As my longtime readers know, my favorite thing with Game of Thrones is to trace a thematic throughline across all the apparently disparate elements of an episode, showing how the writers manage to weave the different storylines into a remarkably coherent whole. At this point in the proceedings, however, I’m going to find it difficult not to repeat myself: with only 11 more episodes to air after this one, there aren’t going to be a lot of new themes introduced from week to week.
And that’s okay: in fact, that’s exactly as it should be. What we will see over the final dozen episodes will be a harvesting of thematic seeds that Benioff and Weiss—and George R.R. Martin before them—have tenderly planted and nurtured from the beginning.
The theme tying most of the storylines in “Stormborn” together is not an unfamiliar one: it’s loyalty. We are alerted to it early, as Dany interrogates Varys for his apparent lack of fidelity to any one ruler. We see this theme recur as Cersei forces the Lords of the Reach—including Sam’s father—to choose between their ancestral loyalties (to the Tyrells) and their allegiance to the crown. We hear much discussion of trust and responsibilities at Winterfell, as Jon eventually decides to go to Dragonstone—where he is supposed to proclaim his loyalty to Dany—and he demonstrates his complete trust in Sansa by leaving her in command of the North.
Throughout “Stormborn,” we see variations on the themes of loyalty and trust, from Sam acting out of loyalty to his late commander, Jeor Mormont; to Arya making a play for Nymeria’s long-forgotten devotion; to Grey Worm grappling with the worry that love is—as Maester Aemon told us long ago—”the death of duty.” And finally, of course, we see a terrible failure of loyalty, a failure of love, a failure of trust and duty, in poor crippled Theon’s cowardly plunge over the rail and into the sea.
I’ve discussed these sorts of issues many times before—here, for example, or here—and we’ll no doubt end up discussing them many times again before the show vanishes from our airwaves. (Don’t even talk to me about that: I am not ready to deal with it.) But what’s interesting about this is how notions of trust and loyalty have changed over six-plus seasons of Game of Thrones. What we’re seeing now is the culmination of gradual tectonic shifts that we’ve felt all along: how the old order—based on houses, families, and feudal allegiances—has been slowly broken down, making room for a new kind of trust that is based on shared values, and personal friendships, and the bonds of found—not blood—families.
And, in thinking about the characters’ relationships with each other, I find myself more and more thinking about our relationship to them: how our more than six-season investment in their lives now informs every scene. We know these characters now, inside and out; we know what they’ve been through, because we’ve been through it with them. We see them not as their roles—not as representatives of one house or the other—but as people, individuals with individual strengths, faults, qualities, and quirks. It’s a peculiar kind of sympathetic intimacy that only long-form storytelling can accomplish, and it happens to be both incredibly useful to Benioff and Weiss—who play on our understanding to generate tension and drama—and thematically relevant for the show as a whole. The importance of seeing people as people—not as tribal representatives—is one of the points Game of Thrones has been heading towards all along.
“I always thought this would be a homecoming. Doesn’t feel like home.”
One of the things that got me thinking about our relationship to the characters is Dany’s strange role as a newcomer this season.
It’s an odd dynamic, isn’t it? Dany has been one of the main protagonists of Game of Thrones since the very first episode, but she has effectively been in her own show, Game of Thrones: East, with her own sets, her own storylines, her own supporting cast. When Tyrion finally met her, towards the end of Season Five, he was the first major cross-over character from Game of Thrones: West to make the transition, and he was the only one until Varys, Theon, Yara, and the rest of Dany’s new team joined her at the very end of Season Six.
My point is, we know Dany very well, and we know everyone in Westeros very well, but they don’t know each other. So, already this season, one of the greatest sources of both pleasure and tension for us, the viewers, comes from watching familiar old characters encounter each other for the first time. It’s kind of like a wedding, when all your loved ones from different facets of your life—high-school friends, college friends, work friends, family, etc.—are suddenly in the same room together, and you have to worry how everyone is going to get along.
From her perspective, Dany’s mistrust of Varys is perfectly reasonable: he served the Mad King, he served Robert Baratheon, he served Joffrey, he served Tommen, and now he claims he wants to serve her. He was also—as she well knows, and points out—the person who arranged for her to be sold to Khal Drogo, ordered Jorah Mormont to spy on her, and hired the assassin who tried to kill her and her unborn child. “You’ve declared for other houses, Lord Baelish,” Sansa said to Littlefinger last season. “It’s never stopped you from serving yourself.” Why shouldn’t Dany say the same thing to Varys here? Based on what she knows—all of which is true—why should she trust him any more than Sansa—or anyone—trusts Littlefinger?
