In “First of His Name,” we begin with a coronation, when official power in Westeros is transferred to Tommen, the “first of his name” to rule on the continent. However, de facto power in the land is held elsewhere, taking as many different forms as there are people who hold it. “You really think a crown gives you power?” Tywin asked Joffrey last season, and this episode further proves that, though many people are fighting to hold it, the seat on the Iron Throne is not the most powerful position in the land.
One of the most enduring themes of the show has been the examination of power and how it can change over time and circumstance. In the second season, Varys presented Tyrion with a riddle to show that power is an illusion, a “shadow on the wall.” Power means different things to different people, and is often little more than a perception. It is not fixed, as even Cersei has come to realize (the woman who once professed that “power is power” now admits, “What good is power if you cannot protect the ones you love?”), and it comes in different forms. According to Littlefinger, one man (or woman) “can be worth ten thousand,” and this sets the theme for the episode.
One woman could become queen through force (Daenerys), another by playing politics (Margaery). Sometimes the greatest swordsman is no match for an armored man with a big sword. A Kingsguard can be killed by a squire who can’t even cook a rabbit or ride a horse. Power is not transferred through a crown alone; even though women are often marginalized and abused (“Everywhere in the world, they hurt little girls”), this episode highlights the many different ways that they, too, can find power in a masculine world.
The pace of this episode was guided by three great scenes with Cersei. It was an oddly sympathetic new chapter for Cersei, which further highlights the show’s strength of presenting multi-layered characters– particularly, multi-layered female characters. There is a human side to her after all: one that mourns for the loss of one son, the potential loss of innocence in the other, and the absence of a daughter. Still, as she opens up to the people around her, she uses her sincerity disingenuously, manipulating three of Tyrion’s judges into finding her brother as guilty as she believes him to be.
When Cersei first stepped into Margaery’s admiring view of her son during the coronation, it looked as if the two women would be on their way to another confrontation. What happened instead was as interesting as it was unpredictable. In a way, Margaery and Cersei come to a begrudging respect of one another in this scene. They stand astonishingly close throughout, both of them still clad in mourning over a man they both understood to be a monster.
Cersei admits to Margaery that she knew, as well as the shrewd grandmother Tyrell, that Joffrey “would have been her nightmare.” She admitted to knowing exactly what Joffrey was, and loving him despite it, as only a mother could. “What he did shocked me. Do you think I’m easily shocked?” This admission rings true, even if Cersei is manipulating the overall situation. You see this as early as the first season, when King Joffrey shocks everyone by calling for Ned’s head. Just watch the scene as Cersei first tries to plead with Joffrey, then looks quietly anxious about the result. Cersei is too smart to think that Joffrey’s rash decision is good for the crown or, more importantly, her family. In Season 2, Cersei’s reaction to Joffrey saying that Robert fathered so many bastards because the king had grown tired of her was further proof of her internal conflict at the time: was Joffrey a ruler made in her own image (only male), giving her power by influence if not by law, or an unmanageable loose cannon, too unpredictable to be manipulated to great effect?
In contrast, Tommen is a “good and decent boy,” as everyone agrees. Here is a child that might very well be worthy of the crown, and yet Cersei is still unhappy. In a way, she seems frightened for her son. Unlike Joffrey, Tommen is her little boy in every sense of the phrase. He is innocent and naive; his skin is not yet calloused enough to sit on the throne of a thousand blades without drawing blood, and Cersei knows the costs better than most. “He will need help, if he’s going to rule well,” she admits to Margaery, and for once, Cersei does not assume that she alone will be providing that counsel.
Margaery, knowing the woman well, plays on Cersei’s desire for power, pretending like she hasn’t even put thought into the prospect of being Tommen’s queen. She pretends to believe that Cersei alone could help Tommen rule, as she seemed to once believe she could do with Joffrey. In a stunning turn, Cersei admits that he will need a wife, and that wife should be Margaery, of all people. This is a far cry from the woman who threatened Margaery’s very life should she insinuate that they bore any relation (“If you ever call me sister again, I’ll have you strangled in your sleep,” she said in Season 3). It is fitting, therefore, that the scene ends with Margaery saying, “I won’t even know what to call you. Sister? Or mother?” and Cersei only smiles benignly, belying what must be an internal fury.
