(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.)
Near the end of tonight’s episode, the eunuch Varys poses a question to Tyrion: If three men ask a sellsword to kill, will the sellsword be most interested in someone who can offer him a lot of money, someone who has power over him, or someone connected to the sellsword’s god? Tyrion says it depends on the sellsword, but Varys doesn’t think that’s good enough of an answer. When Ned Stark was killed, who was responsible? Joffrey, for giving the order; the executioner, for swinging the sword; or something or someone else entirely, for setting everything in motion? Could you ultimately blame Jaime Lannister for sending Bran flying out a window? Or Jon Arryn for digging into the affairs of the queen? Or Robert Baratheon for unseating a king who was part of a dynasty that had ruled without question for years? Where did the chain of events that led to Ned Stark’s death begin? And where will the chain of events touched off by it end?
Game Of Thrones is getting at a very interesting idea here—and I should point out this scene appears almost exactly as scripted in the books. Where does power come from? Clearly, power is an illusion, but it’s a shared one that most of us buy into because we like to live in a civilization with proper rules and orders. In a democracy, we have some degree of certainty from where, say, Barack Obama’s power originates. It comes from the fact that he ran a campaign that got him elected president by a majority of the voters (well, by a majority of the electors those voters voted for, but let’s not quibble over semantics). Those voters got together to pursue certain goals—no matter how nebulous—and rallied around Obama as a figurehead for those goals. If he doesn’t please them, they’re free to toss him out of office this fall, or they can give him another four years to accomplish what they want. We could quibble about all sorts of things in this definition, but the answer here seems obvious: In a democracy, the ultimate power lies with the people, or it’s supposed to at least.
Things get more problematic when you’re looking at a monarchy like the one Westeros has. The idea is that a god or gods have chosen the ruler of the kingdom, that only the “right” man is the one who can sit on the Iron Throne. We saw how this cuts out an entire half of the population last week, but this week, we see that it’s a damaging, crushing illusion. It’s very hard to say that Joffrey (who doesn’t appear this week) would be any just god’s choice for a ruler. Instead, the people pulling the strings are people like Tyrion and Varys and Littlefinger, people who take great delight in manipulating the system to get what they want, often not terribly caring about the consequences if it achieves their own ends. But there’s a whole kingdom full of subjects out there, and they might not be so happy with all of this courtly intrigue. A large enough mass of people would be able to sweep Joffrey from the throne and install whomever it wanted.
This was, of course, essentially what happened when Robert’s alliance defeated the Targaryans well before the series began. There, it’s easy to say that the power Robert took was gifted to him by his military might. But as Varys says, if the power lies with the sword, then the man holding the sword has the ultimate power, and if he stops believing in the ruler, the king has nothing to stand on. Joffrey, who’d probably die within five seconds if he was in an actual sword fight, is particularly precarious in this regard. Tyrion—who admits to his distaste for riddles—is slowly realizing that he needs to stabilize things enough that his nephew can rule, but he’s also realizing that his nephew is going to make that difficult, if not impossible.
“What Is Dead May Never Die” is an episode all about the central question of the series: What makes a man fit to rule? At the same time, it engages with the question of where power comes from and what makes people seek it out. In some cases—see: Theon Greyjoy—the pursuit of power arises from having a father who seems to hold you in very low esteem. In some cases—see: Renly Baratheon—the pursuit of power seems almost to be a jaunt, something you can do in between hosting tournaments and having passionate sex with your lover. In some cases—see: Maester Luwin—the search for power extends to the supernatural. In some cases—see: Yoren—power isn’t something sought but is something that’s taken in one terrifying moment you can’t walk back from. And in some cases—see: Craster—power is just something that’s clung to out of sheer bitterness and necessity. Is what Craster’s doing wrong? Yes. But the Night’s Watch needs him more than he needs them, so his cruel little fiefdom continues to exist. It’s easy to be the king when you’re the only one you have to watch out for.
One of the things I’m a bit interested in this season is how the show depicts the ways that this struggle between five kings has impacted the people who are forced to live under them. So far, the series has dealt with this mostly in the abstract. The scenes that we see almost entirely focus on the lords and ladies of Westeros, or on their immediate underlings. We haven’t gotten a good look at how this warring has affected the farmers of the country or the common folk in King’s Landing, say. (I can say without spoiling that this particular line of inquiry is one of the dominant sub-themes of the book, particularly in Tyrion’s storyline.) This episode doesn’t rectify that, exactly, but it at least raises the question: What happens when everybody starts to realize the ruler isn’t worth the crown on his head?
Of course, there’s plenty of other stuff going on around the edges. Arya gets taken by the Lannister men who have been after Gendry all this time. (She convinces them that Lommy is the one they were looking for—thanks to the fortuitous positioning of that bull’s helmet.) Of course, she’s grabbed after she attempts to race away, and after she frees the three prisoners who were forced to ride in the back of that caged wagon. At the same time, Jon and the rest of the Night’s Watch head off from Craster’s and into the further wilds of the North, while Catelyn shows up at Renly’s camp to attempt to barter for peace between Renly and Robb. Instead, she meets a bunch of new characters and gets essentially nowhere. Renly’s not going to give up this war without a fight that he can smirk over. (I should say that I like Renly. Indeed, I think if I were forced to “choose” one of these kings to rule over me, I’d be sorely tempted by him. Definitely either him or Robb.) Oh, and Shae ends up working as Sansa’s handmaiden, in a solid scene that gives us a good sense of just how being trapped by the Lannisters is slowly but surely making Sansa something of a basketcase. (More on this in a bit.)
