I had the good fortune of seeing Robet Schenkkan's All The Way—a play about Lyndon B. Johnson, the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and the run-up to the Democratic Convention before 1964's Presidential election—with Breaking Bad's Bryan Cranston on Broadway this past weekend. Stick with me for a moment—but All The Way is part of a larger resurgence in reclaiming LBJ as one of the most skilled politicians of the 20th century, and one of America's greatest presidents. Its greatest achievement, in weaving together Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Act, J. Edgar Hoover's wiretapping, the impending wave of misery in Vietnam, is to frame LBJ as a formidable puppet master, a preternatural political manipulator, able to push and poke and prod and pummel friends and enemies alike to craft his vision of a brighter future for anyone like him, who would grow up in the dirt and claw as far as they could toward the top, obtaining great power along the way.
However strangely, that lens informs how I view Daenerys' fledgling dominion over Meereen and the rest of Slaver's Bay in "Mockingbird." She's trying to drag the entire region in Essos into the light, away from slavery, but struggles with how best to achieve that goal. Daario Naharas, refusing to be contained by his vow to adhere to Daenerys' orders, sneaks into her private quarters under the guise of proving her windows aren't properly guarded, and pitches both his carnal desire and his desire to take back Yunkai in her name—since he's good at two things: fighting and wooing women. So the mother of dragons does what any leader who has traveled a long distance to arrive at a comfortable place of leadership would do: she tells him to take off all of his clothes, then the next morning sends him to kill every remaining master in Yunkai, effectively giving into everything Daario wants.
Though she's proactive about her personal needs, which is a rarity for this show, she's at a loss for what to do as a queen to bring Yunkai under control. Jorah, who awkwardly crosses paths with Daario the next morning, raises questions about both her Daenerys' decisions. If Ned Stark had implemented the same justice Daenerys is showing to Yunkai, Jorah wouldn't be there to advise her. (Nor would he be a former spy for the Red Keep, a nugget of information that now looms large whenever he and Khaleesi disagree on anything.) Daenerys is making her own choices, and her advisors are loyal servants to a would-be queen of Westeros. But she's still under the influence of others. Sometimes it's to her benefit, as Jorah's arguments lead Daenerys not only to change her mind and offer the rebellious slave master in Yunkai a choice—live in her new world, die in their old one—but also to credit an advisor looking for a bit a praise. But as Daenerys continues to discover, figuring out how to rule—especially how to manipulate the little things in order to make the big picture function as a peaceful and prosperous whole—is going to be a lot harder than she thought.
Over in King's Landing, Tyrion's impending trial-by-combat gets teased out by three scenes of visitors to the former Master of Coin's cell. The opening scene of the episode has Jaime yelling that Tyrion threw his life away—while the imprisoned counters that a trial by combat takes everything Tywin set up so delicately and smashes it to bits. "It felt good to take that from him." But now comes the harsh reality that while Tyrion has the temporary satisfaction of denying Tywin his master plan, he still has to survive the trial—against Cersei's champion. She chooses the massive and widely feared Gregor Clegane, known as The Mountain, older brother and former tormenter of Arya's captor The Hound. Jaime can't fight for Tyrion this time either, since his training has proven he's not fit to wield a sword with his left hand in combat. Tyrion's second visitor, the last man to serve him in a trial by combat at the Eyrie, is Bronn, who enters cloaked in fancy new garb that betrays a deal already forged with Cersei, meant to deny Tyrion his previous champion in Jaime's stead. That conversation is one of more depressing moments in a long litany of them for Tyrion. He can't begrudge Bronn for his political maneuvering—he's taking a wife and angling for a position as Lord Protector in the wealthy Stokeworth family—since that kind of selfish behavior is what drew the two together in the first place. But it does leave Tyrion in a tight spot, without anyone else to turn to now that Cersei has closed off his most likely sources of help.
But then, under cover of darkness, with no prying eyes around to overhear the plan, Oberyn Martell brings in a torch to talk. Again, it's a touching scene, as Oberyn tells a story about the first time he met Tyrion, years ago on his first visit to Casterly Rock, just after the youngest Lannister was born. Oberyn and his beloved sister heard stories of the new babe and his freakish appearance: a giant head, a tail, a red eye, a hermaphrodite. But when Cersei and Jaime finally showed Oberyn the newborn, he saw only a slightly misshapen child. Cersei, cast in the same callous and selfish mold as her father, viewed Tyrion as the vile creature who killed her mother, and wished he'd be dead soon. It illustrates just how much hatred Tyrion had to overcome from his own family—except Jaime, who even in Oberyn's story leans sympathetic—and why the Dornish man comes to the Lannister's aid now. He's got a list, much like Arya, of those responsible for his sister's gruesome demise—starting with The Mountain. He will be Tyrion's surprise champion, defying Cersei and Tywin directly from the Small Council's table. It has been Martell's plan all along to strike back at the Lannisters and their banner men, beginning with The Mountain. And to have the opportunity to face down his sister's rapist and murderer while at the same time needling Cersei and Tywin by aiding Tyrion only makes it an easier decision for Oberyn.
That parallelism between siblings is the connective thread throughout "Mockingbird"—which takes its name from the symbol on Littlefinger's sigil. Not just in the Tyrion/Jaime comparison, but Sandor and Gregor Clegane. The Hound delivers what is perhaps his most touching moment—which, despite his harshness toward Arya as his captive, goes nicely with his brave actions in service of Sansa while in King's Landing. His monologue, about how his brother burned his face, leading to his fear of fire, and how his father did nothing to punish his brother, once again rounds out a previously thinner character.
