This post contains spoilers through the April 8 episode of Game of Thrones.
I said in my initial review of the second season of Game of Thrones that it’s remarkable how much more confident the show has become since its beginning, and this episode is a perfect example of that sure-footedness. As it jumps between settings and characters, it’s alternately funny and scary. And this hour of television is asking two particularly important questions: what makes someone a lord or a lady, a worthy heir to a throne, someone worthy of deference? And what does it mean to identify your god and to have faith thereafter?
The first character to face that question is Arya, who on her long journey north, has begun to bond with Gendry, the blacksmith’s apprentice who, after last week’s massacre, may be the living son of the late King Robert Baratheon. After finding out that Gendry is just as wanted as she is, and that he met her father shortly before his death, Arya is moved to confide in the older boy. “You’re a high-born then, you’re a lady,” he says. It should be a simple question, but Arya has a less than simple answer: “No. I mean yes. My mother was a lady. And my sister.” But Gendry’s firm in his assessment, telling her, “You’re a lord’s daughter. You lived in a castle. All that about cocks, I should never have said.” To him, it’s the circumstances of her birth that determine Arya’s identity. To her, it’s a more confusing question, one having to do with behavior and essential nature.
Theon Greyjoy, quite against his expectations, finds himself facing similar questions on his return to Pyke, the capitol of the Iron Islands and his ancestral home. He predicts to the ship captain’s daughter he’s biding time with that “they’ll be waiting for me on the docks…anyone who matters. this is a big day for them. They haven’t had much to get excited about since I left.” But once he disembarks, he finds only a man who isn’t interested in his cargo or the young man who claims to be his future king. And he’s doubly devastated when it turns out that the woman he saw as a whore turns out to be the sister who, in Theon’s absence, their father Balon has come to see as his heir.
Theon believes that his blood makes him Balon’s heir, but his father wants an assessment for character first. “Who gave you those clothes? Is it Ned Stark’s pleasure to make you his daughter? That bauble around your neck—did you pay the iron price or the gold?” Balon quizzes Theon, and she fails. By contrast, Yara, Theon’s sister, has spend a decade proving her mettle. “The only nights she’s spent off this island have been spent on the sea. She’s commanded men. She’s killed men. She knows who she is,” Balon informs Theon, who believes her gender inherently disqualifies Yara from serving as a war leader.
Those same questions of certainty and credentials mark the powerful conversations about religion that permeate this episode, beginning with Dany’s discovery that one of her bloodriders is dead. His lover, one of Dany’s handmaidens, is devastated by what she perceives as the murder of his soul. When Dany tries to comfort her, she insists “They did! They butchered him like an animal. They did not burn his body. Now he can never join his ancestors in the Night Lands.” It’s the first expression of genuine fervor we’ve seen in the series, and it’s profoundly moving.
But it’s on Dragonstone where the discussion really takes off. Davos’ son is vexed with both his father and Salladhor Saan, the pirate with whom they’re negotiating, for their lack of piety. “Stannis is the rightful king and the lord of light,” he protests, suggesting that Saan’s main concern should be with Stannis’s temporal and spiritual legitimacy. “Everywhere I go, people tell me about the true god,” Saan explains dryly. “They all think they’ve found the right one. The one true god is what’s between a woman’s legs.” And Davos offers his son a prosperity gospel, telling him: “I wish I had a god, truly. But I’ve seen men pray to every god there is. Pray for wind, pray for rain, pray for home…You want me to have a god? Fine. King Stannis is my god. He raised me up and blessed me with his trust. He gave me a future I never could have imagined…It was Stannis did that. Only Stannis.”
And Stannis’s true conversion comes in a blending of their approaches. He’s annoyed with Melisandre, telling her “Faith?…I cannot defeat my brother in the field. And I can’t take King’s Landing without the men he’s stolen…I’ve said the words, damn you. I burnt the idols. What more do you want?” But when she offers him a son, a continuation of his line and legacy, he’s struck with a combination of lust and fervor. To win converts for divine conflicts, it seems you have to give them what they want in this world.