Note: This review may contain spoilers for this and all episodes to date, but it does not contain any spoilers from the books.
Last season’s fourth episode, “Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things,” was a particular favorite of mine, and represented the moment when I understood that Game of Thrones was a much richer show—emotionally and thematically—than I had first suspected. I’ve probably used that episode’s title phrase more often than any other in my subsequent discussions, because the fate of “cripples, bastards, and broken things” is a recurring theme that runs throughout this series. For all its concern with the powerful, prosperous rulers of Westeros, the heart of Game of Thrones is in its misfits: the cast-offs, the odd-balls, the people who don’t fit perfectly into the exclusive clans, strict hierarchies, and predetermined social orders of this world.
These, anyway, are my favorite characters: the ones who have been damaged by their own differences but stubbornly, heroically cling to their unique, inconvenient identities. “What is Dead May Never Die” is another episode that focuses on these misfit toys of the Seven Kingdoms, and specifically on the men who do not quite fit this society’s harsh definition of manhood. We see them struggle to maintain their untraditional roles and peculiar souls in a world where nearly everyone is asked to bend the knee. We see them fight to hold onto their hearts, in a culture where a heart is largely seen as a weakness.
“I’m not giving it away. I’m giving it to you.”—Samwell Tarley
Jon Snow (Kit Harington) is one of the bastards of the Seven Kingdoms, and—though he was raised in love and safety—his illegitimacy has always set him apart from everyone. He and his half-brother Robb are very much alike, but Robb was the recognized heir and dutiful son, while Jon has always been a bit of an outsider, with an outsider’s perspective and prerogative. It made him unhappier than Robb, but it also made him smarter, and stronger, and more willing to challenge authority.
Those qualities land him in trouble fairly often: they put him on the wrong side of Alliser Thorne last season, they put him on the wrong side of Craster (Robert Pugh) this season, and they risk damaging his relationship with Commander Mormont (James Cosmo). Jon is horrified to discover that Mormont knows all about Craster’s infanticidal practices, but Mormont assures him that’s how things are done north of the wall. “The Wildlings serve crueler gods than you or I,” he tells Jon. What’s more, the Night’s Watch depends on its tenative alliance with Craster, and Mormont expects Jon to obey orders and not cause trouble. But blind obedience doesn’t come naturally to Jon Snow, especially when it conflicts with the morality he learned from Ned. (There’s a nice moment in this scene, where Mormont holds the sword he gave Jon last season, and looks for a moment like he may not give it back to him. You can see how much Jon wants it—or the trust and belonging it represents—but if the price of his allegiance to the Old Bear is compromising his own sense of right and wrong, it may be too high.)
Samwell Tarly (John Bradley) is not a bastard, but he is far more damaged than Jon Snow, and therefore may be even more admirable. Jon grew up the illegitimate son of a good man who loved him: Sam grew up the legitimate heir to a monster who hated him. Randyll Tarly hated Sam for being soft, and so set out to systematically destroy everything sweet and gentle in the boy. Listen to Sam describe one of the only happy memories of his childhood, as he gives Gilly (Hannah Murray) one of his only treasures, a thimble:
“It belonged to my mother…My mother used it for sewing. She’d let me sit with her, in her chamber, while she sewed, and I’d read to her. My father put a stop to it when he found out. It’s the only thing I have of hers. She gave it to me before I left for the wall.”
My father put a stop to it when he found out: he put a stop to a gentle boy, sitting with his mother, reading to her, as though Sam were doing something shameful. There was no room for a gentle, bookish boy in House Tarly, and when Randyll Tarly couldn’t banish the gentility from the boy, he banished the boy from the House. Yet Sam has stayed gentle, and compassionate, despite the unimaginable cruelty of his father and the constant abuse of others. He has not turned bitter, or resentful, or mean; he has stayed true to himself. He has, we now know, kept the best of himself safe, a fragile gift from his mother that he has carried and protected. And now, in a scene of almost unbearable sweetness, he gives it to Gilly. “You shouldn’t give it away,” she says, seeming to understand that Sam is handing her his heart. “I’m not giving it away,” he tells her. “I’m giving it to you. Keep it safe for me, until I come back.”
“How is being a weakness a compliment?”—Shae
Fathers who set out to destroy everything tender in their sons loom over nearly all the men in “What is Dead May Never Die.” I don’t know whether Randyll Tarly and Tywin Lannister get along, but they certainly have similar philosophies of child rearing. In last season’s episode “Baelor,” Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) told Shae and Bronn the story of the girl he fell in love with and married when he was just 16 years old; Tywin not only took her away from him, but, with sadistic cruelty, used her to prove to Tyrion that love itself was a lie. That early heartbreak and horror is very possibly the defining moment in Tyrion Lannister’s life, and, though he has not mentioned it since, it lingers behind everything he has become and every decision he makes. (It’s a small moment, but the two coins he gives to a whore in this episode call back to that story nicely: he has a tender place in his heart for whores as well.)
