For a series billed as fantasy, there has been little magic in the land of Westeros. Daenerys hatched some dragons, and before that she entrusted her Dothraki hubby, Khal Drago, to a self-proclaimed healer who seemed attuned to some bad juju. Other than that, Westeros has been a realm of faith, steel and bloodshed that doesn’t stray too far from our medieval history. But as Jon Snow, bastard of House Stark, journeys farther away from The Wall, a grim unnaturalness lurks in the shadows. With the balance being upset by the numerous “kings” battling for an elusive throne, could this world be a pendulum swinging its weight away from the dominion of men toward the mythical?
Beyond the Wall/Winterfell
If there’s any indication that inexplicable forces are threatening than Jon Snow has seen it. We pick up this week moments after Snow was snatched by Craster while he was sneaking around, trying to discern where the sound of a crying baby had come from. Bashed and bloodied, he’s brought back to the wildling’s home where his commander, Ser Jeor Mormont, chastises him for provoking their much needed ally. When Jon protests, claiming he saw Craster sacrifice his son, Mormont basically says, “So what!” Just as in global politics, sometimes you make alliances with nations who have abhorrent morals in order to gain a valuable resource. And to the watch, warm lodging is gold: “Like it or not we need men like Craster.”
Snow says he doesn’t know what the beast was that snatched the baby, but I would presume it was a white walker. Although, I was intrigued by the prospect of a perhaps even deeper mythology when Mormont suggested, “Wildlings pray to crueler gods than you or I.” Is he equating Craster’s offering his newborn up for feeding to a ritual, or do the Wildlings really have a separate faith aside from the Old Gods and Faith of the Seven that we’ve seen followed so far. Could Melisandre’s precious Lord of the Light be among them?
We briefly stop by Winterfell to check on Bran who awakes from another lucid dream. Maester Luwin is skeptical when the boy tries to persuade him into his belief that he actually inhabits a direwolf somehow in his dreams. This seems logical, but where does his foresight concerning his father’s death fit in? Also, I chuckled when Maester Luwin cited the absence of dragons as proof that magic is gone from this world. Not so fast old man! Oh, dramatic irony.
After meeting Stannis two weeks ago now, we’re reacquainted with younger brother Renly Baratheon. He may not possess the military skills of his older brother, but he commands a mightier army through loyalty and likability. This is what prompted Robb Stark to send his mother, Catelyn Stark, as an ambassador to Renly’s camp. Our introduction is an armored duel much like that which kicked off the second season where The Hound brutally killed a man for Joffrey’s amusement. Here, Renly seems more merciful and organizes this match purely for sport.
Interestingly, one of the knights is his own gay lover of last season, Ser Loras Tyrell. Even more noteworthy is that he’s bested by what is revealed to be a giant woman Brienne (an imposing Gwendoline Christie). She’s an enigma thus far except that she wishes to devote herself to serving Renly is his Kingsguard. She also refuses to be called a lady by Catelyn Stark, simply because she doesn’t see herself as one. Lady Stark’s objective was to gain Renly’s allegiance in battle, but she can’t help her maternal instincts. When Renly pledges to make the Lannisters answer for their crimes by serving her Joffrey’s head, she tries to tell him his army isn’t fit for winter. Though they seem to be a coalition of the willing, to her eyes they’re the unequipped Knights of Summer.
Still, the most promising development was Renly’s wife and Ser Loras’ sister, Margery Tyrell. After Loras makes it apparent he’s in no mood to fool around after having his ass handed to him, Margery enters sporting a viciously deep and wide neckline. Initially, it seems she’s another naive wife who doesn’t see her husband’s homosexual tendencies. She starts seducing him like a champ, shedding her barely-there gown, while his focus is obviously elsewhere (which is unfathomable, to me, since actress Natalie Dormer is stunningly sexy). When he pulls away, using the old excuse of “I’m too tired, not tonight babe,” Margery retorts with a quip that caused me whiplash: “Do you want my brother to come in and help? Or he could get you started, I know he wouldn’t mind. Or I can turn around and you can pretend I’m him?” Damn girl, that STINGS.