But we know him, and we know that the truth is far more complicated than the simple facts suggest. We want to pull her aside and tell her, “That’s Varys. You can trust Varys. I know he seems creepy—we used to to think he was creepy too—but he’s proven himself a dozen times and now we’re really quite fond of him.”
Tyrion—who is the audience surrogate throughout this scene, anxiously holding his breath to see if two of his favorite people will recognize in each other what he sees in each of them—tries to do a little matchmaking. He starts to tell Dany how Varys pulled him out of the wine cask he’d crawled into at the beginning of Season Five, and gave him a reason to live—but Dany cuts his testimonial off: she is a woman who needs to take someone’s measure herself. What kind of a servant is he? she asks Varys.
“The kind the realm needs. Incompetence should not be rewarded with blind loyalty. As long as I have my eyes, I’ll use them. I wasn’t born into a great house. I came from nothing. I was sold as a slave and carved up as an offering. When I was a child I lived in alleys, gutters, abandoned houses. You wish to know where my true loyalties lie? Not with any king or queen, but with the people. The people who suffer under despots, and prosper under just rule. The people whose hearts you aim to win. If you demand blind allegiance, I respect your wishes. Grey Worm can behead me, or your dragons can devour me. But if you let me live, I will serve you well. I will dedicate myself to seeing you on the Iron Throne, because I choose you. Because I know the people have no better chance than you.”
There is so much in this speech that speaks to Dany’s heart and flatters her agenda: her sympathy for slaves and outcasts, her distrust of the rich and wealthy, her desire to break the chains and tear the great houses down. But—as we know, and she senses—every word of it is also true. We’ve heard the story of how Varys became a eunuch. We’ve heard him explain his motives and agenda before, and his story has never changed. (“Tell me something, Varys: who do you really serve?” Ned asked him, way back in Season One. “The Realm, my lord,” Varys replied. “Someone must.” And, in Season Three, he told Littlefinger “I did what I did for the good of the realm.”)
There was a time—way back in the middle of Season One—when I saw Varys as Dany does: in fact, I saw him as the more sinister of the two master manipulators in King’s Landing. (In my review of the fifth episode, I naively observed that “Varys seems to be playing every side in an effort to bring about a war, while Baelish—so far—seems to be weaseling on the side of good.”) But those days are long gone. We are very fond of Varys by now, and the tension in this scene comes from our wanting Dany to not only not kill him, but to be as fond of him as we are. His speech goes a long ways towards accomplishing that.
And she earns his goodwill in turn by her response. “Swear this to me, Varys,” she says. “If you ever think I’m failing the people, you won’t conspire behind my back. You’ll look me in the eye, as you have done today, and you will tell me how I’m failing them.”
Varys speaks truth to power: that is one of his roles. But he has always had to do it through subtlety and subterfuge, through guile and manipulation. One suspects, in fact, that all The Master of Whisperers has ever wanted was to serve a ruler who would say to him what Dany says here: if you think I’m fucking up, don’t whisper, speak. (Robert, as we know, would not have invited such open criticism; Joffrey would certainly never have done so.) The Westeros we saw at the beginning of Game of Thrones was build on blind allegiance—bend the knee, swear the oath, do your duty—but blind allegiance is good for no one. What Varys and Dany agree to do here is to see each other—and deal with each other—as people.
But, just as we want Dany to get friendly with the good people at the wedding reception, we also want to take her aside and warn her away from the creepy uncles and lecherous groomsmen. It is a chilling moment when Melisandre arrives, and we realize that none of these people has ever met her, or even heard an accurate accounting of everything she has done. None of them know how she birthed a shadow demon to slay Renley Baratheon. None of them know that she burned little Shireen Baratheon alive. None of them know how dangerous she can be when she thinks she’s right, and none of them know how very often she is wrong. (It should be an interesting reunion next week, when Jon and Davos arrive to find the Red Woman installed as part of Dany’s entourage.)
In general, it is thrilling—and a hallmark of Dany’s new world order—to see decisions being made by female commanders: Dany, Yara, Ellaria, and Olenna. And in fact it’s good to see Dany in the company of women at all: she grew up with only her brother for company, and she has had a series of male confidants and advisors since then, some of whom—Jorah, and Barristan Selmy—could be considered father-figures. But—though she has had female servants—but she has never had a sister, and she has never had a mother.
