SPOILER ALERT: Before you read this post, finish up reciting your Valyrian poetry and watch last night’s Game of Thrones.
“Being a lord is like being a father, except you have thousands of children, and you worry about all of them.”
It’s not exactly a great insight to say that Game of Thrones, besides being a fantasy saga, is a family story. But the fact that it’s also a fantasy saga, set in a quasi-medieval society, adds complications to the family aspects of the story. Because most of the characters are from noble families — at least those south of the Wall — their problems are the problems of dynasty and inheritance. There is, as in any family, love and worry and jealousy. But each family is also a political unit. Your children are also your next in line of succession, your bargaining chips for marital alliances and your weak spots in wartime. Your parents are your bosses, who may groom you for power, or assign you to keep the sewers running.
“The Prince of Winterfell” didn’t have a single dramatic focus or theme; it felt very much like an ultra-penultimate episode of a season, setting up story lines for the final two. But it was hard to ignore the number of conversations and incidents that were about children and parents, the complicated ways in which characters hurt the ones they love and how the ones you love can be used to hurt you. (Even Dany, who gets the least screen time in this episode, explains her decision to risk the House of the Undying for her dragons by saying, “They are my children.”)
To start with the episode’s title, we learned that the burned little corpses hanging at Winterfell were not Bran and Rickon but the farmer’s children, seen in the background last episode. (Congratulations to those of you who guessed that.) But the messages sent by killing the children of the conquered Stark stronghold still stand: not just the one Theon intended, but quite another, which his sister Yara interprets, that he’s weak, rash and stupid. (“Are you the dumbest cunt alive? … Do you know how valuable those boys were?”) Theon, for his part, is frustrated not to win more respect for his coup, and argues that the Stark children left him no choice with their “treachery.” Indeed, it’s worth asking which family Theon is acting out against more: his birth family on Pyke or the Starks of Winterfell.
Speaking of the latter, Theon’s stroke has repercussions in Robb’s camp, contributing indirectly to Catelyn’s decision to send Jaime with Brienne, and thus to Robb’s putting his mother under guard. Catelyn, maybe more than anyone, shows us the tension between being the matriarch of a house and the mother of children, two roles that are inseparable but not always reconcilable. Again and again, we’ve seen her steel herself and instruct Robb on the duties of a king, but she has her limits: “I have five children, and only one of them is free.”
In related news, Robb’s estrangement from Catelyn pushed him only closer to Talisa, with whom he finally made the direwolf with two backs — notably, after she told a moving family story of her own, about the near drowning of her brother, which convinced her to become a healer. (Speaking of which, while I think the series has had fewer nudity-for-nudity’s-sake sex scenes this season, it’s worth noting that when these two disrobe, we see her bare ass and not his. A little something for the ladies, producers!)
Perhaps the most compelling actions of the week, however, came in King’s Landing, where familial relations are, to say the least, complicated. Cersei is queen and mother, and passionate about both, and her resentment at Tyrion’s sending Myrcella away (as well as her suspicion that he means for Joffrey to die in battle) leads her to capture Tyrion’s “whore” — or someone she believes is. (Very nice job by Peter Dinklage, by the way, showing the cracks in Tyrion’s confidence, who then wills himself to hide his relief on seeing Cersei’s mistake.)
The Lannisters love hard and they fight hard. Maybe the secret to their success is knowing how the two are related: that whom your enemy loves is his biggest weakness, a vital organ located outside his body. Hanging over their every feint and backstab is daddy Tywin, who learned to make himself stronger by hardening his heart.
Family is a difficult thing for a Lannister, which may be why Tyrion finds it easiest to talk to Varys, who has no one — that we know of, anyway — and is biologically incapable of fathering children. It’s to Varys that he tells the story of how his father gave him the degrading task of running the sewers — which Tyrion did marvelously — and explains that all he wants is a chance to clear away the shit as efficiently at King’s Landing.
Yet people insist on making things more difficult with vengeance and entanglements and cruelty for cruelty’s sake — extending even to the gods, with their insatiable demands for sacrifice. “The Lord of Light wants his enemies burned, the Drowned God wants them drowned,” he says. “Why are all the gods such vicious cunts?” Why, indeed? The gods are the oldest parents of all. And we do crazy things for family.
Now for a quick hail of arrows:
• Game of Thrones is often at its best when it pairs up interesting characters — Arya and Tywin, notably — and Jaime and Brienne have the potential to be the show’s next compelling odd couple. Though I have to wonder if he isn’t more dangerous with his mouth ungagged than with his hands untied.
• Speaking of Arya, Maisie Williams simply must get an Emmy nomination for her work in the series. We might cheer for Arya regardless, but this is a prime example of the difference that the right actress reading the lines can make. Her “A man can go kill himself” gave me chills.
• Likewise, Stephen Dillane as Stannis has really brought to life a character who always seemed a bit flat to me in the books. I can’t say that I like Stannis, but I definitely feel him — the way Dillane gives voice to his aggrieved lawfulness shows us the man behind the rigidity.
• For readers of the books: though the events beyond the Wall are the most detached from the main story lines of the season, they’re also the ones I find most satisfying to see realized onscreen — here, the appearance of the creepy Lord of Bones and the obsidian cache found beneath the First Men’s stone. And if there were a Best Supporting Landscape Emmy, by the way, the Icelandic wasteland shot for beyond the Wall would be a shoo-in. It’s the topographic equivalent of licensing a Beatles song.
(Here’s my usual request for those who have read the books: you’re welcome to compare what has happened already on the series, but don’t reference plot points or upcoming events — nothing spoilery for the book virgins out there. Thanks.)