The world of Game of Thrones is not exactly an environment that encourages people to reinvent themselves. This is a world, after all, in which every single person is defined, from birth, by their house, their family, their nation, their class, their gender, and their allegiances. In the strictly stratified world of Westeros, people never get to be merely themselves: they are also everyone who came before them for generations, and everyone to whom they are allied. It doesn't leave a lot of room for flexibility and self-direction.
And yet, we've also seen, repeatedly, people struggling to change their status, express their true natures, and claim some authority over the course of their own lives. Ironically, it is often the damaged and outcast members of this society who find a way to redefine themselves. It's the "cripples, bastards, and broken things," disconnected in varying degrees from the larger social order, who are forced by circumstance and the necessities of invention to seek a new way of life.
So it is possible to step outside the rigid constraints of society; it is possible to exercise free will; it is possible to make a conscious decision to become something different than what you were born to be. It just takes courage, and guile, and a willingness to break the rules. This week's episode, "Oathkeeper," is all about people figuring that out—for better or worse.
"No one can give you your freedom, brothers. If you want it, you must take it."—Grey Worm
The idea that a person can choose his or her fate is articulated by several very different characters this week. The first is Grey Worm (Jacob Anderson), who we find taking lessons in the common tongue from Missandei (Nathalie Emmanuel). They practice by discussing their respective pasts, but Grey Worm has no past, no memory of his life before he was a slave: "Always Unsullied," he says. His life began the day he made the choice to join Daenerys (Emilia Clarke), which was the first choice he was ever allowed to make for himself. (It is for this reason that he decided, in "Kissed by Fire," to keep the name "Grey Worm." It was his name, on the day he truly became a free man.)
Now, as Grey Worm sneaks in to sow rebellion among the slaves of Meereen, he passes this lesson along. "I promise you, a single day of freedom is worth a lifetime in chains," he tells them. "No one can give you your freedom, brothers. If you want it, you must take it." You must have the courage, in other words, to step outside of society's rules and envision a different life for yourself.
This is a lesson Daenerys has proven all along, and one she—to her credit—has tried to pay forward. She too was born a slave—however high-born—and sold like cattle without any say in her fate. From that day onward, however, she has made her own fate, forged her own identity, and come up with new rules to live by. She has done good, and she has done well, and just last week I said she might be the true hero of Game of Thrones.
But I also argued that the theme of last week's episode was the potential for everyone to be both hero and villain, and that's a notion that bleeds over into this week's theme of individuals breaking away—or not—from the rules and customs of their clans. Looking back, this tension was always within Dany, who has clung to her ancient family name and legacy even as she carefully constructed her new identity. (Her constantly expanding titles, after all, are a mixture of old and new. She is Daenerys Stormborn, of the House Targaryan, of the blood of Old Valyria, Queen of the Andals and the First Men, Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, Breaker of Chains, the Dragon's Daughter, and the Mother of Dragons. That's a lot of baggage to carry.)
Dany, too, has a choice to make: she can be what she was born to be, or she can become something more, something better. She's been on quite a run, but she makes what may be her first major misstep this week after the slaves of Meereen successfully revolt. Though Barristan Selmy (Ian McElhinney) counsels mercy, Dany decides to "answer justice with justice" and have the slave masters publicly crucified as they themselves had crucified slave children on the road to the city. It is a disturbingly dark turn for the character, and one made darker by the image of the black flag of House Targaryen flying over the city she's conquered. We are reminded that every hero can be a villain, that every ruler has the potential to be a monster, and that even the most revolutionary and self-directed of characters must take care not to fall into the patterns of the past. ("Ah, you are a true Targaryen," the Spice King said to her, way back in Qarth, foreshadowing the possibility that this would-be savior of her people could become another Mad King if she's not careful.)
"I'd risk everything to get what I want."—Littlefinger
Baelish (Aidan Gillen) is the next character to express the philosophy of self-direction, and on his lips it takes quite a different tone. "So many men, they risk so little, they spend their lives avoiding danger," he tells Sansa (Sophie Turner), speaking of those who are content to live and die in the place and station they are given.
Littlefinger's entire life has been about not being satisfied with his position. Where others were content with the banner under which they were born, Littlefinger created his own sigil. Ruthlessly ambitious, he's been constantly climbing what he once called the "ladder" of chaos, and he has risen to great power. "Littlefinger was born with no lands, no wealth, no armies," Varys (Conleth Hill) said of him last season. "He has acquired the first two: how long before he has the army?"
