“It’s only a name,” says the High Sparrow (Jonathan Pryce), about the designation that gives this episode its title. “It’s quite an easy burden to bear.”
But names are important in Game of Thrones. Characters, remember, do not have “birthdays,” they have “namedays.” Merely being born is not, in itself, anything to celebrate: what gives a person status in Westeros is a name. A name tells other people who your family is, and where you belong, and how much you matter. Names have cachet, symbolizing honor and allegiances and rank. Names are a commodity, brokered through marriage as a means to betterment. Names are a currency that fluctuate in the market, with some names on the rise and some on the decline. To be nameless, in the Seven Kingdoms, is effectively to be nothing. (“You have one name,” Varys once told Shae. “Here, only the family name matters.”)
Names, in short, have power. But that power cuts both ways, doesn’t it? A name can be a burden as well as a blessing: like all forms of power, it can be used either for good or for evil, to create or to destroy, to empower or to control. To name a thing is to define it, to objectify it, to limit its possibilities. Conversely, there is freedom and power in not being named, in having the flexibility to adapt, and to reinvent, and to change.
What’s in a name? As the old order continues to shatter and shift on Game of Thrones—as allegiances alter, and power changes hands, and identities become more fluid and fickle—that question becomes harder and harder to answer.
“What’s the proper way to address you now?” — Margaery, to Cersei
It’s rare for a wedding in Westeros to come off without at least a little drama—if not an actual body count—but everything seems to go smoothly as the Lady Margaery Tyrell marries King Tommen, First of His Name. (The couple even gets to consummate the marriage, which I think is actually unprecedented on Game of Thrones.)
No, in this case—if we are to judge from Cersei’s expression—the drama and slaughter will come after the wedding. Like any rich, supremely powerful, heterosexual teenage boy might be under the circumstances, Tommen—lying in bed beside his beautiful, naked wife—is blissfully happy with how his life has turned out. And, while he is in this agreeable, pliable, post-connubial mood, his new queen recognizes this as a good moment to begin manipulating him.
Expanding on my theme of how names can either strengthen or diminish, words in general can be double-edged swords. (Words are just names, after all.) Margaery—as many women in Westeros have learned to be—is a master at saying one thing and meaning another. Her description of Cersei to Tommen is nothing but honey on the surface, and nothing but venom underneath. She describes Cersei as “a lioness guarding her cub,” knowing that the newly wed and deflowered Tommen will bristle at thinking of himself as a “cub.” “But you’ll always be her baby boy,” Margaery purrs. “She’ll never let you out of her sight.” The seeds of Cersei’s eventual exile are planted.
Cersei is a master of passive-aggressive warfare herself, and watching the two of them fling pretty verbal daggers at each other is a delight. (“She’s certainly very pretty, isn’t she? Like a doll,” Cersei says to Tommen. “She smiles quite a lot. Do you think she’s intelligent? I can’t quite tell.”) And, face to face, the battle is less subtle. (“I wish we had some wine for you,” Margaery says sweetly. “It’s a bit early in the day for us.”) Under normal circumstances these women might be evenly matched, but as it stands Margaery has all the power now, and she makes a point to remind Cersei of this fact. “Forgive me, I haven’t been at court long, I get so confused,” Margaery says. “What’s the proper way to address you now? ‘Queen Mother,’ or ‘The Dowager Queen?'” She stops short of demanding—as she could—that Cersei call her ‘Your Grace,’ but the message is delivered in no uncertain terms: there’s a new queen in town, and Cersei’s time is over. (“The Lannister name doesn’t mean what it once did,” Littlefinger says, elsewhere in the episode.)
So the Seven Kingdoms have a new queen, and Cersei has a new name, signifying her further loss of status. (“Cersei is Queen Mother, a title whose importance wanes with each passing day,” Littlefinger also says. It the second such titular demotion for Cersei, after she went from being “Queen” to being merely “Queen Regent.”)
However, Cersei gets a lesson in the power of naming from the High Sparrow. “Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it?” the High Sparrow says, of his own title. “Like Lord Duckling, or King Turtle.” (Or Queen Mother, for that matter.) But the High Sparrow explains that the title is meant to sound ridiculous. “We’re often stuck with the names our enemies give to us,” he says. “The notion that we’re all equal in the eyes of the Seven doesn’t sit well with some, and so they belittle me.” The juxtapositioning of these two thoughts is important, I think: the Sparrows—named for the lowliest bird—believe everyone is equal: it’s a tenet that flies in the face of Westerosi society—where things are rigorously unequal—and so the Westerosi emphasis on names is of no importance to him. “It’s only a name,” he says. “Quite an easy burden to bear.”
