Game of Thrones, Season 7, Television

Season 7, Episode 1: Dragonstone

“Dragonstone” kicked off the penultimate season of Game of Thrones by tying many different cords of far-reaching storylines ever closer together. For the first time in the series, all of the remaining main characters are in Westeros. With only twelve episodes of our beloved series left between seasons 7 and 8, “Dragonstone” feels like it set in motion several of the events that will factor heavily into the end of the series.

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Game of Thrones, Season 6, Television

Season 6, Episode 10: The Winds of Winter

In “The Winds of Winter,” it is not only the season that changes. Several of the major houses and characters are, by this point, nearly unrecognizable from the start of the series, killed or altered by a vicious cycle of vengeance that has motivated the events of this story since the beginning. It all started with one act—the supposed kidnapping and rape of Lyanna Stark by Rhaegar Targaryen—leading Robert Baratheon and Ned Stark to seek to get their revenge by bringing down the Targaryen crown in Robert’s Rebellion. “How many tens of thousands had to die because Rhaegar chose your aunt?” Littlefinger wondered to Sansa in Season 5, and the deaths continue to pile up to this day. This week we learned that, though many lives were lost as a result of the kidnapping or (more likely) love affair between Lyanna and Rhaegar, one very important life was gained: they had a son whom Ned raised as his own.

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Game of Thrones, Season 5, Television

Season 5, Episode 10: Mother’s Mercy

In war, death is arbitrary and knows no bounds; the likable die as easily as the unlikable. Though a fantasy, Game of Thrones often draws better historical parallels than true historical fiction; it is raw, real, and complex, just like true times of war. Too often in fiction, protagonists are protected from any real harm even in times of chaos and danger. The risk to them is minimal, the stakes relatively low. One of the greatest conceits of Game of Thrones was established in the first season with Ned Stark’s surprising death: Valar Morghulis, “all men must die,” even your favorites.

In “Mother’s Mercy,” the Season 5 finale, the death toll soars, with many major characters offered up to the God of Death. Ironically, there is no peace or mercy of the Mother in this episode—not for anyone. Viewers were left reeling when the credits rolled on this season as one beloved character’s blood stained the snow, but there may be more to some of these deaths than meets the eye.

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Game of Thrones, Season 5, Television

Season 5, Episode 9: The Dance of Dragons

War is awful, all-consuming turmoil where death can come on a massive, indiscriminate, and impersonal scale, where friend and foe alike are consumed by the machine of war—in this case, by a dragon’s flames. War is also specific and personal; of the warring factions in the War of the Five Kings, four must die or be destroyed. No one is safe, not even the children.

This episode is named after a Targaryen civil war that took place almost two-hundred years before the events in the show. This war between two factions of the same family pitted a king against a queen for the right to sit on the throne, both of them armed with dragons (hence the “Dance of the Dragons”). The queen, Rhaenyra, was eventually captured and fed to King Aegon II’s dragon in front of her son. However, Aegon II also died from the wounds he sustained during the war, so after all that, neither of them got to rule for long.

As a result of the ambitions of two would-be rulers, cities were sacked and burned to the ground, never to be rebuilt again. King’s Landing was in ruins. Other rival kings across the realm declared their right to rule, resulting in anarchy throughout the land. The Seven Kingdoms took a generation to recover. In just a few years, the dragons were extinct.

“The Dance of Dragons” draws an easy parallel between the Targaryen civil war and the current War of the Five Kings. “Both of them thought they belonged on the Iron Throne,” Shireen retells of the civil war to her father. “When people started declaring for one of them or the other, their fight divided the kingdoms in two. Brothers fought brothers, dragons fought dragons. By the time it was over, thousands were dead, and it was a disaster for the Targaryens as well. They never truly recovered.” War is ruin for cities, species, families, hearts, and minds.

In many ways, Game of Thrones is intensely antiwar. George R.R. Martin was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War (he worked with the domestic Peace Corps instead), which may seem odd given the abject violence of his novels and the adaptation. However, it’s in this violence where his views are made clear, and this episode was certainly no exception.

“Many in Dorne want war, but I’ve seen war. I’ve seen the bodies piled on the battlefields. I’ve seen the orphans starving in the streets. I don’t want to lead my people into that hell.” – Doran Martell

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Game of Thrones, Season 4, Television

Season 4, Episode 7: Mockingbird

When Arya and the Hound come upon a dying stranger in Sunday’s episode, he expresses regret for the way the world has changed: “Fair. A balance. No balance anymore.” It’s hard to imagine that this is possible, that the world shown in Game of Thrones has ever been fair or balanced. He has seen, at the very least, four kings in his lifetime. Several wars have been fought over the throne, the current War of the Five Kings being only the latest of many.

