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Game of Thrones: What is Dead May Never Die

Varys: “Well played, my Lord Hand…Power is a curious thing, my lord. Are you fond of riddles? Three great men sit in a room. 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?”

Tyrion: “Depends on the sellsword.”
Varys: “Does it? He has neither crown, nor gold, nor favor with the gods.”

Tyrion: “He has a sword. The power of life and death.”

Varys: “If it’s swordsmen who rule, why do we pretend kings hold all the power? When Ned Stark lost his head, who was truly responsibly? Joffrey? The executioner? Or something else?”

Tyrion: “I’ve decided I don’t like riddles.”

Varys: “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.”

In the English Middle Ages and Renaissance, play was a term that was up for grabs: distrusted by some (like the Lollards and, later, the Protestants) and valued by others for its polysemic possibilities and reflection of the realities of the (often communal) gaming and theatrical endeavors of cities and towns. (Think of Jacque in As You Like It: all the men and women merely players…) Even today, play can refer to performance or to gaming—more precisely, it refers to both performance and games, because the two are not separable categories. (For instance, when you play Monopoly, you perform being a titan of industry or property holder.)

Tyrion’s conversation with Varys is the most important scene of the episode, if not of the season, if not the show. Throughout, Varys uses the language of play, gaming, and performance: “well played,” “trick,” “pretend.” Those capable of performing or dissimulating—those capable of representation and pretense—are those capable of power. Those who are disempowered, whether through circumstance or their natures, see nothing but shadows, and obey them, fear them, and are killed by them. The game of thrones is a performance with deadly consequences.

Varys leaves the riddle unanswered, perhaps because that is the answer: there is no power, only its perception. That he could stump Tyrion, though, speaks to Varys’s own power. The two are equally matched for wits, but Tyrion was unable to succeed at solving the intellectual puzzle that Varys set for him, making that his second failure with language in this episode (the first was with Shae). Is King’s Landing, and the performances required of him, starting to wear him down already? Riddles are their own games, and Tyrion does not appear to be winning.

It’s worth noting that Tyrion is in the same relative position as the sellsword: he was faced with three possible allies, and had to use his own power (ingenuity) to determine which of them to trust. More importantly, both Tyrion and the sellsword will have to hide their plans from everyone else, to misrepresent their motives, goals, and methods. It’d be interesting to ask Tyrion which of those four men he identified with, and who he thinks would be standing after the bloodshed.

Tyrion trusted Varys to find Shae a cover-job. Hopefully, he chose to trust Varys just because Varys already knew about Shae; hopefully he did not choose to trust Varys wholeheartedly, as cahooting with Varys is like making a deal with an eel that's been swimming in butter. Tyrion’s trick revealed Maester Pycelle only because Pycelle lacks the ability to see the long game: Littlefinger and Varys would have sold Tyrion out if they’d seen a purpose in it. Pycelle played his hand, and he played it too quickly. So now he’s lost his beard of power.

After Tyrion, Shae and her lady Sansa are the two most obvious examples of representation and dissimulation in this episode. Sansa stared at herself in the mirror, clearly working through her own inner turmoil over being forced to pretend she loves Joffrey, hates her family, and welcomes the attention of Cersei. Shae, on the other hand, must pretend to be a servant to avoid exposure as Tyrion’s weakness. I suspect that charade won’t last long, not least because Shae is a spectacularly bad servant.

Catelyn said that Renly was just “playing” at war, and “play” is the perfect word for what Renly and his 100,000 men were doing: gaming but also misrepresenting and performing summer games as winter approaches. Brienne lacks the gift of dissimulation and resists pretense (“I am no lady”), which makes her unsuited for this campaign, but Renly’s men will not soon forget the shock of a tall woman dressed in armor besting the Knight of the Flowers. She won because she is unable to see anything, from chivalry to naming, as a mere game. She and Catelyn have that in common.

Margaery Tyrell, on the other hand, sees games for what they are: a useful metaphor for the complicated power struggle that exists both on and off the battlefield. Margaery is not a very fleshed-out character in the books, and it was a delight to see her as open, honest, pragmatic, and without any sort of sexual hang-ups about her husband’s relationship to her brother. (It was also a delight to see Natalie Dormer on my TV again.) She offered to pretend to be Loras, but she’s also prepared to life a lifetime of lying—and I’m not talking about being married to a gay man. “Save your lies for court. You’ll need a lot of them,” she said. Margaery realizes the power of a good performance, and she’s good at it.

Back on the dreary Iron Islands, Theon asked, “What’s my role in all this?” The theatrical metaphor works here, as Theon has to figure out how to combine his own inherent loneliness and his desire to get what he feels he deserves—who he is, in other words—with his tendency to perform (or fake) relationships rather than cultivate them. He’s made his choice now: he wants his father’s approval and the power he might get from it more than he wants Robb’s friendship or approval. Does Theon really believe in the drowned god? Doubtful—he doesn’t seem like a man who believes in anything. But he knows that he must perform the rule of dutiful, iron-born son if he’s going to get more than one ship.

