Note: This post contains spoilers for this and previous episodes of Game of Thrones, but does not discuss any spoilers from the books.
I don't think it has escaped anyone's notice that this season of Game of Thrones has been, on the whole, a good deal darker than last season—and considering that last season was not exactly King Friday's Neighborhood of Make-Believe, that's saying a lot. The Seven Kingdoms of Westeros were always troubled, but Good King Robert's reign was, comparatively, an era of sunshine, lollipops, and rainbows. (Okay, it was also an era of twincest, poisonings, and moon doors, but you take my meaning.) It was—as everyone kept saying all last season—a time of summer, and now winter has come.
And it's not exactly bringing out the best in everyone. This episode is all about exploring the evil of which people are capable, and how they justify it. As we see this week, some are born evil, some are willing to do evil things for the greater good, and some—if they're not careful—may go through life with the best of intentions but still leave evil in their wake.
"There's no cure for being a cunt." — Bronn
Jaime and Cersei's relationship is the source of most evil in Game of Thrones. (If Bran hadn't caught them engaging in a little sibling ribaldry, would the entire kingdom be at war today?) Incest, in general, is this world's original sin: the Targaryans married brother to sister for generations, and the Targaryans were batshit crazy. It is therefore logical and fitting that the most evil son of a bitch (literally) in Westeros is the product of this incestuous coupling: King Joffrey the First (Jack Gleeson).
Joffrey has always been twisted—we knew that way back in Episode Two, when he assaulted the Butcher's Boy—but now he is absolutely corrupted by power. He has one guiding principle: "The king can do as he likes!" What this king likes, unfortunately, is torture and sadism. He justifies having Sansa (Sophie Turner) beaten because of her brother Robb's victories in battle, but the real reason is that he enjoys it: he is only prevented from doing worse by the timely arrival of Tyrion (Peter Dinklage), who reminds him that the mad Targaryan king also did as he liked. (Joffrey, if you'll remember, expressed his admiration for the Targaryan style back in the season premiere: "Say what you will about the Targaryans," he told his mother, "they were conquerors.")
Tyrion and Bronn (Jerome Flynn) discuss whether it is possible to settle Joffrey down a bit by getting him laid. "The little king's backed up: clogged from balls to brains," Bronn observes, and they concoct a plan to let him release a little "poison."
However, the young king would need to have something approaching normal human appetites for this plan to work, and so their plan just turns into a new opportunity for Joffrey to demonstrate his monstrosity. It turns out that Bronn was right: "There's no cure for being a cunt." In what is probably the most uncomfortably sadistic scene Game of Thrones has offered yet, Joffrey torments the prostitutes Tyrion sends, forcing Ros (Esme Bianco) to brutally beat—and probably rape, and perhaps kill—Daisy (Maisie Dee). (Daisy has had bad luck since she joined the employ of Petyr Baelish: her training session was interrupted by infanticide in this season's first episode, and she was with Grand Maester Pycelle [Julian Glover] last week when Tyrion had him arrested.)
(It's a brutal scene, and it wouldn't surprise me if it was too strong for some viewers. But is it gratuitous? I honestly can't decide, but I'm inclined to think it's not. It stops thankfully short of where it could have gone: we cut away before we learn exactly what Joffrey makes Ros do with that painful looking—and threateningly phallic—sceptre. And though it requires Dee to be fully nude, the scene is not, and is not meant to be, titillating: the choice of the sceptre as the weapon makes it painfully clear that this scene is—like all rapes—about power, not sex. Abuse of power is obviously one of the main themes of Game of Thrones, and this season has made it clear that the abuse of women, specifically, is going to be a central concern. There have been sexual scenes on this show that I thought were purely prurient—like the one between Ros and Armeca [Sahara Knite] during Baelish's monologue in "You Win or You Die”—but, more often, these scenes are honorably in service of the story. In this scene—as in the one between Theon [Alfie Allen] and the Captain's daughter [Amy Dawson] in "The Night Lands"—the nudity is about as non-erotic as it is possible for nudity to be, and just serves to emphasize the vulnerability and powerlessness of the women and the absolute monstrosity of the men involved.)
Finally, since this episode is largely about how all these political machinations destroy innocent lives, it's worth noting here that Tyrion deserves much of the blame for sending these women to Joffrey in the first place: knowing his nephew, he should have known something like this was likely to happen. He's as guilty as anyone of sacrificing innocent pawns in the larger game.
"The high road is very pretty, but you'll have a hard time marching your army down it." — Roose Bolton
What sets Joffrey off in the first place is the victory Robb Stark (Richard Madden) scores over one of the Lannister forces, setting upon them in the dead of night. One of the main obsessions of Game of Thrones is that every action has consequences, and the beatings Sansa and Daisy take are just distant ripples on the waters Robb is troubling. He gets a lecture in the more immediate consequences of his actions from a frontline nurse, Talisa (Oona Chaplin), who chastises him for all the death and destruction he leaves in his wake, and points out that the boy whose foot she just had to saw off was not his enemy. "Do you think he's friends with King Joffrey?" she asks him. "He's a fisherman's son that grew up near Lannisport; he probably never held a spear until they shoved one in his hands a few months ago."
