As I tried to argue in my reviews last season, Game of Thrones does a remarkable job of uniting all the unwieldy subplots of each episode into a cohesive thematic whole. The considerable demands of George R. R. Martin’s sprawling story set the pace of the telling, but there are consistent themes that run throughout that story, and executive producers Benioff and Weiss are expert at teasing them out at the right moments to give each weekly segment a narrative integrity. It’s never perfect—there are usually pieces that don’t quite fit—but there is almost always a loose thematic thread that ties each episode together.
I promised I wasn’t going to reveal anything from the novels in these posts—and I’m not—but, now that I’ve read them, I notice that a quick way to identify each episode’s thematic throughline is to look at the scenes that aren’t in the books. Littlefinger (Aidan Gillen) is one of the show’s favorite mouthpieces for this purpose: he’s not a point-of-view character in the books, so many of his scenes are invented for the show, and they often serve the purpose of underlining the important concepts for each episode. That’s certainly the case this week, as Littlefinger’s scene with Ros (Esme Bianco) is a dark summation of the episode’s central concern: “The Night Lands” is largely about the role of women in this male-dominated world.
Last week, Ros seemed like a small-town girl who had made it good in the big city. Since we saw her last in Season One, she had risen to a relative position of power in her profession, and was now training the new girls in the brothel the same way that Baelish once trained her. But this week we see what her apparent power is worth. When she upsets a client by breaking into tears over the murder of Mhaegen’s baby (which occurred in last week’s episode), Baelish appears sympathetic at first, but his soft, oily words soon take on another meaning:
“You know, you remind me of another girl, a lovely thing I once acquired from a Lysine pleasure house. Beautiful, like yourself, and intelligent, like yourself. But she wasn’t happy…Girls from the Lysine pleasure houses are expensive, extremely expensive, and this one wasn’t making me any money…I had no idea how to make her happy, and no idea how to mitigate my losses. A very wealthy patron, he offered me a tremendous amount of money to let him transform this lovely, sad girl: to use her in ways that would never occur to most men, and you know what occurs to most men. I will not say he succeeded in making her happy, but my losses were definitely mitigated. Take tonight off to mourn Mhaegen’s child. I’ll see you tomorrow, and you’ll be happy.”
The message is clear and horrendous, of course, but the language is just as chilling. “A lovely thing,” he calls the girl from his horrible parable, “…like yourself.” Women are things, to be used, bartered, and disposed of when their use runs out. (Baelish’s heartlessness is emphasized by the fact that, when Ros first mentions her name, he doesn’t know who “Mhaegen” is.)
The scene doesn’t really need a lot of commentary: it’s painfully obvious, and hardly a surprising attitude coming from a pimp. My point, however, is that the lengthy scene is not necessary, from a plot standpoint. While it’s possible that Ros’s character will turn out to be important to the story, or that Baelish’s treatment of his whores will come back to bite him, the real purpose of this scene is to underline the themes of the episode. This is a man’s world, and throughout this episode we see through the eyes of men, but what we see is the women of Westeros in varying states of power and powerlessness.
“This is what ruling is. Lying on a bed of weeds, ripping them out by the roots one-by-one, before they strangle you in your sleep.”
From this perspective, one could almost—almost—feel sorry for Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey). She is the most powerful woman in the Seven Kingdoms, but it has never brought her any joy. “You’ve never taken it seriously,” she says to her brother Tyrion (Peter Dinklage), about the responsibilities of ruling. “You haven’t, and Jaime hasn’t. It’s all fallen on me.” More than either of her brothers, she is her father’s child, but she is a woman, and therefore has been forced her entire life to eke out power from the less capable men in her life: her brother, her husband, her son.
