One doesn't need to look too closely to find the unifying theme of this week's Game of Thrones, since Cersei (Lena Headley) more or less announces it in her conversation with Prince Oberyn (Pedro Pascal): "Everywhere in the world they hurt little girls," she says. It's also hard not to notice the absence in this episode of most of the major male characters: Tyrion, Jaime, Davos, Stannis, Theon, Sam, and most of the other men are conspicuously absent from "First of His Name." Instead, the episode is largely centered around five women: Cersei, Sansa (Sophie Turner), Arya (Maisie Williams), Brienne (Gwendoline Christie), and Dany (Emilia Clarke).
Frankly, this kind of episode is long overdue for Game of Thrones. The show has built episodes before around the role of women in Westeros, but it has usually done so through the point of view of male characters: it has focused on how men see women, how men abuse women, how men try (or fail) to protect women. (Season Two's "The Night Lands" is a good example of this.) "First of His Name" is doing something a bit different: it's moving the women (almost exclusively) front-and-center into viewpoint characters, and it's prioritizing their realities in a way the show hasn't really done before. Here, it's the men who exist in the gaps of the women's narratives for once, instead of the other way around.
And, despite the slight mislead of Cersei's statement, this isn't really an episode about how men abuse women—though that certainly continues to be a factor in what has been a particularly rapey season of Game of Thrones. Rather, "First of His Name" explores a theme that has been present all season: the way women choose, or are forced, to navigate this world differently than men do, and to find ways to use their power differently.
"I will do what queens do: I will rule."—Daenerys
As I begin this conversation, I want to recognize that it would be dangerous to generalize too much about gender and the uses of power. (Men are logical, violent, and selfish! Women are emotional, gentle, and nurturing! Well, no...) And actually, Game of Thrones is pretty good about avoiding such easy categorization, giving us a broad spectrum of examples from both sides of the chromosome wars. (Ned and Robb Stark, after all, were loving men who genuinely cared about the welfare of the people they ruled; Cersei and Melisandre, on the other hand, are powerful women no one would accuse of being tender-hearted.)
Nonetheless, throughout Game of Thrones, Daenerys Targaryan has provided a clear counter-argument to the patriarchal power structure of the Seven Kingdoms. With a king in every corner, Dany is the only queen, and she does do things differently. Robb Stark just wanted justice for his father's murder. (He didn't even care who sat on the Iron Throne when the war was done.) The Lannisters want to hold onto their power and the legacy of the family name. Stannis just wants what is his by right, et cetera. None of the contenders in the War of Five Kings were campaigning on a platform of betterment.
But Dany is different. Yes, she has some lingering pride about restoring the Targaryan name and claiming her birthright, but she mostly seems to be motivated by a desire to do good. Who else is talking about actually improving the lives of the people they rule? Who else is looking at long-established inequities of class and thinking about changing them? It is impossible to picture Tywin (Charles Dance) trying to win the hearts and minds of the people the way Dany did in Meereen. It is hard to imagine Stannis Baratheon or Balon Greyjoy even thinking of themselves as parental figures, let alone earning familial affection the way Dany did in "Mhysa."
And this week Dany finally figures out that the old ways—the male ways—of thinking about power, and victory, are insufficient. Men like Tywin and Stannis see places as pieces on a gameboard, to be besieged and conquered and moved on from. (We've already heard this season how bad parts of the country have become after the war blew through them: Lannister armies rolled through and rolled out without any concern for the welfare of the people who lived there: the quality of life for a bunch of peasants does not factor into Tywin's idea of what makes a "victory.") Dany, meanwhile, has been cutting a swath of liberation through Slaver's Bay, taking first Qarth, then Astopor, then Yunkai, and finally Meereen. With the best of intentions, she conquered those places, liberated their residents, and moved on—but now she learns that's not enough.
