This post discusses plot points from the April 7 episode of Game of Thrones.
Game of Thrones, in keeping with its title, spends much of its time meditating on how people maneuver to acquire power. Whether it’s dragons, whispers, sex, or brute force, the show does an excellent job exploring which tools different kinds of people choose, and what happens to them once they adopt their chosen ends. But not everyone in Westeros and Essos is meant to or intends to sit the Iron Throne. And “Dark Wings, Dark Words” is a strong episode of the show because it poses a rather different set of questions. What does it mean to be brave in the world of Game of Thrones when you don’t have armies, or dragons, the right name or gender, or even the physical capability to defend yourself?
It makes sense that an episode concerned with these issues includes a figure who once thought of himself as brave and powerful, but has been stripped of his armor, weapons, and authority. “Where am I?” asks Theon Greyjoy, shackled to a wooden cross, alone in the dark. “Who are you? What do you want?” “I want to do this,” one of his captors tells him, taking a knife to his hand. The man with the weapon has power, but it’s not brave to torture an unarmed and disconcerted man. And even as Theon disintegrates, there’s a certain amount of courage in the little integrity he’s able to hold on to. “Tell us the truth,” his interrogator asks him. “About what?” Theon begs him, still not at the point of simply talking. “I don’t know what you want!” When he breaks down after being hooded, there’s no particular shame in his plea “I’ll tell you anything. Just take it off. Please, please, just take it off.” Invulnerability is a kind of foolishness.
Brienne’s entrance into the season is a reminder that physical strength can be paired with emotional vulnerability, and that sometimes emotional openness can be a kind of strength. Jamie Lannister, irritated by her uprightness, tries to bait her about her loyalty and focus, saying: “You think Lady Stark’s going to want a giant, tow-headed plank following her around for the rest of her life?” What he doesn’t count on is that Brienne’s open to the possibility of rejection. “If Lady Stark is unhappy with any aspect of my service, I’m sure she’ll let me know,” Brienne tells him. “She’s an honest woman.” The only subject on which Jamie manages to get a rise out of her is Renly.
“I did not fancy him,” Brienne insists, giving herself away. “Gods, you did. Did you ever tell him?” Jamie jabs at her. “You’re far too much man for him.” But having elicited a reaction from her, Jamie backs down, in part because it’s a subject on which he, too, is vulnerable. “I don’t blame him,” Jamie tells Brienne. “And I don’t blame you, either. We don’t get to choose who we love.” But he should have recognized that just as loving Cersei hasn’t made him less of a warrior, loving and losing Renly hasn’t made Brienne soft. When he gets her sword and taunts her “See. If you were willing to hurt me, you might have had me there,” Jamie’s forgetting that holding back can be a form of testing someone, that it can show a respect for violence not to use it except when you usually meet it. And when Brienne beats him, she doesn’t need to even look at him to know she’s won. Self-knowledge is as great an asset as a second sword.
And the refusal to care what other people think about you can be both a form of courage and a strategic advantage, as Bran and Osha discover on their trip North. “My sister carries the weapons,” Jojen Reed tells them when Osha corners him. “I’m better with them,” Meera tells Osha, brandishing a knife with a certain amount of glee. Osha, like Jamie, tries to shame Jojen and Meera for their gender non-conformity, and is disconcerted when Meera refuses to be rattled. “Isn’t he ashamed, your brother, needing you to protect him?” Osha wants to know. “Where’s the shame in that?” Meera asks her, seeming blessedly free of the guilt that comes with a traditional Westerosi noblewoman’s upbringing, much as you’d expect Osha herself to be given her childhood beyond the wall. “Any boy his age who needs his sister to protect him is going to find himself needing lots of protecting,” Osha insists.
“Some people will always need help,” Meera tells her confidently. “That doesn’t mean they’re not worth helping.”
The willingness to protect other people is a significant theme of the episode, and it represents a particular form of bravery when the people offering to do the protecting are themselves vulnerable. And the person being offered protection most frequently is Sansa Stark. “If he does ask you to do anything, or try anything, or touch you, I want you to tell me,” Shae tells her charge, despite her own lack of formal power. “I will make it stop.” Lady Olenna Tyrell, by contrast, has her “foolish flock of hens” as a buffer around her, the advantage of coming from a wealthy House that has renewed strategic importance to the regime, and the protected status of widowhood, all of which give her the courage to speak her mind, and to understand the importance of getting other people to do so. It takes her a while to see the full extent of Sansa’s terror, to understand that the younger woman’s reluctance comes not from stupidity or court etiquette, but fear. “Are you frightened, child? No need for that. We’re only women here. Tell us the truth. No harm will come to you,” Lady Olenna tries to reassure Sansa. “My father always told the truth,” Sansa reminds her, letting Lady Olenna fill in the rest of the equation. “Yes, he had that reputation. And they named his traitor and took his head,” Lady Olenna acknowledges, recognizing the cost Sansa is paying to speak up. And in recognizing that cost, Lady Olenna wins Sansa’s trust. “He’s a monster,” Sansa insists, in her bravest act of the entire series. “Ah, that’s a pity,” Lady Olenna sighs.
That scene, and the information Margaery and Lady Olenna gain from it, flow into another kind of courage: the willingness to walk into danger even when you’ve been made aware of the full extent of it. While Margaery’s learning who her future husband really is, Joffrey’s demonstrating his character for her mother. “She’s an ideal match,” he declares of Margaery. “With the Tyrells beside us, we’ll crush the Northerners, hang their lords, burn their strongholds, sow their fields with salt, and no one else will think of rebelling for another century.” It takes a lot of confidence to encourage the worst of someone like Joffrey to try to tame him. “I’ve considered making his perversion punishable by death,” Joffrey muses after interrogating Margaery about her previous marriage, which makes him angry and suspicious even as, to his mother, he insists that Margaery was only doing her duty. “As is your right,” Margaery tells him under lowered eyelashes. And then she ups the ante, going to the heart of what makes Joffrey who he is. “I imagine it must be so exciting to squeeze your finger here and watch something die over there,” she tells him, having stroked his crossbow like it’s an extension of his body. “Do you think you could? Kill something?” Joffrey asks her, genuinely excited by her for the first time when she suggests she might eroticize violence the same way he does. “I don’t know, Your Grace. Do you think I could?” Margaery asks him, seducing the boy king. “Would you like to watch me?”
If Margaery is walking into the lion’s den for her own self-preservation and the good of her family, other people are willing to dash themselves against the Iron Throne for broader reasons. “The Lords of Westeros want to burn the countryside. We’re trying to save it,” Thoros tells Arya and her friends when they find themselves in the custody of the Brotherhood Without Banners. It’s a noble cause, but probably a ludicrous one. But sometimes going to work even when there’s no chance you’ll succeed is the highest form of bravery, a willingness to endure pain and possibly to sacrifice yourself to remind people there are other ways to live. Mance Rayder is driven less by ideals than desperation. “They speak seven language in my army,” Mance tells Jon Snow. “The Fenns hate the Hornfoots. The Hornfoots hate the Ice River Clans. Everyone hates the cave people. So do you know how I got moon worshippers and cannibals and giants to march together in the same army? I told them we were all going to die if we don’t get South. Because that’s the truth.” Sometimes courage is knowing when you ought to be terrified, so you can tackle the thing that only makes you afraid.