Even on a personal level, few adults in Westeros have made it out of childhood unscathed. It’s almost impossible to imagine that a fair and peaceful society made any of these characters. These people seem to have been “born to woe,” as historian Barbara W. Tuchman writes in her book A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century. Like the medieval man, the characters of Game of Thrones have grown up in a world where a “habit of violence” and adversity rule more effectively than any government.

In “Mockingbird,” we see several adults who have survived a childhood of violence, abuse, and misery, but not without scars, both physical and emotional. This episode shows how these adults revert back to childishness to cope when present traumas aggravate old wounds. Meanwhile, the actual children, Arya and Sansa, continue to experience the brutality that has already begun to make them into scarred adults.

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Game of Thrones, Season 3, Television

Season 3, Episode 9: The Rains of Castamere

Even after all of the shocks and tragedies unleashed upon us by Game of Thrones over the seasons, nothing could have fully prepared us for “The Rains of Castamere.” This was easily the hardest episode to watch; even though I’ve read all the books and knew what was coming, it still elicited a very physical reaction from me, as I’m sure it did from many others. I have anticipated this episode ever since the start of the series and, somehow, it still did not disappoint.

After three seasons, we have gotten used to the idea that the climax will occur in the ninth episode of the cycle. Even if you haven’t read the books, you expected something shocking and horrible from this episode. From the first season, we were primed with Ned Stark’s death to expect the unexpected– or, more over, to expect the absolute worst. Despite this, it’s hard to say that anyone expected what happened in last night’s episode, and for that, this show reaches new heights of television greatness.

While some people rush to cancel their HBO membership in naive protest over daring storytelling, the rest of us can sit back and continue to appreciate the magic of this series. The last scene of the episode, which depicts the so-called “Red Wedding” blood bath that book readers have tip-toed around for the last few years, instantly became one of the most memorable death scenes in television history. Maybe we expected someone to bite the dust, but not the entire Stark force: including not only Robb, but Talisa, their unborn child, his mother Catelyn, and his direwolf Grey Wind. That’s a long enough list without adding to it the countless number of Stark men that were slaughtered in the camps just outside the castle. A family beloved to this series just took a hit so great they may never rise again. Talk about a shockingly devastating episode.

It is important that the episode starts with the Starks receiving bread and salt from the Freys. The tradition of giving food in this way is called the “guest right” and dates back to the first men to settle Westeros. Guests who receive food from their hosts are then supposed to be protected from harm for the duration of their stay. Travelers will often request food immediately upon arrival; in the book, Catelyn urges Robb to take food right away so as to be protected under the “guest right.” The gods are said to punish those who do not honor this tradition.

It is no surprise that the Starks put their faith in these ancient customs. Throughout the series, they have been blinded by their own honor, unable to see the world for what it is. For the Starks, their inherent goodness has always been their greatest weakness. Since they would never betray the “guest right,” they don’t expect others to do so. Catelyn and Robb think that there are rules to this game of thrones even as the other teams continuously break them. No one’s word is as good as a Stark’s, and that will ultimately be the cause of their undoing: when a Stark finally breaks a vow, he embitters a weak-minded but geographically-powerful old man to his cause, who then begins the plotting of his demise.

Before we talk more about the Red Wedding, we’ll need to visit the other storylines of Westeros and Slaver’s Bay. First, let’s head across the Narrow Sea to Yunkai. On Daario’s advice, Daenerys sends her best warriors to sack the city from the back gates, choosing Ser Jorah Mormont and Grey Worm to join her new champion. They encounter the slave soldiers in the streets and fight them all off in one of the best, most expansive sword fights we have been treated to yet. When they return, Daario lagging behind, Daenerys looks around with concern for him, much to Ser Jorah’s chagrin. His jealousy is as plain as the blood on his face, for he, too, has brought her the city of Yunkai, only it is Daario who receives all the credit.

