Last night's Game of Thrones had a lot of scenes where people tried to consolidate their power. Some people make alliances, others bully their followers, and still others try to send their enemies on suicide missions. When your hold on power isn't secure, you have to be crafty and ruthless as fuck. Spoilers ahead...
Among other things, last night's episode included good old Margaery trying to win over her third royal husband in a row. Plus Daenerys trying to show the people of her newly conquered, I mean liberated, city that she's a ruthless dispenser of justice. And Ser Alliser Thorne trying to go from acting Lord Commander of the Night's Watch to just plain Lord Commander. And head mutineer Karl (Burn Gorman!) making sure the other scumbags know he's the top scumbag.
As usual, it's our philosopher-in-chief, Petyr Baelish, aka Littlefinger, who explains how the world works, in a speech to Sansa Stark: "A man with no motive is a man no-one suspects. Always keep your foes confused. If they don't know who you are or what you want, they can't know what you plan to do next." And the converse is true — most of these characters have their motivations written on their sleeves, making them easy to predict.
And just as importantly, know when to change partners — the alliance with the Lannisters was good for Littlefinger for a while, but his new friends, the Tyrells, are more reliable. "I don't want friends like me," he tells Sansa.
And yes, it's now official who killed Joffrey: Littlefinger and Lady Olenna Tyrell. Littlefinger provided the poison — the "Strangler" — which was hidden inside the necklace which his agent Dontos gave to Sansa. Olenna got a stone from Sansa's necklace and put the poison into Joffrey's cup. Because, as she explains to her granddaughter Margaery, she wasn't about to let Margaery marry that monster.
Littlefinger is the last person anyone would suspect of killing Joffrey, because he wasn't even there at the time — and now, he's taking Sansa to the Eyrie, the inaccessible mountain stronghold of Sansa's aunt, Lysa Arryn. (That's her at left — she tried to kill Tyrion via trial by combat back in season one.) Littlefinger is going to marry Lysa, at which point he'll be lord of Harrenhal and also of the Eyrie. But Littlefinger's ambitions are way higher, he tells Sansa: He wants "everything."
So Littlefinger is probably the sneakiest character on this show, getting away with regicide, clinching a secret alliance, and consolidating his power unbeknownst to anyone. (The Tyrells probably don't even know he foiled their plot to marry Loras to Sansa.) He runs rings around pretty much everybody else, even a top-class schemer like Olenna — I'm not sure he's entirely paying the Tyrells a compliment when he says they're reliable.
And we see lots of examples of other people struggling to figure out how to maintain their shaky holds on power, now that everything has changed:
Margaery Tyrell, King-Whisperer
You might have thought nothing would ever shock Margaery, after King Renly and King Joffrey — but apparently, you'd be wrong. She seems genuinely a bit disturbed to realize that her sweet old grandma put poison into her husband's wedding goblet — and to realize that she has to win over yet another husband in a hurry, before Cersei turns Tommen against her.
You have to feel for Margaery, who can only ever rule through her husband. She told Littlefinger back in season two that she wanted to be "the Queen," not just "a queen." (Westeros fought a bloody civil war 169 years earlier over whether a woman could ever sit on the Iron Throne.) Margaery supported Renly's relationship with her brother Loras, and pandered a bit to Joffrey's ego — but young Tommen is a brand new puzzle.
Olenna (Diana Rigg, always wonderful) tells Margaery a story of how she won over Margaery's grandfather Luthor, who was supposed to propose to Olenna's sister, leaving Olenna to marry some awful Targaryen. So Olenna "got lost" coming back from an embroidery lesson and found herself in Luthor's bedchamber — quite by accident! And she gave Luthor a taste of what he could expect if he married her, instead.
"I was good. I was very, very good," Olenna says. "You are even better. But you need to act quickly."
So Margaery follows her grandmother's example... sort of. She goes to see the next King in his bedchamber, against Cersei's orders, and basically just tries to bond with him. You can see the strain in Margaery's face, and the kindness doesn't come as naturally as it did with Sansa, or those little orphans last year. But luckily, Tommen is apparently a sweet, simple kid — who just cares about his little cat, Ser Pounce, whom Joffrey was always threatening to murder.
Margaery proposes a friendship of sorts with her intended husband, and it'll be their little secret. But of course, Tommen seemed just as eager to do whatever his grandfather Tywin wanted, last week. He's up for grabs... for now, at least.
