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Game of Thrones Watch: The Quality of Mercy

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SPOILER ALERT: Before you read this post, invite your father’s bannermen over and watch last night’s Game of Thrones.

“The Pointy End” is the first episode of Game of Thrones (and the only one this season) written by George R. R. Martin, author of the A Song of Ice and Fire source novels. In that saga, Martin responds to several traditional themes and moral messages of myths and fantasy novels, questioning and complicating them. One of those surfaces again and again in “The Pointy End,” which, besides bringing us to the verge of war between the Lannisters and the Starks, asks: is mercy always the best policy?

In traditional fantasy, the answer is an unqualified yes. It’s a running thread of The Lord of the Rings, especially as played out in the relationship between hero Frodo and miserable antagonist Gollum. Gollum (born Smeagol) was once, like Frodo, a bearer of the Ring, but he became twisted and mad from its power. Early in the saga, Frodo tells the wizard Gandalf that Gollum deserves to die. “He deserves death,” Gandalf says. “And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them?” Later, Frodo has the chance to punish Gollum, but–maybe remembering Gandalf, maybe knowing better the terrible pull of the Ring–he takes pity. Gollum later repays Frodo by attacking him–but in the process, falling into the volcano that destroys the Ring, and thus saving Middle Earth. Frodo loses a finger, but mercy pays off.

Is mercy the best policy in Game of Thrones? No. Yes. Maybe. It depends. We’ll have to see. This is the very mixed answer we get as several of the characters wrestle with whether to show kindness to their enemies, and the consequences of doing so.

It will surprise no one that the Lannisters are not merciful in victory. The episode opens with them consolidating their power in King’s Landing, moving quickly to crush their enemies and reward those who aided them. Ned, meanwhile, is in a dungeon, visited by Varys, who–even if Ned’s folly may have helped him foment the war he wanted–cannot believe Ned was enough of an idiot to warn Cersei of his plans to expose her incestuous relationship with Jaime. Ned did it, he says, to spare the children.

But at what cost? King Robert, the only thing standing between the Lannisters and the throne, is dead. And, says Varys, his end came not from the boar who gored him nor the wine that Varys suspects (perhaps intentionally?) slowed him: “It was your mercy that killed the king.” And now Ned, he says, is a dead man.

Much of our time in Game of Thrones has been taken up with learning backstory: two people in a room, or a tent, or a whorehouse, talking about the past. “The Pointy End” lives insistently in the present, and its story follows the flight of the ravens, as they carry the news of Robert’s death and Ned’s imprisonment.

A raven takes word to Jon, who has other matters to worry about such as the dead coming to life. A raven flies to Winterfell, where Robb has to decide whether to swear loyalty to Joffrey or go to war for his father. He makes his decision, and one raven flies out to Catelyn and—a stirring image—a flock of them swarm out from Winterfell to command the Starks’ bannermen (lesser, allied houses) to gather to fight for their lord.

Riding south, Robb has to grow into the role of commander quickly, and both the script and Richard Madden show in deft, quick strokes how the crisis focuses him. (This is another case where having a live actor does a better job of showing a transition that seemed more abrupt in the book.) Robb soon has his own decision between punishment and mercy, as a Lannister spy is caught casing the Stark encampment. Robb lets him go, over the objections of his much older captains, saying that his father understands honor, courage–and mercy.

We’ve just seen how well mercy worked out for Ned. But is Robb really behaving the same way? As I wrote last week, one problem with Ned is that he tends to use principle as a crutch, a way to cut through and simplify complex decisions. Maybe Robb too is simply being impractically merciful, out of sheer principle.

But maybe he’s being merciful to a purpose. As a teenage boy leading an army of men who clearly have reservations about him, he has very little time to inspire respect for his leadership. He asserts his power first through force; when the Greatjon threatens to walk out over a slight, Robb’s wolf attacks the older man when he draws on Robb. (After which Robb–mercifully and diplomatically–agrees to ignore the breach.) Here, he pointedly frees the Lannister stooge in a way that shows his decisiveness and authority, and frees him with a the badass line of the night: “Tell Lord Tywin winter is coming for him. 20,000 northerners marching south to find if he really does shit gold.”

Mercy can be gracious or foolhardy–or it can be a way of expressing power. That too is what Daenerys practices this week, as she orders Drogo’s soldiers to stop raping captive women in the conquest of the Lamb Men. The scene advances Dany’s exile story and forces her to face the consequences of her ambition; Drogo attacked this people to sell them into slavery and raise money for an invasion fleet. It also brings full circle the controversial beginning of Dany’s story, in which she was herself sold as sexual chattel in an alliance and raped on her wedding night.

But Dany’s act is more than an effort to spare other women her own experience. It is a mercy, but as Jorah argues, it is in a way a kind of imperialism; she is imposing her Westerosi ethics on a people that do not recognize them. Then again, “imperial” is the mode in which a khalessi operates, and her insistence on sparing the women–leading to a fight between Drogo and his warrior Mago–is not simply an act of empathy or guilt. It is the statement that she is a queen, not simply the khal’s wife, and that she will command as she sees fit, and Emilia Clarke lays down the crucial line beautifully: “I do not have a gentle heart, sir.”

Gentle hearts do not abound in the world of Game of Thrones and, it seems, do not last long very close to a power struggle. Even the Stark children have to learn that this week. Arya is fierce and rebellious, but as we’re reminded when her swordplay with Syrio turned very real, she is still a child; Maisie Williams’ goodbye to the outmatched dancing master, with a callback to the Braavosi response to Death–“Not today”–choked me up. But almost as sad in its own way was her escape, when she drew Needle on the boy trying to capture her for a reward and learned, inadvertently, what the “pointy end” really does.

The only recourse for gentleness is this King’s Landing is on its knees, which is where Sansa finds herself at the end of the episode, pleading for her father’s life. Snotty, shallow Sansa has not been the most sympathetic character, but there is something heartbreaking about her being torn between her family and the Lannisters, between her queenly dreams and dawning reality, between her fantasy of a royal romance and the realization, which you can almost see her physically fight against, that she’s marrying into a nightmare. Ned’s last hope now is mercy–the Lannisters’.

Now the hail of arrows:

* Being bought off is not exactly mercy, perhaps, but it is again a marvel to see Tyrion save his life with the Hill Tribes with nothing more than his quick wit and tongue. (Well, that and his father’s money.)

* The Wall storyline was again a bit detached from the themes and action of the rest of the episode, but I like how the series has kept it in motion, reminding us that while the rest of the characters fight over a throne, there’s a bigger fight going on in the background. And Jon’s run-in with the lurching wight was, so to speak, chilling.

* “Here we have Bronn, son of…” “You wouldn’t know him.”

* Which was more thrilling: seeing Syrio take out a half-dozen of Cersei’s henchmen with a wooden sword, or Barristan refusing to do the same with a real sword after the queen pink-slipped him?

* Rickon speaks! I’m not entirely sure what the very brief scene between he and Bran accomplished, but it did at least remind us that the youngest Stark exists.

* I love that the name of each Hill Tribe would work equally well or better as the name of a motorcycle gang.

The usual request regarding spoilers in the comments, for those of you who have read the books: no reference to events or revelations that have not yet occurred in the series. Thanks.

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