We all have a vision of the world the way it should be. It’s a place where we all grow up in happy families (who care for us as they should), and we all go on adventures (which work out just the way they’re supposed to), and we all fall in love and live happily after (with the person who will love us back forever). It sounds like a nice place, that world.
“But,” as Littlefinger (Aidan Gillen) reminds us this week, “we don’t live in that world.” We’re stuck in…well, the world. In this world, things are not so rosy, and not so fair, and not so reliable. They fuck us up, our mums and dads, and things often go to shit, and the people we love lie, and die, and let us down, and stubbornly refuse to love us back. Looking at our world, it feels sometimes like anything—or nothing—might be preferable.
So why do we go on living in our world that falls so short of the one we imagine? We live in the hope that things will get better, even in the hope that we can change the world to look a little more like the one we’ve envisioned. And we sustain ourselves, in the meantime, on the quiet grace notes that comes between claps of thunder, on tiny moments of mercy and kindness amid all the crises and cruelties. We live, as someone suggests this week, out of “habit,” and because we still hope that something is better than nothing.
Nothing is the way is should be, but we keep going because we’re not ready to give up. In the immortal words of the guru Hot Pie (Ben Hawkey), you cannot give up on the gravy.
“That’s where the heart is.”—The Hound
It’s a funny thing about Game of Thrones: I kind of love the episodes where nothing much happens.
Nothing much happens in “Mockingbird,” at least until the final shot. Conversations are had, decisions are made, and some characters are shifted in slightly different directions as we go into the last third of the season. It’s a bit of a breather, a respite from the show’s sturm und drang, a brief intermission while the crew moves some scenery around on the stage.
But it’s also one of my favorite episodes of the season so far. If you were only watching Game of Thrones for the plot, you could more or less skip “Mockingbird,” but you’d be missing some lovely scenes. Taking a break from the relentless forward momentum of the plot gives the show space to let the characters be people, not just players in the game.
Arya (Maisie Williams) and The Hound (Rory McCann) get the lion’s share of the thematic stage-setting this week. Two of our more cynical characters, they share—for all their differences and discordance—a worldview: life isn’t fair, and people suck, and you should stick ’em with the pointy end. So when they come across a peddler (Barry McGovern) dying in agony from a wound he received from someone he doesn’t even know—”I stopped asking a while ago”—they are surprised at how adamantly he clings to life.
“I always held to the notion of fair exchange in all my dealings,” he says. “You give me, I give you, fair. A balance. No balance anymore.” Life is no longer fair—if it ever was—so why doesn’t he end it all? “Habit,” he says—but also out of fear that the nothing to follow is worse. He is actually just following one of the most important tenets of Arya’s faith: that there is only one god, Death, and the only thing you say to him is “not today.”
The philosophical back-and-forth is a little heavy-handed—it’s like a scene out of an existentialist play—but it pays nice dividends. For one thing, I love the way this dying man allows them to be completely honest—something they almost never get to do. (Arya tells the man her real name, and the Hound tells him exactly where they’re going and why.) It’s one of the rare instances where they get to be themselves—and, in this regard at least, being themselves means being decent people at heart. They are kind to the man, and honest, and—in the end—merciful.
But the encounter—and the following encounter with Rorge (Andy Beckwith) and the Biter (Gerard Jordan), which tells the Hound that people will be hunting him everywhere he goes—also begs the question of why they go on living, when life is so miserable. What Arya and the Hound share in common is a horrible childhood: at the point in their lives when they should have felt most safe, should have been most loved, they’ve both known horror. And Arya, importantly, learns that there are things they don’t share in common. In a fantastic monologue, the Hound recounts the story of his scars. “You say your brother gave you that sword,” he says to Arya. “My brother gave me this.” Arya’s life has sucked, but she has known love: she had loving parents and loving siblings. What haunts Sandor Clegane, on the other hand, is that the people who were supposed to love him didn’t. “The pain was bad, the smell was worse. But the worst thing was that it was my brother who did it, and my father who protected him…You think you’re on your own?”
(Rory McCann is indescribably good in this role: it’s no wonder the show has made Sandor a much more central character than the books did. Here, he’s amazing in part because the Hound—fierce, frightening warrior that he is—looks like a big, sad little boy as he’s recounting this story. “Thought I stole one of his toys,” he says of his brother, sulkily. “I didn’t steal it, I was only playing with it.” It’s a fantastic performance.)
