This post contains spoilers through the second season of Game of Thrones.
“The King won’t give you any honors, the histories won’t mention you, but we will not forget,” Varys, the Master of Whispers, tells Tyrion Lannister halfway through the finale of the second season of Game of Thrones. Tyrion knows he’s been scarred, he’s been stripped of his role as Hand of the King, he’s worried he’ll lose his lover, and worst of all, he’s been insulted by a suddenly-resurgent Grand Maester Pycelle, who’s transfigured Tyrion’s kind gesture to Daisy earlier in the season into a profound insult, flipping a coin at him “For your trouble.” Varys has introduced another possible misery to Tyrion, and articulated what’s powerful about Game of Thrones for those of us watching from aeons away: this is the secret history of Westeros, the filth and blood that will be smoothed away into the official record, expunging dwarves, and bastards, and little girls along the way.
In an episode that ends with the rise of the unbelievable, it’s fitting that two pivotal characters spend their appearances in the episode fretting over belief in the same God, and their ability to follow Him. Stannis Baratheon is devastated by his defeat on the Blackwater, a calamity that has him feeling retrospective guilt. “I murdered my brother,” he confesses to Melisandre, author of his will in that matter, refusing to share the blame that eats at him. And at the first sign of Melisandre’s failed prophecy, he questions her to the point of asphyxiation, attempting to choke an alternate truth out of her. “You promise these things, but you don’t know,” he despairs. “None of us know.” But Melisandre, despite letting slip that she sees only glimpses of the future, seizes the opportunity to turn Stannis into a true believer, helping him look into the flames. It’s the first time his grimace has relaxed—even when impregnating Melisandre (no other word really seems to capture the grimness of it), he’s been locked in his own misery. Now, she’s given him not just a promise for the future, but a sense of wonder.
Arya wants to believe more badly than Stannis does, but finds she’s unable to, at least not yet. She has an unexpected chance to say goodbye to Jaqen after she finds him waiting on the road after her escape from Harrenhal, though he won’t quite explain to her how he know she would be there. And he has a future to offer her. “To be a dancing master is a special thing. But to be a faceless man, that is something else entirely,” Jaqen promises her. “The girl has many names on her lips…Names to offer up to the Red God. She could offer them one by one.” It’s a tantalizing future for a girl with so much blood to spill, but Arya has other obligations, telling him “I want to. But I can’t. I need to find my brother and mother. And my sister. I need to find her, too.” But Jaqen is playing a longer game than Melisandre is, giving her a coin, but warning Arya “It is not meant for the buying of horses.” “Then what good is it?” asks the girl who has lived because she is so much more than she seems, but has yet to recognize that quality in others.
There’s something heartbreaking about Arya’s insistence that she has to find her family, even Sansa, who she believes betrayed them, when Sansa, offered the opportunity to escape by Petyr Baelish, tells him “King’s Landing is my home now.” It’s not necessarily that I believe that she’s given up on her family, but living in what counts for luxury in Westeros, Sansa has so many fewer resources than her little sister, and the one asset she had is about to become a tool to wound her, to render her unable to use it again to her own advantage. “We’re all liars here, and every one of us is better than you,” Baelish tells her, after warning her of what her immediate future holds after Joffrey puts her aside in favor of the vastly more politically convenient Margeary Tyrell, a woman who knows enough of womanly wiles and men’s appetites to tell the boy king that “those tales [of his courage] have taken root deep inside of me.” “‘He’ll still enjoy beating you, and now that you’re a woman, he’ll be able to enjoy you in other ways as well,” Petyr warns her. “Joffrey’s not the sort of boy who gives away his toys.”
But across from the Red Keep, someone else is cutting deals with the women Petyr’s treated like his own playthings. “Unlike your current employer, I protect those who work for me,” Varys tells Ros, after he’s thoroughly convinced her that he’s not remotely interested in her for the reasons other men are. “I don’t abuse them to satisfy royal whims, or force them to abuse each other…Littlefinger looks at you and sees a collection of profitable holes. I see a partner.” A Song of Ice and Fire has always had a lot of characters who are sex workers, but the books barely give them points of view, much less opportunities for power. There’s something powerful in the way this season has diverted from the books, deconstructing Tyrion’s affection for prostitutes as a condescending nobless oblige that leaves women vulnerable. Tipping Daisy for her tryst with Pycelle is more about Tyrion’s self-satisfaction than her protection—he’s blind enough to send her into Joffrey’s rooms to be beaten to a pulp. And there’s something fitting about the fact that Varys, a man who by some of his peers’ definitions is no man at all, is the one who can truly see Ros as a person, with potential as well as vulnerability. Their inabilities to use their sexualities conventionally, him in conquest, her in marriage, means that others fail to see them fully, and gains them room to maneuver.
In the Riverlands, Jamie’s trying to make Brienne ashamed for taking her sexuality off the table, a decision that’s freed her to behave like Arya, who has not yet encountered the encumbrances of sexual maturity. Speculating about her youth, Jamie muses that men or boys must have tried to cut her down to size, emphasizing her sexuality when she loomed above them. “You fought them off. But maybe you wished one of them could overpower you, fling you down, tear off your clothes?” he asks. “I could.” Brienne’s response is not just to Jamie’s fantasies of women who are asking for it, but to the Stark men who punished women for sleeping with Lannister men with painful death. She kills the men who recognize Jamie, pinning one of them through the genitals with a toast: “To quick deaths.” He won’t live to remember the lesson. But perhaps Jamie, whose sex life has not been precisely conventional either, will.
There are still some people who believe in the fairy tale, with varying results. Catelyn warns Robb that despite the concrete woman who’s diverted him from his abstracted, promised: “Love didn’t just happen to us. We built it slowly over the years, stone by stone. For you, for your brothers and sisters, for all of us. It’s not as exciting as secret passion in the woods, but it is stronger. It lasts longer.” He marries her anyway. Theon, swept up in a new image of himself—though not so much so that he doesn’t tell his men “Girls will think of us with their lovers inside of them”—gives a rallying speech to his men and gets bopped upside the head for his trouble. “I thought he’d never shut up,” the Ironman who’s been giving him guff since the beginning of the mission. “It was a good speech,” replies Dagmar, who did the bopping. “Didn’t want to interrupt.” And Dany almost succumbs to a dream. It’s not of ruling Westeros—she sees winter descended on the Great Hall, the skeleton of Brandon Stark, burned to death by her father, the catalyst for a war that followed, hanging from the ruined ceiling. No, it’s of domestic life with Drogo, their son alive and healthy. “If this is a dream, I will kill the man who tries to wake me,” Drogo tells her, but it’s she who walks away, back into the House of the Undying and her living children, killing her captors, condemning her betrayers to a nightmarish death.
It’s beyond the Wall that Sam unconsciously articulates the bridge between the fairy tale and the reality. Musing endlessly of Gilly to the irritation of his brothers, Sam says that the things that interests him most about the young woman he left behind is that “”After all that Craster’s done to her, she still holds out hope that things might get better.” Fairy tales can rot the brain, and lead the Sansa Starks of the world into grievous and irreversible error. But they’re a gilded embodiment of a much more vital life force: the hope, however faint, for a happy ending, that animates those who make it into the final draft of the stories, and those whose shoulders and struggles they stand on.