"A wise man once said that the true history of the world is the history of great conversations in elegant rooms,'" Tyrion Lannister tells Grey Worm and Missandei in "Oathbreaker." He's quoting himself, of course, but that's okay: Tyrion is a wise man, and he knows—more than most—what he's talking about.
After all, Tyrion is a student of history, once as famous for his reading as for his drinking. (These were the first two things we ever knew about him, in fact, when Catelyn and Maester Luwin compared notes on Tyrion back in the pilot: "I'm told he reads all night," Cat said. "I'm told he drinks all night," Luwin responded.) And in "The Kingsroad," Tyrion told Jon Snow why he reads so much: "My brother has his sword, and I have my mind. And a mind needs books like sword needs a whetstone."
Tyrion—who knew he would never be a great warrior—chose to dedicate himself to words instead of swords. And his studies taught him—as all studies must—that history is made by words. The foolish may think of history as a series of battles, but smart people know that it's what's said about those battles that really matters. History, as Napoleon said, is a set of lies agreed upon.
(Of course, Napoleon probably didn't really say that, and he certainly didn't originate the phrase. But that scarcely matters now—which more or less proves the point.)
And it's a theme we've seen recur throughout Game of Thrones. "Power resides where men believe it resides," Varys told Tyrion once. "Do you know what the realm is?" Littlefinger asked Varys once. "A story we agree to tell each other, over and over, until we forget that it's a lie." Great warriors like Eddard Stark and Robert Baratheon had their roles to play in remaking the world, but they became part of larger narratives—mixtures of truths and lies—that used them, changed them, and ultimately consumed them. The real movers and shakers are the thinkers, the talkers, the listeners: it's men like Baelish, and Varys, and Tyrion himself, who understand that words do not describe the world but shape it.
Treaties are just words. Oaths are just words. Prophecies and prayers are just words. Whatever acts of honor or treachery, bravery or cowardice, selfishness or sacrifice occur, they will all be crafted and redacted into agreeable and politically expedient stories. And those stories—a set of lies agreed upon—will be repeated as inspiration, as instruction, as example, and used to shape the future.
The Game of Thrones is largely a game of words. Control the stories, and you can control the world.
"I've heard the story a thousand times." — Bran
This, at least, is the lesson Brandon Stark is learning.
Last week we discussed how Bran and the Three-Eyed Raven are sitting at the roots of the world, untangling the roots of the story. "And now it begins," Ser Arthur Dayne (Luke Roberts) says to young Eddard Stark (a well-cast Robert Aramayo), in the vision of the past the Raven shows Bran. "No, now it ends," Ned replies.
But Ned (as he so often was) is wrong. He is just seeing an ending: the end of the war he and Robert have fought to depose the Mad King and reclaim Lyanna. He doesn't have the width of wisdom to realize that history is never over: the ending of one chapter is just the beginning of another one.
From our perspective, the ending of Robert's Rebellion was the beginning of Game of Thrones. Go all the way back to the pilot episode, and every single plot set in motion can be traced back to the end of the war and the death of Lyanna Stark. (Ned and Robert, Jaime the Kingslayer, Viserys and Dany trying to get their family's throne back, everything.) It has always been to the show's credit that this world felt so lived in: we knew that all these people had deep and rich histories, and over time we felt like we knew those histories. We knew about how Rhaegar kidnapped and raped Lyanna, and started the war. We knew how Ned and Robert won the war, achieving great and honorable victories in battle. We knew how Jaime Lannister dishonorably stabbed the Mad King in the back, though he'd sworn to protect him. We knew all this, because we'd heard the stories.
But Game of Thrones has complicated all of this throughout. From Viserys and Dany, we heard King Robert called "usurper." From Oberyn Martel, we heard a different take on what happened between Rhaegar and Lyanna. From Jaime himself, we heard an explanation for the murder of the Mad King that changed our entire perspective on his actions and his character. There are always dominant versions of events, stories that are agreed-upon by victors and which solidify into history. But between those stories—growing around them, and beneath them, and behind them—there are other stories, other versions, which twine like vines through the cracks and crevices of the foundations of this world.
