Game of Thrones, Season 2, Television

Season 2, Episode 9: “In the Agony of War”

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Tyrion looks on at his own creation of mass destruction as the pivotal Battle of the Blackwater rages between the Lannisters at King’s Landing and the Baratheons from Dragonstone.

Season 2, Episode 9 (“Blackwater”) was yet another pivotal episode in the overall arch of the series – so pivotal, in fact, that we spent the entire duration within a single setting for the first time since the show began. The pace and structure of this episode, though still moving quickly between different character perspectives, made it feel like a different show. In its own way, it was refreshing. Very often, like with Episode 8 (“The Prince of Winterfell”), the game pieces are moved in very slow and almost imperceptible ways. In “Blackwater,” the consequences are more clear, and more clearly far-reaching.

“Blackwater” is, like its title, focused solely on the actions occurring in and around King’s Landing. Stannis Baratheon, after a season of buildup and preparation, is finally attacking the well-fortified King’s Landing with an army that vastly outnumbers the Lannister troops and fleets within. It has been made clear that Stannis is a man of conviction, and he believes that it is his right to take the throne from the “false” King Joffrey. Meanwhile, inside the walls, everyone within the Lannister camp faces the impending battle in very different ways. Within the hour, the balance of power shifts from the Baratheons to the Lannisters and around again several times. Given the fractures within the Lannister leadership, it is a wonder how their side comes out on top, even with the advantage of chemical warfare. In the end, it is only a surprise (and perfectly-timed) visit from Tywin and his new allies from Highgarden that ends up ultimately tipping the scales in the lion’s favor. War is the second season’s climax, the point of no return, and in the end it is the Lannisters who reign victorious.

Though violent on the whole, Game of Thrones has been more about politics than war. We’ve heard of battles and skirmishes, but have seen very few of them. Jaime’s capture was a coup and Theon all but waltzed into Winterfell, but primarily, the game of thrones has been waged through small, localized campaigns and an intricate web of alliances and betrayals. The Blackwater is the first major, cataclysmic event in the fight between the kings, and the first with such high mortality. As the consequences of these five (now four) men’s bid for power are mounting, which of them would you have as your king, and is the cost of war for their own personal power worth it?

Robb seems to be the obvious choice, given the viewer’s clear and easy affinity for the Stark family. They’re noble and loyal, and there aren’t nearly as many examples of rapists and murderers in their camp (nor, certainly, among their principal family). However, is even Robb’s personal (and prideful) quest for power in the North worth all of the lives and suffering of the men and women who will bear the burden of that quest?

Within the episode, Tyrion hits on an important point about leadership during times of war. It is clear that the men at King’s Landing are demoralized by their king’s early departure from the battlefield (Joffrey sulks away with just the right amount of childish cowardice, showing his true youth for the first time in what feels like ages). So, to rally them, Tyrion implores them to defend their homes, their families, their women, their city – not, necessarily, their king. It is a rare moment in the series where we see the effects this war has been taking on the common people (as was the scene in the start with the Baratheon soldier vomiting before the battle). While we have been so focused on the leadership and the political machinations of the more aristocratic players, it has been all too easy to forget what Cersei calls the “small folk.” This episode made real the broader world of Westeros, and the broad consequences of war.

War is rarely waged after popular appeal; nations, no matter their political affiliations, are more often steered into war by their leaders. The willingness of the citizens to wage war after they have begun is one thing, but the impetus for war is often wielded by a very few men.   “Naturally, the common people don’t want war,” Hermann Göring said during his Nuremberg trial in 1946. “[The] people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy.” Göring, famous for founding the German Gestapo, was an influential leader in the Nazi party during the Second World War, a war in which many atrocities were committed by regular people, all of which are still hard to understand today. As Franklin Delano Roosevelt wrote for his undelivered Jefferson Day Address (he died the night before), “…we have learned in the agony of war that great power involves great responsibility.” There is no one who understands this more than Tyrion Lannister.

Many great leaders within the world of Game of Thrones (and history, after all) have wielded their power rather lightly. Stannis hardly blinks as he witnesses the carnage wrought on his men by Tyrion’s wildfire attack. Instead, he uses it as motivation to rally his troops around him and continue to lay siege on King’s Landing, no matter the death toll.

An even more notoriously cold-blooded leader, Tywin Lannister has long been the example of someone who acts harshly without much moral conscience. The song that Bronn and the other men sing in the brothel is a famous tune celebrating Tywin’s utter destruction of the House Reyne, once a vassal family to the Lannisters who rose up in rebellion. Tywin has also always seemed content to keep bad company within his ranks, housing the likes of The Mountain (Ser Gregor Clegane), a man notorious for his penchant for rape and murder. In one famous incident during Robert’s Rebellion (before the events of the show, though alluded to several times already), Gregor and Ser Amory Lorch climbed into Maegor’s Holdfast (the same place where Sansa, Cersei and the other women and children were holed up in this episode) and smashed the head of a baby in Daenerys Targaryen’s brother Rhaegar’s chambers. Then, with the blood of his gruesome deed still on his hands, he found, raped and murdered the baby’s mother, Princess Elia of Dorne.

Princess Elia’s horrible fate is something Cersei is obviously remembering throughout the duration of the attack. In the start, she procures the means to cause a speedy death should she or her children fall into the wrong hands. Then, she proceeds to get raucously intoxicated and makes a sport out of nagging Sansa. Though entertaining for the audience, it is clear that Cersei’s style of leadership is hardly an inspiring one. She keeps Ser Illyn Payne with them in Maegor’s Holdfast to not only protect them from the potential for mutinous sellsword guards, but also to intimidate and punish anyone who steps out of line. Given her history with the man (he did, after all, cut off her father’s head), Sansa even believes him to be a threat to her own safety, which ultimately makes her leave for her own chambers.