News of Joffrey's death has reached across the Narrow Sea, and the Seven Kingdoms are as vulnerable as they've ever been: Dany's advisers tell her the time may be ripe to take King's Landing. (Since we hear elsewhere in the episode that the Lannisters are broke, a successful invasion seems not just possible but plausible.) But other news reaches her as well: the slavers have reclaimed Astopor, and a vicious warlord has taken over Yunkai. Dany could sail for King's Landing with a string of empty victories under her belt, but it would mean abandoning the people she tried to liberate and the progress she tried to achieve. "I will not let those I've freed slide back into chains," she tells Jorah (Iain Glen), deciding she won't act like the kings would act. "I will do what queens do," she says. "I will rule."
"What good is power if you cannot protect the ones you love?" — Cersei
The essence of Dany's dilemma can be summarized by a question Cersei asks elsewhere in the episode: "What good is power if you cannot protect the ones you love?"
Just last week I said that Cersei had never really exhibited anything we could call character growth, and I stick by that observation. But this is a new week, and possibly a new Cersei. She dominates this episode in a way she never has before, and we see her in a slightly different way than we ever have before.
(This timing is, incidentally, totally appropriate. I don't like to make page-to-screen comparisons, but I will observe that the show has just about reached the point where Cersei becomes a point-of-view character in the novels: for the first three books we only observe her through someone else's eyes, but in the fourth book Martin starts giving us her subjective perspective.)
And Cersei has, perhaps, changed. Her firstborn son is dead, and—though she says "You never love anything in the world like you love your first child"—Cersei may actually be relieved. Talking to Joffrey's widow, Margaery (Natalie Dormer), she confesses that the things Joffrey did shocked even her. "He would have been your nightmare," she says to Margaery. "You knew exactly what he was. I did too."
Now Cersei's second son, Tommen (Dean-Charles Chapman) sits on the Iron Throne: a gentle, decent boy. "Who was the last decent king, I wonder?" Cersei says. "He could be the first man who sits on that throne in fifty years to actually deserve it." Deserve? Where is this coming from? When has anyone—outside of Dany's retinue—talked about someone deserving to rule?
And it's worth noting that Cersei's entire manner with Margaery has changed. Cersei has always hated the younger woman, and she fiercely resented Margaery's influence over Joffrey. But now she seems to sincerely want Margaery to help Tommen become the king he could be. "He will need help, if he's going to rule well," Cersei says. "A mother is not enough." Just last season, she threatened to have Margaery strangled in her sleep if she ever dared call Cersei "sister," but now she hears the word with nothing more than a subtle roll of the eyes. Last week I discussed how Cersei hated Margaery in part because Margaery had proven adept at wielding power in ways Cersei herself could not: has she finally recognized—in part through Margaery's example—that there are ways to be a powerful woman that she herself has never tried?
There's almost no other conclusion to draw: Joffrey's death has humanized Cersei, at least a bit. She has tried to follow her father's teachings all her life, and she has seized and wielded power with a practical ruthlessness, even while resenting being treated differently than her brothers. But now she's realizing the futility of all that. "I'm a Lannister, queen for 19 years, daughter of the most powerful man alive," she tells Oberyn. "But I could not save my son. What good is power if you cannot protect the ones you love?" Somewhere, deep down, she must know, too, that the man Joffrey became—and therefore the reason he is dead—is largely her fault: she made him a monster in part by her example, and he was murdered for being exactly the man she raised him to be.
I wouldn't want to overstate any transformation Cersei has gone through. (Her meetings with both Oberyn and her father this episode, after all, are fairly transparent attempts to manipulate them into executing Tyrion.) But there are definite signs of growth, of softening. She talks about Tommen being decent; she expresses a wish that Myrcella is happy. Happiness and decency are not traditional Lannister Family Values. (Tywin, as we've seen many times, could not give less of a shit whether his family members are happy, and he lectured Tommen earlier this season on how decency is not an essential quality in a king.)
We've heard repeatedly that Cersei's love for her children was her only redeeming feature, and that everything she has ever done has been for them. Now, having lost one child to death and another to diplomacy, she has one child left to do right by if her entire life is not to have been a waste. Like Dany, she may be realizing that being a queen and a mother means more than just having power: it means wielding it with responsibility, and care, and a genuine concern for the well-being of your children and subjects.