"I've heard the story a thousand times," Bran says, of his father's great victory over Ser Arthur Dayne, the Sword of the Morning. But now he's seeing another version of that story, and it doesn't quite gel with the story—or the father—he thought he knew. Ned didn't beat Dayne. Ned couldn't beat Dayne. Dayne, in fact, would have killed Ned, if Dayne had not been stabbed in the back by Howland Reed (Leo Woodruff).
Stabbing men in the back is wrong, isn't it? Isn't that what Ned taught his sons? Isn't that why Ned hated Jaime so? Ned was our moral compass, but here we see that that compass didn't always point true north: he killed the helpless Arthur Dayne only after he'd been stabbed in the back. (This is something even Jaime—the wretched Kingslayer—refused to do, after one of his men stabbed Ned from behind.) But when the time came to tell the story of Ned's duel with the Sword of the Morning, that story apparently got cleaned up: Ned—and history—had more use for the legend than the truth.
And all of this, of course, is just preamble to a much larger truth about to be revealed, one that will revise one of the very foundation stories of Game of Thrones. "What's in the Tower?" Bran asks the Raven, and the answering of that question—once Benioff and Weiss stop dragging it out—will change, as the Raven says, everything.
"It was before I learned how to read, obviously." — Gilly
In truth, I could skip over Sam and Gilly this week, since little happens in their brief scene, and since it only slightly connects to my overall theme. But I happen to love Sam and Gilly, and I've missed them, so let's talk about them.
There's a brief, tangential echo of the theme in Gilly's talk of how her increased understanding of words has changed her perception of the world. "Did I ever tell you I used to think the sea was called 'the see,' because it was nothing but water as far as the eye could see?" she says. "It was before I learned how to read, obviously." Back in "The Rains of Castamere," Gilly called Sam a wizard because he could know so many things just from "staring at marks on paper." Now—thanks to the late Shireen Baratheon—Gilly is rightfully proud that she's seized some of that magic for herself.
(And Sam is another of those figures—like Tyrion and Varys—who appears physically weak, but who has found incredible power in words instead of swords. As he says here, becoming a maester—learning more—is how he can protect the people he cares about.)
But this scene ties into this week's overall theme in another way as well, one that simultaneously links it to one of the most important themes in Game of Thrones: defining "family" as a matter of choice, not a matter of blood. I've discussed this theme at length in the past, so I won't dwell on it here, except to say again that Sam—driven away by his own flesh-and-blood father—has always been on the side of chosen families. Now he explains that Gilly and the baby are his family, first and foremost. "I don't care about them," he says, of everyone else in the world. "Well, no, I do, but I don't really. I care about you and him."
Sam does care about everyone else in the world—because he's a good, decent, empathetic man—but Gilly and Baby Sam have become his family. And Gilly—newly emboldened with the power of words—takes this opportunity to make a revision in the official text: she calls Sam "the father of my child."
It's a lie, from a factual perspective—but it's a good lie, and will probably be a useful lie, as she goes to live with Sam's family. It's also, of course, a truth, from an emotional perspective. Either way, it's a way to edit the story of her own life—of both their lives—for the happier.
"I think it's important that you try to see things from my perspective, just as I will try to see them from yours." — Varys
Varys is the master of words, the Master of Whisperers. (Elsewhere in the episode, we see Qyburn—who inherited that title—trying to put together an army of "little birds" to give him some of the power that Varys used to wield in King's Landing.)
And Varys is good at what he does because he knows there are always at least two versions of every story. He also knows that you have to pick one. (In his conversation with Littlefinger in "The Climb"—a conversation I find myself returning to often—he didn't argue with Littlefinger's observation that "the realm is a lie." He just asserted that the lie was necessary. "What do we have left when we abandon the lie?" he asked. "Chaos." Truth, he knows, is always a little arbitrary, but we pick the truths that work for us.)
This is what he imparts to Vala, the woman who helped the Sons of the Harpy kill White Rat, and who helped lure Barristan Selmy and several Unsullied to their deaths. The Unsullied, she insists, are foreign soldiers of a foreign queen, come to conquer Meereen and destroy its cultural identity. "Well, that makes perfect sense, from your perspective," he says. "I have a different perspective, of course. I think it's important that you try to see things from my perspective, just as I will try to see them from yours." She is not wrong: her story—in which she is a hero for a noble cause—is a valid one. It's just not the version of history he has chosen.
And so he asks her to choose between two different versions of her own story, and how it will end. In one story, she is a rich woman living in exile with her asthmatic son. In the other, her asthmatic son somehow has to make his way through life without her.
