"Do I have a champion?" Dany (Emilia Clarke) asks towards the end of "Breaker of Chains." It's a question that a lot of people—particularly, but not exclusively, women—ask in one form or another throughout the episode. Will someone stand up for me? Will someone protect me? Is there someone I can count on to do the right thing?
We'll get back to Dany's question, but here's another related one: who is the hero of Game of Thrones? It's a question that wouldn't need to be asked about most shows, but this is a true ensemble piece, and (as I've said many times) one that deliberately complicates such simple, fairy tale characterizations as "good guys" and "bad guys." There are many main characters in Game of Thrones: most of them are capable of doing very good things one moment, and then—as we see this week—turning around and doing very bad things in another. On this show, as in life, most people are messy, and mercurial, and contain multitudes.
But the notion of the hero is hard to escape: it's archetypal, built into our collective unconscious, and hard-wired into the very structure of storytelling. We may know, consciously, that people don't fit so snuggly into such simple categories, but we still long for a clear protagonist. Watching even a complicated, multi-faceted story like this unfold, we can't help but keep an eye out for the person we can root for unconditionally, the person who embodies our hope for a just world and a happy ending. Like Bonnie Tyler, we need a hero.
(Damn. Now that cheesy '80s power anthem, accompanied by images of tractor battles, is stuck in my head…and yours. So sorry about that.)
Game of Thrones knows we want a hero, of course, and (somewhat sadistically) loves to screw with our heads on that front. Ned Stark (Sean Bean) was our clear hero for 90 percent of Season One—and then suddenly he wasn't. His wife Catelyn (Michelle Fairley) and his son Robb (Richard Madden) were both promising candidates for hero status, but they too were removed from the board. The purely noble generally don't last long on Game of Thrones, leaving us with a selection of flawed and fickle characters to choose among for our champions. Their fortunes wax and wane, and so too does their honor, and their nobility, and their morality.
"Do I have a champion?" The answer, most often, is "No." It's a tricky thing to be a hero. And—as Game of Thrones continually reminds us—it's a trickier thing to believe in heroes.
"What makes a good king?"—Tywin Lannister
For a show called Game of Thrones, we'd expect the hero to be the person who deserves to rule. However, as I've mentioned before, such considerations never seem to be openly discussed in the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros. So far, the game has sometimes been about who has a legal right to the throne, and it has often been about who can take and hold the throne—but it never seems to be about who would be good on the throne. The question just never seems to occur to anyone. (Well, almost never: "Do you still think good soldiers make good kings?" Renley Baratheon [Gethin Anthony] asked Ned Stark once.)
Here, Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance) discusses the criteria for leadership in a series of Socratic questions to his grandson Tommen (now played by Dean-Charles Chapman, who got a promotion this season from Dead Lannister Cousin to Crown Prince). With Joffrey's death, Tommen is the new king, and we have it on good authority that he is very different from his brother. ("Tommen and Myrcella are good, decent children," Tyrion once said, assuring his sister that she'd avoided the curse of madness with two out of three of her incestuous children.) "What kind of king do you think you'll be?" Tywin asks him—setting out to avoid the mistakes of the past by shaping what kind of king the boy will be. Tommen offers several theories on the qualities of a good king: he suggests holiness first, followed by justice and strength. (Are they sure this kid is a Lannister?) Finally, as Tywin dismisses the importance of these virtues, they settle on wisdom as the most important qualification a king can have.
In another context that might not be a bad answer, but of course "wisdom," to Tywin, means that the young king should do whatever Tywin says. Scoffing at the idea that a ruler should be guided by his own morality or ethics, Tywin is training the new King Tommen to be guided by the experience of his advisors, and to do things for practical reasons he can't possibly hope to understand. In essence, he is teaching Tommen to ignore his innate sense of right and wrong and effectively become a puppet king.