Cersei and Sansa’s scenes are important because they show so clearly two very contrasting styles of leadership. Cersei, for one, leads through fear and intimidation. She orders the execution of a couple of looters who capitalize on the chaos of the war, and complains openly about having to stay hidden away with all of the women (“I should have been born a man.”), though she clearly is well aware of the unique dangers that women face in a siege.

For the last two seasons, Cersei has taken a perverse pleasure in instructing Sansa on the ways of ruling as a woman. Before, it was, “The more people you love, the weaker you are.” Now, she teaches the Stark girl about the harsh realities of being a woman in war (“If the city falls, these fine women should be in for a bit of a rape.”), the feminine powers of sex and tears, and ruling through fear. While in some ways Cersei seems to do this to bully the poor girl, there is also an interesting element of genuine desire to instruct her on being queen. Clearly, it is a position she relishes, and by instructing the next in line, she may be hoping in some way to validate her own experiences.

Sansa, meanwhile, seems both scared and unsure, obviously unwilling or unable to trust in Cersei’s advice. Though we don’t see much of it, this scene is our first glimpse at the potential leadership style of Sansa Stark as she leads women through prayers and hymns, and generally tries to bolster their morale, even as Cersei storms off. She is a child still, to be sure, but maturing slowly despite the negative influences around her. At a couple different points, when the queen is trying to instruct Sansa on the “only way to keep the small folk loyal” through fear, it is clear she disagrees. Sansa was raised to believe it is the queen’s responsibility to protect those in her charge, just like her father and her brother. Sophie Turner does a good job of making Sansa’s discomfort obvious, but in the book, where we get to see more of the inner thoughts of the characters, this scene is more obviously a pivotal one in her development:

“The only way to keep your people loyal is to make certain they fear you more than they do the enemy.”

“I will remember, Your Grace,” said Sansa, though she had always heard that love was a surer route to the people’s loyalty than fear. If I am ever a queen, I’ll make them love me.

Another important scene occurs when Sansa leaves the Holdfast on Shae’s insistence, fleeing the threat of Illyn Payne. As I’ve said before, one of my favorite aspects of George R.R. Martin’s series is his character development. Even a couple characters that are originally weak, naive, or unsavory in some way grow and change in unique ways. Perhaps two of the best examples of this are Sansa and The Hound, both of whom are complicated characters that have been, to many people, difficult to like. Gradually, over the course of the last season, both have been developed in subtle ways, and much of it has led up to this scene. (However, both character arcs have not been given the same treatment they were in the books, and therefore may be harder to interpret in this way without that background knowledge.)

Once in her room, Sansa picks up a doll and looks at it with a bit of longing. It took me a little while to remember, but this was the same doll that her father gave her back in Season 1. At that time, she turned up her nose at him; she was trying very hard to seem like a full-grown lady ready for the king and a kingdom. “I haven’t played with dolls since I was eight,” she said. Still, despite this posturing, Sansa was at this time in the show still very much a child: naive, prone to temper, selfish, and more than a bit unsympathetic towards others. It is ironic, then, that she picks up the doll now when she is more adult than she has ever been. She is far more sympathetic towards Shae than she ever was to poor Septa Mordane. She has suffered abuse without breaking, seen Joffrey for what he is, and repeatedly called him out for it (something only Tyrion seemed capable of doing).

She has also developed a real sympathy for The Hound, and he for her, which is why he shows up in her room after his emotional departure from the battlefield. All of the fire and the carnage caused a real psychological break in Sandor and, finally, dislodged the loyalty of the dog to his master – a loyalty that made less and less sense the more he tried to protect Sansa from Joffrey’s cruelty. This scene from the books is, admittedly, one of my favorites, and I think it is handled mostly well in its translation to the screen (though the book’s has a far more Gothic-romance quality to it, like the obvious parallels to the Beast of “Beauty and the Beast”, or even Wuthering Heights’ Heathcliff). Sansa sympathizes with The Hound for his wounds and all he has suffered, and recognizes his heart despite his outwardly rough demeanor (he is drunk and bloody when he gets to her, after all). The Hound sees in Sansa someone who has been bullied in the same cruel and physical ways that he was as a child, and has a real desire to protect her.

Though she has matured, there is still a tendency for Sansa to wish for Sandor to be her knight, and he gives her an opportunity here. He offers to take her back to Winterfell (“I’ll keep you safe. Do you want to go home?”), to save her like something out of one of her beloved songs. She’s still clutching to the doll when this happens, so when she wisely turns him down, it is surprising. Her maturity to know that she would be safer in King’s Landing, especially given the price that will be on The Hound’s head the moment he flees, is unexpected given her past: a naivety symbolized in the doll in her hands. As this juxtaposition attempts to make clear, she has grown since then.

She rejects the knight’s offer, for which he seems upset. She claims that she’ll be safe even with Stannis, but The Hound believes that, like him, the king is a killer and would have the capacity to hurt her. Sansa, looking at him honestly and completely in the face, says, “You won’t hurt me.” It’s not a question, but a statement. The Hound replies: “No, Little Bird, I won’t hurt you.” Perhaps he realizes that the target on his back is too big for even him to shake, that he would most certainly endanger her life by taking her with him. Because of that, and because he does not want to hurt her, he has to leave her behind.

