"Things have gotten worse, not better."
When Varys the Spider says these words in "The Wars to Come," he is essentially summarizing everything that has happened so far on Game of Thrones. When we began, four full seasons ago, the Seven Kingdoms were troubled, but they were stable. In fact, if anything, they were too stable, too rigidly controlled by rules and traditions. In the old order, everyone knew who they were, and where they belonged, and what duty and honor compelled them to do.
I spent a lot of time in my reviews of the first few seasons talking about the few misfits—the "cripples, bastards, and broken things"—who did not fit so comfortably into the otherwise orderly structure of Westeros. They stood out because, in a world of rules, they were the exceptions; in a world of rulers, they were the unruly.
Now, as we begin Season Five, the entire world is unruly. Through a series of events that Varys now describes as "a chain of mistakes," the rigid, brittle social order of Westeros has been irreparably shattered, and it feels like everyone is a cripple, or a bastard, or a broken thing. It is hard to think of a single major character who does not now seem like a misfit, an outcast, a square peg in a round hole. No one really fits anymore because there is nothing into which to fit. Together—inadvertently or intentionally, with the best or worst of motives—they have all contributed to tearing down the walls that formed the very structure of their world. Until a new structure is built—until a new order is established by this new generation—the world will continue to tend towards chaos.
So yes, things have gotten worse, not better, and the long, hard fight for the future is just beginning. Now the question becomes, what will that future look like? "The future is shit, just like the past," Tyrion says, and—given everything we have seen so far—it is hard not to share in his pessimism. There has been a revolution, of sorts, but the root of the word itself is revolve, to return ultimately back to the point at which you began. Is that what has happened? Will history simply repeat itself, with all the same mistakes made over again, and with children reenacting the sins of their parents? Certainly, that seems to have been the note we left off on at the end of Season Four, as "The Children" seemed to have become the very monsters they once feared. ("I am your son," Tyrion said, when he killed his father. "I have always been your son.")
The question now is whether is it possible for all of this pain and turmoil to amount to not just a revolution, but a transformation. And, though the answer will have universal impact, it is ultimately up to a small number of people to decide for themselves. On this show, the political is always personal, and individual choices have global ramifications. To ask what the world is going to look like is just another way of asking how these characters want to live, and what kind of people they want to be.
This show loves to put profound truths in the mouths of its villains, and it is Melisandre who articulates the message here. "We all must choose, man or woman, young or old, lord or peasant," the Red Woman says, as she prepares to burn a man alive. "Our choices are the same: we choose light, or we choose darkness. We choose good, or we choose evil. We choose the true god, or the false." Once, Westeros was a place with few choices, a place where nearly every decision was dictated by the social order. Now, with the social order destroyed, these really are choices every person must make in the days ahead.
"The freedom to make my own mistakes is all I ever wanted," Mance Rayder says, and that's the terrible freedom that all our characters now have. Light or darkness? Good or evil? Truth or falseness? These are the wars to come, and—like all wars—they will be fought by individuals, by ordinary people making good decisions or bad.
Welcome back to Game of Thrones. As always, we have a lot to talk about.
"I'm a different person now." — Lancel Lannister
It is an interesting choice to begin Season Five with a flashback to Cersei's youth. History has always been important on Game of Thrones, but it has always been an oral history: the stories have been passed down and retold—often in conflicting versions—by various people with varying degrees of credibility. This is the first time the series has shown us the past, and it's worth spending a few moments exploring why executive producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss (who wrote this episode) decided to go there now.
What struck me about this scene is how neatly it encapsulates a few different themes that have been present throughout Game of Thrones. First, there is the nod to genre conventions: when young Cersei (convincingly played by Nell Williams) and her friend Melara (Isabella Steinbarth) go off through the woods in search of a fortune-telling witch (Jodhi May), it is a classic fairy tale scenario. However, as we have discussed many times before, Game of Thrones is no fairy tale, and in fact it is, in many ways, a deliberate deconstruction of its own fantasy genre. In invoking the fairy tale element here, the show actually creates a tension between the rules of fairy tales and the "rules" (or lack thereof?) as we have come to know them on Game of Thrones.
Because the witch's prophecy—which is startlingly accurate—raises the question of choice. Is this all pre-ordained? Is this apparently orderless world actually governed by magic and fate? I've invested a lot of energy into exploring Game of Thrones as a study of how individual choices spiral outward into consequences, but is there really no free will at all? Does everything happen not by accident—not through "a chain of mistakes"—but because it could not possibly happen any other way?