Now she should finally have the power more or less to herself—but she keeps calling herself “Queen,” and Tyrion keeps reminding her that she is only “Queen Regent.” Her son, for whom she has done everything, is rebelling against her: she couldn’t stop him from executing Ned Stark, and Tyrion learns this week that Joffrey didn’t even consult her on ordering the murder of Robert’s bastards. Her beloved brother is a captive of the Starks, and now her father has sent her other, hated brother, Tyrion, to take even more of her authority. But this, Tyrion learns—perhaps for the first time—is not why she hates him.
“You’re funny. You’ve always been funny. But none of your jokes will ever match the first one, will they? You remember: back when you ripped my mother open on your way out of her, and she bled to death…Mother gone, for the sake of you: there’s no bigger joke in the world than that.”
“She was my mother too,” Tyrion says—but he never knew her. We don’t know anything about their mother from the show—I’m not sure she’s been discussed—but it is safe to assume that Tywin Lannister’s wife was a formidable presence in this world, a powerful woman and a beloved ally to Cersei. Her hatred of her brother is that he removed this figure from her life, and left her alone to make her way in a world of men.
Shae is another woman in a gilded cage, living in comfort but dependent on her ability to manipulate men for her power and survival. As I said above, this episode is not about the women from their perspectives, for the most part, but about how men see women, as objects to be seduced, bartered over, and used. Tyrion does, I believe, love Shae, but their relationship is one of commerce and unequal power, and the scene with Varys (Conleth Hill) just emphasizes her powerlessness and the precarious position in which Tyrion has placed her. “Unfortunate that your father didn’t want her to come,” Varys says, a threat thinly veiled in delicate manners. Tywin would take her away from Tyrion—as he did Tyrion’s wife—and so Shae must be locked away. She is in the capital, living in riches with the Hand of the King, but she can’t leave her apartments, and no one can know she is there. She has Tyrion wrapped around her finger, but Tyrion and Varys are playing a game for power in which she is both a pawn and the prize, but not a player.
North of the Wall, things are even more dire for women—or at least for the daughter-wives of Craster (Robert Pugh). The wildling chieftain has more daughters than cattle, and he treats them exactly like livestock, keeping the girls for breeding and dispensing with the males. He has forbidden the men of the Night’s Watch to so much as look at the girls, but Sam (John Bradley) makes the acquaintance of one of them, Gilly (Hannah Murray), when Ghost scares her. “You’re very brave,” she says to him—words that no one has ever said to Samwell Tarley before.
Gilly reveals that she is pregnant, and scared for the life of her child if it should turn out to be a boy. Sam—perhaps the kindest person in the Seven Kingdoms—tries to enlist the help of Jon Snow (Kit Harington), who has always done the right thing by Sam before. But this time Jon—still reeling from last week’s dressing-down from Commander Mormont—not only refuses to help, he refuses even to acknowledge the reality of the situation. “You want us to risk our lives for you,” he says to the girl, “and you won’t even tell us why?” But he knows why, and the look Gilly gives him is an accusation for his willful ignorance. He knows how horrible life is for these women, and he can’t—or won’t—do anything about it. Jon is not without compassion normally—especially for the helpless—but here he too objectifies the women in warning Sam about trying to “steal” one. “I can’t steal her,” says Sam, calling Jon up short. “She’s a person, not a goat.”
(It remains to be seen if Jon will do the right thing after all: he is invested enough to follow Craster at the end of the episode, and to therefore witness the old man appearing to give one of his infant sons to a mysterious figure—a White Walker?—in the woods.)
Trying to make her way in the world of men—disguised as a male—is Arya Stark (Maisie Williams). She has fallen in with some of the worst examples of the species, traveling incognito with the new recruits of the Night’s Watch, and even for this tomboy it must be an education on the differences between how males and females are treated in this society. Arya has grown up frustrated that she couldn’t hang with the boys, but she’s hanging with them now. In the very first scene we see her urinating in a stream—worried someone will notice she’s not standing up—and the first words spoken in the episode emphasize her new gender role. “Boy…Lovely boy,” a prisoner calls to her. (This prisoner—Jaquen H’ghar [Tom Wlaschiha] is polite enough, but his companions “lack courtesy.” “Come closer,” one says, “and I’ll shove that stick up your bunghole and fuck you bloody.”)