While Sansa shows some unexpected maturity in her own small moments of leadership, there is no one who more aptly represents the qualities of good leadership like Tyrion. He, more than perhaps any other character on the show, recognizes that with great power comes great responsibility. Though he has clearly taken to the role of Hand and its increased political power with a relish, he has not made his decisions lightly. Unlike so many others, he seems to grasp the moral complexities of leadership. As he looks out over the wildfire burning through ships and men, his expression is both stirred and horrified: stirred because he is proud to have executed such an effective plan (one which no one – especially not his family – expected of him), and horrified because of the death he has dealt to so many men. Peter Dinklage, as always, plays this wordless scene perfectly, and so accurately captures the essence of Tyrion’s character.

The price he ultimately pays for this good leadership is a slice across the face from one of his nephew’s own Kingsguard, Ser Mandon Moore. While it is unclear how this was orchestrated or by whom, it is safe to assume that someone very close to him was in on the plan, given Moore’s sworn loyalty to the crown.

With only one episode left, the resolution of Season 2 will leave us in a very different place than we were a year ago. The Lannisters have just defeated the Baratheons with a very critical alliance to the resource- and manpower-rich Tyrells of Highgarden. Arya seems hardly closer to Winterfell than she was the day of her escape from King’s Landing, which doesn’t matter much anyway, since Theon Greyjoy still has control of it. Jon Snow is a captive above The Wall, and Jaime is once again on the loose. Then, there’s Tywin Lannister who is now in town, throwing into question Tyrion’s role (and overall safety) as the Hand. And, oh yeah, Dany’s dragons are still missing…

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Game of Thrones, Season 2, Television

Season 2, Episode 8: “A Girl Lacks Honor”

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This week builds on the theme of the last: honor (or the lack thereof). While the last episode focused mostly on the men, this time the women add to the discussion on the meaning of honor and the price it takes to either keep it or give it up.

There are only two episodes left in Season 2 and, much like King’s Landing itself, Episode 8 (“The Prince of Winterfell”) spends most of its time preparing for a decisive battle on the Blackwater Bay. Each storyline moves the pieces a step closer to Stannis Baratheon’s siege on the iron throne, but for now, all is (mostly) quiet in Westeros. There is very little violence and a lot of subtle conversations that shift the gears of war imperceptibility, as of yet. But by the season finale, “The Prince of Winterfell” will likely prove a critical set piece in the arc of Season 2.

Several changes occur that are so slight, it would be understandable to miss them (in fact, many have already written this episode off as “boring”). Perhaps the biggest changes are among the Stark camp. Catelyn and Robb both betray their honor in very profound ways. Though, for now, it may seem like a drop in an already-tumultuous bucket, the political ramifications of their two major decisions could ripple out for episodes – and potentially seasons – to come.

First, Catelyn lets Jaime Lannister go without consulting her son and lands herself under house (tent) arrest. Robb is furious when he finds out what she has done. He believes that she has failed to understand the imbalance between the life of two girls and the life of a great military commander. What Robb fails to understand is that his mother has willfully decided not to care about this imbalanced trade, especially not when faced with the volatile and vengeful attitudes among the Karstark portion of the camp. Would Jaime even have lasted another week in captivity? And what, then, would have happened to the Stark girls (or at least the only one remaining in Lannister hands)? As the male king and commander, this is a risk Robb has to be willing to endure: no matter how much he may love his sisters, in the world of Westeros they are not worth the cost of having the Kingslayer back in charge of Lannister men. Moreover, as he confides in Talisa, Robb believes strongly in justice above all else. To him and the men who follow him, there can be no justice in letting Jaime go.

Catelyn, on the other hand, has always been more politically-minded. As she sees the door closing fast on the opportunity for a more diplomatic solution to their feud with the Lannisters, Cat makes a unilateral decision that will clearly affect the geopolitics of the kingdom for a long time to come (regardless of whether Brienne is actually successful in delivering Jaime to King’s Landing, when the odds are obviously stacked against her).

For all of his love of justice, oaths, and honor, Robb finds himself compromising his hitherto-unmovable integrity by sleeping with Talisa (a decision no one could be surprised by, at this point). Though he is quick to see the effects of his mother’s choice to release Jaime (“You’ve weakened our position, you’ve brought discord into our camp, and you did it all behind my back.”), he is unable or unwilling to see the similar consequences of his own actions. After all, he admits earlier to Talisa that his betrothal to an unnamed daughter of Walder Frey is for not just any bridge, but an important one: the Freys hold the key to the South from the North and vice-versa. Without the Freys, it would have been impossible for Robb to march south with such speed after his father’s murder. Likewise, without the Freys, Robb could be cut off from the North, from his brothers and bannermen, and pinned against the Twins like a wall as Lannister loyals attack up through the Riverlands. The implications of this decision, though not yet realized, portend dark times ahead for the Starks. These scenes – both Catelyn and Robb’s decisions to breech their own codes of honor – will surely be looked back upon as critical turning points.

North of the Wall, Qhorin Halfhand begins to position Jon Snow as a traitor to the Night’s Watch in the eyes of the wildlings, a deception that Ygritte falls for a little too easily, (perhaps in her desire for the bastard Stark). It is still unclear why such a strong, feisty freewoman would want such a prudish, bumbling crow (besides, you know, his luscious locks and full-lipped pout). After all, Jon has blundered his way into getting most of his fellow rangers killed and the legendary Qhorin captured. By thinking with something other than his head (somewhere between his foolhardy honor and childish lust), he has endangered a critical mission and all of Westeros, as it happens, since the King Beyond the Wall means to march on it. It will take the mentorship of a great tactician like Qhorin for Jon to learn valuable lessons of strategy, leadership and worthy sacrifice. Jon has a lot of growing to do, and fast. But at least this week marked the start.