Names have power because people believe they do, and investing too much in the name you are given is a mistake. “High Sparrow” was meant as an insult, but the man embraced it and made it signify the elevation of something lowly. “Queen Mother” is meant as an insult as well—to signify the fall of someone from on high—but Cersei could learn something from this man: wear the insult like a badge of honor, and it becomes not just harmless but powerful.
“All my life I wanted to be ‘Jon Stark’…but I must refuse you.” — Jon Snow
Coincidentally, the High Sparrow’s lesson echoes one that Jon Snow learned from Tyrion Lannister, way back in the pilot episode. Jon had bristled because Tyrion called him a “bastard,” but Tyrion gave him a new perspective. “Let me give you some advice, bastard,” Tyrion said. “Never forget what you are. The world will not. Wear it like armor, and it can never be used against you.” (Jon took this advice, and when someone else calls him “bastard” later in this episode, we are reminded of how far he has come.)
Like “High Sparrow,” the title “Lord Snow” was originally meant to belittle: it was what Alliser Thorne called him when he first arrived at the Wall, and it was just another way to mock someone low and powerless. Now, of course, Lord Snow is a reality, just as the High Sparrow is: he is the newly anointed Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, with power and authority over all his brothers—including Alliser Thorne.
This newfound power, of course, costs him the name he always thought he wanted: Jon Stark. “Jon Snow” is another one of those names, like High Sparrow and Queen Mother, that contains an insult embedded within it, but which—once accepted—can be transformed by its bearer into something more. It is who he truly is—a mark of how he got here, and of what makes him different and strong—and ultimately there is more power in it than in the more prestigious family name that Stannis offers to bestow upon him.
And with this power, of course, comes the power of naming itself: now Jon is the one who hands out the titles. Alliser Thorne—who has made Jon’s life a misery since he arrived at the Wall—fully expects Jon to assign him to latrine duty. But Lord Commander Snow is not so petty or vindictive. “Ser Alliser, you have more experience than any other ranger at Castle Black,” Lord Commander Snow says. “I name you First Ranger.”
Janos Slynt, however, does not fare so well. Jon appoints the cowardly Slynt to command another, ruined castle along the wall, but Slynt refuses to go. Still stuck in outmoded notions of power—still overvaluing his own bloated honorifics and the power of invoking the names of his friends—Slynt refuses to recognize Jon’s authority. “You can stick your order up your bastard ass,” he bellows.
Right until the moment when his head touches the block, Slynt is still shouting threats and curses. After all, he is Ser Janos Slynt, Commander of the Gold Cloaks, friend of the Lannisters. But he underestimates Jon, just as he underestimated Tyrion. (“I’ll not have my honor questioned by an Imp,” Slynt shouted at Tyrion, right before he stripped away one of Slynt’s titles and exiled him to the Wall.) What becomes clear as he faces his death, however, is what should have been clear to him all along: it is character that matters, not names and titles and status. He was called a knight and a lord and a commander, but that was all worthless because he himself was worthless. He can’t even die well: “I’ve always been afraid,” he cries, and begs for mercy, right before the sword comes down.
“Brienne the Beauty, they called me.” — Brienne
“High Sparrow” is a relatively uneventful hour of Game of Thrones, but it’s often the uneventful episodes that give us space to know the characters better. We learn more about both Podrick and Brienne here than we’ve ever known before.
We learn, for example, that the only reason Podrick still has his head is because of his name, and its value to the old order. He came to be in Tyrion’s service because the knight he used to serve was hanged for stealing a ham. “They tied a noose for me, too,” Pod says. “But Lord Tywin heard that my family name was Payne, and so he pardoned me.” Instead of killing him, Tywin assigned him to be Tyrion’s squire—another act that was intended as an insult, but which turned out to be empowering. (Note, too—relative to our theme—how loyalty compels Podrick to stand up for Tyrion’s name. “He hates that nickname,” he tells Brienne, when she refers to “the Imp.”)