This issue of courtesy and crudity underlines the assumptions about women—particularly high-born women—and how they must be treated. When the Gold Cloaks come looking for Gendry (Joe Dempsie), Arya thinks they’re after her, which leads to an exchange of confessions between the two fugitives. Gendry reveals that he knows Arya is a girl—“Well, pull your cock out and take a piss, then,” he challenges her, when she denies it—but he doesn’t much care, because he doesn’t know she’s a lady: he can still be himself and treat her like a friend.
When she admits her true identity, however, his manner changes. “But you’re high-born then,” he stammers. “You’re a lady…You were a lord’s daughter, and you lived in a castle. Look, all that about cocks, I should never have said it. And I’ve been pissin’ in front of you and everything. I should be calling you ‘milady.'” (The irony here, of course, is that Gendry is unaware of the fact that he may be King Robert’s only true heir, and therefore is higher-born than she.)
Arya, bless her, will have none of it. Her sister was a lady, she says, and her mother, but not her. “Do not call me ‘milady.'” Arya has been mistaken for a boy before, but she has always protested “I’m a girl.” She doesn’t want to be a boy: she just wants to be allowed to be herself, free from the paralyzing societal restrictions the word “lady” entails. She pushes Gendry to the ground, and he laughs, and a friendship of equals is born.
For a place in which women are truly allowed to be equals—at least occasionally—we have to look to the Iron Islands, birthplace of Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen). Theon grew up in Winterfell, a ward/hostage of Ned Stark, as insurance against Theon’s father who had led a rebellion against Robert. Theon learned a lot that was good in his nine years at Winterfell, but it seems he also picked up some reprehensible ideas about women and some mistaken notions about his homeland.
Journeying back to the Islands for the first time, on a diplomatic mission for Robb Stark, Theon spends his time aboard the ship abusing the captain’s daughter (Amy Dawson). He explains to her—in one of Game of Thrones’ classic “sexposition” scenes—that, on the Iron Islands, wives are for breeding but the men also take “salt-wives” from the women they capture. Theon is proud of this seafaring legacy of rape, and proud of his own sexual prowess (though the only woman we’ve seen him “capture” before was one he paid). He’s brutal and cruel to the simple-minded girl—“Try smiling with your lips closed”—but she begs him to take her with him when he leaves the ship. “My father will call me a whore,” she says, and he tells her the only difference between a whore and how he sees her: “I haven’t paid you.”
Theon is expecting a big hero’s welcome when he arrives, but this is just one of the many things he gets wrong: no one seems to care that the prodigal son has returned. He hitches a ride to the castle, Pyke, with a mysterious woman (Gemma Whelan) whom he instantly sets out to seduce. He tells her there were no women like her where he came from, and she tells him he doesn’t know what she’s like. “You don’t know what you’re like,” he says, cocksure and condescending. “Maybe you need someone to teach you.” On the ride back to the castle he tries to do just that, fondling and fingering her like she’s his property, and she allows it.
Reunited with his father (Patrick Malahide), Theon begins to learn things are different than he thought: he keeps repeating to everyone he meets that he’s the only living son of Balon Greyjoy, but his father puts him in his place in a way that amounts to an emasculation: “Who gave you those clothes?” he asks. “Was it Ned Stark’s pleasure to make you his daughter?…I’ll not have my son dressed as a whore.”
The symbolic gelding of Theon Greyjoy is complete when he discovers that the woman on the horse is in fact his sister Yara, and that—to all intents and purposes—she is their father’s heir. “But you’re a woman,” Theon protests. (“You’re the one in skirts,” she replies.) Balon brags on how Yara has led men in battle, and killed men, and is a true child of the Iron Islands. In retrospect, Yara’s permitting Theon to grope her—while decidedly icky—is a declaration of power. He thought he could seduce her, objectify her, reduce her to a sexual object, and she let him try because he has no power over her. Theon thought he could tell this woman who she was, but, as Balon says now, “She knows who she is.”