Meanwhile, back down south, Arya finally escapes Harrenhal after out-witting Jaqen H’ghar at his own game, though only after the opportunity to kill Tywin Lannister passes before her. In lieu of Tywin, Arya cleverly names Jaqen himself as her third kill when he refuses to help her friends and her escape. “A girl lacks honor,” he says begrudgingly. Arya merely shrugs her shoulders. She has already determined that she is willing to kill and lie to stay alive (starting with the young farmhand that tries to stop her initial escape from King’s Landing in Season 1). She, like Jaqen himself, is developing her own sense of honor.

Another important change in the narrative occurs when Brienne is dispatched with Jaime, tasked by Catelyn with bringing him safely to King’s Landing in exchange for the Stark girls. This new course should hopefully mean more screen time for both fan-favorites as they try to evade the dozens of Stark troops sent after them in the episodes to come. Both great fighters are literally and figuratively unfettered and beginning an odd couple’s hero quest. The early promise of their banter and the sight of them gliding off in a boat downriver will hopefully prove to be a fun change of pace among the relatively static-setting narratives so far.

Tyrion and Cersei have been trading slights, deceptions and cruelties ever since he arrived in King’s Landing, but it was not until this week that the seriousness of their rivalry became apparent. Cersei has escalated their war of wits, brutally attacking the prostitute Ros, whom she mistakes for Tyrion’s secret whore. There is apparently no love between the two siblings and no end to the pain they will indirectly inflict on one another. The only thing stopping them from harming each other outright is the blood they both share – an odd limitation given the lengths they are both willing to go to torment the loved ones in each other’s orbit. Tyrion promises: “I will hurt you for this. The day will come when you think you’re safe and happy and your joy will turn to ashes in your mouth, and you will know the debt is paid.” This, too, sounds premonitory. The look in his eyes make it clear that, though there is little Tyrion says that isn’t shrouded in sarcasm, this statement could not be more forthright and true.

Finally, the big reveal of two Stark boys hiding in the Winterfell crypts ends the episode with a major, moving twist. Though it was clear early on that George R.R. Martin had no qualms with killing off major and favorite characters, this is one of the few times when he gives us loyal House Stark fans a modicum of hope and relief. The series is an emotional rollercoaster, and some people respond by attempting to shut off to forming favorites or empathizing with certain characters too much. However, both the source and the show make this impossible, and though I knew the eventual outcome of Bran and Rickon, I could not help but fill with excitement to see them alive and well. No matter what we do to try and avoid it, these characters pull us in. What blissful torture this journey will prove to be.

Though there is not much by way of action, this episode foreshadows some incredibly tumultuous and dark times to come. From all their words and deeds throughout this episode, the characters involved have sowed the seeds of profound change within the show’s narrative. We will have to wait until next week to see the first germination of these effects, and likely whole seasons before the implications of this week’s episode truly take root. Surely, “The Prince of Winterfell” will prove to be a pivotal episode in years to come.

Other thoughts on “The Prince of Winterfell”:

  • While Jon is not one of my favorite Point of View (POV) characters from Martin’s books, I have never thought he was portrayed so weakly as he has been in the HBO series. Unfortunately, the needs of the medium have apparently dictated that Jon and Qhorin’s capture need to follow Jon’s ineptitude at killing (or releasing) the wildling girl. In the book series, Jon and Qhorin are pursued by the wildlings and try hard to evade capture, and the connection to Jon’s youth and incompetence is less clear. Jon is one of a couple of characters I feel have been weakened by the differing structure of the HBO show. Taking the storyline out of individual characters’ POV’s has changed their portrayal for better (Sam, Tywin, Theon) and for worse (Catelyn, Jon). I love the show for its own merits and try hard never to judge it based on its source text (which could never and should never be exactly replicated). But there are some areas in which I believe the writers of the series could be doing a better job to more faithfully reproduce the true essence of the characters.
  • Another sticking point for me with the screen adaptation is the writers’ portrayal of Catelyn Stark, and that has only become clearer with this latest installment. While Michelle Fairley works wonders with the material she is given, imbuing her expressions with true feeling and inner conflict, taking Catelyn out of the POV structure has really harmed her characterization. The show does not seem to understand the Robb/Catelyn dynamic of the books, or is otherwise willfully ignoring it. Robb is not only younger in the books, but also a lot less politically savvy. He is a great commander, but naive when it comes to politics. It’s his mother who helps him play the game. Since the first episode of the season, the show has been rewriting their scenes to put her political strategies in Robb’s mouth (like the idea of mediating peace between the warring Baratheon brothers) and to take her away from the table almost entirely. The show has given her a “woman’s kind of courage” (as Brienne describes it) that is not entirely faithful to her representation on the page.
  • I wish Catelyn was portrayed as she ought to be: the brains behind the Stark camp. That would make her decision to release Jaime more ambiguous, as it ought to be seen, and less as a flighty, feminine blunder. After all, Jaime would have likely been murdered by those in Robb’s camp who wanted revenge (which the show does make an attempt at explaining), and what then would happen to Sansa and Arya? The move does not happen in a mother’s moment of weakness. Though her maternal instincts do play a part, Cat makes the decision with reasoning and forethought. Though it is an imbalanced trade in a masculine world (two girls for one knight), Catelyn initiates it when she is faced with losing Jaime – and, therefore, her girls – to the vengeful hands of Rickard Karstark.
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Game of Thrones, Season 2, Television

Season 2, Episode 7: “Men Without Honor”

In Episode 7, Jaime Lannister philosophizes about what it means to be “honorable” while his sister Cersei despairs in his absence: “The more people you love, the weaker you are.” Photo Credit: lavondysss.

Game of Thrones is no medieval fairy tale. George R.R. Martin and the writers of HBO’s series have made it clear that any romantic notions, often a hallmark of neo-medieval literature, have no bearing on the events unfolding in and around Westeros, no matter how much it may resemble the world of our fairy tales. In case you had any remaining illusions (even after witnessing nearly two seasons of emotional, physical and psychological torment), the writers remind us of this once more with this season’s aptly-titled seventh episode, “A Man Without Honor.”

