SPOILER ALERT: Before you read this post, fix yourself a nice juicy horse snack and watch last night’s Game of Thrones.
“A Golden Crown” was the final episode of Game of Thrones I saw in advance before I reviewed the series. In that review, I quoted a couple of scenes that, for me, captured the essence of Thrones’ attitude toward fantasy, nobility and morality. The first was Robert’s reminiscence of his first kill in battle: “They never tell you how they all shit themselves. They don’t put that part in the songs.”
The second was an exchange from this episode, at the end of trial by combat. Lysa Arryn, outraged at the outcome, scolds Bronn for his street brawling: “You don’t fight with honor!” “No,” Bronn deadpans, indicating the knight he just chucked out the Moon Door. “He did.”
It’s a funny line, but there’s much packed in it. First, there’s another affirmation of Thrones’ pragmatism, which is echoed in the other storylines in the series. Battles go to the best fighter, not the most righteous. It’s not to cynically say that nice guys finish last—I don’t think Thrones is making an argument against morality—but rather that being single-mindedly rigid and tied to formal codes is an encumbrance. The poor knight who dies trying to seal Tyrion’s guilt, fighting in full armor against a lightly guarded man, is a metaphor. He thinks he is protected by his armor; in fact, he is burdened by it.
Second, though, there’s an implied moral complication. Who is Lysa, after all, to complain about someone’s level of honor in what was plainly meant as a show trial, judged by her bloodthirsty (and, ah, milkthirsty) son? This is not an amoral universe or situation—at the heart of it is the attempt to murder a defenseless boy, which is plainly evil. But it is possible that Tyrion is both immoral in general and innocent in the instance; that Catelyn is both right in her desire for retribution and blind in her execution of it; or that the feudal system of justice perpetrates corruption through rules of honor.
The conflict between moral absolutism and flexibility seems to be coming to a head in King’s Landing too, where a recovering Ned takes back his job as the King’s Hand—and, in response to a brutal massacre apparently motivated by Tyrion’s abduction, essentially declares war on the Lannisters.
I can’t imagine what Ned thinks will happen when Robert learns that he has high-Handedly ordered Tywin, the Lannister patriarch, brought to answer for crimes, when Robert would not even take Ned’s side against Jaime though his body language makes clear the king knows whom to believe. (“I’m half a kingdom in debt to his bloody father! I don’t know what happened between you and those yellow-haired shits; I don’t want to know. This is what matters.”)
I’m also not sure that Ned did think, which is not the same as to say he’s stupid, exactly. Rather, he doesn’t seem to consider that he has options: he is left to rule in the king’s place, an injustice has been committed, the law requires one path to justice and he chooses it. This makes his decision easy, but it may make his life, and others’, difficult; as Littlefinger wheedles him to consider discretion, it’s hard to tell if he wants to save Ned from himself, is enjoying the potential drama or both. Ned ends this week discovering what Jon Arryn must have in the end—”the seed is strong,” i.e., Robert cannot be the father of the blond Joffrey, as his genealogical history shows. But has Ned learned how best to use this information?
We see Ned’s decision to seek justice paralleled in his son, Robb, who argues with Theon about striking back at the Lannisters before Bran is nearly abducted. Theon too argues that there is only one acceptable response, hitting back, but Robb is not as ready to accept this as his father—maybe partly because the argument comes from a man whose family rebelled disastrously against the Lannisters.
But Ned is bested this week in the category of making trouble for one’s self through pig-headedness: yes, friends, we must pour out a forty of mead for our dead homie Viserys. As we see in “Golden Crown”—in the scene that gives the episode its ironic title—the story of him and his sister has not just been about power, abuse and sexual barter. It’s about assimilation and flexibility.
Viserys wants to retake power the way he has always been taught it will happen: as a king of Westeros, behaving and treated as such, even if it is with a borrowed Dothraki army. But it is Daenerys, nominally the less powerful of the two, who sees that that is not the way the Targaryens will regain the throne. Precisely because she is not the scion of the family, and has been treated like chattel, she sees that the way to emancipation is by embracing and mastering her circumstance.
