One of the main themes of Game of Thrones, as we've discussed many times, is that all politics are personal; last week we looked at the personal motivations that complicate questions of honor, and this week "The Prince of Winterfell" expands on that idea by showing us some reckless choices made not by the head but by the heart.
The only people who can consistently make smart decisions are those who don't give a damn about other people; for everyone else—fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, brothers and sisters, and those foolish enough to dabble in romance—love leads to stupidity and vulnerability, treason and dishonor, ill-advised decisions and ill-timed bouts of mercy.
But it's also, in the end, the only thing that brings any happiness. I found myself thinking about that during this episode, as we inch closer to the full-out war that we've been promised all season. I've committed to avoiding spoilers from the books in these reviews—which gets harder and harder as we go along—but I don't think it will count as much of a spoiler to say that one or two emotional decisions that some characters are making right now may have some dire consequences down the road.
What I've realized, however, is that—even knowing this—I can't really begrudge any of these characters the choices they make, any more than I can say poor Ned Stark should have done things differently. What's happening in the Seven Kingdoms at this point is more or less exactly what Thomas Hobbes called a "war of everyone against everyone," and, as Hobbes predicted, life in such a state is "nasty, brutish, and short." Bonds of friendship and family, brief moments of tenderness, and stolen moments of love are the only things that make any of it worthwhile.
"Theon, you're my blood. We both loved our mother. We both endured our father."
Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen) is a wretched little weasel, but one almost has to feel sorry for him: all he wants is respect, and he will never, ever have it. He took over Winterfell, to earn the respect of his father; he killed Rodrik Cassel, to earn the respect of his men; he hunted down and murdered two little boys, to earn the respect of his prisoners. Now comes his older sister Yara (Gemma Whelan)—who has the respect of her father and her men—to ask Theon one simple question: "Are you the dumbest cunt alive?"
Yes, yes he is. Winterfell was never the prize—What good does a landlocked castle do a seafaring people?—but Bran and Rickon could have been game-changers. "Do you know how valuable those boys were?" she asks him, because, as Theon should know better than anyone, children are a tradable commodity. People will do anything for their children; people will start wars, or end them, for the love of their children.
It's a wonderful scene, and particularly well acted by Whelan: as tough as Yara is, there is a sense that she is genuinely outraged that Theon would murder children. (She also implies that these children were more admirable than Theon himself, since they escaped their captors as Theon himself never did.) Yara also reveals for the first time that she has a heart: she has some lingering affection for the child Theon was, if not the man that he has become:
"You were a terrible baby, do you know that? Bawling all the time, never sleeping. One night you just wouldn't shut up, screaming like a dying pig. I walked over to your crib, I looked down at you. I wanted to strangle you. And you looked up at me, and you stopped screaming. You smiled at me."
Based on the evidence we've seen, theirs was not a home that encouraged tenderness or offered much comfort: that one memory, one suspects, is sweeter and warmer than almost anything in either of their hard lives since. "Don't die so far from the sea," Yara says to her brother, gently.
"He once told me that being a lord was like being a father, except you have thousands of children, and you worry about all of them."
Parents, siblings, children: that, when you boil it down, seems to be what wars are all about. Robb Stark (Richard Madden) keeps naming two Lannister crimes that justify his war: the crippling of his brother, Bran (Isaac Hempstead-Wright), and the execution of his father, Ned (Sean Bean). "He was the best man I ever knew," he says to Talisa (Oona Chaplin), of Eddard Stark. "I know children always think that about their fathers," he adds, but Talisa quickly corrects him: no, all children do not all think that about their fathers. (In fact, in Game of Thrones, it's hard to think of many people not named Stark who would speak so well of their fathers.) What made Ned a good man—a good lord, a good leader—is that he viewed all his people with a father's loving eye, as Robb explains:
"He once told me that being a lord is like being a father, except you have thousands of children, and you worry about all of them. Farmers plowing fields are yours to protect, charwomen scrubbing the floors are yours to protect, the soldiers you order into battle…He told me he woke with fear in the morning, and went to bed with fear in the night."
