Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
"Winter is coming." The words of House Stark have served as the most ubiquitous tagline for Game of Thrones, and an all-purpose, ominous warning from its characters about preparing for the worst. We first heard them from Eddard Stark, our apparent hero, about 12 minutes into the pilot episode, which was entitled—you guessed it—"Winter is Coming."
And it was all the way back in "The North Remembers," the first episode of Season Two, that the Maesters of the Citadel sent a white raven to the capital, declaring the long, pleasant summer finally over. Since the world in which this story takes place does not really recognize more than two seasons, that was the official start of winter, and it coincided with the Seven Kingdoms being plunged into war and instability. That's when the "game of thrones" really began, and few of the characters jostling and squabbling for the crown imagined just how bad things might get as a result. "It’s a game to you, isn’t it?" Catelyn Stark asked Renly Baratheon, as she watched his knights train cheerily for war. "I pity them, because they are the knights of summer, and winter is coming.”
We have seen so much upheaval and bloodshed and tragedy that we might well have imagined, on any number of occasions, that the metaphoric winter prophesied in those words had arrived. We might have thought, as Sansa says this episode, "it can't get any worse." But we are learning what the creature formerly known as Theon Greyjoy already knows: "It can," he tells Sansa this week. "It can always be worse."
It struck me this week that, for all the talk of winter throughout the series, and all the time we've spent in the North, that we have hardly ever seen it snow. Off the top of my head, I can remember only two prominent snowfalls, both in the same episode at the end of Season Two: when Samwell Tarly and his brothers of the Night's Watch first encountered an army of the dead; and in Dany's vision, when she saw the Throne Room at King's Landing in ruins. That is what winter means: it means doom, it means destruction, it means the end of everything.
So the snow falling throughout the North this week seems like more than a meteorological inconvenience: it seems like a sign. Sansa Stark was always one of the sweetest, gentlest, most kind-hearted creatures in the Seven Kingdoms: one who never gave up hope, never surrendered to despair, never embraced violence. Sansa Stark was an innocent, and, last week, that innocence was defiled. It is hard not to feel that the obscenity of that act has plunged all of Westeros further into darkness.
Winter isn't coming: winter is here. And those who would survive will need to look for warmth to keep the cold at bay.
"This storm is a stroke of luck for we Northerners." — Ramsay Bolton
George R. R. Martin's epic is entitled A Song of Ice and Fire, so it's not particularly insightful to point out that images of cold and heat may have metaphoric significance. In the long run, I would be hesitant to read them too simplistically as opposing poles on the value spectrum: I think it's probably much more complicated than that, and any hope for a far-off happy ending most likely may involve some reconciliation of the two. Nevertheless, at this moment—following the rape of Sansa Stark—I don't think it's a stretch to say that the snow bodes ill: the warmth and light have almost gone out in Westeros. (Visually, this episode plays with those motifs: nearly every scene in Westeros is grim, with just a few flickering flames struggling against the darkness.)
It is difficult, I admit, to talk about these things in terms of metaphor and omens when there are very real and specific bruises covering the arms of Sansa Stark. (I should properly call her Lady Sansa Bolton, of course, but I just can't bring myself to do that.) "He already hurts me every night," she says, of her new husband. I outlined both my understanding of Sansa's storyline and my serious objections to it last week, so I'm not going to keep covering that ground. What's important now, I think, is how Game of Thrones deals with the aftermath, and I think "The Gift" takes a few steps in the right direction. The show does not gloss over Sansa's rape—which is traumatic, life-changing, and ongoing—but neither does it turn her into a helpless victim. The performance here is key, and Sophie Turner is more than up to the task: Sansa has been horribly traumatized, but she is not broken. Understandably, she already seems older, and we can see her drawing on reserves of strength, determined to survive this and save herself. (We see a power and self-possession come through that Theon, for example, never had when he was traumatized.)
The difference between Theon and Sansa is clear in their scene here. She does try to enlist his assistance, but she doesn't do it from a place of weakness: in fact, she tries to teach him to be strong in the way she is herself is managing to be. "My name is Reek," he protests weakly, when she calls him Theon. "Your name is Theon Greyjoy," she insists firmly. "Last surviving son of Baelon Greyjoy, Lord of the Iron Islands. Do you hear me?" She knows who she is—as she expressed last week to Myranda—and there is strength in that knowledge, strength that she now tries to impart to Theon.