The heart-eating scene is highly symbolic to the Dothraki, but it also is to Dany: she is internalizing her adopted culture. She knows that she cannot be a queen on the shoulders of the Dothraki: she has to be a Dothraki queen.
Viserys finally realizes this—hence his attempt to take the dragon eggs and run—but he also knows that he’s incapable of doing it. Not long before his death, he recognizes that he has never known earned respect and devotion as his sister has. “Who can rule without wealth or fear or love? he asks, knowing that he can never expect the latter. (A scene, by the way, of touching self-recognition by Harry Lloyd, who did an outstanding job humanizing a villain.) So he tries to claim power through birthright and a sneering, colonial arrogance, and ends up wearing his final crown.
In King’s Landing, Littlefinger gives Ned a warning that seems to go unheeded: “Gold wins wars, not soldiers.” Across the sea, gold wins out in more ways than one.
Now for the hail of arrows:
* Three-eyed dream crow? I am in.
* As thrilling as any swordfight in this episode was seeing Tyrion defend himself with his tongue. First, there was his terrified, improvised bribery of the guard—loved how you could see his wheels turning on lines like, “You’re a smart man.” And his speech at his “trial” was hilarious, and as deftly fought as the duel that followed it. (And really, Tyrion may have won that duel before the ever got to the Eyrie, by identifying the best swordsman in Catelyn’s entourage and winning him over with sly talk and hints of gold.
* As for the fight itself, I loved the choreography, and the intercut reaction shots as the fight’s direction had to show itself. Also, the nice, ironic touch in which the “dishonorable” Bronn holds his sword and looks to see if he can spare the knight and be declared the winner, to the boos of the onlookers. (Was I the only one who got a flashback to the ugly brawl in Deadwood’s “A Two-Headed Beast,” where Dan Dority held off killing Hearst’s man until getting the nod from Al Swearengen? I was? All right, carry on.)
* Speaking of swordfighting, I recognize that Syrio is Thrones’ corniest character, and your enjoyment of him depends on your willingness to embrace that. But I’m thoroughly loving his training scenes, and lines such as “There is only one god, and his name is Death. And there is only one thing we say to Death: not today.” It’s a slick line, maybe a little glib, but also—coming from a swordsman trained across the Narrow Sea—one of Thrones’ little intimations that there is a bigger world far beyond Westeros, with many different worldviews and mythologies.
* The hunting trip: I was a little ambivalent when I saw the first scene between Renly and Loras in the previous episode. Making their relationship explicit, and giving them a scene together, fleshed out two characters I found fairly forgettable in the book, but focusing it on sex and manscaping threatened to typecast them as medieval queens. I got that feeling at first too when Robert taunted Renly about his “balls and masquerades,” but as the scene played out, it contributed to my understanding of both men. Renly’s lack of bloodlust doesn’t make him a sissy; he has a different philosophy of ruling and glory, and gets to call out Robert on his constant war-story nostalgia. Meanwhile Robert, often the amusing boor, seems like a much uglier sort of bully with his brother, taunting him and embarrassing all present with his talk about “making the eight”? (His putting Renly on the spot about his sexual conquests, by the way, makes me wonder if Robert doesn’t know or suspect Renly is gay, and is using it to torture him?)
* Oh, speaking of family: I don’t want to invite spoilers from the books (as far as I recall, it was not addressed), but wouldn’t you think that—if no Baratheon has ever sired anything but black-haired babies—having a household full of blond kids would have raised Robert’s eyebrows at some point? (Or Renly’s, for that matter?)
* Dany eating the horse heart? WORST. SURVIVOR CHALLENGE. EVER.
Extra spoiler guidelines this week! In addition to my usual request to those who have read the books—no discussing anything not covered or revealed yet in the series—those of you who have HBO Go and were able to watch episode 7 in advance need to sit on that info for another week. Thanks.