Spoilers for last night’s Game of Thrones follow:
“If you want to build a better home,” Petyr Baelish tells Sansa Stark just before planting a creepy-uncle kiss on her, “first you must demolish the old one.” He should know: Littlefinger, as we’ve discovered in recent episodes, has been bringing down castles in Westeros like Miley Cyrus riding a wrecking ball: killing a King, revealing that he killed a Hand, and now killing the Hand’s widow, after she served the purpose of marrying him and giving him a castle.
He’s a big believer in creative destruction, is our Petyr, a little lord far down the chain of power who long ago realized that if the wants to rise he needs to take a boltcutter to the chain links above him. With his talk of keeping your enemies off-balance, he has hinted at a larger plan: to upend everything, kick over the snow castle, the better for a crafty sculptor like him to rebuild it to his liking.
But to what end, for what cause? Love, or lust, or both–for Catelyn and now, by quasi-incestuous extension, for Sansa. Which raises the next, implicit question: can he possibly build any better a new order on that twisted foundation?
More on that in a second, but first: Sansa, poor Sansa! She’s as unlucky a girl can be who has repeatedly been saved from death and imprisonment. She’s the Sally Draper of Westeros, forever doomed to witness terrible things and stumble upon the depravity of adults. When her sister Arya was shielded from seeing Ned’s death, she had a front-row seat. Likewise Joffrey’s hideous death, and all the psychological tortures of King’s Landing in between.
And yet, as the initial scene in which she tries to rebuild her family home, as a snow castle, from memory–she has still managed to remain a child, which may be the greatest achievement that any character on Game of Thrones can claim. Up in the Riverlands, Arya remais decent-hearted, but she’s also a dead-eyed killer, able to skewer a man through the heart like pinning the tail on the donkey. Sansa, on the other hand, at least hangs on to some capacity for wonder amid her misery.
She hasn’t had to kill with her hands, but what Sansa must do emotionally is damn hard work, work that Sophie Turner conveys remarkably (in a performance that, I think, has gotten underappreciated because her character isn’t the crowd-pleaser that others are). Whether it’s enduring the cruelty of the Lannisters while keeping her composure, reassuring her crazy aunt that she has no designs on her now-uncle, or resisting said uncle’s advances in the Eyrie courtyard–Sansa can never let up, can never stop keeping up her guard and her appearances for one damn second. Which is why it’s so sweetly sad to see her have a moment of play in the snow (even if she’s building a monument to the dead) and even to get into a fight with her cousin/fiance Robin–because it’s a child’s fight, over a ruined snow castle, and for a few moments she has the opportunity to simply be the girl she is, not a wary target, a prisoner, a prize.
The more I watch Game of Thrones, really, the more I feel that it’s Sansa–not Dany, Jon, Stannis, or any other claimant–that I want to see end up in power (although a life sitting on the Iron Throne may be the last thing she wants). Toughened by her experience but tough enough to retain some measure of kindness, she’s one queen I could imagine sculpting Westeros’s rubble into something worthwhile–one person who could look at the plans for a castle without first asking where is it you hold the executions.
But, as Petyr told us, we don’t live in that world, not yet at least. The world we’re in now belongs to the castle-smashers. In Dragonstone, we get an ominous scene between Selyse Baratheon and Melisandre, whose very religious practice is built on the idea that one releases power and does God’s will on Earth by making people into tinder. When you believe that nothing done in your god’s name can be a sin, you end up with funeral pyres and poor old Gendry, who I assume is still out there rowing away from her with all his might. Charming as she can be, it’s chilling to hear her tell Selyse that her daughter Shireen must come along on their unnamed adventure: king’s blood, as we know, is Mel’s favorite potion, and poor Shireen is chock full of it.
In Meereen, Daenerys is asking herself what she wants to rebuild, having demolished the social order of Slaver’s Bay. Unlike Petyr, her goals are idealistic, even if she started out with the simple goal of restoring the Targaryen family dynasty. But as she’s discovering, there’s a fine line between idealism and fanaticism, between liberator and executioner, as Jorah persuades her. Kill all the Masters and she’s a tyrant; leave them alive and she may regret it. Here, destroying is the easy part; rebuilding is harder–and knowing what you want to rebuild and why, maybe impossible.
