Sunday’s hour of Game of Thrones felt a scant 20 minutes, loaded with shock factor, upheaval and the brand of Westerosi monstrosity we’ve become accustomed to.
“The Old Gods and the New” is a phrase we’ve heard many, many times in Westeros. The Old Gods were kept by the original, ‘first men’ of Westeros. The New Gods are the Seven — the Mother, the Father, Warrior, the Crone, the Smith, the Maiden, and the Stranger.
And still newer gods come from all directions; Melisandre’s Red God, which Jaqen has invoked. Syrio’s God of Death, to whom we say, not today. And certainly not least, the Drowned God of the Ironmen, to whom payment was made on Sunday, with Rodrik Cassel’s head.
The two major thematic discussions at play on Sunday: the value of life and death in Westeros and Essos; how we face our gods, how we hide from them. And second, the clash of class and culture; what happens when old and new, rich and poor, or civil and wild meet, share, or war with one another?
All of this was on the board and in play as we came to Winterfell, in media res, during Theon Greyjoy’s sack of his former master’s home.
Theon’s headspace is a confused miasma, a crushed blend of old and new allegiances, inherent and inherited values, tradition and expectation. Winterfell’s besieged people look to him, praying for mercy. They beg him, even in his insolence, to at least live up to the greatness of Eddard Stark, to marry his new power to the traditions of the North, having lived half his life among them.
Dagmer urges Theon not to let resistance pass, and insists that Cassel pay the ‘iron price’ of death for his disrespect. Ser Rodrik, even knowing he’s about to lose his head, reminds Theon of Ned’s way, the old way. ‘The man who passes the sentence swings the sword’. Theon has to be everything, old and new.
He brings the sword down. Once, twice, three times. Four times. And still needs to sever the head with a kick. The horror on his face isn’t just born of the betrayal he just committed, but a stark confusion. He doesn’t know what the fuck to do next, he doesn’t know who he’s supposed to be.
‘Did I do this right?’ his eyes say, searching the crowd around him. He doesn’t even understand what he just did. But he might be beginning to.
Sitting in residence as Winterfell’s leader later in the episode, Theon reminds us that the only part of his identity solidly intact, is the horndog. A tantalizing tease in the form of Tonks — I’m sorry, Osha — is all it takes to put regret, grief and worry aside for a quick lay. “We know things”, implores Osha, as she disrobes. “Savage things.”
Oh, the enticement! The sex of a new culture, a new smell, a new taste. I’m of the belief that Theon leaps to this body, this opportunity, because it’s something he’s never had. And moreover, a prize justly deserved for taking Winterfell.
And wouldn’t you know it; Theon isn’t the only semi-Stark to lie with a wildling woman this week.
Jon Snow, all of 16 or 17, who knows nothing, almost faces a greater personal drama with a tied-up Ygritte grinding against his manhood than he does when he has his steel pressed against her neck, deciding whether or not to take her life. She is everything he doesn’t understand; a wildling, a free person — something he didn’t even know the meaning of before he took the Black — and of course, a woman. Jon is as virginal and pure as the snow he’s named for. Ygritte assuredly has ‘savage things’ she could share with him too. The unmistakable smirk on her face tells us she already knows him, and knows that she owns him, even if the rope is tied around her wrists.
Both Jon and Theon are confronted with this wildling sex, and both by women who are vastly their superiors in terms of wit, worldliness and the wrath they’d be capable of.
Qhorin makes damned sure to try and instill in Jon just exactly where he is. “Wild creatures have their own rules…you’ll never know them.” They’re talking about Ghost’s ambivalence to his master, on the surface. But assuredly, this is a commentary on the wildling population Jon is about to meet. Jon rebuts, and Qhorin rebuts with experience; “this is their country…you start thinking you know this place, it’ll kill you”.