It doesn't work: not yet. Theon promises to light the signal candle—which would be a flickering symbol of warmth and light in this cold place—but instead he goes straight to Ramsay, who then takes her out in the cold to show her what he has done. He has flayed the Northern woman who delivered Brienne's message to her in the first place. Throughout this scene, as the snow falls on both of them, he keeps making comments that underline the metaphor of winter. ("This storm is a stroke of luck for we Northerners," he says. "Our people are used to fighting in the frost." And later: "We do breed them tough in the North.") In this context, Ramsay's repeated characterization of himself as a Northerner is an alignment of him, and his house, with the cruelty, the evil, the lack of sympathy that winter represents. (Sansa, too, is of the North, of course, but she is not of the cold like Ramsay is. "It's much too cold out here for a lady," he says.)
One of the many concerns about the infamous scene last week was the fear that Sansa's rape would turn out to be merely a device to bring about Theon's redemption. That may still be the case, but here, at least, I'm encouraged at how the show seems to be dealing with this. This is not about Sansa being "saved" by Theon: Sansa is setting about to save herself. (The way she provokes Ramsay about his stepmother's pregnancy shows that she still has plenty of fight in her—as does her quick seizing of a weapon when she sees the opportunity.) And even if she does succeed in turning Theon to her side, it will be a result of her strength and intelligence. He will not be saving her: she will be saving both of them.
"He was the Blood of the Dragon, but now his fire has gone out." — Samwell Tarly
It is another bad omen—and another sign of the spiritual winter descending on Westeros—that Maester Aemon's watch has ended.
It's my general policy not to discuss the books, but I do break that policy on occasion (as long as it doesn't involve any spoilers). Here, I think just a few words are in order about how Aemon's thoughts turn, on his deathbed, to his little brother "Egg." Egg is the man who became King Aegon Targaryen, Fifth of His Name, when Aemon himself refused the crown. I think there are a couple of things worth noting about him.
First, Aegon V was reportedly a good king, a reformer who cared about the plight of the common people, and one whose egalitarian policies earned him enemies among the rich and powerful. Second, Aegon died in a mysterious fire, in an effort to somehow bring dragons—and magic—back to the Seven Kingdoms.
None of this has been discussed in the show, and none of it is necessarily important to know. (The rich history that echoes forward into the present is one of the things Game of Thrones has had to sacrifice, slightly, from Martin's work. It was to Aegon, for example, that Aemon first gave the advice he gave to Jon Snow a couple of weeks ago: "Kill the boy, and let the man be born.")
What's interesting to me about it, however, is that it presents a very different picture of the Targaryens than we are used to. We are used to hearing about history from the victors—the Starks, Lannisters, and Baratheons—and so discussion of the Targaryens in the current-day Seven Kingdoms tends to characterize them as vicious tyrants, monsters, and lunatics. (All of which the last Targaryen king, Aerys II, apparently was.) This doesn't gel with the goodness we've seen in Aemon Targaryen, however, and it doesn't gel with the stories about his brother Egg.
And I think this is important for a couple of reasons. First, it is relevant to our topic this week: the Targaryens, who are associated with fire, were once a force for good. This, I think, is the significance of Sam's departing from the traditional text of Night's Watch funerals. "We will never see his like again" is usually the penultimate line of these eulogies, coming right before "and now his watch is ended." Sam, however, doesn't say that. "He was the blood of the dragon, and now his fire has gone out," Sam says instead, underlining the contrast between images of fire and the snows that are currently falling. The sort of warmth and light that Aemon represents is parting from this world.
The second reason I'm mentioning this, of course, is that it sounds like Aegon Targaryen had a great deal in common with his great-granddaughter, Daenerys. She, too, is a reformer. She, too, cares about the welfare of the common people. She, too, finds her policies drawing the ire of the rich and powerful. And she not only tried to bring the dragons back—in a fire perhaps much like the one that killed Aegon—but succeeded. The goodness and hope of the Targaryen line—and perhaps whatever hope remains for all of the Seven Kingdoms—now lives in Dany. Where people like the Boltons represent ice and death, Dany may be the embodiment of fire and life.
Even if we don't know all of that ancient history, however, the spirit of it is represented here: what we see is the warmth that counters the cold. Aemon's fond memories of his little brother carry over to Gilly's infant child—"He was a jolly fellow, like this one"—and Aemon's fears for their safety manifest in a warning to go where it's warm. ("Get him south, Gilly Flower, before it's too late.") And it is present in Sam's eulogy—a ceremony that ends with the lighting of a fire—when he describes Maester Aemon. "No man was wiser, or gentler, or kinder," Sam says. These qualities—like warmth—are in short supply as winter descends on Westeros, but they are the things that separate our heroes from our villains on Game of Thrones. They are where hope lies.