Perhaps it doesn't matter one way or the other, but I resist the notion of a preordained, inescapable fate, and I think ultimately the show does as well. There is magic in this world—perhaps even the magic to see the future—but we've heard prophecies before that turned out not to be true. (Remember how Dany and Drogo's son was going to be The Stallion That Mounts the World? Remember how everyone had a different prediction for what the red comet meant at the beginning of Season Two?) The future is not set in stone: it is always in flux, directed and diverted as circumstances—and people—change.
And I think this point is important, because this episode—and so much of the series—is about choice. To the extent that this show believes in fate, I'd argue it agrees with Heraclitus: character is fate. While there is some startling specificity in the witch's prediction, couldn't most of it be read in Cersei's personality? A spoiled, power-mad little brat even then, it would not take magic to read an unhappy, unfaithful marriage in her future, or to predict that the very riches and privileges she abuses would end up being the doom of her children. And as far as being usurped by a younger and more beautiful queen, isn't that the destiny of every queen? Isn't that just an echo of the overall theme of how the young inevitably take the place of the old?
And hitting this theme is where we really begin this season, of course, as Cersei and Jaime lay their father to rest. Tywin was the real power in Westeros, and to the extent that the old power structure remains, Jaime and Cersei are its inheritors. "What he built, it's ours," Jaime says. "He built it for us. He meant it for us."
But this means, of course, that it all rests on them as well, and it is all precarious. "They're going to try to take it away," Jaime says. "All of it. All of them, out there, our enemies." He sounds very much like his father, and he sounds very much like Cersei used to sound. ("Everyone who isn't us is an enemy," she told her son once.)
But it's interesting to note that Cersei's perspective has shifted slightly. I commented several times last season on how Cersei was changing, and here we get another mark of her change as she emphasizes personal responsibility. She blames Tyrion, of course, and that's nothing new, but she also blames Jaime, and articulates one of the themes of the entire series: personal actions, made for personal reasons, have far-reaching ramifications:
"Tyrion may be a monster, but at least he killed our father on purpose. You killed him by mistake, with stupidity. You're a man of action, aren't you? When it occurs to you to do something, you do it: never mind the consequences. Take a look. Look at the consequences. Here they are."
Again, it all comes down to small, individual choices that ripple into world-changing events. But what that means—whether Cersei realizes this or not—is that these individuals have it in their power to change the world: to truly transform it into something better.
Way back in my review of Season One's "You Win or You Die," I talked a bit about how all politics are personal on Game of Thrones, and quoted a speech from James Goldman's The Lion in Winter about how the roots of war are in people, not in causes or religion or governments. Thinking about this now, I'm reminded of another speech from the same play, this one about how the seeds of peace are similarly located. In the play, England's King Henry II says to King Phillip of France:
"We are the world in small. A nation is a human thing. It does what we do, for our reasons. Surely if we're civilized, we can put away the knives. We can make peace. We have it in our hands."
Jaime and Cersei—and the other characters left alive on both sides of the Narrow Sea—are now the world in small. Once they were almost completely shaped by this world and its traditions, but now they are the shapers: whether the Seven Kingdoms can change will depend on whether they can change.
This, perhaps, is one of the messages of the scene with Lancel Lannister, now almost unrecognizable from the insipid lackey he once was. Since we last saw him, Lancel has joined a religious order—cult?—called The Sparrows. We don't know much about them yet—I assume they will become more important—but they, too, seem to be a sign of the cracks in the foundation of the old order. ("They never would have come to the capitol while Tywin was alive," Cersei's uncle sneers.) What matters most of all, however, seems to be what Lancel's new life says about the capacity for change, and change for the better. "I'm a different person now," Lancel tells Cersei. "I found peace in the light of the Seven. You can too. They watch over all of us. Ready to dole out mercy, or justice. Their world is at hand."
Religion is a tricky thing on Game of Thrones: an expression of strong faith has rarely been the herald of anything good. But mercy is an important word, one that comes up several times in this episode, as it has come up frequently throughout the series. If we were to choose one word that might summarize the hope for a better world, that's probably the right one. Lancel, at least, has embraced the ideal of mercy, and whether a new world is at hand may depend on whether others can as well.
"Perhaps we've grown so used to horror, we assume there's no other way." — Varys
Mercy, too, is a good word for what Varys tries to sell Tyrion on, as they arrive across the sea in Pentos. Tyrion was at his lowest point at the end of last season, having had all his worst fears realized in "The Laws of Gods and Men"—demonized by everyone he knew, cast out by his family, and betrayed by the woman he loved—and having killed both his father and his lover in "The Children." It's no wonder that he wants nothing more now than to drink himself to death, but Varys has other plans.
"I believe men of talent have a part to play in the war to come," Varys says, and he has always recognized Tyrion as a man of talent. ("Tyrion Lannister is one of the few men alive who can make this country a better place," he told Shae, back in "Mhysa.") Now he outlines his vision for what a better world would look like: "Peace. Prosperity. A land where the powerful do not prey on the powerless." A world with room for mercy, in other words. This, Tyrion says, is a fairy tale: the powerful have always preyed on the powerless—but Varys rejects that. "Perhaps we've grown so used to horror, we assume there's no other way," he counters.
