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.