Last night's Game of Thrones was something special. It was written by George R.R. Martin himself, author of the original books, and it contained some key turning points in the saga. But most of all, it asked an important question.
Is there any room for mercy in the cruel world of Westeros and the lands across the Narrow Sea?
Over the course of eight episodes, this world has been built up as an absolute Hobbesian nightmare, where the strong prey on the weak and the victors destroy the vanquished. So if you show mercy to someone, are you just asking for them to slit your throat later? Or is mercy the only way to bring a glimmer of civilization into this dreadful place?
As with everything else in Game of Thrones, there's no simple answer. Spoilers ahead...
The phrase "the madness of mercy" comes from the lips of Ned Stark himself, who explains himself to Lord Varys. Ned is locked in the dungeon, as a result of his treason of failing to recognize Joffrey Bieber as the true King. Ned explains that it wasn't honor that made him tell Queen Cersei that he knew the truth about her sons' parentage — it was mercy. Because Ned knew that if he told King Robert that his sons were all bastards born of incest, King Robert would have lopped their heads off. So he wanted to give Cersei a chance to save her children.
And as Varys observes, Ned's mercy killed the King. Because now that Cersei knew that Ned knew the truth and she couldn't stop Ned from telling the King, she had no choice but to have the King killed, via some really strong wine and a wild boar.
Rule #1 of mercy: Don't show any until you've actually beaten someone.
The Lannisters, of course, are showing precious little mercy in return, slaughtering Ned's men and attempting to capture his daughters. (I love the way they draw back and hesitate a bit when Septa Mordane advances on them.) It's a pretty brutal scene, in which everybody gets cut down.
So is mercy always a mistake? Maybe not. Consider the case of two different women: Mirri Maz Duur and Osha. Both of these are women who are spoils of battle, who get spared.
In the case of Mirri Maz Duur, she's one of the "sheep people" who are in a town that Khal Drogo captures in battle. Drogo wants to sell the townspeople as slaves, to raise money to invade Westeros. But when Daenerys sees one of Drogo's men raping Mirri Maz Duur, she puts a stop to it and puts Mirri and the other women under her protection. Unfortunately, Daenerys' act of mercy causes some dissent among Drogo's men, and Drogo gets injured putting them in their place. (And who among us does not now long to see Jason Momoa play Conan? Holy crap, what a great scene.)
But it all turns out to be for the best — because Mirri Maz Duur is actually a wise woman and a healer, and she pledges to help treat Khal Drogo's wound so it doesn't get infected. Even though Drogo destroyed her village and his men almost raped her to death, she's got a healer's code and everyone is under her care equally. So it turns out to be a good thing that Daenerys spared her. Right? I guess we'll have to see. (Note: No spoilers for the book in comments, please!)
And then there's Osha. In case you forgot her, she's one of the "Wildlings" who come from the North of the Wall. She and her friends came and attacked Lord Bran while he was riding around on his horse, on the special saddle that Tyrion Lannister designed for him. And even though all of her friends were slaughtered, the Starks decided to spare Osha. And now she's in chains but otherwise pretty groovy, offering her wisdom about the Old Gods, the gods of the Starks as well as the Wildlings, to young Bran. (And she flirts with Naked Hodor, in a scene that will be burned into my brain forever.) Osha seems to be offering herself as a kind of counsellor and helper to young Bran, who's going to need all the help he can get now that he's been left behind as Lord in Winterfell by his older brother.
So is it madness to have spared these two women? I guess we'll have to wait and see.
But maybe Tyrion Lannister is, as usual, the smartest person in the bunch. When he meets a savage tribe of hill people, led by Shagga son of Dolf and his friends, Tyrion does not beg for mercy. He doesn't even show any fear. Instead, he explains that he'd actually quite like to die an old man, while receiving a final blowjob. And he insults the hill tribes and their crappy weapons, promising to hook them up with some way better steel if they help him get back to his dad.
So in a sense, Shagga, Timmett and Chella show mercy to Tyrion and his hired sword Bronn — but only in exchange for some goodies later on. And Tyrion's deal backfires horribly, when his father Tywin Lannister convinces the hill savages to fight on the Lannisters' side in the coming war — and the hill tribes demand that Tyrion come along. Because Tyrion is their guarantee that they'll get the promised killing gear.
(And by the way, it has absolutely nothing to do with mercy per se, but who doesn't root for Tyrion and the hill tribes to come back and kill Lady Lysa and her completely repulsive son? It's a stroke of genius to show us Tyrion plotting Lysa's destruction right after that totally odious scene where Lysa refuses to help her sister Catelyn in the war against their common enemies. Lysa is an idiot to think that hiding away inside her castle will keep her safe if Catelyn and Robb lose the war against the Lannisters.)
Speaking of Robb Stark, this is the episode where he starts stepping up and becoming a leader — and his key moments of leadership have to do with knowing when to show mercy. Robb decides to call together all of the Starks' bannermen and march South to free or else avenge his father, Ned. And early on, Robb is challenged by Greatjon Umber, an old grizzled warrior who wants to lead the vanguard and show everyone who's boss. Robb basically shuts Greatjon down, but Greatjon draws his sword, and Robb's direwolf leaps to action, jumping across the table and biting off two of Greatjon's fingers.
At this point, Robb correctly observes that it's treason to unsheathe your sword in the presence of your lord, and Robb could have Greatjon's head for this. But he's sure that Greatjon was just drawing his blade to cut Robb's meat for him. Greatjon, in turn, looks at his three-fingered hand, hesitates, and then bellows, "Your meat is bloody tough!" Awesome.
Later on, Robb chooses to spare the life of a Lannister scout who's caught spying on his party. Robb tells the Lannister henchman to ride back to Tywin Lannister and let him know the Northerners are coming and bringing some pretty bitchin' winter with them. Everybody looks at Robb like he's made the dumbest decision of his short life, and even Robb's mom is starting to doubt him — but maybe Robb has something up his sleeve? He certainly looks like he knows something.
Rule #2 of mercy: Sometimes knowing when to spare someone isn't mercy, it's strategy.
And then there's Sansa. (Sigh.) Who goes around begging for mercy for her imprisoned dad, and basically offers to give away the store. The Queen has Sansa wrapped around her evil little finger, and Sansa is willing to do anything to have even the slightest hope of marrying Joffrey Bieber and not having to watch her dad's head rolling around like a bowling ball. Sansa claims, in front of the entire court, that it was his pain medication that made Ned claim that Joffrey wasn't the legitimate King. And Sansa writes to her family, begging them to give in.
All in all, Sansa embraces the role of "hostage" with amazing ardor, while her tougher younger sister runs away and hides. Sansa is looking for mercy from people who, as Lord Varys observes, ordered the deaths of most of the Targaryen children. Among various other atrocities. And they'll use her delusion that she can beg for mercy to manipulate her into being their mouthpiece.
You know who shows absolutely no mercy? Zombies. This episode finally brings us the long-awaited zombie attack that we only saw hinted at in the first episode. The zombie rampage in Lord Mormont's quarters puts an end to the extended remix of Jon Snow's brooding, and drives home the fact that there are more problems in this realm than just some feuding nobles. Because where there's one zombie, there's a zombie army, just waiting to march South.
When it gets cold enough.