I began my first review of the season with the observation that—for all its kings and queens, princes and princesses, witches and warlocks, dragons and giants and magic—Game of Thrones is no fairy tale. I was mostly being a wise-ass, but I also intended it as a mild, spoiler-free warning to those of you who haven't read all of George R. R. Martin's novels: the further into we get into this epic tale, the more you'll figure out that your romantic, storybook notions will not serve you here.
Whether we realize it or not, we've all been taught by stories what to expect from stories: there are certain patterns we expect to see, certain archetypal paths we trust the story to follow, a certain moral code we assume to be embedded in the very telling of the tale. There will, we know, be hardships—or else there'd be no story at all—but we trust that, in the end, every character will get what he or she deserves: selfless, noble behavior will be rewarded, and selfish, cruel behavior will be punished. Order will ultimately be restored, good will triumph over evil, and true love, we know, will conquer all.
The genius—and the frustration—of A Song of Ice and Fire is that Martin understands these expectations perfectly, but he doesn't adhere to them: he doesn't even believe in them. There's the way stories work, and then there's the way the world really works, and what Martin has done is take the fantasy elements of the first and approach them with the sometimes brutal sensibility of the second. Any viewers who hadn't already figured this out found their storybook illusions irreparably shattered—or severed, if you will—when our apparent hero, Ned Stark (Sean Bean), lost his head at the end of Season One.
Like the kid in The Princess Bride, we feel betrayed by this sort of thwarting of narrative expectations. He can't be dead, we protest—because, of course, our hero still has work to do. Who gets the bad guy? we want to know—because, of course, someone has to "get" the bad guy. If the hero dies, and the bad guy lives, the whole story feels wrong. I'm telling you, you're messing up the story! Now get it right!
Clearly, as we've discussed before, Game of Thrones rejects those sorts of narrative conventions, and one of the reasons the show is so addictive is that we can't predict where it is going from moment to moment: it stubbornly refuses to fall into the patterns we instinctively expect this kind of tale to follow. But I'm increasingly convinced that there's more to it than that. Debunking the fairy tale may not just be the way this story is told: it may be the story. What we saw at the beginning of Season One was a world ruled by faith in stories—stories of gods and legends, of histories and dynasties, of love and honor—and what we've seen ever since is the slow, steady dismantling of those governing narratives. Characters have fallen from faith, broken their sacred vows, and had their illusions shattered; lies have been exposed, justice has been imperfect, and gods have been toppled. All the comforting fairy tales that gave order to this world have been shattered, and, as Varys (Conleth Hill) points out this week, once you've lost them—once you've abandoned the stories and lies—all you have left is chaos.
This is no fairy tale; it may, in fact, be an anti-fairy tale, a prolonged argument against believing in all the comfy lies we tell ourselves about how the world works. Or—as another character warns us—"If you think this has a happy ending, you haven't been paying attention."
"Only the ladder is real. The climb is all there is."
The most stark (and bleak) expression of this realistic worldview comes from Littlefinger (Aidan Gillen). This is not surprising, because we've heard it from him before. Way back in Season One's "You Win or You Die," Baelish described how he himself came to lose his faith in fairy tales, when he challenged Brandon Stark for the hand of Catelyn Tully (Michelle Fairley). "So I challenged him to a duel," Baelish says. "I mean, why not? I'd read all the stories. The little hero always beats the big villain in all the stories." But Littlefinger learned the hard way that real life doesn't work that way, gaining a long scar and becoming a pragmatic realist in the process.
Littlefinger doesn't believe in anything. He claims, occasionally, to believe in love—or in his love for Catelyn, at least—but he has a funny way of expressing that alleged love, and here he lists love itself among the many illusions foolish people cling to. He points out to Varys (Conleth Hill) that the Iron Throne itself—supposedly forged from the thousand blades of King Aegon's enemies—is a lie. "There aren't 1,000 blades," he says. "There aren't even 200. I've counted." Varys serves the realm, but to Baelish the realm itself, like its symbol, is just another lie: "A story we agree to tell each other, over and over, until we forget that it's a lie."
