This post discusses plot points from the April 28 episode of Game of Thrones.
Much of Game of Thrones is concerned with the question of how individual players accumulate authority, consolidate their positions, and expend their resources, whether it’s Varys living to spite the man who maimed him and taking delivery of the once-powerful sorcerer in a box, or Dany taking terrible gambles to hatch her dragons and free a slave army that will be loyal to her. But this week’s episode, written by story editor Bryan Cogman, asks a rather different question. If you’re not a major player in the game of thrones, how do you decide who is deserving of your loyalty? And what happens when you withdraw or transfer it?
In the captivity of the Brotherhood Without Banners, Arya struggles with the idea that judgement should be outsourced to the Lord of Light, who Thoros entreats to “Show us the truth. Strike this man down if he is guilty, and give strength to his sword if he is true,” in the matter of Sandor Clegane. “He’s guilty!” Arya protests when the giant knight survives his trial by combat, and of course, she’s right, she saw him kill Micah. But she is entranced by at least some of what she sees in the cave, particularly Thoros’ resurrection of Beric Dondarrion after the Hound kills him. Every time I come back, I’m a bit less. Pieces of you get chipped away,” the knight tells her. “Could you bring back a man without a head?” Arya asks Thoros, wistfully, thinking of her father. “Not six times. Just once? “I don’t think it works that way, child,” Thoros tells her gently but truthfully—his faith can give her many things, but neither the revenge nor the healing that she wants.
And if Arya’s confused by that, she’s equally upset by Gendry’s decision to pledge his loyalty to the Brotherhood, particularly given the way it exposes the fault lines between them and the difference between Arya’s worldview and that of the man who’s become her surviving older brother. “I’ve served men my entire life,” Gendry tells Arya when she suggests he come with her to rejoin Robb at Riverrun. “I served Tobho Mott in King’s Landing and he sold me to the Night’s Watch. I served Lord Tywin at Harrenhal wondering every day if I’d get tortured or killed. I’m done serving…He may be their leader, but they chose him.” “I can be your family,” Arya protests.“You wouldn’t be my family. You’d be my Lady,” Gendry tells her. Even in the wilderness, Arya’s coming up against the limitations of her family name and her station of birth. She’s one of the few people in the story for whom being downwardly mobile might be genuinely liberating.
In King’s Landing, Lady Olenna Redwyne wins a point with Tyrion Lannister, who’s called her in to discuss the cost of the Royal Wedding, by reminding him that if people are going to give their loyalty to an authoritarian like Joffrey, who offers none of the inspiration or freedom that a leader like Beric Dondarrion does, the Lannisters need to give them an emotional attachment to the crown. “The people are hungry for more than just food. They crave distractions…Their distractions are likely to end with us being torn to pieces. A royal wedding is much cheaper, wouldn’t you agree?” Lady Olenna tells him. “We’ll pay for half the expenses, and the celebrations will go on as planned.”
And in the North, Rickard Karstark serves up his King In the North a reminder of what can happen when loyalty isn’t stoked and maintained, murdering the Lannister squires that Edmure Tully took, and turning a strategic blunder that lost Robb Stark a chance to kill the mountain into an absolute diplomatic disaster. “Tell your mother to look at them. She killed them as much as I,” Karstark tells Robb bitterly of the little bodies, reminding Robb that Catleyn’s decision to free Jaime Lannister, who killed Karstark’s sons in battle, denied him emotional closure and justice. “King in the North,” Karstark muses. “Or should I call him the King who lost the North?” His suicidal act of treason is emotionally spiteful, but it has real consequences for Robb Stark, who’s forced to acknowledge that the only man with the army to help him make the only strategic move left to him—an attack on Casterly Rock—is Walder Frey, the man whose daughter he agreed to marry, then threw over for Talisa. Loyalty from noblemen comes at a high price.
There are cases, too, where it can be cruel or savagely destructive to ask a man to keep giving loyalty to someone who uses it for evil ends. In an extraordinary speech to Brienne of Tarth that functions as an apology to her for suggesting her incompetence contributed to Renly Baratheon’s death, Jaime explains what it meant to serve the Mad King:
He burned anyone who was against him. Before long, half the country was against him….Finally, the day of reckoning came….The whole Lannister army at his back, promising to defend the city against the rebels. I knew my father better than that. He’s never been one to pick the losing side…The King didn’t listen to me. Didn’t listen to Varys, who tried to warn him. But he did listen to Grand Maester Pycelle…”You can trust the Lannisters,” he said. “The Lannisters have always been true friends of the crown”‘ So we opened the gates and my father sacked the city. Once again I came ot the King, begging him to surrender. He told me to bring him my father’s head. Then he turned to his Pyromancer. “Burn them all,” he said. “Burn them in their homes, burn them in their beds.” Tell me, if your precious Renly commanded you to kill your own frather, and to stand aside while thousands of men, women, and children burned alive, would you have done it? Would you have kept your oath then?…I don’t think he expected to die. He planned to burn with the rest of us and rise again, reborn as a dragon, and turn his enemy to ash. I slit his throat to make sure that didn’t happen.
