This post discusses plot points from the May 19 episode of Game of Thrones.
If last week’s Game of Thrones was a meditation on what makes for a good relationship between romantic and sexual partners, or between friends, this week’s episode narrows its focus to ask what makes a good friend. It’s a question that gets introduced in a conversation between Arya, who’s sulking that her attempt to run away has lead her into the custody of a man who’s on her kill list, but who she doesn’t quite have the courage to try to take out. “There’s no one worse than you, she tells the Hound as they ride towards a river so placid that it seems the war has never touched them. “You never knew my brother. He once killed a man for snoring,” the Hound tells Arya, before moving from the specific to the general. “There’s plenty worse than me. There’s men who like to beat little girls. Men who like to rape them. I saved your sister from some of them.”
“Second Sons” has many reminders that the men from that terrible day in King’s Landing aren’t alone, and the bloodlust that griped the crowd isn’t the only thing that can move men to downgrade consent. Mero, the commander of the Second Sons, the sellswords hired by the Yunkish slavers to keep Dany out of their city, immediately moves to try to make Dany feel powerless by sexualizing her. First, he tells Dany he’s sure that he had sex with her in Lys—and suggests that she’s a prostitute, not a leader of her own people. “Take your clothes off and come and sit on Mero’s lap and I may give you my Second Sons,” he tells her jovially, then asks to see her vagina as the measure of whether she’s worth switching sides to support. He sniffs at the genitals of Missendi, Dany’s translator, and warns both Dany and the younger woman that “The Second Sons share everything. Maybe after the battle, we’ll all share you. I’ll come looking for you when this is over.” Sex for someone like Mero isn’t just preferable when the woman doesn’t really have agency. It’s a way to deny women agency in the first place.
And Essos mercenaries aren’t the only people who downgrade the consent of the women they have sex with. “I’m a mistake,” Gendry reflects of his parentage on Dragonstone. “I’m only here because my father grabbed my mother instead of the next girl in the tavern.” And Robert Baratheon’s son in name if not by blood shows off his nasty streak again at Sansa Stark’s wedding to Tryion Lannister when Joffrey tells Sansa that his engagement to Margaery Tyrell hasn’t shifted his interest from Sansa, and makes clear that her marriage to Tyrion Lannister doesn’t bring her under protection meaningful enough to give Joffrey pause. “Congratulations, my Lady,” he tells her in a sickening tone. You’ve done it. You’ve married a Lannister. Soon you’ll have a Lannister baby. It’s a dream come true…It doens’t really matter which Lannister puts the baby into you. Maybe I’ll pay you a visit tonight after my uncle passes out. How’d you like that? You wouldn’t. That’s all right. Ser Meryn and Ser Boras will hold you down.”
But if Sansa’s life and sexuality remain under threat, at least she’s been lucky enough to marry a Lannister with some decency. First, her father-in-law Tywin Lannister betrays some of the only gentlness he’ll ever show anyone when he tells Joffrey, “I believe we can dispense with the bedding,” a tradition in which the bride and groom are stripped naked by guests of the opposite gender and put to bed together to consummate their marriage. Then, Tyrion, her husband (who objected to the bedding, but who needed Tywin’s help to stop it), tells her “I won’t share your bed. Not until you want me to.” Sansa asks him tentatively “And what if I never want you to?” Painful as that must be for Tyrion, and drunk as he is, he handles her sexual rejection with humor if not grace. “And so my watch begins,” Tyrion raises his glass to his bride, swearing the same vows as the men of the Night’s Watch he visited back when the peace still held.
In Yunkai, Dany turns out to be lucky enough to have encountered a sellsword company that, while lead by an outrageous misogynist, includes a leftenant who likes his women willing, and considers the pursuit of a beautiful woman a philosphical end. “The Gods gave men two gifts to entertain ourselves before we die,” Daario Naharis explains his worldview to the commander he’ll shortly kill. “The thrill of fucking a woman who wants to be fucked. And the thrill of killing a man who wants to kill you.” The first men he dispatches is Mero, offering up his service and himself in a rather bold move to Dany. Whether she takes him up on the second part of the package remains an open question.
Misogyny isn’t the only way a man can be cruel or kind, of course, though it’s often paired with other kinds of indecency. “Is your father cruel, like mine?” Gilly asks Samwell Tarly beyond the Wall, after Sam tells her that he’d rather she not name her baby boy after Sam’s own father. “Different manner of cruel,” Sam tells her, referring to her own father, Craster. But in truth, Craster and Randyll Tarly’s nastinesses have a similar foundation in hatred of women. Craster sees women as utterly subordinate to him, in every way, no matter their relationship to him, his daughters turning into his wives, and unavailable to other men, much less having choice and agency of their own. And what Randyll Tarly hated in his son was what he perceived as Sam’s womanishness, his preference for books and music over blood. Wanting to hardness femininity when it appears in women and destroy it when it appears in men are both ways of hating it.
And the treatment of women can be a proxy for the way you treat other people without power, a question Stannis Baratheon is contemplating on Dragonstone after Melisandre brings him Gendry, and he believes her means of sacrificing him means murder. “Forgive me, I’m not a learned man, but is there a difference beween kill and sacrifice?” Daavos Seaworth asks his King when Stannis visits him in prison. “You came to me now before this boy is put to the knife becuase you knew I’d counseled restraint. You came to hear me say it becuase you believe it yourself. You’re not a man who slaughters innocents for gain or glory.” Gendry ends up sexually and physically victimized, seduced by a woman who ties him up and drains his blood to cast curses on kings. But he survives the ritual, Stannis’ mercy a crooked compromise, but more than is afforded to many of the women in this war of many kings.