Margaery is playing Tommen like a fiddle, and she thinks she’s doing the same with his mother. But Lena Headey’s masterful, silent performance shows that Cersei is not conned so well as her son. She’s been honest and open with Margaery, shining a surprisingly sympathetic light on her character’s true understanding of the brutish nature of her late son, but she’s swallowing a lot of pride in this scene. Perhaps Cersei has a mind to play nice with Margaery and the Tyrells if the father, who will be a judge at Tyrion’s trial, returns the favor with a decision that suits her. “Speak to your father,” she commands Margaery. “I’ll speak to mine.”
Cersei does in fact speak with her father, who also happens to be the second judge in Tyrion’s trial, and gains some rare sympathy from the man. According to Cersei and many others, Tywin is the most powerful man in Westeros; therefore, it is all the more impressive to see his daughter be able to maneuver the conversation in the direction she wants.
Once again, she uses honesty to get her way. The two commiserate over a mutual dislike of her late husband Robert Baratheon and the Tyrells, who are their only true rivals in Westeros. He confides in her their financial predicament: the Lannister gold mines have been dry for the last three years and they owe the Iron Bank innumerable sums of money. The Lannister-Tyrell marriage pacts between Margaery and Tommen, and Cersei and Ser Loras, are therefore the only way for the Lannisters to make good on their house motto. (“A Lannister always pays its debts.”) In a calm reversal of her previous indignation, Cersei relents to the marriage with Ser Loras. “It’s for the good of the family, I understand that… Lannister legacy is the only thing that matters.” These words could have just as easily come from Tywin’s lips. Cersei’s extreme loyalty to the family in this moment of need is particularly obvious when her brothers seem to lack it. She reminds her father of this before leaving, making her point known with Tyrion’s second judge.
She continues to try to manipulate those connected in Tyrion’s trial when she meets with the final judge, Oberyn Martell. Once again, she opens herself up to the Dornishman in an attempt to get what she wants. She appeals to his desire for justice over his sister’s murder by calling on him to deliver a mother’s vengeance on Tyrion. She then appeals to his love for his own daughters (all eight of them) by sharing her sincere pain over missing her only daughter Myrcella, who was married off to Oberyn’s nephew. “Please tell her her mother misses her very much,” she says with real tears in her eyes. Oberyn seems genuinely sympathetic as he watches her go. Once again, thanks in large part to Headey’s performance, one of the coolest customers in Westeros has been given a new layer, and a much richer character has emerged.
Visiting a third queen in only fifteen minutes, we journey to Meereen to check in on Daenerys: the woman who has been using force to establish her rule in Slaver’s Bay, but to mixed results. In her only scene of the night, we learn a laundry list of key events that have taken place off-screen. For one, Daario and his band of mercenary troops, the Second Sons, have captured Meereen’s fleet of 93 ships. (“I heard you like ships.”) Conveniently (though unlikely given the distance between Slaver’s Bay and King’s Landing), Daenerys and her council have also learned that King Joffrey has been murdered. They debate whether or not the time is ripe to take Westeros, wondering if 10,000 troops would be enough to convince the kingdom to rally to her cause. Ser Jorah, in particular, is unconvinced.
Finally, we also learn that Daenerys has left a bit of a mess in her wake of conquering Slaver’s Bay. Jorah reports that in Yunkai, the oligarchs known as the Wise Masters retook control of the city and enslaved all the free men who were left, since Daenerys did not leave behind any of the Unsullied to maintain her rule. In Astapor, the city where she got the Unsullied by killing all of their slave masters, the council she installed to rule the city was overthrown by a man named Cleon, a “butcher” who has declared himself “His Imperial Majesty.” In both cases, Daenerys did not do enough to secure her rule, naively believing that it was enough to kill the leaders and set the people free. In the power vacuum she left behind, something potentially worse has arisen in both cities.
