Spoilers for last night’s Game of Thrones follow:
The first three seasons of Game of Thrones built to a great big event in the second episode from the end: Ned Stark’s execution, the Battle of the Blackwater, the Red Wedding. Season 4 has reversed the sequence, springing a great big event in the second episode from the beginning–Joffrey’s assassination–and then dealing with the chain of aftereffects. Directed again by Michelle MacLaren, “First of His Name” is, more than most, a this-thing-and-that-thing-and-another-thing episode, contributing a little each to a lot of storylines, but much of it is concerned with the same question:
So now what?
In the worldview of Game of Thrones, the big kill, the shocking event, is often the easy part. “Now what?” is more important: what truly matters in the long run is the harder work of settling things in the aftermath. Joffrey the Cruel is no longer King of Westeros. So, now what? In the eyes of unsentimental Grandpa Tywin, nothing has changed. An alliance with the Tyrells is still needed, so there will be another wedding, this time not with the heir but with the spare, Tommen.
It’s a curious scene in which Tywin sits and makes plans with Cersei. On the one hand, this is possibly as empathetic as we’ve seen him be toward his daughter–acknowledging, for instance, that he knows she does not want to marry Loras and that he didn’t like Robert any better than she did. But Tywin takes a long-term, dynastic view of history, in which the fate of one person, even one family member, means little next to greater institutions.
So Tywin explains to Cersei why their creditor, the Iron Bank of Braavos, is so powerful and fearsome. “It is comprised of people,” she says, asking why he doesn’t find someone to ease their terms. (Copyeditor’s note: Composed of people!) “And a temple is comprised of stones,” he answers. “One stone crumbles and another takes its place. And the temple holds its form for a thousand years or more.” He’s talking gold, but he could just as well mean House Lannister’s human assets. Joffrey was family and we loved him, he suggests, but in the end he was just a stone. It’s Tywin’s job to see to the masonry of the temple.
In Slaver’s Bay too, Daenerys faces the question. She conquered Meereen while hardly breaking a sweat. So now what? Freeing a city, it turns out, is easy. Keeping it free is the trick. It has seemed all too simple, the way Dany has cut a path of conquest across the region, and it turns out it was too simple: the two cities she liberated have fallen in her absence into re-enslavement or dictatorship.
Now, like so many liberators before her (cough, Iraq, cough), Dany finds herself facing Colin Powell’s Pottery Barn Rule: She broke Meereen, so she bought it. She could, as Jorah suggests, declare victory and sail for Westeros now. (There’s always room at the party!) But, perhaps in a sign of maturity, she realizes that her conquest has to have an endpoint: she can’t just leave flaming stepping stones behind her on the way to another territory forever, unless her dragons get big enough to fly to space. She finds herself, in a way, like Jaime staring at the blank space in his Kingsguard entry: history may be changed by those who ride into town, but it is written by those who stay.
The “Now what?” question is one of many ways in which Game of Thrones likes to subvert the tropes of epic fantasy with psychological and political realism. Often, these stories build toward one grand triumph that fixes everything; the Ring of Power falls into the Crack of Doom and all of Sauron’s works crumble. (Likewise sci-fi stories inspired by fantasy; fire one torpedo into the Second Death Star and it’s time to crank up “Yub Nub.”)
Game of Thrones, on the other hand, is fantasy written in the spirit of historical fiction, which means that it’s not just concerned with big game-changers but with–well, read the title–the game itself. Like HBO’s The Wire, it’s conscious of the power of institutions: banks, religions, dynasties, social customs. It doesn’t discount individuality, but it doesnt romanticize it either. As The Hound puts it, sometimes it’s not the swordsmanship that wins the fight but the armor.
One of the institutions that supports Westeros’ governing system is the trading of people, particularly women, as bargaining chips, and that theme is all over “First of His Name.” “We may be faced with a number of weddings soon,” Margaery tells Cersei, and boy is she not kidding. She’s promised to Tommen. Cersei is promised to Loras. Sansa hasn’t yet finished her dessert at the Eyrie when she’s told she’ll marry Lysa’s son Robin–who, you’ll recall, prefers milk to lemon cakes–after her excitable aunt interrogates her about her maidenhead. Even Cersei’s talk with Oberyn Martell in the garden turns to her own daughter, Myrcella, in Dorne as guest/ward/hostage. And the assurance of her safety means little to someone who’s seen all that Cersei has. “Everywhere in the world, they hurt little girls,” she says.
