Though the episode is book-ended with short, unrelated scenes, the bulk of”Second Sons,” is spent on just three storylines: the negotiations between Dany (Emilia Clarke) and the titular sellswords; the nefarious plans Melisandre (Carice van Houten) has for Gendry (Joe Dempsie); and the wedding of Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) to Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner). This sort of focused attention span is rare for Game of Thrones—which more commonly spends each episode running back and forth between seven or eight plates, trying to keep them all spinning at once—and it was a nice change of pace to spend so much time luxuriating in just three places.
And frankly, the simplicity of this episode provides the opportunity for hapless reviewers like myself to have bit of a respite. As I’m trying to catch up with my posts before a holiday weekend, I’m going to take advantage of that opportunity and keep it short this week. There isn’t a lot to unpack in this episode, but there are a few threads that connect these seemingly unrelated stories in interesting ways.
As is often the case, the clue to this episode’s common theme comes in what appears to be a throwaway conversation: the one Sam (John Bradley) and Gilly (Hannah Murray) have about whether Gilly’s baby winked or blinked. “I suppose it’s a rather philosophical difference between a wink and a blink,” Sam says, but Gilly—who, though not educated, is nobody’s fool—can explain the difference easily: “A wink is on purpose.”
Appearances versus reality is a common theme in Game of Thrones. I’ve argued before that the ability to tell a convincing lie is an important skill, and that the ability to detect the difference between what’s real and what’s bullshit is a vital one. Now, however, we have a slightly different spin on the question, as we hear several characters discuss “philosophical differences” between the surface of things and the true nature of things. As Gilly wisely points out, the real difference is often to be found in purpose: looking not just at effect, but also at intent.
Put another way, it’s not just the what of something that matters: it’s also the why.
“Is there a difference between ‘kill’ and ‘sacrifice’?”
Can I confess something? While there are plenty of characters on Game of Thrones who seem more transparently evil, vile, or villainous, the one I really hate is Melisandre. Even more than Theon (who I do hate, don’t get me wrong), even more than Tywin (who I actually kind of like), and yes, even more than Joffrey (who is a sadistic twerp, and was at his vilest and rapiest this episode), Melisandre scares the crap out of me.
The reason for this is simple: unlike the others, Melisandre has nothing in her that is recognizably human. She’s not a deeply flawed person: she seems not to be a person at all. She’s not dangerous because she’s crippled by insecurity, self-doubt, and emotional need: she’s dangerous exactly because she doesn’t have any of these things. She has total belief in the rightness of her own actions, and absolute faith in her scary-ass god, and that makes her a monster. “There are no mistakes, not for us,” she says to Gendry, explaining that he, too, is part of her god’s plan.
Here, we see that Melisandre doesn’t ask why, and she doesn’t want anyone else to either: why is a question, and she doesn’t question anything. She’s all about the effect, and could care less about the intent. She makes this point when she offers Gendry a glass of wine: “Where do you think it’s from?” she asks him, but immediately dismisses her own question. “It doesn’t matter, does it? It’s the real thing, or it’s not: you only need a tongue to tell the difference.” Trust what your senses tell you, and don’t ask questions: that’s her message, the philosophy on which her whole mummer’s show depends.
For Melisandre, faith is not a moral or ethical structure, but a series of magic tricks. It’s not even really a faith, because the very question of belief has been removed: the proof of her god is in the magic she can do, in the inky demon monsters she can birth. (When she arranges to seduce, and then leech, poor Gendry, she blames it on Davos. “He didn’t believe in the power of king’s blood,” she explains. “He wanted a demonstration.”) The proof of her god’s supremacy, she argues, is in the what, not the why. It doesn’t seem very religious, Gendry points out, but what, she asks him, have the other gods ever done?
Stannis (Stephen Dillane), unfortunately, has fallen for her line. “I never believed,” Stannis says. “But when you see the truth, when it’s right there in front of you, as real as these iron bars, how can you deny that her god is real?” He’s a fatally unimaginative man: he sees what appears to be a miracle, and so believes in a god. But Stannis, fortunately, has Davos (Liam Cunningham), who is wise enough to know why Stannis keeps him around, and why he’s being let out of prison now. “I think you came to me now, before this boy is put to the knife, because you knew I’d counsel restraint.” Davos asks why. Davos believes that intent matters, that the reason you do something is as important as the act itself: Stannis had cause to kill Renley, for example, but he has no just reason to kill Gendry. Sacrifice is the word Stannis and Melisandre use, but Davos isn’t fooled by semantics any more than Gilly is: “Forgive me, my grace,” he says. “I’m not a lettered man, but is there a difference between kill and sacrifice?”
“We had…philosophical differences.”
We meet a new philosopher this week in Daario Naharis (Ed Skrein), a handsome lieutenant of the Second Sons, the band of sellswords hired to defend the city of Yunkai from Danaerys (Emilia Clarke). Dany meets with Daario and his two captains, Mero (Mark Killeen) and Prendahl na Ghezn (Ramon Tikaram), to try to persuade them they’d rather fight for the winning side. (“A man who fights for gold can’t afford to lose to a girl,” she reasons, to her own advisers.)
Dany is putting on her own show in this meeting, as she did in Astropor, as she did with the ambassador they sent her last week: she is all sweetness and courtesy, pretending to be more innocent and less formidable than she really is. (“I’m only a young girl, new to the ways of war, but perhaps a seasoned captain like yourself can explain to me how you hope to defeat us.”) She even pretends to be amused by the crude and lecherous Meer—until the moment he leaves the tent. “Ser Barristan,” she tells her knight coldly, “if it comes to battle, kill that one first.”
