There’s an air of apathy, almost resignation, to the opening conversation between Margaery and Cersei in this latest episode, both seemingly aware that for all their conspiring against each other around Joffrey, they are now back in the same spot. Cersei a mother, Margaery a potential spouse. It is Tommen who is first, in his name as the episode title reminds us, and so we continue the arc of the last two episodes, that Game of Thrones is no place where a woman can rightfully play the game for power as men do.
What is a game?
Essentially, it relies on all parties agreeing to a set of rules, a contract that decides everyone is a participant, and everyone operates on an understanding that certain objectives will be sought and certain paths will be taken. Additionally, there is an element of tradition, certain people play games certain ways, that allows individual agency to work.
The power struggle at the heart of Game of Thrones has really been the dominant theme this season – if it hasn’t been all seasons – but what has really surfaced since Joffrey’s poisoning is that the game is in danger of breaking, and may be lost entirely. That the series recognises this as not necessarily a bad thing is what gives the story dynamism this season, more so than previously.
I’ve said before how the Lannisters’ actions at the Red Wedding (and the Freys’, while we’re at it) seemingly broke the rules of the game. By disregarding custom, and tradition of the rules, they wrote new ones. This was then visited on them at Joffrey’s wedding, and since then the characters seem to be either struggling to maintain their previous convictions over how to play the game, or quickly realising that all bets are off. Margaery and Cersei almost appear bored at their irrelevance to the status quo. Sister or mother, wife or daughter, but never first.
Those who broke the game are having their sins visited upon them. Others who bought into it, and abided it, are growing tired that it brings nothing but horror, as Margaery states. So what is left? Give up, like the mutineers, or bring a whole new game, like Daenerys over in Meereen.
Possibly for the first time, I’m beginning to wonder if George R.R. Martin is actually offering a more traditional narrative than first suspected. For all our shock at his revelry in killing off protagonists, it becomes increasingly noticeable that Daenerys will be there until the end, and is the only likely solution to the woes of the Seven Kingdoms. All the bad guys will be overthrown, and the good girl wins.
She actually shirks at the opportunity of sailing to war, of attempting to wage more horror on Westeros, something the men in power never seem to worry about. This isn’t playing the game, this isn’t following the rules, and Daenerys is actually living rather than playing. Interestingly, the endless stalling that her storyline seems to create in the books is actually given more significance in the show, here is a direct contrast to Westeros, to the jostling and bloodshed in King’s Landing, to the death and fear of the North. The Mother of Dragons won’t be just a mother, she will be more than that.
Sansa, meanwhile, is taken to the Eyrie by Littlefinger, the first time she has left King’s Landing since the first season, and the first time we’ve visited this place in about as long. Sansa’s aunt Lysa is still occupying the same deluded space she did back then, revealing to us how she orchestrated her husband John Arryn’s death by poisoning (provided by Littlefinger, of course), which resulted in King Robert marching to Winterfell to beg Ned to become Hand of the King. Littlefinger is thusly shown as the engineer of the entire game, the one who started it all, even if it was with just a little push. Small actions have very large reactions in Game of Thrones.
Lysa’s confession to lying about the Lannisters isn’t just hasty exposition, or a way of means of adding intrigue to Littlefinger, rather it joins current events with those that happened way back in the pilot, or even prefiguring the lifetime of the show, and demonstrates how this season is concentrating on unifying the plots, on keeping them tied to each other in a way that it hasn’t before. Also, this is in defiance somewhat of the books, which only seem to stretch the strands between the plots further and further apart, to the point of breaking. On screen, it’s difficult to juggle constantly divergent plots and mysteries stacked upon mysteries. When Lysa explains to us how Jon Arryn died, she is providing an answer to a mystery for the audience, and allowing them to once again look clearly at the narrative with renewed understanding. Any long-running series suffers under the weight of amplification and accumulation, with characters and plots stacking up endlessly, an element that is extremely present in the books – but Game of Thrones the TV series is working overtime to provide some unity and clarity.