Turns out, she’s got ambitions too. She’s well aware of the political gains implied in her union. Her reasoning is that he only needs to bed her until she has baby-size leverage in her belly, which would be enough to scare their enemies. Game for whatever sexually, Margery can live with the kinky stuff as long as it means her team’s winning. For a show already sizzling with strong female roles, Margery, and also Melisandre, add something to the Daenerys dynamic we were introduced to last season. Women in this world know their influence lies between their legs. Therefore, if they want something, seduction will be the weapon they wield. Of course, Arya Stark began to buck this trend last year, and this is precisely what makes the young girl lovable, but props are due to Margery for grabbing life by Renly’s…er…horn.
Tyrion wasn’t blowing smoke when he declared he knew how this game is played. In an effort to detect traitors among his ranks, he crafts a masterful plan built on distributing deception. He divulges a plan for a brokered marriage involving his niece (Cersei’s daughter) Myrcella to his three fellow Small Councilmen. To Grand Maester Pycelle he shares his plan to wed her to the prince of House Martell in Dorne (all I know is apparently good wine comes from there); to Varys he shares his plan to marry her off to Theon and House Greyjoy; and to Petyr Baelish he shares his scheme to patch up his relations with House Arryn by offering the girl to Lysa’s son, Robin. Although all three were skeptical, they promise to remain hushed about these dealings. Tyrion reiterates to all them the importance that the Queen mustn’t know.
Consequently, when Cersei comes back tossing valuables and bitching about how he’s selling Myrcella to Dorne like she’s a common whore, he now knows he can no longer trust Pycelle. There was something slightly disturbing about how Tyrion tormented the old man (and interrupted his prostitute time!), ordering Bronn to cut off his beard with a knife and then throwing him in a “black cell.” Yes, it was a calculated maneuver, and what do you expect him to do to a man who admits to betraying consecutive Hands to the Kings for the Lannisters. Even though he himself is a Lion (the Lannister animal) he has proof of the old man’s loose lips. Once a traitor, always a traitor. And once, twice, three times a fool and all that. Here we see that not only can Tyrion win over hearts, but he can pluck out the subjects that will betray him. He values honor just as Ned Stark did, but he has the sense to know that not every man will share his code. He’ll have an honorable horde before this is over, but it will be on his terms.
If there’s any vulnerable spots in his scheming armor it’s his whore girlfriend, Shae. She’s catching cabin fever, but none of the menial jobs he suggests suit her pride. There’s no doubt in her that she is and always will be a whore, but she resents having to play dumb for him. Varys, who holds the secret of her presence, secures her the job of being Sansa Stark’s handmaiden. Inevitably, she’s entirely incompetent and Sansa takes her frustrations out on her. To be fair, Sansa has to sit at the dinner table with her proposed mother-in-law from hell, Cersei, while the smaller children discuss the likelihood that her brother will be slain. Unlike Arya, princess life has been her dream, but this life no doubt repulses her. These people she will call family, killed her father and are plotting to slaughter the rest. Despite it all though, she talks a good game and sits pretty as the Lannister’s little dove. Let’s hope she can exacts some sort of revenge, however risky that might be.
The Iron Islands, Pyke
As Balon Greyjoy prepares to occupy the weakly held North, while Robb’s armies march farther south, Theon debates over where his allegiances lie. Immediately upon return his need for Daddy’s approval was paramount. But Balon seems to have resigned to shunning him. Theon insists on compromise, but all his father does is recite the Greyjoy words, “We do not sow.” Put another way, we are subservient to no one. Stubborn, but valiant all the same. For Theon though, this means either he commands one measly ship against a fisherman’s village—while Yara keeps her distinction of second in command—or he betrays his bloodline and sides with his surrogate brother, Robb.