"It's not fighting. It's water-dancing."—Arya
On the spectrum of female roles in Westeros—and learning different ways to use power—Arya and Sansa seem far apart. As I've mentioned before, the sisters are traveling very similar paths, but in very different directions. Both have been utterly cut off from their family. Both have been passed from hand to hand, coming under the influence of different mentors, learning from different teachers. Both have repeatedly found themselves in new situations that seemed to offer salvation, only to have their hopes dashed, again and again.
In thinking of this episode in terms of male and female power, it's helpful to consider that Arya is traveling the masculine path, and Sansa the feminine. Arya's mentors and teachers have all been men: Ned, Jon, Syrio Forel, Yoren, Gendry, Tywin, Jaquen H'Ghar, Beric Dondarrian, and the Hound. She has learned the arts of warfare, of weapons; she has learned how to lie and steal; she has learned how to hate. "Hate's as good a thing as any to keep a person going," the Hound (Rory McCann) says to her now, hearing her recite the names—including his—of the people she intends to kill one day.
But even here, as she practices the art of killing, there is a difference in style that is framed as gendered. "It's not fighting, it's water-dancing," she explains to the Hound about her technique. I won't belabor the obvious point about water being an archetypal symbol of the feminine: the dancing part is enough for the Hound to pick up on. "Dancing?" he scoffs. "Maybe you ought to put on a dress." She learned it from a man, but the Braavosi style of fighting is graceful, precise, almost balletic—a stark contrast to the masculine, hack-and-slash style of men like the Hound. ("You are not holding a battle-axe," Syrio told her once. No, Arya agreed, she was holding a needle—a woman's implement.)
Arya's entire story has been about whether it's possible for a woman to find a different role in Westeros, a different way to be powerful. "You will marry a high lord and rule his castle, and your sons will be knights and princes and lords," Ned told her once, describing the best vision for her fate that he could conceive. "No, that's not me," Arya responded: she has never wanted to be a lady.
But neither has she wanted to be a boy. Syrio repeatedly called her a boy during their "dancing lessons," but she kept insisting she was a girl. Since Ned's death, Arya has often been disguised as or mistaken for a boy, but she has never liked it: she doesn't want to be a boy, and she doesn't even want to live—or fight—like a boy; she just wants to be herself. In this respect, she is a lot like Brienne, who refuses to be called a "knight," and refuses to be called "milady." They are both rejecting the traditionally gendered roles, and trying to claim a different kind of power.
And—of course—it's not easy: the Hound proves that now. First, he mocks Syrio Forel for being killed by a worthless idiot like Maryn Trant, and then he offers to let Arya show him what good her way of doing things is. Arya is brave, but she's not yet strong: her thin blade can't even penetrate his chain mail, and he knocks her backwards for even trying it. Arya is a very young woman—still a child, really—and while she may find a different kind of power someday, she's not there yet.
"I'm a stupid girl, with stupid dreams, who never learns."—Sansa
Neither, for that matter, is Sansa, who is seeking her power along what we can simplistically call the more feminine track. Where Arya's teachers have all been men, Sansa has been learning mostly from women: Catelyn, Septa Mordane, Cersei, Shae, Margaery, Olenna. Where Arya has been learning the manly things of war, Sansa has been getting a crash course in the more "feminine" art of diplomacy: she has learned how to survive in court, how to be polite, pleasant, docile, passive. (It's worth noting that even the men she's been given to have all been—if not exactly feminized—then less than fully "manly" specimens in the eyes of this world: Joffrey, Loras, Tyrion.)
And then there's Littlefinger (Aidan Gillen). Way back in Season One's "The Wolf and the Lion," King Robert (Mark Addy)—a consummate warrior and man's man—complained that the old ways were disappearing, and the kingdom was becoming nothing but "backstabbing and scheming and arse-licking and money-grubbing." Littlefinger and Varys (Conleth Hill) were the kinds of men he was thinking of: not warriors but thinkers, politicians, diplomats. Neither, obviously, are traditionally masculine presences: Varys is literally gelded, and Littlefinger—though carrying a torch for Catelyn—has always seemed somewhat sexless. He deals in whores, but he's never been seen partaking of the wares in his own brothels: a provider of sexual pleasure and political favors to other men, he's something of a whore himself.