Just how powerless is Jaime Lannister?
This season's portrayal of Jaime (including a certain scene, which feels even more gratuitous after this episode) has been all about his feelings of powerlessness — which doesn't just come from his missing hand, but from not knowing who he is. His father has disowned him, his nephew/son died in front of him, and his entry in the White Book of Kingsguard members is almost blank, except for his killing the Mad King. Nobody respects his authority as Lord Commander, maybe because that sort of authority comes from relationships that Jaime doesn't have.
(Was the stuff about Jaime being the "Kingslayer" in the White Book before, when Joffrey was reading from it a few episodes ago — or did Jaime just add it himself? Joffrey only taunts Jaime that his entry is pretty short, and doesn't mention anything about killing the Mad King.)
Jaime is torn between his loyalty to his brother Tyrion and his sister Cersei, now that Tyrion is accused of killing King Joffrey. So Jaime has been avoiding visiting Tyrion in prison, until Bronn tells him that Tyrion originally wanted Jaime to be his champion during the trial by combat at the Eyrie — because Tyrion knew Jaime would ride day and night to fight for him.
When Jaime does visit Tyrion, he comes away certain that Tyrion is innocent — but he also feels even more powerless. Jaime can't just break Tyrion out of prison, because that would be treason. And no matter what happens, Tryion is probably screwed. Especially if Cersei has anything to do with it. (Best line of the episode? Probably "The Kingslayer Brothers. You like it? I like it.")
Cersei, meanwhile, keeps trying to push Jaime into a more formal relationship, that of Queen Regent and Lord Commander of the Kingsguard — a relationship in which Jaime more or less serves Cersei. (For now, at least.) She browbeats him about the fact that only one Kingsguard member is guarding Tommen, after what happened to Joffrey.
Cersei only offers Jaime one chance to be something other than "Lord Commander" to her — if he goes to find Sansa Stark and bring Cersei Sansa's head. This isn't just to prove that Jaime is still loyal (and useful) to Cersei, after everything that's happened — it's to prove that Jaime has no remaining loyalty to Catelyn Stark, the dead woman to whom he swore an oath to return the Stark girls home safely.
Perversely, Cersei's needling convinces Jaime of the opposite: That he still does owe loyalty to Cat Stark, even though she's dead and Arya probably is as well. So he gives his priceless Valyrian steel sword to Brienne, along with new armor and the best squire in Westeros (Podrick!) and tasks Brienne with finding Sansa and getting her someplace safe. Brienne accepts the new sword and names it "Oathkeeper."
And I guess Jaime takes one step closer to knowing who he is, by knowing where his loyalties lie. (With Cat Stark, but also apparently with Tyrion.) Cersei, meanwhile, tries to reassert herself with him, both based on her status and on her old rank... and fails.
The juxtaposition of the Cersei/Margaery scenes shows yet again how much better at all this maneuvering Margaery is — although you see also see some hints that Cersei is just Margaery 15 years from now.
Ser Alliser, and Karl the Legend of Gin Alley
Meanwhile, further North, we get two studies in terrible leadership, in the wake of the death of Jeor Mormont, former Lord Commander of the Night's Watch.
Ser Alliser Thorne is the acting Lord Commander — but his position is threatened by Jon Snow's popularity. Jon Snow is teaching the Crows how to fight Wildlings more effectively, based on his recent experiences among them. Alliser's new best friend Janos Slynt reminds him that at some point, there'll be a "choosing" and the Night's Watch will pick a new leader — and if Alliser isn't more careful, he'll wind up taking orders from Jon Snow for the rest of his life.
So Ser Alliser tries to get rid of Jon Snow, in a way that backfires horribly. He changes his decision and allows Jon to go up to Craster's Keep to kill Karl and the other traitors there (so they won't tell the Wildlings everything they know about Castle Black's defenses.) But he won't order any men to go with Jon Snow — it's an all-volunteer mission.
Ser Allister no doubt hopes nobody will volunteer to die with Jon Snow beyond the Wall — but instead, after Jon Snow reminds everyone that these men killed Mormont, he gets a ton of volunteers. Which only cements Jon Snow's sense of leadership.
Of course, Jon Snow isn't being entirely honest with everyone, because at this point he's already figured out that his half-brother Bran probably went to Craster's Keep, that being the only decent shelter left north of the Wall. Also, Jon has left his direwolf Ghost there. (All of this is so far diverged from the books, that it's hard to tell where any of this is going.)