But what kinds of women has Dany surrounded herself with? (Interestingly, Yara, Ellaria, and Olenna are all arguing for total war, while it’s the men who counsel Dany towards peace.) Yara has no particular sins in her past that we know of—apart from being a proud Iron Islander, with all the love of rape, murder, and pillaging that entails—but Ellaria is a dangerous presence. Her brother-in-law, Prince Doran Martell, tried—as Dany has done—to rule with fairness and compassion: Ellaria called him weak, shoved a knife in his side, and had his heir murdered. Ellaria also betrayed the spirit of both Doran and her late love Oberyn—who had proudly boasted that “we don’t hurt little girls in Dorne“—by poisoning the innocent Myrcella Lannister. “There are no innocent Lannisters,” she sneers now, summarizing the blanket hatred—and utter disregard for individuality—that leads, as we discussed last week, to nothing but an endless cycle of atrocity.
And what kind of role model is Olenna Tyrell going to be? She’s a fascinating character, and—thanks mostly to Diana Rigg’s deliciously acid performance—she’s a sheer delight in every scene she’s in. But she’s also—like Ellaria—ruthless, deceitful, vindictive, and deadly. Yes, we were all relieved to see Joffrey die, but we should not forget that Olenna assassinated the young king at his own wedding, and framed Tyrion and Sansa for the crime, all the while expressing indignant outrage that anyone would do such a thing. (In fact, it’s an interesting bit of subtext that Olenna is ultimately responsible for Cersei being on the throne, for Tyrion ending up at Dany’s side, and for Ellaria’s lover being popped like a zit by The Mountain.)
Now, with literally nothing left to lose, Olenna is a dangerous counselor to have Dany’s ear. She deliberately undermines the “clever men,” Tyrion and Varys, whose interests truly do lie in avoiding the slaughter of innocents and protecting the realm. (“I’ve known a great many clever men, and I’ve outlived them all,” she says. “You know why? I ignored them.”) And her advice now speaks to all of Dany’s own worst instincts. Dany has always wanted to be loved by the people—to rule because she deserves to rule—but Olenna points out that Margaery was as loved as any queen has ever been, and still ended up dead. “They won’t obey you unless they fear you,” she says. “The lords of Westeros are sheep. Are you a sheep? No, you’re a dragon. Be a dragon.”
“You’re not here to be queen of the ashes,” Tyrion tells Dany, early in “Stormborn.” But one suspects that The Queen of Thorns—who has lost everything she ever fought for, and everyone she ever loved—has no greater ambition now than to be Queen of the Ashes. (She doesn’t care about the people. “Many will die no matter what we do,” Olenna told Cersei last season. “Better them than us.”) One of the most precious stakes of Game of Thrones has always been Daenerys Targaryen’s soul: would she become the just ruler she wants to be, or would she become a ruthless despot like her father? And it is becoming clear now—as she surrounds herself with increasingly dubious allies—that her soul is still up for grabs.
“We must stand together, all of us, if we hope to stop her.”
When Cersei Lannister speaks of Daenerys Targaryen, she paints a picture of a monster. “In Essos, her brutality is already legendary,” she says. “She crucified hundreds of noblemen in Slaver’s Bay. And, when she grew bored of that, she fed them to her dragons.”
Like all tyrants and despots, Cersei puts her own extremist spin on everything: she rallies support by dehumanizing her opponents and playing on the worst, most xenophobic prejudices and fears of her audience. She speaks of “mindless Unsullied soldiers,” and “Dothraki heathens who will burn your villages to the ground, rape and enslave your women, and butcher your children without a second thought.” (The political subtext—and its relevancy to the current American administration—is hardly subtle: soon, Cersei will be arguing to build another wall.)
But the remarkable thing about Cersei’s speech is how reasonable it sounds—in fact, it’s a variation of the “stand together” speech Jon Snow gave last week—and how very little of it is fabrication. Dany did crucify hundreds of noblemen—some of whom, at least, probably did not deserve it—in what is to date perhaps the worst of her atrocities. And she did feed at least one of the slavers (that we know of) to her dragons. The Unsullied were trained to be mindless inhuman killers (though we get direct evidence elsewhere in this episode of just how human they are), and the Dothraki—before Dany ruled them—were savage butchers, slavers, and rapists.