"The boy was lucky you were here," Robb tells her, but she won't let him off the hook. "He was unlucky that you were," she responds. As I said, this episode is concerned with all the innocent victims who suffer because these kings are clashing—Robb's sneak attack is first seen from the point-of-view of some bumbling, farting Lannister guards, for example—and Talisa strikes a nerve with Robb because he has never been comfortable with the cost of his victories. ("I sent 2,000 men to their deaths today," he lamented last season, after his first victory.) Robb is too much his father's son to enjoy warfare, or to heed the counsel of men like Roose Bolton (Michael McElhatton), who advise him to become more like his enemies in order to win. "We're not executing prisoners," he tells Bolton, and refuses to torture captured Lannister men for information. Robb wants to fight an honorable war, but is such a thing possible? "The high road is very pretty," Bolton tells him, "but you'll have a hard time marching your army down it."
Even his cause is uncertain: Robb's sole goal is to depose Joffrey—and I think we can all agree that that needs to happen—but Talisa points out that Robb has no plan beyond that. Robb doesn't want to sit the Iron Throne, and he doesn't know who will or should, as long as he can get revenge for his father's death. Robb has plunged the entire kingdom into war, and thousands are dying, and little thought has gone into what will happen if he wins. Robb is an honorable man, but his actions may ultimately cause more bloodshed and misery than any mad king could manage.
"Joffrey. Cersei. Ilyn Payn. The Hound. Polliver. The Mountain...." — Arya
Torture is very much the order of the day in "Garden of Bones," as Arya (Maisie Williams) discovers upon her arrival at Harrenhal, the decrepit castle currently serving as a Lannister stronghold. Harrenhal, as we learned from Baelish last episode, is "cursed," and it certainly seems to ooze evil from its ruined walls. Lannister thugs have captured Arya (Maisie Williams) and the other refugees from Yoren's recruiting trip, as well as a great number of peasants, and are torturing them for information that none of them seem to have.
(War and power, clearly, do not bring out the best in men: the Lannister men have devised a unique form of torture: insert rat in bucket, place bucket against belly, and apply heat. Which begs the question, Who the fuck thinks of something like that?)
There is no logic to this process, no strategic purpose, and very little point: just as with Joffrey, the real purpose is pure sadism, and it is completely arbitrary. There's a lovely, brief scene in which another boy has told Hot Pie (Ben Hawkey) that the key to avoid being selected for torture is to stare at Polliver (Andy Pellegher) when he comes to choose the next victim. Hot Pie believes this, and stares intently, only to see the boy who gave him this advice be chosen.
There is no key to survival: it is another example of how the horrors of wars choose their victims indiscriminately. (Survival is, as much as anything, a matter of luck, and here luck comes in the surprising form of Tywin Lannister [Charles Dance]. Tywin is evil, no doubt, but he is not insane; there is, one suspects, always a larger purpose to his crimes, and he does not commit sadistic acts for sheer pleasure. In this company that practically makes him a honorable man; he puts an end to the torture and selects Arya—who he immediately recognizes as a girl—to be his personal cupbearer. )
Arya is an innocent victim of this conflict, and I fear it may be heartbreaking to see what she becomes as a result. As always, Maisie Williams is fantastic in this role: Arya's spirit is unbroken, but she seems so much older now than she did last season, having seen so many horrors in such a short time. Her life is always in danger now, but it is her soul that is really at peril, for more and more each episode she is driven by the thirst for revenge. Taking her cue from the story Yoren told her last episode, she goes to sleep every night repeating, like a prayer, the names of those she hates: "Joffrey. Cersei. Ilyn Payn. The Hound. Polliver. The Mountain..." The list keeps getting longer, and we can't help but wonder what darkness she'll be capable of when she gets the chance.
"Cleaner ways don't win wars." — Stannis
The most explicit discussions of good and evil are happening in the camp of Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane). Stannis, interestingly, has a balanced—if stern—view of the issue, as he discusses with Davos (Liam Cunningham). It's been mentioned before that Stannis once cut off several of Davos's fingers as punishment for his crimes as a smuggler, and yet he trusts Davos, and Davos serves him loyally. "You were a hero and a smuggler," Stannis says. "A good act does not wash out the bad, nor a bad the good." Davos shares this recognition of the duality of man: when Melisandre (Carice van Houten) asks Davos if he is a good man, his answer demonstrates a less simplistic view of humanity: "I'd say my parts are mixed, milady, good and bad."
Melisandre, on the other hand, has the terrifying certainty of absolutism. "A man is good or he is evil," she tells him, asserting that she herself is wholly good. Davos points out, quite rightly, that she seems to work in mysterious ways. "Strange that this Lord of Light asks you to work in the shadows," he says, but Melisandre sees the shadows as part of her essential goodness. "Shadows can not live in the dark, Ser Davos," she says. "They are servants of the light, the children of fire. And the brighter the flame, the darker they are."