It is rather brilliant that they use the singular “man,’” leaving us to debate the relative dishonor of any one of the male characters on the show. Could it be the cripplingly insecure Theon Greyjoy, who hoists the roasted bodies of two young boys before a horrified Winterfell? Or, could it be Jaime Lannister, who is complimentary and warm to a young relative, only then to kill him in an attempt to escape confinement? What about the Hound, who has never claimed to be honorable, but inexplicably flaunts his bloodlust in front of a girl he presumably cares for? There’s also Jon Snow, who seems to be sorely tempted to break his vows of chastity with the fiery young wildling woman (and internet troll in the making), Ygritte. Or could it even be Robb Stark, who probably thinks of himself as honorable, but is stumbling closer to a bone-headed decision of epic proportions (one so bad, even Roose Bolton seems to disapprove)?

The “Man Without Honor” is intended to be Jaime, though the argument could be made about any man on the show – even the beloved Tyrion. “You are a man without honor,” Catelyn says to her newest Lannister captive. This prompts him to argue that, from an alternative perspective of fidelity, he could appear to have more honor than even the “honorable” Ned Stark, who fathered a bastard.

Just before that, Jaime philosophizes on honor, duty and loyalty. “So many vows, they make you swear and swear… What if your father despises the king? What if the king massacres the innocent? It’s too much. No matter what you do, you’re forsaking one vow or another.” He really gets to the heart of my favorite theme of this story: reality is never as simple as good versus evil, or right versus wrong. The world is morally grey, not black and white. No one side is unambiguously good nor unambiguously evil. There are no forgone conclusions, especially not in Martin’s series. Good will not always triumph over evil, because there is no such thing.

As a history teacher, every day is a fight against the oversimplification of players into dichotomous spheres. The Romans are good and the Vandals bad. Or are the Vandals good and the Romans bad? We still see this phenomenon occur today at the expense of a more nuanced view of the alternative perspectives and motivations of people who are different. As Martin is wont to point out (with the Hound, Jaime and Tyrion as his favorite mouthpieces), this misconception is highly dangerous. No one can be wholly good or wholly evil, and a dishonorable act to one may be an honorable act to another. As the Hound explains to Sansa, who still does not quite seem to get it, “You’ll be glad of the hateful things I do someday when you are queen and I’m all that stands between you and your beloved king.” Today’s vengeful murder is tomorrow’s protection of the innocent.

In many ways, the show is the perfect blend of fantasy, history, politics and psychology. It has consistently used elements of the Middle Ages to highlight its very modern ideas of psychological and political realism. Its juxtaposition with traditional, medieval fantasies and fairy tales only make the point more stark. Though modern Westerners hold classical Greek and Roman ideals, they are often only in vague terms, removed and distant from our daily realities. Instead, in our everyday lives, we continue to dwell in the institutions and structures of the Middle Ages.

This is a point that Umberto Eco (The Name of the Rose) made famous in his 1973 essay “Dreaming in the Middle Ages.” In it, he argues that the themes of the Middle Ages are often revived and reconfigured within modern Western culture because we continue to live in a world that is still highly influenced by the medieval era – not Greece and Rome, as is often assumed. We still wrestle with the separation of church and state, attend universities and identify with the nation-state. The classicists gave us our ideals, the medievalists our realities.

What makes Game of Thrones so effective is its ability to reproduce modern philosophies and politics within a faux-historical setting that is both familiar and unknown. Every week, we learn new lessons about our modern condition through the lens of a fantastical medieval setting. The simultaneous familiarity and strangeness is what gives the show its undeniable allure. It’s what keeps us coming back each week. We can use its neo-medieval framework to try to understand something of our modern existence. Though we may not often like what we see, it is too hard to look away. We’re hooked.

Other thoughts from “A Man Without Honor”:

  • Tywin: “Aren’t most girls more interested in the pretty maidens from the songs? Jonquil, flowers in her hair?” Arya: “Most girls are idiots.” It is known.
  • The acting continues to be outstanding on this show (except for maybe Dany and her increasingly-prominent eyebrow-acting, a la Emma Watson’s Hermione Granger). In this week’s Emmy-worthy scenes, Cersei and Tyrion have a heart-to-heart that ends in a brilliantly real and awkwardly tense silence. Lena Headey shows us Cersei’s vulnerability, and Peter Dinklage displays Tyrion’s compassion. Cersei is forced to confide in her brother Tyrion because there is no one else around who will listen, though it is clear she has no love for him. Tyrion, on the other hand, can find humanity in anyone. You can see him drawn to her (I was shouting, “Hug already!” at my television), but he doesn’t actually reach out to console her. Still, the motion itself triggers something in Cersei’s face. Is it gratitude? Revulsion? Relief? Yet again, really brilliant work from these two real-life best friends.
  • Theon may be cruel and stupid, but his kind of evil is slightly more sympathetic than most. Like Joffrey, he often acts out of his severe insecurity. He’s never been a leader, not ever, and now he is desperate to make a name for himself at his father’s table. The only way he believes this is possible is by holding Winterfell and commanding the respect of his men, but since he is no leader, he has struggled from the start. He is deeply flawed and cruel in his own self-doubt, much like Joffrey has become. Yet, unlike Joffrey, there are hints of real remorse and deep, underlying psychological torment. Theon may not be a pleasant character to watch, but he is one of the most interesting.
  • I’ve been thinking for a while that Arya and her sister Sansa are suffering opposite fates that are really two sides of the same coin, and the parallels continue to stack up. Arya is playing a servant in castle ruined by dragons. Meanwhile, Sansa is playing princess in a castle built by the dragons (originally, Aegon the Conqueror). Both are putting on masks and acting the part to survive. When Cersei takes Sansa aside and gives her advice, woman-to-woman (“The more people you love, the weaker you are. Love no one but your children.”), it is clear that she sees some of herself in Sansa. She, too, was once on the verge of a loveless and often-cruel marriage, and it does seem like she admires Sansa for her determined resolve to fake-it-until-she-makes-it. At the same time, Arya also reminds Tywin of Cersei, particularly when she goes on about her strong female role models from history, not the songbooks. While it is mostly clear that neither girl is a true Cersei, it is interesting (and not likely coincidental) that both get compared to her within minutes of one another.
  • Worst period ever, am I right? Nothing like having your first flowering witnessed by the Hound.
  • You may have noticed fans of the book series getting overly-excited after Ygritte said, It really is a perfect line, because honestly, Jon Snow knows nothing. Ygritte has always been a favorite of mine because she speaks to Jon the way we all want to speak to him. After all, has he done anything this season but pout, argue, look cold and get caught with his pants down (figuratively, of course, since he’s an infamous prude)? I have never thought Jon’s motivations for joining the Night’s Watch and remaining adamantly loyal to its vows were all that clear, and Ygritte throws this into stark relief. I don’t even think they’re clear to Jon Snow. He has no idea who he is and neither do we, which makes him a weak character in my mind. I’m excited to see if his wildling capture will inspire him to sort out his own desires and motivations, and allow him to grow out of his whiny-adolescent routine.
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Game of Thrones, Season 2, Television