“Why should anyone trust me? Why should anyone follow me?” Daenerys asks Ser Jorah, and it’s a good question. Game of Thrones has been praised for many things, but chief among them is its commitment to realism in a fantasy world. The series draws many historical parallels, mainly from the medieval time period, but Daenerys’s present dilemma echos events from our modern era. Before the Iraq War, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell warned President George W. Bush, “You are going to be the proud owner of 25 million people. You will own all their hopes, aspirations, and problems. You’ll own it all.” Though Daenerys was too young or inexperienced to realize it at the time, she is in many ways responsible for the fates of all the people she has liberated. It is not enough to set them free from bondage; serious statesmanship is required to craft a viable alternative to the rule of the slave masters so that power can be transferred peacefully and the rights of the newly-made free maintained. In the end, she decides to stay in Slaver’s Bay, foregoing a potential opportunity to achieve her ultimate goal in conquering Westeros. For the time being, Daenerys says, “I will do what queens do: I will rule.”
Sansa and Littlefinger are finally off the ship and well on their way to the Eyrie when we first meet up with them. They are walking along a steep and rocky road through the Bloody Gate, which is a naturally-fortified mountain pass defended by the knights of the Vale. As they walk, archers train their arrows down at them from the high ground. This is the Eyrie’s incredible strategic advantage, making it impregnable to invaders for over a thousand years: no matter the size of the army, they’d be forced to march through a narrow and treacherous pass, all the while sacrificing the high ground to the castle’s defense. It is an apt metaphor for Littlefinger himself, whose fantastic quote (“Know your strengths, use them wisely, and one man can be worth ten thousand.”) is just as telling of the man as it is of the land he describes.
The tableau of Littlefinger’s machinations continues to broaden, revealing to us once more just how many puppet strings he has attached to the major events of this series. In perhaps the biggest reveal of the series so far, told in a hurried whisper from Lysa Arryn to Petyr Baelish, we learn that Littlefinger was behind the earliest plot in the show: Jon Arryn’s murder. His body laid out the Great Sept is the first shot we ever saw in King’s Landing. Later, a raven arrived in Winterfell from Lysa Arryn telling her sister Catelyn that Jon had been murdered by the Lannisters. This one lie is “like the falling of small stones that starts an avalanche in the mountains” (as Tolkein said in The Two Towers). This one plot is the beginning from which almost all the events in the series branch off. After Arryn’s murder, which we now learn was committed by Lysa under Littlefinger’s instruction, Ned Stark is brought in as the new Hand of the King, the Starks are drawn out of the safety of their home in Winterfell, and nothing is the same ever again. Chaos is Littlefinger’s favorite medium, and once again it is astonishing just how masterful an artist he has been.
For the first time since the Season 1, we meet with the wildly entertaining Lysa and her son Robin, who is once again found lying against her breast despite the fact that he is, now more than ever, much too old for that. Part of what makes Lysa so interesting is that she provides an outstanding counterbalance to Littlefinger’s calm, calculating demeanor. For all of her betrothed’s shrewdness, Lysa is in equal parts unpredictable; for all of his rational gamesmanship, she is maniacal. She even manages to one-up Littlefinger himself by forcing him to marry her on the spot, then fulfills her sleazy promise to wake the whole castle during their consummation (which, we learn, is not the first time they’ve had sex– clearly, Littlefinger has played the long game here, but Lysa has still been sure to get something for herself out of it).
Sansa has maintained a healthy skepticism of Littlefinger and even her Aunt Lysa, though she is forced to accept their help under suspicion of murdering the king. The only person she seems to truly trust is Tyrion Lannister, whom she has quietly defended on more than one occasion, most recently to her aunt in this episode. She wants to believe she can trust the two people who rescued her from King’s Landing– especially Lysa, who is her mother’s blood, after all– but quickly learns that her aunt is manic, jealous, and paranoid.
After having always played second fiddle to her prettier, saner sister Catelyn, Lysa imagines the worst about the beautiful young Sansa and her relationship with Littlefinger. As she squeezes her niece’s hands and bombards her with verbal abuse, Sansa’s worst fears are confirmed. Like her beloved lemon cakes, which spark both Lysa’s kindness and cruelty, Sansa’s sweet optimism turns sour in her mouth. With her aunt’s plot to marry her to Robin, the Eyrie is looking to be just as inescapable as it is impregnable.
