So, if I'm honest, all I really want to say about this episode is this:
H O L Y F U C K I N G S H I T T H A T W A S T O T A L L Y A W E S O M E.
However, I foolishly used up my "geek-out" card last week, and anyway I do have a few other things to say about the various themes running throughout "And Now His Watch Is Ended." Fortunately—though the entire episode was good—it's just those last ten minutes or so that put me into the incoherent ecstasy of a total fanboy. So let's leave that for last, and in the meantime I'll try to hold it together, maintain a little dignity, and strap on my critical hat so we can have a mature discussion about the rest of the episode.
It's hardly a new subject for Game of Thrones, but what links most of these stories together this week is changing fortunes. Power is the only real currency in Westeros, and the market is volatile: fortunes can rise and sink and rise again from moment to moment, dramatically influenced by chance, and by tiny choices, and by shifting winds generated by the flapping of far-off wings. Short-sighted investors may accumulate some temporary power, but to be a real mover-and-shaker requires taking a long view, and biding your time. Anyone can play the game of thrones, but, to have any chance of winning, you have to play a long game.
"Influence is largely a matter of patience, I've found." — Lord Varys
That, at least, is the lesson imparted by Lord Varys (Conleth Hill), who has a big episode this week. Varys is one of my favorite minor characters in Game of Thrones: he's the player on the other side of the board from Baelish (Aidan Gillen), and though he appears more sinister—and is considerably less obsequious—he may even be playing for the side of good. "Tell me, Lord Varys, who do you truly serve?" Ned Stark (Sean Bean) asked him, way back in "The Pointy End." "The realm," Varys replied. "Someone must." Though there are some mysteries about the Spider that have never been explained—just what was he up to with Magistrate Illyrio back in Season One, anyway?—I'm almost inclined to believe him.
This week he takes his role as Baelish's counterbalance very seriously. Learning from his talented new protegé, Ros (Esmé Bianco), that Baelish is maneuvering to take Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) with him to the Eyrie, Varys moves to intervene. "If Robb Stark falls, Sansa Stark is the key to the North," he argues to Lady Olenna (Diana Rigg), who quickly grasps the point: "And if Littlefinger marries her, he'll have the key in his pocket." (Olenna and Margaery immediately set out to consolidate their own power further, and marry Sansa to Loras.)
Littlefinger and Varys have different motivations: if Varys serves the realm, Baelish serves Baelish. ("Actually, I rather enjoy him, but he'd see this country burn if he could be king of the ashes.") But otherwise they are very much alike. "Influence is largely a matter of patience," Varys tells Tyrion (Peter Dinklage), and he and Littlefinger both came from nothing, and built their power patiently. "Littlefinger was born with no lands, no wealth, no armies," he tells Olenna. "He has acquired the first two: how long before he has the army?"
And it's to Tyrion that Varys finally tells the story of how he came to be cut—his genitals sacrificed to a sorcerer's spell—and explains his own rise from penniless wretch to a player in the halls of power:
"Once I had served the sorcerer's purpose, he threw me out of his house, to die. I resolved to live, to spite him. I begged, and I sold what parts of my body remained to me. I became an excellent thief, and soon learned that the contents of a man's letters are more valuable than the contents of his purse. Step by step, one distasteful task after another, I made my way from the slums of Myr to the Small Council chamber. Influence grows like a weed: I tended mine patiently, until its tendrils reached from the Red Keep all the way across to the far side of the world, where I managed to wrap them around something special."
Varys unpacks a crate and reveals the sorcerer who cut him as a child, beaten and chained, with his sorcerous lips sewn shut. "I have no doubt the revenge you want will be yours in time," he says to Tyrion, who is seeking his own revenge for Cersei's treachery. "If you have the stomach for it."
"You need to live, to take revenge." — Brienne of Tarth, to Jaime Lannister
Varys and Littlefinger are dangerous, in part, because in their lives they have had to learn that sort of patience: they have a strength and a resiliency born from hardship and poverty, and they've had to learn to play a slow game. That, too, is one of the running themes of Game of Thrones—the unique perspective and power that comes from being different, from suffering, from being an outcast. It's a lesson the wealthy and privileged never had to learn, of course, and they take it hard when they suddenly find themselves joining the ranks of the cripples, the bastards, and the broken things.
Former golden boy Jaime Lannister (Nikolas Coster-Waldau), for example, is finding it hard to adjust. He's never wanted for anything, and never been less than one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in the realm. But he was captured by his enemies months ago, and now he finds himself lower than he's ever been: face down in the mud, being given horse piss to drink, with his own severed sword-hand dangling around his neck, all he wants to do is die.
It takes his fellow outcast Brienne (Gwendoline Christie) to give him a much-needed kick in the ass, and teach him Varys's lesson. "You need to live, to take revenge," she tells him—but Jaime has never had to call on any reserves of strength, and doesn't even know where to look within himself to find them. "Coward," Brienne accuses him. "A little misfortune and you're giving up…You have a taste, one taste of the real world, where people have important things taken from them, and you whine and cry and quit. You sound like a bloody woman." While men like Varys and Littlefinger have risen from the mud to great power, Jaime has fallen from great power to the mud: if he's going to make his way back, it's going to be a long road, an uphill battle like he's never had to face.
