Spoilers for last night’s Game of Thrones below:
“If I had a gold dragon for every time I heard that joke, I’d be richer than you are.”
“You are richer than I am.”
Game of Thrones is not a perfect show, but one thing I love about it–as a fan of fantasy fiction since I was a kid–is that it has a level of ugly realism missing from much of the genre. Usually, when people talk about that “realism” in connection with this show, they mean the language, or the gore, or the flawed characters, or the boobs. All valid points. But “Walk of Punishment” foregrounded something else Game of Thrones has that fantasy doesn’t always:
I’m generalizing, obviously, and I don’t want to paint an entire genre, much of which I haven’t read or seen. Still, I’ve been re-reading Tolkien with my kids lately, and while there are troves of gold and plunder, there’s not much talk about the economy of the Shire, or how Denethor pays for the defense of Minas Tirith in a declining Gondor. The talk of money in Game of Thrones, on the other hand, reminds us of how much George R.R. Martin (who wrote the source books) owes to historical fiction.
In Game of Thrones, armies don’t just become amassed through leadership or conquest; they have to be financed. Fealty is purchased; so are ships and slaves and allies. From the first time we heard that “A Lannister always pays his debts,” we were told that in Game of Thrones, as in our world and our history, money is power. But money—as Jaime brutally learns at the episode’s stunning close—also has its limits.
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Though it gets relatively little screen time, maybe the most tantalizing development in this episode comes as Tyrion gets a glimpse into the Iron Throne’s books. Tywin, the new Hand, has made him Master of Coin, an appointment clearly meant to be a demotion and an insult, and Tyrion takes it that way. But if there’s one thing Tyrion has shown us, it’s that power comes from less-than-obvious sources: books, history, persuasion.
And it definitely comes from money. Money, after all, is what helped the former Master of Coin, Littlefinger, move up dramatically in the world—the possession of money, from his whorehouse, and control of money, through his official post. Littlefinger endeared himself to the Throne–under Robert and then Joffrey–by making money appear to satisfy the king’s whims. The way he did it, Tyrion finds, was by racking up massive debts to a foreign power, the Iron Bank of Braavos. (Draw parallels to today’s news as you will.)
Because Westeros is a place where money matters, the debt matters as well. Swords are commanded there, but they are also sold–as Bronn reminded us recently–and that means, should the crown anger its creditor, they could be purchased against it.
The Lannisters seem to have an odd, old-money attitude toward money. It’s the basis of their family’s fame, and yet too much attention to the making and managing of it is uncouth, unseemly. Witness the derisive snort Cersei gives when Tyrion gets his new job, and Tywin’s snide remark that Master of Coin is the job “best suited” to Tyrion’s abilities. There’s the implication that counting pennies is the act of the weak, contemptible, and dishonest—as Tyrion says, a Lannister scion is someone who spends money, not manages it.
Yet Tyrion may again, as with the defense of King’s Landing, just identified another weakness of his ungrateful family–and again, he risks earning their contempt for doing it. This is another interesting thing about Game of Thrones’ outlook: many of its characters see ruling as being about glory, fear, and power, yet the show reminds us that keeping power depends on things the bards don’t make songs about–boring things like good governance and bookkeeping.
Across the sea, Dany’s story is also about the price of power, specifically haggling over its price. Having lost her country, and then most of her Dothraki army, she’s in the position of getting strength of arms by buying it, in the form of the Unsullied slaves. It’s a difficult decision, which Jorah complicates by making the argument that buying slaves is perversely the moral decision here: the Unsullied, as eunuchs, do not rape, and as near-automatons, they do not pillage.
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In a way, it’s the kind of argument for the efficiency of ruthless market-based efficiency that Stringer Bell made in The Wire. Taking over the Barksdale gang, he tried (futilely) to show that there was more to be gained by running the drug war as a business than as a war of passion. In the same way, Jorah (a former slave trader) is arguing that the bloodless greed of the Astapori slavers, while cruel, has the by-product of creating soldiers who will not turn into beasts—even if they’re doing so not in the name of humanity but of making a more saleable product.
It’s a tough argument for Dany or Barristan to answer. And while she may not be persuaded, she sees the need enough to make a deal—not for gold, because she doesn’t have enough, but for one of her dragons, her children. Raising the question (since Targaryens are, metaphorically dragons), whether she’s in fact selling her soul.
The decision horrifies even Jorah, but Dany seems to have made a different kind of calculus: that there are some things money can’t buy. Jaime learns that lesson too, in quite a different way, when he tries to deal with his captors as Tyrion has in the past, by buying them. It seems to work–indeed, his promise of a ransom of sapphires from Brienne’s father saves her from a brutal rape.
And then it doesn’t work, not for Jaime. When he offers up that sweet, sweet Lannister gold, something seems to snap in his captor. Maybe it’s because Jaime cynically frames the deal to the Northern soldier as a kind of defeat: “Fighting bravely for a losing cause is admirable. Fighting for a winning cause is far more rewarding.”
Those words set something off, and we see that the Lannisters—after war, and a history of presumably arrogant power—have accrued some debts, of the kind you don’t pay off at the bank. “All you have to say is, ‘My father,’ and that’s it,” Jaime’s captor says. “You’re nothing without your daddy, and your daddy ain’t here.” And whack! goes the hand.
It’s brutal, and conclusive, and the message is unmistakable: Your money’s no good here.
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Now for the hail of bullets:
* Echoing the themes of money in the episode is the comic, peculiar subplot in which Littlefinger’s whores refuse payment from the (evidently talented?) Podrick. Some things are priceless?
* Speaking of that (rather cheesy) whorehouse scene, there was an ultra-inside reference for GRRM fans: “[She’s] one of four women in the world who can perform a proper Meereenese Knot.” Martin has used that term not as a sex position—well, so far as I know—but to describe a knotty plotting problem that delayed his writing of the fifth book in the series.
* Anybody who cares probably already recognized them, but that was indeed The Hold Steady performing “The Bear and the Maiden Fair” over the credits.
* Theon escapes by horse. Yeah, I still have no better idea what’s going on here.
* The tense opening scene of the archer missing the floating bier he’s meant to set afire is classic Game of Thrones: a dramatic, solemn setup meets mundane human fallibility.
* As I’ve said before, Game of Thrones is covering so much story per episode that I’m singling out specific themes in these reviews each week, not trying to recap everything that happened. Anything I missed—Stannis, Jon Snow, Arya, Sam—that you want to talk about, knock yourselves out in the comments.
The usual reminder: If you’ve read the source books, be considerate in the comments of those who haven’t. Feel free to discuss how this (or any past episode) compares with the source material, but please, no references to events from the books that haven’t yet happened in the series. Thanks.
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