Tywin's little speech is a seduction, and the scene is masterfully constructed as a literal taking of the boy away from his mother. I've written before about how "family" means something very different to Tywin—it is a political unit, not a bond of affection—and here he is literally removing Tommen from his family and claiming him for the Family. For Cersei (Lena Headey), it is the cruelest of blows: she has already lost her daughter Myrcella—traded away as a political bride, as Cersei herself once was—and she has just lost her oldest son, Joffrey. Now, Tywin is taking her last remaining child. Cersei has often remarked that her children are her only reason for living; others have remarked that her children are her only redeeming feature; and it's a cold truth that her children have represented her only power and status in this society. Now, she has effectively lost them all, and so she has lost everything.
"It's not right, it's not right, it's not right."—Cersei
"I don't care, I don't care, I don't care."—Jaime
And so she needs a champion: she needs a hero. For all of her life, her brother Jaime (Nikolas Coster-Waldau) has been her champion, the only person she could truly count on. Now, she has focused on her brother Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) as the architect of all her misery, and it is to her brother Jaime that she turns in search of justice for her—their—murdered child. "Avenge him," she pleads. "Avenge our son. Kill Tyrion."
(It is William Shakespeare's 450th birthday as I write this, so perhaps I can be forgiven for a quick tangent. Game of Thrones often has a Shakespearean feel, and this scene can't help but evoke the "If I were a man" speech from Much Ado About Nothing, in which Beatrice, seeking justice for her cousin Hero, implores Benedick to kill his friend Claudio. "O that I were a man for his sake! Or that I had any friend would be a man for my sake! " Beatrice says. She would do it herself, but killing is "a man's office." "I cannot be a man with wishing, therefore I will die a woman with grieving." Lena Headley doesn't get a speech like that to deliver here, but she gets the emotion to play, and she absolutely kills it.)
But Jaime refuses. "Tyrion is my brother," he tells her feebly, and the truth is he doesn't really care about all of this: the only person he has ever really loved was Cersei, and all he has cared about since he returned to King's Landing is her rejection of him. Ironically, she rejected him precisely because she no longer saw him as her champion—he had left her alone too long, and lost too much of his power—and now, when she asks him to play that role again, he refuses. At her most vulnerable moment, when she asks him to be her hero, he instead turns villain and rapes her next to their dead son's body.
This scene—a departure from what happens in the book, in which the sex is creepy but consensual—has already provoked tremendous controversy, and rightly so. For my part, I'll say that I think the scene is understandable in the context of the show—which, ultimately, is the only context I care about here—but that I also find it one of the show's rare and terrible missteps. Yes, by its nature, their relationship is already a complicated and twisted one. Yes, Jaime is right to call her "a hateful woman"; she is guilty of many crimes, and it's usually hard to feel much sympathy for her. Yes, it is a plausible (if problematic and simplistic) character turn that Jaime—who was symbolically emasculated when he lost his sword hand—might be moved to force himself this way on the only woman who matters to him. And yes, it's thematically on point for Game of Thrones to follow Jaime's redemptive arc last season—in which he seemed to be turning from villain to hero—with this abrupt and brutal reminder that there is tremendous evil and violence in him. (This last, I suspect, is the real reason Benioff and Weiss chose to play this scene this way: in my review of "The Bear and the Maiden Fair" I discussed the metaphor of that song, and the notion that a handsome knight can be mistaken for a bear, and vice versa: in the anti-fairytale of Game of Thrones, Jaime began as a bear, became a knight, and now becomes a bear once more.)
All of that is true, but none of it excuses Jaime's actions, or truly justifies the show's decision to present this horrible scene. My regular readers know I don't usually compare the show to the books, but here I think it's unavoidable to judge this development. My main problem with it is that all of the possible justifications for the choice that I listed above, you will notice, are about Jaime, not Cersei: it is about his character development, not hers, and using the rape of a female character to further a male character's arc is a highly problematic creative choice.
