One of the essential motifs of Game of Thrones is the equation of people with animals: we have stags and wolves, lions and dragons, krakens and crows and horse lords (oh my). It’s been clear from the beginning that the sigils are more than symbols: they are an expression of animal nature, a reminder of the primal forces that live within us all—the instincts, the passions, the inner call of the wild.
The conflict between the impulses of nature and the constraints of civilization are as old as literature itself, of course, and it’s not a surprise to see that theme becoming more important in Game of Thrones. There’s a reason Westeros maintains a great big wall between itself and the untamed world beyond: those animal natures are often at odds with the responsibilities and requirements of this society.
This is a world, after all, that tends towards savagery, and that savagery is only kept at bay through a strict and brutal social order. Real freedom is almost unknown: nearly everyone is—either in fact or in essence—owned by someone else. Bannermen owe allegiance to their lords, entire houses are subject to the whims of larger houses, and individuals are conscripted into service, captured as slaves, and traded in treaties. The lowest men sacrifice their freedom to the Night’s Watch, and even kings and queens find themselves caged by duty.
But “you can’t tame a wild thing,” as Qhorin Halfhand (Simon Armstrong) tells Jon Snow (Kit Harington) in “The Old Gods and the New.” “You can’t trust a wild thing. Wild creatures have their own rules, their own reasons, and you’ll never know them.” From the very first scene of Maester Luwin (Donald Sumpter) releasing a raven from Winterfell, to the last scene of Dany’s pet dragons being stolen, “The Old Gods and the New” is full of references to people as animals, and images of creatures in captivity. This season, the social order is crumbling, the wall that protects civilization is under siege, and the wild things that live within us all are refusing to be tamed.
“Theon, did you hate us the whole time?”
Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen) was raised in captivity, though he never thought of it that way until recently. Following his failed rebellion, Baelon Greyjoy was forced to send his only son to Winterfell as insurance against further treason. Ned Stark was a good man, and so it was a kind cage to be raised in, but, as Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) reminded Theon way back in “Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things,” a cage is all it ever was. (“You’re loyalty to your captors is touching,” Tyrion mocked him, and later Jaime refered to Theon as “a shark on a mountaintop.”) Theon forgot, for a time, who he really was, and his captors forgot as well: “Robb Stark trusted you like a brother,” Rodrik Cassel (Ron Donachie) tells him now. “Lord Stark raised you among his own sons.” “Among them, but not one of them,” Theon responds. “I was his hostage.”
Here, Theon lashes back against his former captors, and—in one of the most brutal scenes ever shown in Game of Thrones—he executes Ser Rodrik, the man who taught him to wield a sword in the first place. (Theon must have been a poor pupil, since he makes a horrific mess of the job, requiring several strokes and a kick to remove Rodrik’s head.) The scene, accompanied by the pleading, near hysterical cries of Bran (Isaac Hempstead-Wright)—is horrific and heartbreaking. (“Hush, now child,” Rodrik comforts Bran. “I’m off to see your father.”)
We can—and do, and should—hate Theon for turning against the Starks. “Gods help you, Theon Greyjoy,” Rodrik says, with his last words. “Now you are truly lost.” And he is: this is unforgivable, as even Robb—who thought of him as a brother—now acknowledges. (“There will be no talk,” Robb tells his mother. “He will die for this.”) But it’s important to note too that, from another perspective, Theon’s treachery is really loyalty to his true self: he is a wild animal that his captors thought they had domesticated, but his real nature has been awakened. (To paraphrase Chris Rock, that shark didn’t go crazy: that shark went shark.)
It’s interesting, however, that Theon almost immediately forgets the lessons of which he himself is proof: you can’t trust a creature in captivity. “You serve me as loyally as you served Ned Stark,” he tells the assembled residents of Winterfell, “and I’ll be as good to you as he ever was.” Theon tries at first to be kind—to Bran, and even to Rodrik—but kindness doesn’t make imprisonment any more tolerable. Theon quickly makes the mistake of trusting Osha (Natalia Tena), who presents herself to him as a fellow captive of the Starks eager for revenge and freedom. “We know things, the free people…savage things.” She appeals to his animal nature, and tempts him with her body, but she betrays him by helping the Stark boys (and Hodor) escape. She is a kinder creature than a shark—she is motivated here, we must assume, by her genuine love for Bran—but she is another wild thing that won’t be kept as a pet, and she leads her young charges—and their wolves—into the freedom of the wilderness.
“I’m as much a crow as they are.”
Meanwhile, Jon Snow—himself a nameless slave to the realm, as Qhorin reminds him—has captured his own wild thing. After a fight with a party of wildlings, Qhorin orders Jon to deal with the one survivor, Ygritte (Rose Leslie), a feisty redhead who tries to tempt Jon away from the Watch and into freedom. “Mance would take you, I know he would,” she tells him. “There are secret ways. The crows would never catch us.” Jon knows where his allegiance lies—“I’m as much a crow as they are,” he tells her—but he can’t bring himself to kill her. His hesitation gives her the opportunity to lash out him—Never trust a wild thing—and she nearly escapes, until Jon manages to tackle her in the snow and tie her up.
Ygritte is one of those fan-favorite characters from the novels that many of us have been looking forward to seeing, and she doesn’t disappoint: Rose Leslie (familiar to fans of Downton Abbey) gives a sly and funny performance, as she tries to tempt Jon in other ways, undulating seductively against him as they huddle for warmth. She’s a reminder of all the freedom Jon Snow has given up by pledging himself to the Night’s Watch, the denial—the caging—of his own animal nature made manifest. So far, he manages to resist, but already we suspect neither Ygritte nor his own primal instincts will be tamed so easily.
“The young wolf is on the move.”