Now Littlefinger has taken Sansa under his greasy wing, and brought her to a place of—make no mistake—feminine power. The Eyrie has always been described in those terms: it may look like a giant phallus, but it's an "impregnable" fortress," a virgin keep that has never been violated. "Give me ten good men and some climbing spikes, and I'll impregnate the bitch," Bronn once said, describing an assault on the Eyrie in unmistakably sexual terms.
(If you are tempted to think I'm stretching the metaphors a little to fit my theme, I'd just remind you that one can only arrive at the Eyrie by forcing one's way through "The Bloody Gate," and that one may leave the Eyrie by falling out "The Moon Door." The sexual metaphors are hard to ignore.)
And of course, the Vale is ruled by Lysa Arryn (Kate Dickie), who seems a mockery of femininity and maternal power: we first met her, after all, suckling her way-too-old son at her breast. On the spectrum of women in this world, Lysa represents the darkest end of the feminine spectrum. She is a monstrous, indulgent mother, doting unconditionally on her warped little boy. During Tyrion's trial she showed she had outdated, schoolgirl notions of chivalry, flirting with her knights to find a champion and blindly (wrongly) believing honor would win the day. She even refused to take sides in the war, hiding away demurely in the chaste security of her impregnable fortress.
Now we learn that she started that war, as Littlefinger's simpering pawn. Jon Arryn's murder was the event that set everything that has happened on Game of Thrones in motion, and now we learn that it was Lysa who poisoned him, at Baelish's request. ("I've heard it said that poison is a woman's weapon," Ned said once.) We learn that Littlefinger seduced her long ago, when she was a child, and that he has preyed on her schoolgirl feelings ever since. (It is telling that the only time we see—or hear—Littlefinger having sex, it is not from any genuine desire but only to further his schemes. Love and sex, to him, are just weapons and commodities, and femininity is something to be exploited.)
Just as Arya is continually disillusioned by the men she thinks might be mentors, so Sansa keeps crashing headfirst into disappointing feminine role models. Cersei took Sansa under her wing, and then abused her and discarded her. Olenna wormed her way into Sansa's confidence—"We're only women here," she said—and then used her and framed her for Joffrey's murder. Now Sansa—who might have been momentarily relieved to be back with family—quickly discovers Lysa is a nightmarish parody of feminine weakness and insecurity: her aunt is crazily jealous, dangerously suspicious, frighteningly age- and body-conscious. "Are you pregnant?" Lysa asks Sansa. "What have you let Petyr do to your body? Your young, pretty body?")
Sansa will need to look elsewhere to find a female role model, but she is learning—slowly. I loved her final scene this episode, and how she uses her own air of innocence, and her reputation for naiveté, to get out of danger. "I'm a virgin, I swear it! He loves you, Aunt Lysa!" she says to her crazy aunt. "All he says is that I'm stupid, I'm a stupid girl, with stupid dreams, who never learns, and I'm a terrible liar so I should always tell the truth!"
Sansa is not as stupid as she once was, and she's really not such a terrible liar anymore. (Littlefinger, of course, never said these things about her: he once told her that the capital was full of better liars than she, but the "stupid girl with stupid dreams" line is Sansa's own words she's repeating. And, of course, she knows Littlefinger doesn't really love Lysa.) This is a form of feminine power: using the illusion of weakness as strength. (It's one we've seen women like Margaery, and Dany, and even Arya use throughout.) Sansa isn't that powerful yet, but she is, as Dontos told her, stronger than she thinks.
"We'll find our own way."—Craster's Daughters
Finally, I want to look briefly at the final scenes of this episode, which seem at first to be a departure from the overall theme of the episode—focusing as they do largely on the doings of men—but which are actually right on point.
The delegation of the Night's Watch, led by Jon Snow (Kit Harington), has gone North of the Wall to hunt the mutineers. If the Eyrie is a dark place of feminine power, Craster's Keep is a dark place of masculine power: it is the place where Craster kept his own daughters enslaved for years, preying on them sexually and taking their children away from them. After Craster's death, it has become essentially a rape camp, the mutineers having stepped in to follow Craster's example.
