriarchy and Samwell's Mother:
We start off where we left off last week — with Jon Snow having just spied on Craster, who's carried his newborn son into the woods to be taken by... something. And Craster wastes no time in proving that he's the lord of his manor, throwing the men of the Night's Watch out into the cold. Jon tries to tell the Lord Commander, Jeor Mormont, what he saw — but Mormont basically treats Craster's infanticide as a necessary evil because Craster has kept the Night's Watch alive on more than one occasion. Oh, and Mormont makes a prediction: Jon Snow will probably see that mysterious figure again.
Just as the Night's Watch is preparing to bail, Samwell Tarly gives a weird present to Gilly, Craster's daughter/wife. Samwell was not able to save Gilly, and her baby still faces either a horrible marriage (if it's a girl) or death (if it's a boy.) But he gives her the only keepsake he has of his mother, a thimble from when Samwell used to read to her while she sewed. It's not just the only thing Samwell has of his mother's, it's the only reminder of one of his few happy moments as a child. By giving it to Gilly, he's declaring his affections for her, but he's also giving her a precious artifact of something neither of them ever had: a happy childhood.
The King, His Lover and His Sister:
Meanwhile, King Renly — who wears an ostentatious crown, unlike his older brother Stannis and Robb Stark — is having a hard time passing a key test of legitimacy for a ruler. He needs to get his new wife, Margaery Tyrell, pregnant — and soon. This is important for two reasons. First, he needs to legitimize his marriage to Margaery, so that he can cement the support of her rich, powerful family and its huge army. Second, a King without an heir is a weak king. (And then there's the fact that his vassals are "starting to snigger behind your back.")
Unfortunately, Renly is still in love with Margaery's brother, Ser Loras Tyrell, aka the Knight of Flowers. And when Loras sends his sister to Renly, so that Renly can do his duty as a husband, Renly's unable to go through with it. Margaery even offers to "turn over and pretend" she's her brother. Or to invite her brother to join in, so that Loras can help Renly take Margaery's virginity (officially, at least.)
Margaery has no illusions whatsoever about what's going on — she's just willing to do whatever it takes to make her political marriage official, and Renly can't quite fulfill his end. (One wonders if the invention of the turkey baster would have revolutionized Westeros in so many ways.) It's sort of fascinating that Margaery is played by Natalie Dormer, who played Anne Boleyn in The Tudors: the Queen who lost her head because she couldn't give the King a proper heir.
Loras, meanwhile, is pissed at King Renly — because Loras lost in single combat to a woman, the incredibly tall Brienne of Tarth. And as Brienne's reward, King Renly made her a member of his Kingsguard, so she can exercise her singular devotion to the King at close quarters. Brienne practically salivates at the idea of dying for Renly in battle, and Loras sees her elevation as the ultimate humiliation, coming on top of his defeat. It's a fascinating scenario: both Tyrells are trying to find a workaround for Renly's divergence from the sexual norms of Westeros, but meanwhile they are pissed at him for elevating someone who fails to conform to gender norms.
And meanwhile, King Renly gets a visit from Lady Catelyn Stark, on behalf of her son the King in the North — and he basically blows her off, even after she warns that he's just playing at war and his men are the knights of summer. (And winter is — wait for it — coming.)
Bran's doing the impossible
Bran Stark is still serving as Lord of Winterfell in the absence of his older brother King Robb. But meanwhile, he's having more of those weird dreams where he inhabits the body of his direwolf, Summer. There's a stunning sequence early on in the episode where we see through Summer's eyes as he walks through Winterfell, meeting Hodor, Maester Luwin and a servant girl along the way. Then Summer climbs up on the bed, and Bran awakens to see his wolf looking at him.
When Bran talks to Luwin about this recurring dream, Luwin insists it's not that Bran is becoming one of the legendary "children of the forest" — these are just weird dreams. Luwin tried to cast spells when he was training to be a master, and nothing ever came of it, because magic is dead. "Maybe magic once was a mighty force in the world, but not any more," he says. The dragons and giants are gone, and the children of the forest are forgotten. Or maybe Bran actually has a superpower that transcends his damaged body and violates people's expectations for his body — just as much as, say, the tall and super-violent Brienne does.
