On one level, last night's Game of Thrones was about parents and their damaged sons. (Along with the age-old maxim, "You broke it, you bought it.") But really, it was about offering one plausible answer to the question the show has been asking from the beginning: Where does power come from? Who really has it, and why?
That question about the sources of power is at the epicenter of the show because it comes straight from the source material, George R.R. Martin's books. It's spelled out, in particular, in the riddle that Varys poses to Tyrion, about the swordsman who has to choose between killing for money, loyalty to the crown or religion.
In last night's season finale, we get a kind of answer, direct from Tywin Lannister, the man who more or less rules Westeros at this point. He tells Tyrion that power comes from putting your family's interests before your own, in essence. The (noble) family that acts as a unit, wins. "You really think a crown gives you power?" he asks. "The House that puts family first will always defeat the House that puts the whims of its sons and daughters first."
This comes right after a crackling, brilliant confrontation between Tywin and his grandson, King Joffrey, in which Joffrey tries to throw his weight around and finds that his nominal title as the king doesn't add up to as much as Tywin's position as patriarch of the Lannister family. "Any man who must say 'I am the King' is no true king," says Tywin. (And in Joffrey's world, being King means that "everyone is mine to torment.")
And the rest of the episode shows the fates of various families, along with hints of how they did or did not apply Tywin's principle of "putting family first." And yes, that includes rather a lot of fathers dealing with their damaged (or dead) sons.
But maybe there's more to the wielding of power than just having your family's best interests solely at heart (and thus having the strength of your family behind you)? Varys offers a slightly more nuanced version of Tywin's lesson, when he explains to Shae why he still believes that Tyrion is one of the few people who can make Westeros a better place. Tyrion has the Lannister name, but he also has the will and the mind for it. And the ability to make Westeros better
But Varys also believes that Tywin's insistence on the importance of family, above all else, does hold sway after all. "We break bread with [the Westerosi lords], but that doesn't make us family," Varys warns Shae. "Here only the family name matters." But Shae doesn't listen to Varys' explanation of why she can't be part of Tyrion's family, and why she's only endangering the man she loves — she refuses Varys' bribe to get out of Dodge, and instead she's going to stick around and probably be a major problem for Tyrion.
But like I mentioned before, there's definitely a thread running through this episode of parents and their damaged sons (and one daughter). Tywin spends a lot of time letting Tyrion know what a disappointment he still is, while the whole episode we know that Tywin's son Jaime is on his way back, with his sword hand missing.
Jaime's return is the other shoe that everybody's waiting to see drop, not least because Cersei expects her brother to put a stop to her wedding to Loras Tyrell. He's also the brother against which Tyrion is implicitly compared whenever Tywin finds him wanting — but the Jaime who returns home is damaged in ways that go far beyond a missing hand, as Cersei can see at a glance. Jaime barely even tries to assert himself when the commoners mistake him for one of them and hurl insults at him, after all he's been through.
Likewise, Theon Greyjoy has lost his "favorite toy" and a finger or two, but that's the least of his damage. He's been psychologically battered to the point where his identity is moldable — and it's not just his first name that his captor, the bastard Ramsay Snow, takes away. It's his family name, too. He loses the Greyjoy name and becomes "Reek," a sniveling wretch — like Shae and Varys, he only has one name now.
What makes this even worse is that just as Theon is being coerced to renounce his family name, his father is more or less disowning him. Because Theon didn't obey orders, and arguably did not put his family ahead of his own selfish desire to prove himself as a true Ironborn. And now he's missing the vital part he needs to further the Greyjoy bloodline, which means in turn his ability to serve the family's interests has been drastically diminished. "I will not give up the lands I have seized, the strongholds I have taken," says Balon Greyjoy, putting the stress firmly on "I."
And yet, Theon's sister Yara decides to go against her father's wishes and gather the 50 best killers on the IronIslands to rescue her little brother. Which of them is putting family first, in this instance? Yara puts her decision purely in terms of family, because "he's still a Greyjoy" in her mind — and yet, her actions may not actually make the family better off, in the long term.
