Game of Thrones S2E8: It's family stuff

Ravens are a big deal in the Game of Thrones universe. They’re used to transmit information from one place to another, and often seem to be portents of death. This week’s episode begins with a whole dead basket of ‘em, as Prince Theon, in his latest act of swaggering idiocy, has killed all of Winterfell’s birds so that no one can send word to Robb Stark.

Of course, sending notes tied to birds is generally a slow and imperfect form of info transit, especially in the world of this story, which is well-established as massive and hostile to easy passage. I’ve previously written that one of the reasons the series appeals in our current clime is its bold, dialog-provoking approach to patriarchy and sexuality – I wonder if its lavishing upon the preciousness of information and the incredible conveniences we now enjoy in the internet age is another?

This episode in particular illuminates the disadvantages of being unable to communicate well in wartime. Catelyn releases Jaime Lannister in the hopes of getting her daughters back fom King’s Landing – would she have done that if she’d been able to know that King’s Landing only has one of her daughters? People in Westeros are just now finding out that Daenerys is fast becoming a desert queen wreathed in dragons – no one knows, of course, that the Qartheen have stolen them from her. Arya's current ability to kill quickly with just a word, via her odd ally Jaqen H'ghar, is her biggest salvation right now.

We also see the extent to which the TV series is devoted to fleshing out relationships in ways the books don’t -- the books are written in a way that lets you infer sentiment from actions, but that doesn’t necessarily work on TV, where we’re analyzing the subtleties of behavior (and falling into Robb Stark’s eyes, like I was this episode).

 So we’ve been getting this extensive development of the probably-not-a-good-idea relationship between politically-betrothed Robb and Talisa. She’s a character that could turn out to be entirely an invention separate from the books, which see Robb’s duty in conflict with his feelings over Jeyne Westerling of The Crag, not a runaway lady incognito as a battlefield medic.

It’d take a bit of creative writing at this point to make Talisa turn out to be the same woman, but it doesn’t really matter – sorry, purists, but at least when it comes to TV, this is a much more dynamic and more interesting arc; the books see Jeyne as herself barely a footnote, the kind of girl you can’t really imagine anyone thinking of risking an army, a war and a kingdom to marry.

Of course, the idea that the woman actually wasn’t especially worth it would enforce Robb’s major weakness – that he’s not disciplined or experienced enough to manage this highly complicated martial situation on his own, might bungle into such an impulse conflict. But this Robb is too likeable to be quite that dumb, so he gets the kind of woman a guy with good values would admire.

I'm okay with it, especially as that love scene between Talisa and Robb was so incredibly naturalistic, simple and clumsy, relieved of the touch-of-porn grotesquerie that sex in this show usually gets. I always suspected it’d be kind of awkward having to deal with so many leather laces in one’s leather jerkin or doublet or whatever, and look! She laughed, and it felt so genuine.

Tyrion is also someone for whom romantic love can be a weakness, which is why the only thing that’s struck an odd note to me about the show so far is that Cersei seems to have figured out her brother may be falling in love with “his whore” (even though she identified the wrong woman to keep as a hostage)  before that’s even been clear to we the audience.

We know he confided in her and Bronn about his only traumatic experience with love as a young man under his dad’s thumb; we’ve seen him take pains to hide her in the castle – but also her stark refusal to surrender much of the material comfort she expects as the consort of a Lannister son. I guess we see it once Tyrion is out of Cersei’s sight, his panic when he runs to Shae, who is nonplussed, as dutiful about holding and kissing him as she is about brushing Sansa’s hair.

I suppose Tyrion is a person who’s learned well to veil his most vulnerable emotions -- which is why the scene of his pledge to protect her felt so vibrant, felt like it came from such a private, fragile place in him, even as the pair are positioned such that his physical smallness, face upturned, is emphasized relative to her.

We very much want, for his sake, to believe that she loves him, and not just the Lannister gold, but can you really tell?

The other whore, though, the one Cersei has kidnapped thinking it’ll force Tyrion to let her son Joff sit out the upcoming battle with Stannis – this one has seen some things. Remember her flashing her naughty bits farewell to Theon from the back of a horse-drawn cart, heading to the big city hoping to find better fortune?

She seems to have found her way into a leadership role at King’s Landing’s fanciest brothel, and now she’s in favor at the palace itself. Since then she’s been forced at crossbow-point to sexually abuse another girl in front of the young king and now she’s brought out before the queen with a badly-lashed back and a bloody face, accused of being the Hand’s woman.

I like this character; she’s sort of an avatar for the greatest disadvantages of Game of Thrones’ sexual patriarchy, and it feels like a more meaningful decision on the part of the show to represent prostitution and exploitation through a single character we can like and recognize, rather than portray a litany of nameless “whore” characters whenever the story required one, which it frequently does.

But despite the increased attention to romantic and sexual nuance, this episode thrives on its roots in family love. Since Theon seems stubbornly dedicated to his humiliating course, Yara shifts from shaming him in front of her men to talking to him in private about how her presence could soothe his screaming when he was a “terrible” baby. Catelyn has tried to give her son the space to win his war, but he can’t forgive the way her fear for his sisters broke her down and led her to interfere.  The wincing agony of Tyrion’s ongoing cat-and-mouse with his sister continues; like Yara and Theon they have a ruthless parentage in common, but cannot bond as adults.

It’s true that Cersei is motivated by bitterness about how being a woman means she’ll never get the power she wants, so putting her son on the throne is the next best thing. But she really does love her children, and like any mother is desperate to keep them safe. Just like another “mother”  -- Daenerys will risk her life to get her dragons back, because they are the only children she can ever have, now.

In all cases, major world events and the lives of smallfolk all around Westeros are being affected by subtle, complicated family attachments, whether that’s a mother’s love for her children or the burdens that adults have inherited from their parents. It’s that sort of detail that keeps Game of Thrones from being a simple war drama.

It’s not the fault of the show that Daenerys’ bit of the story has become the least interesting, after last season’s fascinating tale of a child-bride’s coming into her own in the arms of a brutal horselord – and losing a black-magic infused fight for his life, and hatching dragons in a fire.

I mean, you probably do have to go downhill from there. But watching her ineffectually crisscross foreign cities and lose some things and then get others isn’t very engaging – we want her to just reach the scene of all the action already, and it feels like it’s taking forever. Fortunately, these exotic cities she’s been in are breathtaking to look at, and so is actress Emilia Clarke’s expressive face.

Aren’t you glad that Bran Stark and his little brother Rickon are still alive after all? They're really the only full innocents in this thing, poor kiddoes. Wily Osha has hidden them away (along with Bran’s lumbering pal Hodor) in the crypts below Winterfell. Can’t wait to see what they’ll do now. This episode is called "The Prince of Winterfell" -- at the end we know that refers to the little boy that really holds that title, not the manchild that pretends at it.