Tuned In

Game of Thrones Watch: The Game Is the Game (of Thrones)

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HBO
HBO

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!

9 comments
ohheh
ohheh like.author.displayName 1 Like

Not to get too Semiotic; but when I saw Ros in the final scene I thought of nothing so much as traditional images of St. Sebastian- martyred full of arrows. I'm not sure what that could mean exactly - although he did miraculously survive his (first) execution...

anon76
anon76 like.author.displayName 1 Like

 "* 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."

And I would have thought that nothing regarding Joffrey in the show would bother me at this point, but that single shot was lingeringly disturbing, and unfortunately the most persistent image in my mind from last night's episode.  Given the specificity of Littlefinger's threat to Ros from last season, are we meant to believe that Joffrey has done this before with Petyr's other 'bad investments'?  That would certainly retroactively add another layer of danger to the scenes from last season where Joffrey was threatening Sansa with his crossbow.

But mainly, poor, poor Ros.  I also thought that she'd stick around as a narrative device, and I feel that I am one of the few book readers who actually liked her character.  But perhaps D & D see the strength of characters of their own creation as being that book knowledge does not help us foresee their deaths- it's one of the few things they can do to truly surprise us without completely re-writing story lines.


tempest729
tempest729

The Theon scene being back to back with the Jamie scene provided some very strong, and seemingly deliberate, visual clues as to what is going on with Theon.  Combine that with guessing game and it's pretty easy to figure out where he is and who is torturing him.  

Side note, lots of awesome one liners this week:

'The Lysa Arryn of chairs'   'overplayed your.... position'    

and that chilling exchange between Arya and Melisandre

widtap
widtap

A few readers may disagree with me, but I find the Theon scenes poorly written. Mostly they seem an excuse for gratuitous torture. Not one advances plot, and frankly we have been at the same place on Theon character development for weeks now.  Theon is sure to come out of this traumatized and messed up for life, but it sometimes seems like we will see essentially the same scene each episode for a couple of seasons before he gets there.

geoff.clarke
geoff.clarke

I'm starting to wonder about the purpose of Olenna - She talks a good game, but at the end of the meeting she just agrees to whatever is proposed. 

Also, while I understand that there are pretty much ten story arcs at once, the Bran and Jamie arcs moved forward so imperceptibly this episode that I'm starting to doubt the need to check in on six or seven characters each hour.

anon76
anon76

@geoff.clarke 

She doesn't have a strong hand to play.  Her trump card is the (widely believed) knowledge of Jaime and Cersei's incestuous infidelity.  However, if she plays that card, she undoes the justification for her granddaughter becoming Queen.  She pushes Tywin as far as she can, and she shows that she's willing to push further if the Lannisters ever try to cut the Tyrells out of power.  That's all she can really do- Tywin has all of the power at this point, he knows it, and he's absolutely ruthless enough to do whatever it takes to maintain said power.

suddendepth
suddendepth

@geoff.clarke She's two things: old money, and a matriarch. She's there to show that a woman can run things to a similar degree as Tywin Lannister without having to don armor, pee standing up, act docile like Sansa, etc. We should see other examples of empowered Westerosi women when we get to visit Dorne.

EllaHubber
EllaHubber

@geoff.clarke I do wonder about why they check in on Bran so often when even in the books he is the least frequented main POV character- they could easily keep just show his story every three episodes. However, though Jaime didn't actually progress in his journey I still think his scene was relevant- he's back to being coherent and relatively healthy, we need to see where he stands now, especially with Brienne. That little movement with stopping her from lashing out at Roose is telling. Roose is a pretty interesting character to have a glimpse of too. They didn't show Dany which shows restraint in not having characters there just for the sake of it, considering what a massively popular figure she is. 

As for Olenna... I guess you haven't read the books. Even without what a key part I know he character will play in the future  I still believe she has had "purpose" thus far. However, asking Olenna's purpose in Game of Thrones is like asking ANY characters purpose when it seems that perhaps only four of them seem to be moving anywhere at all. It's a struggle for power and Olenna is just one of the many characters that serves to show that. 

CareyWilson
CareyWilson

@EllaHubber @geoff.clarke 


In my opinion, they check in with Bran so much because he is in touch with the "mystical" side of things and adds a layer of super natural to the story with his dreams and warging skills. What he will do at the wall, we will have to wait to see. 


Plus it is good to know that Ned's kids are still safe.