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There’s been a lot of talk of power on this season of Game Of Thrones, clearly a primary theme for a show that’s centered around the struggle for the crown of Westeros. In the first episode, Petyr haughtily told Cersei that knowledge is power, and she rebuked him with a show of brute force. But it’s becoming clear that he’s more on the right track. Cersei might have the reins in the short term, but we’re watching Tyrion snip those reins away from her, one by one, by being the better operator. But Varys reminds him that simply holding the right cards isn’t going to be enough. “Power resides where men believe it resides,” he says. “It’s a trick, a shadow on the wall.” Tyrion can cast such a shadow, he implies, but it’ll take more than brokering deals with men of influence.
Still, there’s a lot of that going on this week in “What Is Dead May Never Die”—a lot of uneasy alliances, a lot of long-term promises being made to secure help in the present. We finally get our first glimpse of Renly Baratheon since he fled King’s Landing and proclaimed himself king this week, and if anyone lives up to Varys’ idea of casting a big shadow, it’s him. Our introduction to his camp is a scene of two knights fighting, much like the opening of the second season, which saw The Hound beat his opponent to death. The fighting here is much less brutal, much more for show—sure, Loras ends up getting rugby tackled by his opponent (more on her in a second), but there’s no real danger here.
Catelyn, not being particularly tactful in her role as Robb’s emissary, tells Renly that her son is fighting a war, “not playing at one.” Renly pretty much smirks and takes it on the chin, but there’s no doubt he’s taking a different tack in his approach to winning the throne. He’s raised a huge army, both through his personal charm (he’s much more familiar and friendly with his men) and a marriage to Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer) that has allied his house to hers. Catelyn is her predictable dour self, muttering that winter is coming (she’s right to be dour, but I’m sure it’s a real buzzkill for Renly), but his real problem is that kings have to make heirs, and marriages have to be consummated, which is tough when you’re gay and in love with your wife’s brother.
The fun twist to this plot is that Margaery Tyrell is obviously not the blushing maiden she appears to be, but an operator just like everyone else—she knows her husband is gay (a fact that shocks him) and is happy to invite Loras into the bedroom if that’ll get things going. It’s a great introduction to her character and a welcome reminder that Game Of Thrones is a show that rarely traffics in clichéd characterization. Margery could just be a cypher, a mostly silent cog in Renly’s plans for dominance, but instead she’s going to be a lot more.
Speaking of strong female characters, we also met the teutonic Brienne (Gwendoline Christie) this week in equally surprising fashion: She’s the giant in a suit of armor who tackles Loras in Renly’s little tournament. We get less of an idea of what’s going on with her—she’s devoted to Renly, and she wants to be in his Kingsguard, that’s about it—but she’s an imposing presence just to look at, and will, I’m sure, be sticking around on this show. You don’t get an introduction like that for nothing.
Over in King’s Landing, Tyrion continues his mission of trying to avoid meeting the same fate as Ned by sniffing out who he can trust on the Small Council. Turns out that’s Petyr and Varys, neither of whom leak his plans to marry off Myrcella to Cersei. Can he actually trust them? Probably not (obviously, we know Petyr had a hand in Ned’s betrayal last season). But they’re not directly allied to Cersei either, whereas Pycelle is completely in her pocket, and in Tywin’s—he spills his guts immediately upon being rumbled, saying he betrayed the Mad King, betrayed Ned’s predecessor Jon Arryn (he didn’t poison him, but he let him die), all in the service of the Lannisters. That should be great news for Tyrion, since he’s a Lannister, but he’s not dumb—there’s no familial loyalty between he and Cersei, and barely any with his father (that seems rooted mostly in fear).
Pycelle’s downfall was kinda shocking—even though he’s a pious hypocrite, there was something weirdly upsetting about Tyrion’s men cutting his beard off and bundling him off to jail. Tyrion seemed to have an idea, paying Pycelle’s prostitute with two coins instead of the usual one (which, I assume, is the going rate for coitus interruptus-by-sword in Westeros). Maybe it’s just that Tyrion is the closest thing we have to an audience surrogate, so watching him be so ruthless, while badass, is scary. But there’s no doubt that the ruthlessness is working. Cersei throws a temper tantrum at the idea of Myrcella being married off to Dorne (a part of the world we still don’t know much about, except that wine comes from there) but she obviously can’t stop it from happening.