The episode is entitled "Oathkeeper," but it is clear that making personal choices includes deciding which oaths to keep and which to break. Sansa can't believe that Baelish would betray the Lannisters, but Littlefinger explains that his relationship with the Lannisters—while very productive—had outlived its usefulness. He has new friends now to help him get what he wants. "And what is it you want?" Sansa asks. "Everything," he explains.
Littlefinger's "new friends" are the Tyrells, of course, as Lady Olenna (Diana Rigg) now reveals that she is very much a person who knows how to get what she wants. Particularly for a woman navigating the male power structure of Westeros, bending the rules to your liking requires will and skill, and the Queen of Thorns has both. She describes to her granddaughter Margaery (Natalie Dormer) how, when Olenna was promised to a Targaryan, she circumvented custom and protocol to seduce the groom she wanted away from her older sister. "I was good," she boasts. "I was very good." She made a choice, and got the husband she wanted, and she now reveals that she made the same choice for Margaery herself: it was Olenna who killed Joffrey. "You don't think I'd let you marry that beast, do you?"
If the Queen of Thorns was good, she admits that Margaery may be better. Born with no more power than any other high-born woman in Westeros—which is to say, not much—Margaery has proven herself remarkably skilled at working within the system, using the only power she has, and adapting circumstances—and men—to her liking. She managed to achieve a pragmatic working relationship with Renley, she twisted Joffrey around her finger to the extent that he sometimes acted halfway decently, and now she sets out to seduce her next husband, young Tommen (Dean-Charles Chapman). (Tommen's age is unclear: in the books, I believe he was only 7 or 8 at this point, but the show has aged the character to the point where he obviously can begin to appreciate—if not comprehend—this vision sneaking into his bedchamber.) "When we marry, I become yours," she says to the new king—but that's a nice bit of misdirection: setting out to lure Tommen away from Cersei's influence, what she means is, When we marry, you become mine.
"You want to fight pretty, or you want to win?"—Bronn, to Jaime
So let's turn our attention to Cersei (Lena Headley) and Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau)—though here we run into problems, due to the controversial scene between them last week. The nearly universal response to the scene as aired—and this was my reaction as well—is that Jaime raped Cersei. Yet the episode's director, Alex Graves, has said in an interview that we're all wrong. "Ultimately, it was consensual," he told Denise Martin at Vulture, going so far as to say that the scene actually represents Cersei using Jaime to get what she wants.
As I implied in my review last week—and said straight out in the comments on that post—this means that the scene was, at best, an unforgivable botch-job, one that now creates an unavoidable problem for interpreting this show and these characters going forward. In the scene between Cersei and Jaime this week there is a lot of tense subtext and—on Cersei's part—barely swallowed rage, but I've watched the scene several times and I don't see any way to read it as a conversation between a rape survivor and her rapist. Cersei's accusations are all about Jaime's loyalty to the Starks and Brienne (Gwendoline Christie), and his refusal to kill Tyrion (Peter Dinklage), but not about anything that passed between them when last they met. Jaime's emotional reaction (to the extent that he exhibits any) seems to be genuine concern and defensive righteousness, not guilt.
So how do we read that scene last week? Do we assume that they both know she was raped, and they're just not talking about it? (There's not a lot of evidence for that, in either the writing or the performances: these are actors more than capable of layering that in if that's what was intended.) Do we agree she was raped, but that neither of the participants necessarily see it that way? (There really isn't much consensual sex in this world, after all, and Cersei spent years married to man she hated: we could argue that neither of them would register the event in quite the same outraged way that we do.) Or, do we accept Graves's explanation, and pretend we didn't see what we saw, and agree it never happened?
Make no mistake: Game of Thrones fucked up, and I think the debate about the creative choice to present the scene the way they did—and the larger conversation about the use of rape as a plot point in serialized dramas—is important, and should continue. But in terms of interpreting what's happening within the story—which is my bailiwick here—I have to say I'm reluctantly leaning towards writing "the rape" off as just a regrettable scene that was executed very, very poorly. I don't see any way to proceed except to give the show the benefit of the doubt, and say that what ended up on-screen was not what the creators intended. To me, it's the first truly disastrous misstep in the show's run so far—which is remarkable in itself—and I'm inclined to try to work around it rather than bend over backwards trying to justify it within the thematic unity of the show.