There's hope for him, however. "Why did you help me?" Brienne asks him now, about his intervening to prevent her rape last week. He doesn't answer, and it's likely he doesn't know the answer, but this, too, is part of the character-building transformation that comes with a change of fortunes. In this show, it's usually the most damaged people who have the most compassion for others, and Jaime, in his misfortunes, is learning compassion the hard way.
"There aren't more than 700 people of any importance." — Cersei Lannister
Also facing a change in fortune is Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey). Cersei, too, has played a long game: though born to wealth and privilege, she was also born a woman, and so has had to fight patiently for every ounce of influence she wields. But Cersei's struggles have not made her compassionate: they've had the opposite effect, as Cersei has deliberately limited the number of people she cares about to a few members of her immediate family. ("Love no one but your children," she warned Sansa last season. "On that front, a mother has no choice.") Now, inspecting the seating capacity of the church where Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) will wed Margaery Tyrell, Cersei reminds us of the disdain with which she holds most of the world. "There aren't more than 700 people of any importance," Cersei tells Olenna—but the truth is, to Cersei, there aren't more than four or five.
She and Lady Olenna share an opinion that men are idiots, though "the world belongs to them." ("A ridiculous arrangement, to my mind," Olenna says.) This week, Cersei finally expresses this resentment to her father Tywin (Charles Dance), expressing her long-held belief that she is the most capable member of the family and her father's true heir.
"Did it ever occur to you that I might be the one who deserves your confidence and trust? Not your sons, not Jaime or Tyrion, but me. Years and years of lectures on family and legacy…Did it ever occur to you that your daughter might be the only one listening to them, living by them? That she might have the most to contribute to your legacy that you love so much more than your actual children?"
Tywin's answer, however, brings her up short, and cruelly undercuts the one consolation Cersei had: the belief that it was only her gender that precluded her from the role she wanted. "I don't distrust you because you're a woman," he says. "I distrust you because you're not as smart as you think you are."
Cersei's long, patient game has been to influence power the only way available to her: by putting her son on the throne. She suffered through a long, loveless marriage to achieve this, and after Robert died she had to put up with the fact that Tywin sent her hated brother Tyrion to keep tabs on her. Now, when she's so close to having what she wanted, she is losing her son: as Tywin points out, Cersei has never been able to control Joffrey, and now she's losing him altogether to a woman who can. Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer) has already learned to manipulate her future husband perfectly, to turn him away from Cersei's teachings and mold him into the king she wants him to be. Cersei has invested her whole joyless life in the patient pursuit of influence—in this tedious game of thrones—and now, at the end, it isn't paying off. She may not be laying in the mud with her hand cut off, but she—like her brother—has lost nearly everything.
"I made a choice. And I chose wrong." — Theon Greyjoy
One of the things this show does brilliantly is invoke our sympathy for even the apparent villains. As in life, there are no villains, really: just deeply damaged people who make bad decisions. (In the very first episode, Jaime Lannister threw an innocent 10-year-old boy out a tower window: who could have predicted that we'd feel sorry for him now?)
One might feel sorry for Cersei as well, and one could almost feel sorry for Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen), whose own (shorter) bid for power and respect has similarly turned to shit. As he explains to his (still nameless) mysterious savior (Iwan Rheon), Theon rolled the dice: he carried out this wild gambit of taking Winterfell, to impress his father, and—like a bad gambler—he made increasingly poor decisions trying to make that first bad decision pay off. But it all turned out wrong, and Theon lost everything in the process, including his own men, Balon's respect, his adopted family, and his own soul.
It's a tragic moment, this episode, when Theon realizes how he never appreciated what he had, and how he pissed it all away in pursuit of power and the respect of people who despise him: "My real father lost his head at King's Landing," Theon says—a moment of clarity that comes far too late. (The realization that his mysterious friend has also betrayed him is just the final salt in the wound, a bit of cosmic retribution that underlines the fact that Theon is truly damned.) "I made a choice," he says. "And I chose wrong."
"A dragon is not a slave." — Danaerys Targaryan
Finally—finally—we come to Danaerys Stormborn. Dany's story fits in with the overall theme this week: she has been patiently (and brilliantly) making her bid for power here in Astapor, biding her time and enduring every insult until she could play her hand. And, in a larger sense, Dany's patient rise to power is as impressive as anyone's in Game of Thrones: she, too, began with nothing, nothing but a famous name and distant enemies. She began the series as her brother's pawn, sold to a barbarian warlord as chattel: she began, effectively, as a slave. But at every step of the way she found untapped resources within herself, and all the challenges and losses and betrayals have only made her stronger.