This remains one of my favorite character pairings in Game of Thrones, for the two men are so much alike, yet fundamentally different: they approach the world the same way, but for different purposes. They both know that lies and stories are what hold the realm together—power, the Spider reminded us once, is "a trick, a shadow on the wall"—but he sees this thin latticework of illusion as necessary to avoid the "gaping pit" of chaos. Littlefinger, on the other hand, thrives on chaos: "Chaos isn't a pit; chaos is a ladder." While others fall, or refuse to climb—clinging to the illusions—Littlefinger is scrambling up the ladder of chaos, because "only the ladder is real."
Poor Ros (Esmé Bianco) thought she was climbing—making it all the way from the brothels of Winterfell to become, briefly, a real player in King's Landing. No doubt she thought, as we all tend to do, that she was the star of her own story, the little hero who could take on the big villain. She ended up believing in the wrong things: she believed in Varys, and she believed in doing the right thing by protecting Sansa (Sophie Turner), and she believed in her own storybook rise to power. She probably believed in happy endings, but she really wasn't paying attention, and so her story turns out to be a short one: she becomes just another pawn in the game, removed from the board; she becomes just another broken body at the bottom of the ladder of chaos.
"I don't care what people believe, and neither do you."
In a world of disintegrating illusions, the clear-eyed man is king. Littlefinger and Varys are both, in the own ways, realists, and that makes them particularly qualified to manipulate those with misguided faith in ideals and abstractions. (That's exactly how Littlefinger destroyed Ned Stark, after all.) It's a quality they have in common with most of the truly powerful people in Westeros, and it's certainly a quality shared by two more of the kingdom's great chessmasters, Lord Tywin (Charles Dance) and Lady Olenna (Diana Rigg).
Characters on this show always relish the opportunity to fence with a worthy opponent, and here there's an almost erotic energy between the Old Lion and the Queen of Thorns. I have nothing bad to say about any of the actors on this show, but, if you put two veterans like Dance and Rigg together, they can show the kids how it's done. This is a battle of equals for the highest stakes, played by two giants, and it's delicious to watch. "It's a rare enough thing," Olenna observes. "A man who lives up to his reputation."
The battle is over power, of course—whether Loras (Finn Jones) will marry Cersei (Lena Headey)—but the first rounds are all about stories. Tywin hits her with the rumors about Loras's "nocturnal activities," which Olenna does not deny. ("A sword-swallower, through and through," she says, of her grandson.) But she brushes the attack off: where she comes from, she explains, "we don't tie ourselves in knots over a discrete bit of buggery." In other words, that story has no power. But she hits him right back with a more damning story: the rumors of Jaime and Cersei's incestuous affair.
Ultimately, however, they're at a standstill: confirmation of the incest rumor would mean Joffrey's reign was illegitimate, and that would ruin the Tyrell family's plans just as much as it would harm the Lannisters. Besides, Tywin tells her, "I don't care what people think, and neither do you." These two are too old, and too wise, to worry about stories: they'll use them to control others (as Olenna tried to do with Sansa, painting her a fairy tale about marrying the Knight of Flowers), but they can't use them on each other. Power is what matters, not the tales the common people tell: at the moment, Tywin has the power, and so he wins this round, but we suspect he underestimates the Queen of Thorns at his peril.
"History will be taken from our hands."
Meanwhile, elsewhere in the Red Keep, Tywin's children are dealing with the fallout from these decisions: Tyrion will marry Sansa, and Cersei will marry Loras, and neither of them are happy about it. But what really bothers Cersei is that she is being removed from her starring role in the story: the Tyrells have successfully written Margaery (Natalie Dormer) in, and written Cersei out, and there's nothing she can do about it. "History will be taken from our hands," she says.