(This character was named Asha in the books, and the show changed it to avoid confusion with Osha (Natalia Tena). Some fans have pointed out that “Yara” now sounds too much like (and is an anagram for) “Arya.” That similarity may be a coincidence, but it may also be intentional: Yara Greyjoy is what Arya Stark would like to be: a woman, but a woman who can be herself and be as formidable as any man.
Finally, in our consideration of the varying positions of power among the women of Westeros, we come to the dark end of the spectrum: Melisandre (Carice van Houten), who is certainly the scariest woman in the Seven Kingdoms. She appears to exercise her power through men, like Cersei, but in this case there is no doubt who is really in charge: Stannis (Stephen Dillane) is little more than a figurehead, a piece on the board like the toy armies on his table. Melisandre is the one playing the game, and here she seduces him—for her own nefarious purposes—and not the other way around.
Prior to this scene, we’ve seen Davos (Liam Cunningham) negotiating with a pirate, Salladhor Saan (Lucian Msamati), who dreams of not only pillaging the riches of King’s Landing but also of pillaging its queen. When Davos’s son Matthos (Kerr Logan) protests that they are fighting for “The One True God,” Saan expresses another viewpoint: “I’ve been all over the world, my boy. And everywhere I go people tell me about the ‘true god.’ They all think they found the right one. The one true god is what’s between a woman’s legs.”
And Melisandre puts a different spin on that line when she uses what’s between her legs to seduce Stannis to her god. “You must give all of yourself,” she tells him. Stannis—whom Davos has just called the most honorable man in the world—protests that he already has a wife, but Melisandre is cruelly dismissive of this other woman. “She’s sickly. Weak. Shut away in a tower. She disgusts you. And she’s given you nothing, no sons. Only stillborns. Only death. I will give you a son, my king.” In most of this world only sons are truly valued, and so she takes advantage of that, seizing more power for herself by offering him a male heir.
This season is about a clash of kings, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that the roles of the queens may be far more interesting.
- Since this post is already novella-length, I skipped over the brief scene with Daenerys (Emelia Clarke) this week, but it’s thematically on-point. Rakharo has been slaughtered by another tribe, because, as Jorah (Iain Glen) says, “They don’t like the idea of a woman leading a khalasar.” As we trace the evolving roles of women in this society, Daenerys is the one to watch.
- I also skipped over a scene that does not particularly fit my theme, but was fantastic nonetheless: Tyrion exiling Janos Slynt (Dominic Carter) over the murder of Robert’s bastards, and installing Bronn (Jerome Flynn) as commander of the city watch. (Though it’s a chilling moment when Tyrion learns Bronn is every bit as ruthless as Slynt.)
- If my Twitter feed is indicative of the overall reception of this episode, many fans found the sex and nudity a little gratuitous this week. Normally I would agree, but—as I hope I’ve argued—the sexual objectification of women is very much relevant. (Though I probably could have done without Baelish wiping come off the chin of one of his whores.)
- It’s nice to see another named character of color in Salador Saan: apart from the (mostly nameless) members of Drogo’s tribe, it’s been a pretty white cast so far. (Plus, Lucien Msamati gets bonus points for having appeared in Doctor Who.)
- Gendry is a great friend for Arya to have as she tries to navigate the waters of her new role. For one thing, he lets her know that being a boy doesn’t mean being a reckless idiot. “They don’t scare me,” she says of the prisoners. “Then you’re stupid: they scare me,” he responds.
- Balon scares me, and his determination to pay “the iron price” for his crown does not bode well—especially since he says it’s not the Lannister’s he’s planning to take on.