Because here's the thing: the scenes between Jaime and Cersei this week and last do make sense if we view them the same way Alex Graves does. Cersei, like Margaery, is executing the only power she really has at her disposal: as a woman in this world, she can't exact her revenge directly, and so she needs Jaime to do it for her. This has always been one of Cersei's issues, and really her tragedy. She considers herself more capable than the men around her—she is more capable than most of them—and yet she's denied any power and responsibility. (Last season, she finally expressed this resentment to her father: "Did it ever occur to you that I might be the one who deserves your confidence and trust?" she asked him. "Not your sons, not Jaime or Tyrion, but me?" In that same episode, she and Olenna commiserated that men are idiots "and yet the world belongs to them.")
And, in the context of this episode about personal choice, it helps to look at the people Cersei hates. (This is always a reliable guide to character.) We see that there's a pattern to it: they all have a courage Cersei herself lacks, and a freedom she's never been allowed. Margaery has proven to be able to make her political marriages work, even seducing Cersei's own son: Cersei, on the other hand, couldn't make Robert love her, and in the end she'd even lost the affections of Joffrey. Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) has been allowed to do whatever he wanted all his life, while Cersei was traded like chattel for the betterment of the family; when push came to shove, however, it was Tyrion their father relied upon, not Cersei. And Cersei's hatred of Brienne of Tarth is particularly interesting: obviously, she sees Brienne as a rival for Jaime's allegiance, but I think it's more than that. Brienne lives as if she were a man, taking for herself the power Cersei has been denied. Brienne was born a lady, just like Cersei—but Brienne had the courage to redefine herself, risking mockery and ostracisation in a way Cersei never would.
I find Cersei a sympathetic character in many ways—her evil is understandable, if not justifiable—but one thing she has never proven herself capable of is change. She survives, even perseveres, but she doesn't adapt, and we've really never seen her make a single decision that could be interpreted as character growth. She just doesn't seem to have it in her to change the course of her life.
And this, too, makes it understandable that she is coming to hate her brother Jaime—for he has changed. He was always her mirror reflection before, the animus to her anima, and the part of her that was allowed to wield the power she can't wield directly. "Jaime and I are more than brother and sister," she told Ned Stark once. "We came into this world together, we shared a womb together, we belong together." But now Jaime's time away has changed him, in ways that go far beyond his loss of a hand. They are not two halves of the same soul anymore, because his soul has expanded, and hers has seemingly shrunken in on itself.
This is another reason the rape scene, as presented, makes no sense. Jaime's entire arc since last season has been about his developing capacity for sympathy—I will not say his redemption, quite—and the show apparently did not intend that what happened last week was meant to be a regression. Jaime became a better man when he saved Brienne from being raped, and there is no sign now we're meant to think he has now turned into a rapist himself. Rather, this entire episode shows Jaime moving further along the same path he's been following, and realizing once and for all that he can't be the man he used to be any longer. (We could read his progress this week as a reaction to hitting rock bottom last week, but—again—there's no real indication of that in the writing or performance.)
First, Bronn (Jerome Flynn) gives him a little demonstration in doing things differently than the way they've always been done. Way back in Season One, Bronn proved that the old rules don't mean a thing, by fighting dirty and beating Lysa Arryn's "honorable" champion. Now, he teaches Jaime the same lesson. ("You want to fight pretty, or you want to win?" he asks him.) Then Bronn calls Jaime up short for failing to even visit—let alone defend—his brother. Bronn tells him that he first became Tyrion's champion only because Jaime was unavailable. "You were his first choice," Bronn says. "He knew you would ride day and night to come fight for him. You going to fight for him now?" When Jaime finally goes to see Tyrion, they remind each other that they are bound by a genuine bond of affection—a rare thing in this world, and one that may be their saving grace as Lannisters and people. ("You really asking if I killed your son?" Tyrion asks him. "You really asking if I'd kill my brother?" Jaime responds. Neither would do either of those things, because neither of them is their father, or Cersei.)
And then Cersei, in quizzing him about the Starks, reminds him of his sacred oath to Catelyn last season. (Brienne—who is Jaime's conscience, his own oversized Jiminy Cricket—also reminded him about this in the season premiere.) Now, with Brienne, he is looking through the record of the Kingsguard, the same one Joffrey scoffed at in "Two Swords." In this ledger he is the Kingslayer, nothing more, but he's realizing there's still time to change. "There is plenty of room left in mine," he says of his page in the history books: he can decide to be a different kind of man. He sends Brienne off in search of Sansa Stark, to fulfill an obligation: not to his sister or father or family name, but to a good woman and her innocent child. He gives Brienne a new suit of armor, a new squire (Podrick [Daniel Portman]), and the Valyrian steel sword forged from Ned Stark's blade. It was a gift from his father—representing the Lannister family crimes—and now giving it away represents Jaime's decision to split from his family and become something better. (As such, he and Brienne agree, it should be christened "Oathkeeper." As I said earlier, deciding what kind of person you're going to be means deciding which oaths to break and which to keep. )
"I know how hard it is, Sam. Believe me."—Jon Snow
The Night's Watch is one of the more ironic institutions in the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros. Men are conscripted into it as prisoners, but the Watch also represents one of the only opportunities for all the cripples, bastards, and broken things of Westeros to find the freedom to change. It is a place where the strict social structure is dismantled: the playing field is level, and high-born and low-born alike can redefine themselves and become something more than they were meant to be.