It is Daenerys Targaryan whom Varys sees as the personification of hope for a better way: someone "stronger than Tommen, but gentler than Tywin." But he needs Tyrion too, and pushes Tyrion to make that choice we have been discussing: to take responsibility himself for deciding what the world should look like. "Any fool with a bit of luck can find himself born into power," he points out. "But earning it for yourself: that takes work." And in Tyrion—as in Dany—he recognizes the qualities that are necessary to making a better world: "You have your father's instincts for politics, and you have compassion."
Compassion: that's what has separated Tyrion from his father from the beginning. As one of the cripples, bastards, and broken things, Tyrion very early developed a capacity for sympathy and compassion that others in his family never needed to find. It is these qualities that make us recognize him as a hero, even though he has spent the entire series to date working to advance the cause of the Lannisters.
(He is not, of course, a saint: as he points out here, he did just kill his father and strangle his lover. "I never said you were perfect," Varys replies.)
"The good lords are dead and the rest are monsters." — Brienne of Tarth
Mercy, compassion, tenderness: these are the highest values, and the most precious commodities, in Game of Thrones, without which strength becomes meaningless or monstrous. Ned Stark is still our moral compass, and mercy was both his greatest strength and his greatest weakness: "My father understands mercy, when there is room for it," Robb Stark said, way back in Season One's "The Pointy End," in the same episode where Ned described his last disastrous decision as "the madness of mercy." As we've discussed many times before, the irredeemable villains on this show—Tywin, and Joffrey, and Walder Frey, and the Boltons—are easily distinguishable by their absolute lack of mercy, or tenderness, or compassion.
The need for these things is also the answer to the question Missandei asks of Grey Worm, after an Unsullied—White Rat (Marcos James)—has been murdered in a whore's bed: "Why would an Unsullied go to a brothel?" she asks. As we see this episode, however, even a soldier—bred to be a perfect killing machine—has a need for tenderness and compassion. These things are the essence of humanity, and it is in the vacuum of their absence that evil grows and thrives. ("They do not see us as people, Your Grace," one of Dany's attendants tells her, of the "Sons of the Harpy" who murdered White Rat.)
It was compassion and mercy that Brienne of Tarth responded to in Renley, and in Catelyn, and eventually even in Jaime. Now—after her encounter with Arya and the Hound last season—she is feeling much like Tyrion is: the future is shit, just like the past. "The good lords are dead and the rest are monsters," she tells Podrick, and tries to push him away. There's no one good left to follow, and she doesn't want anyone following her, because she doesn't want to be a leader. (More truthfully, I would say, she has been hurt too many times, and she doesn't want to care about anyone. "I'm not your mother," she snarls at Pod, attempting to squash compassion within herself.) All Brienne has wanted to do was serve someone good, but she's right: all the good old leaders are gone. Like the others, she will need to accept that she is part of the new generation who will have to be good, not follow goodness. With no one left to follow, she too is the world in small.
And this is the challenge facing Dany, in whom so much hope for the future is invested. Since Khal Drogo died, Dany's entire story arc has been about trying finding a way to wield power in conjunction with mercy and compassion: to become a ruler without becoming a monster. She has tried to usher in the future without undue respect for the horrific traditions of the past. ("I do not respect the tradition of human cockfighting," she says now, which is a sentence that could apply not just to the fighting pits but to the entire history of Westerosi lords sending their subjects to war against one another.)
Like Tyrion, Dany has not been perfect: she has made many mistakes, and even committed some grievous sins when she let her mercy falter. But she has tried to rule both wisely and well, walking the very difficult and slippery line between strength and compassion. She has tried to be both a queen and a mysha, a mother, with all that that implies.
She is still navigating that line, and it is still not easy. As I discussed last season, her dragons are the symbol of that: literally and figuratively, they represent both her power and the danger of her power. Now, Daario counsels her that she needs to wield that power if she is going to maintain her control of Slaver's Bay, but—literally and figuratively, again—Dany doesn't know how to do that. To her credit, however, her very ineffectiveness and indecision are marks of her compassion, signs that she is still all too human. "I don't want another child's bones dropped at my feet," she tells Daario.
The charred remains of a dead peasant child is not something Tywin, or Joffrey, or Roose Bolton would consider a concern, and it certainly wouldn't prevent them from using their power. But Dany is choosing not to continue the horrors to which Varys says we have grown all too accustomed; she is genuinely trying to find another way, and choosing to imagine a better world.
