Spoilers ahead...both book and series
This week’s episode of Game of Thrones What is Dead May Never Die continues to explore the definition of power and the constant collision of Kings and Gods. Beginning beyond the wall, Jon Snow takes a beating to his pretty face and pride as Craster catches him spying. Jon Snow now knows what Craster does with his sons, he sacrifices them, and the chill runs deeper when he finds out that the Lord Commander already knows. Mormont tells Jon that the Wildlings serve crueler Gods than they do, but as the series continues to unfold I think we can all agree that all the Gods in Westeros are just as cruelly served by their believers. Sam shares a sweet moment with Gilly, giving the poor girl the innocent token he carries as a reminder of his mother: a thimble. Thimbles protect fingers, not incest babies, but it was a refreshing contrast to the darkness that defines Gilly’s small world.
I have read the books, and I have been very excited to see how the show handles Bran’s heightened third-eye abilities since his fall and loss of his legs. Bran is slowly discovering that he is a skinchanger, or a warg, able to inhabit the mind of his dire wolf and experience the physicality of the beast whilst he lay broken in bed. He may not be sharpening his mind with books as Tyrion does to compensate for his diminished physical abilities, but he is developing his mind in other ways, in powerful mystical ways. His maester tries to tarnish Bran’s hopeful interest in his new experiences by presenting him with his maester chain’s link of steel which represents the mystical studies he undertook at the Citadel. Unfortunately, he considers the time spent studying mysteries a waste, and he tells Bran that while old magic like skinchanging was once a mighty force in the world – it isn’t anymore. Except we all know that is not the truth with the emergence of dragons, whitewalkers, and sorcery – oh my.
Like the white walkers Jon Snow has encountered, the birth of Dany’s dragons from stone eggs, and the old mysterious magic Bran is experiencing, the
blessing of What is Dead May Never Die but Rises Again Harder and Stronger is
eerily defining of what is unfolding in the world. Though that
interconnectedness is rather profound and stems from the isolated Iron Island ,
it doesn’t lessen the fact that Theon Greyjoy is an arrogant little brat. Balon
refuses the terms offered by Robb Stark and instead decides to attack the North
while the Starks are at war with the Lannisters. Balon seeks power and is
motivated by blood revenge. His other sons were killed by Ned Stark during his last
rebellion, and he lost Theon to the North as a term of peace. Theon reminds his
father of this by screaming at him. Too old to be put in time out, Theon is
told he has a choice to make, he can bow down to the Starks or he can live by
the Greyjoy House words We Do Not Sow
and take what he wants. So now we know why Theon stalks around with that
almighty heir of entitlement, possessing what he pleases with little regard to
consequence – it is the defining mantra of his lineage. Iron Islands
Tantrum throwing was in the air of Westeros, for we find Shae is unhappy with her upper class and isolated digs as Tyrion’s whore. She wants more. Tyrion suggests scullery duties in the castle, but that is beneath the woman who sells her body to sustain herself, so she is placed as one of Sansa’s handmaidens. We see the collision of these two characters after Sansa endures the slow torture of taking her meals with Cersei and still engaged to the boy who ordered the death of her father. Sansa has to suppress her every emotion just to survive, so when she encounters her new clueless and insolent handmaiden she releases a bit of that aggression. Who can blame her?
Certainly not her mother, who arrives at Renly’s camp to witness the humiliating fight between Brienne, the maid of Tarth, and Loras Tyrell, the Knight of Flowers. Catelyn Stark has come to piece together an agreement between Robb and Renly that will result in conquering the Lannisters. What she finds is an arrogant King and a restless army playing at war while her son is actually at battle in the North. She warns Renly that his men are the knights of summer and winter is coming, but the warning falls flat as the King rushes to his tent to get it on with his lover. And that lover is not his new wife, Margery Tyrell of Highgarden. Margery is portrayed a bit different from how I imagined from the books, encompassing more of the character dynamic of Natalie Dormer’s former role as Anne Boleyn on The Tudors. She is a brazen and groping for power, pleading with Renly to put a baby in her belly in order to make peace with those opposed to the union of the House of Baratheon and Tyrell. As is a common theme in the show, the children are used as pieces on the game board for power in Westeros (and now we know the same applies beyond the wall; is Craster’s sacrifice of his sons any different then the way the lower realm marries off their children and sends them away as wards to garner peace?).