It’s astonishing that, up until this moment, Sansa has been able to retain a sense of optimism and hope despite her repeated abuses. Foolish though that may seem, she’s done well enough to stay alive in a world that dispatches of the weak all too quickly; her strength currently lies in her resilience, just as her sister’s lies in her desire for vengeance.
Arya, too, is no stranger to hope. Like her older sister, Arya finds optimism too enticing to resist. She believes in her own ability to deliver justice to the men and women whose names she recites each night before bed. She still dreams of being like her teacher, the great swordsman Syrio Forel, and repeats the steps of the “water dancer” technique that he taught her, which is more of a graceful dance than a display of might. When the Hound finds her, he learns that she was taught this strange routine by a man Arya considers to be the “greatest swordsman,” who also happened to die without a sword. Moreover, he learns that Forel was killed by someone the Hound considers to be a terrible knight, the Kingsguard named Ser Meryn Trant (the knight Joffrey ordered to abuse Sansa during the first few seasons, which the Hound attempted to protect her from in his own way). When Arya sticks him in the chest with Needle, showing him what the great Syrio Forel had taught her, his armor leaves him unfazed. On the back of his hand, he delivers her an important lesson: “Your friend’s dead. Meryn Trant’s not, ’cause Trant had armor and a big fucking sword.” Power does not always belong to those who are the best, the strongest, or the noblest, and the greatest swordsmen can be easily killed by inferior men.
Just take Podrick, for instance. Brienne learns that the hapless young squire managed to kill a Kingsguard in defense of his lord Tyrion at the Battle of Blackwater. At first, she is incredulous, disbelieving that someone who used to spend most of his time pouring wine was able to bring down one of the greatest knights in the realm. He does so simply enough (“I pushed a spear through the back of his neck”), though no less bravely. In learning this new side of the boy, Brienne chooses to let her guard down at last. In an appropriately symbolic gesture, she lets him help her take off her armor. She knows enough to see that the small gesture would mean a lot to the young man, who is out of his depth on this quest, but earnest nonetheless.
Finally, to the north of the Wall, Jojen continues to foretell Bran’s mysterious quest to find a great weirwood tree. This mission to find the tree and the three-eyed raven is all-important in Jojen’s mind. Bran has been urged by his guides to continue north no matter the cost, and at first it seems impossible, given their imprisonment by Karl and his band of rebellious Crows. Meera is saved from the rapists just as Jon Snow’s crew shows up to kill their wayward brothers. Locke, who had gotten in with Jon’s camp under the pretense that he was taking the black, scouts the scene and finds Bran before Jon could discover his brother was there. On orders from Roose Bolton to capture or kill the remaining Stark brothers, Locke later enters the hut to take Bran. Crippled and defenseless against the warrior, Bran wargs into Hodor and compels the great man to break free from his chains and snap Locke’s neck. Hodor wakes up in a shock with blood on his hands, but manages to free the rest of the group on Bran’s orders.
Once again, in the matter of only a few months, Jon and his half-brother Bran are mere yards from one another, but do not meet. Though Bran wants to call out to his kin, Jojen insists that Jon would prevent him from fulfilling his divine purpose. His destiny is to chase the three-eyed raven further north, but he knows that Jon would never let him go. He watches Jon defeat the traitorous Night’s Watch in awe and sadness, and lets his brother go.
Jon Snow himself duels Karl Tanner, who was once a skilled cutthroat from King’s Landing. He meets his match and then some, and is nearly defeated if not for the intervention of one of Craster’s women. She stabs Karl in the back just in time, and Jon finishes him off with a fantastically gory sword through the mouth. The women at Craster’s Keep have held very little power over their lives, and when given the option to join the men south of the Wall, they opt to stick together and make their own way instead. Perhaps they will form their own village made only of women, much like Umoja Uaso in modern-day Kenya, a nation where many women continue to suffer from domestic abuse and rape. “Craster beat us and worse. Your brother Crows beat us and worse. We’ll find our own,” one old woman says before urging Jon to burn the house to the ground. Out of the flames the women rise reborn. Though they were once acted upon, they will now take action, showing again that power can change and shift over time, and that agency can be attained even by the marginalized. Though power may be legally passed through the crown atop a king’s head, the women of Game of Thrones have found other ways to wield it.