It was gutsy—and, yes, worrisome—to see another attempted rape scenario play out this week, so soon after the divisive scene last week. And the trope of a hero saving a woman from rape and being rewarded with sex is an overused and problematic one. (One the show has used—and debunked—before, in Tyrion's story of his first sexual encounter back in "Baelor." "A woman who is almost raped doesn't invite another man into her bed two hours later," Shae told him, wisely.) But I think it works here because of the long development of the relationship between Sam and Gilly, because it is clearly Gilly's decision, and because it is ultimately grounded not in Sam's heroism—though he is brave—but in his kindness. ("Don't be stupid, Sam," she tells him gently. "You're not a fighter.")
I think we can count on one hand the number of genuinely consensual, willing, non-commercialized sex scenes between people who actually care for each other on this show. This scene between Sam and Gilly stems from a moment of horror, but it turns into a rare and touching moment of warmth and light in the overall coldness and darkness of Game of Thrones. If there's any hope for the Seven Kingdoms, it lies not just in powerful people like Dany, but also in the kindness and gentleness of people like Sam and Gilly.
"Winter is coming. Those aren't just the Stark words: that's a fact." — Stannis Baratheon
Complicating my fire=good/ice=bad dichotomy—and it's a big complication—is Melisandre. Ironically, however, she would agree with it, for that's exactly how she sees the world. "There is only one war," Melisandre told Jon Snow earlier this season. "Life versus death." Her Lord of Light, R'hllor, is symbolized by fire—his symbol is a flaming heart; his harbinger is supposed to carry a flaming sword; his visions come in the flames; etc—and supposedly represents the forces of good in eternal conflict with the forces of darkness. Melisandre's entire justification for supporting Stannis's pursuit of power is that he is the only one who can combat the monsters that live in the ice beyond the Wall. "Only you can lead the living against the dead," she tells him this week. "All your life has led us to this moment, to this decision."
In a very literal way, the cold is threatening to overwhelm Stannis's forces: his men are sick, his horses are dying, and an entire company of sellswords has fled his service. And it's only going to get worse the longer he waits. "Winter is coming," he tells Davos. "Those aren't just the Stark words, Ser Davos: that's a fact. If we march back to Castle Black, we winter at Castle Black, and who can say how many years this winter will last."
So the forces of warmth and light are marching towards the forces of cold and darkness. (From our perspective, they are marching—in part—to rescue Sansa Stark.) But what will it cost? Melisandre is demanding a sacrifice to ensure their victory, and, as usual, she needs king's blood: in this case, the life of Stannis's adorable daughter Shireen.
It's one of those moments that kick Game of Thrones over into the territory of Greek myth. (Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia to smooth the seas for his fleet as they sailed to Troy. It worked out for him in the short-term—he won his war—but not so well in the long-term.) But, in terms of the values of this story, it's a clear-cut call to evil: there is no math that justifies the murder of an innocent little girl, especially by her father. Kindness, gentleness, mercy: these are the qualities Game of Thrones values, and if Stannis goes down this path it may be what finally pushes him across the line from the ambiguous character he is now into pure villainy. There is precious little warmth in Stannis Baratheon as it is: his flicker of love for Shireen is basically all of it, and he is truly lost if that faint candle goes out.
So my explanation for how Melisandre doesn't screw up my good/bad dichotomy is this: Melisandre is a total fraud. It's not quite as clear-cut as that—she is almost certainly right about the stakes, and about how the final battle in Game of Thrones will be between fire and ice—but I suspect her version of the faith she claims to hold is a perversion. The Red Priestess we saw a few weeks ago—who spoke of Dany as the savior of the people—seems a much more trustworthy spokesperson. (If this story doesn't somehow end with Dany's dragons being ridden into battle against White Walkers, I'll be shocked.) And then there is Beric Dondarrion and Thoros of Myr: we haven't seen them for a couple of seasons, so perhaps they will not turn out to be important after all, but I couldn't help but notice that Beric actually had a flaming sword, and Thoros had powers of resurrection that are far beyond Melisandre's abilities. The most impressive thing we've seen Melisandre do is birth a shadow monster, which—though she tried to claim shadows as servants of light—seems much more aligned with the forces of cold and darkness to me.
Melisandre, you may notice, is never cold. Is that because she's warmed from within, as she claims? Or is it because the cold is where she belongs?