Luckily, Jon's crew includes Locke, who's a handy guy in a fight. Locke likes to claim that he joined the Night's Watch to avoid having his hand cut off for stealing — when in fact, Locke is the one who cut off Jaime Lannister's hand. And Locke has been sent by Roose Bolton to find Bran Stark (and maybe also deal with Jon Snow, who's half a Stark). So Jon is playing into Locke's, er, hands.
Ser Alliser is a paragon of brilliant leadership and cunning, compared to Karl, the leader of the mutineers at Craster's Keep. Karl's idea of maintaining his authority is to keep yelling at people about how many people he killed back home in Gin Alley and how many fucks he gives (all of them, until you are dead.) He doesn't need anybody's respect, as long as they're terrified of him. And for some reason, he insists on keeping Jon Snow's direwolf alive — as if it's a status symbol. Like Jeor's skull, which he drinks out of.
But just like Alliser is the new Jeor and Margaery is the new Cersei, Karl is forced to become the new Craster — as symbolized by him having to dispose of one of Craster's sons in the customary fashion. He has to keep offering up fresh babies to the White Walkers, just as Craster did. (More on that later.)
And when Bran hears the baby in the forest, he wargs into his direwolf Summer to investigate — leading to Summer's capture, and then everyone else's. Bran breaks under questioning pretty quickly, admitting who he is. And now Karl has more good fortune than he knows what to do with. (This show seems to go out of its way to demonstrate how having too much unforeseen good luck can be just as bad for you as bad luck — Karl probably doesn't have a great future ahead of him.)
Infants who can't remember their homes
Notably, this episode begins and ends with infants snatched from their homes — to be raised without any memory of their birth families.
We start with a long scene by the fire, where Missandei is teaching Grey Worm the common tongue, presumably so he can speak for the Unsullied when they get to Westeros. That turns into Missandei and Grey Worm talking about their earliest memories — Missandei doesn't remember her home, but she does remember being taken from it and watching it burn. For Grey Worm's part, there was nothing before he was Unsullied. His life began when he was taken from the Summer Isles.
When Missandei suggests that maybe some day he'll go back to the Summer Isles, to discover who he was before he was Unsullied, Grey Worm says something in Valyrian (without subtitles) and then: "Kill the masters."
That becomes the slogan of the Meereen uprising, and it's a product of not having any identity or childhood memories other than the one you were stolen away for. When you turn people into objects, their only other choice is to see themselves as weapons.
The episode ends with a baby taken from Craster's home, to the sound of another slogan being chanted: "A gift for the gods." The baby ends up being scooped up by a white walker, and this time we get to see where it goes — deep into the frozen wasteland, to a kind of monstrous citadel where pale figures stand in a circle. And then someone who looks like the White Walker King picks up the baby and touches his face — and he turns into a White Walker.
Freeing people from an identity they've had their whole lives is a complicated business, and Daenerys is trying to be subtle about liberating the slaves of Meereen. (Emphasis on "trying.") Last week, she told the Meereenese slaves that they had to free themselves, and this time around, she follows through, sending Grey Worm inside to give the slaves weapons instead of attacking with her vast army. Some of the slaves remember past failed uprisings — but give them enough good swords, and they'll still fight.
So of course, having helped the slaves to free themselves, Daenerys leaves it up to the former slaves to decide what to do with their masters. Right? Of course she does. Because Daenerys isn't about trying to impose her own will on anybody, she's just about empowering people to... oh, wait.
No, actually, Daenerys gets pumped up on the crowd shouting "Mhysa! Mhysa!" and decides that, as Ser Barristan Selmy says, she's the "ruler" of this city now. And she gets to choose between showing mercy to the former slave-owners and dealing out justice for the 163 children the masters nailed up as a message to her a while back — because it's all about her, of course. She chooses "justice," and a ton of slavers get Spartacus-ed.
That's another thread running through the episode, of course — people claiming they're acting in the cause of justice. Daenerys commits an atrocity in the name of justice, and Jon Snow leads men to Craster's Keep to get justice for Jeor Mormont. Brienne rides forth to do justice to Cat Stark's memory. But there's no justice for Tyrion — because really, all of these people are only interested in "justice" for those who are already dead, and justice is just a way of settling scores and keeping the wheel turning.
Images and GIFs via Winter Is Coming.