But Renly is gay, a fact that Margery openly acknowledges, offering to bring her brother Loras in to help stimulate the King. Renly is obviously still in the closest and views the knowledge of his sexuality as a weakness, just as Shae is Tyrion’s weakness; for as ever present as sexuality is in this show, it is often portrayed as a source of weakness: Ned Stark’s indiscretion resulting in Jon Snow, Tyrion’s lust for whores, the incest between Jamie and Cersei, Renly’s love for Loras, Robert’s abundance of bastards, Theon’s demonstration of character through molesting his sister. But in order for there to be a weakness, there must be an inherent power in sexuality, and in this we see how Littlefinger slings sex to the elite masses, Dany tamed her Horse Lord, and Stannis claimed his Kingly right through the Lord of Light.
But not all power is wielded through sex. There is a different power at play in Kings Landing where Tyrion manifests a scheme to divulge the identity of Cersei’s informant on the Council. In a series of lies and manipulations Tyrion entrusts Varys, Grand Maester Pycelle, and Littlefinger with secret information to see whose version of the secret makes it back to Cersei. Grand Maester Pycelle proves to be the winner, and as his station is shamed by the severing of his beard he is admonished for his deeds and sent to a black cell to rot as a traitor. (Which is wonderfully ironic considering his tirade against Ned Stark and Sansa in season one). Then we see that tantrums are still abound as Cersei balks at Tyrion’s plan to betroth her daughter Myrcella to a prince of Dorne in order to secure them as an ally. Again, the children are merely pieces moved into place to secure the desires of those playing with power.
Varys and Tyrion sit and chat about the illusion of power as the Eunuch proposes a riddle to the Imp. The riddle tests the allegiance of a sellsword who is approached by a king, a priest and a rich man. Will he yield to the lawful ruler, the command of the gods, or gold? It is a good riddle, one that richly applies to everything unfolding in Westeros, but the answer is that power is an illusion. Power resides where men believe it resides, says Varys, it’s a trick, a shadow on the wall, and even a small man can cast a very large shadow. That’s you Tyrion! I love it. All of these Kings believe they have the power, Stannis has the Lord of Light, Joffery has the ‘claim’ of the throne through supposed lineage, Renly has the biggest army, the Lannisters have all the money, Dany has her dragons – power is perceived through the belief of the one who is wielding it.
Power is not in paper, or so Cersei believes as she repeatedly demonstrates with her ripping of decrees and proposals, and in this episode she threatens Tyrion’s position as Hand of the King saying the piece of paper their father gave him will not protect him. But, power can be in paper as Stannis demonstrated through his Westeros-wide accusation (modern day equivalent to mass texting) of Lannister incest. Theon Greyjoy also holds the could be power of the paper, having written a warning to his friend Robb Stark before deciding to burn it, thus reclaiming his Iron Island blood and joining in the plot to a betray the Starks. What is born from that betrayal is Theon, or his rebirth from the sea as he is blessed by the Drowned God with steel and stone by the Damphair.
The last part of the show brings us Arya as she polishes her steel, repeatedly wiping the blade of her beloved sword needle, trying to cleanse it of the blood it has shed. But Arya cannot wipe away the mental stain of all that she has seen and what she has done. She asks Yoren how he sleeps at night, and the Black Brother tells her the tale of his murdered brother and how he said a secret prayer every night, a prayer for blood and vengeance, repeating the name of the man he wanted to kill. It would seem that the power over one’s own mind can be gained through the will of vengeance, blood revenge no different from what motivates Balon Greyjoy. Not long after this little pep talk the group is attacked, and as Yoren fights to the death like a badass warrior, Arya seemingly acts in ways that redeem the darkness that was gnawing at her. She sets the prisoners free by sliding them an axe when the cart catches fire, and she saves Gendry’s life with a lie. She discovers an important lesson aside from assuaging mental anguish with the notion of vengeance; she learns the power of a lie, which is something she formerly hated on Joffrey about. In this case she used the lie for a greater good, but I think as viewers we now see that the power of the lie will ultimately be her key to survive.