Last night's episode of Game of Thrones had so many "oh shit" moments it was almost too stressful to watch — like when you're in an airplane and it suddenly drops a few hundred feet in a few seconds. Everybody's suspended over the abyss, with a few threadbare ropes keeping them aloft.
And last night, we saw the shape of that abyss. When the illusion of control drops away, and you realize that there are some wild creatures you can't domesticate and some people you can't just push around, then you're lost. Spoilers ahead...
It seems like almost every episode of Game of Thrones has one speech that lays out some food for thought that touches every other part of the episode — although, to its credit, this show is always subtle rather than bludgeony about it.
Last night, the honor belonged to Qhorin Halfhand, the legendary Ranger who has spent more time North of the Wall than anyone, and knows these mysterious Wildlings. Talking to Jon Snow about his wandering direwolf Ghost, Qhorin says, "You can't tame a wild thing. You can't trust a wild thing... Wild creatures have their own rules, their own reasons, and you'll never know them." This applies to the Wildlings as well as to Ghost — and it definitely applies to Ygritte, the improbably well-groomed girl that Jon Snow takes prisoner later in the episode.
Jon Snow is a lot more merciful and kind than most of the other characters on this show — he refuses to behead Ygritte, pretty soon after we've just seen Theon beheading the poor doomed Ser Rodrik Cassel. (Of course, Ygritte is a bit more attractive than poor old Ser Rodrik.)
But when he chooses to let Ygritte live, Jon Snow is basically taking responsibility for her, and he's clearly not going to be able to handle it. Qhorin tries to warn Jon a few different ways, including that speech about how he can't really understand or control wild creatures like Ygritte or Ghost, and then again, Qhorin makes Ygritte come out and say it — if the positions were reversed, a quick death would be a rare mercy, coming from the Wildlings.
And then Qhorin takes the other Rangers and wanders off, leaving Jon Snow to kill her — or not — in privacy. Because Qhorin's giving Jon Snow the choice between doing his duty and letting sentiment get the best of him. (And we can only hope Jon's choice doesn't doom all of his comrades.)
And Ygritte is clearly more than a match for Jon, who's such a horny virgin that he is completely flustered when she rubs herself against him as they spoon together. His attempt at tying her up would get him thrown out of the Boy Scouts forever. He lets her escape once, and we're not left in much doubt that she'll be doing it again soon.
And that's kind of the thread of this episode — people trying to assert control over things, or creatures, that they can't possibly maintain a hold over.
Prince Theon and the problem of Osha compliance
Sorry, couldn't resist.
So this episode clearly sets up a couple parallels between Jon Snow and Theon Greyjoy, the two illegitimate sons of Ned Stark. (One is Ned's bastard, the other was Ned's ward.) And as we mentioned earlier, they both face a situation where an older "mentor" character is urging them to behead someone, except that they make different choices.
Theon's takeover of Winterfell happens amazingly fast this episode, so it's as much of a shock to us as it is to poor young Bran Stark, who awakens to find his castle in the hands of his former friend. The look on Bran's face when he looks up at Theon and says "Did you hate us the whole time?" is heart-crushing.
Because of course, Theon didn't hate the Starks — he just has to be his own man now. His own man, who will do whatever Dagmer Cleftjaw tells him.
And at the cost of horrifying all his old friends and comrades, and beheading the man who taught him to hold a sword, Theon gets to be the lord of an empty, frozen castle in the middle of nowhere. Winterfell doesn't really mean much without the loyalty of its people. So instead, Theon has to swagger around, telling people to call him Prince and trying to beat loyalty into the people there.
These aren't wildlings, like Ygritte. But they are Northerners, and they're not happy about bowing to some foreign upstart whose snot-nosed face they're used to seeing skulk around the castle.
And then there's Osha, who is an actual wildling, and who fakes that she's like Ygritte, totally wild and with loyalty to nobody. She tries to trick Theon twice, and only succeeds the second time. The first time, she offers to fight for him, the second time to sleep with him. It works better the second time partly because Theon is horny (another parallel between him and Jon Snow) but also because he believes Osha when she says she wants her freedom. She claims she just wants to run wild, like Ygritte and the other Wildlings.