There are always at least two stories, you see, and we always have to choose.
Meanwhile, Tyrion Lannister is having a bit of trouble getting Grey Worm and Missandei to share their stories. The art of conversation is somewhat lost on them: former slaves both, they're not in the habit of holding forth about themselves, and the sort of social relationship Tyrion is trying to form with them is completely alien to them.
For—make no mistake—this is how Tyrion Lannister makes friends: through this game that is about sharing stories, and uncovering truths beneath the lies. We saw that way back in Season One, when he played this game of his own invention with Bronn and Shae. On that occasion, Tyrion ended up revealing far more than he discovered: quite unprovoked, he volunteered one of the most painful and formative of his own stories, and in doing so forged two of the most important relationships of his life.
Missandei does find her voice—a little—towards the end of this scene, after Varys reveals what he has learned from Vala: the Sons of the Harpy are funded by the slavemasters of Astapor, Yunkai, and Volantis.
(Incidentally, what little we know about Volantis we learned from Talisa, back in "The Prince of Winterfell." She told Robb about how slaves are tattooed in Volantis "so you know what they are without having to talk to them." And she told him how she swore she would never live in a slave city, after a slave risked execution to save her little brother's life. She and Robb slept together immediately after she finished this monologue: it was yet another of those scenes in which people forge intimacy through the sharing of their formative stories)
Now Missandei reveals a little about herself, and expresses the first anger we've ever seen her show. (Perhaps Tyrion's effort has brought her out of her shell, at least a little: these four caretakers of Meereen are on their way to becoming a small council of equals.) "The masters speak only one language," she says bitterly. "They spoke it to me for many years. I know it better than my mother tongue. If we want them to hear us, we must speak it back to them. May it be the last thing they ever hear."
"Possibly," says Tyrion, when Missandei and Grey Worm argue for war. "It's a conversation." But Tyrion and Varys are not ready to trade words for swords. "Tell me," Tyrion asks Varys. "Can your little birds get a message to the good masters of Astapor, the wise masters of Yunkai, and the benevolent enslavers of Volantis?" "Of course," Varys responds. "Men can be fickle, but birds I always trust." Words they always trust: the right ones, they know, can do far more damage than an army.
"All I need in return are whispers." — Qyburn
If you doubt the power of words, just watch the High Sparrow at work.
King's Landing has always operated on diplomacy, lies, rumor, and innuendo. (That's why they have a Master of Whisperers.) Littlefinger tried to explain to Cersei a long time ago that "knowledge is power," but she didn't take the lesson. "Power is power," she replied then, with a show of brute strength. But she's coming around to Littlefinger's way of thinking now, and she instructs her new Master of Whisperers in his duties: "If someone is planning on making our losses their gain, I want to hear it," she says to Qyburn. "If someone is laughing at the queen who walked naked through the streets covered in shit, I want to hear. I want to know who they are. I want to know where they are."
Unfortunately, she learned this lesson too late: she failed to control the narrative, and now the "official" version of her family's story is scoffed at everywhere she goes. ("You are not the queen, because you are not married to the king," Lady Olenna tells her. "I do appreciate these things can get a bit confusing in your family.")
More importantly, she is out of power, because the High Sparrow has taken over the city with words. Yes, he has an army, but it was his words—and his twisted interpretation of the sacred texts—that gave him an army. And this week he disarms an angry king with a well-chosen speech. Tommen—after his apology to Cersei last week—comes in all angry and ready for blood, but the High Sparrow calmly talks him down, and manipulates the narrative so thoroughly that Tommen thinks putting Cersei on trial is actually doing her a favor. It's a masterful illustration of Tyrion's maxim: history is nothing more than a series of great conversations in rooms. In this room, little Tommen Baratheon is conversationally outgunned.
"Fuck kneeling, and fuck oaths." — Smalljon Umber
Throughout the episode, we see the power of certain narratives, and we also see the power of rejecting certain narratives.
Smalljon Umber (Dean S. Jagger) is almost certainly a minor character—I don't think we've seen him before, and we may not see him again—but he's an interesting figure for our purposes here: a herald of things to come, perhaps. One of the things we've seen throughout Game of Thrones is the new generation of leaders breaking away from the traditions of the past, which is another way of saying they're reconsidering the universally accepted narratives that have governed this world.