What I found myself thinking about throughout this episode, therefore, is not just how much context matters, but how much personal journeys matter, and how our resulting empathetic understanding of individuals matters. We listen to Cersei’s speech, and we want to say, “Yeah, but…” We know Dany: she has made many mistakes, but we know her heart is good, and that her intentions are good. She is not just a “Targaryen,” lumped in with all the other Targaryens: she’s Dany, and because we know her we know she’s not really a monster. (We know Cersei, too, and—though it is certainly possible to view her own journey sympathetically—we know that she kind of is a monster.)
For that matter, we also know things about Randyll Tarly, so respected by his peers, and so carefully courted by the crown. If we did not have the long and deep understanding of these characters, born from six years of insider knowledge, Lord Tarly would sound now like a just and moral man, superior by far to the Lannisters. (“We’re not oathbreakers,” he tells Jaime, putting his own spin on the theme of loyalty. “We’re not schemers. We don’t stab our enemies in the back, or cut their throats at a wedding.”) We know, however, that Randyll Tarly is a monster himself, one who violated the sacred trust of a father to a son: it’s the sort of thing one could only know if we knew him—or, in this case, one of his family members—intimately. He represents everything that is wrong with the Old Order, the inhuman system that has no place for individuals like Sam, and no sympathy for cripples, bastards, and broken things. (And it’s a nice touch that Jaime tries to buy Randyll’s allegiance by offering him the Wardenship of the South: this is how loyalty used to work, earned not through shared values or affection, but through deals.)
“Seems like a lifetime ago.”
As I said above, loyalty and trust are central throughout “Stormborn.” But, time after time, what we notice is that loyalty and trust based on personal relationships, and personal experience, trumps that implied by historical allegiances or external information. Tyrion speaks up, not just for Varys, but also for Jon Snow. “I can’t speak to prophecies or visions in the flames,” Tyrion tells Dany. “But I liked Jon Snow, and I trusted him. And I am an excellent judge of character.”
Meanwhile, across the country, in Winterfell, Jon makes much the same case for Tyrion, while the assembled lords (echoing Ellaria) protest that no Lannister can ever be trusted, and Sansa argues—based on her knowledge of House Targaryen—that the invitation to Dragonstone could be a trap. All these objections are based on facts, on the lessons learned from the dealings between houses: when Aerys Targaryen “invited” their grandfather and uncle to King’s Landing, he roasted them alive. And god knows that relations between House Lannister and House Stark have not always been pleasant.
But Jon (and Sansa) have knowledge of Tyrion as a person, not as a Lannister, and that’s enough for Jon to trust that the invitation is not a trap. “I don’t believe Tyrion would do that,” Jon tells his sister. “He’s a good man.” (And even Sansa admits that Tyrion is not like the other Lannisters, and was always kind to her.)
Jon and Tyrion knew each other for a short time—a few weeks at most?—a very long time ago. (“Seems like a lifetime ago,” as Baelish says, of the events of Season One.) But they shared an affinity from their first conversation, which Tyrion’s message references. “All dwarves are bastards in their fathers’ eyes,” Tyrion told Jon, way back in the pilot. Tyrion’s invoking of that conversation now is more than a proof of authenticity: it’s a shibboleth, a reminder that he and Jon—both born as outcasts to different great families—are somehow of the same tribe. They each know what it is like to be one of the cripples, bastards, and broken things, and that knowledge has shaped them both. It is part of the reason that they have always been open-minded, accepting, moving easily through the objectifying walls that separate houses, races, and classes. And—marked from birth as different—it is one of the reasons they each know that all Lannisters, all Starks, all Targaryens, are not the same. They have been individuals all their lives, and they know the value of individuality. They trust the man, not the name, and their strongest loyalties are to their friends. (Jon also calls Samwell Tarly—son of the odious Randyll—”a man I trust as much as anyone in this world.”)
But all of this, once again, relies on personal knowledge, and it looks like insanity to anyone who doesn’t know the individuals. As far as the Lords of the North are concerned, they remember the Mad King, and they remember the Sept of Baelor, and they remember the War of Five Kings, and they remember the Red Wedding. Many of these lords also probably remember hearing that Tyrion was convicted of murdering his own nephew (which he didn’t actually do), and that he fled the country after murdering his own father (which he actually did do, but, again, there were reasons).
All of which gets at the problem with the strict, feudal tribalism that has always been the code of the Seven Kingdoms. “The North Remembers” is a nice rallying cry, but—as we discussed last week—it tends to be translated into a blanket hatred, distrust, and condemnation of everyone who happens to be burdened with the wrong name. It’s stereotyping, it’s dehumanizing, and it’s basically racial profiling.