Facing the exact same issue—though in a more civilized manner—is Jon’s brother Robb (Richard Madden). King Robb, too, is feeling “the call of the wild,” having become thoroughly smitten with the Lady Talisa Maegyr (Oona Chaplin). The two “met cute” over a battlefield amputation two episodes ago, and now they have another adorably flirty conversation here. Robb is, in fact, on the verge of asking Talisa out when he is interrupted by the untimely arrival of Catelyn (Michelle Fairley). (There’s nothing worse than being cock-blocked by your own mother.)
Last season, as she reminds him now, Catelyn negotiated a deal with Walder Frey that requires Robb to marry one of Frey’s daughters, and it is a debt that must be paid. “You have inherited your father’s responsibilities,” she tells him, “and I’m afraid they come at a cost.” Though not as severely as Jon Snow, Robb has surrendered his freedom, and is being forced to subjugate his own instincts to the demands of duty. Robb—the oldest, most responsible of his father’s children—has always done what was required of him: we have never seen him set a foot wrong, let alone give in to his passions, so it will be interesting to see what comes of this new temptation.
“The little bird is bleeding. Someone take her back to her cage.”
In King’s Landing, we open with a scene of Myrcella (Aimee Richardson) being effectively sent into captivity, shipped off to Dorne for an arranged marriage. Cersei (Lena Headey), who once suffered the safe fate, threatens to revenge herself on Tyrion for this injustice. “I want you to know what it’s like to love someone, to truly love someone,” she says, “before I take her from you.”
King Joffrey (Jack Gleeson), however, has no sympathy, and mocks his little brother for crying at Myrcella’s departure. (“I saw you cry,” Sansa [Sophie Turner] unwisely—but hilariously—reminds him.) Sansa is another captive—a bird in a cage, as The Hound (Rory McCann) keeps calling her—and it is Sansa that bears the brunt of the horror as the captive citizens of King’s Landing rise up against their chains. When the starving peasants throw dung at the king, he overreacts and orders them killed, resulting in a riot. (“We’ve had vicious kings, and we’ve had idiot kings,” Tyrion chastises Joffrey. “But I don’t know if we’ve ever been cursed with a vicious, idiot king.”) Not to belabor this episode’s prevailing metaphor, but the scene of the riot is decidedly savage, with the crowd falling on the royal priest like a pack of wild animals, tearing him limb-from-limb: put enough pressure on so-called civilization, and the jungle is apt to erupt.
Sansa—in another of the more horrible scenes Game of Thrones has offered—is cornered and nearly raped by a gang of rioters. Joffrey doesn’t care that Sansa is missing—“Let them have her,” he says—but The Hound has always had a soft spot for her. He rescues her from her attackers—quickly and brutally killing them all—and sees her safely back to her cage. There Sansa is comforted by Shae (Sibel Kekilli), yet another captive bird in a gilded cage. Sansa plays the “little dove” for Cersei and Joffrey, but she is not as domesticated as she appears. “I hate the king more than any of them,” she says, and Shae cautions her not to say such things aloud in case the wrong people might hear. “You’re not the wrong people,” sweet, trusting Sansa says, but Shae knows better. “Don’t trust anyone,” she warns Sansa. “Life is safer that way.”
“What killed him?” — Tywin Lannister
“Loyalty.” — Arya Stark
Finally, we have one more wild thing in captivity: Arya Stark (Maisie Williams). “Arya, just as wild as ever,” Baelish (Aidan Gillen) said, a few episodes ago, when he pretended to Cat that he knew where her daughter was. Baelish was lying then, but he may know now, as he encounters her on his visit to Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance). It is not immediately clear that he recognizes her, but we suspect he does from the way he begins to talk about the Starks at the end of the meeting.
And Arya is as wild as ever—or wilder—and this is something that escapes the notice of Tywin, who thinks she is his tame pet. She smuggles military intelligence out of Tywin’s chambers, and—unlike her captive sister—she is not helpless: when Amory Lorch (Finton McKeown) catches her with the document, Arya uses the second of her three wishes from Jaquen (Tom Wlaschiha) to have Lorch killed.
The relationship between Arya and Tywin is turning into one of the best that Game of Thrones has developed, but Tywin fails to realize that Arya—like Osha, like Sansa, like Ygritte—will not be tamed. You can’t trust a wild thing, especially one in captivity. And in a world where almost no one is free, almost no one is to be trusted.
- I skipped over Dany (Emilia Clarke) this week, and I have to confess I’m losing sympathy with her: she’s given at least one speech too many about how she’ll destroy her enemies, and lay waste to cities, and blah blah blah. I’m not sure this is the intention, but, the way the writers are treating her, she’s in serious danger of turning into her brother.
- Speaking of writing, sometimes the necessities of plotting leave me rolling my eyes. For example, why does Qhorin Halfhand leave Jon alone with Ygritte, instead of waiting the 30 seconds it should have taken him to kill her? And, more bothersome, why doesn’t Osha kill Theon before crawling from his bed? (In both cases, the only answer is, “Because the plot requires both characters to stay alive,” which drives me crazy.)
- I try not to discuss the show in relation to the books, but a fairly spoiler-free observation: Talisa is a character who does not appear in the books, and at this point I assume she’s replacing another character completely. If that’s the case, I think the way this storyline is being handled is a vast improvement over what happens in the novels.
- I hope the child actors on this show are treated well, because a hell of a lot is asked of them, and they never fail to amaze. Special kudos this week to Isaac Hempstead-Wright, who nailed Brandon’s emotional collapse from composed lordling to hysterical child, and to Sophie Turner, who has been wonderful all season and was devastating in scenes this week that no actress—let alone a 15-year-old—could have found easy.
- My apologies, as ever, for the lateness of these reviews: I’m working on closing the gap.