The two scenes that bookend the episode (Jon Snow realizing Craster sacrifices his male children and Arya, Gendry, and the other recruits being attacked) refuse to allow easy answer to the question of power. Do the men who killed Yoren have the power, recalling Varys’s idea that if swordsmen have the power the rest is just pretend? Does Arya, for having the wherewithal to lie? Does Gendry, for commanding that sort of loyalty just for being a good guy? Do the “crueler gods” of the wildlings? Power is where men think it is. It is also in the potential to demand the horrible (child sacrifice) disrupt tyranny with lies (as Arya did) or destroy relative peacefulness (as the Greyjoys will if they get their way). It is the sword in the hand, and in the man who commands that sword’s loyalty. Is power representational? All in the eyes of the powerless? Or is it just a deadly trick?

Grumpkins and Snarks:

• Maester Luwin: “The dragons are gone. The giants are dead. And the children of the forest forgotten.” Modern life does suck, doesn’t it?

• Catelyn: “My son is fighting a war. Not playing at one.”

• Shae: “Every man who’s tasted my cooking has told me what a good whore I am.”

• Tyrion: “Language can be tricky here.” I laughed.

• Renly: “Some say that the beauty most desired is the beauty concealed.” And then I laughed again.

• Mountain Man: “There are no goats, half-man.”
Tyrion: “Well, make do!”

• I pictured the maester’s chains differently. Tighter, like a choker of knowledge.

• Maybe my mother did too good of a job instilling a poop-taboo during potty training, but I never like to see my favorite characters talking about their bowels.

• Fun realization: the reavers of the Iron Islands to the west, the reavers of the Dothraki to the far east. Westeros and the city-states of Braavos are hemmed in by people who aren’t willing to work for a living. It’s like living in a welfare state! (That is sarcasm.)

• Harrenhal got a few mentions, as well as its curse.

• Rest in peace, Yoren. You were awesome.

I’m so happy with the direction the show is taking and the changes it’s making from the books. So far, Season Two seems tighter than Season One, and part of that is the apparent willingness to trust us to remember that there are other stories happening (Stannis and Dany, for example) even if we don’t see them each episode. Fewer locations per episode is a good thing, especially as the scene gets bigger and bigger as the saga continues. It also gives us a chance to get to know some characters better than we could reading the books, like Yoren and Maergery. Not everyone likes the changes, but that's what the Books vs. Show discussion thread is for--hop over there if you want to complain or praise the alterations that I love so much.

Four out of four shadows.

Josie Kafka is a full-time cat servant and part-time rogue demon hunter. (What's a rogue demon?)

20 comments:

bagarnbakarskor said...

In my admittedly reductionist estimation, power, might - whatever label you choose for it - is the sole and final arbiter of everything. I would go so far as to say that might vies with change as the only constant of existence.

It becomes somewhat of a valid circular argument, since I define might as whatever force "wins out", whether it be the big fish eating the little fish; the greater, harder asteroid crushing one of its kin; the brilliant demagogue plunging a whole nation into mass psychosis by sheer charisma and rhetoric; the people of the world finally united in flower-power love due to circumstances I cannot envisage, or simply me winning another arm-wrestling contest (as per usual, of course).

As for the question of whether or not power is an illusion; that the perception of power lends power in and of itself, I would argue that this does indeed often seem to be the case. However, were I a ruler, I'd rather be percieved as powerful AND have a gazillion brain-washed soldiers who are absolutely loyal to me alone, rather than just percieved as powerful without anything or anyone solid to back me up.

bagarnbakarskor said...

I cannot even spell 'perceived
' correctly. Someone punish me, please.

Mark Greig said...

Great review, Josie.

I wasn't prepared for how much Yoren's death would effect me. I was never too fond of the character in the book, but Francis Magee did such a wonderful job with him that I started tearing up when he made his last stand.

Sooze said...

I think Yoren's death had a greater impact because of the scene between him and Arya that Jess commented on in the "Book versus Show" thread....at least, for me. And also because he was so cool in the previous episode - taking no crap from the Gold Cloaks.
This was another stellar episode. The fleshing out of Margaery Tyrell was very well done.

Gus Brunetti said...

I'm liking season 2 much better than season 1. Much tighter storytelling. Even the sexposition is better.

You're right on the money when you said that most of our characters are playing parts. But more than power, I see this deception as a mode of survival. Arya's little trick wasn't power motivated.

My God, where did they find such an enormous woman to play Brienne? The casting call must have said "We'll hire the biggest one to show up".

To defend Theon a little, I had the time to freeze frame and read the letter he sent Robb, and he was warning him of his father's intentions. He's still conflicted, but after his birth family's continual comtempt towards him, he may be tipping to the side of his adoptive family.