And it doesn’t work. We know that “House Lannister” didn’t kill Ned: Joffrey did, more or less on a childish whim. We know, in fact, that all of the Lannister crimes were committed by individuals—by Joffrey and Cersei and Jaime and Tywin and Tyrion—and we have known all of these people as individuals. Even at their worst, they were never monstrous, inhuman savages of the kind Cersei herself describes in her fearmongering about Dany’s army: they were and are all painfully, complexly human, in fact. We mostly understand the reasons they did what they did, and we know most of it was done for personal, emotional reasons. “All politics is personal,” as I wrote a long time ago, and it’s become clear in Game of Thrones that this is true when it comes to choosing allies and enemies alike.
The sad thing about Littlefinger is that he knows this, but it has never really done him any good. His approach to politics has always been personal, and he has managed to manipulate the personal desires and resentments of others enough to achieve a position of relative power for himself. But really, is there a more isolated man in the entirety of the Seven Kingdoms? Perhaps alone in the entire main cast of Game of Thrones, Littlefinger has not a single soul who loves him, or trusts him. “You could even buy a friend,” Renly taunted him, back in “The Wolf and the Lion,” when Littlefinger contemplated what he might do with his tournament winnings. And it’s as true now as it was then: Littlefinger has no friends. (Sansa is the closest thing to a friend he has, and Sansa can no longer stand to have a conversation with him.)
The problem with Littlefinger is that he is incapable of making real, genuine human connections. That has always been true, but now—in the changing economy of Westeros, where personal connections are more important than purely political ones—it’s increasingly becoming a liability. And, with the value of true friendships on the rise, Littlefinger’s cheap and transparent sycophancy just pisses people off. He pissed off Sansa last week by groping clumsily at her psyche. (He’s getting so obvious about it that he increasingly reminds me of Dr. Chilton from Thomas Harris’s novels, who—as Hannibal Lecter says—”fumbles at your head like a freshman pulling at a panty girdle.”)
Now he pisses off the considerably more dangerous Jon Snow by doing the same thing: transparently trying to forge a phony bond with the King in the North over matters both personal (Ned’s death, Cat’s hostility) and political (his salvation of Jon’s army at The Battle of the Bastards). But Jon isn’t having it. It’s unclear to me what Jon knows about Littlefinger. (It has always been unclear to me whether anyone knows the role he played in Ned’s death.) But Jon, like Tyrion, is a fairly good judge of character, and he judges people on their character. Littlefinger simply doesn’t have any, and so Jon—his father’s son, through and through—chokes the asshole against the wall of the Stark Family crypt. “You don’t belong down here,” he said earlier, a line that could have several meanings. Less ambiguous is Jon’s parting threat: “Touch my sister, and I’ll kill you myself.”
And what about Sansa? She has been—let’s be honest—a little difficult so far this season, challenging Jon at every turn. This would not be a problem—as we mentioned earlier, speaking truth to power is a wonderful thing—except that she has also mostly been wrong.
Well, not wrong, exactly, but—like Littlefinger, like the Lords of the North—she hasn’t yet completely grasped that the game has changed. As we discussed last week, she is still caught up in the old rules, the old hatreds, the old concepts of how alliances are forged and how enemies are treated. She studied closely at the feet of Cersei Lannister—”I learned a great deal from her,” she said last week—and she thinks the old power dynamics are still in play.
We don’t need to dwell on that here: we talked about it a little last week, and I’m sure it’s going to be a major factor in Sansa’s storyline throughout this season. But what I do think is worth considering is how Sansa fits into this new economy of trust: which is to say, she doesn’t have anyone she trusts. Though not as extremely as Dany, Sansa has been isolated throughout Game of Thrones, living almost exclusively with her enemies. She has had supposed friends and allies—Cersei and Joffrey (briefly), the Hound, Shae, Margaery and Olenna, Tyrion, Dontos, Littlefinger, Theon—but almost every single one of them let her down, abandoned her, or outright betrayed her. “No one can protect me,” she has said several times, and she can be completely forgiven for believing that’s true. She really trusts no one in the world, and she can be forgiven for that, too.
It’s a shame, however, because she now has people she can, and should, trust: Jon, Brienne, and Davos, at least, are pretty much as trustworthy as they come. But again, she doesn’t know what we know. She doesn’t even really know Jon: she was still a child when he left for the Wall, and—as they admitted last season—they never much liked each other growing up. They were getting to know each other again, but Jon’s election as King of the North has put an icy sliver of resentment into their otherwise warm reunion.
