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‘Game of Thrones’ Recap: “Valar Dohaeris”

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"‘Game of Thrones’ Recap: “Valar Dohaeris”"

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This post discusses plot points from the March 31 episode of Game of Thrones. If you want to discuss the events of A Storm of Swords or subsequent books in George R.R. Martin’s series, please label your posts as such.

As is necessary with a show like Game of Thrones, the first episode of this third season is concerned both with reiterating the larger forces advancing on Westeros—it begins beyond the Wall, where Samwell Tarly is pursued by the White Walkers and ends in Astapor, where Daenerys Targaryen is contemplating the moral implications of purchasing an army of slaves as a necessary corrective to the slow growth of her dragons—and dealing with the implications of the Battle of the Blackwater, which forged new alliances and left new scars. But it’s also preoccupied with another set of related themes. Where does power come from? And what are the paths to acquiring it, particularly for people born outside of birthright claims to influence?

Some men are made great, or at least elevated to positions from which they can achieve greatness, by circumstance. Mance Rayder, the former Brother of the Night’s Watch who’s united giants and gorgeous red-heads alike into a massive encampment beyond the Wall, brought them together through a shared threat. When Jon Snow, who’s turned his cloak at the behest of his Lord Commander, faces the difficult question of why he’s come to Mance, the answer he gives appears to be the ones that united the wildlings—the real deception is in suggesting that the wildlings and the Night’s Watch don’t share the same goal. “I saw Craster take his own baby boy and leave it in the woods. I saw what took it,” Jon tells Mance. “Because when I told the Lord Commander, he already knew. Thousands of years ago, the first men battled the white walkers and defeated them. I want to fight for the side that fights for the living. Did I come to the right place?”

Back in King’s Landing, another rather disreputable fellow’s found himself elevated by circumstance: Bronn the mercenary is become Ser Bronn of the Blackwater, a promotion related by the nervous Podrick Payne to two members of the Kingsguard who find themselves doubting his bona fides. But as Bronn finds out when he attempts to claim his title and the influence that would go with it is that titles don’t automatically carry power with them. Your claim has to be recognized—just as the wildlings had to grant authority to Mance for him to lead them, Bronn is finding that deference is not an automatic affair.

And power, once granted, can be taken away by circumstance or by a decision that strips you of legitimacy. Last season, Cat Stark made the decision to free Jamie Lannister to trade him for her sons, and now she’s reckoning with the status she forfeited for a chance to have her daughters back. “Find her a chamber that will serve as a cell,” her son Robb orders his men. When his wife, Talisa, protests that “She’s your mother,” Robb explains that Cat forfeited the legitimacy that would have entitled her to deference. “She freed Jamie Lannister. He robbed [Rickard Karstark] of his sons. She robbed him of his justice.”

By contrast, Tyrion Lannister believes that the actions he’s taken for his family, his ingenious insight that trapped Stannis Baratheon’s fleet at King’s Landing and won him the Battle of the Blackwater, should have earned him more credibility, not diminished his status—and yet he finds himself demoted. “I bled in the mud for our family. And as my reward I was trundled off to some dark little cell. What do I want? A little bloody gratitude would be a start,” Tyrion complains to his father Tywin, who’s had him removed to smaller chambers, taken over his job as the King’s Hand—which Tyrion rather enjoyed—and failed to visit his son during his recuperation from serious wounds.But Tywin is able able to see only his son’s imperfections, telling him contemptuously that “I sent you here to advise the king. I gave you real power and authority. Instead, you spent your days as you always have: bedding harlots and drinking with thieves.” And Tywin, whose power is confirmed by hereditary succession, his immense wealth, and military victories, has decided to set up a system in which his son can never ascend to anything of substance, declaring “I would let myself be consumed by maggots before mocking our family name and naming you heir to Casterly Rock.” Tyrion’s the rare person to be expelled from one class of influencers in Westeros to another. He’ll have to make his own way.