Arya’s position is at risk more with each week, precisely because she’s crossed ‘classes’; she’s in the position of a cupbearer, a serving girl, but speaks, reads, acts and behaves the way a noble-born girl might. Tywin notices, and presses into her past. ‘Who taught you to read?’ he asks, a question of particular note to him, because his own son, Jaime, the son of a ruling major house at the top of his ‘class’, is revealed to be dyslexic.
A girl truly born into the serving ranks wouldn’t dare risk the curiosity and inquisitiveness Arya always exhibits. Stealing the bit of parchment outlining a Lannister strategy against Robb gets her into the shit with Amory Lorch, a problem quickly, but stressfully dispatched moments later. That’s two of three wishes for the little wolf; who will she speak ‘death’ to for her third and final kill?
Robb is falling into a trap born of tradition and class as well; the young king is being charmed by Talisa of Volantis, the mysterious woman who may or may not be a Lannister spy, and may or may not be a simple healing nurse, and may and only may be a woman other than the Frey he’s betrothed to. This is a significant problem in this world, and Cat points that out to her very-much ‘flowered’ son. He can’t cross that tradition, and certainly can’t cross the class divide. His wife must be a fellow noble, a lady. Talisa herself plays and debates with the idea of her own title; is she a lady? Whatever she is, she’s not a king’s ideal consort.
Nowhere is the difference between classes more evident than in King’s Landing, during the unquestionable centerpiece of the episode. We won’t say that the ruling party of the Seven Kingdoms is of a different culture than the mob of the capital; it’s the one culture that gives each side their place in the overall scheme of things, after all. But classes? Good lord; the divide couldn’t be wider.
How do we begin to search for where everything went wrong?
That’d do it. That, and the reaction elicited from the boy king in retaliation; ‘kill them’. Kill them for throwing shit in my face. Dagmer, earlier, to Theon: “He must pay the iron price.” For spitting in your face.
These are rational reactions, right?
The mob pays a severe price for the whims of the monarchy, and exacts one in return. Limbs are hewn off septons, townspeople are gutted by spear and sword, children appear to be cut into pieces and trampled, because the mob has absolutely had it with their royalty dining finely in the Red Keep while the capital has gone starving in wartime. This has been bubbling up for some time, and I feel as if it’s no coincidence that it heated to a boil in this episode, where socio-economic and cultural clashes are happening everywhere.
Why do they hate us? Sansa ignorantly and ironically demands of her whore-turned-serving girl, Shae, after nearly being raped to pieces a scene earlier. Why did that man want to hurt me? “You are everything he will never have. Your horse eats better than his children”, says Shae.
During the Halfhand’s small expedition north of the Wall:
Qhorin: “The Watch has given you a great gift. And you only have one thing to give in return. Your life.”
Jon: “I’d gladly give my life…”
Qhorin: “I don’t want you to be glad about it! I want you to curse and fight until your heart’s done pumping. Know this boy. Your death will be a gift for them, south of the Wall. And they’ll never know what you’ve done. They’ll never know how you died. They won’t even know your damned name. But they’ll be alive because some nameless bastard north of the Wall gave his life for theirs.”
The Halfhand self-deprecates, and mocks later that these words are just the words of a man of the Black, desperate to give his life meaning. But we know better.
This is Jon’s newest lesson, particularly important, when he never heeded his Uncle Benjen’s lesson last year: “You don’t know what you’d be giving up”, Benjen Stark told him, when Jon declared his intentions. Jon hasn’t valued his life, and as a bastard in this Westerosi culture, has never had a reason to. Qhorin is one of the first forces in John’s life that wants to help him change that.
The lesson isn’t totally lost on Jon. Pressed to keep to his duty and his honor, he is charged with beheading the prisoner Ygritte, just as Theon was earlier in the episode. The stories of these two semi-Stark sons are paralleled very closely, very consciously. One, blind to the consequences, and focused on his glory, devalues the life of the man who no doubt trained him like a Stark boy, and brutally hacks his head off. The other, perhaps out of fear, and perhaps also out of his inability to kill an unarmed prisoner, can’t bring himself to take the life before him.
