Before you read this post, make sure the kids aren’t getting up to any mischief, get a plate of horse jerky, then settle in to watch last night’s episode of Game of Thrones:
The pilot episode of Game of Thrones set up a lot of background, characters and situations, but it also organized itself around three core stories in which characters—Ned, Jon and Daenerys—made life-changing choices (or in Dany’s case, had the choice made for her). Ned agreed to become the Hand of the King; Jon followed through on his decision to join the Night’s Watch on the Wall; and Dany was married off to Khal Drogo. In “The Kingsroad,” each sets off on a journey, along a long road. And each finds hims or herself confronting what the hell he or she has gotten into.
The dangers of the choice Ned made were foreshadowed and apparent to him: he was not ignorant that Robert’s in-laws, the Lannisters, are a shady and dangerous family. But it’s on the Kingsroad that he confronts the extent to which his new companions (and maybe future in-laws) are not simply untrustworthy but petty, dishonest and needlessly cruel.
Those worst traits seem embodied together in crown prince Joffrey, who demonstrates what a bad seed he is in a compellingly unsettling scene, in which his oily wooing of Sansa become the casual torture of the butcher’s boy (practicing sword-sparring with Arya by the river), which in turn becomes a murderous rage (“I’ll gut you, you little cunt!”) when first Arya, then Arya’s direwolf, strike back against him, something he’s unused to. The way the situation deteriorates is expertly, excruciatingly handled, and in a few strokes characterizes Joffrey, Sansa and Arya (and sketches the dynamics between the two sisters).
If the river-fight scene was tough to take, however, in a way the bloodless “trial” before Cersei and Robert was even more awful, revealing and excellent. The setup mainly confirms the worst we’ve suspected of Joffrey and Cersei (particularly in her demand that Sansa’s direwolf, Lady, be sacrificed though innocent). But the scene is even more telling about Robert, caught between his friend and his obligations to wife and children. You suspect, watching the scene, that Robert knows Joffrey is lying, but he reacts with irritation and disgust at being put on the spot. (He lets his contempt for Joffrey slip out: “You let that little girl disarm you?”)
But ultimately, Robert wants to be shut of the he-said-she-said, and sentencing Lady is the easiest way to do it. Sean Bean shows Ned’s horror at the decision, not, I suspect, just because it means killing his daughter’s pet (and symbolically killing one of his own, the direwolf being his house’s symbol). He also, it seems, is coming to recognize the situation he’s stepped into as Hand: the Lannisters are cunning and seemingly inhuman, and while Robert may be his friend, he is also, in some deep moral way, weak. (A weakness also shown by his eagerness to order assassination on Daenerys overseas.)
It is a clash of the straightforward ways of the Stark clan and the hard-to-navigate ways of the Baratheon-Lannisters. The Starks believe in carrying out their own executions when needed; the royal family have a retinue of employees to distance themselves from that deed, from the horrific, mute King’s Justice to the Hound, who—horrifically—jests about running the butcher’s boy down: “He ran. But not very fast.” And in the end, a direwolf dies.
The root of the fight, of course, is Arya’s sword, a parting gift from Jon, the bastard who is leaving because he has no prospects with no legitimate inheritance. In “The Kingsroad,” he discovers the other sorts of men who are seeking a new life on The Wall: rapists and sundry other criminals. He’s sharing the road, for a short time, with Tyrion, who makes little secret of his scorn for The Night’s Watch, swearing their lives to guard against “snarks and grumkins.” But he also offers Jon some advice, from another noble’s son with few conventional prospects: “I must do my part for the honor of my house, wouldn’t you agree? But how? Well, my brother has a sword and I have my mind, and a mind needs books like a sword needs a whetstone.”
Dany, meanwhile, is suffering the hardships of the trail with the Dothraki, and confronting the reality of what her brother has sold her into. This storyline, as I suspected, was the most controversial last week, and at least some of that centered on Dany and Drogo’s wedding night. I’ve said I won’t dwell too much on the comparing the books and the series, but this is one place where it’s relevant: in the books, Dany and Drogo’s first night starts trepidatious but turns much more consensual.
I don’t know why the producers changed this among all details, but I have a guess. Yes, the wedding-night rape was hard to take, but this sort of arranged-marriage was essentially a rape bargain. To have Drogo immediately prove a caring lover for Dany would have been easier on the audience’s sensibilities, but it might have rung more false and offensive in its way—as if we were being shown that the arranged pairing was not so bad after all.
Instead, Dany is in the situation of being both a queen and chattel. She can’t erase the deal, but she can try to gain control and agency in the situation—in the ways that are realistically available to her. Her sexual education with her handmaiden has been criticized by some reviewers for Dany’s wanting to “please” the man who had taken her against her will. I found the scene a bit cheesy and soft-core porny, but I read the essential dynamic differently: Dany is not responding to the idea of pleasing Drogo for its own sake, but to her former-prostitute handmaid’s stories of the power of sex in a relationship. She’s asking not just how to pleasure Drogo but how to be the proactive, commanding one–the khalessi–in the tent. The sex scene, then, is only secondarily about exciting Drogo by offering him something besides “the Dothraki way”; it has everything to do with Dany looking for a way, literally, to be on top.
One choice, at least, goes well, in a relative sense: Catelyn, having chosen to stay behind to watch over Bran—who survived his fall, but evidently paralyzed—is able to fight off his would-be murderer. It’s also a complication, and an escalation—since it does not take much prodding for her to connect the deed to the Lannisters—but Bran wakes. And, at least in this go-round, the direwolf wins.