Ser Davos Seaworth has lost his son, in the battle of the Blackwater, but his son looms large in his mind this episode, as he bonds with King Robert's bastard son Gendry over growing up with a river of shit going past their front door. Davos clearly sees something of his son in Gendry, another good lad who's gotten mixed up in the affairs of high-borns. Davos confesses the only reason he accepted the knighthood and position at King Stannis' side was so his son could have a better life, and then his son died in the King's service.
Gendry is due to be burnt alive by the King and his Red Priestess, Melisandre. And after Davos rescues Gendry and sends him away in a boat, giving him a rather hilarious and cursory rowing and navigation lesson, Davos gives Stannis a last warning about the White Walkers before his imminent execution. And instead of telling Stannis the truth — that it was Stannis' daughter Shireen who taught Davos to read — he claims it was his late son who taught him, so he could be of better service.
Is Davos lying to Stannis to honor his dead son, by ascribing a good deed to him? Or, perhaps more likely, is he lying because he believes Stannis has no love for his flesh-and-blood and will just be mortified to hear that Davos has been consorting with his scarred daughter? Of course, we know that Stannis does love Shireen — but we also know he seldom goes to visit her.
And meanwhile, Stannis was willing to burn his nephew (although not one who deserves the Baratheon name, because of his bastard status.) Whenever Stannis talks about his obligations, it's never to his wife and daughter — it's to the realm, which he sees himself as father to. The realm has been bleeding, and he has to serve up justice for that. Even though Tywin would tell Stannis there's no point in talking about your Kingship, when you're not right with your family.
And then there's Cersei, who's long since given up pretending that her son Joffrey is a good person, or a good King. In one of the episode's several great scenes, she tells Tyrion that her children are the only reason she hasn't thrown herself off the Red Keep, even Joffrey. When Joffrey was a baby, he brought her a joy and serenity that even the older Joffrey himself can't erase. She's tried to put her family first, but she disagrees with Tywin about the family's best interests — to her, the alliance with the Tyrells is dangerous because her family could be absorbed by theirs, rather than the other way around.
She believes in a very brutal form of putting family first — as she told Joffrey back in season one, anyone who isn't us is our enemy. And as she tells Tyrion this time around, you kill all your enemies, no matter how long that might take.
Families of choice
There are also two chosen families at the heart of this episode, which spends a lot of time exploring what holds them together, and whether they actually have what it takes to prosper.
The Night's Watch replaces your family when you take your vows, so that all your former titles and allegiances are swept away, as Maester Aemon reminds Samwell Tarly. But does that mean the Night's Watch has no loyalty to anyone who's not a Crow, or does it mean equal loyalty to any and all, since the Crows are sworn to protect everybody?
Samwell wants to be generous with the family aspect of the Night's Watch, extending it like a big cloak to everyone who comes within reach. When he comes across Bran Stark, plus Hodor, Jojen and Meera, he tells them that Jon Snow has saved his life and if Bran is Jon's brother, then he's Sam's brother too. Meaning that Bran is an honorary Crow, or maybe that Sam is an honorary Stark.
Also, Samwell never quite apologizes for bringing Gilly and her baby to Castle Black, where no girls are supposed to be allowed. When Maester Aemon asks Samwell if he remembers his oath — meaning all the stuff about giving up all attachments — he points out that the oath says "realms" of men, meaning that the Night's Watch are protecting everybody against the snow zombies, not just the people South of the Wall. To the extent that the Night's Watch has obligations beyond taking care of its own, they extend to the Wildlings too — which is a radical notion.
Meanwhile, Jon Snow finally lays it all out there to Ygritte: he loves her, she loves him, but he has to "go home" to his real family. She gambled, a few episodes back, that his loyalty to his woman would supersede his ties to the Night's Watch, and he basically throws that back at her, saying that he does love her, but his brothers absolutely come first. He also believes that her love will prevent her from trying to hurt him, which shows once and for all that he really does know nothing — she does what anyone in love would do: she fills him full of arrows, but deliberately doesn't shoot his horse.
