Spoilers for last night’s Game of Thrones below:
“I made a choice, and I chose wrong. Now I’ve burned everything down.”
“Valyrian is my mother tongue… Dracarys!”
Let’s talk about fire. There was a lot of it in “And Now His Watch Is Ended,” on-screen and off-screen, and there’s a lot of it in Game of Thrones generally. (The source novel series, after all, is A Song of Ice and Fire.) Sometimes it’s a tool of war—Blackwater, the burning of Winterfell. But it’s also, in a series about a quasi-medieval, quasi-magical society, a symbol of power, a vehicle for the mortal to try to harness the supernatural.
After all, fire is literally the means through which something physical—a piece of wood, a body—changes from something substantial into something that’s intangible yet burns. It’s no wonder so much of Game of Thrones’ mysticism involves fire, because fire is a portal between the material and immaterial worlds.
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But also, fire is freaking awesome, which the spectacular end of an outstanding episode makes obvious. Having seemingly surrendered and compromised herself to buy an army, Danaerys goes all shock and awe, not only on slavemaster Kraznys but the entire slaveholding caste of Astapor. “A dragon is not a slave,” she says—after a brilliant twist that shows she has heard every insult Kraznys has uttered about her—and shows that, by trying to buy the unbuyable, the slaver has overreached and ensured his own barbecuing.
It’s an amazing scene, not just because Emilia Clarke has never been more compellingly terrifying as when she barked out commands in Valyrian, or because of the way the show’s percussive score fuels the conflagration with oxygen. Dragonfire is Game of Thrones’ version of a weapon of mass destruction, and here we get our first large-scale taste of what it can do. (And, by extension, of why Westeros so feared the Targaryens before their dragons died off.)
But what Dany does with the Unsullied is equally shocking and awesome, and is maybe her real power move here. Having bought their service, she immediately gives it up, and thus gets them to follow her freely–which makes them a more powerful and terrifying force than ever. She treats them like her dragons, which is to say, she treats them like fire: a powerful force, but one you can’t wield by clutching it in your hand or beating it with a whip. The whip—which she drops into the dust in a memorable gesture—is just a tool. Leadership, like fire, is elemental, a force, almost like magic itself.
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Not everyone, however, has such positive experience of magic and fire.Varys, for instance, who in a spine-chilling scene tells Tyrion of how he became a eunuch: paralyzed by a warlock who “sliced [him] root and stem,” then burned his genitals in a brazier, igniting a blue flame from which a voice issued. The punch line of the story is on the warlock who, we see, Varys is keeping as a horrifying trophy. And yet—giving us a clue into his motivations and hatred of fire-sorceress Melisandre—Varys is not yet over the experience. “I still dream of that night. Not of the sorcerer, not of his blade. I dream of the voice from the flames. Was it a god, a demon, a conjurer’s trick? I don’t know.”
That “I don’t know” is important. One thing that distinguishes Game of Thrones from other fantasy stories is that, while magic lurks around the edges, it’s not center stage. It’s part of the society’s history, but most of the characters are not certain if it still exists in their world. It’s distant enough to be a rumor—for Joffrey, dragons are just another interesting station on the psycho tour of the Red Keep he gives Margaery—but real enough to be a threat. And that, in a way, makes it more terrifying than if wizards were battling with magic every day. In the day to day world of Westeros now, magic is just a whisper, but that whisper is enough to bring back nightmares.
In this way, the story of Game of Thrones is using magic and fire the way ancient storytellers probably did: to represent the anxiety of a culture of people who knew that they were in a world of powerful elemental forces much bigger than them. Fire is a tool that makes civilized life possible, and yet one that can go out of control. It can keep you alive, and it can kill you.
Or, as the Night’s Watch sees, it can do both. Starving and freezing at Craster’s Keep, they’re forced to burn one of their own. The scene ends up being a kind of cruel parody of a feast: “Never knew he could smell so good.” But as they know, the fire is a necessary protection against the very different, icy magic of the White Walkers; you burn a body to keep it from becoming a wight.
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The funeral pyre, and the passing of a comrade, brings the group together for a bit. Then, as a hearth fire crackles, hunger and cold and resentment take over and there’s a mutiny, which takes the lives of both Craster and the Lord Commander.
That’s the thing about lighting a fire: you never know when it will burn out of control.
Now for the hail of bullets:
* It’s interesting to see, in an episode that ends with Danaerys making a great show of power and leadership a continent away, Cersei dealing with the limits of women’s political power in Westeros: she talks with Olenna about the “ridiculous arrangement” that gives power to men and confronts Tywin about passing his daughter over. And yet sisterhood has its limits: Margaery’s display of populist power is clearly not going over well with her future mother-in-law.
* On the other hand, speaking of sisterhood, this potential alliance between Margaery and Sansa is very intriguing.
* It’s interesting to see how Jaime’s maiming—losing the sword hand that gave him power—makes him more sympathetic, or at least vulnerable. But we see that in the same episode with Bran’s dream of falling, which reminds us that, after all, Jaime is still the guy who tried to push a little boy to his death.
* Olenna and Varys are the new Littlefinger and Varys.
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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