This post contains spoilers through the May 27 episode of Game of Thrones.
In the world of Game of Thrones, the greatest challenge for the characters is often knowing how to behave in any given situation, whether it’s a court under siege, the front line of a battle, wildling captivity, or a sophisticated, depraved foreign court. Because the society is so rigidly constrained by class, gender, and martial roles, often characters’ survival depends on how well they’re able to conform to the roles that people expect or need them to take up. Arya’s ability to survive in Tywin Lannister’s employ involved a balance of servility and amusingness, while her sister Sansa needs to please some members of the Lannister court by her utter submission and others with flashes of spitfire temper that indicate a greater capacity than that normally exhibited by and allowed to noble ladies. But on rare occasions, transcending the role that’s been assigned to you and the accepted wisdom can change your life or save it. And as Stannis’s fleet converges on King’s Landing, sailing smoothly into Tyrion’s trap under cover of darkness, find what breaking character can win them.
First, there’s Sandor Clegane, who’s taken something of a smaller role in the show than in the novels. But as King’s Landing braces for invasion and seige, he steps forward to tell the truth about anyone unlucky enough to cross his path. “There’s women in the ground. I put some there myself. So have you. You like fucking, and drinking, and singing. But killing, killing’s the thing you love,” he sourly informs Bronn, who’s having a drink and a girl as preparation. “You’re just like me. Only smaller.” Bronn may be able to dispute the question of which one of them would win in a fight, but he’s unable to deny the essential similarity. And when he sees what Sandor fears, watches the bigger man paralyzed as a man on fire wheels towards him on the battlefield, Bronn saves his life with a well-aimed shot, an acknowledgement of fellowship, and that he knows Sandor’s weaknesses too. The obscene green light of that fire lets Sandor finally see his own limits clearly. “I lost half my men. The Blackwater’s on fire,” he tells the king he’s protected with dogged loyalty. When Joffrey orders him back into battle, Sandor liberates himself in a fashion so startling it allows him to escape. “Fuck the Kingsguard,” he declares in terms more definitive and sincere than Jamie Lannister could ever muster. “Fuck the city. Fuck the king.”
Inside the keep, Cersei’s speaking similarly ugly truths to Sansa, giving her the education that might have benefitted her as a young bride. Sansa earned admission to this particular frantic academy not just by simple proximity—there are lots of other hens in Cersei’s grim, gorgeous coop—but by a clever show of defiance. “I’m sorry, your Grace,” she tells Joffrey as he heads off to a coddled form of battle. “I’m stupid. Of course you’ll be in the vanguard. My brother always goes where the fighting is thickest, and he’s just a pretender.”
That Sansa’s managed to play the game so well, with so few assets to fortify her, seems to have earned her a measure of respect from Cersei, though it’s entirely possible that the older woman’s revelations are the result of wine, or a desire to be cruel instead of comforting. When Sansa gets caught praying, Cersei breaks down how genuine her request for mercy is: “On all of us? Even me? Even Joffrey?…Oh, shut up you little fool…The gods have no mercy, that’s why they’re gods.” Cersei breaks down for the final time the institutions that Sansa’s shaped her life around, informing this rather frightened virgin that “Tears aren’t a woman’s only weapon. The best one’s between your legs. Learn how to use it.” And the best lesson Cersei gives the woman who may replace her is what Sansa can gain by throwing up a facade that gives her room to act. “If my wretched brother should somehow prevail, these hens will return to their cocks and crow of how my courage inspired them, how I lifted their spirits,” Cersei tells Sansa, explaining why she’s performing a duty she clearly loathes. “When I told you about Ser Ilyn earlier, I lied…he’s here for us. Stannis may take the city. He may take the throne. But he will not take us alive.” When Sansa turns down Sandor’s offer to take her home, she’s embracing that lesson, choosing a world whose rules she knows how to operate within over the improbable pursuit of a child’s dream of safety.
And while Stannis has superficially embraced the Lord of Light and Davos’s son has undergone a full-throated conversion, while Cersei counsels Sansa to defy the gods rather than to seek their kindness, the only person in King’s Landing who fully believes in the full power and mystery of the supernatural may be the master of men’s more ordinary secrets. “I think you believe in what you see, and in what those you trust have seen. You probably don’t entirely trust me,” Varys warns Tyrion ” And yet I have seen things, and heard things, things you have not. Things I wish I had not. I don’t believe I’ve ever told you how I was cut…One day, I will. The dark arts have provided Lord Stannis with his armies and paved his path to our door. For a man in league with such powers to sit on the Iron Throne, I can think of nothing worse.” Whether that foresight aids him in battles even beyond his comprehension, with forces gathering beyond the Wall and dragons on the loose in Qarth remains to be seen. But Varys’ ability to believe illustrates the blindness of the people who employ him, who fancy themselves in full control because they don’t know how much of the universe lies beyond their grasp.