Spoilers for last night’s Game of Thrones follow:
“Some are given a chance to climb but they refuse: they cling to the Realm, or the Gods, or love. Illusions. Only the ladder is real. The climb is all there is.”
Has Game of Thrones gradually become The Wire, or has it been all along? (I am not, I should note, the first to notice a resemblance.) The two HBO series share one major cast member—Aiden Gillen, who was Mayor Carcetti in Baltimore and Littlefinger in Westeros—and a general concern with politics, ideologies, and systems. But it was at the end of “The Climb” that Gillen underlined what were some of the most Wire-like themes in an episode of GoT yet: the destructive powers of ambition, and the tension between the individual and group loyalty—if loyalty exists at all.
What does all that, amid a battle for a throne and a climb up a 700-foot ice wall, have to do with the drug war in Baltimore? The great, dark story of The Wire was that individuals, again and again, are used up and consumed by the systems that they’re part of, be it City Hall or a gang, whether the reason is the law or The Game. People like Bodie and Wallace get used up to fuel the eternal continuation of the system, and the prize for loyalty is that you’re the first to get sacrificed.
Littlefinger’s soliloquy at the end of “The Climb” explains his worldview and raw lust for power, but it also amounts to a cynical take on the same theme: that you had better look out for yourself in this world, because no one is going to look out for you. Varys’ defense, that he undertakes his machinations “for the good of The Realm,” is laughable to him. The Realm, Littlefinger says, is “a story that we agree to tell each other over and over until we forget that it’s a lie.”
It’s an opiate for suckers, he’s saying; it keeps people in line in service of powers that have no interest in the welfare of their servants. There is no safety in defending the status quo, he argues, only in continuing to advance and get more powerful. (Really, it’s a restatement of Cersei’s quote, which gives the series its title: you don’t play for a stalemate in the game of thrones, “you win or you die.”) To try to stay secure in place is a folly: you keep climbing and—as Ros’ horrible fate in trade to Joffrey shows us—you don’t worry about whose head you leave footprints on.
Littlefinger’s speech makes figurative use of the literal climb that Jon, Ygritte and company take up The Wall, the major action sequence of a largely talky episode. That story brackets the episode Ygritte’s own version of Littlefinger’s theme about individuals and organizations: that ideologies and tribes are not worth sacrificing yourself for.
“You’re loyal and you’re brave,” she tells Jon, guessing (correctly) that he still has allegiance to the Night’s Watch. “But I’m your woman now. You’re going to be loyal to your woman. The Night’s Watch don’t care if you live or die. Mance Rayder don’t care if I live or die. … It’s you and me that matters to me and you.”
Put another way, the list of people who will not cut you loose down an ice wall to save their own asses is a very short one indeed.
In one sense, her wildling philosophy is the same as Littlefinger’s: don’t put too much stock in The Realm, or The King Beyond the Wall, or any other cause or creed, or you’re volunteering yourself to be crushed within the gears of history. But there’s an important difference; unlike Littlefinger, she does see a value in loyalty, but to the people you love—people in the sense of individuals, not historical or ethnic abstracts.
Ygritte’s life has made her hard, yet not so callous as Littlefinger. Maybe, going about his business in warm, prosperous King’s Landing, he can afford to be colder. She, raised in the far North, sees the importance of choosing someone to fight for survival with, to warm and to be warmed by. Which makes her episode-closing kiss with Jon, standing at the freezing top of the world, more than just a romantic ending; it’s a rebuttal to Littlefinger’s solution, a survival strategy in a giant and harsh world.
The suggestion that love just might offer a way out for two people caught between warring systems is more hopeful than most of what The Wire ever offered; this is a fantasy epic, after all.
