SPOILER ALERT: Before you read this post, watch last night’s Game of Thrones, but keep it to yourself. The Queen must never know!
Last week’s episode of Game of Thrones ended with a straight-up cliffhanger, in which Jon Snow discovers the not-too-surprising secret that incestuous father Craster has been disposing of his infant sons (offering them, it turns out, as sacrifices to the Walkers). It leads, in the first scene of “What Is Dead May Never Die,” to the perhaps-somewhat-more-surprising revelation that Mormont knows damn well what Craster is up to.
As the Lord Commander explains to his disillusioned squire, the Night’s Watch–already short-staffed and treated patronizingly by an unhelpful King’s Landing–cannot afford to be choosy as to whom it accepts help from while keeping civilization safe from frozen ghouls. “Wildlings serve crueler gods than you or I,” he says, arguing that the Watch has bigger worries than one useful man’s domestic crimes. It’s not a very satisfying answer, but then again, Jon doesn’t have much of a response.
Game of Thrones has always been a series about power and the way it operates, but this episode–and it seems season 2–is putting a special focus what it means to have and hold power. First, as we see here and in several other storylines, it involves making alliances, often very uncomfortable ones.
And second, returning to a theme we’ve seen earlier, there’s a difference between power and strength: the remarkable parable Varys offers Tyrion, of the king, the priest, the rich man and the sellsword, makes explicit that strength is merely power’s tool. And power is a deftly maintained illusion that commands strength, allowing the likes of a eunuch and a dwarf to exercise influence far beyond their physical abilities.
Power, in other words, is the ability to multiply strength by enlisting others. No man is an island–except, maybe, on the Iron Islands, where that philosophy apparently did not do King Balon much good in the last war. His son Theon now returns with the suggestion that he make an uncomfortable alliance of his own, with Robb Stark, whose father helped Robert Baratheon defeat him.
Balon–harsh and crabbed as the stony kingdom he rules–rejects the idea, seemingly as a way of rejecting Theon, perhaps not just because his son has gone native with the Starks but because Theon reminds him of his own defeat. Which leaves Theon with his own choice: follow Robb, who accepted him as a brother, or try to win back his pitiless father’s acceptance by turning on Robb?
Balon, in a way, is as rigid and unwavering as Ned Stark, even if his values are very different: to him, any advantage he can gain by allying with Robb is outwighed by his culture’s belief that alliances are demeaning and humiliating. It’s the attitude of the provinces, whereas in King’s Landing, alliances–preferably multiple, duplicitous ones–come as naturally to Tyrion as breathing.
The Lannisters’ need for allies forms the basis of his plot to marry off his niece–which, it turns out, is secondary to a plot to find out which of his confidantes in the capital is least trustworthy. (It’s Pycelle, of course.) Yet when Cersei explodes at the idea of sending her young daughter off to Dorne, Tyrion seriously defends the idea: Joffrey has alienated so much of Westeros that their family needs any friends it can get. This doesn’t sit well with Cersei, not just because she’s a protective mother but because she believes, as she told Littlefinger, that “Power is power.” That is, she prefers the direct threat to the subtle subterfuge, and her bother is not exempt: “Ned Stark had a piece of paper too,” she warns.
It’s a much different queen we meet in Renly’s camp, where Catelyn is pursuing another alliance on Robb’s behalf: Margaery, Loras Tyrell’s sister, a girlish-looking young queen who shows herself to be far from naive. She, more lie Tyrion than Cersei, understands that marriages, for royalty, are business, and she unsentimentally tells her husband that she has no problems which team he jousts for so long as they make a baby–the best way, she says, of quieting his enemies.
Maybe the most fascinating alliance introduced in the episode, though, is the pairing of Sansa and Shae, whom Tyrion places as Sansa’s handmaiden to keep her close yet hidden. The Stark daughter is still living as a prisoner, her daily existence horribly gestured at by the casual dinner talk about Joffrey’s killing her brother. They way she receives Shae–haughty, demanding–might normally seem unlikeable but here it’s a kind of triumph: she’s not so broken and beaten down, at least that she can’t expect the prerogatives of a lady.
Shae, meanwhile, may not know much about cleaning chamberpots, but she proves able to handle the situation with confidence, weathering Sansa’s disdain as her mistress pass through anger and near to tears. “Do you want me to leave?” she asks. “Just brush my hair,” Sansa answers. They may just be the allies each of them needs.
Other Storylines: I realize I’ve been giving the Arya-on-the-road story short shrift in these weekly writeups, partly because its stories have not happened to mesh neatly with the themes I’ve been writing about, but I don’t want to underestimate its importance. With Ned out of the picture, there are a lot of interesting characters in Game of Thrones, and Tyrion makes a fascinating antihero. But the audience can also use someone to root for without qualification, and that’s where Arya comes in; her conversation with Yoren about revenge–just before his own death, giving her more cause for vengeance–is fantastic, and Maisie Williams does a fine job showing that, hardened as she may be, Arya is still a child processing the terrible things she’s seen.
Sexposition Level: There’s a mildly sexpository Renly-Loras scene, but one that also serves a plot purpose, coupled with Margaery’s pragmatic willingness to share the king with her brother (whom she even volunteers as a fluffer).
Critter Watch: No Dany, and thus no dragons, but there’s a fascinating scene with Bran and his maester, in which the young Stark suggests that his dreams are becoming something more than vaguely prophetic–he seems to actually become his direwolf in them, hunting and tasting blood. The maester–returning to the theme of Westeros as a post-magical world–says that he has studied “higher” phenomena in his training, but that all expert authority now knows that such magic is gone from the world. And we’ve never seen a maester be wrong about anything, have we?
For Readers of the Books: And we have Brienne! Physically, she’s more plain than unattractive–in the books she gets the insulting nickname “Brienne the Beauty”–and in fact looks rather noble and striking in a suit of armor. But besides the usual adjustment (wherein most characters, like Tyrion, will natually be more attractive on television than in a book), I like the idea that Brienne (Gwendoline Christie) is not homely, but rather is seen that way in a culture where ladies are not supposed to fight in melees. Thoughts on the casting, or any other adaptations this week?
(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.)