On their way to the Twins, Arya and the Hound come upon an old man on the road, and Sandor sees an opportunity to gain access to the castle without notice. He intends to steal the pig farmer’s horse cart and is about to kill the man to prevent him from squealing when Arya stops him. The Hound is not necessarily wrong in his instincts; after all, Jaime and Brienne are first captured by Bolton’s men when they let a witness on the road go unharmed. Jaime wanted to kill him, but Brienne proclaimed him to be an innocent man unworthy of such a fate. Brienne, like Arya and even Jon later in the episode, clings to her honor as readily as she clings to her sword. In that case, her honor bound her to a fate that ultimately led to the loss of Jaime’s hand and nearly to the forcible seizure of her innocence.

Arya belittles the Hound and says he’s nothing compared to the “real killer” she met once, referring of course to Jaqen H’ghar. Surprisingly, the Hound listens and relents. Though more than a little rough around the edges, the Hound seems to have a soft spot in his poor heart for the young Stark girls. Still, he warns Arya about her goodness, just as he warned Sansa about her own behavior in a rough-hewn effort to keep her safe from Joffrey’s abuses. “You’re very kind. Someday, it’ll get you killed,” he says to the younger sister.

Arya is not quite like the rest of her family, however; she has seen enough to know that goodness alone will not prevail, and that sometimes you have to get your hands dirty in order to survive. Like Jon Snow, she is able to balance her sense of morality with a slightly more realistic worldview than her parents and elder brother– and that, in large part, is reason enough for why they’re still alive.

Jon Snow also spares an innocent man’s life when his band of wildlings sets upon an old horse breeder’s home. Not only do they want to raid it for his gold and his horses, but they also want to kill the man in the process. They, like Jaime and the Hound, are concerned that leaving the man will mean leaving a witness. Jon argues against this, insisting that the Night’s Watch will hunt murders faster than thieves. He’s able to warn the old man by knocking his sword against a rock as they are all running towards his home, and in the end calls off Ygritte’s bow shot as she has the old man dead to rights. She releases her bow a second too late, after pausing for Jon’s imploring, and it strikes a tree. Ygritte, famed for her battle strength, would surely not have missed if not for the call of her lover. She is later repaid for the favor with abandonment as Jon flees a bloody scene of his own making.

The innocent man is eventually captured by the wildlings and Jon is ordered to kill him as final proof that he is no longer a crow. Jon, like Arya and Brienne before him, cannot seem to betray his dignity enough to follow through. At last, Ygritte, desperate to keep her lover in good graces, shoots the man with an arrow. The wildlings turn on Jon at last, and he is saved only by the assistance of his half-brother Bran, who unknowingly hides only yards away from him. Bran, a warg, is able to inhabit the body of his direwolf and use the beast to save Jon from the wildlings. He sees Jon through the wolf’s eyes, only realizing how close he came to his seeing his brother again as he watches him ride away.

Sadly, Ygritte also watches Jon ride off into the distance as he abandons her with Tormund, who was holding her back from helping the Snow boy. She has risked so much in order to be with him, knowing all along that, in his heart, Jon was not fully allied to the wildling cause. She goes against her own people, for whom she clearly still has a vast amount of respect, by knowingly siding with him in a number of sketchy situations, the old horse breeder being only the latest of many. At first, she runs off after his horse, and for a moment you almost think he might scoop her up and they’d ride off together. After all, before they climbed the Wall, Ygritte insisted that they be loyal to each other above their loyalty to either the wildlings or the crows. In the end, all she can do is watch him ride off without her, a crow after all, bound by his honor to the Night’s Watch over her.

To me, this scene, like the final scene of the episode, called back to the ninth episode of the first season (you know, the one where we thought only one Stark’s death was devastating). In it, Jon Snow was ready to leave the Night’s Watch and betray his oath to maintain no other allegiances. He wanted to aid in his brother’s campaign to avenge Ned’s death, and told Samwell Tarly as much. The old, blind Maester Aemon found out about it and shared with him his story. Once, Maester Aemon chose to honor the oath to the Night’s Watch over his duty towards those he loved: his family, the Targaryens, were all slaughtered (so far as he knew) and yet he never once rode south.

“Love is the death of duty,” he told Jon Snow. “We all do our duty when there’s no cost to it. Honor comes easy then. Yet, sooner or later, in every man’s life there comes a day when it is not easy, a day when he must choose.”

At the time, Jon was faced with his choice between his family and the Night’s Watch and, of course, chose not to ride south to meet up with his brother’s forces, in part because of this speech from the maester. After all, easy honor is never what Jon Snow has sought. Jon is a martyr for his duty, choosing a life of celibacy, starvation, and freezing weather over that of a Lord’s son (albeit a bastard one) so that he might prove to Catelyn and all the others who might judge him that he, too, is a Stark: that honor flows just as freely and purely in his veins as in Ned’s purebred sons.