But it’s Brienne who really opens up about her past this episode, recounting how—and, more importantly, why—she came to serve Renley Baratheon. Like the defining moment in Tyrion’s life, it’s a heartbreaking monologue, and worth recounting here in full:
“When I was a girl, my father held a ball. I’m his only living child, so he wanted to make a good match for me. He invited dozens of young lords to Tarth. I didn’t want to go, but he dragged me to the ballroom. And it was wonderful. None of the boys noticed how mulish and tall I was. They shoved each other, and threatened to duel when they thought it was their turn to dance. They whispered in my ear how they wanted to marry me, and take me back to their castles. My father smiled at me, and I smiled at him. I’d never been so happy…until I saw a few of the boys sniggering. And then they all started to laugh: they couldn’t keep the game going any longer. They were toying with me. ‘Brienne the Beauty,’ they called me. Great joke. And I realized I was the ugliest girl alive, a great, lumbering beast. I tried to run away, but Renley Baratheon took me in his arms. ‘Don’t let them see your tears,’ he told me. ‘They’re nasty little shits, and nasty little shits aren’t worth crying over.’ He danced with me, and none of the other boys could say a word…He didn’t love me, he didn’t want me. He danced with me because he was kind, and he didn’t want to see me hurt. He saved me from being a joke.”
Renley—like Brienne, like Tyrion, like Jon—knew what it was like to be different, and—like all of them—it made him kinder than those who fit perfectly into the social order. We can extrapolate from Brienne’s story to assume that this was the moment when not only her entire life changed, but when her entire identity was truly formed: as horrible as the experience was, it was also the moment when she became herself. (Can we imagine Brienne as the wife of some minor lordling? It’s impossible to picture, but it certainly would have been a far more tragic life than the one she is living.) “Brienne the Beauty” was an insult, a cruel joke, but she embraced what it represented—the “great, lumbering beast”—and became something more than she ever could have been otherwise. She became, in her own way, beautiful.
In the end—as Alliser Thorne and Janos Slynt each learned, in their own ways—it’s character that determines who you are, and what you’re worth. The subtext of the rest of Brienne and Podrick’s scene is that it’s what you are, not what you are called, that matters. Two episodes ago, this whole subject of naming came up as Brienne and Podrick argued over their titles. “If I’m not a knight, you’re not a squire,” Brienne said. But now they tacitly agree that such nomenclature is irrelevant. Brienne isn’t a knight, but Podrick doesn’t care. “You’re the best fighter I’ve ever seen,” he tells her. “I’m proud to be your squire.” Brienne, in her turn, asks Pod if he wants to be a knight, and offers to train him. “I can’t knight you,” she says—because Brienne, untitled herself, does not have the power of naming—”but I can teach you how to fight.” He might never be called a knight, but he can be a knight. “I suppose that’s more important,” Pod agrees.
“I require her name, not her virtue.” — Lord Bolton
And then there’s poor Sansa Stark, cursed with a famous name that has turned her into a valuable commodity. Ever since she first left Winterfell, Sansa’s name has brought her trouble. She was engaged to the sadistic monster Joffrey, in order to join the Baratheon and Stark houses. She was married against her will to Tyrion, so the Lannisters could seize the power her name represents. Now, Littlefinger has bartered her name—and, almost incidentally, the girl attached to it—to the Boltons. “She’s still a virgin,” Littlefinger assures Lord Bolton. She is, as it happens, but Bolton could not care less what she is. “It’s her name I require, not her virtue,” he says.
Littlefinger talks her into this monstrous arrangement, but Sansa has no idea what she’s getting herself into. (In truth, Littlefinger may not know himself. “I know very little about you,” Baelish confesses to Ramsay. “Which makes you rather a rare thing, as lords go.”) But we know that Sansa’s always terrible luck has taken a turn for the worse: of all the suitors to whom she’s been bartered, Ramsay Bolton is by far the least pleasant, and probably the most dangerous. (Joffrey was bad, but Joffrey was a twit: Ramsay is a very intelligent monster, and that makes him far worse.)
It’s interesting to note the parallels between Jon and Ramsay Snow. Both are acknowledged bastards, raised by and depended upon by their fathers. Both are fiercely loyal to their families, and have longed all their lives for the approval of their fathers and the recognition of the family name.. Both are—in their own, morally opposite ways—very capable fighters, and strong leaders. (In a bit of interesting behind-the-scenes symmetry, Iwan Rheon was even in the running to play Jon Snow, before Kit Harington was cast.)
