In my reviews of Game of Thrones, one of my touchstone phrases—which I've used so often you're no doubt sick of it—is "cripples, bastards, and broken things." It was the title of Episode Four of the first season, in which Tyrion expresses his sympathy for the damaged and the outcast among his fellow men. The point I've made (again and again) is that the show's sympathy, too, lies with all the Misfit Toys of Westeros—but also how, in the end, nearly everyone can be seen to fall into one of these categories. It occurred to me this week, however, that there's a fourth category to add to the mix, which is the thin throughline around which "Dark Wings, Dark Words" is structured: orphans.
Tyrion, you will remember, first expressed his sympathy for "cripples, bastards, and broken things" at Winterfell, which—at the time, at least—was the only happy home in Westeros. We are reminded of that here, in the opening scene, as Bran dreams of the very first time we ever saw the Starks: a day when Robb and Jon Snow were teaching Bran how to shoot an arrow. Rickon was there too, watching, and Arya left Sansa behind at their sewing lesson to show off her own skills with a bow. Looking down on all of them—encouragingly, indulgently, protectively—were Ned and Catelyn, the only truly decent parents in the Seven Kingdoms. They were a family, and they remain the only example of a loving, fully functional family we've seen.
And then, of course, it all went to shit. Ned Stark is dead, of course, and Winterfell is in ruins, and the Starks are scattered to the four corners of the kingdoms; all of them are in mortal danger, and none of them are happy. "I have five children, and only one of them is free," Catelyn said last season, and she wasn't even counting the trouble the two satellite members of her family—Jon Snow and Theon Greyjoy—have gotten themselves into.
It's only going to get harder for Game of Thrones to weave all it's different elements together into a cohesive whole each week, and "Dark Wings, Dark Words" is a particularly crowded episode: not only do we check in with nearly every character, but—in nearly every storyline—those characters are meeting important new characters. But the thin connective tissue linking it all together is this question of what will happen to all these orphans of the storm? Will they find someone to look out for them? Can they possibly find any sanctuary, or community, or family, in this world where the old order has been torn apart?
"All this horror that's come to my family: it's all because I couldn't love a motherless child."
It's probably a mistake—albeit a necessary one—to discuss each of these episodes as a separate entity, because of course the themes carry over from week to week, and from season to season. The subject of parenting, for example, is always present. Last week, I discussed the lengthy scene between Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) and Father-of-the-Year Candidate Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance), but the line from "Valar Doeharis" that really resonated this week is one I didn't discuss, from the scene between Davos and Salladhor Saan. Trying to comfort Davos on the death of his son, Salladhor tells Davos that he was a good father. "If I was a good father, he'd still be here," Davos says of his son, sadly. I thought of that while watching Catelyn's powerful scene this week, as—having heard the news that Bran and Rickon are missing, and on the way to her own father's funeral—she crafts a talisman that is supposed to protect her children. "Only a mother can make it," she explains to Talisa (Oona Chaplin). Catelyn tells how she has done this twice before: once for Bran, when he fell from the tower, and once for Jon Snow, when he was sick with the pox. It was, she explains, an attempt to redeem herself for secretly wishing her husband's bastard dead:
"When my husband brought that baby home from the war, I couldn't bear to look at him, didn't want to see those brown, stranger's eyes staring up at me. So I prayed to the gods: 'Take him away. Make him die.' He got the pox, and I knew I was the worst woman who ever lived. Murderer. I condemned this poor, innocent child to a horrible death, all because I was jealous of his mother, a woman I didn't even know. So I prayed to all seven gods, 'Let the boy live. Let him live, and I'll love him. I'll be a mother to him. I'll beg my husband to give him a true name, to call him Stark and be done with it. To make him one of us'…
"And he lived. And I couldn't keep my promise. And everything that's happened since then, all this horror that's come to my family, it's all because I couldn't love a motherless child."
It's a devastating speech, which Michelle Fairley delivers brilliantly, with such guilt and bitterness and desolation: she failed to care for a child delivered into her care, and now she sees everything that has happened to her family since as a punishment for that failure—a failure of guardianship, a failure of hospitality, a failure to love. This original sin, she feels now, is why her children were all taken away from her—all but her oldest son, who now keeps her in chains.
