Last night's episode of Game of Thrones had a pretty clear theme of mutilation and revenge running through it. But slightly further below the surface was the idea that seeking revenge requires not just patience, but strange friendships. Scheming to destroy the people who've hurt you actually changes who you are. Spoilers ahead...
First off, let's just say that this was clearly the best episode of the season thus far. Not only was it a rich tapestry of ideas and themes, but it was also chock full of the kind of scheming, spying and maneuvering that everybody loves Game of Thrones for. In particular, in an episode full of note-perfect performances, Varys still pretty much managed to steal the entire thing.
Mutilation and revenge
So first off, the theme of "mutilation and revenge" is pretty much right there on the surface of this episode — it starts with Jaime Lannister wearing his own severed hand around his neck and being fed horse urine and beaten horribly. And Brienne of Tarth counsels Jaime to live for revenge. Meanwhile, Tyrion seeks out Varys for information he can use to avenge himself on his sister Cersei for his grievous face wound and attempted murder, only to hear the story of Varys' own mutilation and his slow rise from the gutter — and to witness Varys apparently taking his long-delayed vengeance on the man who took his manhood.
And then, at the end of the episode, a whole army of castrated slaves rises up and kills their masters at Daenerys Targaryen's orders — at first you sort of think this doesn't count as revenge, because they're just following orders the same way they would slice off their own nipples on command. But then she tells them they are free to go, and after a long pause they start banging their spear-butts, and then march behind her, trampling the slaver's whip into the dust.
Arya also seizes the chance to get revenge on Sandor "The Hound" Clegane, who's been captured by the outlaw Brothers Without Banners, and is accused of being a nasty man — but nobody can come up with any specifics. Arya supplies a specific charge, that of murdering the butcher's boy who was sparring with her, way back in episode two, "The Kingsroad."
Oh, and Craster, the awful daughter-fucking Wildling who's been lording it over the Night's Watch for years and years, finally gets his, although at great and terrible cost. Blame Owen from Torchwood, who insists on calling Craster a bastard after everybody else has sort of calmed down a bit. This leads to an all-out riot, as the starving Night's Watch members turn on their own Lord Commander.
The conversation between Varys and Tyrion sort of underlies all of this — Varys talks about how he dreams of the voice that answered the sorcerer from the blue smoke after the sorcerer had burnt Varys' "parts." And how helping Tyrion defeat Melisandre, another flame-god worshipper, was "symbolic revenge" on that sorcerer. But Tyrion says he wants actual revenge, not symbolic — which unfortunately requires a large degree of influence that Tyrion currently does not possess.
To which Varys replies that influence grows like a weed, and just requires patience. (As he demonstrates by uncrating the sorcerer.) But the thing about influence, as Varys later observes, is it requires choosing your friends carefully and your enemies even more carefully — and in this episode, we get to see Varys doing both. In a way, the topic of revenge just leads to the perpetual concern of Game of Thrones: power and alliances.
Towards the end of the episode, Brienne asks Jaime why he stuck his neck out for her, to prevent her being raped. And Jaime doesn't really have a good answer for that — but it seems as though being captives together has created a bond between the Maid of Tarth and the Kingslayer that being captor and prisoner failed to. They're united by their loathing of these scumbags who caught them, and they have to help each other because there's nobody else. Brienne gives Jaime an odd pep talk, telling him that he's just had his first taste of the real world in his sheltered life — people lose vital parts of themselves all the time, and they have to keep going somehow (just as Varys did). There's no point in crying over it like a woman — which Brienne knows is the barb most likely to get under Jaime's skin.
Meanwhile, back at Craster's place, everybody's bonding over their misfortune. You have to love the bit where Grenn and the other "crows" talk about their glamorous life of shoveling shit — and then Rast tries to turn that camaraderie into the seeds of mutiny against the Lord Commander, who's stuck them here with Craster. And Samwell, who knows all about being shoved into a subaltern position and accused of being a woman, tries to bond with Craster's daughter Gilly, only to find that Gilly's a bit too preoccupied with her son's impending infanticide to bond with anyone else. But after the pigshit hits the fan, Samwell and Gilly become an odd couple on the run together, with her baby.
And meanwhile, throughout the episode we get to see Varys working his mojo. After bonding with Tyrion over the love of destroying your enemies, he spends the rest of the episode conspiring against Littlefinger, who's done Varys no particular harm but intends great harm to the realm. Varys interrogates his newly acquired spy Ros (who also shares the news of Podrick's great sexual prowess) and learns that Littlefinger plans to take Sansa Stark with him when he goes to the Eyrie to marry Sansa's aunt Lysa Arryn.
Varys takes this information to Olenna Tyrell — thus giving us one of the show's great pairings, which isn't in the books. The bluff, plain-spoken Lady Olenna clashes instantly with the insinuating Varys, but then they find a shared interest in saving Sansa. Or at least, in keeping Sansa from falling into the wrong hands, since Sansa is like a loose nuke. If anything happens to Robb Stark, Sansa will be the heir to the North, or rather whoever marries her will be.