Umber—cynical, clear-eyed, and apparently giving zero fucks—won't play the game. He keeps rejecting Ramsay's revisions of the story, for one thing. ("My beloved father, the Warden—" Ramsay begins. "Your father was a cunt," Umber interrupts, "and that's why you killed him." He doesn't buy for a moment the "poisoned by enemies" story Ramsay is peddling.)
Umber won't kiss Ramsay's ring, he won't kneel before him, and he won't say any damn words or oaths. All the rules that have governed this world forever, he rejects out of hand. "Your father honored tradition. Knelt for Robb Stark," he tells Ramsay. "Was Robb Stark right to trust your father? Fuck kneeling, and fuck oaths." Once you start to question the traditional stories, and see all the conflicting narratives, they start to lose their power: they become just so many words.
(This is a theme we've seen recurring through the series. "Oh yes, I said some words," Walder Frey said dismissively, back in "Baelor." "But then, I swore oaths to the crown too, if I remember right." And Jaime Lannister made a similar point in "A Man Without Honor." "So many vows," he said. "They make you swear and swear. Defend the King, obey the King, obey your father, protect the innocent, defend the weak. But what if your father despises the King? What if the King massacres the innocent? It's too much. No matter what you do, you're forsaking one vow or another.")
"Is that still you in there?" — Dolorous Ed, to Jon Snow
And—if we're talking about how words and stories and oaths get interpreted—there are all sorts of interesting things happening at Castle Black.
Jon Snow is back from the dead, which is itself—now that I think about it—kind of a major revision to the standard traditional narrative: it's just not supposed to happen, in anyone's story. In fact, Davos—with his usual pithy succinctness—puts it best: "You were dead, and now you're not. That's completely fucking mad, seems to me."
But watch how various people try to make sense of this story. For Melisandre—an expert manipulator of narratives—she sees this as another opportunity to make unwieldy facts fit her preconceived outline. (Remember how she tried to make Stannis into her religion's prophesied warrior, going as far as to put a makeshift flaming sword into his hands?) Now, she's casting Jon Snow into the role, and she even seems to be aware that she's doing it: "Stannis was not the prince who was promised, but someone has to be," she says. She lost the protagonist of her crazy story, but look, here's another.
And she could sell this: she still may, in fact. Certainly, the men of Castle Black seem ready to believe. "They think you're some kind of god," Tormund tells Jon. This is how actions become history, how people become legends, how the truth gets massaged into a useful narrative. But Tormund immediately undercuts this burgeoning new religion with a bit of crude humor. "I know you're not," he tells Jon. "I saw your pecker. What kind of god would have a pecker that small?" When everyone else is looking at Jon like a god, or like a demon, or like a freak, Tormund and Ed treat him like a man.
For Jon, the troubling blow to his own narrative goes deeper: it's not about what he is now, but about what he has done. "I did what I thought was right, and I got murdered for it." Somehow, even after everything he has seen and been through, this possibility had never occurred to him. He was still living by the fairy tale narrative—which Game of Thrones has been determined to debunk from the beginning—that good deeds are always rewarded. Now he's learning one of the core lessons of the show, which poor Ned learned five seasons ago: that's not necessarily the way the world works.
It takes Davos—who, as I've pointed out many times, is the closest thing to Ned we have now—to put this all in perspective for him. It doesn't matter why he was killed, and it doesn't matter why he came back. "You go on. You fight for as long as you can. You clean up as much of the shit as you can." However it happened, Jon is alive again, and this, Davos is saying, is what life is. You can't always see the meaning of your own story: you just have to keep turning the pages. "I failed," Jon Says. "Good," Davos replies. "Now go fail again."
This is a father's advice, and Jon takes it. He performs his last act of duty as Lord Commander: to execute his own assassins. "If you have any last words, now is the time," he tells them. In an episode largely about shaping reality through words, the concept of last words has special meaning: it's one last chance to control your narrative and put the stamp of your perspective on history. One of the men, naturally, begs Jon to clean up the official story of his life for his family. ("My mother's still living in White Harbor," he says. "Could you write her? Tell her I died fighting the Wildlings.") And Alliser Thorne, of course, uses this opportunity to repeat his own version of these events, in which he's the hero of the story who did the right thing and failed. If Jon had stayed dead, and Thorne had stayed in charge, history would undoubtedly have enshrined Thorne's version as truth. (And the thing is, from a certain perspective, Thorne's version—like Vala's version—is not necessarily wrong.) Olly—just a child, and as much a victim as a criminal—has no final words: he misread Jon, and Jon misread him, and their story—the short story of Olly's life—should have gone much differently. They have no words for each other now.