So it is a nice—if slightly overdue—gesture that Jon demonstrates his trust in her this week. (“You know him better than anyone,” he says to her, about Tyrion. “What do you think?” This is what she chastised him for not asking her about Ramsay before the Battle of the Bastards.) Last week I said he should name her Hand of the King, but this week he does even better and leaves the entire North in her command while he goes to Dragonstone. It’s a powerful demonstration of faith: as he admits (and as Sansa warns), this could be a trap, and he may never come back. Sansa could end up Queen of the North after all.
But that must be a frightening prospect for her as well. Last week, everyone kept talking about needing allies, and those conversations take on a different meaning this week. All over the Seven Kingdoms, alliances are being forged based on personal trust and loyalty, and Sansa has no one. Littlefinger, clearly, will prey on this, and Sansa may be vulnerable to his dubious charms. (She knows she can’t trust him, but she thinks she understands him and can control him: that could be just as dangerous a mindset to be in.) As we do with Dany, we worry about whether Sansa will really know who her friends are.
“What happened to you, Arry?”
What Sansa could really use right now is a sister at her side, but I’m not sure she’s going to get one anytime soon.
Arya Stark is back on the Kingsroad, at the Crossroads Inn. The first time she was here was eventful: she fought with Prince Joffrey; her friend Micah, the butcher’s boy, was killed by the Hound; and Arya had to drive her dire wolf away rather than let Cersei kill her. She came through here again in Season Three with the Brotherhood without Banners, and her friend Hot Pie decided to stay: there was a war raging on, but Hot Pie—whose brother “ain’t no king”—just wanted to live a quiet life baking bread. A lot of important things, with far-reaching ramifications, have gone down at the aptly named inn: it was here, for example, that Catelyn Stark arrested Tyrion Lannister, one of the acts that set the War of Five Kings in motion. It was here that Brienne discovered from Hot Pie that Arya was still alive, leading to her fateful confrontation with Sandor Clegane.
Hot Pie is a minor character—useful for passing along information between characters—but what he represents is important to our conversation. I’ve talked many times before about the notion of “found families” in Game of Thrones: how one of the sea changes in Westeros has been the formation of lasting allegiances and loyalties based on friendship and commonality rather than names and treaties. Gendry and Hot Pie were the first such family Arya found after being separated from her blood relatives. She only knew him briefly—about as long as Jon knew Tyrion—but those affinities are important and lasting.
But now Arya has returned, and she is a different person. “What happened to you, Arry?” Hot Pie asks her, but Arya doesn’t answer, a haunted look coming over her face. Even if she wanted to explain everything to Hot Pie, I doubt that she could: she has been through too much. She is kind to him, but a little distant: they were only children when they knew each other, after all, and Arya is not a child any longer. What do she and Hot Pie have in common now? (But they are still friends: “Friends don’t pay,” he says, when she tries to recompense him for the food and ale she scarfed down.)
But Hot Pie gives her some important information: the Boltons are dead, and her brother Jon has retaken Winterfell as King in the North. Arya has been homeless since she left King’s Landing way back in “The Pointy End,” and she has not seen a single member of her family since she saw her father killed at “Baelor.” (For all she knew, they were all dead: certainly, Arya’s short life has not taught her to expect—or even believe—any good news about her relatives.) It’s a powerfully moving scene when Arya realizes that she still has loved ones in the world, and still has a home she can return to.
But on her way to this reunion, Arya has another, unexpected one: with Nymeria. On one level, this is a pure bit of fan-baiting on the parts of Benioff and Weiss, as both readers and viewers of this story have been wondering for years if Arya would ever be reunited with her dire wolf. (The animal was last seen in the second episode of Game of Thrones.) We probably imagined Nymeria appearing dramatically at some crucial moment, saving her mistress from certain death, and standing with her at her side through all of Arya’s remaining battles to come.
But we should have known better: Game of Thrones is not that kind of show. Nymeria has enough residual memory that neither she nor her wolf pack will eat Arya, but that’s all. “I’m heading north, girl, back to Winterfell,” Arya says to the wolf. “I’m finally going home. Come with me!” But Nymeria has been a free, wild wolf for too many years: she turns away and walks back into the wild.