Again, when faced with the choice, Jon chooses honor over his love of Ygritte. Though we don’t see his reaction, Maester Aemon’s words are sure to haunt him when he realizes what he sacrificed on the altar of his Stark duty: “You must make that choice yourself and live with it for the rest of your days.”

Bran, hidden with his travel-weary band in a tower overlooking the scene, learns not only of Jon Snow’s presence, but also of his superior ability to put himself into the minds of animals and humans alike. When Hodor grows agitated over the storm and the threat of wildlings below, he cannot be calmed until Bran inhabits his mind and forces him to settle. Many wildlings are known to have the ability of a warg, including Orell, who possesses an eagle just as Jon Snow kills his human form. However, Osha and Jojen Reed insist that no one has the power to possess another person, only Bran. Crippled as he might be in his own body, Bran has unlocked a very powerful gift– one that no one can claim to share.

With newfound confidence, Bran takes charge, ordering that Rickon and Osha split off from their group so that, should anything happen to Robb or Bran, a Stark heir may live. This proves to be a prescient move, given later events. Still, it’s a difficult scene to watch. Just as two different groups of Starks get closer than they have been since Season 1, they get ripped even more asunder than before. As difficult as the Red Wedding is to watch, one of the most tragic aspects of this episode is how close Arya gets to reuniting with her mother and brother, only to have them ripped from her just as she reaches the castle gates. The same goes for Jon Snow and his long-lost brothers Bran and Rickon. Not only does Jon flee before they can reconnect, but Rickon leaves his brother in search of the home of Great Jon Umber, the first man to declare Robb the King of the North.

As king, Robb has won every battle. He’s inspired loyalty from his men, ruling in the image of his deceased father with honor and respect for all, even the Lannister hostages that his bannermen so foolishly executed. He was true to every word he ever made, except for the one word that would cost him his life. “What is honor compared to a woman’s love?” Unlike Jon Snow, Robb chose love over honor when it came to his word to marry one of Walder Frey’s daughters. Not even the promise of his uncle’s hand in marriage could assuage the grievance that this did to old Walder Frey’s pride. Frey’s castle is old and decaying, much like himself, and little could restore glory to its dilapidated halls than the promise of a king and queen among them.

When Robb arrives with Talisa, his mother, and his troops en route to Casterly Rock, the presence of the wrong queen is an added insult to the old man and his wounded ego. Though Edmure Tully is pleasantly surprised by the beauty of his young Frey wife, the ceremony and reception are both tense affairs with plenty of not-so-thinly veiled insults from Walder Frey.

However, it’s not until the musicians begin to play the infamous Lannister song “The Rains of Castamere” that something seems truly amiss. Catelyn, always perceptive, grows suspicious of this choice. As it says in the books, “[The musicians] began to play a very different sort of song… no one sang the words, but Catelyn knew.” Those words tell of how every man, woman, and child of the House Reyne of Castamere were slaughtered by Tywin in revenge for their lord’s rebellion against the Lannisters. The song is a harbinger of doom for the Stark family, who meets a similar fate for daring to mount a revolt against Lannister rule.

After all, Robb is declared King of the North after his father is murdered by the Lannisters. Their whole goal is not to unite the entire Seven Kingdoms under Stark rule, but to secede the North from Lannister rule and enact revenge on them for Ned’s death. “Show them how it feels to lose what they love,” Catelyn urges Robb when he asks whether or not he should attack Casterly Rock. They are perhaps as foolish as the Reynes to suppose that they could be successful in this, and in the end, it is Catelyn who again learns what it feels to lose what she loves.

Even as someone who knew what was going to happen, the scene of the Red Wedding is so plainly tragic and violent that it was nearly impossible not to have a physical reaction to it. It was this scene that every book reader imagined the moment they heard HBO had picked up the rights to portray this story on screen. It is such a devastating scene that George R.R. Martin, the original author, declared it the hardest he’s ever written across the first five books.

