In my review of the first three episodes of Game of Thrones, I said that the show—while incredibly well made—didn't seem to be about anything but itself. That was clumsy and premature: I should have said, I don't know what the show is really about…yet.
Which is not to say that every show must have deeper symbolic meaning, or come equipped with a handy, Cliff's-Notes-ready theme: God forbid. I can only say that the shows I am drawn to tend to have strong mission statements, and visions that transcend their particular plot-lines or milieus. The Wire, for example, looks like just another show about cops and criminals; what makes it something greater than any number of other well-made police procedurals is that it is also a sociological study of the way institutions interact to form the soul of a city. Deadwood was touted as a revisionist western, but at its core it is about the way civilization itself develops, the formation of social order out of chaos. A television show is a long, slow voyage, with many hands at the helm, many detours on the way, and many, many opportunities to founder or go astray; the shows that are most successful, in any genre—from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Mad Men to (my favorite current sit-com) Community—have strong visions and mission statements that keep them on course. It's the shows that don't know what they're ultimately about—for example, Lost —that tend to lose cohesion and become less than the sum of their parts.
So last week I worried that Game of Thrones might be this latter sort of show, but now I'm not so sure. There may be far more going on here than I gave it credit for.
"I have a tender place in my heart for cripples, bastards, and broken things." — Tyrion Lannister
"Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things" is a relatively uneventful episode—it's weighted with exposition, and busy positioning everyone for the midgame—but it's also, thematically, the strongest entry so far. Its mission statement is summed up in that title: in such a heavily structured society, with a strong clan mentality, what happens to the outcasts, the cast-offs, the people who just don't fit?
Game of Thrones has so far shown us that the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros rely on very carefully maintained relationships and rules: everyone knows his or her role; everyone knows where—and to whom—they belong. The first few episodes were all about establishing the parameters of this world: the various houses, the complicated allegiances, the architecture of a society firmly founded on family history.
Ned Stark—the most trustworthy, honor-bound man in the Seven Kingdoms—is our best symbol of this old order, and what is worth preserving in it. The first time we see Ned Stark, in Episode 1, he is reluctantly, but stoically, fulfilling a necessary duty—executing another man for neglecting his duty. Significantly, this scene is presented through the eyes of Ned's youngest son Bran, who has been brought along to learn the way things are done, to learn the way a man must act: to learn the rules. "Do you understand why I did it?" Ned asks his son, who replies, yes, because the man was a deserter. Yes, Ned says, but do you understand why I had to do it? "Because our way is the old way," Bran says: because there are rules, and we all have our roles to play.
Ned has lived his life according to the rules, according to his code and a strong sense of responsibility. This code means he cannot refuse the King's job offer, though he was far happier being Lord of Winterfell than he is being the King's Hand. It means he is haunted by the one indiscretion in his marriage, but it also means that he had to bring the product of that indiscretion—his bastard son, Jon—home to live with him. The code means he believes in killing a man in a fair fight, and he is uncomfortable with men like Jaime Lannister who prefer to stab a man—even a king—in the back.
But this episode sees him playing detective, and slowly discovering things about his kingdom—and his King—that suggest Ned may be the only one living by any rules. In his quest to discover if his friend John Arryn was killed by poison—the weapon of "women, cravens, and eunuchs"—he is given a lesson in palace espionage by Baelish (Aidan Gillen), and later he comes across a secret: the King has a bastard son, Gendry (Joe Dempsie), an armorer, whom Ned discovers Jon Arryn went several times to visit. In this society a bastard can be an inconvenient—if not uncommon—thing; is this the knowledge that got Jon Arryn killed?
First among the crippled, bastards, and broken things—their patron saint—is Tyrion Lannister, who embraces being all three. ("All dwarves are bastards in their father's eyes," he tells Ned Stark's bastard in the first episode.) For Tyrion this episode begins with an act of kindness: providing Bran, the boy his brother made a cripple, with the hope that one day he might ride. "On horseback you'll be as tall as any man," Tyrion tells him.
Immediately after this act of mercy, however, we see Tyrion—tall on horseback—taunting yet another kind of bastard: Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen), the son of one of Ned Stark's vanquished enemies, taken as a hostage and raised within the walls of Winterfell. Not much time has been spent on Theon so far, but he is clearly a man out of place— "a shark on a mountaintop," Jaime Lannister calls him later. He has been raised by his father's enemy, and Tyrion's mockery brings out the conflict within him. "Your loyalty to your captors is touching," says Tyrion, whose motto—as he told Jon Stark—is "Never forget what you are."