Now she is his charge, until he can find his brothers, and she’s rapidly becoming much more than just a ‘life’ to him.
More than this, these scenes of beheading are very consciously contrasted against one of the very first scenes in the entire series. Ned Stark was called north to take the life of a deserter from the Wall. With him, his trueborn sons Robb and Bran, his bastard son Jon, and his ward, Theon.
“The man that passes the sentence swings the sword”, Ned told Bran, late in that scene, words Rodrik echoed to his executioner, Theon. And now, two of Ned’s four ‘children’ have found themselves in the same situation.
Bran was forced to watch in that premiere scene, as a rite of passage. Calm as water, steel-nerved, yet shaken, he made it through. There was no looking away for Brandon this time. He was screaming and pleading the whole way. He’s already seen what death looks like. Life means much more to him now, especially after nearly losing his and escaping a cripple, and especially the life of his castellan, Ser Rodrik. He knows it’s irreversible, and so does Maester Luwin. Their begging goes unanswered, and Theon exacts the iron toll.
Rickon is the newest witness to a beheading. Now even the last Stark isn’t unstained by blood and death.
The next-youngest Stark, Arya gets one of the most poignant moments to reflect on life and death:
Tywin, on Arya’s father: “What killed him?”
That was the value of Ned’s life. The cost he ended up paying. He didn’t play the game well, but he played it with a noble valuation, up until his last moments, where he gave even that up in false confession. It would almost have been beautiful if he’d had the chance to know he’d be killed anyway, and stuck to his guns right to the end. But that isn’t the reality of Westeros, and it isn’t how thrones are won or lost.
This week’s odds and ends:
The Flayed Man of the Dreadfort
The laid-back but somehow charismatic bannerman of Robb Stark, one Lord Roose Bolton, appears again as Robb’s advisor, and as an answer to Theon’s conquest of Winterfell. He’s sending his bastard son to the castle with several hundred men to take the Stark stronghold back. There isn’t much else of note to say here, but they wouldn’t introduce a character like this without a reason.
Dire Wolves of the North
They’ve had their bold, glorious introductions; the wolves are part of the scenery now. Grey Wind is no doubt traipsing around Robb’s camps. Ghost is seen being the juvenile disobedient in the face of his young master. And Summer and Shaggydog are cool and collected as they escort Bran, Rickon, Osha and Hodor to safety from Winterfell. The last of the Starks, two young princes, out in the wild, with two dire wolves, a wildling woman and a lumbering simpleton as their kingsguard. This can only mean some solid adventure time.
The Hound: Brutish, Burdened, Burned and Bestial
That was a disemboweling with a dagger in under 2 seconds. And a deft stab in the back. And a throat slit. Clock it. Sansa’s barely had enough time to redress herself.
Sandor Clegane is a mountain in his own right, much like his brother. Roaring at the mob closing in on them, his sword and his retaliation are severe and cut deep. Fear this motherfucker.
Tyrion; A Little Taller Every Week
Tyrion’s power play finally plays out; Myrcella is sailing off to Dorne. And he’s very noticeably elevated above his sister, Cersei, in the shot. She wins with biting words, promising to cut his love out of his life one day, should she chance upon discovering it. But he had the victory of presence in the scene, and he had it again later with the callback slap against Joffrey. The King once again, in his impetuous and impulsive reactions, turned wartime into time for war. The people were already rattled; ordering their deaths in the street has a made a bloodbath of King’s Landing. This was the last thing Tyrion needed amidst ongoing preparations to secure and defend the city against imminent invasion.
Putting his nephew in his place once again has granted Tyrion this week’s BOSS status. Elegance:
Arya was a bit of an optical buffet for Petyr; there is no doubt, he’s recognized her. Dude stares her down almost enough that it’s a miracle Tywin didn’t notice. The question is what Petyr’s about to do with that knowledge.