I haven't read the books, so I rely on the opening credits to know where we'll be on any given week. Dragonstone showed up, but there were no scenes there; on the other hand, Renly's kingdom was just the opposite. Could you tell me where that is?

Another thing I like about this season is that it's much less confusing.

Great review, Josie. It's a good read and helps me understand he show better.

Josie Kafka said...

Gus, I might be wrong on this, but I'm pretty sure that Renly's army is south of King's Landing. He's not at a kingdom or duchy, but is very, very slowly moving towards King's Landing.

Sooze said...

I thought Renly was at the Baratheon estate, Storms End, which is south east of Kings Landing...but I could be wrong.

Josie Kafka said...

I thought that at first too, Sooze, but I think he's on campaign because he was living in a tent.

Iago said...

Gus right now Renly controls most of the lands south of Kings Landing, the only exception being Dorne which Tyrion mentioned as still being loyal to Joffrey. However they hate the Lannisters so they need to be given something. That something is Myrcella.

For me this episode was all about what is needed to gain/stay in power. For Renly it was adopting the trappings of power without the substance, for Margaery (who was awesome) it was living a lie, for Theon it was betraying his friend to rejoin his family and for Sansa and Arya (they did a great job of paralleling those two this episode) power was staying alive and it was done by lies and deception.

Tyrion and Varys discussing power was an absolute highlight and I think Tyrion wasn't able to answer Varys' riddle because he isn't able to decide what/how much power he will wield. It was interesting that after last week's threats and undermining Varys developed respect for Tyrion: that's a sure sign that Tyrion is developing some power in Kings Landing.

Jess Lynde said...

Gwendoline Christie really is marvelous casting as Brienne. She's like an oversize Katee Sackhoff as Starbuck from BSG. Let's hope she brings the same inner fire to the role going forward. So excited to finally have that character on board!

Mark Greig said...

Gus, this might help.

http://awoiaf.westeros.org/images/e/e7/Map_of_westeros.jpg

It's one of the best maps of the Seven Kingdomes I've seen so far. In the book, Renly's camp was located in the Reach, somewhere between Highgarden and Bitterbridge I think. Not sure where it's meant to be now but I'm assuming it's the Stormlands.

Gus Brunetti said...

Thanks everybody for the answer, and Mark for the map. That'll be helpful!

Samantha Gomes said...

The "power is a shadow on the wall" had been one of my favorite quotes in all the five books and it was such a delight to see it on screen I caught myself grinning and repeating it. One of the best dialogues of the series. Thank you, Josie, for putting it here for us.

And thank you for such a well-written review. It surely makes it hard to place a comment and not sound dumb. But let's try.

Oh, the Tyrells! What an amazing sibling relationship!LOL They are surely an echo of the Lannisters, aren't they? Margaery is fantastic. Such a strong character, hidden beneath a delicate surface, she's like the Tyrell's Cersei! And how more explicit is the relationship between Renly and Loras. What was insinuated in the books came flesh and bone on TV, much more flesh indeed.
King Renly is almost too perfect for the Iron Throne. Popular, intelligent, handsome, surrounded by people who'd die for him, like Brienne The Beauty,and lie for him, like Margaery. Too bad they're summer knights, and winter is coming. But they would surely make a very lively court, wouldn't they?

Last, but not least, I find myself repeating you, but one of the things that called my attention was how the Starks girls have really grown up now, and are ready to start playing.
Fantastic episode, fantastic review, fantastic show. Can it get any better than that?

Sooze said...

Mark, what an awesome map, thanks for the link!

Mark Greig said...

Happy to be of service, guys.

Mark Greig said...

Just found out that the map I previously linked to was just part of a much large one. Here's the complete map which includes Essos, which might help if you're curious about where exactly Daenerys is right now.

http://www.sermountaingoat.co.uk/map/versions/speculative_map.jpg

Jess Lynde said...

This map is totally awesome! I'd been trying to figure out the location of the Red Waste and Qarth for awhile, and the book maps didn't seem to cover it. (Not the ones I kept finding at any rate.) I hadn't tried looking again recently, but it was a lingering question in my mind. So much thanks, Mark. The waste is actually a good bit farther east than I thought.

Tim said...

Thank you for another of your eloquent, insightful reviews, Josie.

Mark, thanks for the link to that excellent map. Like many other folk, I've longed to see a map of the eastern continent and Dany's travels.

ChrisB said...

Another excellent review, Josie. Really interesting and it added another layer to my enjoyment of the episode.

I agree with Gus that this season is much easier to follow than last. Or, maybe it's just that I know the players better now.

sunbunny said...

I like that they're not trying to visit every character in every episode. It feels too much like fulfilling a to do list when they do. Have we checked in with...Stannis? Jon? Dany?

I never trusted book Yoren, but knowing what happened to him made me like him in the show. He was a good guy. Thus, he must die. Death to all with integrity!

Oh Theon. Ohhh Theon. What are we going to do with you? Bad decision in a series of bad decisions.

Yay for Natalie Dormer. Always.