Speaking of that son, Robb (Richard Madden) is starting to lose control of—and lose the faith of—his bannerman. "Dark Wings, Dark Words" finds all the Stark children living with new surrogate families, but Robb is the only one who has made it official, by marrying the Lady Talisa. (He did so, importantly, by betraying the old ways, and by defying his own mother.) Now, another devastated parent—Lord Karstark (John Stahl)—tells Robb that this decision may cost him everything. "I think you lost this war the day you married her," Karstark says.
"Some people will always need help. That doesn't mean they're not worth helping."
Catelyn's youngest sons, Bran (Isaac Hempstead Wright) and Rickon (Art Parkinson), are the real orphans of this story, too little and too helpless to do much of anything but flee from one horror to the next. (Poor Bran, remember, was thrown off a wall in the very first episode—setting the entire plot in motion—and never laid eyes on either of his parents again.) To most of the world, including their mother, they are missing and presumed dead—and they almost certainly would be dead, were it not for the surrogate mother they found in Osha (Natalia Tena).
Osha—with the assistance, of course, of Hodor (Kristian Nairn)—has managed to keep the boys just one step ahead of the hounds so far. (I love what the show has done with Osha, and how she represents a rare instance of mercy rewarded: Robb Stark—demonstrating a belief in mercy he learned from his father—spared her life way back in "A Golden Crown," and that decision is the only reason his little brothers are alive today.) "Them little lads have suffered enough," Osha said last season, and she has selflessly done everything in her power to protect them since.
Now, these orphans of the storm have found two new allies—or, rather, those allies have found them, journeying a long way to protect them. The Reeds, Jojen (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) and Meera (Ellie Kendrick), are the children of a Stark bannerman, Howland Reed, who saved Ned's life during the war. "When I told my father about your father," Jojen tells Bran, "for the first time in my life I saw him cry." This familial connection is important: an instant loyalty discovered through the friendship of their fathers, another legacy of Ned's decency.
And Jojen knows things: he knows about the three-eyed raven Bran has been seeing in his dreams, and how it brings with it the ability to see things that have happened, that are happening, that will happen. And Jojen—who proves his trustworthiness by befriending the wolf Summer in an instant—knows that Bran is a "warg," possessed of the ability to enter the minds of animals. Meera, on the other hand, is good with weapons, and does the fighting for her brother. (This sort of reversal of traditional sexual roles is a minor theme that comes up several times in this episode, with Brienne, with Margaery, and with several discussions of the late Renley Baratheon.) "Isn't he ashamed, your brother?" Osha asks Meera. "Needing you to protect him?" But Meera tells Osha what Osha, of course, has already proven that she knows: "Some people will always need help. That doesn't mean they aren't worth helping."
"We're only women here. Tell us the truth."
As Bran and Rickon Stark find a surrogate family in the woods, so Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) is finding a very different community in the city. Forced for months to walk a terrifying tightrope of propriety in what is, literally, the Lion's Den, Sansa has lived in loneliness and fear, but now she finds real and false friends circling around her, seeking to make use of her or legitimately offering to protect her. Men have taken an interest in her fate, but their concern is suspect and their utility questionable. "Men only want one thing from a pretty girl," Shae (Sibel Kekilli) tells her. (Shae means Littlefinger when she says this, but she later accuses Tyrion of the same prurient interest.) Men, it is clear, are not where she needs to look for help: the Hound (Rory McCann) offered to take her away, but terrified her; Baelish is not to be trusted; Tyrion is unwilling or unable to help; and the dashing Ser Loras (Finn Jones)—her idealization of chivalry, who once gave her a rose—doesn't even remember her.
No, it is the women who are Sansa's only hope: Ros (Esme Bianco) warned Shae to save Sansa from Littlefinger last week, and now Shae—who takes the role of older sister—is doing what she can, and trying to enlist Tyrion in that cause. ("We have to protect her," she tells him. "We can't," Tyrion replies.) Sansa has already had one surrogate mother in Cersei (Lena Headey), and been horribly disillusioned by her. Now she finds two new apparent allies in Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer) and her formidable grandmother Lady Olenna, the so-called Queen of Thorns (Diana Rigg). How trustworthy they are remains to be seen, but they secure her trust nonetheless and—in attempting to find out more about Margaery's betrothed—create a safe space for Sansa to speak the truth she has been terrified to voice: "He's a monster," she says of Joffrey.