"I would do anything for you…I would burn cities to the ground." — Cersei, to Tommen
As Game of Thrones progresses, and as Westeros descends into literal and spiritual winter, the story is increasingly turning southward and westward, towards warmer climes. Dany has always been a creature of warmth, moving through radiant sunshine and sand while most of the rest of the cast suffered grey skies and snow. But now, a surprising and growing number of our important characters are joining her in the sunlight: Tyrion and Arya are both across the Narrow Sea, and Jaime is in Dorne, "as far south as south goes." I've talked plenty throughout these reviews about how Dany's new, kinder form of government represents the best hope for the future, and I've discussed this season how Dorne seems to be a kinder, happier, more progressive place than anywhere we've seen before. It's hard not to feel that the past is the cold from which these characters are trying to escape, and the warmth is the future they're striving towards.
And in between is King's Landing, the capital of the Seven Kingdoms, where sits the titular throne that is the great MacGuffin of this entire story. If the war is between warm and cold, between light and darkness, between life and death, which side will eventually claim the throne once and for all?
Right now, things are not looking good—mostly because Cersei Lannister is a petty, vindictive idiot. I've tried over the years to be sympathetic towards Cersei's struggle to maintain power—because it's no easy task for a woman in this world—but I think I'm just about done with that. Cersei has never wanted power for any purpose except to have it: she doesn't want to do anything, or change anything, or improve anything. Of all the people fighting for power on Game of Thrones, she's probably the most unworthy to wield it, and she'd probably be the most disastrous if she did. She certainly doesn't care about anyone but herself and her children. "Your happiness is all I want in this world," she says this week, to Tommen. "I would do anything for you. Anything to keep you from harm. I would burn cities to the ground. You are all that matters. You, and your sister. The moment you came into this world."
It's a nice speech, but here's the thing: she may genuinely not know it, but she's lying. She doesn't care about happiness: not her children's, not even her own. (When has she done anything to make them happy? When has she herself ever been happy?) Tommen tells her what makes him happy, in simple language: "I love her," he says of his wife, Margaery. And Cersei has taken that wife away from him, out of pettiness and spite and a selfish need to maintain control.
And what's worse, she's willing to plunge the city, and perhaps the entire country, back into the dark ages in the process. The granting of nearly unlimited power to the Faith Militant—which Cersei did only out of her petty rivalry with Margaery—has to be the stupidest, most selfish, least advisable decision she's ever made. (And that's saying something.) The Faith Militant speaks in the language of progress and compassion, but they actually represent the opposite of those things: they are the tyranny of the masses, the arrogance of humility, the strangling yoke of fundamentalism. ("A man of the people: is that your game?" Lady Olenna asks the High Sparrow. "It's an old game, dull and unconvincing.")
So, while it's a little satisfying to see that "hateful bitch" Cersei snared in her own ill-conceived web, none of this ultimately bodes well for Westeros. The ascendance of the Faith Militant would be the worst conceivable fate for the Seven Kingdoms, for theirs is a cold and rigid faith of moral absolutes, with no room for compassion, or mercy, or human frailty, or individuality, or any of the qualities that Game of Thrones actually values. (Personally, I'd rather take my chances with the White Walkers.)
"All rulers are either butchers or meat." — Daario Naharis
I think it's important to note one other thing the High Sparrow says that ties into my overall theme this week. Cersei asks him who will sit in judgement over Margaery and Loras, and he replies that it will be seven septons, "as it was in all trials before the Targaryens."
So once again we have this reminder that the Targaryens represent progress: they may not have been perfect, but their way was surely better than this terrifying regression to religious fundamentalism. And we know, from what we have seen, that, in a world that has been steadily descending into cold and darkness since Game of Thrones began, the real light and fire has come Daenerys Targaryen: Daenerys the Unburnt, Daenerys the Breaker of Chains, Daenerys the Mother of Dragons.
Dany has always sought a better way, and she's still seeking it. But, to hold her kingdom together, she has made concessions: most recently, she decided to marry Hizdahr zo Loraq, and she agreed to reopen Meereen’s fighting pits. These are compromises to her ideals, and a dangerous flirtation with the old ways she is trying to leave behind. Political marriages, made without love, are a relic of the system that treats women as property: it is how women like Sansa are sold into sexual bondage, and it is a system that produces creatures like Cersei.
And the fighting pits—despite Dany's insistence that only free men may fight—are just another opportunity for slavery to regain a foothold in her land. (The late Barristan Selmy warned her a while back that such compromises would lead to men being slaves in all but name, and that's exactly what Jorah and Tyrion have become here. "There's your wages, funny man," Tyrion's new owner says, flipping him a coin. "It should last the rest of your life.")