And now, Ramsay has essentially accepted exactly the deal that Jon refused: he has been given his father’s name—made a trueborn son by royal decree—and he is now the rightful heir to Winterfell. Ramsay is like a dark shadow of Jon himself, the unknown player on the other side of the board.
But of course, the two men could not be more different. Jon may have refused his father’s name, but the name doesn’t matter: he’s a Stark through and through, with all the strength and decency the name represents. And—though Ramsay may now be called “Lord Ramsay Bolton”—he’s still a sadistic little shit, and still the biggest bastard in the Seven Kingdoms.
And what is Sansa Stark? Hardly anyone ever thinks about who Sansa Stark is: she has become just a name: her personality, her character, and certainly her wishes are irrelevant to most everyone around her. But Sansa has more mettle in her than anyone gives her credit for having, and last season we saw her begin to blossom into a force to be reckoned with. Once she was—as she called herself—”a stupid girl, with stupid dreams, who never learns.” Now, however, she has learned a great deal from the continual crushing of her dreams: she has learned to lie, and she has learned to manipulate, and she has learned to survive, however she has to. She has learned what Littlefinger tells her now: “There’s no justice in the world, not unless we make it.” Littlefinger’s endgame is obscure—as it always is—but he promises Sansa the opportunity to avenge her family.
“The North remembers,” one of the Winterfell servants tells her—and Sansa remembers too. When she meets the Boltons—the men who murdered her family—she expertly turns her disgusted fury into polite formality, demonstrating that she has learned, finally, how the game is played. Focusing on her name—and underestimating her character—may prove to be a costly mistake.
“We were only playing the game of faces.” — The Waif
Finally, let’s talk briefly about Arya Stark.
I’m going to (very mildly) break my own rule about referencing the novels here, because the books make explicit what the show has only implied: that Arya has had a lot of names, a lot of identities. She was “Arya Horseface,” or “Arya Underfoot” when she was growing up at Winterfell. She was “Arry the Orphan Boy” for Yoren. She was “Lumpyface” to Hot Pie and Lommy. She was “Weasel” at Harrenhal. She was “Nan” when she served as a cupbearer. She was “Squab” to the Brotherhood without Banners. (Et cetera, et cetera.) The show has dispensed with many of the name changes—which is really inconvenient to my thesis this week—but it has otherwise maintained the spirit of her need to adapt to each new situation, to each new danger, to each of the many new teachers that she has encountered.
And yet she has remained gloriously and irrepressibly herself. Names come and go, but Arya never cared much about names—not in the way everyone else in Westeros does. (Technically, she is “Lady Arya,” but she has always rejected that title: as she has insisted many times, she is no lady.) The courtly importance of names and titles mean nothing to her.
But that doesn’t mean the power of names is meaningless: in fact, for Arya, the names of the people she wants to kill are a form of prayer. Saying the names of her enemies, over and over again before she goes to sleep, is how she reminds herself who she is, and why she goes on living. It is how she controls the chaos of her life, and claims power over her enemies: by defining them, and turning them into the objects of her wrath.
Now she has come to a place that recognizes both the power of names and the power of namelessness. Victims have names. (Remember how Arya had to give three names to Jaqen H’ghar, to tell him who to kill?) Those with power have no names: they have no names, and they have no faces. Their identities are fluid, their power coming from changeability, from adaptability, from anonymity. “There is only one god,” Jaqen tells Arya, and she knows from Syrio Forel that Jaqen means Death. Death is a many-faced, many-named god. He is the Stranger among the Seven, and he is the Drowned God of the Iron Islands, and he is the God of Darkness who opposes Melisandre’s God of Light. He is the one true power in the world, and he comes in many forms.
Now Arya wants to become powerful, to become death itself, and to do that she must surrender her name. Jaqen H’ghar told her last week that he was “no one, and that is who a girl must become.” This week, a young girl in the House of Black and White—credited as “The Waif” (Faye Marsay)—beats Arya in what she calls “the game of faces.” “Who are you?” the Waif says, and Arya gives what she thinks is the right answer: “no one.” But the Waif smacks her with a switch. (“Cunt!” Arya yells, proving she knows all kinds of names.) Arya is not “no one” yet: she is not ready to be no one. “Whose sword is that?” Jaqen asks her. “It belongs to Arya Stark. Arya Stark’s sword, Arya Stark’s clothes, Arya Stark’s stolen silver. How is it that no one came to be surrounded by Arya Stark’s things?”
