Tuned In

Game of Thrones Watch: Smoke Monster

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SPOILER ALERT: Before you read this post, see if your friends with HBO will let you inside their walled gate, and watch last night’s Game of Thrones.

“The high road’s very pretty, but I doubt you can march your army on it.”

So by now we have a pretty clear theme for this season’s Game of Thrones and the writeups thereof: power. The first three episodes have concerned what power is, how it works and how it’s attained. Episode 4, “Garden of Bones,” is about what power does. It creates monsters.

It’s impossible not to talk about this without describing the sadistic scene involving Joffrey and his gift-whores, although to be honest I’d rather not even think about it. It was important—if maybe lingered on a little too long for shock value—but tough to watch. Which was very much the point, of course: that, along with the realization that for Joffrey, the brutal scene was very, very easy to watch.

Power corrupts, goes the old line, but maybe it doesn’t, not here. Maybe in this case, Joffrey has always been horrible–without even, the flashes of sympathy we occasionally see in Cersei–and power simply enables him. Power, and its limitations: he’s driven to have his betrothed Sansa brutally beaten in front of him because his armies cannot do the same to her brother Robb.

He’s stopped even at that by his outraged uncle Tyrion–“The king can do as he likes!” is not actually a declaration but a whine–who decides, in consultation with Bronn, that the boy simply needs to get laid. In Bronn’s romantic terms, the kid is backed up: “He’s got nothing to do all day but pick wings off flies. Couldn’t hurt to drain some of the poison.” But it turns out that, for once, Tyrion and the sellsword are actually too Pollyannaish in their view of things. Joffrey doesn’t want sex but sexual torture, and to send a statement. He’s not stopped up with poison that can be drained. It’s poison all the way down. And at least behind closed doors, the king can, indeed, do as he likes. (Was I the only one who was weirdly reminded of Pete Campbell’s icky “You’re the king” encounter with his own hooker in last week’s Mad Men?)

Leagues and leagues away, Joffrey’s tormentor, Robb, is making more of an effort to do the right thing–too much so for his lieutenant who wants him to start peeling off Lannister soldiers’ skin to get them to talk. But not so much so that he can’t be told off by Oona Chaplin’s feisty field nurse, Talisa, who provides a perspective that we necessarily don’t get much of in this series: that of the non-powerful, non-royal citizens, who have almost nothing to gain from war and plenty to lose and (I’m guessing from her tone) don’t care whether Robb defeats Lord Tywin so much as they want their pastures to stop turning into battlefields.

Oh, yes, the people! Remember them? The millions of little folks—facing possible starvation when Winter comes, or immolation if the Night Watch can’t hold back the White Walkers—whom the winner of the game of thrones is supposedly responsible for? If they’re generally visible only in the background, they’re nonetheless a force of their own, as it falls on Renly to remind his brother Stannis.

To Stannis, as we know, power is a straightforward matter of legitimacy. Renly, if not exactly preaching democracy, believes that it’s more complicated, and says that he has the supporters across Westeros to prove it. (A quibble: it would be nice if we got some sign of how and why the people evidently love Renly, other than his saying it.) Legitimacy comes from the governed, he argues in a hilarious and infuriating smackdown when his brother asks who would deny Stannis’ claim to the throne: “Everyone denies it!… Old men deny it it with their death rattles, babies deny it in the womb. … No one wants you for their king. You never wanted any friends, brother. But a man without friends is a man without power.”

(As long as I’m making tangential analogies to other dramas, I see a little resemblance between the dynamic of Stannis vs. Renly and Stringer vs. Avon in The Wire. There are many, many differences as well too–no spoilers!–but like Stringer, Stannis wants to reduce ruling and power to simple, cold matters of logic and rules; Renly, like Avon, believes that you can’t take passion out of the equation.)

Stannis seems to be a man without love, and one who doesn’t quite know how to generate it. But he’s willing to make do with what else he has at his disposal. Military power; the loyalty of men like Davos (who owes Stannis for sparing his life for smuggling and respects him for shortening his fingers for the same act); and his own version of a secret weapon, Melisandre’s womb of horrors.

As she births a shadow figure (one must assume the magical offspring of Stannis?), to the horror of her escort Davos, it’s not clear what the plot is. What is clear is that, while Stannis may be a stickler for rules, he’s not a slave to morality. “Cleaner ways,” he says, “don’t win wars.” Power and the pursuit of it has taught him that sometimes, you need to be willing to make a monster.

Sexposition Watch: Not so much. The Joffrey sadism scene was much more about drawing his character than delivering exposition.

Critter Watch: The direwolves just get better! On the other hand, no dragon sightings once again this week–but for a reason, I think, that serves a much greater purpose than just saving on the CGI budget. The show’s creators have said, rightly, that showing too much of the dragons just for the sake of doing it would lessen their impact. but in the Qarth scene, holding them back–though Dany could prove their existence–is a way of showing her strength even in extreme privation. The dragons are her children (she is probably right to doubt anyone’s motives in seeing them, since they are a gold mine and the A-bomb rolled into one). And they’re also her leverage. Giving away too much too soon might well cost her, if not her life itself, whatever she hopes to gain in assistance from the Qartheen.

Credits Watch: I actually cheered out loud when we saw Qarth, the first new location on the opening Essos map, and I can’t wait to see what it looks like behind the wall–though Harrenhal is suitably creepy too.

Other Storylines: One element of power and sadism I didn’t get into above was the torture at Arya’s prison camp, where the Lannisters–or, at least, whatever stooges are working underneath them–don’t have the same compunction as Robb about torturing people for information. Tywin Lannister, it turns out, does–though entirely as a practical matter as counterproductive and a waste of laborers. I’m most interested, though, in the pairing of him and Arya—who is is immediately able to see as not only a girl, but a very, very smart one at that? (Does he see her as a Stark? He doesn’t seem that perceptive, and keep in mind they don’t have Facebook in Westeros. I’d also doubt that he was ever a guest at Winterfell, where he might have seen her. But it’s something to think about.)

For Those Who Have Read the Books: OK, again: I am avidly avoiding spoilers here, and am sticking to my decision not to reread A Clash of Kings as I watch. But if memory serves, in this episode we are seeing all sorts of digressions from the source book: in chronology, in character names, in the locations, roles and interactions of characters. You can talk about how you feel about it but again: please follow the no-spoiler request/command below. Good luck with that!

(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.)