"They were born on the wrong side of the wall. It doesn't make them monsters." — Jon Snow
Finally we come to Jon Snow, who—like Cersei and Jaime—seems to be one of the inheritors of the old order. Jon has become an important man in the Night's Watch; having proven himself as a leader in battle, he has earned the trust of the men and he has come to the attention of the King, Stannis Baratheon. He has become one of the people on whom the future rests.
The ancient order of the Night's Watch is not supposed to be swayed by either individual whims or the winds of political and social change, of course: it is rigidly structured, and it stands apart from the rest of this society, doing things the same way they've been done for generations. But that's not the reality, is it? Already, in the wake of the recent upheaval, things are changing. The most obvious example of the changes is Gilly, a female presence—a mother—who has been allowed to disrupt the all-male sanctity of this militaristic community. Not surprisingly, her presence is seen as an unthinkable violation of the old order by many of the old guard of the Night's Watch, including the current leader, Ser Alliser Thorne. ("That one hates me," Gilly tells Sam.) Alliser believes in doing things the way they've always been done, and that means there is very little room for compassion or mercy. ("These men need a firm hand," he says, as he wanders through the courtyard. "They always have. They're poachers and thieves, not soldiers.")
Gilly's presence represents an evolution of the Night's Watch, a temporary loosening of its rules to make room for compassion. In bringing her to Castle Black, Sam argued with—and convinced—Maester Aemon that the oath to protect the realms of men extended to her, and to the Wildlings, and to all people on both sides of the wall. That's an important bit of progress, and like all change it's precarious, threatening as it does the people who are too entrenched in the old ways. "Don't let them send us away," Gilly warns Sam.
Jon, too, represents this new capacity for mercy and compassion. "Many of them love you," Davos says, of Jon's comrades. "Many don't…Some of the Night's Watch feel you have too much affection for the Wildlings." But Jon, like Sam, has decided such dehumanizing distinctions—symbolized by the Wall itself—no longer apply: "They were born on the wrong side of the wall," he says. "It doesn't make them monsters." He has the capacity to see them as people, not "Wildlings."
And it is this capacity that leads him to defy Stannis. Jon accepts the mission he is given—to convince Mance to swear allegiance to the King—but his heart isn't really in it. He wants to save Mance's life, if possible, because he likes and respects the man—another sign of his compassion—but he knows it's a lost cause. Swearing allegiance, bending the knee, these are remnants of the old order, in which people are property, and in which the Wildlings Mance has fought to save would now become just powerless pawns for powerful men. Mance's whole life has been about believing there was another, better way to live, and he isn't going to shackle himself back into the old ways now. "The freedom to make my own mistakes was all I ever wanted," he tells Jon Snow.
Stannis and Melisandre have decided to burn Mance alive, a fate that Mance recognizes as one of the worst possible ways he could be executed. Melisandre means this terrible display of power as an example to others, a warning to them all about how they must choose which side they're on. "Behold the fate of those who choose the darkness," she bellows as the flame are lit.
But Melisandre is right about one thing: everyone must choose who they're going to be, and how they're going to live, and what rules they're going to live under. Everyone has to choose whether to support light or darkness, good or evil, cruelty or compassion. Jon Snow chooses, if not quite in the way Melisandre intended: he thwarts her ruthless display of power and ends Mance Rayder's suffering with an arrow.
It might be a mistake—a risky, costly violation of the old order—but the freedom to make their own mistakes, and to choose what kind of world they want to live in, is what all of these characters must now accept. Jon Snow chooses mercy and compassion: he chooses to live in the better world that Sam and Varys and Lancel and Dany and other inheritors of the future are daring to imagine. Character is fate, but character can be changed. In that fleeting moment, if in no other, Jon Snow is the world in small, and he can decide to make the world a merciful one.
Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits
- Welcome back to my coverage of Game of Thrones. I've got a busy review schedule this spring, and these tend to be my longest and most involved posts, so please bear with me. My goal is always to have the review up within 24 hours of the episode's airing, on Monday evening, but many weeks (like this one) Tuesday or Wednesday is going to be more realistic.
- I skipped over Sansa and Baelish this week, but nothing much of importance happened: they have left the Vale, left Robin to foster (and train "like a girl with palsy") with Lord Royce, and headed off for parts unknown to hide from Cersei.
- I also skipped over Loras getting busy with Oliver, which is slightly more relevant to our theme: Loras no longer feels the need to be particularly discrete about his sexuality, a change that—like the presence of the Sparrows—marks new, progressive cracks in the walls of the social order.
- The breakdown of the old order is also evident in language and titles. Tyrion asks Varys if you can still be a "lord" if you murdered your father? And Brienne and Podrick debate semantics as well: if she's not a knight, he's not a squire. Clearly, new definitions will be needed for the new world order.