I can’t help but feel that their focus on maintaining a unity to the plots this season is as a result of Benioff and Wise’s conversations with Martin about the ending, and that we are being shown a directed narrative, rather than an adaptation done by those who aren’t necessarily sure what to keep and what to jettison.
Arya and The Hound are still on their travels through the Riverlands, with Arya reciting all the names of those she wants to kill (unaware that some are already dead). This gives an opportunity to remind us all not only of her growing hatred of the world, but also that The Mountain is The Hound’s brother, and that The Hound is last on Arya’s list. But, we may well ask, what does that mean for Sandor Clegane?
Part Two of our Odd Couple road trip is Brienne and Podrick, on the King’s Road, in search of Sansa. It’s not quite in keeping with the books, but really it matters not, giving more life to the characters, and offering a bit more interest in the travels of characters that might otherwise pass without the audience caring. Is it necessary that we see Podrick burning his meal and Brienne chastising him? Not really, not unless we care about having characters to care about.
Oberyn turns up again in King’s Landing, and mentions his eight daughters to Cersei, and also his sister. Did he mention his sister? Oh yes his sister. Killed by The Mountain, who happens to be The Hound’s brother. Tiny details that they’re really trying to make sure we don’t miss. Oberyn’s sister, The Mountain, Braavos, Brienne’s oath, John Arryn’s poisoning – the show is screaming out for us to pay attention, lest we fall under the weight of accumulation that any long-running show develops, and we start to forget where we came from back in the pilot.
And then to Locke, who’s stalking the mutineers at Craster’s Keep, and we get the convergence of several story lines (the Dreadfort, the Wall and Bran’s journey), which doesn’t really match with the books at all, but illustrates how adaptations are really about getting to the same place in a vastly different way. Certain notes in this final sequence echo moments in the book, almost as a type of rhyme, and we finally get to spend some decent time with Bran’s group, particularly Jojen and Meera.
Theirs is a story line that isn’t always popular, but to me it really gets to the heart of the series’ mythology, which appeals to my interests. While Jon and Daenerys fight the battles on the surface of the world, Bran and his merry band of travellers are trying to find answers within it, and it was nice to seem him make that conscious choice in this sequence.
Particularly affecting is Hodor’s reaction to Bran warging control of his body to dispense of Locke, seeing the blood on his hands as Bran orders him to fetch Jojen and Meera and complete their escape. It’s a subtle yet powerful reminder that Bran is not averse to breaking rules as well, and getting others to do his dirty work.
The final set piece at Craster’s is the latest in a season made of final set pieces, yet everything still feels like anticipation. We know the wildlings are marching on the wall, but is that all we’ve to look forward to this season? I suspect not, though my suspicions are based less on what I’ve read in the books than in how the season is progressing. There have been more surprises in the first half of this season than any of the others preceding it.
Much of this episode is invention, and has little direct adaptation from the books. Much of it as well is set-up, for events we know or assume will happen soon. But for an episode that seemingly didn’t move us forward too much, it took time to reassert some characters, and character points that might get lost if all we pay attention to is the ever marching drum beat of the plot. We have to care, ultimately, or we’ll just become players in the game as well.
- Valar Morghulis: 11 mutineers, including Rast and Karl, as well as 5 Night’s Watch brothers, though whether we count Locke as a legitimate brother is debatable.
- Direwolves to the rescue! First time they’ve featured in a while, but it was nice to see this part of the Stark characters brought back.
- Goes without saying really: no Dreadfort, no Dragonstone.
- Also no Varys for a while. I like Varys. I like that he serves the realm. More Varys please.
- Interesting tidbit: Bran’s choice to leave Jon and continue on his journey was framed much as Frodo’s choice to leave the fellowship in The Fellowship of the Ring film. Or at least it reminded me of that. Interestingly, neither moments have parallels in the books, yet work to strengthen the choices of the characters and still remain true to the trajectory of their stories.