This difference between Melisandre and Stannis is subtle, but important: he is willing to do things he recognizes as wrong in service of the greater good. ("Surely there are other ways, cleaner ways--" Davos says, but Stannis is a practical man. "Cleaner ways do not win wars," he says.) Melisandre, however, has the fanatical righteousness of the true believer: nothing she does is wrong, because she's convinced that she is on the side of good.
Game of Thrones is a show that respects ambiguity and grey areas, and its heroes are those who make mistakes, who are uncertain, who constantly question the rightness of their own actions. Its monsters, on the other hand, are those who make no allowance for doubt. Melisandre's reasons are fancier than Joffrey's, but basically their approach is the same: everything we do is right, and nothing we do can be questioned. It is in the marriage of power and absolute conviction that true darkness is born—and here we can take that literally, as Melisandre spawns a shadow demon to do her bidding. No one who watches that inky monstrosity ooze from between the witch's legs could possibly think it could be a servant of good.
"Ah, you are a true Targaryan." — The Trader of Spices, to Daenerys
Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) has had little to do so far this season, but her storyline finally seems to be picking up, as she brings her khalasar to the gates of Qarth, a fabled city in the desert. She is met by the Thirteen, the council that seems to rule the city, who are very interested in her dragons. When she refuses to display them, the Thirteen are prepared to turn her away—and let her people die in the "garden of bones" that surrounds the marvelous city—until one of their number, Xaro Xhoan Daxos (Nonso Anozie) speaks up for them and invites them inside.
Once again, very little happens here, but it's worth considering this scene in relation to the rest of the episode. Daenerys has mostly had our sympathies during the entire run of the show so far, as we've seen her grow from a meek child to a strong and powerful woman. Viewed objectively, however, there is every argument to be made that she has caused nothing but misery and pain. Often it has been with the best of intentions, but occasionally there has been a cruelty and blood lust in her that rivals the characters we think of as villains. (Her burning of Mirri Maz Duur being just one example.) When she formed her makeshift khalasar, it was not with the promise of peace and prosperity, but with the promise that their enemies would "die screaming." And—though Jorah (Iain Glen) urges her to be cautious—it is this ruthless side that she shows to the Thirteen: "When my dragons are grown, we will take back what was stolen from me, and destroy those who have wronged me," she threatens. "We will lay waste to those who have wronged me, and burn cities to the ground. Turn us away, and we will burn you first."
"Ah," the representative of the Thirteen says. "You are a true Targaryan." And he may be right: the blood of the Mad King runs through Daenerys's veins—she has inherited his fondness for burning people, at the very least—and she has made it clear that she will lay waste to the Seven Kingdoms as soon as she gets the chance.
The question we have to ask of her is one we must ask of many characters in this show: is she a hero, or are we witnessing the early days of a monster?
- I skipped over Baelish (Aiden Gillen) and his attempts to ingratiate himself to Catelyn (Michelle Fairley), Renly (Gethin Anthony), and Margaery (Natalie Dormer), but in his own way he may be as frightening a monster as any who exists in Westeros. (He may ooze words instead of smoky demonic twat monsters, but in the long run he probably does more damage.) Completely selfish and amoral, Littlefinger's justification for his endless betrayals is the most common, and most insidious, of all excuses: "I'm a practical man," he says. It is the same excuse nearly everyone gives: that his evil is a necessary evil. It is what Stannis says, and Bolton, and it is no doubt what Joffrey and the torturers of Harrenhal would say if pressed to defend their actions.
- I feel like I've given short shrift in my reviews to Catelyn—and to Michelle Fairley—so let me take this opportunity to say how well that character is working for me. It took me a while to warm up to Catelyn, but now—following Ned's death—she has emerged as the real conscience of the show. She is not motivated by a desire for revenge, only by love for her family and a desire for peace. (Last week, when Renly promised her Joffrey's head, she said that it would be enough for her to know that justice was done. She doesn't care about vengeance, and one suspects she doesn't even care about justice: she just wants her children back.) I loved the maternal tone she took with the bickering Baratheon brothers—"If you were sons of mine, I would knock your heads together, and lock you in a bed chamber until you remembered that you were brothers"—and Michelle Fairley was devastating in the scene in which Baelish returned Ned's bones to her.
- Speaking of that scene, I had to think about how much Cat really knows about what went down in King's Landing: she knew enough to be angry with him, but she must not know the whole story, or else I can think of no reason she wouldn't have shoved that dagger through Littlefinger's obsequious face.
- It will be interesting to see where the show is going with Ros: she's a character who doesn't exist in the books, but she's turning into a fairly major character in the series. The accumulations of horrors she has witnessed, and her reaction to them, make me suspect that she may have a major role to play.
- Random trivia: Oona Chaplin, who plays Talisa, is Charlie Chaplin's granddaughter, and great-granddaughter to playwright Eugene O'Neill.
- I have never liked Stannis, but he endeared himself to me by reminding Davos that he has
fewer nails to clip, not less. I could be persuaded to support a king with impeccable grammar.