Yet the urge to destroy may still have its uses: it may be Tyrion’s last hope, for instance. As suggested last week, his demand for trial by combat was indeed a from-hell’s-heart-I-stab-thee swipe at Tywin: “It felt good to take that from him.” But he literally cannot get a champion for love or money. Jaime is not willing to get killed by The Mountain (whom we see dispatching prisoners like batting practice) simply to go down with his brother. And as for Bronn–the future Mr. Lollys Stokeworth–his price is now too high.
But Tyrion has just what Oberyn wants: revenge, and the opportunity to shatter Tywin Lannister’s plans. People may think of Game of Thrones as an action series, but “Mockingbird,” like so many of its stronger episodes, is really just a series of conversations between two people. In a confluence of interests so perfect I’m surprised Tyrion didn’t think of it immediately, Oberyn volunteers to avenge his sister and her babies, and proffers a gift to Tyrion in return: a story about visiting him as a baby–rumored to be a “monster”–and witnessing the murderous hatred his sister had for him even then. It’s a compelling monologue, but equally telling is Tyrion’s reaction to Oberyn’s offer: he’s relieved, maybe, but not really overjoyed. The story reminds us, after all: even if Tyrion survives, what does he have to move on to? For some, all that may be left is the demolition, not the reconstruction.
Which brings us back to Petyr Baelish. His destroy-and-rebuild metaphor is so apt, I think, because Game of Thrones does a lot of characterization through architecture; that is, the castles and keeps of the various families tells us something about the builders and inhabitants. Winterfell is sturdy and austere. Dragonstone is cold and hard and isolated, like Stannis. The Eyrie is impregnable but isolated, underlining the paranoid, stir-crazy, sickly air of the Arryn family.
Littlefinger, we know, hails from a forgettable hold in the sticks. What sort of castle would Petyr build if he could? The episode is titled “Mockingbird,” which is Petyr’s sigil: a mimic, an imitator. His means of ascension has been simply to acquire the homes of others, trading up every time (it’s Property Ladder with Petyr Baelish!). By playing a certain part for Joffrey, he got Harrenhal, by playing the brief role of Lysa’s lover, he moved on up to the Eyrie.
Petyr Baelish is a mockingbird, but given his modus operandi, he might better be a cuckoo or a cowbird–some species that lays its eggs in another’s nest, pushes out its brood, and claims it for his own. (Lysa, actually, raises this image herself; the bodies hurled out the Moon Door, she says, sometimes shatter on the rocks “like eggs.” We know that he has the genius for sowing chaos, but not if he has the imagination to do anything but inhabit others’ castles, to try to create a replica of his true love through Sansa.
So he does just that, and–once he has her right where he wants her–pushes poor, tormented Lysa Arryn out of her own nest through the Moon Door. Because there’s one thing this mockingbird knows: If you want to make an omelet, you’ve got to break some eggs.
Now for the hail of arrows:
* Hot Pie! Though it remains to be seen where the Brienne and Pod Roadshow will take us, I was delighted to see Westeros’ Top Chef make another appearance. I just wonder how easy it is to carry a wolf-bread intact on a cross country journey in armor.
* And, Hot Pie, you speak truth: Never, ever give up on the gravy, my friend.
* This week in equal-opportunity nudity: a long-awaited shot of Daario’s ass is directly followed by a nude (at considerably more length) Melisandre.
* A digression, and maybe everyone is tired of talking about rape in Game of Thrones, but: Bronn’s new sweetheart, Lollys? She’s actually an example of a brutal rape scene from the source books that the series omitted. In what would have been a season-2 scene, Lollys was horrifically gang-raped by an angry mob during a revolt in King’s Landing; that was changed here into a mob attack in which Sansa was nearly raped but was saved by the Hound.
* Meanwhile, at The Wall–well, things are still progressing very slowly. That looming attack by the Wildlings has been looming for quite a while now, and although there are still three episodes left, I have to wonder if this story arc will get much resolution by the end of this season.
* Although the series is increasingly departing from the books, and may do so more in the future, the rule is still the rule: no discussing future book spoilers. But you knew that already, right?