Now comes the liberation of this camp. Ironically, it's Locke (Noah Taylor)—a gleefully unapologetic rapist himself—who first penetrates the camp, discovering in the process Bran (Isaac Hempstead-Wright), Jojen (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), Meera (Ellie Kendrick), and Hodor (Kristian Nairn) chained up in a hut. Again—though I may be stretching my theme a little too tautly—it occurs to me that this group is full of interesting and non-traditional gender roles as well. If we're looking for traditionally "masculine" types—which in this world means the manly warriors—there isn't one to be found here: Bran is crippled, Jojen is sickly, Hodor is gentle and enfeebled.
The only warrior in the mix—the only one with what is traditionally considered masculine power—is Meera, the woman. So it's not surprising that one of the first orders of business for the current lords of Craster's Keep is to rape her: to objectify her and degrade her, to take away her power. Karl (Burn Gorman) intentionally demeans her, rewriting her narrative, placing her into a simplistic semantic context he can understand. "What's a pretty little highborn girl like you doing out here?" he asks her. "You left your daddy's castle looking for trouble, didn't you? No pretty dresses for you. You like it rough."
It is interesting, too, that Jojen comes to her defense, not with manly force but with words, with diplomacy and guile. Whether these more "feminine" weapons would have been enough by themselves, we don't know, but he at least manages to stall Karl long enough to save his sister. The Night's Watch arrives, and much fighting ensues. (Director Michelle MacClaren films these scenes expertly, in a way that captures all the manly violence without glorifying it.) Jon confronts Karl, and is on the verge of losing—but he is saved by a woman (Jane McGrath), one of Craster's daughters, who stabs Karl in the back and gives Jon the opportunity to kill him. (There's probably a sexual metaphor to be discussed in the sword Jon shoves through Karl's mouth—as there is in the dagger Karl shoves in Jojen's face while explaining how he's going to rape Meera—but I'll leave you to sort that out on your own.) "Are you alright?" Jon asks the woman, and she doesn't answer, just looks at him with an expression of fear and sadness and pain that he can't possibly understand: of course she's not alright.
Significantly, the episode ends with two choices. The Night's Watch are good men doing manly things, but both Bran's group and Craster's daughters must ultimately decide to turn away from them. Bran longs to be reunited with his brother, but his path lies in a different direction, into the mysteries of nature and the company of his nontraditional cohorts. And Craster's daughters have had enough, understandably, of the world of men. "Meaning all respect, Ser Crow," Morag Craster (Dierdre Monaghan) says, "Craster beat us, and worse. Your brother Crows beat us, and worse." They are happy to see Craster's Keep burn to the ground—this symbol of masculine power eradicated—but they have no intention of going to yet another place where they'll have to rely on men. They make the choice all woman in this world need to make, to find their agency and autonomy, to claim power of their own: "We'll find our own way."
Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits
- A thousand apologies for the extreme lateness of this post: the requirements of my real job set me seriously behind schedule this week, and then this post took me longer than I'd anticipated. (Frankly, I'd like to spend even longer on it—since I feel I've sort of flailed wildly at a topic that requires more thoughtful discussion—but then my schedule would never recover.)
- I mostly skipped over Brienne and Podrick (Daniel Portman), due to time constraints. I think the dynamics here are pretty self-explanatory, but what I find interesting is that it appears to be a straightforward switching of traditional gender roles, but where they finally meet is on a middle ground between those roles, recognizing that both of them are more complicated than they appear.
- Lena Headley is sorely underrated; this episode gave her an opportunity to play more emotional range and depth than Cersei usually demonstrates, and Headley more than rose to the challenge.
- Arya not only promising to kill the Hound, but actually trying to do it? She may have gotten knocked on her ass for it, but damn, the girl's got guts. (Plus, you try to do a one-handed cartwheel while holding a fencing sword. No, on second thought, don't.)
- God bless whoever made the decision not to show a sex scene between Littlefinger and Lysa: hearing it was quite bad enough, thank you.