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.
In the penultimate episode of Season 4, a historically bloody chapter in every season thus far, “The Watchers on the Wall” features the long-awaited battle between the wildlings and the Night’s Watch. Like the ninth episode of the second season (“Blackwater”), this one focuses solely on one location, culminating in an epic battle sequence that takes place over the course of a single night.
“Night gathers, and now my watch begins… I am the sword in the darkness. I am the watcher on the walls. I am the shield that guards the realms of men. I pledge my life and honor to the Night’s Watch, for this night and all the nights to come.”
But this episode is more than just a well-choreographed and well-shot action film. It makes us care about characters whose names we could never quite remember, like Pyp and Grenn, and characters we may have actively disliked, like Ser Alliser Thorne. It ruminates on duty, love, leadership, and masculinity, all while delivering intensely fun visual spectacles (like the giant arrow piercing the man over the Wall or the huge scythe shaving the climbers off the Wall).
It’s amazing that no one else on the continent knows that this battle is taking place, since there is so much at stake for them should a hundred thousand wildlings succeed in breaching the Wall. As the oath says, “I shall wear no crowns and win no glory.” The men of the Night’s Watch fulfill their duty in spectacular fashion– for now.
In one of the most anticipated episodes of the season, aptly titled “The Mountain and the Viper,”Game of Thrones takes another look at the power of families. “Family, honor, all that horseshit. It’s all you lords and ladies ever talk about,” the Hound says to Arya. What he doesn’t acknowledge is the overwhelming affect that families have– not only on the course of events in Westeros, but also over the individuals within.
For starters, Gilly’s very life is spared because Ygritte finds her with baby Sam in her arms and takes pity. Grey Worm and Missandei, who never had an opportunity to really know their own families, are beginning to cultivate a relationship and find comfort in each other. For Ramsay Snow, the bastard of Roose Bolton, it means so much to be officially acknowledged as a Bolton: heir to the North, but more importantly, a legitimate member of the family. Theon uses his family name to invade and influence the otherwise-impregnable Moat Cailin and the immovable Greyjoy forces stationed within. Sansa reveals her family name in order to gain the confidence and compassion of the powerful lords of the Vale, but later sheds the Stark name in order to take on a new identity that is all her own. Tyrion and Jaime bond as brothers right before the trial by combat, and Oberyn Martell fights bravely because he demands justice– not for Tyrion, but for his sister. In the game of thrones, family is an important, ever-present source of power.
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.
In “The Laws of Gods and Men,” one of the series’s most tragic episodes to date, Tyrion Lannister stands supplicant before a court of men appointed to determine his fate. Prior to that, Daavos and Stannis arrive as supplicants to the nongovernmental power of the Iron Bank, and Daenerys hears the petitions of many who have been negatively affected by her naive rule. Even Reek, the man formally known as Theon Greyjoy, appears as a postulant to Ramsay Snow’s torturous household reign, refusing to even acknowledge his sister when she comes to rescue him.
In the end, in all of these cases except for the most beaten man (Theon), it’s the supplicants who manage to take the upper hand. Each of them proves to even the most rational and calculated leaders that “plain” stories told in “books filled with numbers” do not account for the emotions of grieving and aggrieved sons.
If last week was all about how women are able to wield power in a man’s world, this week was about the men. Even Yara, Theon’s sister, is praised for her “balls” when she dares to rescue her brother from the Dreadfort. (“You’ve got bigger balls than he ever did.”) But these aren’t men who fit into the continents’ typical molds of masculinity. Varys and Theon are both eunuchs, Tyrion is a dwarf, Stannis is the forgotten and unloved king, and newcomer Hizdahr zo Loraq is a noble’s son who has recently lost not only his father, but also his ruling power. Despite this, all but Theon manages to subvert those in power in both subtle and overt ways.
Though we visit with several other characters, the core of this episode’s narrative is Tyrion’s trial in King’s Landing. The whole second half of the episode focuses on the fan-favorite, but the beginning still managed to unite many very disparate storylines under several key themes. Not only are there power dynamics at play in each scene, with one party bowing to the authority of a higher power at first (before unsettling it in the end), but we also revisit a couple of Game of Thrones‘s well-worn themes: justice and history in context. With fantastic direction from Alik Sakharov, the camera reinforces the themes of Bryan Cogman’s script throughout.
“The Laws of Gods and Men” was a great episode. Everyone seems to agree that the writers wrote a tight narrative that worked on both a thematic and emotional level. And Peter Dinklage acted the hell out of it.
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.