Tyrion still has a weakness, though, and that’s Shae, who gets assigned as a handmaiden to Sansa in an effort to keep her from getting bored. Poor Sansa is already going through enough shit, and now she has to deal with an incompetent handmaiden, but it’s obvious that Sansa’s haughty lady mode (her default mode in season one) is really just there at this point as protective shielding. The idea of any kind of companion unattached to Joffrey and the Lannisters must be an exciting one for her.
Our final lesson in uneasy alliances, and perhaps the scariest, came at Pyke, where Theon has pretty quickly abandoned his poor adopted brother and resolved to set sail with his father and sister to conquer the unattended north. This is a dickbag move, to be sure—Theon considers writing a letter of warning, but instead burns it. Still, it’s hard not to feel sympathy for Theon, who is very unloved. His bond with Robb always felt a little strained—unlike Jon, Theon always had a whiff of being an outsider. Balon is hardly a model dad, and he’s only giving Theon one ship to fight fishing villages with. As Theon points out, for all of Balon’s tough talk, he surrendered to Robert and gave Theon away to Ned.
Still, it’s a real dilemma for Theon, since he’s a man without a family—rejected by his own father, raised by the Starks, belonging to neither. He’s making the wrong choice by not warning Robb, since that would surely win more trust with the Starks. But throwing his lot in with his father makes sense from an emotional standpoint, and that grim baptism scene (Balon looks on, not proud, but not disgusted either) just reeked of abandonment issues.
This was a segmented episode, without too much flitting from one story to the next, and no appearance by Daenerys at all. It was bookended by the Starks: Jon and the rest of the Watch has to clear out of Craster’s creepy house for his transgressions without any real repercussions, which really begs the question of why we spent three episodes there. Bran tries to convince Maester Luwin that when he dreams he’s a wolf, he really is a wolf, which is getting increasingly obvious to us, but maybe not to him.
Then at the end of the episode, we’re treated to a pair of stunning vignettes: a conversation between Arya and her protector Yoren about dealing with the demons, and a brutal fight scene that sees Yoren dispatched in epic fashion while Arya, Gendry, and the rest are taken away by the Lannisters. Arya and Yoren’s talk is great, very nicely acted by Maisie Williams and Francis Magee (particular props to Magee, since this was his last episode), filled with that hard-edged northern sympathy where Yoren can relate a story about burying an axe in a guy’s head and make it seem like a lovely parable of overcoming loss and closure. Then, the minute the Lannister men arrive, he stands up and bellows, “There’s men out there who want to fuck your corpses!”
His takedown of several bad guys before finally being felled in a group melee was terrific—maybe not as memorable as Syrio knocking down the city watch with just his wooden sword last season, but pretty fucking memorable nonetheless. Game Of Thrones is a show about a lot of things, but one thing it does well when it wants to is gruesome violence, and Yoren’s death is a fine example. Note, though, that even after he’s impaled with a sword and dies, he doesn’t go down—they have to kick his corpse to the ground. Is Arya in worse shape now? No doubt. She’s off to some place called Harrenhal, which according to Petyr is a cursed castle. Sounds fun.
- Theon says the last time he saw Yara, she was a fat little boy. “You were a fat little boy too, but I recognized you.”
- Shae refuses to be a cook. “Every man who has tasted my cooking has told me what a good whore I am.”
- With Pycelle gone, Tyrion will need a new laxative provider. “The stresses of power often have this insalubrious effect.”
- “You think the piece of paper father gave you keeps you safe. Ned Stark had a piece of paper too.” Cersei, you’re so obsessed with pieces of paper!
- “I always hated crossbows. Take too long to load!” Yoren = badass.