This is actually a more streamlined hour than some of the previous ones. The series comes up with some incredibly fun ways to adapt portions of the book that might have been a little ponderous if adapted as written. My favorite here is the scene where Tyrion tells Pycelle, Varys, and Littlefinger three different stories, to figure out which of them is leaking information to the queen. (It’s old Pycelle, who gets his beard chopped off for his troubles.) In the books, this was presented in essentially straightforward fashion. You could follow what Tyrion was doing, but the story spent a lot more time setting up the trap than it needed. Here, the episode cuts this all together as one big montage. Tyrion tells Pycelle one thing, then we see the next deception, and then the final one. It’s done in a matter of minutes, and it masterfully shows off Tyrion’s plan with economy and plenty of entertaining moments. It’s just terrific adaptation, and it shows that the series isn’t afraid to take what’s on the page and tweak it just enough to make it more cinematic. (This episode also has a fair amount of embellishment, about which more in the spoilers section.)
But as good as the storytelling is, I’m much more impressed by this season’s interest in sinking its teeth into the meaty themes that have been set up so far. The question of where power comes from is a good one for this series to work with, and I love that the characters are all grappling with this themselves. Our two newest additions to the cast—Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell (she’s the one married to Renly who also knows he’s gay) and Gwendoline Christie as Brienne of Tarth (she’s the woman who earns a place in Renly’s King’s Guard)—both circle around this question in different ways. I love how Margaery immediately starts suggesting ways for Renly to make himself even more attractive to the people of Westeros. Why, if she has a son, that will make him seem like the best king for sure, and if he needs her brother to help him get started, she won’t mind. It’s all about the end game with her. Meanwhile, Brienne is another of this season’s women stuck in men’s worlds, though she’s someone who’s able to move slightly better within that world than, say, Cersei, because she’s so good with a sword. Renly’s delight in enjoyable japes means she gets the job she wants, and it’s just nice to see someone get something they want.
And then we come to the Sansa and Shae scene. It’s a fairly large departure from the book, but I like the way that it lays out just how someone like Sansa would see someone like Shae. It’s a nice reminder that in the world of Westeros, nearly all of us would be unfortunate peasants or servants, craning our necks for a glimpse of a king we just might despise. Sansa’s been set up to us as a roughly sympathetic figure—a little girl with fantasies of becoming a princess who had those fantasies destroyed in the most horrific way possible. Yet when she’s around Shae, she treats the girl like she would any other maid: brusquely and without any real sense of caring. Of course, if you’ve grown accustomed to living in a position of power, you’ll expect everybody to show you the proper deference. What the series is asking is what happens when the cracks begin to show and everybody realizes you’ve been bluffing all along.
- I’d really like to get into all of this craziness back at Castle Greyjoy, but, man, everybody there just seems like a particularly unpleasant human being. I get that the show attempts to paint Theon in a better light by having him write that letter to Robb that he immediately burns, but this is just a singularly awful collection of folks.
- It’s been a while since we saw Robb (and Jaime, who’s most likely still with him). For that matter, this is an episode that lots of the regulars sit out, in favor of cutting budget, I imagine. It certainly doesn’t lack for sweep, even if it’s a more intimate hour of the show.
- Peter Dinklage is once again in fine form, but the line of the night does not belong to him, alas. That would go to our Clansman from the mountains with, “There are no goats, half-man!”
- The idea that Jon would follow Craster out into the woods, then get beaned by the guy was a fairly significant departure from the text. The writers quickly shuffle this back off to the side again, and it sort of has the effect of weakening Craster’s threats, I think.
- I really like when Littlefinger comes to Tyrion to accuse him of dicking Littlefinger around. Ah, Littlefinger. You can dish it out, but you sure can’t take it.
- Bran’s still having those dreams of being a wolf. The scene where Luwin tells him to set these things aside, ever so gently, is one of my favorites. It also makes me think a Luwin ‘N’ Hodor spinoff could be a lot of fun. Luwin ‘N’ Hodor: Supernatural Detectives, perhaps?
- The story Yoren tells is really quite nice, and I should have recognized it as a sign that his time on the series was done. So long, Yoren! We’ll see you… well, I don’t know when. But I’m sure we’ll see you on some other series or PBS thing. Good luck!
Here be spoilers!:
- Brienne and Margaery are, of course, quite major characters, who will be with us well into the future of the series. Brienne, in particular, is a fan favorite, and I’m more than excited to watch her have her adventures with Cat. And I'm pleased to see the always enjoyable Natalie Dormer as Margaery.
- Arya’s little deception at the end clears up something that always bugged me about the book: Why do the Lannisters just seem to give up looking for Gendry there for a while? I’m sure it’s something that’s explained, but I like the explanation the series comes up with much better.
- The Arya storyline also gives us the event that will land her the gratitude of Jaqen, and I would be lying if I said I wasn’t incredibly excited to see this play out. That said, it’s one of the more obvious examples of the show scaling down to trim budget. In the book, that’s a massive battle at a castle, then Arya’s on the run with Gendry, Lommy, Hot Pie, and Weasel (who doesn’t appear to be in the series) for a while, and then she’s captured. I like the streamlining fairly well, actually, because who wanted to see an episode or two of Arya wandering around the wilds of Westeros?