In fact, Osha has noplace to go and nobody to go back to. She doesn't want her freedom, she wants to rescue Bran and his little brother Rickon, so after she seduces Prince Theon, she murders one of his guards and steals the boys out of there, along with Hodor and the two direwolves. (And it's sort of a shame she doesn't manage to cut Theon's throat while she's at it.)
Robb Stark wants what he can't have
Robb Stark is busy making a move on Lady Talisa, the hot amputator he made a move on a while ago, including finding out all about her possibly noble parentage back home in Volantis. He clearly wants her because she's the only person who will stand up to him, and who isn't part of his world of honor and duty and allegiance.
He wants her because she challenges him and questions him. And because she's someome he can't control and boss around, in other words.
(Oh, and she's Charlie Chaplin's granddaughter. That's a plus!)
Too bad his mom shows up and takes his T-bird away, sending Lady Talisa off to slice off some more feet while Cat Stark reminds Robb that he's already engaged to be married. And if Robb doesn't go through with his marriage to Lord Frey's daughter, then his honor as well as his military position both go down the tubes.
And then Robb gets the terrible news that Theon, the person he most trusted, has totally shafted him. Winterfell is captured, Ser Rodrik is dead, and the fate of Robb's younger brothers is unknown.
Because Robb's constant pushing South, inflicting all of those defeats on Tywin Lannister and his allies, has left him vulnerable at home. He's left Winterfell too lightly defended, with a young boy in charge, and now he's paying the price. Robb has a moment where he almost goes back home to deal with this himself, which might actually have the advantage of strengthening his defensive position and forcing the Lannisters to come to him.
Instead, he listens to Lord Roose Bolton of the Dreadfort — who, you might recall, is the same guy who advocated flaying prisoners a while back. Not a terribly nice man. Roose has a bastard son who's got nothing going on right now, so why not send Roose's bastard to deal with Theon and retake Winterfell? It'll be easy, and then Robb can stick to doing what he does best — making Tywin Lannister cuss his people out.
Of course, Robb got into this mess by delegating to Theon in the first place. But this time around, delegating will probably work out just fine. He's a king. It's what kings do. Right?
When you strike a king, does your hand fall off
I swear to the old gods and the new, they're including "Tyrion slaps Joffrey" scenes now, just as fan service. And I don't object one bit.
Since this season began, Tyrion has been warning everybody that the people are getting restless, thanks to all the starvation and overcrowding and misery caused by the war Joffrey started when he beheaded Ned Stark. Over and over again, everybody's acted as though "the people" are a figment of Tyrion's imagination.
And meanwhile, Tyrion has insisted that poor little Princess Myrcella would be safer if she was sent away to the peaceful land of Dorne, where all the wine comes from. (That's pretty much all we keep hearing about Dorne on this show, so far.) She can hang out in the vineyards and not have to worry about getting caught in a peasant uprising, or an attack on King's Landing by Robb Stark or Stannis Baratheon. For Tyrion's pains, Queen Cersei has vowed to take away the person Tyrion loves more than anyone or anything.
(And when Joffrey's little brother Tommen cries, he gets all huffy because princes don't cry — until Sansa quietly reminds him that he did. Sansa's not even hiding that she hates the King now.)
And yet, no sooner has Myrcella sailed off than Tyrion is horribly, psyche-scarringly vindicated, with an awful peasant riot.
It starts with a single bit of cowshit flung at Joffrey — who overreacts, somewhat predictably — and ends with crazed peasants tearing at everyone and everything within reach, raping the women and killing the High Septon. Joffrey persists in believing that he can just order his men to crush everyone, and it'll just happen, by magic. But none of the Kingsguard is wearing riot gear or packing canisters of tear gas, so Joffrey is shit out of luck. (So to speak.)
Sansa Stark nearly gets the worst of it, getting chased and cornered by four thuggish guys, while Tyrion vainly keeps calling for someone to rescue her. The Hound saves her at the last moment, but when Tyrion thanks him, the Hound scorns any notion that he did it for Tyrion — as if Tyrion could control or command the Hound. The Hound may be domesticated, but only for the service of Good King Joffrey. (Although the look on the Hound's face as he follows Joffrey up the stairs is pretty unmistakably disgusted.)