Jon Snow realized this early in life, and made a conscious choice to take the Black. Born a bastard, he was a second-class citizen in Westeros, but he knew the Wall was a place where even a bastard can find respect and purpose. Now, he's becoming something even more: the men of the Watch see him as a leader, and he's the heir apparent to be the next Lord Commander. "The bastard's well-liked," Janos Slynt (Dominic Carter) tells the current Acting Commander, Alliser Thorne (Owen Teale). "You might be taking orders from him the rest of your life."
Jon has been asking to ride north and take care of the mutineers who killed Jeor Mormont, and now Thorne decides to let him—hoping he'll get killed along the way. And even here the theme of choice resonates: Thorne tells Jon he must ask for volunteers for this mission. It's a subtle but lovely touch that Jon won't address the men of the Watch from the high table on which the commanders sit: he deliberately steps down to the floor first, and addresses them as equals. "If the Night's Watch are truly brothers, then Lord Commander Mormont was our father," he says. "He deserved far better. All we can give him now is justice." His plea is interesting in light of the entire episode: he is appealing to their better natures, asking them—not ordering them—to step up and do what is right.
Of course, one of the men that steps forward is new recruit Locke (Noah Taylor), the odious right-hand man of Roose Bolton. Locke has gone undercover in the Watch in order to find the younger Stark brothers—Bran (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) and Rickon (Art Parkinson)—and befriends Jon with a bullshit story about stealing food to feed his children. When Jon protests that he can't take a raw recruit north of the Wall, Locke offers to take his vows on the spot. In an episode called "Oathkeeper," we are reminded again that oaths only mean as much as the individual who makes them decides they mean.
They mean nothing, clearly, to men like Karl (Burn Gorman) and his fellow mutineers, who personify (even more than Locke) the dark side of self-invention. Their desire to escape the constraints of Westerosi society is understandable, but what they have chosen to become is pure evil. (It was perhaps a bit over the top to have Karl literally drinking from Mormont's skull, and I think we've seen enough rape on this show to last us a while: we don't need Karl's repeated command to his fellow men to take Craster's daughters and "fuck 'em 'til they're dead.") It is, unfortunately, into this den of iniquity that Bran and his companions stumble, after Bran's direwolf Summer catches wind of Jon's wolf Ghost penned up by the mutineers.
Which would be cliffhanger enough—but this episode ends with an even more troubling image. Craster's last child has been born, and the mutineers decide to follow the traditions governing all of Craster's sons, and give it to the White Walkers as a "gift for the gods." We see, for the first time, what happens to such children, as a new kind of Walker turns the baby into a creature like himself. In this episode largely about personal transformation, we are left with the image of this totally innocent life being transformed into a creature of evil and death. The baby, of course, had no choice in the matter, but it's still a nice metaphor for the full spectrum of humanity, and the potential dangers of redefinition.
Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits
- Littlefinger being in an enclosed space with Sansa Stark—the image of his long-lost, beloved Catelyn—gives me serious heebie-jeebies.
- This is one of those shows where the consistency of even the minor supporting players is kind of remarkable. I recently rewatched Season One, and was surprised to recognize the mutineer Rast (Luke McEwan) as one of Jon Snow's nameless fellow recruits on his very first trip to the Wall. (Rast has been there ever since, of course, but I remembered it now because it's makes for a nice symmetry with this episode: how these two men began in exactly the same place, but made very different decisions along the way, and became such very different people.)
- The storyline of Bran and his fellow travelers being captured by the mutineers from the Watch is wholly new, so for once book readers and show watchers are in more or less the same boat. (I gather the change has caused some controversy, but I'm all for it, since it's already more interesting than anything that happened to Bran in the last three novels.)
- What I am not in favor of: Hodor Baiting. Not cool, fuckers. Not cool at all.