He’s not alone in dilemma, though Jaime is alone in sacrificing his honor to do what he believed was correct and humane. “I lived away my years fighting for terrible kings,” Ser Barristan muses while on the road with Dany and Jorah Mormont. “A man of honor keeps his vows whether he’s fighting for a drunk or a lunatic. Just once before the war is over, I’d like to fight for someone I believe in.” Jaime’s story calls into question that definition of a man of honor, and Mormont’s reaction to Barristan throws some doubt on the rank Barristan seems to believe he still has, telling the older man that for all of his experience, “You’re no Lord Commander here. You’re just another exile. And I take my orders from the queen.” Their choice of her as the worthy object of their loyalty comes out of very different experiences, and their interpretations of what position they have under her reign differs too, perhaps with serious consequences.
But if Jaime’s and Ser Barristan’s stories illustrate the dangers of loyalty, Dany’s and Shireen’s are a reminder of the humanity of holding onto it even in the darkest of circumstances, and of the ways in which people can give their loyalty and understand their circumstances. Dany orders the man elected commander of the Unsullied to throw off his slave name, but the man surprises her by electing to keep it, telling her: “Grey Worm is the name this one had the day Daenerys Stormborn set him free.” And in her father’s dungeons, Shireen, a forgotten little girl with a skin disease and her dead brother floating in vitrines searches out Davos Seaworth, the Onion Knight her father imprisoned for treason when he tried to kill Melisandre. “You’re my friend. You must be bored down here. I brought you stories about Aegon and his dragons,” Shireen tells perhaps her only friend. “Take it. I have more .” “Milady, I can’t read the words,” Davos confesses to her, in a reminder that power can be distributed very unevenly between the young and the old, depending on their circumstances.
“You can’t? I’ll teach you,” Shireen promises, refusing to be defeated. “I wouldn’t know where to start,” Davos tells her. But Shireen reassures him: “At the beginning.” Both words and loyalty begin with the littlest things.
And while much of this episode is concerned with the way loyalty is transferred in public life, it also contains two parables about intimate life, and what it means to govern yourself, or to be governed by others.
Beyond the Wall, Ygritte decides to test Jon’s loyalty for a final time by aiming at the one vow he’s kept to. “Is Orell right? Are you still a crow?” she tells him in a cave with a thermal spring. “It’s time you proved yourself. You swore some vows. I want you to break them. I want you to see me. All of me.” Jon is certainly under pressure, and he flinches from her initial kiss like he’s been snakebit. But once he decides he wants to pass, Game of Thrones, really for the first time since the first season, gives us a sense of what joy consensual sex can bring to two people. “That thing you did. With your mouth. Is that what Lords do to their ladies in the South?” Ygritte asks him after. “I don’t know,” Jon admits, before confessing the extent of his uncertainty. “I just wanted to kiss you there was all. You seemed to like it.” The two of them flirt, and talk about his virginity and her lovers, and Ygritte tells him “Let’s not go back. Let’s stay here a while longer. I don’t ever want to leave this cave, Jon Snow. Not ever.” Of course they have to. The Wall waits, as does Jon’s mission, and as do the White Walkers. But in that cavern, the two of them glimpse an experience that’s wholly unavailable to almost everyone in Westeros, and the idea of leaving it behind is a genuine tragedy.
That tragedy is made particularly clear in King’s Landing where Jon’s half-sister is about to feel the full weight of the arranged marriage system: Tywin Lannister has announced his intentions to marry Sansa Stark to Tyrion. “You give her to me? That’s cruel, even for you,” Tyrion tells his father. “The girl’s happiness is not my concern,” Tywin snaps at him. “You wanted to be rewarded for your valor in battle. Sansa Stark is a finer reward than you could ever hope for. And it’s past time you were wed.” And that’s not the end of his strategic cunning or disdain for his children. “Tyrion will do as he is bid. As will you,” he tells Cersei. “You’ll marry Ser Loras….Tyrion will secure the North. You will restore the Reach.” “I’m queen regent, not some broodmare,” Cersei tells him, speaking first of her position. But her fear, grown out of the disappointments of a husband who hated her and who raped her within the confines of her marriage, is real. “Father, don’t make me do it again,” she begs Tywin, to no avail. But he can, and he will, and he is. And in showing us, for an episode, what it means to be free, Game of Thrones has helped us see the full pain of being confined.