As for other siblings, "Mockingbird" also connects two sets of sisters: Sansa and Arya Stark, as well as Lysa and Catelyn Tully. The Stark girls come up as Brienne and Podrick continue north and encounter Hot Pie, still a baker, at an inn along the way. He provides a bit of information about Arya, so that now other people know she lived beyond her last sighting in King's Landing around her father's beheading. As the Hound's traveling captive, she's slowly beginning to see the world in as cynical a fashion as Sandor. They share the most existential moment of the episode in putting a dying man out of his misery, who wonders if death would be better than living in such pain. ("Nothing isn't better or worse, nothing is just nothing." The hound's tendency to suddenly lurch into violence is also beginning to rub off on the younger Stark girl. When they happen upon one of the men Arya encountered on her journey north toward the wall along with Hot Pie and Gendry, she waits only a moment after learning his name to stab him right in the heart—taking the Hound's lesson from moments earlier.
In the Eyrie, Sansa sees snow again for the first time since leaving the north—and her red hair contrasts gorgeously with the white surroundings. She builds a replica of Winterfell, as best she can remember it, but then Robin enters, and it's only a matter of time before he does something to mess it all up as he talks about how much he loves the Moon Door and how every home should have one despite not resting atop a mountain range. Perhaps it's that the kid doesn't understand her suffering, or the fact that Lysa has stated her intention to marry off Sansa to this little dweeb, or that for once Sansa is in a position where she's the physically dominant one again. But she snaps and smacks Robin across the face—cathartic on multiple levels in the moment, and then potentially life-threatening once Sansa thinks of the consequences.
But Littlefinger enters, and he allays her fears. "Mockingbird" positions Bronn to be cut from some of the same cloth as Littlefinger, a man of no prior note making cunning decisions and defending territory in order to swiftly climb the social ladder into power. These two aren't siblings like Tyrion/Jaime, Sandor/Gregor, or Lysa/Catelyn, but they do share similar characteristics insofar as others of more noble birth look down on them, and thus underestimate them. Baelish's intentions with Sansa have always been clear—his love for Catelyn endures, so ardently that he's projecting onto her daughter, and quickly moving from a politically advantageous marriage to Lysa to shoving her out the moon door. That final coup de grace is one of the best mic-drops to end an episode of Game Of Thrones, and even though many viewers have stated the final line has been changed from the book, it's still a terrific scene. Baelish is one of the few characters who continues to climb without suffering repercussions, and now he's Lord Protector of the Vale, surely after placating everyone with an explanation of a terrible "accident."
Even in expressing a tiny bit of pent-up frustration, Sansa has essentially been rescued from one kind of prison into another. While less at risk of dying now that she's in the Eyrie and away from King's Landing, she's now under the care of a man who loved her mother so much that he's holding onto the last piece of her left in the world (as far as he knows). Sansa lives atop what is allegedly the safest stronghold in Westeros, so external forces like the Lannisters can't get to her. Baelish is another threat entirely: someone she feels drawn to because of his kindness, but who should not be trusted (thanks to his own words) and takes grave action in order to protect his interests. Sansa should do well to remember that final line: he only loved Cat, and even being her daughter doesn't mean she can serve as a stand-in forever.
• The one bit of time spent up at the Wall shows Jon Snow once again put in his place by a foolish interim Lord Commander. Snow advises sealing the tunnel, which could help keep Mance's Wildlings from breaching the gate with the aid of giants. But the moronic leader, more concerned with putting Jon in his place as a Steward, defers to the First Builder, who doesn't agree, and apparently that's that. The impending battle doesn't look good for these Brothers.
• Also in brief: Melisandre and Selyse talk while the Red Woman is naked in a bathtub. They discuss Melisandre lying with Stannis (she brushes it aside as merely flesh needing what it needs), and the importance of Selyse's daughter Shireen remaining with them during some upcoming travel. But the symbolic significance of this relies more on Melisandre stating that many of her powers are merely visual tricks that get nonbelievers to convert, and once they realize they've been wooed or terrified by conjurer's misdirection, they're already in the light and follow the Lord. It's a rather self-aware take on religious conversion and missionary work for a woman who burns heretics—but then again, she has pulled off some terrible feats of sorcery. And hey, HBO fulfills its boob quota this week with Carice van Houten, who (trivia alert!) is actually good friends with fellow Dutch actor Michiel Huisman, who now plays Daario Naharas.
• Daario's statement that he basically does two things well (killing, wooing women) is awfully close to Veronica Corningstone's line: "I am good at three things: Fighting, screwing, and reading the news. I've already done one of those today, so what's the other gonna be?"
Extra Special Spoiler Warning: Don't read beyond this point if you haven't read the books and would like to remain unspoiled.
We good? Everyone who wants to stay in the dark out of the room? All right.
It was brought to my attention last week that this cryptic picture showed up in Lena Headey's Instagram feed. That, coupled with this piece in Vanity Fair a few weeks ago, heightens speculation that a certain dearly departed cast member (probably my favorite female character on the show) will make a shocking return. My guess? She'll appear in a season-ending stinger much like when Michonne first popped up in the second season finale of The Walking Dead. That would be fantastic.