And—remarkably—she has maintained her humanity along the way. Her struggles have given her compassion, and though she has a terrifying will and a merciless sense of justice, she seems determined not to become a monster. Her story thus far this season has dealt with the question of what kind of ruler she would be, with her two closest advisers counseling different approaches: Jorah Mormont (Iain Glen) urged her to buy an army of the Unsullied, justifying the use of slave warriors in order to win back her crown. Barristan Selmy (Ian McElhinney), on the other hand, has argued that slaves don't make good soldiers, because an army should fight out of love for their leader.
Dany, however, finds a third alternative. The final scenes of "And Now His Watch is Ended" are a fantastic culmination of everything that has happened to her so far in Game of Thrones: it is easily her finest moment—played flawlessly by Emilia Clarke—and it is easily one of the greatest moments in this show (or any show) ever.
I'm ashamed to confess how many times I've re-watched this scene already, and it gives me goosebumps every single time. From the revelation that she has understood every insult the slave-lord (Cliff Barry) has thrown at her for weeks, to her releasing the full force of the Unsullied on the slave-lords themselves, to her spine-tingling utterance of the single word Dracarys, Dany fucking rules in this scene. Like the patronizing, well-intentioned old men who advise her, all we can do is gaze in admiration, wonder, and fear at this fragile child who has become, at last, a stunning force to be reckoned with.
But even that is not the end of it. Because—after finally raining absolute destruction on her enemies (something she's been threatening to do for a long time)—Dany has one more choice to make, and she doesn't hesitate to decide what kind of leader she wants to be. Having acquired her slave army through this brilliant and risky ploy, she immediately sets them free, just as she did with her bedraggled khalasar at the end of Season One. She drops the whip that is the symbol of the monster she might have become, and does not command them but invites them to join her. Her gambit pays off, as—in one thunderous gesture, banging their 8,000 spears against the ground—they agree.
Dany's been playing a long game, and she's been playing it very well, and this is her victory. She has risen from nothing to become a strong and triumphant woman, leading an unstoppable army. She done it by staying true to herself, trusting her own instincts and judgement over the objections of men who thought her weak. (Jorah, remember, didn't want her to fire the dragon eggs, either.) Most impressively, she's somehow done it without losing an ounce of her humanity, as she proves here by solving the dilemma posed by Sers Jorah and Barristan: now she has the army she needs and they love her.
The game is not over, of course. As we've discussed, power is always waxing or waning on this show, and those who rise have a nasty tendency to fall. So, how this will all play out still remains to be seen.
What I do know is that I would have followed her at that moment, and so would you. She is Daenerys Stormborn of House Targaryen, of the blood of old Valyria, the dragon's daughter and the mother of dragons. She will take what is hers, and those who would harm her people will die screaming. It's been a long, hard journey across the board, but this pawn has—finally, truly, gloriously—become a queen.
Holy fucking shit: that was awesome.
Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits
- Oops: the episode is entitled "And Now His Watch Is Ended," and yet I somehow skipped over the scenes North of the Wall, where fortunes have definitely changed all of a sudden. The Night's Watch has always seemed like a problematic power structure to me: it never seemed like the best idea to assemble an army out of unwilling thieves, rapists, and murderers, and then hand them weapons, and then deny them every pleasure in life—but that's me. Here, the tensions that have been building for a while finally explode, as several of the men rebel, killing Craster (Robert Pugh) and Commander Mormont (James Cosmo).
- God bless Sam (John Bradley), however, another of those broken things who has somehow maintained his decency. I like the brief scene between Sam and Gilly (Hannah Murray), and what it says about growing up. Last season, in an incredibly touching moment, he gave her his mother's thimble: he was giving her, as I said at the time, his heart, the symbol of what's best in him. But now she tries to give it back: "I don't want your stupid thimble, I want to save my baby's life," she says. Gestures of love are nice, but growing up means making real decisions for real stakes. Here, to his credit, Sam doesn't hesitate when the opportunity presents itself: as the Night's Watch falls apart in chaos, Sam sees the chance to flee with Gilly and her son.
- I also skipped over the scene with the Brotherhood without Banners, as Arya (Maisie Williams) chooses the moment for her play, seeing an opportunity to demand justice for her friend Micah, killed by the Hound (Rory McCann) in Season One. Next week, it's Sandor Clegane vs. Beric Dondarrian (Richard Dormer), to the death.
- I am loving Diana Rigg's performance as Lady Olenna, and you can tell how much the writers are enjoying writing for her. "Seduce away, it's been so long," she says flirtatiously to Varys. "Though I rather think it's all for naught: what happens when the non-existent bumps against the decrepit?"
- I'm sick to death of referring to Iwan Rheon's character as Theon's "mysterious friend." I've refrained from using his name (despite its being public knowledge) since the show hasn't done so either, but fer crissakes, let's get on with it.
- This show always looks good, but this week's episode (directed by Alex Graves) looked stunning. And I'm sure there's a great deal of CGI in some of the more impressive sets—inside the Sept of Baelor, for example—but it's seamless and gorgeous. Television has never looked this good.
- Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go watch that last scene again. ("That's one hard-core bitch," my girlfriend said of Dany, as we watched this episode. Yes, yes she is, and I have never loved her more.)