Season 2, Episode 6: “Save the Children”

Sansa is one of the many children of summer who suffer the consequences of an encroaching and hostile winter.

Sansa is one of the many children of summer who suffer the consequences of an encroaching and hostile winter.

Ned Stark paid a high price for his honor and loyalty, but it is his children who are left to suffer the debt of his mistakes. “The Old Gods and the New,” the sixth episode of Season 2 of Game of Thrones and the second written by Vanessa Taylor, focuses on the scared children who have been caught up in an adult game. In this dark chapter, the effects of this game are played out on those who might have been innocents during long, prosperous years of summer. As winter descends on the kingdom, and hunger and rebellious discontent spread, children who have known nothing but summer are desperately trying to come to terms with their new world in the only ways that they know how.

The show opens with the taking of Winterfell by Theon Greyjoy and the Ironborn. When the former hostage of the North comes in to demand that Bran yield the castle to him, the young boy refuses. Even lying in bed, crippled from the waist down and several years his junior, Bran sounds more confident and sure than Theon, who paces the floor with false bravado and kinetic adrenaline. But then, out in the yard before all of his subjects, Bran looks every bit his young age. After all, it was his order to move troops out of the castle, falling for the Greyjoy ruse and leaving Winterfell ripe for the taking.

Bran has always held a special place in my heart. The poor boy suffers his father’s loss; the abandonment of his mother, sisters, and brothers; the full command of Winterfell; and the permanent loss of his legs. Yet he handles it all with the grace of a sage, old soul. Rarely does Bran resemble the child that he is, even when being carried around in the arms of Osha and Hodor. That is a real testament to both his character and the young actor who portrays him (Isaac Hempstead-Wright).

This was the first episode in a while that we are reminded of his youth. After all that has happened to Bran, it is the loss of Winterfell that strikes a crucial blow to his inner strength. Throughout the series, he has tried so hard to run the castle in his father’s honor and his mother’s stead. It is as if he, by preserving Winterfell, could preserve his family as well – so long as they had Winterfell, they might once again be together again in the North. Without it, the Starks scattered around Westeros might never find their way home again, and his father’s remains may never be laid to rest. Theon hasn’t just taken the castle from Bran, he’s taken Bran’s family.

Theon himself is a scared child, in many ways. He is posturing for the love of a father he never had at the sacrifice of any love the Starks once had for him (Robb, in particular, was the most accommodating and therefore the most betrayed). Ser Rodrik – the Master of Arms who trained Theon in the sword he would later use to hack off Rodrik’s head – is violently sacrificed in Theon’s quest for his father’s love and the loyalty of men Theon hardly knows. After all, he leads a band of strangers against a castle full of the people he grew up with, and the people of Winterfell know him all too well. Because of this, they are able to dress him down with ease. Naturally, Theon reacts with childish indignation, ordering for Ser Rodrik’s head to pay for his tongue. But as he cleaves Ser Rodrik’s neck, there is both youthful rage and fear, and he even trembles. “Now you are truly lost,” Ser Rodrik’s says with his final words. Theon is an adolescent dealing out a man’s justice, and it is clear he is not yet cut out for this grown-up game.

Arya is still serving incognito in the Lannister camp until her identity is threatened by a surprise visitor: the omnipresent Lord Baelish. Director David Nutter masterfully builds the tension of this scene as Arya tries desperately to avoid Baelish’s attention. The best part about this sequence was that he leaves it ambiguous for both Arya and the viewer. Does Littlefinger recognize her, or is it merely a flicker of suspicion when he finally glimpses her face? After all, their first meeting was brief, meant mostly for the audience to learn how he got his nickname (“Why do they call you Littlefinger?” Arya demanded at the tournament in Season 1, Episode 4. That was the extent of their interaction).

Rarely has the Stark daughter been as scared as she is in this episode. Her safety has never been so precarious as this, when her subterfuge is threatened not once but twice. First, there is Littlefinger. Then, Amory Lorch catches her in a bold attempt to smuggle out a note of troop movements to her brother Robb. He threatens to reveal her to Tywin, from whom she has managed to secure a bit of begrudging admiration, though this would surely confirm any suspicions he may have had about her background. In her desperation, she uses her second death wish from Jaqen on Lorch, who falls dead at his master’s door. With only one death wish remaining, Arya is fast running out of chances to escape her capture at Harrenhal.

