Game of Thrones is a big, complex story about a lot of things: the way gender roles can poison people’s lives, the gap between the highest and lowest classes of society, the interaction between religion and magic, medieval debt ceilings. But the most important question both George R. R. Martin’s novels and HBO’s adaptation is what makes for good leadership, and how to bridge the gap between roles and the people who have the misfortune to fill them.
All season, the show’s drawn out how miserable Robert Baratheon is atop the Iron Throne. Tonight, he’s smacking his wife for insisting that he’s wrong in his role, losing his temper when Cersei tells him “I should wear the armor and you the gown,” then confessing to Ned Stark, “See what she does to me, my loving wife. I should not have hit her. That was not…that was not kingly.” It’s an indication of Robert’s unsuitability that he escapes his kingship by foisting the power of his office on a man who, though he is a good and decent person, we know by now is entirely unsuited for it. Ned might be a good Hand, even a good king, in a fairy-tale world, but he governs by ideal, rather than by any sense of the pragmatic. He’s more concerned with the quality of process than with outcomes.
Similarly, it’s interesting to watch Viserys Targaryen watch his sister, and discover that there’s more to kingship than a title. One of my biggest complaints about this adaptation is that so much of Dothraki society and custom’s been cut in the television scripts, and I think the scene of Dany eating a stallion’s heart would be more powerful if the show had explained why the ritual was important. But seeing Dany do something difficult through Viserys’ eyes, and seeing how disconcerted he is by the affection the Dothraki bear her is revealing of how little prepared he is to rule, how little he knows about what makes people loyal.
And the small, contrasting stories of the Mountain and Bronn take that lesson down the societal hierarchy. Grand Maester Pycelle’s bewilderment at the news that Gregor Clegane has finally become a mad dog shows what a mistake it is to assume that a title elevates a base man. “Why should he turn brigand?” Pycelle asks plaintively. “The man is an anointed knight.” Spiritual rabies, it turns out, is more powerful than an oath. Similarly, when Tyrion bets on a sellsword to champion him in trial by combat, he and the Vale discover how little a title is worth. When he beats her champion, Lysa Arryn complains that “You don’t fight with honor.” “No,” Bronn says matter-of-factly, “he did.” Maybe there was a time when men and their roles matched comfortably. But with winter coming, it may be safer to be a misfit or an outlaw.