But as the Second Sons gather in their own camp, philosophical differences do indeed arise. “I fight for beauty,” Daario says, and we learn he’s a man who doesn’t pay for sex. “She’ll tell you whatever you pay her to tell you,” he says of Meer’s companion, and explains that he prefers “the thrill of fucking a woman who wants to be fucked.” If I can return to my philosophical point, for Meer, the effect is all that matters: he gets to hear what he wants to hear, and he gets to fuck who he wants to fuck. For Daario, however, intent is what matters: he wants to hear the truth; he wants to sleep with women who want to sleep with him.
And sometimes such fundamental differences are enough to switch allegiances. Daario, sent to kill Dany, brings her the heads of his comrades instead. “We had…philosophical differences,” he explains. “Over what?” Dany asks. “Your beauty,” he explains. “It meant more to me than it did to them.” Whether he will turn out to be trustworthy remains to be seen, but Daario presents himself to her—and to her service—as the rarest of things: a person without hidden agendas or complicated motivations, one for whom intent and action are the same. “I’m the simplest man you’ll ever meet,” he tells her. “I only do what I want to do.”
“And so my watch begins.”
And—if we want to see the largest collection of people for whom action and intent could not be further apart—we are cordially invited to the wedding of Tyrion Lannister and Sansa Stark.
This is one of the longest and richest single sequences in the series, and it’s worth every moment the episode decided to spend on it. We’re used to getting subplots in quick bites, but this is a glorious three-course meal before, during, and after the event itself. I won’t take the space to do it all justice here, but it would be hard to pick a favorite moment. Perhaps Cersei (Lena Headey) recounting the story of House Reyne—now extinct—as a warning to her would-be “sister” Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer)? (“If you ever call me ‘sister’ again, I’ll have you strangled in your sleep.”) Perhaps listening to Olenna (Diana Rigg) attempt to piece together the very complicated family relations that will result from brother and sister marrying mother and son? (“Your son will be Loras’s…nephew? Grandson? I’m not sure…”) Certainly, there’s a strong contender in the moment when a drunken Tyrion threatens to emasculate the odious King (Jack Gleeson). (“You’ll be fucking your own bride with a wooden cock,” he threatens—and since we’ve just seen Joffrey threaten to rape Sansa, we certainly wish Tyrion would follow through on his promise.)
The important point I want to make—though it’s obvious—is that no one is happy at this “happy event:” there’s not a single person who is doing what they really want to be doing. (Even Tywin [Charles Dance], the architect of all this misery, is only making the best he can with a bad situation.) They’re all just going through the motions.
Prior to the wedding, Tyrion—attempting to be kind to his new bride—stops by to commiserate with her. Sansa has been faking politeness for a long time now in King’s Landing, and it’s a habit she can’t break, but Tyrion tells her she doesn’t have to keep up the pretense. “You don’t have to speak to me as a prisoner anymore,” he tells her. “You won’t be a prisoner anymore, you’ll be my wife”—but then he recognizes that this is simply another semantic distinction without basis in reality: wife in name or not, she’ll still be little more than a hostage.
And it’s after the wedding that the difference between effect and intent becomes most clear. Tyrion and Sansa are married, in the eyes of the gods, the law, and their community. Tyrion plans to consummate the marriage—and, as Bronn (Jerome Flynn) pointed out last week, he might certainly enjoy doing so under other circumstances—and Sansa is bravely willing to do her duty. But Tyrion can’t, or won’t, go through with it. Like Daario, he knows the difference between a woman who wants to sleep with you and one who is only obliged to sleep with you. Like Davos, he knows the difference between right and wrong, and that no semantic argument or philosophical reasoning or greater good can possibly justify the harming of an innocent. “I won’t share your bed,” Tyrion promises his new bride. “Not until you want me to.”
A wink that’s not intended is only a blink, and a wedding that’s not desired is only a farce. They are husband and wife, but what they are doesn’t matter: only why. “What if I never want you to?” Sansa asks him, and Tyrion is resigned to that fate.
“And so my watch begins,” he says.
Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits:
- Oh, and Sam kills a White Walker: did I mention? (I adore Sam, and I love John Bradley’s performance: such a sweet combination of awkward nervousness and basic common decency.)
- And—in other things I skipped—Arya (Maisie Williams) discovers that the Hound (Rory McCann) is perhaps not as bad as she’d imagined from his actions. (“There’s no one worse than you,” she tells him, but he reminds her that she never knew his brother.) Now she learns that he saved her sister, that he harbors no love for the Lannisters, and—most importantly—that he’s taking her back to her family. It’s a nice moment when Arya—cradled in the arms of the man she’s hated longer than anyone—almost smiles.
- Seriously, the wedding scenes yielded way too many great moments to catalog. But here are a few favorites:
- Cersei, coldly cutting off some words of wisdom from Loras: “Nobody cares what your father once told you.”
- Tyrion, to his father: “Nothing to worry about! Drinking and lust: no man can match me in these things. I am the God of Tits and Wine! I shall build a shrine to myself at the next brothel I visit.”
- Tyrion, offering some verbal foreplay to his new bride: “I vomited on a girl once in the middle of the act. Not proud of it, but I think honesty is important between man and wife, don’t you? Come, I’ll tell you all about it, put you in the mood.”
- The fall of House Reyne—captured in the haunting song “The Rains of Castamere”—is a reminder of the terrible wrath of the Lannisters, and Cersei’s recounting of it here is as much for our sake as for Margaery’s. Game of Thrones is off Memorial Day weekend, but returns June 2 for an episode entitled—you guessed it—”The Rains of Castamere.” No spoilers, but history tells us that the ninth episode of the season is when shit goes down. Brace yourselves, kids: it’s gonna be a bumpy ride.