A particularly heartbreaking addition to the television version is Talisa’s gruesome death, added perhaps as a special surprise to anyone who read the books and thought they knew exactly what to expect. Talisa and her unborn child are both killed with several graphic stabs to her waist, forever putting to bed the hypotheses that she was a Lannister honeypot all along, writing letters to Tywin instead of her mother. In the world of Game of Thrones, Talisa and Robb get no heartfelt goodbye; one of his last living memories will be of the light going out of his wife’s eyes before he, too, can join her. In the books, Robb’s wife is not at the wedding, for she stays behind in Riverrun to avoid aggravating her husband’s already-tenuous relationship with the Freys. So, seeing Talisa die, especially in that manner, was a real shock.

Catelyn, who knew something was up when she heard “The Rains of Castamere” play and saw chain mail hidden under Roose Bolton’s shirt, begs desperately for her son’s life. The great tragedy of Catelyn’s last few moments is that she believes almost all of her children to be dead, and then is forced to watch her eldest son get stabbed through the chest by his own sworn bannerman. As Bolton drives the blade through Robb, he says, “The Lannisters send their regards”  (remember, Bolton is married to a Frey woman and commands several Frey men– he makes for a likely, opportunistic broker between the disgruntled Freys and Lannisters). Though Jaime said the same thing to Bolton before they parted ways (“Tell Robb Stark I’m sorry I couldn’t make his uncle’s wedding. The Lannisters send their regards.”), this plan has Tywin written all over it.

With nothing left to live for, filled with hate and revenge, Catelyn grabs Walder Frey’s wife and holds her hostage at knife-point. She desperately tries to exchange the woman’s life for her son’s, not knowing or realizing how disposable Frey’s wives and daughters are to him. When Bolton kills Robb once and for all, she lets out an Emmy-award-winning scream (seriously, look out for Michelle Fairley to be nominated for this one) and throws all Stark and Tully honor to the wind. Unlike her daughter Arya and adopted son Jon, she executes an innocent without feeling or emotion and stands there dead before a blade is put to her own neck.

It hurts so much, she thought. Our children, Ned, all our sweet babes. Rickon, Bran, Arya, Sansa, Robb… Robb… please, Ned, please, make it stop, make it stop hurting… Then the steel was at her throat, and its bite was red and cold.” – A Storm of Swords, George R.R. Martin

Just outside the castle, Arya lets herself smile to see her brother’s direwolf. She’s been so afraid that she wouldn’t get to see her family, despite being so close. As the Hound noticed earlier: “You’re almost there and you’re afraid you won’t make it. The closer you get, the worse the fear gets.” For a moment, she believes that it is at last time to reunite with her mother, who has not seen her since she was a little girl. So much has changed for her since then, but Arya has fought and struggled just to get back to her mother. Seeing the direwolf, she finally lets herself let go of the fear, but only for a moment. Just as quickly as Maisie Williams lets the smile cross Arya’s lips, she dashes it all with concern and confusion as Frey troops draw their weapons on her brother’s men. Then, the final blow comes when she witnesses the execution of Grey Wind, locked in his pen and shot with crossbows much in the same way his owner was sealed and slaughtered in the Great Hall.

From the beginning, the Stark family has been beloved by viewers and readers alike. Now, with only a few strokes from a spiteful and relatively insignificant Lord Frey (aided, of course, by the conniving Tywin Lannister), any hopes of the great House Stark rising again have been dashed. Robb, Catelyn, Talisa, Robb’s unborn heir, and the vast majority of his remaining troops have been slaughtered, like House Reyne before them: now the rains weep o’er his hall, with no one there to hear.

However, as they like to say, “The North remembers.” This is not likely to be something any of us forgive, and less likely something any of us forget.

Other thoughts on “The Rains of Castamere”:

  • “You have a very suspicious mind. In my experience, only the dishonest people think this way,” Daario says to Ser Jorah when the older knight questions the younger man’s siege plans. Don’t forget, we learned a while ago that Ser Jorah was supplying Robert Baratheon with intel on Daenerys in order to potentially earn himself a pardon for his illegal dealings in the slave trade, which got him banished from Westeros. Clearly, he now seems to regret that deal, but in recent weeks we have been repeatedly reminded of his treachery. How long until Daenerys finds out?
  • Samwell Tarley and Gilly also get a nice, but brief scene together. Sam tells Gilly of his plan to take them to the Nightfort, a huge castle that was abandoned after it became impossible to maintain. Though it is on the other side of the Wall, he knows of a secret sally port called the Black Gate that will lead them through the Wall and into the Nightfort. The path has gone unused for centuries on account of no one knowing where it is. However, Sam claims to know how to find it. When Gilly is shocked, he explains that he read about it in a very old book. “You know all that from staring at marks on paper?” she says. “You’re like a wizard.” Sam gives a special smile at this remark, since it is a sweet callback to Season 1, Episode 7 when he told Jon Snow, “I always wanted to be a wizard.”
Game of Thrones, Season 3, Television

Season 3, Episode 8: Second Sons

Arya sees a different side to the Hound in the eighth episode of the third season.