As so many things in Game of Thrones do, this brings us back to rape. It may be that Game of Thrones has overused it as a plot turn and a threat–back at Craster’s Keep, this week it’s Meera who is nearly raped by Karl before he dies, which, we get it already, he’s a rapist. But the episode doesn’t overlook the act’s consequences here. (If Cersei’s bitter comment about little girls does not refer back to the was-it-rape by Jaime, it certainly refers back to her abuse by her despised husband Robert.) The brutalization of women has a context: it’s part of a social chain that has highborn women traded in alliances at the top end and treated as plunder at the low end of the scale.
It’s satisfying to see Karl get his, in part by a knife in the back from one of Craster’s daughters. (It might have been more satisfying to see her strike the death blow; needing to have Jon finish him off with a sword through the mouth is another example of the series’ tendency to abandon restraint in favor of, well, having a sword come through a guy’s mouth.) But again, Jon Snow and company’s conquest of the Keep is a dramatic triumph that does not fix everything all by itself. The Night’s Watch has saved Craster’s daughters from Karl and his men. But they haven’t liberated them from being poor, powerless women in this culture. They’ve been victimized by Craster, then by the men who killed Craster, and there’s no guarantee that the company of the Night’s Watch would be any better. In their deadened eyes, Jon and his men aren’t saviors. They’re just the next bunch of men to kill the last bunch of men.
So “First of His Name” raises the question again: you’ve been freed from your captors and abusers. Now what? This time, one of the women gives the answer: “Burn it to the ground. And all the dead with it.”
Now for the hail of arrows:
* As for the rest of the business at Craster’s: once again, Bran comes literally within shouting distance of Jon and is not reunited with him. On the surface this arc may not have accomplished much (Locke is already, quickly, out of the picture), but it did at least add some drama to Bran’s storyline, which seems to be heavy on the mystical visions and light on the doing-anything-but-being-carried-through-the-woods.
* For more on rape as a plot point both in Game of Thrones and the source books, I recommend this Dave Itzkoff feature from over the weekend, which evenhandedly lays out the objections to repeatedly using sexual assault as a plot device and the justification for it as seen by author George R.R. Martin. But above all I think Itzkoff does a good job comparing the depictions of rape in the series with the A Song of Ice and Fire books, which I think is often oversimplified in this argument. The charge that the series’ makers are “adding rape” to the books is true insofar as they have included rape scenes not directly depicted in the books, but they’ve also left out some horrific ones, including, as Itzkoff mentions, a significant mob rape in King’s Landing that would have appeared earlier in the series. (The raping at Craster’s, meanwhile, is not described directly in the books but it is mentioned indirectly after the fact [spoilers at that link].) This doesn’t make the rape scenes in the series any better or worse–when you’re dealing with visual depictions, a lot less goes a lot farther. But it’s also not a simple matter of “adding rape” for TV; though I’m a big fan of the books, they also bludgeon you with the horrors of this world long after you’ve gotten the point already.
* Call me a dork, but I get genuinely excited when anyone brings up the Iron Bank of Braavos, or the bigger question of how important finance is to the world and wars of Westeros. And the revelation that the mines at Casterly Rock went bust three years ago may turn out to be the biggest bombshell of the episode in the long run. Not only does Tywin not “shit gold,” as the popular saying in Westeros goes, he’s shit out of gold.
* Not that I expect it to last, but this episode presented the most sustained, sympathetic version of Cersei we’ve seen in a while. (And again, fine, fine work by Lena Headey playing her as someone who learned villainy as a defense mechanism.)
* So it turns out Littlefinger has been even busier than we realized, having engineered not only Joffrey’s poisoning but, way back in the day, that of Hand of the King Jon Arryn, which brought the Stark family on their delightful holiday to King’s Landing in the first place. Remind me not to drink with him.
* Someone could make a fortune with Aerobic Water Dancing exercise videos.
* The usual reminder for those of you who’ve read the books: no discussing events that haven’t yet transpired in the series itself. But you knew that, right?
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