(This Game Of Thrones post is for people who have read at least the first two books in the book series. It is written from the point-of-view of someone who has read those books and for the benefit of fans of the books. All discussion points are valid, up to and including the events of the fifth book. However, we would ask that you clearly mark spoilers from the third, fourth, and fifth books. The review itself will be non-spoilery, and talk of how events here portend future events will be clearly marked with a spoiler warning in the section following Stray Observations. If you would still like to read the review but haven't read the book, thus, you can, but you should proceed with caution after the spoiler warning and in comments. Those of you who haven't read the books can also check out our reviews for newbies.)
Stannis Baratheon has an airtight claim to the throne, if he can get everybody in Westeros on the same page. For one thing, he’s the brother of the last king, and he’s pretty certain that the current king, Joffrey, is not the progeny of his dead brother. (This is something we in the audience know for a fact.) For another, even if Stannis is a bit distant and cold, you can’t say he’s an impetuous teenage snot who seems in love with watching people die just for the sake of watching people die. Why, then, does no one want Stannis to be king? Well, there’s that whole thing where he’s cold and distant, and it certainly doesn’t help that he possesses none of the social graces a man would need to ascend to the throne on a shaky claim, such as he has. But, also, he doesn’t have a son. Let’s say he takes the throne, then immediately dies. We’re right back where we are right now, with everybody in the land claiming to be the king. And that’s no way to run a kingdom.
Last season, it was rare to have an episode of Game Of Thrones hang together thematically, simply because the show was always racing off to some other new thing in every other scene. This season, it’s still chasing around after its ever-expanding story, but it’s somehow found a way to make nearly every storyline in this episode dovetail around one central idea: The monarchy of Westeros runs through men, and in many cases, maybe that’s a terrible idea. There’s Cersei, angrily ranting at her brother about how neither he nor Jaime ever cared as much for the proper care and feeding of kingly power as she does. In another storyline entirely, Balon Greyjoy is valuing his daughter Yara over his long-lost son, Theon, which is something that just doesn’t happen. Gendry finds out Arya’s a girl, and we’re returned to her uneasy relationship with her ladyship. The Khals of Essos refuse to accept that Dany can lead a khalasar because she’s a woman. And on and on.
It’s fitting that the series would do a whole episode about this because the central question of the whole story is “What makes someone fit to be a ruler?” We’ve seen plenty of fine examples of the form in the masculine gender, and we’ve seen almost as many terrible examples. (Even in this Joffrey-free episode, we’ve got Craster, out in his little fiefdom, surrounded by daughter-wives and setting boy babies out in the dark for the White Walkers to take.) Yes, one of the larger points of the series is that saying that kings rule by divine right is a total crapshoot—and that would apply as much to women as it would to men—but one of the interesting things about this episode is that it keeps pointing to women who would make just as effective of leaders as the men in their lives—if not more effective leaders—and then explaining why they’re kept from power by centuries of belief and tradition. I can’t imagine there are many Cersei fans out there, but would you really rather have Joffrey ruling over you than his mom?
It’s when the show can find these little connections between storylines that it goes from a ridiculously entertaining show with lots of fun storylines and characters to something on the level of Breaking Bad or Mad Men, and that it’s done so so early this season bodes well for the season to come. The surface pleasures of the series are still there, and its ability to externalize conflict, so that two brothers who have no love lost between them are perched on the cusp of horrendous conflict, among other examples, is second to none. But I almost prefer the scenes where the characters are hanging out, waiting for the other shoe to drop, and talking about just what got them backed into this corner in the first place. Nine times out of 10, it’s service to an ideal they’re only loyal to because that’s what they’ve done their whole lives.
It’s Davos who puts this the most succinctly, in a late scene. His son is attempting to get him to sign on to the whole “Lord of Light” business we’ve heard so much about, but Davos isn’t entirely sure he’s down for that. He’s seen men pray to dozens of gods, and he’s never seen any of them get anything out of it. Meanwhile, he’s pledged his fealty to Stannis, and Stannis has given him everything. Whom should Davos believe what little power he has comes from? Davos argues it’s Stannis, while his son argues that all of those years he spent praying for his father as a boy have to add up to something. That conflict is fairly easy to understand, but less easy to explain is the more nebulous one the show is starting to dig into: From where does Stannis’ power originate in the first place? And if it’s not the gods, then what makes him worth following at all? Loyalty, Davos would say, but loyalty can only get you so far.
Game Of Thrones spends so much time showing us the people in power that it’s easy to forget that for the people who have no power, the middle ages-esque world of Westeros sucks. Gilly, Craster’s daughter, wishes to escape his holdfast because if she doesn’t, her baby could be put to the death. But there’s nothing anyone can do for her, because the Night’s Watch has too much invested in a friendly relationship with the old man. Similarly, the prostitute in Littlefinger’s brothel, who can’t keep up a happy face for the paying customers because of what happened to the mother and baby in last week’s episode, is given the night off, but she’s also given the threat of becoming something of a mindless sex slave to someone with depraved appetites. I spent a lot of time complaining about the nudity on the show last season, but it’s yet to bother me this season. It could just be that I’m getting used to it, but I think there’s something else at work here: Increasingly, the nudity is used to depict just how awful life is for the common prostitutes and ship captain’s daughters of this world. They’re degraded in every possible way, and they find themselves always forced to come back for more. And while that applies doubly for the women of the lower classes, it also applies somewhat to the Cerseis and Danys of the world. This isn’t a place where a woman’s rule will be accepted just yet.