It's worth remembering that Cersei, too, was once the fairy tale princess: the most beautiful woman in the realm, promised to the brave, handsome warrior who had claimed the throne. "I worshiped him," she once told Ned, of Robert Baratheon. "Every girl in the Seven Kingdoms dreamed of him, but he was mine by oath." But Cersei learned on her wedding night that the fairy tale was a lie, and she's been fighting bitterly ever since to write a happier ending for herself—but she keeps being disappointed.
It's a hard lesson, and it takes a while to sink in. Sansa, for example, still has not given up on it. She's already been disillusioned once—when her fairy tale dream with Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) turned into a nightmare—but now she must go through the same thing all over again when she falls for a new version of the life she dreamt of: an engagement to the handsome Knight of Flowers. Their conversation about brocade and fringe is a little clumsy and heavy-handed—we get it, he's gay—but otherwise it's a nice little scene: they're both trying to play their parts in the fairy tale, but somehow it doesn't feel quite right. You can see Sansa thinking, This isn't how the story is supposed to go.
And alas, it's not to be anyway, as Tyrion has the excruciatingly awkward duty of explaining simultaneously to both her and to Shae (Sibel Kekilli). The lead-up to (and cutaway from) this conversation is funny enough, but its aftermath is brutal, as Sansa stands crying, watching Baelish (who had offered to save her) sailing away without her. We may think that Tyrion is a major step up in the husband department from anyone else she's been offered, but the repeated shattering of Sansa's storybook dreams is heartbreaking: she keeps being promised the handsome princes, and she keeps ending up with the trolls.
"Everything I told you was a lie. This isn't happening to you for a reason."
All throughout "The Climb," we see characters grappling with the realization that all their comforting myths and abstract ideals and narrative expectations are so much bullshit. Arya (Maisie Williams), for example, watches the Brotherhood without Banners turn Gendry (Joe Dempsie) over to Melisandre (Carice van Houten): Gendry had bought into the Brotherhood's tale of being a family—and embraced the promise of a life in which he could be more than a pawn in someone else's story—but practical matters overrule the promises, and riches can buy out religion. "You're not doing this for your god," Arya accuses the Brotherhood. "You're doing this for gold."
And Roose Bolton (Michael McElhatton) is sworn to serve Robb Stark (Richard Madden), and should be honor-bound to take Jaime to "justice," but it turns out Bolton is more interested in money than justice, and more afraid of Tywin Lannister than of breaking his oath. He offers to set Jaime free, so long as Jaime promises to tell his father the right story about how he lost his hand.
But it's the (still unnamed) torturer (Iwan Rheon) of Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen) who most consciously (and cruelly) offers a different vision of how the real world works. He establishes an elaborate game of riddles and answers, offering Theon hope that he can avoid a nasty fate if Theon can only tell him why he's being tortured. That's how stories work, right? If you're punished, it's because you deserve to be. Do the right thing, on the other hand, and you'll be rewarded. ("I swear by the Old Gods and the New," he says.)
But of course it's all a lie: there is no logic, no order, no inherent morality to the story. Rheon's character is an absence of divine justice, a manifestation of the chaos Baelish sees as the only real thing in the universe, and the voice of a cruelly indifferent and capricious narrator. "This isn't happening to you for a reason," he finally confesses, after making Theon jump through enough hoops. "Well, one reason: because I enjoy it."
I do not mean—quite–to suggest that this may be George R. R. Martin's true philosophy, but I think we can read this character as one dark side of the storyteller's art, and as a representation for our greatest fears about the possible truth at the heart of the tale, at the center of the universe: that there is no truth, no plan, no purpose. Life isn't fair, there's no moral to the story, and bad shit happens just because bad shit happens. We hope that's not the final lesson of this story, or of our stories, but it's certainly a valid worldview with plenty of evidence to support it. "If you think this has a happy ending, you haven't been paying attention."
"It's you and me that matters to me and you."
So what does that leave us? Only the climb, as Baelish says. Only the struggle. Only the hope for something real and tangible, however transient, to keep us warm in the dark, in the cold, in the emptiness of an indifferent universe.