Arya sees a different side to the Hound in the eighth episode of the third season.

“Second Sons,” written by the showrunners David Benioff & D.B. Weiss, focused on a much smaller cast of characters than usual. From this, we got to dwell on some great interactions, albeit at the expense of the Jaime/Brienne, Robb Stark, or Jon Snow storylines. I don’t think anyone missed Theon.

The title, “Second Sons,” comes from the name of the mercenary troops hired by the Yunkai to protect their city from Daenerys. They are aptly named, for in this world, second sons stand to inherit nothing. Many of them join the ranks of the mercenaries for glory and gold, or are forced to marry girls against their will, or have to use mystical powers to claim the throne that is only ambiguously theirs. This episode featured many of the second sons of Westeros and beyond.

Sandor Clegane (the Hound) is one of the Seven Kingdom’s most infamous second sons. His older brother, the Mountain, makes the Hound look downright cuddly by comparison, as Sandor points out to his very reluctant captive, Arya Stark. Arya tries to kill him in his sleep, and he grants her one attempt, but dares her to make it good or else he’ll break both her hands. Wisely, she restrains herself, but not her tongue. She continues to lash out at him, thinking that he has her captured for the Lannisters. Instead, the Hound continues his profanity-laden tirade from last season (“Fuck the Kingsguard. Fuck the city. Fuck the king.”) by replying, “Fuck Joffrey. Fuck the queen.” In a way, his list of “fucks” to give about the people he used to serve mirrors the hit list Arya recites before her sleep.

Not only is the Hound not taking her to King’s Landing, but he is returning her to her mother and brother at the Twins, where her uncle’s wedding will be held. When he tells Arya about the time he saved her sister from getting raped by an angry mob, Arya clearly does not want to believe him. She cannot reconcile this man who is returning her to her family and saving Sansa with the loyal Lannister dog she met en route to King’s Landing in Season 1. Still, the Brotherhood Without Banners couldn’t fulfill their promise to bring her back to her family, and she can’t possibly hide her happiness at the prospect of returning home at last, even if it might mean giving up her vow to kill the Hound for what he did to her friend Mycah.

Across the Narrow Sea, Daenerys finally meets the “friends” of Yunkai: a mercenary band of warriors called the Second Sons after all the younger siblings who join them in search for whatever glory they can grab in this hierarchical world. Essos (the other continent east of Westeros) is not especially known for national militaries. Instead, they have a great mercenary tradition, with many “Free Companies” for hire; the Second Sons is one of them.

Daenerys tries to woo the Second Sons to her cause, attempting to bluff them into submission. The three men seem unconcerned about the threat of her troops. They’re not going to lose to a girl, no matter the fact that her troops outnumber theirs. Mero, also known as Titan’s Bastard, makes many sexually aggressive suggestions and threats, which always works to endear men to Dany. Prendahl na Ghezn, also a captain alongside Mero, has a handsome young lieutenant named Daario Naharis. The two captains turn down Daenerys without hesitation, knowing that their share of the riches from the contract won’t come until she conquers the Seven Kingdoms. Considering she has now shouldered a moral obligation to free the slaves of Essos, that could be years off. The three men leave and Dany tells Barristan that, if they should have to fight the Second Sons, he should kill Mero first.

Stannis, the second Baratheon son, and the one who was always overlooked, is still striving to remount his campaign from Dragonstone. He lost so many ships and men to the Battle of Blackwater that he can rely on nothing else but the sorcery of the Red Priestess, Melisandre. Still, Stannis has a rare quality of honor. Even though he is slightly more of a zealot for honor than the late Ned Stark, he is still striving to lead with integrity; he seeks power in part to save people from the Lord of Light’s version of the Rapture. But, in order to do that, he may need to sacrifice an innocent.

This leaves him torn in spirit, if not outwardly so, but Daavos is quick to pick up on his inner conflict. He comes to free his old friend and adviser from his cell on that particular day because part of him needs to hear Daavos tell him that he’s better than the man who sacrifices an innocent to the cause. He’s not convinced by the captive’s reasoning, but the fact that he’s still willing to seek Daavos’s counsel (and that Daavos is still alive in the first place) is cause enough to believe that perhaps this is not the end of Gendry, after all.

