SPOILER ALERT: Before you read this post, make your way home past your jeering subjects, and watch last night’s Game of Thrones.
“How can I call myself king if I can’t hold my own castle?” —Robb Stark
The first episode of Game of Thrones featured an execution, and a philosophy. Ned Stark captures a deserter from The Wall, and as Lord of Winterfell, he knows what he has to do. “The man who passes the sentence should swing the sword,” he says, and heavy-heartedly separates the man’s head from his neck with one swift cut.
In “The Old Gods and the New,” which begins in medias res, Winterfell suddenly has a new lord, but one not quite so decisive or capable with the steel. Theon’s takeover is introduced in the midst of chaos, and despite his triumph, the new lord is a bit wobbly.
First, there’s his wake-up call to Bran, in which he has no clear answer to Bran’s question: “Did you hate us the whole time?” (The scene, unfortunately, feels a bit rushed; I’d have liked a stronger sense of shock and betrayal from Bran.) Maybe there is no good answer: the Starks were very good to Theon, in a relative sense, but he’s right that he was their hostage in the end. There’s no real place in the world for Theon, and so he’s trying to create one for himself; so given a choice between the kindness of the Starks and the contempt of his father, he chooses contempt.
That’s not much of a foundation for leadership, though, and Theon’s uncertainty shows. Season one made a point of revealing the weaknesses of Ned’s ultimately fatal moral certainty, but at least it meant that he could make decisions and stick with them. Theon, for whom everything is relative and whose status was always provisional, wavers through his first test of leadership, the defiance of Rodrik Cassel.
His first instinct—his Stark-bred instinct?—is to show a measure of mercy, having the loyalist locked up. Only when one of his underlings says his men will lose respect for him does he sentence Rodrik to death—though that flip-flop itself seems a sign of weakness, underscored by the fact that it takes him several chops and a grotesque kick to get through Cassel’s thick neck. (Poor Theon. He was always better with a bow.) There’s cruelty in Theon, and there’s decency, but there’s not enough Theon inside him to decide which is his true nature and to get mastery of himself.
Much as we saw in the first season, mercy is a complicated thing in Game of Thrones. It’s not always the best move, but it’s also not always the wrong one, as we see when King Joffrey refuses to turn the other cowpie-stained cheek to an unruly crowd after he sees of his sister Myrcella to Dorne–and as a result, finds that his hold on his own castle is almost as tenuous as Robb’s. In the melee, Sansa is nearly raped, the High Septon–essentially the Westerosi pope–is torn limb from limb (Jesus! suddenly it’s The Walking Dead up in here) and Joffrey’s impression of power badly shaken.
It’s this last, practical point that Tyrion tries to impress on his nephew with another, and overdue, Joffrey Slap. (GIF! GIF! GIF!) “We’ve had vicious kings and we’ve had idiot kings,” Tyrion fumes, “but I don’t know if we’ve ever been cursed with a vicious idiot king.” It’s a great scene, in particular for the way Dinklage conveys Tyrion’s exhaustion and frustration at the thankless job of saving his relatives from themselves.
One other character this episode has the choice between using and sparing the sword: Jon Snow, whose speaking up to spare the direwolves in the pilot was a key part of his own characterization. This time, the wisdom of his mercy is a more open question; Ygritte is a charmer but also clearly willing to do and say what she needs to to save herself, and she comes from a harsh life without much room for sentiment. When she pleads with the rangers to burn her companions, it’s not out of religious reasons or respect for the fallen, but because this is a place, thanks to the Walkers, where the dead don’t stay dead. “Burn them,” she says, “or you’ll need those swords again.”
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Your mercy can come back to haunt, as can your decisions to be merciless. But so, as Dany finds at the end of this episode, can the decision to throw yourself at the mercy of another: the Qartheen, it seems, have not taken her in out of the goodness of their hearts but because of the value of her dragons, who appear to have been drag-napped.
“Do you think the path from poverty to wealth is always pure?” Xaro asks her, just before the discovery. And it looks like there’s a corollary to that: the rich, at least in this city, don’t stay that way by being honorable. But have they now woken the dragon?
Now for a brief hail of arrows:
* I want to write more about this someday, but a question: why exactly do we root for Dany? Obviously the series presents her as someone whose struggle we feel and identify with. But every once in a while, as in this episode, she starts talking about her birthright and her long game, and it hits me: here’s a woman who probably wants to kill every other character we’ve come to care about in this story–or, at least, to defeat and subjugate them. She’s under the impression that the people of Westeros burn with desire for her return, when in fact the common folk probably just want to stop dying in the war. And lest we forget, she’s the daughter of a maniacal king whom she believes was wrongly deposed. What part of her reign, exactly, would be an improvement?
* Back at Harrenhal, Arya is forced by her near-outing to use the second of her three complimentary murders from Jaqen. Your hopes for how she uses the third?
* For readers of the books: here we’re seeing all sorts of departures, rearrangements and compressions from the source material–at Robb’s camp, in Harrenhal, in the taking of Winterfell (and Osha’s escape with Bran and Rickon)–and, if memory serves, a big shift in Qarth. You’re invited to discuss, but please remember…
(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.)