Robb is trying to live up to his father's example, and honor his father's memory, and it has forced him into a life that he never wanted, for which he was never prepared. ("Most kings grew up as princes," he says. "They spend their whole lives preparing for the crown. I was raised to be Lord of Winterfell.") Worse, it has forced him to forsake his own chance at love. "I wish you were free to follow your heart," Catelyn (Michelle Fairley) told him recently, but Robb has promised to marry some random daughter of Walder Frey's.
It was a deal he made, we are reminded now, only out of love: he was racing to rescue Ned. "It was before they killed my father," he tells Talisa. "I still thought I could march south and rescue him in time." But he was too late: this loveless arrangement bought him a bridge, but it didn't save his father's life, and so—honor be damned—it's hard to judge him now for stealing a little happiness and warmth with the lovely Talisa.
It's hard, too, to begrudge the decision Catelyn has made: to trade Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) for the lives of her daughters. Cat has made it clear all along that she doesn't care anything about this war, or who sits the Iron Throne: she is a mother whose children are in danger. "Bran and Rickon are captives in Winterfell," she says. "Sansa and Arya are captives in King's Landing. I have five children, and only one of them is free." It may be treason, but, as we know, "love is the death of duty," and parents, as I've said, will do anything for their children. It's worth remembering that Ned, too, committed treason for his children: neither of them made smart decisions, perhaps, or even honorable decisions, but, as parents, they made the only decisions they could make.
"I would kill for you, do you know that? And I expect I'll have to, before this is over."
Compare the parenting decisions of Ned and Catelyn to those made by Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance) about his children and grand-children. Kevan Lannister (Ian Gelder) suggests evacuating the king and the royal family from King's Landing—because Stannis will execute them all—but Tywin rejects the notion. "He's a Lannister," Tywin says, of his grandson Joffrey (Jack Gleeson). "He'll stand and fight." Forget negotiating, forget surrendering: Tywin would rather see his entire family lose their heads than ever lose face.
Cersei (Lena Headey), however, has no intention of letting Joffrey die: she knows he's a monster (as she indicated last episode), but he's still her monster. "He's just a boy," she says, and when Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) insists that Joffrey fight with the men, Cersei proves what she's willing to do to protect her children.
"Love no one but your children," Cersei said to Sansa last week. "The more people you love, the weaker you are." Tyrion, of course, has no children, but he still has someone he loves, and is therefore vulnerable. "I have your little whore," his sister tells him. A few episodes ago, Tyrion admitted that Shae (Sibel Kekilli) was his "weakness," and now we see the fear in his eyes as he thinks Cersei has finally found this chink in his armor.
But she hasn't: based on a necklace he gave Ros (Esme Bianco) way back in Season One, Cersei has mistaken her for Tyrion's love. Tyrion plays it cool, but his relief is palpable. (Ros plays it cool too, no doubt trusting that a Lannister always pays his debts.) Only when he returns to Shae does he allow himself to show his heart. "You're mine," he insists. "Promise me." Tyrion has grown up with so little love—his mother was dead, his father was a cold and brutal man, and his sister hated him—that his need to belong to someone now is more than understandable: it is, in its own way, heroic, however ill-advised. "I would kill for you," he tells Shae. "And I expect I'll have to, before this is over."
"They are my children. And they are the only children I will ever have."
Meanwhile, Jorah Mormont (Iain Glen) is trying to convince Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) to get the hell out of the evil Cirque du Soleil show that is the City of Qarth. "We cannot stay here," he says, but she refuses to go without her dragons. "A mother does not flee without her children," she says.
"They're not your children," Jorah points out. "I know they call you the 'Mother of Dragons,' and I know you love them, but you didn't grow them in your womb. They didn't suckle at your breast. They are dragons, khaleesi, and if we stay in Qarth we'll die."
Jorah is a smart man—a practical man—but she is his weakness, as the dragons are hers, and he says he will never abandon her, no matter what. Does he remember her stepping out of the fire with her dragons, she asks him? "Until my last breath I will remember," he says. "After I have forgotten my mother's face."