Arya is touched as well, and, though the Hound is still on her list—she’s not a girl who forgives easily—she tenderly helps him clean his wound. How does one go on living when the world is such a shitty place? By taking opportunities for a little kindness and mercy when they come, and trying to make it just a little less shitty when you can.
“Of course it’s a joke. Just not a very funny one”
And these themes—the world as an unfair place, and the cruelty of people who are supposed to love us—carry through the episode, as they carry through the entire series. I’ve said enough times for us all to be sick of it—like here—that the difference between the fairy tales and the real world is one of the central tenets of Game of Thrones. But one of the remarkable things—about the characters on the show, and about the rest of us—is how we find it so hard to let go of the fairy tales: how we cling to that illusion of a better world despite the preponderance of evidence to the contrary.
Just last week I expressed surprise that Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) is still so determined to live after having his entire life and all his illusions deconstructed in the trial. “I fell in love with a whore, and I was stupid enough to think that she’d fallen in love with me,” he tells Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) now. Tyrion had everything taken away from him last week, and he shouldn’t have any romantic illusions left—but he still wants to live. He is still talking about things like pride, and loyalty, and dying in a grand romantic gesture. “I thought you were a realist,” Jaime says—but none of us are realists, when it comes right down to it.
There’s still a fairy tale element in the content and construction of Tyrion’s scenes this week, as he seeks a champion from among three suitors. The first is his brother, “the Golden Son,” the gleaming Prince Charming whose life has been so blessed while Tyrion’s has been so cursed. “Where’s your sense of adventure?” he asks his brother. He imagines Jaime can triumph, as Jaime has always triumphed; at worst, he imagines them both dying as a suitable revenge against their father. “Our family name snuffed out with a single swing of the sword,” he proposes—but Jaime is understandably reluctant to fulfill this dream. Jaime, in the end, is more of a realist than Tyrion.
And so, too, is Bronn (Jerome Flynn). Their friendship has been one of the highlights of Game of Thrones, and it was a genuine friendship—but it was always somewhat mercenary as well. (Bronn is, after all, a mercenary.) As we discussed last week, Tyrion’s relationships have always been tainted by his own insecurities and pragmatism: he is drawn to people he can buy, and so the affections of both his lover and his best friend were secured through financial arrangements.
Now Bronn isn’t seeing a percentage in squaring off against the Mountain. “Ay, I like you,” Bronn says. “I just like meself more.” He is genuinely sorry, but Tyrion understands. “Why are you sorry? Because you’re an evil bastard with no conscience and no heart? That’s what I liked about you in the first place.” It’s a surprisingly sweet scene: they part as friends, and when they shake hands Tyrion doesn’t want to let go. After being so universally vilified last week, the presence of someone who actually likes him is precious.
What will you do? Bronn asks him. “I suppose I’ll have to kill the Mountain myself,” Tyrion jokes. “Won’t that make for a great song?” That’s the just ending, the miracle ending, the fairy tale ending. (“The little hero always beats the big villain in all the stories,” Littlefinger said once.) It is, of course, the impossible ending, but they both agree it would make a nice story. “I hope to hear them sing it one day,” Bronn says.
Things in fairy tales always happen in threes, and the third choice is always the right one. Tyrion’s third potential champion comes in an unexpected form: one of his judges, Prince Oberyn (Pedro Pascal). Oberyn, it turns out, is not a realist, and not a practical man: he is, in fact, saturated with storybook notions of justice and revenge. (As I’m hardly the first to point out, it’s hard to look at Oberyn and not think of Inigo Montaya from The Princess Bride.) With a dramatic flair and idealism that make him stand out in stark contrast to the pragmatism of the other two suitors, he agrees to be Tyrion’s champion.
But what I love about this scene is the way that Oberyn—a figure straight out of the storybooks—upends the fairytale narrative of Tyrion’s own life. Last week Tyrion had to listen as everyone he knows confirmed that he is just a dwarf, an imp, a demon monkey. But now Oberyn describes how he was taken by Cersei (Lena Headey) to see this demon when Tyrion was just a baby. “The whole way from Dorne, all anyone talked about was the monster that had been born to Tywin Lannister,” he says—but Oberyn was disappointed when Cersei “unveiled the freak.” There was no claw, no tail, no red eye. “That’s not a monster, I told Cersei. That’s just a baby.”