But we get little more than a taste of sweetness and romance; various other storylines in “The Climb” hit, again and again, on the idea of individuals being used by, and sacrificed for, the needs of larger organizations. Like many episodes of Game of Thrones, this one unfolds mostly in the form of a series of conversations—and here, many of them involve two people negotiating over the fate of a third. Robb agrees to marry off Edmure in payment of his sins. Tywin and Olenna haggle and trade threats over the marriage of their heirs. Jaime negotiates with Bolton over his freedom, possibly at the expense of selling out Brienne. Tyrion (off-camera) breaks the news to Sansa (and thus Shae) that the Stark daughter will have to marry him and not Loras, and thus be trapped in King’s Landing the rest of her life.
Maybe most chilling of all is the deal Beric and Thoros strike with Melisandre, who (apparently) wants Gendry to serve as a fire-sacrifice to The Lord of Light. The lord needs his king’s blood, the Brotherhood needs money, and all involved in the deal—except the guy being dealt—believe they are acting in the name of necessity and good. Trust Arya to be the one who calls b.s. on Beric’s rationalization that his god needs Gendry: “Did the Lord of Light tell you that,” Arya sneers, “or did she?”
Like Ygritte, Arya is becoming aware that Brotherhoods, and religions, and other sundry tribes, can be no better than organized excuses to hurt people, even if there are good intentions behind them. But also like Ygritte, she offers at least the possibility that there is an alternative to Littlefinger’s worldview—that you can recognize the same hard truths without becoming hard, selfish, callous. It’s not an easy for Arya; she has become hardened and embittered by experience, and maintaining empathy is a struggle for her. And yet here she is, in the words of The Wire, giving a fuck when it ain’t her turn to give a fuck.
As for Melisandre, she simply offers Gendry a consolation: “You will make kings rise and fall.”
And, hey, what better fate could little people like us want, than to be burned alive so some uptight dude with a personal witch can become king? In Westeros, as in our own world, gods will use you, and kings and queens use you, and your brothers use you. Leaders and monarchs, as we’ve seen in this series, don’t care much about the shock troops they send into battle and—as the Night’s Watch has seen—they don’t even care much about the responsibility of, say, protecting the people from an undead invasion, if it gets in the way of their struggles for power and riches.
Ask Sansa, ask Gendry, ask Ros. The game is the game.
Now for the hail of crossbow bolts:
* What the Hell Is Going on With Theon? update, week six: nope, still no idea—but I do like how this episode played off the idea that we, and he, have no idea. And the possibility that he may be in the hands of an even greater psychopath than Joffrey. Also notable, that Theon’s tormentor now knows that Bran and Rickon are alive: “Wouldn’t that be a hunt?” (Shiver.)
* We have seen various acts of magic scattered about, from different sources, on Game of Thrones: the warlocks of Qarth, the bloodmagic that raises Khal Drogo. But it is pretty notable that some of the most powerful mojo we’ve seen has come courtesy of The Lord of Light. What’s he got that the Seven don’t got?
* Since joining the Night’s Watch, Sam has not proved much practical good at a lot of things. But it turns out he’s a pretty good babysitter!
* I shouldn’t be surprised anyone dies in Game of Thrones, but somehow I thought–since she is Benioff and Weiss’ major original creation, not transposed from the source books–that Ros would be kept alive through the series, as a narrative device if nothing else.
* “Can we not talk about that here? I’m Jon Snow! I’ve killed dead men and Qhorin Halfhand but I’m scared of naked girls!”
* As mentioned above, most of the “action” in this episode, outside The Wall, comes in the form of a series of conversations, but the writers continue to do a deft job of providing a sort of physical drama in the conversations by using well-chosen props–skinning rabbits, snapping a quill.
* Interesting that we got a new credits city, Yunkai, but no actual scenes there, across the Shivering Sea. Tune in next week? (Update: I’m told Yunkai was in last week’s credits as well—either I didn’t see them or didn’t notice because its model looks so much like Astapor. Weird, nonetheless.)
* “Face, tits, balls–I hit ‘em right where I wanted to.” Remind me never to get on the bad side of Arya Stark.
Usual warning for readers of the books: no spoiling upcoming, or possibly upcoming, events and plot points for people who haven’t read them. Thanks!