I've said all season that Daenerys has been losing my sympathy, and she loses more of it here. Jorah is right: they're dragons. They may be strategically important, but they are odd objects for her love. Her children, to the extent that she had any, were the people of her khalasar: Doreah, and Irri, and Rakharo, and all the others she has gotten killed in her relentless pursuit for power. It is to the show's credit—and George R. R. Martin's credit, obviously—that we had so much sympathy for Daenerys as she began her journey, but I am increasingly convinced that her capacity for love died with Khal Drogo, and that now she is a monster in embryo form, on her way to becoming a power-mad Targaryan like her father and brother.
"Help was not promised, lovely girl. Only death."
Finally, I can't leave off without saying something about Arya Stark (Maisie Williams), and that something is this: How much do I fucking love Arya Stark?
The Twyin-and-Arya show is over: Tywin is riding off to attack Robb, and he has left Arya in the service of the Mountain—who, as Tywin admits, will not be such good company. Arya realizes she has missed her chance to make Tywin the last death Jaquen H'ghar (Tom Wlaschiha) owes her—but I wonder if she is really disappointed. He was the obvious victim from the start, so why didn't she have Jaquen kill him already? We can assume a tactical reason—she was perfectly placed to spy on the Lannister command post—but I also suspect she hesitated because she liked him, and he her. As I said last week, he was a father figure for her, so soon after the death of her own father, and, though she knew he was the enemy, I doubt she could have had him killed as easily as she did The Tickler and Amory Lorch. Arya is tough, but she is not a monster—at least not yet.
So she missed—or let pass—her shot at Tywin, but she has no intention of staying behind without his protection, and so figures out a way to get Jaquen to help her and her friends escape, and perhaps get out to get a warning to Robb. Jaquen wants a name of someone who must die, and she very cleverly gives him his own name. "I'll un-name you," she promises, "if you help me and my friends escape." He's not happy about it, but he's bound by oath to obey. "A girl lacks honor," he complains, and Arya gives the smallest and briefest of shrugs.
Honor, shmonor: there's only one god, and only one thing to say to him, and she'll do what she has to do to keep herself and her friends and her family safe. That's the Stark way: that's what she learned from her father.
- Bran and Rickon are alive, of course: Osha (Natalia Tena) has smuggled them back into the Stark family crypts, which they hope is the last place Theon would think to look. And I don't think I'm stretching my theme too far to point out that Osha has absolutely no motivation for the risks she's taking but a mother's love for these children. "The little lads have suffered enough," she says.
- I can't believe it myself, but Stannis (Stephen Dillane)—absolute charisma vacuum though he is—is growing on me. It was not quite a father's declaration of love for his son, but a sweet scene nonetheless this week as he told Davos (Liam Cunningham) that he would be Hand of the King. (It also draws even sharper the parallels—present all season—between Davos/Stannis and Ned/Robert.)
- I skipped over a few more scenes: this episode touched base with nearly every major character before what I assume will be the exciting climax of the season next week. Jon Snow (Kit Harington) meets the frightening Lord of Bones (Edward Dogliani), and Qhorin Halfhand (Simon Armstrong) wants to stage some discord and set Jon up to be a double-agent inside the wildling camp.
- I also skipped over a scene I liked very much between Tyrion and Varys (Conleth Hill), which contained the best line of the night: "Why are all the gods such vicious cunts?" Tyrion asks. "Where is the God of Tits and Wine?"
- Sam (John Bradley) and the boys find some dragonglass (obsidian) weapons, buried by the First Men. Hmm, I wonder if those could turn out to be important somewhere down the road…
- Bronn (Jerome Flynn) and Tyrion are the reigning title-holders for Best Comedy Duo. ("Me and the lads rounded up all the known thieves," Bronn says, to explain the recent drop in crime. "For…questioning?" Tyrion asks. "Ah…no," Bronn admits.) But they have new competition in Brienne (Gwendoline Christie) and Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau). ("Have you known many men?" Jaime asks her. "I suppose not. Women? Horses?" This could be the greatest comedy road team since Hope and Crosby.)
- Stannis is coming up the river, and Tyrion has a castle full of wildfire ready for him. We haven't actually seen much of the war these past eight episodes, but I have a hunch all the money HBO saved on battle-scenes will be on-screen, in all its glory, for The Battle of Blackwater. Can't wait.