The comparable scene in the book was psychologically and emotionally complicated as well—and decidedly unpleasant—but it was equally complicated for both parties, and more interesting for that: it allowed for all the same discussion about Jaime, while still allowing for Cersei's agency. (Did she have sex with him—for the first time since he returned—just to re-secure his loyalty when she needed a champion? Was it as much about her reasserting her dominance over him as the reverse?) The show, now, has sacrificed Cersei's complexity for Jaime's, and made this development about him, and reduced her into just the helpless object of his crime.
It is one thing for Game of Thrones to recognize that women are little more than objects to the men in the society of Westeros; it is another thing altogether for the show to treat them the same way. How we ultimately judge this scene will depend a great deal on what Benioff and Weiss do with it related to Cersei, not Jaime, but for now I think this was a colossal misstep from which it will be difficult to recover.
"You're stronger than you know."—Ser Dontos, to Sansa
The personification of the anti-fairytale theme of Game of Thrones is Sansa Stark, who once believed in fairy tales so completely that she saw a handsome prince in Joffrey. Sansa has consistently been passed from one "champion" to another—Joffrey, Loras, the Hound, Tyrion—and always, always ended up disappointed and disillusioned. Now, she has a new champion in bumbling knight Ser Dontos (Tony Way), who previously fed her a sad story of his vanished house and thanked her for saving his life. Secreted away in a rowboat in the dead of night, cloaked like the heroine of a romantic novel, her protector at her side, Sansa has finally escaped the clutches of the evil Queen…
…only to end up, arguably, somewhere worse, her illusions shattered yet again. Ser Dontos, it turns out, was no white knight: he was a drunk and a fool—working for gold, not love or honor—who now is unceremoniously killed for his troubles. The real architect of Sansa's salvation is now revealed to be Baelish (Aidan Gillen), who—though Sansa doesn't entirely know this—is probably as dangerous and amoral a man as she's ever met. ("We're all liars here," he reminds her he told her once, "and every one of us is better than you.") Now he promises her safety, oozing what he thinks of as charm and holding her uncomfortably close to him.
It was also in "The Bear and the Maiden Fair," last season, that Sansa described herself as "a stupid little girl, with stupid dreams, who never learns." But she is beginning, I think, to realize she must stop relying on champions to save her, and perhaps trust in the words of her last faux-knight, Ser Dontos: "You're stronger than you know."
"You're the worst shit in the Seven Kingdoms!"—Arya, to the Hound
Arya (Maisie Williams) would think of herself as more worldly and cynical than her sister Sansa, but her path has followed a similar course—passed from the hand of one man to another—and Arya is not above falling for the promise of a hero, a champion, a father figure. She is not immune, either, from being disappointed by them all. Since the death of her real father, she has fallen in with Yoren (Francis McGee), who died; she found a new brother in Gendry (Joe Dempsie), who left her; she found a father figure in Tywin, who cast her away; she found a possible mentor in Beric Dondarrion (Richard Dormer), who betrayed her; et cetera. Now, she's traveling with the Hound (Rory McCann), who once seemed to her the personification of evil, and was one of the top names on her mental Kill List.
But they've come a long ways together in their short acquaintance, and in "Two Swords" they achieved a sort of affinity. (Nothing brings people together like killing a bunch of idiots in a tavern.) No longer his hostage, Arya ended that episode riding alongside him almost as an equal; he even gave her her own horse, secure in the knowledge that she no longer wanted to get away from him. This week, she quizzes him about where he's going when all of this is done, and he mentions he might go be a sellsword in Braavos. "I'd like to see Braavos someday," she says, and it's obvious that she's thinking that life with the Hound might not be so bad.
Arya has lost so many people, it's understandable that she doesn't want to lose any more. Taken in by a kindly farmer and his daughter, Arya even pretends the Hound is her father, which is something less than a complete transference of affection but something more than a simple deception. (Certainly, they are two peas in a pod, exhibiting the same appalling manners as they scarf down their food: Arya keeps apologizing for him, but her courtesies are little better.) The farmer gives them his hospitality—which, we are reminded, is a sacred right—and he also offers the Hound a job. What he is really looking for, of course, is a champion—someone to defend him and his daughter's virtue from roaming brigands—and Arya is surprised but pleased when the Hound accepts. Perhaps he's a hero in villain's clothing after all?