"Sam's no different from the rest of us. There's no place for him in the world, so he's come here." — Jon
Meanwhile, Jon himself has gone where bastards and broken things often end up: to The Wall, to serve in the Night's Watch—and he is finding it no more a home than anywhere else. In Winterfell, Jon had his father's love but was forever singled out for being a bastard, for being something less than his father's son. (He is so damaged by this, we learn now, that he has stayed a virgin, crippled by the fear that he might ever father another bastard like himself.) At The Wall, Jon is the best fighter among the recruits, but here he is ostracized for being decent, for displaying the values and goodness he learned at his father's feet.
Like Tyrion, Jon has a tender place in his heart for other bastards and broken things, and he takes under his wing another new recruit, Samwell Tarly, a soft boy of good birth who has been far more scarred by his own father than Jon ever was. On the top of The Wall, Sam tells Jon why he is there:
"On the morning of my 18th name day, my father came to me. 'You're almost a man now,' he said. 'But you're not worthy of my land and title. Tomorrow, you're going to take the black, forsake all claim to your inheritance, and start north. If you do not,' he said, 'then we'll have a hunt. And somewhere in these woods your horse will stumble, and you'll be thrown from your saddle to die. Or so I'll tell your mother. Nothing would please me more.'"
Throughout "Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things," we see damaged people, ostracized people, people who don't fit. The most tortured are those who keep battering their heads against the walls of the society that doesn't want them. Viserys (Harry Lloyd) is obsessed with reclaiming the honor of the Targaryans, the Dragonlords, though his family is long dead, though their rule is unmourned, and though dragons have been unseen for a thousand years. In the closest thing to a human moment Viserys has had yet, he tells Doreah (Roxanne McKee) about walking with his father down the rows of dragon skulls in the throne room of King's Landing. The oldest, more majestic dragon skulls were nearer the throne, but "the ones closest to the door were the last they were able to hatch, and they were all stunted and wrong," says Viserys, "the Dragon," in an unintentional assessment of himself and his place in the history.
Unspoken but implicit in this episode is that the women are the real "cripples, bastards, and broken things" of this world, facing challenges, restrictions, and abuses of which the men can't dream. Doreah—who dreams of flying—elicits a human moment from Viserys, but he hates her for it and quickly and brutally puts her in her place. He tries to do the same to Daenerys, but his sister, unlike Viserys, has found a new role: as a Targaryan she was her brother's toy and bargaining chip, hostage to a dream of a memory that she didn't even share. Among the Dothraki, however—to whom her brother sold her—she has not only found a home, but has also come into her voice, and her authority. "I am Khalesi of the Dothraki, and the wife of the great Khal, and I carry his son inside me," she announces to her brother, finally standing up to him when he dares to strike her. "The next time you raise a hand to me will be the last time you have hands."
"No, that's not me." —Arya Stark
Arya (Maisie Williams) has already figured out that she doesn't want any of the traditional roles open to a woman in this society. (Her sister Sansa, groomed and previously anxious for those roles, also seems to be having some doubts.) Arya—who has thrown herself into her swordfighting training with gusto—is clearly her father's favorite, and he indulges her desire to learn the things of men.
But when it comes right down to it, he can imagine more of a future for crippled Bran than for her. Bran, Ned tells her, will never be a knight, but someday he can be lord of a holdfast, or sit on the King's Council, or build castles. "Can I be lord of a holdfast?" Arya asks Ned—but Ned laughs and tells her she can marry a lord, and have fine children. Like Daenerys, like her mother, like the Queen, Arya can at best hope to wield indirect power, drawn from men. Williams once again knocks her brief scene out of the park: Arya looks at Ned as though she's disappointed he doesn't understand her better. "No, that's not me," Arya tells her father, and calmly resumes her training, arms outstretched as though she might take flight.
"Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things" recognizes that there is power in being an outcast, in stepping outside of society's influence, in daring to imagine a different role. It is significant that Tyrion—almost uniquely among the characters in Game of Thrones—moves freely through all the different social strata; he comes and goes as he pleases, and says what he wants, for he has privilege but no role or responsibilities. His pretty, more powerful brother must stand guard outside the King's chambers, and listen to the King's whoring, but Tyrion is a free man.
And yet Tyrion, in the final scene this week, is snared in a net of the old order, as Catelyn Stark (Michelle Fairley)—another woman drawing on the indirect power available to her—uses old family loyalties to enlist an impromptu posse of men to arrest him. "I knew your father, I knew your family" are still powerful words in this world, which carry authority, responsibility, and expectations.
I suspect Game of Thrones will—in part, at least—turn out to be about some old, old themes after all: the conflict between the individual and society, the question of how identity is forged, the possibility of change.