I said that the realists have a special power in Game of Thrones, and Ygritte (Rose Leslie) is one of them. She understands the power of lies, understands that all the stories—all the ideals of religion and honor, all the trumpeting of heroism and nobility—are mostly just used to convince people they're part of something larger, so they'll be willing to sacrifice their lives to someone else's purpose. "The Night's Watch don't care if you live or die," she tells Jon Snow (Kit Harington). "Mance Rayder don't care if I live or die. We're just soldiers in their army, and they've plenty more to carry on if we go down." Her words prove true as they climb the wall with the other Wildlings: they're tethered together in groups of four, but when danger strikes (in a fantastically filmed action sequence), her fellow Wildlings are awfully quick to cut them loose, and awfully willing to let them die.
So what does Ygritte believe in? Only real things: no abstractions, no ideals, no fancy tales or stuffy religions. She believes in herself, and in Jon Snow, and in what they've found together in this cold place. (And, probably, she believes in that thing he does with his mouth.) She knows he was lying about betraying the Night's Watch, and she doesn't care, because that doesn't matter. "But I'm your woman now, Jon Snow. You're going to be loyal to your woman."
George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire isn't finished yet, even in book form, so we don't know how this will all end. Despite some pretty considerable evidence to the contrary, however, I still have that unshakeable faith in the story: I still carry the hope that everything will work out, that evil will be punished, and that some characters who deserve it will find a happy ending.
Many, of course, will not, but the ones we root for are not those who are fighting for ideals, or abstractions, or gods, or a glorious place in the history books. We root, instead, for those who are struggling for real things, for real people. Ned cared a lot about honor, but he chose his children in the end. Catelyn wants her son to win his war, but mostly she just wants her daughters back. Thoros of Myr (Paul Kaye) had completely lost faith in his Lord of Light; it took the death of the friend he loved to find his strength again, giving him a power the loveless Melisandre doesn't have. Sam (John Bradley) can sing songs of the Seven Gods—as he does to open this episode—but it's not the gods we believe in: we believe in his nervous kindness to Gilly (Hannah Murray), and his willingness to make himself foolish just to give her a little comfort in the dark.
"It's you and me that matters to me and you," Ygritte tells Jon Snow. In a cold and indifferent universe, that's not a bad philosophy. If that turns out to be the only moral of this story, I can live with it.
Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits
- This week in "Things I Skipped": Robb strikes a deal to marry Edmure Tully (Tobias Menzies) to one of Walder Frey's 700 daughters. (If I hadn't read the books, I'd be wondering how this scene fits in with this week's overall theme, but trust me: it does.)
- And meanwhile, Bran (Isaac Hempstead Wright) is…Well, actually, nothing is really happening with Bran. Still.
- Should we view it as a nice little moment of symbolism that it's Ygritte who inadvertently starts the avalanche? She puts a crack in the literal Wall, just as she's broken through Jon Snow's defenses, just as she's put a crack in his rigid code of honor.
- His scene this week makes me finally understand why they are keeping the name of Iwan Rheon's character a secret, but I still think it's a weird decision. The book readers already know who he is, and his name isn't going to mean anything to those who have only watched the show. They've set up a pretty anti-climactic "reveal" for everyone concerned.
- Sansa's going to get smarter soon, right? ("Do you think they'll let me invite my family?" she asks Shae.) But I liked the thematic echo she makes in passing, when she tells Tyrion that she trusts Shae "even though she tells me not to." Shae is another of our clear-eyed realists, trying to convince everyone else in this world that the key to survival is to be less naive and gullible.
- Arya is turning into another natural bullshit detector: I like how quickly she assesses the truth about Melisandre, and how quickly she calls the Brotherhood on their betrayal of Gendry. I'm increasingly convinced that it's not honor or faith that makes a true hero in Game of Thrones, but some combination of perception and empathy. ("Clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose?" No, that's another show…)
- Apologies for the delay in posting this week. I could promise it will never happen again, but, if you believed me, you really haven't been paying attention.