And so Arya must stop being Arya, and throw off Arya’s trappings. She knows how to do this: she has played the game of faces many times before. Arya’s clothes are dropped easily enough into the sea, and so is Arya’s money. The coin Jaqen gave her is harder: that was Arya’s talisman, her token, her pass out of the Seven Kingdoms and towards a better life—but she eventually drops this in the sea as well.
Finally, there is only Needle left. It is Arya Stark’s most prized possession, her last connection to her family, and the symbol of her selfhood. Like Brienne, Arya found her identity in being different, in being a warrior, in rejecting the pre-determined role of women and forging her own path. (Even the sword’s name carries that double-meaning, a bit of linguistic reclamation that redefines what femininity can mean in this world.) Arya once asked her father if she could ever be the Lord of a Holdfast, and he responded that she could marry the Lord of a Holdfast. “No, that’s not me,” she said firmly, as she carried on with Syrio Forel’s lessons. She will never be a “lord,” she will never be a “knight,” and she will never be a “lady,” but she can be strong, and she can be powerful, and she can be herself.
Even more importantly, perhaps, the sword represents love: it was an incredibly kind and supportive gift from her most beloved brother, Jon Snow, and that makes it as symbolically important for Arya’s character arc as it is sentimentally important for Arya herself. The danger with Arya has always been that she would lose the parts of being a Stark—the parts of her family name—that are good. That she would, in her quest for revenge, sacrifice tenderness, and decency, and mercy, and love. That is what she would have to do to become Death, but she isn’t ready to do it. She wants the power, but she doesn’t want to lose herself.
She hides the sword in the rocks: this sense of self is too precious to throw away. Arya may shed her identity: she may have a thousand different names and wear a thousand different faces throughout her lifetime. But, whatever she’s called, and whatever she looks like, Arya Stark knows who she is.
And one suspects she will never be “no one.”
Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits
- It’s a nice touch that Jon executes Slynt himself. The man who passes the sentence should swing the sword: that is something he (like Robb) learned from Eddard Stark.
- Though I try to tackle the show from a slightly different angle each week, I hope it’s obvious that the show has a thematic integrity that carries over from week to week, and from season to season. For example, last week’s discussion of rulers living in comfortable boxes—and daring on occasion to step out of those boxes and walk among the people, found a very literal personification in Cersei this week. (She begins in her box—drawing the curtains against the crowds—and ends walking through the slums of Kings Landing. It exactly parallels the journey her nemesis Margaery took in “Valar Doeharis.”) And Slynt’s execution obviously calls back to Dany’s dilemma last week, another instance of a leader having to make a choice between strength and mercy.
- I didn’t mention one more thematically relevant character: Theon/Reek. Theon lost the right to his name—and his own identity—through his own many crimes. Now, he is hiding his face from Sansa, which also means that he remembers who he is: though he’s called Reek now, he is still Theon enough to feel ashamed. It will be interesting to see if Sansa’s presence at Winterfell is spur enough for him to want to get his name—and his soul—back.
- The High Septon’s kinky brothel games also speak to the difference between what someone is called and what they actually are: he’s supposed to be a holy man, and he’s really just a fat old pervert. The Sparrows, in exposing this hypocrisy, are forcing everyone to look beyond the signifiers and see what is actually being signified. I’m not usually a fan of religious cults, but this one could really shake things up in Westeros, in really interesting ways. (And one suspects that Cersei—by empowering them—may be making a tactical error.)
- “I told them no one is special, and they think I’m special for telling them so.” Yep, that’s how religions go wrong, in a nutshell.
- I didn’t get around to Tyrion this week, but there are several lovely scenes in Volantis. First, there is the scene with the Red Priestess, who provides us with new information: that (in Slaver’s Bay, at least) it’s Dany who is seen as a messiah figure in the Lord of Light’s mythology. (The way Dany’s legend is circulating throughout the region is nicely handled: she’s been appropriated by both the religious and the sexual industries. “Someone who inspires priests andw hores is worth taking seriously,” Varys says.) Second, Tyrion’s scene in the brother is tangentially related to our theme this week: though Varys counsels him to keep a low profile, Tyrion does not: even in disguise, he is still absolutely himself, boasting about his money and making jokes about how he’s known for paying his debts. (He does everything but say his name.) But Tyrion’s sad encounter with a prostitute is a mark of how he has changed: he is surprised, himself, to find he can’t go through with their transaction. After Shae, Tyrion may be done with whores forever.