What follows is one of the most harrowing sequences of the entire series thus far. The riot in the streets of Kings Landing was every bit as graphic and horrible as it was portrayed in the books. The hungry, murderous crowd descends on the royals and the High Septon and manages to rip the arm off his living body. The Lord of Light has cast a large shadow over the people of Westeros, and this is but the latest of several abominations perpetuated by his followers. Out with the old gods and in with the new.

The near rape of Sansa was particularly terrible to watch on screen. Sansa, like her father, has always been a bit naive. She grows up adoring fairy tales and love stories, and though she is not always kind herself, she believes unflinchingly in the goodness of people (“He never met me before and he wanted to hurt me. Why?” she asks Shae after her attack). Joffrey challenges this assumption directly when he beheads her father after promising otherwise, and she has been reeling from that shock this entire season. Whatever innocence that still remained is nearly stolen from her deep within Kings Landing – that is, until the Hound comes to the rescue.

The Hound is one of the most underrated characters in the television series, so I’m glad that he’s finally getting the justice he is given on the page. He is truly an intimidating, hideous, flawed creature but shows remarkable, albeit rough warmth toward the Stark girl from the start. You’ll remember he has never once struck her, even if he’s never spoken out for her, and has tried his best to counsel her to behave in a way to avoid Joffrey’s sadism. He covered her when she was stripped in front of the court and now comes to her rescue without a royal command, when everyone else stands idle. He calls her a “little bird,” and though this was once a derisive nickname for the chirping, scripted responses she would deliver on command, it now seems to have taken on a new meaning for him. She is a beautiful, broken little bird who needs protection and guidance. The Hound is one of many of George R.R. Martin’s complex characters that grow more sympathetic after the first, often villainous blush, and this makes him one of my undoubted favorites (it also makes G.R.R.M. an absolute master at this craft).

Joffrey, Myrcella and Tommen may be overconfident Lannisters, but they too are not spared of fear in this episode. Myrcella is visibly upset as she sets sail for arranged Dornish marriage, and Tommen cries to see her go. Joffrey is disgusted by his brother’s tears only minutes before he and his group are overcome by the mob. Joffrey has never looked as scared and vulnerable as he did in the midst of that ordeal, oftentimes having to be carried like a little doll on the hip of the much-larger men of his Kingsguard. Though he believes himself invincible, the brush with the mob reveals a childish insecurity in stark contrast to the bravado he puts forth to others. It reminds everyone – Tyrion in particular – that their ruler is but a child, and a scared one at that.

Other thoughts from “The Old Gods and the New”:

  • While men fight in conventional ways for power over the kingdom, the women have devised numerous strategies to carve out their own influence in the man’s world. Ygritte and Osha both further the theme of women in Westeros using their sexuality to successfully gain advantage. Dany is resisting having to do the same (“Does he think I will whore myself for a boat?”), though the stolen dragons may present her new challenges. She is still trying to play the man’s game.
  • Peter Dinklage’s acting in the scene just after they have escaped the mob is fantastic. No one can handle Joffrey like Tyrion can, and no character better fulfills our need as an audience to see that little turd slapped around every now and again. One of my favorite lines of the episode comes from this scene, when Tyrion slaps Joffrey and shouts: “And now I’ve struck a king! Did my hand fall from my wrist?”
  • It’s nice to see that Sansa’s initial cruelty to Shae did not last, and was likely just a result of her stress and distrust of any new Lannister plant. Perhaps this also shows how trusting and, still, a bit naive Sansa is, for she is quick to bring Shae into her confidence. It was touching to see Sansa, who must be so desperate for any kindness, openly discuss her feelings with her handmaid and hold her hand a little longer than she should. Shae seems touched by this at first, until the realities of their world intercede and she offers prophetic advice: “Don’t trust anybody. Life is safer that way.”
  • Once again, Tywin Lannister is everyone’s favorite stern grandfather.
  • Many people who have read the books have really taken issue with this season’s divergence from the source material, but I haven’t heard as much of a clamor as I did after this most recent episode. The dragon-stealing sequence is entirely made up for the show, and I don’t believe that is entirely a bad thing. After all, as I’ve said before, the Dany chapters are, in my opinion, some of the slowest of the book. I don’t blame the producers for wanting to inject some more drama to make her chapters translate more readily on-screen. We’ll have to see how this new line plays out and whether it changes some integral narrative of the story, but I remain optimistic about HBO’s ability to handle it well. Though I understand the opinions of the purists, I’ve never subscribed to their strident beliefs. After all, the television show is doing really innovative things with the material. Some things are an improvement, others are not, but on the whole this is a brilliant series both on the screen and the page. If we’ve learned anything from Game of Thrones, it’s that blind loyalty to any one thing over another can lead to complete ruin. Why not kick back and enjoy it for what it is: a damn good adaptation of an incredibly challenging text.

 

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Game of Thrones, Season 2, Television

Season 2, Episode 5: “Magical Warfare”

The conclusion of “The Ghost of Harrenhal” marks the halfway point of Season 2 of Game of Thrones, and we are already down a king.

During the last few episodes, the game has been quietly retooled. In a land where the forces of magic have lain dormant for centuries, long enough for everyone but Old Nan to forget, the men and women of Westeros have gotten used to playing the game of thrones through what Cersei calls “schemes and plots.” (As Tryion would so cleverly point out, “Schemes and plots are the same thing.”)