So Olenna dispatches her granddaughter, Margaery Tyrell, with a proposition for Sansa: she can go live in Highgarden, with the nice rose-loving Tyrells, and marry Ser Loras Tyrell, the Knight of Flowers. (Sure, Ser Loras doesn't swing that way, but Sansa hasn't quite figured that out yet. And he wouldn't mistreat her.) Sansa is overjoyed at the idea, which seems like the one ray of hope she's been offered since she came to King's Landing.
But Olenna also makes nice with Queen Cersei, bonding over the fact that their sons are idiots who seem to yearn for the grave — and the unfairness of a world where the mothers have all the wisdom and the sons have all the power. Is Lady Olenna playing mind games with Cersei? Trying to get under her skin while her grand-daughter gets inside Joffrey's head? Or is she just speaking her mind, as always?
But perhaps the most interesting pairing this episode is between Theon Greyjoy and his nameless rescuer, played by Simon from Misfits. It turns out the whole business of Theon's rescue was just this nameless man trying to get inside Theon's head, and then deliver Theon right back to the torture chamber. But what's most interesting is how the guy goes about trying to win Theon's confidence — the man assumes that Theon resents being taken from the Iron Islands as a small boy, and has yearned for vengeance this whole time, hence the sacking of Winterfell. So the nameless rescuer plays up the idea that he himself saw Theon being taken away as a boy, and heard that this was Balon Greyjoy's last living son. (And yet he also plants the seeds of the idea that Balon allowed his son to be captured and tortured.) When Theon says he could never be a stark, and Robb Stark always reminded him of that, the man asks, "He lorded it over you?" expecting to hear some tale of long-simmering resentment.
But Theon isn't motivated by hatred of the Starks, at all — he really did love the Starks, and he only resents Robb Stark for so effortlessly being the person that Theon never could. At last, Theon reveals to his "friend" that he only took Winterfell in a vain attempt to impress his biological father, but then realized too late that his real father had already been executed in King's Landing. So the stranger's attempt to bond with Theon over hating the Starks and wanting revenge comes to nothing, because Theon reveals an even darker truth: he's already burned down everything he cared about. He's pretty much the only person in all of Westeros who feels any remorse for his own actions.
And with that unburdening, Theon is delivered back to his torturers.
Manipulating Joffrey is a vital skill
Getting revenge on your enemies isn't the only reason why you make connections with people you wouldn't look twice at otherwise, of course — another reason is to get close to power.
After her conversation with Lady Olenna about headstrong sons, and witnessing just how easily Margaery is winning Joffrey over, Cersei goes to see her father Tywin — who completely blows her off. Cersei tries to convince Tywin that the Tyrells are up to no good, and that it's a bad thing that Margaery has got her claws sunk into Joffrey.
But Tywin sees what Cersei doesn't — Joffrey has been out of control for way too long, and it's a good thing if absolutely anybody has any sway with the terrible king who's running roughshod over everything.
And Margaery's manipulation of Joffrey is fascinating to behold — once again, she appeals to his love of sadism, laughing with him at all the terrible ways his royal predecessors disposed of their relatives. And telling him that severity is necessary for greatness. But then she also seduces him with something he's never known: the love of the people. She coaxes him into going out and greeting the commoners, and they love her so much that they spare some of that love for him (although it's hard to hear what they're shouting at him.)
Worrying about the little people isn't usually a way to get ahead in Westeros — just ask Lord Commander Mormont, who only keeps his men at Craster's Keep to give the wounded a chance to heal. If Mormont wasn't so concerned about his injured men, and weaklings like Samwell, he might have made it back to the Wall in one piece after the massacre at the Fist of the First Men.
And finally, in this episode, there's also a snippet of Bran having one of his magic dreams, in which Jojen encourages him to climb after the three-eyed raven — but his mother stops him and yells at him for climbing, causing him to fall once again. In real life, of course, his mother's prohibitions on climbing might have saved him from falling if he'd listened. But it seems more likely this dream symbolizes Bran's need to leave his family behind, as he continues on his mystical quest.
One question that occurred to me after last night's episode: Is this series going to end with Littlefinger on the Iron Throne? That would be delightfully twisted. He's managed to dispose of Ned Stark, and he's close to scooping up Ned's daughter. He's already gotten control over Harrenhal, and he's soon to be lord of the Eyrie as well. As Varys notes, he's got everything but an army.
In any case, a lot of the strands in "Now His Watch Has Ended" have to do with the patience, and friendships, required to gain your vengeance — but in the end, there are plenty of hints that once you've waited years for payback, it may not actually be worth it. And the long wait and scheming may change you in the meantime. Arya doesn't seem to get much pleasure from crossing one name off her list of wrongdoers, and the death of Craster doesn't make anybody particularly happy. On the other hand, Varys seems positively chuffed to have the evil sorcerer at his mercy at last.