It’s a fantastic scene. Like the scene with the Hound, it is about the failure of family, the cruelty and hatred of the people who are supposed to love us. (Earlier in the episode we see Cersei and the Mountain [Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson] together, too peas in a pod.) It’s also a story, like so many others on this show, about the difference between the fairy tale and real life. But in this case, that difference is a comfort to Tyrion. All his life he has been unfairly cast as the villain—the Imp—in his family’s fairy tale, and last week he heard all about what an evil monster he is. But Oberyn doesn’t see a monster: he once saw an innocent baby, and now he sees an innocent man. You’re not a monster, he is saying. You don’t deserve this. It is the same thing Arya might say to the Hound.
Oberyn has his own reasons for wanting to fight the Mountain, but this speech is a kindness, a mission of mercy, and a blow against this world, these people, who treat innocent children so cruelly.
“We don’t live in that world.”—Littlefinger
Though the scene is in the books, I have no doubt that the producers of Game of Thrones had Frozen in mind when they shot this episode’s scenes with Sansa (Sophie Turner)—and why not? Sansa is a fairytale princess if ever there was one: she’s the beautiful and perfect daughter, the one who was supposed to marry the handsome prince and become his queen. Along the way, many, many things went wrong with the story, but she somehow has maintained her sweetness, and her innocence, and even her optimism. As she’s said several times, she’s “a stupid girl, with stupid dreams, who never learns.” That used to frustrate me about her, but by now it seems remarkable and admirable. Her little sister is becoming a cold-blooded killer, but Sansa remains irrepressibly Sansa. She doesn’t give up: she may, in fact, be the most resilient Stark.
And so it was nice to see her have a rare moment of pure joy this episode: stepping out into the courtyard of the Eyrie, which is frosted like an enchanted forest, she looks for all the world like the Disney princess she was always meant to be. Alone in this wonderland, the Princess of the North takes a few hours to recapture her childhood: she becomes once again the sweet little girl without a care in the world, and plays in the snow, and rebuilds the memory of her beloved childhood castle in pristine white snow. For a few brief hours, she is a child unspoiled by the harsh realities of real life, and she is able to exist—briefly—in that other, more perfect world.
It can’t last, of course: she does know that much by now. Too soon, she’s interrupted and dragged back to reality. First it is Robin (Lino Facioli) who intrudes on her; he is annoying, but he’s a child, and she tries to include him in her play. But—as with Arya and the Hound—the differences in their childhoods become clear. “How do you make people fly?” he asks, horrified that her castle doesn’t have a moon door. “What do you do with all the bad people, the scary people, the people you don’t like?” He brings into her perfect world all the violence and hatred and twisted psychology of the real world, and of course ends up smashing the illusion to dust: you can’t put a moon door in paradise. She slaps him for it, and—though we agree with Littlefinger that someone should have slapped him a long time ago—this intrusion of violence is a sad moment as well. (Has Sansa ever struck anyone before?) As with the Hound and his brother, as with Tyrion and his sister, what should be a loving family relationship between children goes wrong.
And then it is Littlefinger who intrudes. The episode’s title, “Mockingbird,” represents Littlefinger’s sigil, the one he invented for himself. Littlefinger is not about the old ways, the old world: his entire story has been about trying to shape the world to his liking. It’s a horrible irony that Littlefinger, in many ways, is driven by romantic fairy tales as well: he is haunted by the great, unrequited love of his life—the one woman he adored with a knightly dedication—and he is obsessed with becoming the hero of the story. But what this means, to him, is razing the world, if necessary, to rebuild it in his own image. “If you want to build a better home, sometimes you have to demolish the old one,” he tells Sansa now, as they stand over the ruined model of her perfect home, which he destroyed.
And he would destroy her as well: destroy the sweet child she is, and refashion her into a twisted simulacrum of her mother, his long lost Cat. “You’re more beautiful than she ever was,” he tells her, and he kisses her. (And the rest of us throw up in our mouths a little. Because: ewwwww.)