But back to weird family situations... Theon Greyjoy is torn between two different families: his birth family and the Starks, who have kept him as a hostage and a ward for the past nine years. And in this episode in particular, you really sense that Theon isn't just an arrogant git — he really does care about the Starks and want to stay loyal to them.
During the war council with his father Balon Greyjoy and his sister Yara, Theon keeps arguing that they should join forces with the Starks — even after it's clear his father means to attack the Starks' domain instead, to make his own kingdom. Theon's not the sharpest sword in the land, or he'd realize that any argument that involves someone giving his father a crown would be a nonstarter. Balon Greyjoy is a stickler for the Ironborn's creed of paying "the iron price" — taking what they want, rather than buying it or receiving it as a gift.
And under no circumstances does a Greyjoy bend the knee — except, as Theon points out, when Balon Greyjoy bent the knee to King Robert and Ned Stark, and handed his last son over as a hostage. "You act as if I volunteered to go," Theon pouts. "You gave me away." This earns him a smack in the face, but Balon doesn't have any other answer. And it's really true — for all Balon's swagger about the Ironborn and their defiant piracy, he totally knuckled under and gave Theon away. And that's probably why Balon hates Theon so much — he's a living reminder of Balon's failure.
Theon really does face a tough choice — can he betray Robb Stark, who showed him real kindness and treated him like a brother, out of loyalty to his awful birth family? And we get to see him struggle with this, both in the scenes where he argues with his family and afterwards. He actually writes a letter to Robb warning him about Balon's plans, then burns it instead of sending it. So why does Theon choose blood over his "other family," as Yara puts it? Two reasons suggest themselves: 1) He really craves his father's approval, even as his father only gives him one fishing boat to Yara's 30 ships. 2) He knows that he'll only ever be one of Robb's random followers, whereas with Balon, he can potentially be the son of a king, and eventually king in turn.
Either way, Theon gets rebaptized in the worship of the Drowned God by his crazy uncle Aeron the Damphair. He's made his choice — family of blood over the family that actually (sort of) cares about him.
The Free Whore and The Imprisoned Lady
This episode is chock full of examples of the TV show improving on George R.R. Martin's books — including Theon's letter to Robb Stark, but also Shae becoming the handmaiden of Sansa Stark.
Tyrion Lannister is facing a tricky situation — he's brought his own bespoke sex worker, Shae, to the capital with him. But his father has promised to execute any whore he finds in Tyrion's company. And meanwhile, Varys the Spider has already discovered the truth about Shae.
So Tyrion schemes to hide Shae, possibly passing her off as a kitchen wench — even though, as Shae puts it, "everyone who's tasted my cooking tells me what a good whore I am." Tyrion tries to explain to Shae that she's his Achilles heel, because he actually cares what happens to her — but she takes it as an insult. Because to be someone else's weakness, even due to sentiment, is to deny herself the possibility of strength, in Shae's view.
So Shae winds up being the maid to Sansa, in one of my favorite pairings of scenes ever on this show. We see Sansa having dinner with Queen Cersei and her children Tommen and Myrcella, and Cersei is tormenting Sansa pitilessly by saying that King Joffrey may well kill Sansa's brother — but Sansa will still do her duty and marry him, as soon as the war is over. Sansa is having a harder and harder time parroting the words she's expected to say. "I'm counting the days until the fighting's done and I can pledge my love to the king in sight of the gods."
And then poor tormented Sansa is saddled with the most incompetent handmaiden ever, who actually expects Sansa to tell her what to do. It's a great scene, because we see it from both sides: Sansa is at her breaking point, and now her last scraps of comfort and status are being taken away by this untrained wretch. And meanwhile, Shae is already pissed at having to pretend to be a maid, and she's stuck with an entitled mistress who is bitching her out for not magically knowing how to make her comfortable.
In any case, Shae is only playing at being a handmaiden, because she's very, very good at a much more lucrative profession — and she knows that she's free, even as Sansa knows that she's a prisoner in spite of all her status. And Sansa's betrothal to Joffrey is the biggest link in her chains, just as Renly's marriage is the price of his crown.
