SPOILER ALERT: Before you read this post, pay the iron price for HBO–or maybe just go visit a friend who has a subscription–and watch last night’s Game of Thrones.
“I’m not Ned Stark. I understand the way this game is played.”
The first season of Game of Thrones demonstrated, to the chagrin of Headless Ned, that it is not necessarily honorable men who win out. The second season, at least as “The Night Lands” suggests, is showing that it sometimes takes a dishonorable man to get the job done, and that payback does not necessarily come from upstanding actors or for entirely high-minded reasons.
So it is, for instance, that King Stannis is staking his legally ironclad claim to legitimacy on the support of a smuggler, a pirate and a scary religious prophetess. And Ned gets vengeance, of a sort, through the actions of Tyrion, acting not out of some sense of justice but the desire not to end up like Ned.
Thus we’re treated to the spectacle of Peter Dinklage strutting through the opulent, dirty halls of King’s Landing like it was built for him, informing one player after another that he’s no patsy. There’s Varys, the spymaster, whose veiled threats (no one can veil a threat like he) to expose Shae Tyrion answers with an unveiled one. There’s Janos Slynt, whom Tyrion ships off to The Wall–replacing him with his own bought man Bronn–not necessarily as punishment but because he knows Slynt would as gladly relieve him of his own head if it suited Cersei.
And there’s Cersei herself, whom Tyrion warns that she and Joffrey are endangering their reign with such poor public-relations moves as murdering babies in broad daylight. King’s Landing, as this season is intriguingly starting to suggest, is a force in itself, not owned by any ruling family but borrowed by them, and it cannot be provoked with impunity: if the people aren’t kept happy and provided for come winter, they’ll revolt, he says, “and your gold-plated thugs just gave them their rallying cry.”
It’s kind of a remarkable confrontation between Tyrion and Cersei, in part because she doesn’t present as an utter monster. Oh, she does terrible things, or defends them. But she also feels that she’s protecting her family, claiming her birthright, fending for herself with an unsupportive father and a dead mother (who died, she points out, birthing Tyrion). In her way, Cersei is as rigid and even righteous as Ned; she may be craftier and less honorable, but just like him, she believes her moves are justified, and so don’t need to be concealed with artifice.
Whereas Tyrion–without physical stature or a direct claim to rule–is all artifice, needing to secure whatever comes to him by his wits. And he sees his wits as his family’s only hope to keep from losing the Iron Throne as fast as they won it. If that means actually caring about the little people’s welfare and making sure Janos Slynt gets his–so be it! Where Ned Stark spent most of his time doing the wrong thing for the right reasons, this Hand will do the right thing if there’s a self-interested reason.
In the Iron Islands, where Robb dispatches Theon to ask the aid of his long-lost father Balon, they are at least refreshingly honest about where power comes from: not from inheritance or words on a document, but from what you take. This ends up causing a rift between Theon and his father, who is not delighted to see his hostage son returned but disgusted that he’s been softened by the ways of outsiders (such as paying for cloaks rather than killing for them).
Like Stannis, Theon has a claim he expects to be honored by birthright–his status as prince and his father’s love. But in Pyke, a warrior culture built on raiding, everything, including that, is up for grabs, and it’s Yara (Asha in the source books) who is now the favorite child. (Hi, sis! What an, um, touching reunion!) By the end of their encounter, it appears that Theon has in fact persuaded his dad to go to war, but not on the side of the Starks who once defeated him: “Who said anything about the Lannisters?” he asks, making battle plans.
Compare Tyrion’s realpolitik style of ruling, and Balon’s rapacious style, with Stannis, a fearsome-looking king but one whose rigid devotion to the law makes Ned Stark look flexible. If people believe that Joffrey is illegitimate–and it is starting to seem like everyone knows it, if few will say it–then his claim is straightforward. Except nothing is straightforward: his brother Renly has no claim, but, as Stannis says, he has 100,000 soldiers, because people love Renly as they don’t love the tight-ass Stannis.
Stannis, at least, seems to recognize the importance of using proxies to multiply his force. Thus he dispatches Davos (the compelling Liam Cunningham) to recruit pirate Salladhor Saan to his side. And his inflexible devotion to the law evidently does not extend to his marriage vows, as he ends up having a very close war conference with mystical adviser Melisandre, who promises him a son and the aid of the Lord of Light. For all that, it seems as if Stannis believes the throne will come to him because it’s his birthright. “There’s no man in the Seven Kingdoms more honorable than Stannis,” says Davos. That may not necessarily be an endorsement.
Sexposition? We have sexposition! And naturally it comes from one of Game of Thrones’ chief sexpositors, Theon, giving the history of his home islands while rolling in the deep with a sea captain’s daughter. (If memory serves, the scene or a similar one actually appears in the source book, though I am trying to stick to my policy of not going back to re-read and compare.) The scene afterwards in Littlefinger’s whorehouse, on the other hand, doesn’t use a sex scene for exposition, but it does use the sex trade to show us a very chilling side of the self-interested Master of Coin.
New characters: Three pirate cheers for Salladhor Saan! I think there’s something in the nature of epic stories like this–with cruel villains on one side and righteous stiffs like Stannis on the other–that makes pirates seem possibly relatable, looking for nothing more than some gold and a good lay. “I’m not going to rape her,” Salladhor stresses, explaining his dreams of Cersei. “I’m going to fuck her. You don’t know how persuasive I am. I never tried to fuck you.”
Other locales: Winterfell is off our radar this episode, as is Robb’s army, there’s a little advancement in Jon’s rangings beyond the Wall, Arya is making some new friends, and Dany is, well, thirsty.
Direwolves: Still awesome.
Credits: One more location, Pyke, and I love the little clinking into place of the catwalk bridges between the towers.
For readers of the books: Again, I’m purposely not rereading as the series goes on, but it feels with this episode as if the season is starting to diverge from the order of storytelling in the printed narrative. Also, I’m pretty certain that we never saw Stannis take Melisandre atop a war-gaming board in the books, but did the books ever literally depict them having sex, or simply imply it? I’m also curious, because this has come up in conversation with a few readers of the novels, how you feel Theon’s characterization compares; the series seems to make him more directly sympathetic than in the books at this point, but that may be (1) my memory or (2) the effect of his being played by a live actor.
(Here’s my usual request for those who have read the books: you’re welcome to compare what’s happened already on the series, but no referencing plot points or upcoming events–nothing possibly spoilery for the book virgins out there. Thanks.)