Spoilers for last night’s Game of Thrones below:
Davos is a lowborn smuggler, but partly because of that, he has something that counts as a luxury in the world of Game of Thrones: the freedom to love his children, and worry about them–and sadly, in his case, mourn them–as his children, not as assets or bargaining pieces. It is Davos, who lost a son, who is able to talk Stannis out of sacrificing his own blood (in the form of Gendry’s blood) in the interests of power and of his royal house. And it makes him one of the few moral lights of “Second Sons,” an episode very much about heredity and power, bad parents and traded-away children.
A bit of trivia about that title. The Second Sons, in this episode, are the mercenary company under contract to Yunkai. The Second Sons are in the original source novels, but Benioff and Weiss have done a little rejiggering here—in the books, Daario (the mercenary who crosses over to Dany) is a member of a different sellsword group, the Stormcrows. (I won’t go into the details of the switch here, and I ask fellow book-readers not to do so in the comments either.) I don’t know if they did it intentionally for thematic reasons, but the name change and title brought together the circumstances of many of the characters in this episode.
What is a second son, after all? He’s not the heir. He’s the spare. He might try to jump himself up, but as Renly Baratheon discovered, that’s frowned upon. He might—and one wonders if this is where the name comes from—go out and make his fortune in a mercenary company.
Or he might, like Tyrion, find himself married off unwillingly to an unwilling bride, while his father dismisses his accomplishments and his douchebag nephew takes away his stool and sniggers. As played by Peter Dinklage, Tyrion has been a delight for his swagger and wordplay. But Dinklage is excellent here in showing his cleverness fail him, as is Sophie Turner as Sansa, the other and even less powerful partner in this royal-breeding arrangement.
Sansa’s growth, from naive girl to wary but not wholly broken prisoner, has been something to watch, all the more so because Turner so often has to communicate Sansa’ feelings through what she doesn’t say. In the grand scheme, as she’s admitted herself, she’s luckier than Margaery not to be marrying Joffrey (though she’s not free of his unwelcome attentions). But Tyrion is hardly her type himself, and letting him know that–”What if I never want you to?”–is the one measure of independence she’s still allowed.
In any case, she’s hardly the only pawn being shuffled around on Tywin Lannister’s unsentimental genetic chessboard. As Olenna comically tries to explain to her grandchildren, there are some complex relationships being drawn here–”your brother will become your father-in-law, that much is beyond dispute”–but of course, you can look at a European royal family tree to see how common that sort of thing is.
What’s distinctive about Tywin is the brutal way he goes about his arrangements, and the way Game of Thrones suggests his viciousness—and the Lannisters’ historically, if you believe “The Rains of Castamere”—has poisoned his family. Tywin treats his children as commodities (and others’ children as even less). And while that may ever be the way of feudal monarchies, you can’t help but feel that there’s a direct line between Tywin’s cruel patriarchy and the sadism of Joffrey; much as Tywin disdains the boy, in his way he helped to make him. His children, and their children, have an ugly idea of human interrelations, having never been treated as more than gene-pool fodder themselves. Weirdly, Jaime and Cersei’s relationship–incestuous and murderous though it is—is arguably the healthiest, least corrupted, and most loving in the family.
It’s a cruel world for second sons–and third sons, and daughters–but that doesn’t have to mean they become cruel. I’ll admit, I rolled my eyes when Sam and Gilly suddenly wandered on screen at the end of the episode–I realized this had to be leading somewhere, but their scenes the entire season have felt randomly dropped into episodes.
But here, suddenly, their pairing made sense, and so did their placement in the episode. They’re near-strangers; he’s a soft-handed noble from the far south and she’s a toughened commoner from the north. But they’ve both the children of horrible fathers—Gilly’s “a different manner of cruel,” as Craster raped his daughters and gave their infant sons to the Walkers, literally giving away the future for his safety and satiety in the present. Sam, too, is the child of a murderous Dad, who was ready to have his fat, disappointing son killed if he did not renounce his inheritance and join the Night’s Watch. This comes back to him when Gilly remarks that Randyll–his father’s name–has a nice ring: “Please don’t name him Randyll.”
The final scene–besides being visually awesome, starting with the gradually growing swarm of crows–was also a fine thematic capper. Sam is a smart guy, but he’s not been especially competent (“You had one job!”) or courageous. And yet, confronted by the Walker, something more horrible than any living knight has faced, he does what neither his nor Gilly’s fathers ever did: stands up to defend an innocent child.
When he sinks his dragonglass blade into the Walker’s back and it crumbles to a fine snowy powder, we get the sense that we have seen an important moment in Game of Thrones’ larger, mythological story—we know how these things can be killed. But its also an emotional moment, which persuades you that Sam has killed more than an external monster. Happy early Father’s Day, Samwell Tarly.
Now for the hail of bullets:
* We haven’t seen much “sexposition” this season—defined as sex to give visual interest to a talky information download–but I’m not sure the Melisandre-Gendry seduction scene was strictly necessary. We know that sexuality is part of her spiritual practice, but as it turns out, she’s not seducing him, as with Stannis, to birth some sort of spirit baby. Nor is this a way of making sure, as she’d said to Stannis, that Gendry’s not frightened at the moment of sacrifice: the leeches do an effective job of that, no less than if she’d simply had guards seize him. So in the end it felt like a sex scene because it was time for a sex scene. If you have a better explanation for it, I’m glad to hear it, though.
* Speaking of Mel: I really like what this season is doing with the religion of the Lord of Light and how–comparably, maybe, to monotheism entering ancient civilizations–represents a battle of cultures in polytheistic Westeros. And it’s especially charged because while the Seven, as far as we can see, are just spent objects of ritual, the Lord of Light, as Mel puts it, gets crap done. Imagine, say, the culture of Europe if it encountered another religion whose god appeared to achieve honest-to-Him miracles. It’s at least worth asking: is the Lord of Light the real deal?
* “In Flea Bottom, we called them bowls of brown. Pretended the meat in them was chicken. We knew it wasn’t chicken.” Ironic line from a guy who’s about to be on the leeches’ menu.
* “A man who fights for gold can’t afford to lose to a girl.”
Just two more episodes until the end of the season. I welcome your comments, but remember: no book spoilers! Thanks for playing nicely.