Last week’s episode of Game of Thrones ended with a straight-up cliffhanger, in which Jon Snow discovers the not-too-surprising secret that incestuous father Craster has been disposing of his infant sons (offering them, it turns out, as sacrifices to the White Walkers). It leads, in the first scene of “What Is Dead May Never Die,” to the perhaps-somewhat-more-surprising revelation that Mormont knows damn well what Craster is up to.
As the Lord Commander explains to his disillusioned squire, the Night’s Watch–already short-staffed and treated patronizingly by an unhelpful King’s Landing–cannot afford to be choosy as to whom it accepts help from while keeping civilization safe from frozen ghouls. “Wildlings serve crueler gods than you or I,” he says, arguing that the Watch has bigger worries than one useful man’s domestic crimes. It’s not a very satisfying answer, but then again, Jon doesn’t have much of a response.
Game of Thrones has always been a series about power and the way it operates, but this episode–and it seems season 2–is putting a special focus what it means to have and hold power. First, as we see here and in several other storylines, it involves making alliances, often very uncomfortable ones.
And second, there’s a difference between power and strength: the remarkable riddle Varys offers Tyrion, of the king, the priest, the rich man and the sellsword, makes explicit that strength is merely power’s tool. And power is a deftly maintained illusion that commands strength, allowing the likes of a eunuch and a dwarf to exercise influence far beyond their physical abilities.
Like Littlefinger and Varys, Tyrion is a strong believer that knowledge and cleverness equal power, and he gets to show that off beautifully with the scam he runs on those two and Maester Pycelle to figure out which of them is loyal to Cersei above all others. Tyrion having variations of the same discussion with all three of them was among the most purely entertaining sequences the show’s done to date. (And it was followed beautifully, hilariously by Tyrion leaving an extra coin for the whore’s trouble.) Between Tyrion’s brains and Bronn’s steel, Cersei’s going to have a much harder time getting rid of the new hand than the previous two.
Power, in other words, is the ability to multiply strength by enlisting others. No man is an island–except, maybe, on the Iron Islands, where that philosophy apparently did not do King Balon much good in the last war. His son Theon now returns with the suggestion that he make an uncomfortable alliance of his own, with Robb Stark, whose father helped Robert Baratheon defeat him.
Balon–harsh and crabbed as the stony kingdom he rules–rejects the idea, seemingly as a way of rejecting Theon, perhaps not just because his son has gone native with the Starks but because Theon reminds him of his own defeat. Which leaves Theon with his own choice: follow Robb, who accepted him as a brother, or try to win back his pitiless father’s acceptance by turning on Robb? The scene where Theon burns the letter that would have warned Robb of the invasion was heartbreaking and beautiful. In the books, Theon seems to have no trouble betraying his adoptive brother. The show has taken a different route, and I must say I like it better. I enjoy seeing Theon struggle with his decision, and the (rightful) anger he feels towards his father. Alfie Allen knocked it out of the park this week.
Balon, in a way, is as rigid and unwavering as Ned Stark, even if his values are very different: to him, any advantage he can gain by allying with Robb is outweighed by his culture’s belief that alliances are demeaning and humiliating. It’s the attitude of the provinces, whereas in King’s Landing, alliances–preferably multiple, duplicitous ones–come as naturally to Tyrion as breathing.
The Lannisters’ need for allies forms the basis of his plot to marry off his niece. Yet when Cersei explodes at the idea of sending her young daughter off to Dorne, Tyrion seriously defends the idea: Joffrey has alienated so much of Westeros that their family needs any friends it can get. This doesn’t sit well with Cersei, not just because she’s a protective mother but because she believes, as she told Littlefinger, that “Power is power.” That is, she prefers the direct threat to the subtle subterfuge, and her bother is not exempt: “Ned Stark had a piece of paper too,” she warns.
It’s a much different queen we meet in Renly’s camp, where Catelyn is pursuing another alliance on Robb’s behalf: Margaery, Loras Tyrell’s sister, a girlish-looking young queen who shows herself to be far from naive. She, more like Tyrion than Cersei, understands that marriages, for royalty, are business, and she unsentimentally tells her husband that she has no problems which team he jousts for so long as they make a baby–the best way, she says, of quieting his enemies.
We also get to see an example of good old-fashioned physical power, as Loras gets his behind well and truly kicked by the big, strong, dedicated Brienne of Tarth (spectacularly embodied by actress Gwendoline Christie). Watching her make such easy work of the Knight of the Flowers, and be so devoted to her new role as a member of his royal guard, made me imagine that this is who Arya could grow up to be if she manages to survive her current desperate circumstances. (And gains, like, four feet in height.)
Let’s just talk about this new character shall we? Physically, she’s more plain than unattractive–in the books she gets the insulting nickname “Brienne the Beauty”–and in fact looks rather noble and striking in a suit of armor. But besides the usual adjustment (wherein most characters, like Tyrion, will natually be more attractive on television than in a book), I like the idea that Brienne (Gwendoline Christie) is not homely, but rather is seen that way in a culture where ladies are not supposed to fight in melees. Her lack of femininity is enough in this culture to make her hideous.
We get another impressive display of physical power when her protector Yoren is killed fighting against more of Joffrey’s men. Like Syrio before him, Yoren dies, but not before displaying an exceedingly high level of badassery, at one point taking on a half-dozen men simultaneously even while he has a crossbow bolt sticking out of him. And when Yoren falls, it’s back to brain power once again as Arya quickly figures out a way to protect Gendry’s identity by temporarily loaning it to the recruit who was just murdered (and was dumb enough to be carrying Gendry’s helmet around with him).
Maybe the most fascinating alliance introduced in the episode, though, is the pairing of Sansa and Shae, whom Tyrion places as Sansa’s handmaiden to keep her close yet hidden. The Stark daughter is still living as a prisoner, her daily existence horribly gestured at by the casual dinner talk about Joffrey’s killing her brother. They way she receives Shae–haughty, demanding–might normally seem unlikeable but here it’s a kind of triumph: she’s not so broken and beaten down, at least that she can’t expect the prerogatives of a lady.
Shae, meanwhile, may not know much about cleaning chamberpots, but she proves able to handle the situation with confidence, weathering Sansa’s disdain as her mistress pass through anger and near to tears. “Do you want me to leave?” she asks. “Just brush my hair,” Sansa answers. They may just be the allies each of them needs.
No Dany this week, and thus no dragons, but we do get a bit of magic up at Winterfell. There’s a fascinating scene with Bran and his maester, in which the young Stark suggests that his dreams are becoming something more than vaguely prophetic–he seems to actually become his direwolf, Summer, in them, hunting and tasting blood. The maester–returning to the theme of Westeros as a post-magical world–says that he has studied “higher” phenomena in his training, but that all expert authority now knows that such magic is gone from the world. Bran does not seem convinced and look for his warging abilities to become a major storyline later on.