This sad act completed, Jon has reached an ending—which is another way of saying he's reached a new beginning. The entire course of his life was written in ink when he took his vows: he had no more choices to make about who he would be or where he would go.
But those vows were just words, and words can be interpreted a lot of different ways. (Samwell Tarly has made this point before, for lesser stakes, when he argued in "The Watchers on the Wall" that sex wasn't technically forbidden to the men of the Night's Watch. "The interesting thing is, our vows never specifically forbid intimate relations with women," he said. The vows specifically forbid the taking of wives and the fathering of children, he agreed, "but what our vows have to say about other activities is open to interpretation.")
Jon had his own flexible interpretation of that particular rule when he was with Ygritte, but his vows meant a lot to him. He forsook his blood family in their time of need, to stay with his chosen brothers at the Wall. Later, he walked away from the woman he loved to return to them. He even stuck to his vows when Stannis offered to give him the life he had always wanted, as Jon Stark, Lord of Winterfell. He gave up a lot, because he said some words.
But now that part of his story is over. Night gathers, and now my watch begins, the words read. It shall not end until my death. Jon kept his watch: he did the best he could do, and he tried to clean up as much shit as possible. He did the right thing, and he got murdered for his troubles.
And therein lies the loophole, the technicality of words that now allows Jon to take control of his own narrative and revise his entire life. I shall live and die at my post, the vows read. Well, Jon lived, and died, at his post. He fulfilled his duty, and completed his sentence, and he finished that particular story.
"My watch is ended," he says now. And, in saying the words, they become true.
Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits
- And what do we make of Arya Stark? In an episode largely about stories, Arya has—finally—become a person with no stories. The process has been a hard one, involving, first, the need to separate truth from lies. That's the "game of faces" that Arya has been playing, and losing, since she came to the House of Black and White: she tells her version of her life story, and she is smacked with a stick whenever she redacts information or strays from the truth. Echoing a theme of the season, the stories must be confronted, directly and honestly, in order to rob them of their power. Now, at the end, she finally become No One, a girl without history, a girl without narrative. The Faceless Men's philosophy is expressed in their words, in their actual syntax: in their sentences, they do not even retain subjectivity, surrendering the primacy of personal pronouns. They give up the right and burden of being the stars of stories. ("If a girl truly is No One, she has nothing to fear," Jaqen tells her.) But Arya is one of the stars of this story, for us, and her story is important to us: it is bittersweet to see her abandon that story, and her very selfhood, in exchange for a little power. (But we know, too, that she has not completely abandoned Arya Stark and her story, at least not yet. Needle, Arya Stark's sword, is still hidden nearby, waiting to be reclaimed.)
- Dany's story, too, touches on the way narratives try—and fail—to shape history. "You were the wife of the Great Khal," the High Priestess of the Dosh Khaleen says. "You thought he would conquer the world with you at his side. He didn't. I was the wife of the Great Khal, Khal Savo. I thought he would conquer the world with me at his side. You're young. We were all young once. But we all understand the way things are." One of the things all the young characters are learning through Game of Thrones is that prophecies don't always come true, and that the stories we tell ourselves about the way life will be are rarely right. (Dany is a great one for trying to use words to change reality: witness her repeated attempts to claim authority by listing her many impressive titles. But she's in a place now where her words have no power.)
- Goddamn it, Osha, you had one fucking job. And R.I.P. to Shaggydog, the third of the Stark dire wolves to lose its head. Ghost, Summer, and Nymeria—wherever she is—should watch their necks.
- I've always asserted that Game of Thrones, for all its talk of gods, and all its demonstrations of magic, is an anti-religion story: it vehemently argues against a just and ordered universe. Jon Snow seems to support this vision of the world now, as Beric Dondarrion did before him: they have both been to the other side, and they can report that there is nothing there. This world—the one we see—is the only world there is. Everything else, the show suggests, is just a story we tell to comfort ourselves.