I loved everything about this scene, not least of all the extraordinary screen presence of Dame Diana Rigg. (I swear, there is a felicity with dialogue that her generation of British actors learned—see also Charles Dance—which none since has mastered: the rhythm and relish with which she delivers every line is delicious. "But, once the cow's been milked, there's no squirting the cream back up her udder, so here we are, to see it through.") But Turner and Dormer hold their own with her: Sansa's long-overdue release of venom about Joffrey—and the terror with which she expresses it, as though she expects him to appear behind her—is matched only by the tiny shrug Margaery gives in response to the news that her fiancé is a monster. (She is still young, but she is worlds older than Sansa, and nothing about men can even surprise her, let alone frighten her.) Again, it remains to be seen whether they have her best interests at heart, but innocent Sansa—who has lost her mother and sister, perhaps forever—could learn a thing or two from women like this.
Certainly, Margaery proves she is better suited to the challenge of being Joffrey's bride than Sansa ever was: her manipulation of the little sadist is masterful, and for the first time we see Joffrey—in a nicely colored performance by Jack Gleeson—a little nervous and intimidated. Joffrey, women, and crossbows have not previously been a healthy combination, but Margaery knows just how to play him. "You must do whatever you need to do," she tells him. "You're the king." Though in a different context, the line is an echo back to when she said the same thing to Renley, trying to get him to perform sexually: there it meant playing to whatever homosexual fantasies Renley needed, and here she plays to Joffrey's twisted fantasies of violence. "I imagine it must be so exciting," she says. "To squeeze your finger here and watch something die over there." (Joffrey may, on paper, be the most powerful person in Westeros, but one gets the feeling that he may be seriously outmatched by the women of House Tyrell.)
"We're not children."
Arya (Maisie Williams), too, has been effectively orphaned from her family, and forced to wander the countryside in the company of surrogate families. Already, she has had a number of father-figures (Syrio Forel, Yoren, Tywin Lannister, Jaqen H'ghar) in her young life, and she has found new brothers in Gendry (Joe Dempsie) and Hot Pie (Ben Hawkey). Trying to get to her real home, she keeps finding others: she has joined the recruits for the Night's Watch, found a place in Tywin's headquarters, and been offered a place with Jaqen among the Faceless Men. Now—as she seeks again to return to her real family, trying to get to her grandfather's keep at Riverrun—she and her adopted brothers fall in with yet another community where she could belong: the Brotherhood without Banners. The show has not yet really explained who these people are—right now they seem like Robin Hood and His Merry Men—but they claim to be working for the greater good. “The Lords of Westeros want to burn the countryside," their leader, Thoros, explains to Arya. "We’re trying to save it.” (Will Thoros be yet another surrogate father figure for Arya? When she boasts of her expertise at swordplay, he gives her a quick lesson in how much she still has to learn, and you can almost see her long to have him teach her what he knows.) Unfortunately, Westeros is a small place, and for the second time in her travels she runs into someone who can blow her cover. "What in the Seven Hells are you doing with the Stark bitch?" the captured Sandor Clegane asks Thoros, and suddenly everyone knows exactly which family Arya belongs to.
"We don't get to choose who we love."
Finally, we come to one of the strangest (and most entertaining) pairings in Game of Thrones: Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and Brienne (Gwendoline Christie). This storyline is already one of my favorite road movies of all time, and it just keeps getting better. Jaime, of course, is the one who shattered this happy family—and, by extension, the entire kingdom—by throwing Bran from a window; but now Catelyn just wants to save her remaining children, and so has asked Brienne to smuggle the Kingslayer back to King's Landing and trade him for Arya and Sansa. As Jaime reminds her whenever it serves his purpose, everything she is doing is for the sake of those two children. (Running across a farmer, Jaime encourages her to kill him, lest the old man report their sighting to someone who would care. He's an innocent, Brienne protests. "More innocent than Lady Stark's daughters?" Jaime goads her.)