Too much has happened, to both of them, since they last parted company in these woods. Neither of them are the same entities they were then. They have both grown so much larger, so much more formidable and dangerous. Neither of them, perhaps, could ever live a quiet life of peace and comfort again, or would want to. “That’s not you,” Arya realizes, in a line that calls back to one of the defining moments of her character: her talk with her father, in “Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things,” when Ned told her that someday she could marry a king and live in his castle. “No, that’s not me,” Arya said sadly. She knew even then that she was nobody’s wife, nobody’s mother, nobody’s pet, and she recognizes that same spirit in her spirit-animal now.
What remains to be seen is if this encounter is merely a poignant moment of recognition, or whether it is has actually altered Arya’s plans. Will Arya go home to Winterfell after all, or has this encounter reminded her that she, too, has grown far too powerful and wild to ever be domesticated again?
“He’ll be my advisor, my protector.”
I never read other reviews of episodes before I write my own, but—as I often do—I did go on Twitter after the closing credits of “Stormborn,” and discovered that the Twittersphere was being very hard on little Theon Greyjoy.
This was not exactly a shock. (I am only surprised that anyone would ever expect anything different from Theon: what exactly has he ever done to make anyone think he was a hero?) But it’s actually a little disappointing. One of the things this episode has reminded us is that personal journeys matter. We judge people one way based on their name, role, and recorded actions, but we judge them a completely different way when we really know them and understand everything they’ve been through.
I have long said that Theon Greyjoy is ultimately irredeemable, but can we not spare some shred of sympathy for him? He has always been a weak man trying desperately to make his way in a world that devours weakness, and his various pretenses at strength never worked out for him at all. The best we can say about the education of Theon Greyjoy throughout Game of Thrones is that he knows he’s a weak man now. Last season, he rightfully recognized his sister as the stronger person, abdicating his right to rule the Iron Islands. “I’m not fit to rule,” he admitted to Dany and Tyrion.
This kind of self-awareness is rare in Game of Thrones, and Theon came by his the hard way. He had his body and soul flayed, for months, by Ramsay Bolton, until his identity and sense of self-worth—never strong to begin with—were completely annihilated. He earned some small measure of redemption—and demonstrated a little courage—by helping Sansa escape from Ramsay, but he knew it could never be enough to save his soul. “I don’t want to be forgiven,” he told her, when he left her. “I can never make amends to your family for the things I’ve done.”
Yara has tried to build him back up. She called on him last season to find “the real Theon Greyjoy” within the “ratshit pretender,” and she tells Ellaria this week that Theon will be her advisor and protector. But Theon has always been a ratshit pretender, and he knows it, and he can’t even pretend anymore.
It is interesting here, and relevant to our theme, to compare Theon’s actions to save his surrogate sister, Sansa, with his failure to save his real sister, Yara: once again, affinities based on intimacy and affection trump those based on name and blood. (It’s an echo of his admission, back in Season Three, that Ned—not Baelor—was his true father.)
But let’s also be real: face to face with his Uncle Euron—an evil fuck on par with Ramsay Bolton—Theon has no reasonable expectation of successfully being Yara’s protector. His choices are to be instantly killed—a futile gesture—or to be captured, and undoubtedly subjected to the same kinds of torture and sadism he suffered under Ramsay. His PTSD kicks understandably into overdrive, and Theon instinctively does the only thing that makes any sense at all: he runs.
I have never liked Theon Greyjoy, not for a single moment of his screen-time. But that doesn’t matter so much: after six-plus seasons, I know him, and one of the lessons of Game of Thrones is that knowledge breeds empathy and understanding. The recorded deeds of Theon, son of Baelor, of the House Greyjoy, will not read prettily in the history books. Similarly, there are certain elements in the histories of Dany, Tyrion, Jon, Varys, and everyone else, that—taken out of personal context—will sound monstrous and unforgivable.
Not every sin is forgivable, of course, but that’s not the point. One of the things Game of Thrones charges us to do—one of the things storytelling charges us to do—is to take the totality of a person’s life into consideration before casting judgement on their character. Having known Theon Greyjoy so long—and understanding everything he’s been through so well—I can’t manage to feel anything but pity for him now.
