A friend of mine has a very bleak assessment of Game of Thrones: If you love a character, they'll die unfulfilled. If you hate a character, you'll come to learn how they became so hateful and start to love them, and then they try to redeem themselves and die unfulfilled.
It's not quite like that, or else I'd be worried about spoiling by sharing the sentiment. But how the show will deal with the books' long march of constant thwarting and elusive pleasure, while adding additional characters all the time, and still keep interest, was one of the things I worried about last season. How will the show give viewers the emotional boost they need to stay invested while being true to the gruesome, occasionally-grueling canon?
Well, stuff like That Daenerys Scene, I guess. It's time to recap and discuss! I'll bring the words, you bring the animated GIFs.
Let's step out of the episode's chronology and talk about Dany's glorious triumph in Astapor first, since that's the part everyone's talking about in my social circles. A couple recaps back, a couple commenters (and you guys are brilliant, by the way, keep it coming!) said they were just waiting for the grand reveal, whereby we learn Dany's been able to speak High Valyrian all along and has been playing the dumb foreign girl as a strategic move so that the slavers wouldn't see her coming.
A lot of action and crime dramas lean on the tension in that big reveal, when a couple of factions one assumes are equally powerful do the anxious dance around the weapons exchange, and then one of them revels in a breathtaking coup. There's always the moment when you have to arm your opponent and trust they'll keep the deal, rather than use the ammunition you gave them to turn on you.
Keeping nobly mum about her disgust for the slavers and allowing them to underestimate her let Dany betray Astapor, keep her Dragon, and leave a liberated city behind her in a cloud of dust. The great joy moment comes from the fact she gets to have an army of freed men who serve her by choice — and from the awed looks on the faces of Barristan Selmy and Jorah Mormont, who've been trying to mansplain her out of her agenda all this time.
The dragon who laid waste to Astapor is her largest and most aggressive, Drogon, named after her late husband Khal Drogo. The other two are Viserion, named after her mad creep of a brother Viserys (who died of a molten gold crown in the Dothraki encampment, if you recall), and Rhaegal, named after as-yet rarely-mentioned other brother, the late Rhaegar Targaryen, a charismatic hero and the best-liked figure in the Targaryen's spotty legacy.
The shadow of the Targaryens overhangs this episode, so if you're going to get excited about Daenerys' fire and blood, we might as well fill you in on how she comes by it. It's Dany's late family, former rulers of Westeros, about whose legacy of mental illness Joffrey squeals eagerly in the Sept where he's set to marry Margaery. Before the late Robert Baratheon led a rebellion, Daenerys' father Aerys sat the throne, reviled as the "mad king".
Slaying him is what earned Jaime Lannister the title of Kingslayer, as if slaying a mad king were an essential act of treachery coming from the Targaryen despot's own Kingsguard. As the story goes, Rhaegar Targaryen's two young children, one an infant, were murdered by some Lannister agent (one of the Clegane brothers, many think), to ensure Robert would take the throne and marry Cersei with no rival heirs from the prior house.
Intuiting that history even a little bit helps to shed yet more ambiguity on unfortunate Jaime Lannister, who is still a high-value prisoner, along with Brienne. His reputation is negative outside of Lannister allies, his talent and privilege goes widely resented long after he's lost his sword-hand, which he sees as his entire identity. Brienne seems to experience some sympathy for him, here, and pressures him out of giving himself up for dead by suggesting he's acting "like a woman" by feeling sorry for himself.
When she demands to know why he prevented her from being violated in last week's episode, he doesn't answer — but then when we cut to Cersei confronting their father, we know why. Jaime has sympathy for how his twin sister has had far less renown than him, presumably just for being born a woman. He's not such a bad guy, this Lannister golden boy.
The Night's Watch, still installed at Craster's vile keep and helping him with chores in exchange for board and scraps, is not having a good time of it, either. Gilly returns Sam's mother's thimble, which he clumsily tried to impress on her as a romantic gesture last time he was here. Poor Sam; you can't really blame Gilly, though, busy as she is trying to spend what she thinks will be her last moments with her son before her father (also the baby's father) sacrifices him to the wights. Sam is bright, sensitive and fair, but action's what's needed here now.
