Any given “Game of Thrones” episode is chock-full of resonating material. Despite its medieval setting, a familiar undercurrent of gender dynamics, power, class structures, honor and nobility, political mistrust, and family all cross the temporal gap. These themes amplify our intrigue illuminating the modern truths within the fictional Westeros. But while these issues offer dimension and texture, they’re often pushed to the back burner as the plot dominates our curiosity and captures our imagination.
This week differed in that no party advanced much further towards their goal of seizing the Iron Throne, and mostly only talked about what needed to be done. Despite this stagnancy though, the episode was thematically unified. From North of the Wall to The Iron Islands, from Dragonstone to King’s Landing, their struggles shared the common thread of adjustment to new environments. Whether it’s Theon returning to his homeland of Pyke, Stannis giving himself to a new God, or Tyrion trying to learn from Ned Stark’s mistakes as the new Hand to the King, all of them saw their worlds shaken. And how they handle their change in station will determine how well they can survive the impending winter—in the literal and figurative sense.
Last week’s trek around the realm worked well, so let’s continue our quest. This week saw the introduction of The Iron Islands and most of the focus was spent on King’s Landing and Dragonstone, but we checked in on Arya and her Caravan to the Wall, Jon and Samwell beyond the Wall, and we mourned a bloodrider in The Red Waste with Daenerys.
Caravan to the Wall
We ended last week with Arya and Gendry hitching a ride on the wagon to the Wall. Gendry escaped his fate of slaughter after Joffrey ordered the execution of all of Robert Baratheon’s bastards. Arya is also on the lamb from the most slap-able face in the Seven Kingdoms—she is the Lannister’s would-be leverage in a trade for Jamie. She’s doing her best to blend in as a boy, but despite her heckling of criminals and brash banter she isn’t fooling Gendry. She fervently denies until Gendry asks her to “pull out [her] cock for a piss.” Obviously when she doesn’t comply his suspicions are confirmed, but he is shocked when she tells him she belongs to House Stark.
Mortified for speaking a Lady with such vulgarity he apologizes, but Arya isn’t interested in his pleasantries and pushes him to the ground for using her proper title “Milady.” We’ve known that Arya rejects a destiny as wife to a powerful Lord, and her father even encouraged her to train in sword fighting, but we’ve yet to see how she can handle real combat. Sure she stabbed some oaf who tried to hand her over to the Joffrey the Jerk, but she needs to prove herself beyond taking first blood. I have a hunch that the closer the caravan gets to the North and Castle Black the more her gall will be tested, and I know I’m rooting for Arya to transcend the expectations of Westerosi womanhood and become a revered soldier.
Yoren also gets a badass spotlight as he wards off a couple Gold Cloaks (the colloquial term for men of the City Watch in King’s Landing) who are sent on orders to apprehend Gendry. Quicker to the draw, he aims the pointy end right at the knight’s crotch and threatens him to turn around or bleed out from his man parts. The watchman chooses wisely and rides off, promising to return with more men so that he can leave with Yoren’s head. Something tells me his wish won’t be granted and Yoren will get the last laugh.
My man Tyrion takes care of business this week, trying to stake his claim as a formidable member of the court. Varys discovers that Shae has accompanied Tyrion to the capital against his father’s wishes, but Tyrion does not react kindly to the eunuch’s veiled threat. Peter Dinklage delivers some gems this week, chief among them the much-quoted posturing from the TV spots, “I am not Ned Stark, I understand how this game is played.” And when Varys asserts that Ned Stark was a man of honor, Tyrion simply rebukes, “And I am not.” Despite his stature, Tyrion’s words sting like a blade and it channels the underdog in all of us. As the title credits suggest, Tyrion is the star of this season, and although his morals are planted in unstable earth, we’re all hoping he uproots the status quo.
Meanwhile, Cersei is still undeterred by Robb Stark and his conditions for surrender. She rips up the letter her cousin delivers and tells him to deliver back their non-reply. She also declines to aid the Night’s Watch by providing more manpower as she believes the talk of white walkers is unfounded. We as the audience know better, so it will be a nice bit of zombie karma when she’s bitten in the ass.
Tyrion continues to undercut the Queen regent’s authority by replacing Janos Slynt as commander of the City Watch. Though he’s asking for trouble, you can’t blame him considering that Janos betrayed the last two Hands to the King. He inserts his personal guard Bronn into the role, but I can’t help but wonder how loyal Bronn is. Though he has developed an affection for the imp and his silver tongue, he’s easily bought. When Tyrion asks him point blank if he would murder an infant on his orders without question (as Janos did for Joffrey) he responds, “Without question? No. I’d ask, how much?” Good to know where he stands, but can you really trust a man whose loyalty is first and foremost to gold? I suppose since Tyrion belongs to the richest family in Westeros it’s a non-issue, but this still might be troubling Tyrion.
When Cersei gets word of Tyrion exiling Janos to the NIght’s Watch she’s infuriated by his insubordination. But Tyrion diminishes the Queen’s methodology of leadership. “You might find it difficult to rule over millions who want you dead.” Cersei’s retort cuts deeply though, as she compliments Tyrion for being funny, but reminds him that his entire existence, killing his mother in childbirth and coming into the world a dwarf, is his greatest joke. It was unsettling to see someone else verbally slaying Tyrion for once. Maybe he’s not yet the wrecking ball we’re hoping for, but I bet that jab will serve as major ammunition in episodes to come.