Additional Thoughts and Favorites Bits
- I skipped over one of my favorite scenes in “Stormborn,” as Grey Worm and Missandei consummate their long-simmering love. It’s a remarkably sweet and tender scene—as I’ve said before, we can count on one hand the number of genuinely romantic, mutually-desired sex scenes on this show—and it’s an interesting scene to include in this episode, in which Cersei describes the Unsullied as “mindless” and Varys speaks out against the dangers of blind allegiance. The Unsullied were supposed to be mindless: they were designed to be blindly allegiant soldiers with no emotions, no attachments, no individuality, and not even names of their own. Missandei, too, was born a slave. Neither of these people were ever even supposed to have a life of their own, let alone to fall in love and act on their desires. Grey Worm worries that his love for Missandei weakens him—for it compromises everything he was taught as an Unsullied—but in fact this relationship is the perfect justification for Dany’s new world order, and a touching reminder that everyone is a fully individual human being, if we look closely enough.
- Speaking of which, Grey Worm’s line—”You are my weakness”—is a direct echo of something Tyrion said to Shae, way back in Season Two. Let’s hope things work out better for this star-crossed couple.
- I also skipped over Sam and Jorah, which is another example—as it was when Sam met Bran in “Mhysa“—of the stretchability of personal connections and found families. If Jorah were anyone else Sam might not risk everything to help him, but Sam admired and respected Jeor Mormont, and that makes Jorah a sort of brother. (The other thing to say about this scene is that—for the second week in a row—Sam’s time in the Citadel is turning out to be incredibly gross.)
- Arch-Maester Ebrose also provides an example of what storytelling looks like if you don’t know the people. He’s writing a book called “A Chronicle of the Wars Following the Death of King Robert the First.” That’s Game of Thrones without everything that makes Game of Thrones worthwhile, and even Sam thinks that sounds boring.
- I (intentionally) skipped over the Sand Snakes, two of whose deaths had not the slightest emotional impact. (This is an example of the show failing to make us really know and care about characters.) In general, I think the Dorne storyline—Oberyn aside—still holds the crown for the worst-handled subplot in Game of Thrones history. And it’s not quite over yet: it looks like Ellaria and Tyene may have survived, to be dragged in chains and laid at Cersei’s feet? This episode made an awkward point of reminding us that Tyene—unlike the others—is Ellaria’s actual daughter, and that can only be to set up whatever unspeakable revenge Cersei will invent to get even for Myrcella. (Before the attack, the girls are arguing over who will get The Mountain: be careful what you wish for, kids.)
- On the other hand, I like Yara a lot, and enjoy Gemma Whelan’s performance. I hope she’s not dead—though the character may end up wishing she were.
- I’ve tried, but I don’t particularly see any significance in the fact that Nymeria the Sand Snake dies in the same episode in which Nymeria the Wolf appears. Can we call that a coincidence, or do we have to assume it’s some kind of foreshadowing?
- More pedantic readers may object to my continuing to refer to Ned as Jon’s “father,” and Sansa and Arya as his “sisters.” Yes, I know, the actual, genetic relationships are “uncle” and “cousins,” respectively. But two things: first, none of them know that; second, as I’ve tried to argue (here, and elsewhere), relationships of affection trump relationships of blood. Jon is Ned’s son, and their brother, in every way that matters.
- This is me being pedantic, but isn’t Jon’s assertion that dragonglass kills White Walkers and wights a late revision in the text? (I could swear it was established somewhere that dragonglass doesn’t kill wights.) More consistent is Davos’s observation that something that breathes fire could be awfully useful against the Army of the Dead. Hmmm…
- There are small boys practicing archery in the courtyard of Winterfell again. Things really do come full circle.
- Laugh-out loud moment of the episode: when Arya shyly admitted to Hot Pie that she’s made a couple of pies herself. (Also, Hot Pie’s assertion: “I’m like you, Arry: I’m a survivor.” Remember, you cannot give up on the gravy.)
- I kind of love Dany. “You chose an auspicious day to arrive at Dragonstone,” she says to Melisandre. “We’ve just decided to pardon those who once served the wrong king.” And when Tyrion points out that “the Prince or Princess That Was Promised” doesn’t quite roll off the tongue, Dany says, “No, but I like it better.”
- Finally, I want to point out that—from a sheer, storytelling perspective—”Stormborn” accomplishes something very important: it makes us nervous. Team Cersei just smacked the crap out of Team Daenerys—just as the big, brilliant plan was getting underway—and Qyburn even has a snazzy new ballista that he thinks will work on dragons. There was a danger of our becoming cozy and complacent as Game of Thrones moves towards its conclusion, but “Stormborn” reminds us that no one is ever safe on this show, and there’s no guarantee that things will work out well for the “good guys.”