No matter his plans, his heart still sings for Cat Stark. In his travels, he made a point of returning her dead husband’s bones, and every scene involving the two of them betrayed his persisting love for the woman after all these years. Arya would be a way into her heart and her good graces.
On the other hand, if Petyr, as these last two episodes have indicated, is attempting to broker a Lannister-Tyrell marriage, having Arya reclaimed for the Lannisters would elevate and prove his worth to them all over again. She’s his ammo for certain now. I suspect we’ll see which direction he fires her at next week.
Daenerys, Dragons, Diplomacy and Departures
The little princess, as the Spice Master loved to call her, was the odd one out this week. Her story didn’t figure as well into the themes the episode was playing with, and if you speak to any book readers about Sunday’s outing, they’ll tell you her story isn’t figuring into their memories either. This episode, on the whole, is about as great a deviation from the source text as has happened so far on the show.
We were as shocked as you all are to see Dany’s dothraki guard massacred at Xaro’s residence.
It was…refreshing? We can be as surprised as you all are in this story, now that the training wheels have been properly shorn off. The obstacles in Dany’s way are steadily piling up now: her host is insisting on marriage, and still presents the most readily available solution to her — he is, as he’s so fond of repeatedly reminding everyone, the ‘richest man in Qarth’, and can get her across the Narrow Sea and back to Westeros. Her Dothraki are culturally out of place and out of touch in the free cities, and now many of them are out of life as well, including her handmaiden Irri. There’s only pretty Doreah left. The remaining traders, kings and leaders of the East are denying her the means for passage home as well. And now at last, someone has made a play for her dragons.
Drogon, Viserion and Rhaegal are in the hands of an enemy. No one has openly antagonized Dany and her horde before, save the Lhazareen godswife-witch Mirri Maz Duur, who took the life of her unborn child, and the Spice King I affectionately call the ‘Fatman’, who opposed Dany at the gates, and again at the steps of his palace this week.
But then, even those who never opposed her might seek to have the dragons for themselves. These are the nukes of this world, fledging weapons with incredible potential. Quaithe made sure to remind us and Jorah of that last week. And both are notably absent this week.
Pyat Pree made sure to insist that his coven of warlocks have a visit from the Mother of Dragons, and extended an invitation last week to the House of the Undying. Which is obviously their nursery or local daycare. It might be a bakery too. That invitation was certainly privileged last week, and is a good indication of what that tower was at the end of the episode.
Next Week, and With Only Four Episodes to Go!
- The youngest Starks are out in the wilds of the North. Where are they going? South is death; war rages on, and even the lure of their brother Robb and their mother wouldn’t be enough. There are other cities and towns in the North, like White Harbor that they could make for. The Wall should seem safe as well, but hardly a haven for two princes.
- Theon’s skeleton crew at Winterfell is about to get jacked by Bolton’s son and any forces he can muster. Open war in Winterfell itself? If only the wolves had stuck around to take part…
- Petyr’s jumping around arranging all sorts of shit. Tyrion’s sent Myrcella off to Dorne, finally and officially. Petyr, in discussions with Tywin this week, must be plotting to wed Margaery to Joffrey to gain Highgarden’s support for the war, and to gain a useful ally in the Tyrells.
- Renly is very dead and very forgotten. Evidently, so were Stannis, Davos and Mel. No Baratheons on the field isn’t usually a good recipe for long. Expect Stannis to become important again soon; the war between Robb and the Lannisters is getting a sight boring left on its own, what, with Robb winning everything.
- Arya isn’t safe where she is for much longer. The aegis of protection born of Jaqen’s three wishes is almost burned up, and now, she’s been recognized.
- Dany’s story is finally, finally heating up. Girl has been robbed of her children; as she’s so fond of reciting, it’ll be FIRE and BLOOD that gets them back. FIRE and BLOOD. FIRE and BLOOD. THE RICHEST MAN IN QARTH.
See you all in a week!
Budrickton, First of His Name, Warden of the Actual North (Canada)