In a sense, he’s been put into the same position as a woman. And where his sister Cersei tends to exercise hers from a distance, and through functionaries, like the guards she had beat a servant girl who stole a necklace from her until she lost an eye, her prospective daughter-in-law, Margaery Tyrell, is going about the business of consolidating her influence in the capital by getting up close and personal with the residents of Flea Bottom, the very neighborhood where Cersei and her entourage were attacked. “You’ll ruin your dress,” a maid tells Margaery as she alights from a litter and heads through a puddle of slop into an orphanage. “I have others,” Margaery tells her, charging forward. Privilege means you can hide, but it also means you can afford to take risks that would be costly to others. Once inside, she works on a form of increasing her power that never seems to have occurred to anyone else in Westeros: public relations. “Bad men wanted to come into this city and do terrible things, but your father stopped them. Whenever you look at this knight, I want you to remember your father,” Margaery tells an orphan boy. When the child, already attuned to the class differences of Westeros, tells his future queen “He wasn’t a knight. he was just a soldier,” Margaery is quick to smooth over that distinction. “What do knights swear to do? Protect the weak and uphold the good. Your father did that. Be proud of him,” she tells him. “Under King Joffrey’s leadership, your fathers saved the city, they saved us all. From now on, we’re going to take care of you.” And those children will grow up to be adults who remember the beautiful woman who visited them, and the version of their history she taught them.

Other women, with less fortune and position than Margaery, are left to build their bases of power in subtler ways, and in service to those who matter. When Littlefinger reaches out to Sansa Stark, a women whose greatest danger comes from the fact that she doesn’t realize how powerful she has the potential to be, Ros, the sex worker from Winterfell who survived abuse at Joffrey’s hands, and Shae, a camp follower who became Tyrion Lannister’s lover and later Sansa’s maid, are watching them. “He’s an important person,” Shae remarks. “So is she,” Ros tells Shae, perhaps reminding the other woman of the opportunity before her. “We’ve both done rather well, you and I….It’s not easy for girls like us to dig our way out. Watch out for her.” “I always do,” Shae promises. “Watch out for her with him,” Ros adds an additional caution. People who accumulate power accumulate responsibilities. And that often means that they cede their power to other people to help manage those responsibilities, frequently without realizing that they’re giving away influence as well as work. Service can be a way for people to accumulate power while disguising their own importance, a particularly useful position if you’re not supposed to be able to change the world around you at all, simply accepting your place instead.

But some decisions can’t be made by anyone else. Dany and Jeor Mormont’s troubles in this episode both illustrate the limitations faced even by people vested with official authority. In the Lord Commander’s case, he’s short on resources, and that makes mistakes costly. “Did you send the ravens?” he asks his clever, but underconfident, stewart Sam after what remains of the Night’s Watch ranging party has fled from a murderous encounter with a horde of wights. “Tarly, look at me. Did you send the ravens?” When Sam ruefully shakes his head no, the Lord Commander can’t help but vent his frustration at this costly mistake, and at the limitations of his own office. “That was your job. Your only job,” he tells Sam before trying to rally his men by reminding them of their mission, which serves as increasingly thin gruel in the bitter and murderous cold. “We need to get back to the wall. It’s a long march. We know what’s out there. But we have to make it. Have to warn them. Or before winter’s done, everyone you’ve ever known will be dead.”

Dany, who’s landed in Astapor, faces a rather different dilemma. She has resources, loyal aides, and she’s come to a place where she can buy the men she needs to retake the country she believes is hers by right. “The Unsullied have stood here for a day and a night with no food or water. They will stand until they drop. Such is their obedience,” Missendi, the translator for the Wise Masters, the slave trainers who rule Astapor, tells Dany when she inspects her prospective purchases. Unlike Sam, who broke ranks in fear of a stabbing, even having a nipple forcibly sliced off won’t make these imposing slave soldiers, the Unsullied, flinch, much less cut and run. But faced with her dearest desire, the means of conquering Westeros, Dany hesitates. When her advisor, Jorah Mormont—the son of the Lord Commander who’s facing so much trouble beyond the Wall—tells her that the Unsullied are the best soldiers in the world, Dany reminds him “The greatest slave soldiers in the world. To some people, that makes a difference.” He asks her “Do those people have any better ideas about how to put you on the Iron Throne?” Even though she concedes they don’t, she’s unconvinced. “Once I own an army of slaves,” she wants to know, “what will I be?” It’s a question that many other characters on Game of Thrones, looking only to the pursuit of power, could stand to ask themselves.

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