More than Randyll succeeded with Sam, Tywin did succeed in making his son hard, and distrustful, and cunning. But the old Lion did not succeed in destroying everything human within Tyrion: as we’ve discussed, he has a capacity for compassion and sympathy that is absent in his other family members.
Tywin, despite his best efforts, did not destroy his son’s capacity for love—he did not kill his heart—but Tyrion still fears he will. Just as Sam has kept his heart safely tucked away in a thimble, a symbol of femininity, so does Tyrion keep his heart—Shae (Sibel Kekilli)—cloistered and protected away. Shae is beginning to resent the smallness of the world to which Tyrion has brought her, and he tries to come up with a way to allow her to enter the rest of the castle safely. “A kitchen wench?” she complains of his first suggestion. “Is that how my lion wants to see me?” “Your lion wants to see you alive,” he responds, and tells her that Cersei (Lena Headey) will use any weakness against him. She protests at being called a weakness, but he assures her it’s a compliment, and it is. She’s the best of him, the one thing he can’t bear to lose, the only tenderness in his life. That may be a weakness, an imprudent vulnerability, but it is a weakness he is unwilling to live without.
(And there is tremendous compassion in the job he does find for her: serving as handmaiden to Sansa [Sophie Turner]. Tyrion knows it is in his interest to keep Sansa safe, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to say he also feels sorry for her, and that there is kindness in his decision to put the two loneliest women in King’s Landing together.)
I said that Tywin had made Tyrion mistrustful—not that he doesn’t have reason to be—and, ever since he arrived in King’s Landing, Tyrion has set out to ensure that he can trust the people around him. (As he keeps saying, he has no intention of making the same mistakes as Ned, who trusted everyone.) He knew he couldn’t trust Janos, and so banished him last week; now he conducts a mole hunt within the remaining members of the Small Council. He hands out three conflicting pieces of information to Baelish (Aiden Gillen), Varys (Conleth Hill), and Grand Maester Pycelle (Julian Glover), and waits to see which version reaches the Queen Regent.
The loser of this game is Pycelle, and it makes sense that it would be: as we discussed last season, Pycelle is much more like Tywin Lannister than Tyrion: he has served king after king—Targaryan, Baratheon, Lannister—in exactly the same way, because he is a man who sees no difference between them. “I serve the realm,” he has said, and he does, because, like Tywin, he has a broad view of history that makes no allowance for individuality or questions of humanity. That makes him not Tyrion’s sort of person, and so he is thrown in a jail cell.
Baelish and Varys, on the other hand, are no more trustworthy, perhaps, but they are more like Tyrion in that they understand people. They are both misfits, and they are each, in their own ways, damaged; unlike Pycelle, they know that history is shaped by individual people, for personal reasons. Baelish resents being played in this way by Tyrion—which is ironic—but he is still susceptible to manipulation when Tyrion exploits his weakness, his hidden heart: his love for Catelyn (Michelle Fairley). Varys emerges as Tyrion’s closest ally on the Council, for he understand that the game of thrones is a psychological game, dependent on human emotions: “Power resides where men believe it resides,” he says. “It is a trick, a shadow on the wall. And a very small man may cast a very large shadow.”
“There is no need for us to play games. Save your lies for court: you’re going to need them.”—Margaery Tyrell
Renly Baratheon (Gethin Anthony) has never been openly ostracized in quite the same way that Jon, Sam, and Tyrion have been, but his fight to maintain his identity may be even harder. Renly has grown up in the shadows of his warrior brothers Robert and Stannis. “All I ever hear from Robert and Stannis is how I’m not tough enough,” he told Loras (Finn Jones) last season. “My brother thinks that anyone who hasn’t been to war isn’t a man.” We saw him complaining about Robert’s love of violence, chastised for his own squeamishness in tournaments, and arguing with Robert’s definition of what it means to be a man. (“Back in our day, you weren’t a real man until you’d fucked one girl from each of the Seven Kingdoms, and one from the Riverlands,” Robert said. “We called it ‘Making the Eight.’”) In these ways, Renly’s situation isn’t so different from Sam’s—he’s a gentle soul in a brutual world—but for the fact that Renly is both a king and gay.
Even Catelyn Stark—who probably doesn’t know anything about his sexuality—implies that Renly and his 100,000 troops are somehow weak, soft, less than men. “It’s a game to you, isn’t it?” she asks him. “I pity them, because they are the knights of summer, and winter is coming.” Renly appears to be a kind king—we see him being friendly with a squire, and he seems well-liked by his people—but can a kind king rule?
