This post contains spoilers through the April 15 episode of Game of Thrones.
I said on Twitter before this episode of Game of Thrones aired that “What Is Dead May Never Die” is my favorite episode of Game of Thrones to air this season, and it may be my favorite of the show so far. Both on a plot and meta level, there’s a great deal going on here—the first genuinely significant departure from the novels in Margaery Tyrell’s emergence as a major character with independent and clear motivations; the Greyjoys’ commitment to invading mainland Westeros; Catelyn’s attempt to forge an alliance between her son’s forces and Renly Baratheon’s; Jon Snow’s reckoning with the true nature of the world beyond the Wall; Tyrion’s consolidation of his base of power in King’s Landing. But all of these elements explore a single theme: fealty to lovers, lords, and ideals, in a world where disloyalty can be fatal.
We begin with Jon’s discovery that Craster is giving his sons to the woods. He’s shocked—despite the fact that he hasn’t always been treated particularly kindly by the family that raised him—that Craster, a man who takes his daughters as wives and rules his squalid compound with terror and manipulation, would give his children to the cold. “Wildlings serve crueler gods than you or I. Those boys are his offerings,” the Lord Commander explains, with understanding and resignation. It’s one thing to worship the Gods when the greatest token demanded of you is a bent knee before a great tree. And if you don’t believe in powerfully active Gods, it stands to reason great sacrifice might read as abomination rather than devotional. “What boy doesn’t secretly wish for hidden powers to lift him out of his dull life into a special one? But at the end of it, for all my efforts, I got nothing more out of it than a thousand boys before me,” Maester Luwin tells Bran, who is dreaming of wolves, and the possibility of running again. “Maybe magic once was a mighty force in the world, but not anymore. The dragons are gone. The giants are dead. And the children of the forest forgotten.”
We move from divine fealty to a more fleshly—but no less emotionally engaged—variety when the show moves to Renly Baratheon’s encampment. Brienne’s introduction to the show is striking, both for the men and his company and for us, both for the intensity of her attachment to the king, and the shape of it. Brienne isn’t like Margaery, the comely young queen cheering for her brother and serving as an ornament to her king. And she’s not Loras, the comely knight whose dedication to the King is supposed to be read as chaste, a sublimation and transmutation of sexual desire into martial energy. Instead, Brienne’s devotion to Renly is the reverse of pleasure-seeking, it’s self-abnegation, even annihilation. “I fought for my king. Soon, I’ll fight for him on the battlefield. Die for him, if I must. And if it please you, Brienne’s enough. I’m no lady,” she tells Catelyn, removing herself from the company of knights and of women, defining herself by her willingness to die.
Loras, by contrast, has sexual access to the king, but not, as it turns out, his ultimate loyalty. “Brienne is a very great warrior. She’s devoted to me,” Renly tells Loras, who is pouting over his bruises, and is shocked to discover that “You’re jealous.” Unable to restore order, expel Brienne from the Kingsguard, and regain his place as Renly’s most impressive warrior, Loras settles for denying Renly what Renly does still want from him, shaming him with the reminder that “There’s another Tyrell that requires your attention…Shall I bring her to you?”
The scene that follows features some truly outstanding acting from Gethin Anthony, who’s transformed the rather thin tissue of Renly in the novels into a complex, even tortured man. And it shows us the most significant change in the adaptation from the novel to the show, Margaery Tyrell’s emergence as a powerfully canny player in the Game of Thrones, one who understands that sexual politics matter as much as diplomatic ones. Her revelation to Renly that she knows about his sexual involvement with her brother gives her power over him. And her proposal to him is both an act of extreme loyalty that marginalizes her own interests into nothingness, and an act of mercy that leaves Renly profoundly in her debt. “There’s no need for us to play games. Save your lies for court. You’re going to need a lot of them,” Margaery tells the man who is her husband in name and law but not in action. “Your enemies aren’t happy about us. They want to tear us apart. And the best way to stop them is to put your baby in my belly. We can try again later. You decide how you want to do it. With me. With me and Loras. However else you like. Whatever you need to do. You are a king.”
Margaery’s position may be cold, but it’s a good deal more enviable than the one that Sansa faces. “Is Joffrey going to kill Sansa’s brother?” Tommen asks rather innocently, and Cersei takes it as an opportunity to torture the girl in her care, to assert her power over Sansa and make Sansa reiterate her loyalty all over again. “He might,” she says, poisonously sweetly. “Would you like that?…Even if he does, Sansa will do her duty. Won’t you, little dove?” But she’s wild with fear and anger when Grand Maester Pycelle, failing Tyrion’s test of loyalty, tells her that her hated younger brother plans to send her daughter to Dorne. “You monster,” she spits. “Myrcella is my only daughter. Do you really think I’ll let you sell her like a common whore?” Tyrion’s explanation is almost mild when he tells her, “Myrcella’s a princess. One might say she was born for this.” It’s not as if Cersei, she who favors locking the peasants outside the gates to avoid inconvenience to herself, was previously been some paragon of service to Westeros. But that scene was a reinforcement of how narrowly defined Cersei’s true loyalties lie, to a small subset of people who share her blood and meet her approval.
At least she likes some of them. After years of resentment on low heat, Balon Greyjoy’s loyalties have been reduced down to four words, that refrain of “We do not sow.” And that realization is shattering to his son, who believed that blood still bound them. “You act as if I volunteered to go. You gave me away the day you bent the knee to Robert Baratheon, after he crushed you. Did you take what was yours, then?” he cries nakedly, after assertion and posturing fail him. “You gave me away like I was some dog you didn’t want anymore, and now you curse me because I’ve come home.” And unaffirmed, unreassured, even unanswered, Theon gives up his love for Robb Stark, and hopes for baptism will mean transfiguration.
And Arya, in her last quiet moments with Yoren, discovers an incantatory formula of her own. After Arya lists the names of those who have wronged her, Yoren explains:
We got something in common, me and you. I must have been couple years older than you. Saw my brother stabbed through the heart right on our doorstep. Weren’t much of a villain that skewered him. Willem, the lad’s name was…I just stood there, watching my brother die. Here’s the funny part. I can’t picture my brother’s face anymore. But Willem? Oh, he was a nice looking boy. He had good, white teeth. Blue eyes. One of those dimpled chins all the girls liked. I would think about him when I was working, when I was drinking, when i as having a shit. It got to the point where I would say his name every night before I went to sleep. Willem, Willem, Willem. It got to be a prayer,al most. One day, Willem came riding back into town. i buried an ax so deep in his skull they had to bury him with it…Willem’s horse got me to the Wall, and I been wearing black ever since. That’ll help you sleep, eh.
Everyone has to have something to serve, if only their own hatred.