And that's when Tyrion hauls off and slaps Joffrey, saying that they've had vicious kings, and idiot kings, but "I don't know if we've ever been cursed with a vicious idiot for a king."
Because he's a vicious idiot, Joffrey probably isn't going to learn the right lesson from all this, about governance and needing at least some level of the consent of the people to rule. Like Prince Theon swaggering around a Winterfell that despises him, King Joffrey is under the impression that force alone can make people respect and obey him. He's willing to pay the iron price, and sometimes the gold price, but he's not willing to give people honorable rulership in return for their loyalty.
Meanwhile, Sansa Stark is left crying to an uncharacteristically stoic Shae, trying to understand why men she's never met would hate her. Sansa's already experienced lots of personal cruelty, but this is her first real taste of impersonal cruelty — something her sister Arya could tell her a lot about.
"Loyalty" killed Ned Stark
Arya gets the best line of the night, when she looks Tywin Lannister in the face and says that loyalty killed her father. Every scene between these two is a marvel, and putting them together so much is one of this show's great moves.
Only Arya knows that she's talking about loyalty to King Robert, and also to the truth about Tywin's grandchildren. In an episode that features Theon's disloyalty killing people, and Jon Snow's disobedience of orders possibly dooming the Night's Watch, it's sort of jarring to be reminded that too much loyalty can kill, too.
Arya has to make Tywin believe not just that she's a poor peasant girl, but that she 's been totally domesticated and inured to servitude, so he won't suspect her. At roughly the same time that Osha is convincing Theon that she really just wants her freedom so she can run wild, Arya is trying to maintain the pretense that she really just wants to be a servant. So she can be safe.
Arya nearly gives away the game several times this episode — once, when she reveals that she can read better than Tywin's right-hand man, Ser Amory Lorch. Another time, when she is serving wine to Lord Littlefinger, who knows her face perfectly well and almost clocks her a few times. And then finally, when she steals a piece of paper with info about Tywin's war plans, and gets caught by the illiterate Ser Amory.
(Oh and along the way, we learn that Jaime was dyslexic and Tywin taught him to read personally. And that Tywin is such a stony fucker because his own father was too weak and soft, and nearly lost everything.)
She runs away from Ser Amory, but there's not going to be any place she can hide in this locked-down castle if Ser Amory tells Tywin she was spying. At best, she'll be sent to be a hostage with Sansa. At worst, she'll be executed.
Luckily, she tracks down Jaqen, her master-assassin friend, who's willing to kill Ser Amory — in his own sweet time. Arya begs Jaqen to make it now, before Amory tells Tywin the truth... leading to one of the funniest death scenes put on screen in a long time, as Ser Amory falls through Tywin's door instead of stepping through it.
Daenerys is nothing without her dragons
And finally, this episode forcefully reminds us that Daenerys only has two assets working for her, so far from home and from her birthright. Her title as the last Targaryen is not particularly an asset, either here or probably in Westeros. Her noble upbringing is not an asset, when she's dealing with rich merchants who came from nothing and respect only wealth. Her fiery rhetoric about taking back what is hers doesn't particularly win her much of anything.
No, her only assets are her beauty, or more aptly her sexuality. And her dragons. Before she managed to hatch those dragons, she was just another beautiful woman with dreams of greatness. Now her dreams have partly come true, but only partly.
Xaro Xoan Daxos, her new best friend, takes her around to meet all the wealthy men of Qarth, and they all refuse to help her — although one of them does offer to trade one ship for a night in bed with her. She has a memorable rematch with the Spice King, who turned her away at the city gates and turns her away a second time, saying that her passion for retaking the throne is not an asset he can put in his ledger against a loan of ships.
When she's pushed to the wall, she falls back on talking about her dragons — the miracle of these petrified eggs coming to life and hatching in the fire. They're truly wild things, something that nobody has seen in centuries, and the fact that they belong to her is what makes her special.
So it's even more of a shock — especially to those of us who've read the books and weren't expecting it — when Daenerys goes home to Xaro's place and discovers that all her bloodriders are dead, and the dragons have been taken, by a mysterious hooded figure. Who is probably connected to those scary wizards who approached her a while back.
Because not only can you not hope to control wild things, but as long as you have to keep them in cages, anybody who wants to can steal them.
Screencaps via WICNet Tumbler.