They are a delightfully mismatched pair, opposites in nearly every way: Jaime is handsome, privileged, immoral, and takes nothing seriously, while Briene is considered unattractive, a misfit, totally honorable, and nearly completely humorless. As such, of course—and I don't think I'm stretching my familial theme too far here—they bicker like brother and sister. But Jaime is more complicated than he appears, and—much like his brother's dwarfism makes him relate to cripples, bastards, and broken things—Jaime's love for his sister gives him an empathetic respect for unconventional love. He mocks Renly's homosexuality to her—“It's a shame the throne isn't made out of cocks: they'd have never got him off it”—and he mocks her love for the late would-be king—“You're far too much man for him”—but he ultimately doesn't judge. "We don't get to choose who we love," he says. It may be a justification for his own crimes, but it is also a remarkably humane attitude that is all too rare in the Seven Kingdoms.
Where Jaime and Brienne are alike, of course, is in their abilities: he tricks her and manages to steal a sword from her, and the ensuing sword fight is one of the better choreographed action scenes in the show thus far. There is a flavor of sibling play in the fight—Jaime teases her and instructs her, even as they duel—but of course he would kill her in a heartbeat given the opportunity. (This is the genius of Coster-Waldau's performance, which impresses me more and more: that combination of likability and ruthlessness is a hard line to walk, but he walks it brilliantly.) Brienne, however, gets the best of him in the end, and is just about to finish the fight when they are interrupted by the arrival of some of Lord Bolton's men, who intend to deliver Jaime back to Robb.
I'll be the first to admit that I've had to stretch a bit this week to find some thematic unity in this episode: as I said when I began, the plot of G.R.R. Martin's sprawling epic is, by this point, getting a little too unwieldy to expect every episode to fit together as tightly as others. However, I think it's been clear all along that Game of Thrones is largely about what happens when a strict social order—one of old family allegiances and tribal loyalties—is shattered apart. Last season was largely about the way the power structures reordered themselves, as the next generation of power came to terms with itself and shaped a new world order. This season, I suspect, we will move away a little from clashing kings, and focus more on the victims, the war-torn refugees, the orphans of the storm. As these motherless and fatherless children find themselves cast adrift in this brave new world, they are slowly finding each other, and they are forming new communities, new families, and new allegiances that have nothing to do with houses and oaths and family names.
Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits
- I skipped over the two non-Stark members of the Stark family this week. Of Theon (Alfie Allen), all we know is that he is being tortured by someone. (We don't yet know who, or why.) There's a thin connection to the overall theme in that these scenes examine the reasons for his conquest of Winterfell: it was ultimately comes down to a failure to love his surrogate family that hearkens back to Catelyn's hatred of Jon. And Jon Snow (Kit Harington) has just one brief scene with the leader of his new community, Mance Rayder (Ciaran Hinds). Apart from giving us another glimpse of a warg, this scene didn't add much, and one suspects Jon and Theon were both included just to make sure we touched base with all of the scattered Starks.
- More important to this episode was the scene with Samwell Tarley (John Bradley), another of the lost children who has found an uncomfortable and uncertain place in a new family: still treated with contempt by some of his "brothers," and despairing over the fact that even his friends left him to die when the White Walkers came, Sam is feeling more alone than ever. But Commander Mormont (James Cosmo) reiterates the family theme by making it clear that no brother will be left behind.
- There's an interesting rivalry developing between Cersei (Lena Headey) and Margaery, and specifically with Cersei's resentment of her future daughter-in-law's sexuality and bid for popularity. ("She dresses like a harlot for a reason," Cersei says, having made several snide comments about Margaery's clothes.) I'll reserve discussion of this for a later date: I'm sure it will come up again.
- I already like the character of Jojen Reed better here than I did in the books, mostly because I'm already fond of Thomas Brodie-Sangster from Love, Actually and Doctor Who.
- It's a minor complaint, but—in their understandable haste to get through so much plot—the show's writers sometimes skip too quickly over a few plot points. For example, the show doesn't really explain what Lord Karstark means when he says that Robb lost the war the day he married Talisa. Have the Frey's withdrawn their men from Robb's war, because Robb broke his vow to marry Walder Frey's daughter? Or is Robb now widely seen as an oath-breaker, with a resulting loss of morale and support among all his bannermen? Occasionally I find myself confused at stuff like this, and I've read the books: I suspect people who haven't read them must be very confused indeed at times.
- Can we all agree we're just going to pretend not to notice that Bran has grown a foot taller, and that his voice has dropped an octave lower? Let's say it's a warg thing, and leave it at that.