Meanwhile, Lysa (Kate Dickie) has been living her own fairytale illusions all her life: as Cat is to Petyr, Petyr is to Lysa. He’s the one she dreamed of, and thought she couldn’t have, and now she believes they’re finally living happily ever after together. Lysa is awful, but viewed objectively it’s hard not to feel a little sorry for her. Seeing Baelish kiss Sansa must have been, for her, just like Tyrion seeing Shae testify last week: the confirmation of all her worst fears about him, and about herself, and about the inescapable misery of her life. Her hatred of Sansa, and her attempt to throw her out the moon door, echoes with several of our running themes. Like Cersei, like the Mountain, she is the family member who hates the person she is supposed to love. But she is also, like Sansa, thwarted and saddened by the way nothing ever turns out the way it is supposed to. She is, like Tyrion and the Hound, damaged by the absence of love, the denial of love, the betrayals of those who are supposed to love. Caught in the gap between the ideal world and the real world, it is a final twist of the knife when Littlefinger, before pushing her out the moon door, tells her that true love does exist—just not for her. “I have only loved one woman, only one, my entire life,” he says. “Your sister.”
Back in Season Three’s “The Climb”—which was all about how life isn’t a fairy tale—Littlefinger described chaos as a ladder, and he said that many would fall along the way and end up broken at its bottom: those who were too scared to climb, or those who refused to climb, or those who tried too hard to cling to illusions. Littlefinger has climbed that ladder now, almost literally, to the top of the world, and he has taken Sansa there with him, for better or worse. And Lysa will have to reflect on her fairytale illusions, and how they weren’t strong enough to hold onto, during her long, long fall back to reality.
Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits
- I skipped a number of scenes this week, which we’ll talk about briefly here. First, there’s Melisandre (Carice van Houten) explaining to Selyse (Tara Fitzgerald) the difference between truth and illusion. Most of her “magics,” she admits, are lies and deceptions, a smokescreen to fool the naive rubes who need to believe in the dream. (I knew she was a fraud!) The other way this scene seems to echo with the rest of the episode has to do with the failure of familial love: Selyse seems to have no love for her daughter Shireen (Kerry Ingram), and doesn’t want to bring her wherever it is that they’re all planning to go. But Melisandre does want to bring the little girl—which, given Melisandre’s penchant for “king’s blood,” does not bode well for the odds of Shireen having a happy childhood.
- Dany (Emilia Clarke), too, is trying to create a more just, more perfect world—one less like the world we know, and more like the way things should be—but it takes Jorah (Iain Glen) to convince her that she needs to do this without becoming a monster herself: he basically tells her that she can’t install a moon door in her new regime. She comes around, if only barely: “They can live in my new world or they can die in their old one,” she says.
- Oh, and Dany gets laid, for the first time since Drogo died. I’m still not a big fan of Daario Neharis—though, between this and Orphan Black, Michiel Huisman has an enviable job—but I kind of loved the way Dany went about it. It even taps into one of the themes this week, if only tangentially: Daario enters her chambers with all these romantic, fairy tale notions about courtly love and going on a quest for his beloved. (“There is only one, and she does not want me,” he says. “Send me to kill your enemies.”) Dany, however, just cuts through all that Petrarchan bullshit and basically tells him to whip it out.
- And then there’s Brienne (Gwendoline Christie) and Podrick (Daniel Portman). Brienne has some very idealistic, old-fashioned ideas about chivalry and honor straight from the storybooks, an—since she’s a noble knight on a noble quest—she thinks nothing of telling the world who she’s looking for. Podrick, who trained under Tyrion, has a better grasp of the way the world really works, and points out that spreading Sansa’s name around Lannister country—when she’s accused of killing the king—is maybe not a good idea. But here Brienne’s naiveté pays off, as Hot Pie sends them in the right direction. (Throughout Game of Thrones, as I’ve discussed before, the screwed-up nature of traditional families has led to the creation of found families, more genuinely linked with bonds of affection. Hot Pie was part of Arya’s first found family, one of her first surrogate brothers, and so it’s suitable that he plays an important part in an episode that’s largely about the failure of fraternal love.)
- Plus, the guy really likes to talk about food. I’m not sure there’s another character in the entire series who has ended up so happily ensconced where he belongs.
- It’s an underseen, underrated movie, so I don’t know how many people will relate to this geek out, but it was a thrilling moment for me when I realized that the bleeding man Arya and the Hound come across was played by the guy who sold Joe his steamer trunks in Joe Versus the Volcano. Dying is very exciting…as a luggage problem.
- Next week we’ll get to see Oberyn Martell, the Viper, face off against the third actor to play Gregor Clegane, the Mountain. My only objections to the casting change are that the new guy looks too young to be the Hound’s older brother, and—in a show with plenty of hard-to-spell names—I’m going to be stuck figuring out how to type “Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson” every week. (No offense to the actor, but I’m kind of hoping Oberyn kills him.)