Sunday’s Game of Thrones continued to question one of the more pervasive storylines of the series: what is power?
“What is Dead May Never Die,” the third episode of an already fantastic Season 2 of Game of Thrones, takes its title from a prayer of the Ironborn to their Drowned God. The Iron Islands fittingly play a prominent role in the heart of this episode, hosting some of its most efficient and effective scenes and delivering to us yet another king bidding for power in Westeros.
We are treated to a number of gorgeous, minimalist shots as we see Theon turn his back on his adoptive brother to be reborn into iron, salt water and wind (visually represented by a ritual baptism). In one wordless shot, we see Theon burn a letter he had written to Robb warning him of Balon Greyjoy’s plans for the Stark’s northern lands. This one scene does what the books never could. In one shot, we see the real conflict that Theon feels as he is pulled between his true family – the one he hardly knew – and his adoptive one. In the books, Theon protests his father’s plan in one chapter, but by the next time we visit him (several chapters later), he is actively involved in the Greyjoy attack. As much as Theon may be a sleazy scumbag, his ready turn-cloak never made much sense as it read in the books. This scene, filmed with take after take until perfection, is just that – perfection.
One of my favorite scenes comes courtesy of Varys and Tyrion. This scene is almost identical to the one found in the book, but Conleth Hill (Varys) and Peter Dinklage (Tyrion) have developed such an interesting chemistry on screen that the familiar dialogue snapped between them with a new spark. As they sit in Kings Landing, the Eunuch shares a riddle with the Imp, essentially asking who holds the key to power: a king, a priest, or a rich man? Eventually, Varys declares: “Power resides where men believe it resides. It’s a trick, a shadow on the wall, and a very small man can cast a very large shadow.”
This quote stood out to me when I read it and has stuck in my mind since. When I watched this scene, I felt as if I had scene it a dozen times before (perhaps that was just because HBO wisely chose to highlight this quote within its Season 2 promotional videos). Clearly, this conversation is loaded. It represents some of the major themes of this series. What is power? Who holds power? How do they keep it, and for how long? The characters all clearly have different perceptions on this (earlier this season, Cersei bluntly asserted “Power is power”), and that is exactly the point Varys is making: power is perception.
Arya Stark, stripped of all visible signals to her family, wealth, and even gender, is without power. However, without her former trappings of authority, she has evaded capture by the Gold Cloaks. Gendry loses the power inherent in his protective helmet, but this, too, ends up saving his life. Power is perception, and after her conversation with Yoren (one of my favorite scenes yet), Arya is beginning to see the power she may wield from the shadows. You can see it in her eyes at the end of the episode. With a new confidence, she lies about who owned the bull’s helmet (claiming that Lommy, who was already dead and fortuitously lying beside the thing, was the boy they were looking for), throwing the Gold Cloaks off Gendry’s scent and starting a new thread in Arya’s already fascinating storyline.
By now, we know that Littlefinger believes that knowledge is power. In this episode, we are treated to his indignation when his cunning is outdone by Tyrion, who positions himself as the most powerful man in the realm by sniffing out the small council’s mole. In a wonderfully condensed scene (in the book, it carries on for several pages), the brilliance of Tyrion’s plan is clear in the simplicity of the medium’s efficient structure. We’ve seen all three men wheel and deal since Season 1, but in this episode, none could match the power of the Imp. Tyrion’s power is made plain.
Power is perception to Margaery Tyrell, a newcomer this episode from the lands of Highgarden. On the page, her character is one of the few that falls flat. On screen, the writers have made her motivations clear and, in doing so, crafted an infinitely more intriguing character. From the start, it is clear that Margaery is as much a power player as the rest of the characters. In order to achieve her goal (to become queen, at least as it stands now), she knows that her husband Renly will need to battle the growing suspicions of his sexuality (or, at least, Margaery’s continued – supposed – virginity). She even goes so far as to suggest that her brother, Renly’s lover Loras, participate in helping the king get her with child in order to secure the strategic alliance between the Baratheons and the Tyrells. This relationship is a crucial one if Renly hopes to take King’s Landing, because the Tyrells have men and resources in plenty supply.
Brienne, another new addition to the show (and one of my favorite characters of the book series) is perceived to be powerful so long as she is masked in a suit of armor. In a tournament of hand-to-hand combat among the knights in Renly’s camp, she is able to defeat even the storied knight and jouster, Ser Loras (who is also the head of Renly’s new “Rainbow guard.” Hello, who is Renly fooling?). When she removes her helm and requests that her reward be a place on the Kingsguard, most scoff at her. Loras is put off by the idea of a woman on the guard, and makes his feelings known to Renly. What was once a triumphant victory is now a joke. The perception of the mysterious knight’s power is lost when the mask comes off and the gender is revealed.
We are often reminded that women should not hold power in this alternate universe. Yet again and again, we as viewers are treated to the many ways in which these women are still able to wield influence. This, to me, is one of the most interesting aspects of this series. Westeros exists as an amalgamation of medieval Western Europe and, by all rights, women should be relatively powerless. They, like Tyrion, might not outwardly match the physical prerequisites of power. But, significantly, they can cast large shadows.