Unfortunately, starvation, fear and dissent about how to handle the Craster issue culminates in a civil war of sorts among the black crows, in which both despicable Craster and beloved "Old Bear" Mormont are both killed, as Sam hustles Gilly and her baby out into the cold, dangerous night.
It looks like Ros and Varys were as confused about Pod's no-charge outing at Littlefinger's brothel last week as we were. Seems like the fact Littlefinger didn't notice the lost income was simply the catalyst for Ros to investigate Littlefinger's shipping documents as the latter heads to the Eyrie to woo Catelyn's distasteful sister Lysa into a strategic marriage.
Seems Littlefinger plans to smuggle Sansa Stark along on a visit to her aunt. Helpless Sansa is little more than a playing piece in the Game of Thrones, now, in that custody of any kind could bring the Northmen, loyal to her late Dad, to heel. Varys claims to be Littlefinger's friend — he's everyone's friend, that Master of Whispers — but no one wants to see a relatively low-born, dangerously cunning man gain any special advantage amid the unrest at court.
Varys tells Tyrion the grisly story of how he became a eunuch as a boy, in the service of some sorcerer's ritual — but it's also the story about how the crafty man patiently worked his way up from the slums of Myr to the Small Council of King's Landing, patiently tending his information network over years, until he's finally able to bring the very sorcerer who harmed him to the castle in a box. The vengeance Tyrion wants for the mysterious attempt on his life during the Blackwater battle could take similar years, Varys implies.
Cersei Lannister and Olenna Redwyne discuss plans for Joffrey's likely improbably-lavish wedding to Margaery. Cersei is cold and short-sighted, and her fatal flaw is the fact she's felt she had to defer to her cruel young son to maintain her family's legacy. As Joff delights in squicky stories about the late Targaryens, whose madness emerges because of their family tendency to wed siblings, we see probably it's Cersei's secret choice of father for her child that's given pale-haired Joff the same violent, uncontrollable tendencies.
The Lannisters enjoy force and wealth; the Tyrells seem to like the simple charm of a golden rose, no matter how the family matriarch appears to disdain their non-threatening family crest. The conversation between Cersei and Olenna is excellent — surely when the grandmother laments how hard it is to keep one's sons from the grave, it's not a threat, is it? "And yet the world belongs to them," Cersei says mournfully.
For her father's political plays she had to wed a womanizing drunk who apparently died in a hunting accident, just like the late husband Olenna scorns; she now has a son she can't control, and the one person she apparently loves is who knows how far away.
To make matters worse, a radiant, bare-armed and unguarded heroine of the common-folk seems to be better at manipulating her son than she is. When mobs start wailing outside of the Sept, we expect they want to throw more cow pies at bratty Joff — remember how the royal family barely escaped savaging at the hands of commonfolk the last time they walked among them? But that was before charismatic Lady Margaery took over public relations.
When after plying Joff with a lie about her appreciation for viciousness she suggests he open the doors and greet the people, we wonder whether she intends to lead him to his death. But when they cheer him for standing beside her, the stricken-mother look on Cersei's face is priceless. She doesn't just fear losing her son bodily — she fears losing her power to this pretty young rose.
Hunted into a corner and bereft of real allies, the Lannister lady approaches her father for help. Brilliantly, this scene is designed to mirror the one in which her little brother Tyrion dared to approach their detached father Tywin for control of Casterly Rock: The brilliant strategist takes his time about important business, making no secret of the fact any number of things are more important to him than his children. He claims he doesn't disdain his daughter's wisdom, such as it is, because she's a woman, but because she's failed her most important job. Which is to be a mother. Thanks, Dad.
We've seen Theon Greyjoy liberated from torture at the Dreadfort by a mysterious groomsman who claims to've been loyal to the Ironborn family. Should have seen disaster coming as soon as the rescuer began plying Theon's ego, which is his fatal weakness. We were able to feel quite sorry for Theon last season, caught between two houses where neither patriarch was totally willing to be his father. We understand his desire to please his origin family at war with his outsider status among the honorable Starks that raised him. "All he had to do was just be," Theon laments resentfully of Robb Stark, who'd been like a brother to him.
We see Theon on the verge of redemption, realizing how he chose wrong. You could almost well up at his revelation that his real father was Ned Stark after all. And that's when we learn the desperately-needed savior was just leading him back to the torture device from which he'd unpinned him and sent him fleeing.