Needless to say, magic and sorcery have gradually been making a comeback since the first scene of the first episode, with our initial glimpse of the White Walker. Everywhere, people continue to deny its existence as anything other than an attempt to entertain and terrify young children like Bran. But it has become increasingly clear that this hesitation to admit magic back into their reality is borne out of ignorance, fear or self-preservation. If they acknowledge the existence of powers beyond their control, then they admit the game has changed forever and they may no longer be best equipped for it. They can either adapt or die.

This fact becomes clear in this week’s opening scene, with Renly’s sudden death at the hands of the shadow baby Melisandre birthed in the last episode. This shadow has grown to look remarkably like Stannis and is tactile enough to drive a dagger through Renly’s heart. While this scene should have been bloodier (as described in the book), it is not much less horrifying to simply see the abomination stamp out a lively young man like Renly. Though Renly was not perfect, he could have made a good king, perhaps an even better king (if not warrior) than his late brother and certainly better than most of Westeros’s other options.

Renly’s greatest weakness was that he was too proud and self-assured that his land forces would win him the throne with ease. He was glib with his brother when they met to try to broker a deal and paid no heed to Stannis’ threats. Renly failed to realize that the game has changed and that it is no longer about who has to most troops or the greater love of his men. Renly has grown up listening to the heroics on the battlefield of superior warriors like Robert Baratheon and his friend Ned Stark, and he doesn’t realize that the days when bravery won wars are drawing to a close.

When the Germans first used chemical warfare on a large-scale at Ypres during the First World War, the Western world was both shocked and horrified. Though the gas was largely nonlethal, the effects were gruesome and painful, and the cultural effects of this new threat were far-reaching. But was gas warfare really worse than having your body torn apart by machine gun rounds or blasted full of metal shrapnel? What inspired such fear and rage among the Allies was something else. Success in warfare was supposed to be determined by the qualities of the men who fought: it was long held that a side’s strength, cunning and valor would earn it the victory. Poison gas, delivered not by a foe you could see and kill, but by the very wind and air you breathe, meant the dawning of an era of warfare where individual strengths and bravery earned you no added protection from the carnage of war.

Renly is a skilled statesmen with two of the best knights in the realm serving as his kingsguard, and yet he is powerless against the magical warfare unleashed by his brother. Like Germany’s poison gas, his death is borne by the wind by an enemy Brienne cannot combat. In her grief and rage, she ends up slaying two of Renly’s guards who mistake her for the killer. This is a brilliantly emotional scene that not only shows us how phenomenally skilled (and large) she truly is, but also just how much she loved her lord. She is a strong, brave knight reduced to fear and crippling disbelief because the conventions of warfare that she holds as sacrosanct have been challenged in the most devastating way.

Magic and sorcery are rendering Westeros’s few remaining warriors with honor and bravery nearly obsolete (I say “nearly” because Brienne continues to be the most loyal and chivalric of any of them, after the powerfully touching swearing of fealty with Catelyn). The true players are adapting.

Tyrion visits the alchemist’s guild to learn about his sister’s order of Wildfire, a magic potion that melts everything, including human flesh. Bronn finds the magical warfare unbelievable and even foolhardy, and at first we think this is what Tyrion believes, as well. After all, they have Wildfire enough to destroy all of Stannis’s ships and men. No matter how strong and brave those bannermen may be, they will lose the war and their lives to magic warfare. Just when you think Tyrion is going to turn away from this horror, he takes the Wildfire into his own account, knowing that it is his only hope for holding the city when his best men are in the riverlands with his father.

Meanwhile, Arya has taken up her role as cup bearer for Tywin Lannister at Harrenhal and, while fetching more water for the lion, reconnects with Jaqen H’ghar. In return for saving his life and the lives of the two other men in the prison cart, he grants her three deaths. Arya does not quite believe this, and chooses the Tickler as the first man she’d see dead. Of all the names in her hit list prayer, the Tickler (the resident torturer of Harrenhal) seems an odd choice, but it is clear that she does not quite believe in the magic of Jaqen’s offer. After all, in perhaps the best sequence of the episode, Arya had just stared down Tywin Lannister himself and declared that she did not believe the magical stories about Robb (stories like the one where her brother can inhabit the body of his direwolf). Instead, she remarks, “All men can die.” Indeed, that is true now more than ever.

However, when she sees the Tickler lying dead and Jaqen looking on with a telling detachment, her eyes open to the mysticism of this strange traveler’s power. All men can die, and no man, no matter how strong or brave, is now safe.

Other thoughts from “The Ghost of Harrenhal”:

  • Maisie Williams (Arya) has been submitted for an Emmy this year, thank god. Her performance this episode was outstanding. When she stood toe-to-toe with Charles Dance (Tywin Lannister), she matched the great actor on screen and provided one of the most memorable showdowns of characters’ wits in the series thus far. However, in a far more subtle scene, I really loved the way Williams played Arya looking forlornly onto Gendry (shirtless!) practicing with his sword. She looked so tired, worn down, and more childlike than she’s been in ages. Strong as Arya is, you forget just how young she is and how miserable she, too, must be after losing her family and experiencing such traumas on her own.
  • The reason why I do not talk about Qarth and Dany much here is that I find her storyline to be rather boring in this part of the series. I felt the same way when I was reading the books. The one positive about these scenes are that they are visually stunning, but Qarth continued to be rather dull this week. The most exciting part was when she fed her dragon.
  • Someone get Jon Snow a hat.
  • I’m really excited about what is coming up, and the cinematography of “The Ghost of Harrenhal” cleverly highlighted what we can expect in the next few episodes with a number of character shots looking out into various horizons: north of the Wall, into Stannis’s fleet, through the casks of Wildfire and across the sea to the Northern shores.
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