This post discusses plot points from the April 21 episode of Game of Thrones.
“Power is a curious thing,” Lord Varys told Tyrion Lannister in the second season of Game of Thrones, offering him up a parable to explain his point. “Three great men, a king, a priest, and a rich man. Between them stands a common sellsword. Each great man bids the sellsword kill the other two. Who lives, who dies? Power resides where men believe it resides; it’s a trick, a shadow on the wall, and a very small man can cast a very large shadow.” But this week’s episode of Game of Thrones is a seminar in all of the ways that Varys’ story itself is a masterful piece of misdirection. Power is sometimes where you least expect it, and those wise enough to know that can magnify their influence by taking advantage of those foolish enough to overlook and underestimate them.
Varys — who is emerging as one of the strongest characters in Game of Thrones, thanks to his enhanced role and Conleth Hill’s stiletto of a performance — knows that, of course. “Prodigies appear in the oddest of places,” he muses, both considering reports of Podrick Payne’s sexual prowess*, and letting Ros knows he appreciates the initiative she took in approaching him with information about Littlefinger’s plans, in wise recognition that she won’t have her existing patron for much longer.
He’s not the only one who reflects on the advantage of surprise. “Are you here to seduce me, Lord Varys?” the Queen of Thorn asks him. “Please, seduce away. It’s been so long.” The man who has been helping Theon, and who turns out to have betrayed him, brags of his cleverness in what turns out to be a canny act of double misdirection that takes advantage of Theon’s lofty self-regard, unbroken by torture. “I served them, the men who were torturing you,” the man tells Theon, playing innocent in reporting his play at innocence. “I did what they said and waited for the right moment.” You speak Valyrian?” the Wise Master of Astapor asks Daenerys Targaryen when she reveals that she’s been listening to him insult her throughout their entire negotiation. “I am Danyaers Stormborn of the House Targaryen, of the blood of Old Valyria,” she tells him with calm contempt. “Valyrian is my mother tongue.” Hiding in plain sight has given all of these people tremendous advantages. Ferreting out secrets is Varys’ cover for keeping his own. Ros’ “former profession” as a sex worker leads even people who see her potential, like Littlefinger and Varys himself, miss certain possibilities in her, like the idea that she might be literate. Lady Olenna may complain that it’s “a ridiculous arrangement, in my opinion” that, as Cersei Lannister puts it, “the world belongs to” men, but the idea that women are irrelevant and silly allows the Queen of Thorns to operate in plain sight, surrounding herself with women who look like a layer of cotton wool but provide her with both connections and camouflage. Whatever game the man toying with Theon is playing**, secrecy and the perception that he’s a lackey has given him room to execute it. And hiding her language skills — as well swallowing her pride and hiding her intentions even from her advisers less their reactions give her away — and allowing herself to be treated as a stupid little girl, proved crucial to Dany’s audacious move to liberate the Unsullied, who themselves help her out by proving willing to interpret their oaths of loyalty in flexible ways, and win herself an army.
The element of surprise also gives power to people who haven’t been able to accumulate it through diplomacy, spying, or negotiation, even if that power is only momentary. At Craster’s Keep, it’s neither Craster’s professions of godliness or the Lord Commander’s authority that resolves the tense standoff between the man who’s built a squalid empire beyond civilization and the men who’s job it is to guard it. It’s a lone Ranger, quick with a knife and frustrated beyond the breaking point, who emerges as the most important person in the situation. And the Brotherhood Without Banners knows that their essential lack of power, and their lack of interest in accumulating it in the way the players in King’s Landing, even the unexpected ones, do, is precisely what gives them an advantage. “You look like a bunch of swineherds,” Sandor Clegane spits at them. “Some of us were swineherds. And tanners. And masons. But that was before,” the archer who found Arya and her friends tells him. “What are you doing, leading a mob of peasants?” Clegane interrogates Berric Dondarrion. The former knight, one of the people who finds himself liberated by leaving behind Westeros’ formal power structure, explains their strategy to him: “That’s what we are. Ghosts. Waiting for you in the dark. You can’t see us, but we see you. No matter whose cloak you wear. Lannister, Stark, Baratheon, you prey on the weak, the Brotherhood Without Banners will hunt you down.”
And this episode also made clear the terrible consequences that await people who assume the balance of power between themselves and the people who victimize will be permanent. “What are you doing?” Brienne of Tarth asks Jaime Lannister, who is starving himself out of depression, convinced that with the loss of his sword hand, he’s lost his identity. “You can’t die. You need to live. To take revenge…You have a taste, one taste of the real world, where people have important things taken from them, and you whine, and cry, and quit. You sound like a bloody woman.” Brienne’s internalized sexism aside, it’s a powerful speech from someone who has had to fight for ever scrap of physical power and public respect that she has to someone who has always taken his own greatness for granted.
In King’s Landing, in a conversation with similar dynamics, Varys explains to Tyrion how he had his revenge on the sorcerer who bought him as a child, and who Varys first feared would sexually assault him, but who instead castrated the young boy and used his genitalia to cast a powerful spell. And in doing so he lays out a different definition of power.
“Influence is largely a matter of patience I have found,” Varys says, in a calm voice laced with poison. “Once I had served the sorcerer’s purpose, he threw me out of his house to die. I resolved to live to spite him. I begged. I sold what parts of my body remained to me. I became an excellent thief and soon learned that the contents of a man’s letters are more valuable than the contents of his purse. Step by step, one distasteful task after another, I made my way from the slums of Myr to the Small Council chamber. Influence grows like a weed. I tended mine patiently until its tendrils reached from the Red Keep all the way across to the far side of the world where I managed to wrap them around something very special.”
Shadows may strike once, with great lethality. But it’s weeds that can undermine the foundations of buildings and regimes, choke the life out of the plants that most people consider valuable. Winter is coming to Westeros. But so are a great many other things as well.
*I sort of suspect that Podrick didn’t actually have sex with the prostitutes in Littlefinger’s establishment, and just talked to them. If so, this would be the greatest joke Game of Thrones has played on its viewers, and a terrific response to fair criticism of the show’s use of sex and nudity.
**I recognize this subplot is confusing to a lot of people who haven’t read George R.R. Martin’s books, but I’m confident it’s going to pay off in impressive fashion. Hang in there.