But, just as we did with Jaime, we get a sharp reminder of who the Hound really is: he has done some good, and he has proven himself a more complicated character than he once appeared, but he's far from a hero. Arya awakes to discover the Hound has beaten the man and taken his money, and she is furious. "You're the worst shit in the Seven Kingdoms," she screams at him—but he assures her he's not. "There are plenty worse than me," he says, and then he chastises her—as we might chastise Sansa—for never learning the way the world really works. "I just know how things are," he says. "How many Starks do they have to behead before you figure it out?"
"Who's going to protect you at Castle Black? Me?"—Sam, to Gilly
Meanwhile, wildlings are threatening the kingdom from both sides of the wall: on the south side, they're slaughtering entire villages, led by the cannibalistic Styr (Yuri Kolokolnikov) but with the full cooperation of Ygritte (Rose Leslie). A lone surviving boy has come to Castle Black to beg for help—to beg, that is to say, for a champion to mete out justice and protection—but no one can help him and his kind. With Mance Rayder massing an army north of the way, the Watch has no men to spare. Even Jon Snow—the "champion of the common people," as Thorne (Owen Teale) calls him—agrees there's nothing to be done for the villagers. This, as the Hound would say, is just the way things are.
But something must be done, it turns out, about the mutineers who killed Jeor Mormont. Grenn (Mark Stanley) and Dolorous Edd (Ben Crompton) have returned to the Wall, and report that the mutineers are living large at Craster's camp, and raping Craster's wives. ("Poor girls never thought they would miss their daddy," Grenn says.) Even here, however, the decision to take action is not about protecting the women—"This is not about justice," Jon says—but about the fact that the mutineers know too much they could tell Mance Rayder.
The threat and spectre of rape haunts this entire episode, of course: Cersei is raped; Oberyn Martell (Pedro Pascal) wants revenge on the Mountain for raping and murdering his sister; the farmer fears his daughter will be raped by brigands; and I wouldn't like to speculate about Littlefinger's intentions towards Sansa. The entire episode is seemingly designed to counter the claim Lady Olenna (Diana Rigg) makes: "The world is overflowing with horrible things, but they're all a tray of cakes next to death," she says—but she's wrong: there are worse things than death.
Sam (John Bradley) knows this: he lives his life among rapists and thieves, and now he has brought another of Craster's wives, Gilly (Hannah Murray), to live among them too. She's happy there, and they are happy (and painfully sweet) together—but he's worried. There are 100 men at Castle Black, and only one woman, and he knows what the men are thinking about. ("They have other things to think about," Gilly says, dismissively, but Sam assures her that no, that's all they think about.)
North of the Wall, Sam was her champion, her protector, her savior—but Sam knows he's not able to protect her now. Gilly—as Cersei did when Jaime was captured—takes Sam's inability to protect her as a personal affront, a failure of love. ("Are you bored of me?" she asks him.)
But Sam knows the way the world works, and knows that he's just not that kind of hero. "This is different," he protests. "They're brothers of the Night's Watch, and I can't just stab them in the back, and we can't run away." And so he installs her in tavern/brothel in the village, a total shithole where she will be marginally safer, if nowhere near as happy. It's an interesting scene, not least of all because—especially in the context of the rest of the episode—it's not entirely clear that Sam's decision is entirely selfless. Sam is a fundamentally decent man, and he's not wrong about the possible threat to Gilly, but his motives may be more complicated than even he knows. Is he worried that her proximity will test his vows a little too strongly? Is he perhaps also worried that she might find another champion among those 100 men at Castle Black? Is it right for him to take away her choice—her agency—even to protect her? And, as with Ser Dontos and Sansa, there is always the danger that Sam's good intentions have actually delivered her somewhere far worse.