If this episode has a theme, it's that madness is among the most fatal wild-cards in the Game of Thrones world. I imagine they'll finally let us know who this long-awaited character is really meant to be next week, but for now we're given to understand it's a presumably-insane tormentor who liked the pleasure of letting Theon go free just so he could hunt him down and bring him back. Sick, man. Look at that expression on his face when they put Theon on the signature Bolton family X-shaped rack again.
How are we supposed to have hope enough to stay with this story? Well, that Daenerys scene is coming up. My friend wants to make that unholy choir her ringtone. But before that, we find out Varys decides to collude with Olenna Redwyne and the Tyrells to marry Sansa Stark into the Tyrell family instead, which would be a major coup for the golden roses who're quietly "growing strong" all around the Lannisters' crumbling grip on King's Landing. Margaery tells Sansa she wants to be good friends — but Margaery is also a very good liar.
Porridge Plague? Really? Sansa's crucial failing all along is she believes whatever she is told to believe, especially if it's consistent with the glossy fiction of handsome lords and noble ladies, no matter how many times those minstrels' fictions have let her down in the past. If you ask her to believe she gets to marry Loras Tyrell and become a lady of beautiful Southron Highgarden, she very much wants to. The reason she doesn't want to confide the nature of her prayers is that all she's wanted all along is for Joffrey to die. I mean, come on. It's what we've all wanted.
We close by learning a little more, in a sense, about the fate of the Targaryen babies — specifically that it wasn't the Hound, Sandor Clegane, who killed them. We know, because he denies being part of the pillaging violations at the Mummer's Ford, and he denies being involved in the death of children, but has no trouble accepting brave Arya's accusation that he slayed her friend Micah, the butcher's boy, mistakenly blamed in her place for injuring Joffrey in a much more innocent time of riverside play with a couple of direwolves and her sister Sansa.
The one-eyed man we see here is Beric Dondarrion, whom Ned Stark assigned to find and bring justice to the Hound's brother Gregor the Mountain. Along with the Red Priest Thoros of Myr, they continue to carry out a dead man's orders, worshipping the Lord of Light (yes, that's the same religion as Stannis' uncanny sorceress Melisandre). Though he denies being involved in his brother's crimes, the Hound will, we learn, receive the fairly-common practice of a trial by combat against Dondarrion.
Recall Tyrion escaped capture by Catelyn Stark at the Eyrie when his now dear friend Bronn agreed to act as his champion; a trial by combat seems to be a fairly overconfident approach to prosecuting serious offenders.
By the end of this episode, the spirited inspiration we need to sustain engagement comes from the rapidly-encroaching, kill-em-with-smiles Tyrell family, and from Daenerys' inspirational victory over the slavers. We even have hope that poor Sansa will finally escape King's Landing, one way or another.
The show's treatment of the Tyrell family, particularly Margaery, has been interesting; the books leave it fascinatingly ambiguous just how independently Margaery acts, how witty she is on her own, whether she has a moral agenda or simply plays along on behalf of her family, whether she has the desire to be queen.
Presented as she is, Margaery Tyrell is almost an unfairly-stacked foe for Cersei at this point, especially in a series that begs us to take pity on anti-heroes. What do you think her fatal flaw might turn out to be?
None of the series' good characters are truly good (or in the rare cases they are, as with Daenerys or Arya, we watch them grapple remarkable disadvantages). And none of its bad characters are truly bad. If you haven't figured it out, I am an incorrigible Lannister sympathizer — what keeps you watching (or reading, if you're a book fan)? Do you wait to see the evils get their comeuppance, or their redemption? Is this the kind of story where it even makes sense to long for the good characters to win?
Please continue joining the discussion in the comments, but bear in mind we're all trying to avoid any major book spoilers whatsoever for fans who are just following along for the first time. I can't wait to see what commentor "Roose_Bolton" will be able to correct me on this time.
The Targaryen family tree is a tough thing to memorize, and the show hasn't even started talking about Dorne yet. I even wondered whether it was a good time to offer context on the Targaryen backstory, in case the show deals with it, but I erred on the side of assuming some light context that's been implied so far might be useful to people without ruining the pleasure of seeing it explored further, if that happens. Feedback is welcome!