It’s a good thing, then, that we have at least a few people out there who are keeping their eyes on some sort of justice, no matter how skewed it is. Tyrion Lannister is rapidly realizing the giant pile of shit he’s stepped into in attempting to keep his sister and nephew on a path that won’t lead to revolt by the commoners. He dismisses Janos Slynt, a sacrificial lamb tossed aside as a way to divert blame for the death of all of those bastard children last week. He briefly considers the request from the Night’s Watch for more men, even as the others laugh it down. He even seems more willing to parlay for peace with Robb Stark than his sister is. Tyrion says he doesn’t have honor, but he does have a skewed sense of justice, and while he’s going to do whatever he can to keep his family in power for now, he’s also going to do his best to drag them back on a path that will lead to fewer questions of their right to rule.
There are a couple of small-ish changes from the text of the book this week (most notably in the cliffhanger, which is a scene that didn’t exist at all in the primary text but was probably necessary to remind viewers of the White Walkers’ threat), but I found myself liking the way the writers streamlined the tale of Theon’s journey back to the Iron Islands. The book does an elaborate job of spelling out how he feels ostracized and very strange about being back home among people he hasn’t seen in 10 years, how the rift has grown between him and his family, even though his leaving for Winterfell had nothing to do with him. Here, the show gets almost all of that across in just a few moments. His father speaks cruelly to him, and we realize just how little the two have in common. Then, his father says one of the Islands’ most famous sayings—“What is dead may never die”—and Theon’s just a little too slow on the uptake. This is a world he was once part of, but now he’s stuck on the outside, watching as his sister sidles up to power, the one woman in this episode who’s close enough to what she truly wants. If Theon wants that throne (and that super-sweet kraken fireplace), he’s going to have to go through Yara to get it.
There’s a lot of table-setting in this episode again, but because the show connects its many story threads with ideas of women longing to rule and where power comes from, the table-setting goes down more easily than it might. Hell, even the “sexposition” (involving Theon telling that captain’s daughter his life story) offers a bit more flavor and texture, since the daughter actually gets something of a personality. This is a strong and confident episode of the show, and it takes us easily enough from the Red Wastes to Beyond the Wall to Melisandre and Stannis having sex on a giant exposition table, seemingly without breaking a sweat. What makes it a strong episode of the show, though, is that where the characters were united by a physical symbol in the sky in last week’s episode, they’re now united by the same unanswerable questions, questions we think we’ve answered more thoroughly today but have only really begun to ponder.
- A reminder that if you’re going to spoil books three, four, and five, you should really mark it, for the benefit of our readers who’ve only read the first two books (and, yes, they’re out there). I’m amazed how well this has worked out in the first week, and I’m hoping we can keep it up all season.
- Why on Earth did they make Asha into “Yara”? I have no idea, but I suspect it has something to do with Asha being basically the same as Osha. But if that’s the case, why name the character an anagram of Arya?
- It’s a good episode for Arya, even if she doesn’t get a ton to do. She’s befriending Gendry, which can only pay off for her down the line, and Yoren sends the gold cloaks—out looking for Gendry, as a matter of fact—back to the city without what they wanted. (Yoren is so delightfully badass. I want to be him when I grow up.)
- Another good scene in re: power: Tyrion comes up to his chambers to find that Shae is having a delightful time with good ol’ Varys. Tyrion chases the eunuch off, but not without the eunuch reminding Tyrion that he has a unique talent for keeping his head above water, even when far more powerful people fall. You could make a good argument that Varys and Littlefinger—who have the most information—are the most powerful people in all of King’s Landing, and this scene plays into that very well. (It also allows Tyrion to make an awesome joke about “fish pie.” Tyrion’s full of awesome jokes this episode.)
- Stannis and Melisandre’s coupling doesn’t look terribly comfortable. That said, I know some tabletop war gamers who would kill for that surface.
- Sitting out this week are, among others, every Stark not named Arya. When, oh when, will we get our all-Rickon hour?
- Okay, I get that Jon’s a virtuous good guy, but I find it a little difficult to believe that he wouldn’t understand what Gilly was going for with that whole, “And if the baby’s a boy…” thing.
- Speaking of the Watch, Samwell gets at another question of gender and power when he says Gilly’s not someone who can be stolen. She’s a person, not a goat. Jon thinks this is so much crazy talk.
- This week’s proposed spinoff: Baelish And Whores. In which Petyr Baelish struggles with the sheer difficulties inherent in running a brothel in a city rife with political intrigue. In a third season subplot, he will run for mayor.
Here be spoilers!:
- Without spoiling you on what’s coming up directly, I will say that the Jon ending in this episode isn’t the only fairly significant departure from the book coming up in this season.
- It makes sense to have Bronn take over the City Watch in this episode, since that means there’s no need to introduce yet another new character, but I certainly hope the writers don’t insist he meet the same fate as his book counterpart in the battle of Blackwater.
- For the first time in the series (I think?), we’re hearing the name of someone who will become very important to the overall story: Mance Rayder. I have no idea who has been cast as him, but I invite your casting suggestions below.