After the leeching, it’s unclear what, if anything, was accomplished from a mystical standpoint. The three men whose names were said aloud as the leeches were thrown into the fire (Balon Greyjoy, Robb Stark, and Joffrey Baratheon– the three remaining kings) are still living, though there was a cut to Joffrey immediately after. Will Gendry still be sacrificed, will he continue to be leeched, or is his work done? Melisandre made a lot of her butcher analogy– if you reveal your blade too early to the animal, the fear taints the taste of the meat– so it would seem odd if there was more yet to come for Gendry. But, knowing Melisandre, she couldn’t let her new toy off so easily.

Back in King’s Landing, the second son of Tywin Lannister is prepping for his wedding to Sansa Stark. The Stark girl readies herself in front of a mirror, next to which she has propped the doll her father gave her. She’s still a little girl, despite all that she has experienced. But it’s her wedding day, and even though it’s not the one that she has been dreaming of since her youth, she manages to put on her best teenage sulk and bear it.

The wedding is a dull and dreary affair, the opposite of the joyous occasion that it ought to be. The lone moments of quasi-joy for us as viewers come from the total displeasure of all of the attendees. For one, Margaery tries to ply Cersei with the same sister line she worked on Sansa. Unfortunately, the older woman does not take to it so kindly. In fact, Cersei responds with a long and elaborate death threat.

First, she references a famous and popular song (which was already sung by Bronn in Season 2) called the “Rains of Castamere.” This is the house song of the Lannisters, since it tells of Lord Tywin’s slaughter of a rebellious lesser lord, Reyne. House Reyne, we learn, was the second most powerful and prosperous family in the land. The first was and still is the Lannisters, of course. The Reynes wanted more, and so they launched a foolhardy rebellion against Tywin, and got utterly crushed in return. Cersei draws a not-so-subtle parallel between the Reynes and the Tyrells, who are now the striving family in second place. Margaery’s smile grows forced and frigid as Cersei finishes off the threat with a promise to wring her neck in her sleep, should she try to get friendly again. There is no love lost between these two.

Meanwhile, King Joffrey still likes to show that he can do virtually whatever he wants, despite the authoritative threat of his grandfather in attendance. He chooses to walk Sansa down the aisle, since naturally her father cannot be there to do it. Joffrey is like the cat who keeps the mouse alive just enough to continue to play with it. He gets some kind of base pleasure from goading Sansa. Whether that stems from actual desire for her is unclear; though he does threaten to rape her if she won’t have him willingly, it is not clear if he’s interested in her, or if he simply wants to torture her, as he has tortured Ros and other prostitutes in the past. The costuming in this scene is interesting, especially with the armor that Sansa wears around her waist. Taking a note from Cersei, she has armored herself for her wedding by fortifying her hips. She is quite literally steeling herself for her wedding night.

Tyrion, the quintessential second son, is tormented throughout his wedding by Joffrey, who cannot help showing off his power over his uncle. First, he steals the stool that Tyrion was going to use to perform the ceremonial robe-draping. Later, when he taunts his drunk uncle over the bedding ceremony, which would likely be a great humiliation for both Tyrion and Sansa, Tyrion threatens Joffrey with sincere malice. What’s interesting is that no one corrects him. No one puts him in his place, acknowledges his insubordination, or even declares him an outright traitor for speaking against the king. Making threats against a king’s life or person would have cost anyone else dearly, but Tyrion somehow gets a pass. Tyrion may not be loved by those around him, but he is able to get away with giving Joffrey a piece of his mind because people tend to agree with him. Even Cersei seems fed up with Joffrey, who doesn’t listen to her when she encourages him to make moves on his bride-to-be instead of pursuing the Stark girl with threats. The episode is ultimately smoothed over by a generally disproving and dour Tywin.

Back in the room, Tyrion and Sansa begrudgingly go through the initial motions of consummating their marriage, as Tywin has ordered his second son to do. Back during the Battle of the Blackwater, Cersei encouraged Sansa to drink when things got stressful, and though she did not enjoy the thought of wine before the wedding, she lunges for it now, pouring a hearty cup before the bedding. Tyrion takes all this in and halts her in her undressing, noble as always. Tyrion himself doesn’t get enough credit for the honor he holds, since he’s no saint like Ned Stark, but he’s always been kind and fair with Sansa and the other Starks. He promises not to sleep with her until she’s ready, and even plays off the suggestion that she may never want to sleep with him with a half-hearted recital of the Night’s Watch oath (they are sworn to chastity). They pass out without consummating the marriage, much to Shae’s apparent delight the next morning.

