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.