As we've seen with Renly and Sansa, marriages of convenience can be painful — but they're also a key mechanism by which rulers maintain their power. And Tyrion proposes a similar marriage for his niece Princess Myrcella — with a suggestion that she'll also be sent to live with her future husband as a hostage until she's old enough to marry — not unlike Theon.
But Tyrion doesn't just propose a marriage for Myrcella publicly — instead, he tells three different plans to three different lords, to see who tattles to his sister Queen Cersei:
1) He tells Grand Maester Pycelle (the dispenser of laxatives) that he plans for Myrcella to marry Trystane Martell, son of the powerful lord Doran Martell.
2) He tells Lord Varys that he plans to marry Myrcella off to Theon Greyjoy. (One pictures Theon having a joygasm that anybody's even considering him a player.)
3) He tells Petyr Baelish, aka Littlefinger, that he aims to marry Myrcella to Robin Arryn, the little boy who kept screaming for him to be thrown off the tower when he was a prisoner in the Vale last season. ("Make the bad man fly!") He claims that holding grudges, for someone in his position, can be an encumbrance. Plus he promises Littlefinger the castle of Harrenhal and advancement to Lord of the Riverlands.
Of these three matches, probably only the first makes real tactical sense. But in any case, that's the one that Queen Cersei hears about, and when she flies to Tyrion in a rage, he tells her it's a done deal. Myrcella will be safer in Dorne than in King's Landing, where she'll be raped and murdered if the city is taken. Cersei tells her brother, "You think the piece of paper my father gave you keeps you safe? Ned Stark had a piece of paper too."
Later, Tyrion deals with the fallout of his ruse — he's confronted by Littlefinger, who doesn't appreciate being made a fool of. But Tyrion manages to talk Littlefinger into taking part in his next deception, talking Catelyn Stark into releasing Tyrion's brother Jaime. Meanwhile, Tyrion bursts in on Grand Maester Pycelle in bed with a naked woman, and tells Shagga to cut off Pycelle's manhood and feed it to the goats. Or whatever's handy. In lieu of goats, Tyrion has Pycelle's beard cut off, and sends him to one of the Black Cells. At least Tyrion tips Pycelle's consort well.
So when children become pawns in the game of thrones, what are we to make of it? What's it all in aid of? The biggest clue is the beautiful scene between Varys the Spider and Tyrion, in which Varys poses a riddle to Tyrion. As it's phrased in the book:
In a room sit three great men, a king, a priest, and a rich man with his gold. Between them stands a sellsword, a little man of common birth and no great mind. Each of the great ones bids him slay the other two. ‘Do it,' says the king, ‘for I am your lawful ruler.' ‘Do it,' says the priest, ‘for I command you in the names of the gods.' ‘Do it,' says the rich man, ‘and all this gold shall be yours.' So tell me-who lives and who dies?
Tyrion responds that it depends on the sellsword. But Varys says the riddle reveals the truth about power — it's a shadow on the wall, an illusion. Power resides where everyone believes it resides, and legitimacy comes from more than the ability to kill people or buy them off. It comes from the web of relationships and arrangements among those who hold power — and those, in turn, come from marriage and making babies.
The Fall of Yoren
And finally, there's the fate of Yoren's band of children, criminals and misfits, headed for the Wall to join the Night's Watch. Yoren's group includes Gendry, the bastard son of King Robert who could be used to prove Good King Joffrey's illegitimacy, so Ser Amory Lorch chases the group down relentlessly, and finally catches up with them again. Yoren puts up a good fight, but eventually dies — and in a final irony, Arya convinces Lorch that Lommy, one of the kids who's already dead, is Gendry. Even though Lommy looks nothing like King Robert whatsoever, and thus would have been no threat to Joffrey.
Before Yoren dies, he tells Arya a little parable of his own, one which is even more opaque than Varys' riddle of power. A good looking man named Willem stabbed Yoren's brother through the heart when Yoren was a boy, and Yoren kept repeating Willem's name to himself over and over again, dreaming of revenge. Until finally Willem showed up again, and Yoren killed him — then rode Willem's horse directly to the Wall, where's been ever since.
Because a child's dreams of vengeance becomes a lifetime of regret, in a moment. Unfortunately, because Arya is still an angry, hurt kid herself, she totally fails to learn the right lesson from what Yoren is trying to tell her.