Outside Yunkai, the young lieutenant of the Second Sons, Daario, has been ordered by his captains to kill the dragon queen, despite his belief that they should join their ranks to hers. It appears as if he accepts this order willingly until we see him later, sneaking into Daenerys’s tent with an assassin’s blade held to Missandei’s neck. Daenerys is stern and commanding even in her vulnerable state, nude and in the tub. This clearly entices Daario, who made the decision to behead his captains so that he may ally the Second Sons to her cause. He presents Dany with both of their heads and swears an oath of his loyalty and love. He has a lot of confidence and bravado, not to mention physical strength and good looks– traits that are not unlike Daenerys’s deceased husband, Khal Drogo. The two beautiful and powerful people are naturally drawn to one another, but one hopes that Daario is sincere; his sword hilt is a naked woman not unlike the mudflap girl you see on many trucks in the US, and he uses a silver tongue on both Mero’s prostitute and Daenerys. It is yet unclear whether this man will be a true ally for Daenerys’s cause, or if he is a skilled and opportunistic Lothario. Either way, Dany has acquired more troops and weakened Yunkai before even stepping onto the battlefield. Her victories are piling up.

Finally, we visit the north where Sam and Gilly are still trying to outrun the undead menace with a baby in tow. Samwell Tarly may as well be a second son to his father, Randyll, whom he references in their conversation over what to name the baby. Gilly is originally drawn to his father’s name, but Sam urges her against it. After all, his own father forced him to renounce his rights of inheritance as the first born son, since Randyll found Sam utterly lacking as a male. Sam’s younger brother is the son that Randyll Tarly always wanted, and the only one he deemed worthy to carry on his titles and his legacy. Sam was forced to join the Night’s Watch so that his younger brother could inherit what was rightfully his. Sam is made to be the second son because he is weak, frightful, and unwanted. He doesn’t tell Gilly all this, but clearly he feels it strongly.

However, Sam gets a chance to defy even his own expectations when Gilly and the baby are attacked by a White Walker. Before that, ominous crows perched on the Heart tree they had camped beneath. This tree, with red leaves and a face in its trunk, is typically at the center of the godswoods, which are important to the Starks and the old religion. The crows serve as a warning to Gilly and Sam, who emerge from their hut in time to see the White Walker coming. Sam arms himself, but his blade is instantly shattered by the monster. As the White Walker descends on Gilly and the baby, Sam reacts without fear or hesitation, driving his secondary blade made of dragonglass into the thing’s back. The walker is instantly stunned and collapses in a heap of shards, leaving only the blade behind in the snow. The monsters that were so hard to kill have a weakness after all, and it’s Samwell, the fearful and cowering second son, who is finally brave enough to find it.

Other thoughts on “Second Sons”:

  • Next weekend there will not be a new episode on Sunday night due to Memorial Day weekend in the US. Last year they aired their penultimate episode of the season (“Blackwater”) on the Sunday night of Memorial Day and it took a little bit of a ratings hit. To avoid this, HBO decided to delay the airing of the 9th episode, which is all for the best. You never want to miss the 9th episode of the season of Game of Thrones (Ned Stark’s beheading, the Battle of Blackwater…). Just thought I’d give you a heads up after my friend Charlie reminded me (“I was totally about to have people over and give them bread and salt…right before the Liberace movie.”).
  • I loved this quote from Laura Hudson’s recap of the latest episode:
“The roles that women are permitted to play in Westerosi society are painfully narrow, but the show’s female characters respond to those limitations in very different ways: Some, like Sansa, accept what is expected of them because they see no other choice or can’t imagine one; some, like Ygritte, Arya, Shae and Brienne, look at the expectations and say bullshit—a proposition that can prove very dangerous; others, like Cersei, do something a little more complicated where they internalize the ideas they’re taught about what women should be, but still feel resentful and repressed by them. This attitude can lead to women actually perpetuating the power structures that made them miserable in the first place, competing viciously with other women for whatever limited power is available, or lashing out at women simply because they’re the most vulnerable targets. Cersei–who says over and over in the books that she should have been born a man–does all of the above.”