"Do I have a champion?"—Daenerys Stormborn
One of the show's favorite ways to structure an episode is to deal with everything in Westeros first, and then to end across the Narrow Sea with Daenerys (Emilia Clarke). It's a logical construction—her scenes are disconnected from nearly everything else that happens—but it also, sometimes, seems like a deliberate contrast between the two worlds. "Breaker of Chains" shows us woman after woman needing a champion and failing to find one, and then circles back to show us a woman who is her own champion.
Oh, she calls out to her men for a champion, of course, but that part's just a game, really. When the people of Mereen send out a warrior to fight in single-combat, Daenerys surveys her loyal lieutenants for a volunteer. Grey Worm (Jacob Anderson) offers his services, and so do Barristan Selmy (Ian McElhinney) and Jorah Mormont (Iain Glen)—but all three of these are too dear to her: they are to be protected. Daario Naharis (Michiel Huisman), she decides, is expendable, and so sends him out to make quick work of the Mereenian delegate.
So she finds a champion—but she doesn't need one. The fight is mere sport, an amusing bit of theater, a literal pissing contest between boys. Daenerys is stronger than any of them—it is she who keeps them safe, not the other way around—and she is stronger than the men who rule Mereen. "I have nothing to say to them," she says to the people of Mereen, of their Masters. "I speak only to you…I am not your enemy. Your enemy is beside you. Your enemy steals and murders your children. Your enemy has nothing for you but chains and suffering and commands."
Dany is certainly capable of violence—she kicked the living shit out of the slavers of Astapor, after all—but she is demonstrating a different way to use power, and a different way to rule. When her army lauches catapults now at the gates of Mereen, the projectiles are not weapons but messages: thousands of broken slave collars, symbolizing the liberty she promises all her people. (Yes, Danaerys Stormborn has invented the propaganda bomb.) More importantly—as she did with the Unsullied, as she did in Yunkai—she offers the people of Mereen a choice, allowing them their agency. In an episode largely about rape, Dany is asking, not taking. In an episode about women needing men to protect them, Dany is the one with power who protects her men. In an episode about coming to terms with the way the world works, Dany is changing the rules. In an episode about champions, Dany isn't looking for one: she is one.
Who's the hero of Game of Thrones? As I've said, it's a tricky question, and a constantly moving target. But Daenerys is the only person offering a different way of doing things than the horrible ways things have always been done. What makes a good king? Tywin thinks he knows, but someday Dany may show him—and all the men like him—that he was asking the wrong question all along.
The King is dead. Long live the Queen.
Additional Thoughts and Favorites Bits
- Forgive, once again, the lateness of this post: a combination of real life demands, scheduling conflicts, and server-demons put me behind schedule this week. (As did my last minute decision to begin reviewing Orphan Black, which is another show you should be watching if you want to see a kickass woman show the men how it's done.)
- In the interest of space I skipped over Tyrion's scene this week, though it's thematically related. (Tyrion himself is in need of a champion—a witness to testify on his behalf—and, running through the list of candidates, he too is having trouble finding one.) And it is sad to see the end—if this is the end—of his relationship with Podrick Payne (Daniel Portman), who turned out to be, as Tyrion says, the most loyal squire who ever lived.
- I enjoyed Tyrion's explanation of who exactly is out to get him. "They! They! The ominous They!"
- I also skipped over Davos (Liam Cunningham), who has apparently had a brilliant idea about how to solve Stannis's money and personnel problems. (I suspect I'd watch this show if it were just Reading Rainbow with Shireen. "You're your father's daughter, and no mistake. Bloody relentless, the both of you." Those two characters are a delight together.)
- I didn't mention it, but Jon Snow is obviously our other leading contender for "hero" of this show. It was a nice touch this week how the men of the Night's Watch went silent the moment his opinion was asked: clearly, he's earned their respect. (It was like those old E.F. Hutton ads. "When Jon Snow talks, people listen.")