And who would blame him if he chose the latter? For all Balon’s posturing, he has indeed succumbed at least once. He surrendered to the Starks and willingly offered them his only remaining son. And while Theon has been a prisoner of Winterfell, there’s no doubt that all the Starks, especially Robb, have embraced him as one of their own. So if he does not belong to either House, where is home? At one point, Theon seems to side with Winterfell. He writes a letter of warning to Robb, I guess considering being a double agent. But ultimately he chooses blood over brotherhood and is baptized “by the power of salt, stone and steel” as stoically proud papa looks on. I suspect Balon knows that his son’s loyalty wavered more than it should have, and will continue to give him inconsequential duties.
Caravan to the Wall
The episode then comes full circle and back to the Starks. A sleepless Arya sharpens a blade when Yoren plops down in front of her for a heart-to-heart. If Tyrion is the epicenter of the show’s humor and political savvy, Arya is the heart and soul, for me. So when she asks how Yoren is able to sleep after having seen such terrible things my heart started to melt. Though as Yoren reminds her, she never saw her father get executed (he shielded her pretty well) she saw all their faces. She saw the aftermath. She saw the savage glee of Joffrey and the devastation of her sister. Yoren tells a story of how his own losses have affected him. He speaks of a handsome boy Wilhelm, who stabbed his brother in the heart at his doorstep. He admits how that good-looking face had haunted him many nights. But then one day, Wilhelm strolled back into town and so Yoren buried his axe in his skull. Immediately after, he was led to the Wall. It’s not a strikingly touching story, nor a comforting one, but if I’m Arya, I take it as motivation. The opportunity to avenge her father will come, if she’s ready for it; however, she must be certain that’s the life she wants, because there’s no going back.
His speech is interrupted then by the returning City Watch. As Yoren sweetly describes, “There’s men out there who want to fuck your corpses.” He cuts down a few of them fearlessly, even shrugging off the hit of a crossbow (“I always hated crossbows. Take too long to load!”) before he’s ambushed and gutted. Like the courageous protector he is, he dies kneeling upright, until they kick him down. Arya’s captured in the subsequent scrum and her attackers use her precious sword, Needle, to finish off a lame youth. The newly rounded up are then grilled about who among them goes by Gendry. They’re of course in search of the sole living bastard of Robert Baratheon. Arya quickly devises a way to save her friend, by asserting that they already hit their target when they just murdered that boy who couldn’t walk. Since he was holding Gendry’s self-crafted helmet, they’re none the wiser. Now she and the real Gendry are headed back toward the capital as prisoners where they’ll be held at the allegedly cursed castle, Harenhaal. That probably won’t be awesome though, right? Oh wait, it absolutely will be.
While Tyrion earns his title by luring the rats from their holes, Arya must weasel her way out of one. Dragonstone goes unseen this week, but Stannis’ little bro surges on with his own wicked woman beside him. And let’s not forget that Theon and Daddy dearest (and his sister/accidental lover) take to the seas to surprise “brother” Robb. It’s throughly impressive how well this ever-thickening plot has taken shape. The pieces are on the board, they’re making moves and traps are being set. But with fluid definitions of king, queen, knight and pawn developing, don’t expect the rules to apply. As Varys advised Tyrion, power is just a trick, a shadow on the wall, that depends on where men believe it resides (an apt metaphor for religion as well). After all, in a realm where the dead may never die and the incomprehensible threatens from its farthest corners, what can you possibly believe to be certain?
For an epic ending sequence with blood spilled and hope lost, and an equally satisfying warring of wits—whether it’s Tyrion’s trickery or Margery’s manipulation— I’ll provide one sure answer. When I gaze upon the Westeros universe, I see expert juggling of an overflowing ensemble, engaging yet dense writing, and five radiant stars.
Remember, don’t discuss elements of the books that haven’t aired yet. Don’t spoil it for everyone else in the comments section!