Renly has an interesting partner in Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer). Their marriage was obviously one of convenience—a wartime alliance that joined his forces with her father’s—but on the basis of what we see here she may turn out to be the best possible friend he could have. Pushed into her arms by her brother Loras, and ordered to deflower her at long last—“Your vassels are starting to snigger behind your back”—Renly can’t quite rise to the occasion. Margaery, however, is neither surprised nor offended: “Do you want my brother to come in and help?” She asks. “He could get you started; I know he wouldn’t mind. Or I could turn over and you could pretend I’m him?” It’s too early to tell what her motivation is, but she offers to be someone he doesn’t have to lie to, and the advice she gives him is to be true to himself and unashamed. “Whatever you need to do,” she says. “You are a king.”
“I have no other family.”—Theon Greyjoy
Finally, let’s talk about Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen). Like the other men we’ve discussed, Theon grew up an outsider, in but not quite of a family: called a “ward,” he was basically a hostage housed at Winterfell after Balon’s failed rebellion.
Ned Stark treated him kindly, but now his real father mocks that kindness and the imprint it left on Theon. “Your time with the wolves made you weak,” Balon (Patrick Malahide) tells him. Ever since he returned to Pyke, Theon has been emasculated: he’s been called a girl, accused of wearing skirts, and he’s been both sexually humiliated and politically supplanted by his sister Yara (Gemma Whelan).
Balon is just another one of those men determined to stamp out anything tender and caring in his son, and Theon is doubly damaged from being twice rejected by his father. “You gave me away!” he reminds Balon, almost crying. “Your boy! Your last boy! You gave me away like some dog you didn’t want anymore, and now you curse me because I’ve come home.”
We can feel sorry for Theon—we should feel sorry for Theon—but he faces the same choices the other men have all faced, and he makes the wrong one. The moment comes in this episode when Theon, learning of his father’s plans to attack the north, writes a letter to Robb Stark warning him of the invasion. That is the decent impulse in him, the morality he learned from Ned, an expression of the love he felt and was shown in Winterfell. That letter, at that moment, is his heart—as much as the thimble is Sam’s, as much as Shae is Tyrion’s—and he burns it. He rejects everything good within himself and allows himself to be baptized in his father’s coldness and hatred, all out of fear of being mocked, of being rejected, of being different.
He gives up his heart, just to prove that he’s a man.
- I chose to focus on the men this time—after focusing on the women last week—but the theme of gender roles obviously runs through the stories of the women this episode as well, especially Arya (Maisie Williams), Yara, and our new character, Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie). We’ll have more opportunities to discuss all of them, I’m sure, but Arya, in particular, faces the same problem the men face: how to maintain her heart, and her identity, in a world that is so hard and cruel. She has seen the world of men now: the violence, the death, the evil. “How do you sleep with those things in your head?” she asks Yoren (Francis Magee). “I’ve seen some pretty things too,” he tells her. “Not nearly so many.” He tells her a story of his brother’s death, in which love turns to a longing for revenge—“almost a prayer”—that sustained Yoren for years until he could enact it. Is this what Arya has to look forward to?
- Arya shows she is still her father’s daughter, and still has a heart, even when she’s pretending to be a boy: she takes a moment in the fight to rescue Jaquen (Tom Wlaschiha) and the other prisoners from their burning cart. (She also, thankfully, has a brain, thinking quickly and telling the soldiers that the dead boy is Gendry.)
- This show always looks good, so I usually forget to mention it, but the direction this week (by Alik Sakharov) was incredible. I loved the many shots (like the one that tops this post) of the men surrounded by (and, in the case of Theon, being consumed by) absolute darkness. (Some of the credit must surely go to the director of photography; no one ever mentions cinematography on TV shows, so I’m going to: it was by P.J. Dillon, and it was fantastic.)
- Poor Bran (Isaac Hempstead Wright): I always end up skipping over Bran. But he’s another damaged man trying to find his role, and struggling to believe that there is something beautiful—in this case, magic—amidst the harsher realities of this world. I think it’s becoming increasingly clear that the wolf is his heart.
- I am more and more impressed with Sophie Turner’s performance as Sansa: she looked so much older this week, as the psychological damage of being Joffrey’s fiancée and Cersei’s hostage takes its toll. (And I thank my girlfriend for pointing out what I hadn’t noticed: her hair is different. This is significant, since there was so much talk last season about how she was adopting fancy new hairstyles and becoming a King’s Landing lady. Now she is back to the plain styles of Winterfell, in a subtle demonstration—and tacit rebellion?—that shows she is once again a Stark at heart.)
- Damn there’s a lot to talk about with this show.
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