The Iron Islands, Pyke
As promised, Theon Greyjoy sails his way home to request a fleet from his father, Balon. Robb will need a navy if he wants to sack King’s Landing. Though my grasp of Theon’s past was shaky last season we get a brief tutorial in the form of GoT’s infamous “sexposition.” This is when the writers unload backstory while the character is the act of intercourse with a prostitute. I mean if whores are good at anything, it’s listening, right? Basically, Theon has been held as a prisoner of war by the Starks after the Greyjoys rebelled against Robert to become a free nation. As a condition of their surrender they took Balon’s only male heir as insurance. Now after nine years away, he’s returning to his homeland, and when he arrives he seems to have been forgotten.
Although, one woman does appear to remember her Lord and offers him a ride to the castle on horseback. Thus begins the eepy-cray interaction where Theon hits on this woman hardcore, even groping her during the ride. Turns out he was pulling a Luke Skywalker and was putting the moves on…yup, his sister, Yara (Gemma Whalen). Balon (played with steeliness and menace by Patrick Malahide) has evidently replaced his son with his daughter, naming her commander of his powerful navy. She’s fought men, and killed men in the Greyjoy name, which is more than he can say for Theon who has fought alongside Robb and the Starks. Therefore, Theon holds little sway with his father, and Balon refuses to be handed his former crown as Lord of the Iron Islands and wishes to pay for it with “the iron price”—winning it in battle. it will be interesting to see the power struggle between Theon and Yara now as he tries to gain back his father’s favor. But how can he ever be seen as a Greyjoy when he has called Robb brother?
Another aspiring king and his subjects also must cope with changing tides, as Stannis prepares to take on all comers, including his younger brother, Renly. We gain some more insight into the man who is Stannis’ right hand, Ser Davos Seaworth. Seaworth, a former smuggler, negotiates with pirate Salladhor Saan (played the first major black actor of the series, Lucian Msamati). Like Robb, Stannis will need a formidable navy if he wants to challenge the Lannister forces, and Salladhor can provide that. Davos promises all the Lannister gold and loosely promises the queen as well. Davos’ son, who has drank the Kool-Aid about Melisandre’s fire god, is appalled that he would treat a woman as a prize, but Salladhor cheekily observes, “The only true God is between a woman’s legs.” Kinda sketchy, but is he a pirate. Plundering is his thing. Davos also seems skeptical of Melisandre’s God, saying that the only loyalty he pledges is to men who win in battle. Therefore, Stannis is his God.
Davos might have reason to question his faith though as Melisandre asserts herself into Stannis’ inner circle. The fiery-haired priestess convinces Stannis that if he wants to better his odds in battle he must give himself completely to the Lord of the Light. Aggravated, Stannis complains that he’s already burned the idols and recited the chants, what else does he have to do? Well, apparently it please the Lord of the Light for him to make love to his prophet on his war room strategy table. And as the wooden ships fall to the floor, you can’t help but chuckle at the obvious metaphor that Stannis’ military prowess will diminish now that he’s been seduced by not only Melisandre but her faith as well.
The Red Waste
Things are looking bleak for our Queen of the Dragons as she and her khalasar are wasting away in the desert waiting for word from her bloodriders. Just when Ser Jorah thinks he spots hope on the horizon, it turns out it is Rokharo’s horse returning with his bloodied head in a satchel. Jorah surmises that it must have been one of the khals sending a message that they do not approve of a khaleesi leading a khalasar. Daenerys promises to build him a grand funeral pyre so that his soul may pass to The Night Lands, the afterlife that gives the episode its title.
Beyond the Wall
Still lodging at Craster’s home, Samwell Turly admires his daughters as they walk away. He’s even bold enough to put the moves on one of them, Gilly, as the direwolf Ghost growls at her. She calls him brave and Samwell’s immediately smitten. He runs to Jon Snow and asks for his help in sneaking her out with the Watch. She fears for her child who will either be born a daughter and become another trophy wife, or be born a son and…well we’re asked to fill in the rest. Jon smartly replies that it would be impossible and too much of a risk considering they’ll need Wilding support going forward. However, the episode ends with Jon detecting a baby wailing in the night. When he goes to investigate, he sees a baby being sacrificed to a white walker by Craster himself. I figured sons were sacrificed, but that’s just about the coldest possible way to dispose of them. Then before he can turn back, he’s grabbed from behind by Craster and we’re left to mull of over the potential implications.
Across the Seven Kingdoms and elsewhere, friends and enemies alike are confronting their fates and staring death, a.k.a The Night Lands in the face. Some, like Stannis, are signing away their souls to mystical entities, some like Theon must prove to their House that they are worthy, and some like Arya and Gendry and Tyrion must prove that they have the wherewithal to use their unique set of skills in gaining the upper hand against the forces that oppose them. Who will be most equipped when winter comes? My instinct tells me it is whoever can inspire the most men to join their cause. As Tyrion tells Cersei, “her people” may not mean much to her, but it is through their adoration and allegiance that they can establish their legitimacy. Whether by the sword, or the tongue ,or by magic, whichever king has the most men backing him will win this epic clash. Though it may have cost Ned his life, honor is valuable currency in times of war. Tyrion recognizes this when he insults Janos, “I’m not questioning your honor, Lord Janos. I’m denying its existence.” The ability to win over hearts and minds seems to favor Tyrion, but already we see how quickly circumstances can change as pieces slowly begin to move along the board.
Despite a lack of forward momentum, this was another great episode including a cohesive message of adjusting to the changing political climates and superb writing—save some laughable “exposition”—that produced a ton of quotable material. The richest characters get richer, and new characters feel like old buddies as they swiftly change the game. For expanding the universe without getting bogged down in the details, GoT continues its ascendancy towards greatness.