The fighting pits also represent senseless violence that utterly devalues human life, of course: something else Dany is trying to rid her society of. She is visibly disgusted by the spectacle of the arena, which includes not just brutality but a complete absence of mercy. (Unarmed men are cut down without hesitation.) It might also be worth noting that she is clad—unusually for her—in white, which both emphasizes her essential goodness and brings in the visual motif of the snow that is currently falling on much of Westeros: like what's happening in the North, the fighting pits are a desecration of innocence.
Which makes this a timely moment for Jorah Mormont to appear to her. Yes, Jorah began his relationship with her as a spy—something for which she has yet to forgive him—but no one has believed in her, and her goodness, and her mission more. As he said in Season Two:
"You have a good claim: a title, a birthright. But you have something more than that: you may cover it up and deny it, but you have a gentle heart. You would not only be respected and feared, you would be loved. Someone who can rule and should rule: centuries come and go without a person like that coming into the world. There are times when I look at you, and I still can't believe you're real."
Jorah also reminds her that there is always a better way. "All rulers are either butchers or meat," Daario Naharis tells her, but Jorah knows Dany wants to find a third-alternative. He does fight in the pits, and he wins, but he wins without killing anyone: his tactics are all non-lethal because he knows this is not what she is about, and not what she should be about. She does not have a heart of winter, and the cold, merciless ways of the past are not for her.
"The past is the past," Littlefinger says to the Queen of Thorns, elsewhere in this episode. "The future is all that's worth discussing." The past is vicious and merciless: it is the coldness and death that began to spread over Westeros like a storm ever since the fall of the Targaryens, and which now threaten to claim it completely. The future, however, is warmth and compassion: it may now exist in Westeros only as a few flickering candles struggling against the encroaching darkness, but it is catching fire across the Narrow Sea in the form of Daenerys Targaryen. She is the hope, and it's fitting that our most important figure from the capital of the Seven Kingdoms—Tyrion Lannister—has now joined her there.
Winter is not coming to Westeros: winter has won. But, as Stannis says, "we go forward, only forward." The future is what's coming, and the future is fire.
Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits
- Game of Thrones—as we've discussed many times before—has always been about the passing of responsibility from one generation to another. We've slowly seen the giants of the old order removed from the stage—people like Tywin Lannister and Barristan Selmy, most recently—and now Maester Aemon joins them. Peter Vaughan was excellent on this show, and his deathbed scene was a heartbreaking reminder of the cyclical nature of life: he, too, was young once. ("Egg, I dreamed that I was old," he cries.) And right beside him is the young man, Samwell Tarly, who once wanted to be a Maester himself, and seems the most likely candidate to step into Aemon's chains and provide the wisdom, kindness, and gentleness that must not die with the old man.
- I skipped over the scene between Bronn and the Sand Snakes. I was pleased to hear Jerome Flynn's singing voice, relieved that Bronn will not die of his poisoned wound (as many of us suspected), and rolled my eyes at the gratuitous display of Rosabell Laurenti Sellers' perfect breasts. (On the latter point, however, I was pleased that it did support my observation that the Sand Snakes are able to channel power as both warriors and sexual beings, a combination that has previously been very rare for women in Westeros.)
- I also skipped over the brief scene between Jaime and his niece/daughter Myrcella, which is more thematically relevant: Jaime wants to drag her back up North, but Myrcella—who has found real love and happiness in Dorne—is smart enough to know that everything is better in the South.
- Can Lady Olenna get her own spin-off? Diana Rigg is a treasure, and the Queen of Thorns is one of the great bullshit detectors on Game of Thrones, as the High Sparrow quickly observes. ("I imagine this is strange for you. Everyone you meet has a hidden motive, and you pride yourself on sniffing it out.") She certainly has Littlefinger's number: "You've always been rather impressed with yourself, haven't you?"
- Only three episodes are left in this season, and only one more to go before we get to the traditional ninth-episode climax. What are we betting on? Stannis's siege of Winterfell, perhaps? (It would seem unlikely for the show to stage another big, snowy battle episode in the nine-spot, so soon after last season's "Watchers on the Wall," but that currently seems the most likely choice for spectacle.)
- MILDLY SPOILERY: I think we'd all agree that there are only two people who we could see ruling this world well: Jon Snow and Daenerys. I didn't discuss it in the text, but, if you are familiar with the infamous "R+L=J" theory—which I feel this season has all but confirmed—you know that, one way or another, hope for Westeros lays entirely with Targaryens.