And meanwhile, Daenerys watches her family of former slaves and outcasts grow massively, as all the freed slaves of Yunkai swarm out of the gates. She tells them that she did not give them their freedom, but that they have to take it, and then they all start shouting "Mhysa," which means "Mother." (It's unfortunate that it sounds like "meesa," as in "meesa so happy.") Daenerys winds up body-surfing on a crowd of ex-slaves, carried along by their love and gratitude and their willingness not to cry for Argentina.
So the Night's Watch are bound together by a simple vow, and by an ideology of self-abnegation for the protection of the realm(s), which Samwell thinks can be expanded to include certain outsiders, on a case by case basis. (And we'll see if he's right, I guess.) But what holds Daenerys' new family together? Judging from her speech to her people, it's pure individualism — they are joined together in the act of seizing their freedom, which is something that you can only do for yourself, alone.
In other words, yes, Daenerys does basically stand towards the crowd getting them to chant, "We are all individuals." I have a feeling we're going to see how this might backfire for her, and how inspiring such a cult following among people of a very different culture could turn out to be problematic.
The saddest thing in the episode is probably the scene, early on, when Tyrion and Sansa seem to be on the verge of becoming their own family — they're bonding over wanting to get back at Ser Eldrick Sarsfield and Lord Desmond Crakehall, who were laughing at them in public. Tyrion offers Sansa something that the two of them have in common: they're both laughed at and despised, for different reasons. They're almost a matched pair, despite their obvious differences — and it's adorable that Sansa thinks the vulgar word for "dung" is "shift." But it's all ruined, as soon as Sansa finds out about her brother and mother. She can't follow Cersei's advice and just devote herself to some new babies, because she already has a family, and they've been massacred.
Atrocities save lives
Both Tywin and Stannis make basically the same argument — it's better to slaughter a handful of Starks at a wedding feast, or sacrifice one bastard boy, than to condemn tens of thousands to die on the battlefield. Committing an atrocity to guests under your roof, or using blood magic, is practically an act of mercy.
It sounds good on paper, except that we've spent too much time getting to know poor Gendry. And we see too much of the aftermath of the Red Wedding, where the Stark encampment is in flames and the remaining Stark soldiers are being put to the sword. And Robb Stark's body has been defiled, with an animal head crudely sewn onto his shoulders.
Arya Stark, who already witnessed the beheading of her father Ned Stark, sees a lot of this stuff first hand, and later when she hears a camp of men gloating about it all, she can't help making a pitstop to murder one of them, with Sandor Clegane reluctantly helping her. Sandor notably doesn't tell her not to endanger them with small acts of revenge again — instead he just instructs her to tell him in advance, next time. Because he knows what it's like to have no family and nobody to lean on.
But Arya has one thing Sandor doesn't: a coin from the isles of Braavos, which entitles her to passage to the land of awesome mystical assassins. As she picks it up, she mouths the words that will buy her free passage from any Braavosi: "Valar morghulis," all men must die.
The other person in this episode who doesn't have a family name, of course, is Ramsay Snow, who's revealed as the guy who's been torturing Theon, one way or another, all season. Ramsay is the bastard son of Roose Bolton, lord of the Dreadfort, who stabbed Robb Stark last week. And like Jon Snow and Gendry, Ramsay's bastard status entitles him to absolutely nothing. He doesn't get the family name, or the titles, or any respect.
But unlike those others, Ramsay turned his lack of family name into a source of power — he kept Theon guessing about his identity, and where his loyalties lay, while he was laying the groundwork to take away Theon's own family name. Ramsay was sent to capture Theon and bring him to Robb Stark, but he doesn't give a crap about Robb Stark. He wants Theon for himself, either out of pure sadism or because Theon can help with some power play that also includes his letter to Balon Greyjoy. Given that Ramsay is a cunning manipulator, that letter to Balon probably isn't intended to get Balon to surrender at all — it's intended to goad Balon into taking rash action in the name of protecting his flesh and blood.
That's what makes Ramsay Snow such a uniquely dangerous person — he has no family name of his own, and like his father he seems to have pretty much no loyalty to anyone. But he understands how families and family allegiances work, well enough to manipulate them to his own ends. Because if Tywin believes that the ultimate source of power is loyalty to your own family, Ramsay seems to believe the opposite: you get power by manipulating the family ties of others.
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