Here’s the thing about casting such excellent and interesting-looking child actors, Game of Thrones: When you make me watch one of them get stabbed through the neck, the image is going to lodge itself in my brain, like that ax Yoren sent through Willem’s skull, and the whole thing is going to make it very hard for me to go to sleep.
Late in this week’s episode, a restless Arya asks Yoren, the gruff Night’s Watch recruiter, “How do you sleep when you have those things in your head?”
She’s referring, of course, to the day her dad lost his head, though we in the audience might be thinking of any number of moments from the past twelve hours of GoT. (My vote: the ending of this season’s first episode.) It turns out that Arya’s question was also a prevision of the final scene of this installment, when Joffrey’s men arrive and massacre half of the Night’s Watch recruits.
The whole thing was a canny way of half-acknowledging the game that Game of Thrones plays with us. How did you sleep after watching that sword being driven through Yoren? What are we doing when we watch these bloody, graphic acts, particularly when they’re done to children? I won’t deny that the scene in which Lommy is killed was compelling: the distinctiveness of Eros Vlahos’s face, his gloriously off-kilter line reading (what a little shit that kid was), the leisureliness of the piercing, the burble — it was all artfully composed. But I can’t say I feel good about how good it was.
But compare the scenes of child-killing in Game of Thrones to those in the much-hyped Hunger Games adaptation. The other day, I yelled at my 10-year-old niece for watching the movie after I’d already told her the novels were off limits. She sighed heavily into the phone and said, “Nina mausi, the books paint a much more violent picture in your head than the movie did.” And it’s true: The killings in The Hunger Games film were, and felt, bloodless, like a string of video-game deaths. Obviously, the filmmakers had to calibrate their gore levels carefully in order to secure a PG-13 rating, but it felt wrong — not to mention untrue to the spirit of Suzanne Collins’s books — to let those characters just evaporate from the screen. At least in Game of Thrones, you felt Lommy’s death. And when Tyrion says to Cersei that keeping her daughter, Myrcella, in the capital means risking the girl getting raped, slaughtered, and having her head mounted on a pike, you felt that as a real threat. I imagine my feelings on the violence in GoT will evolve and clarify as the season progresses, but at the very least, I have to give the show credit for serving up our savagery with a healthy dose of consequence.
A last note on the ending scenes, and then I promise I’ll move on. It’s a testament to the writers’ commitment to their characters that, in the middle of an incredibly tense, dangerous journey, they took time out for a scene in which Arya stops and tries to process her past trauma.
One thing that Game of Thrones does very well — and it’s an even more impressive feat when you consider how many story lines the show juggles — is allow characters’ histories to shape their present actions. The episode’s title, “What Is Dead May Never Die,” may be a religious refrain on the Iron Islands, but it was also a central motif throughout the episode. It’s Cersei’s own arranged marriage to Robert that causes her to flip out when Tyrion says he’s sending Myrcella off to the Martells of Dorne (and, more broadly, helped turn her into the guarded anti-romantic she is today). Theon took a major step forward by taking a step backward: He burned his letter of warning to Robb, the scion of his “new” family, and consecrated himself to the Drowned God, the faith of his “old” family. Poor, angry Theon wears his backstory on his sleeve, and it’s leading him to war with the Starks.
Okay, let’s speed through the other plot developments.
In a nicely edited sequence, Tyrion pulls a French-farce-style ruse on Pycelle, Varys, and Littlefinger, telling each man that he’s planning to marry Myrcella off to a different noble family in order to smoke out which one will go to Cersei with the supposedly top-secret news. Pycelle outs himself as the mole and gets thrown in the clink for it, despite his (accurate, as far as I can tell) protestations that everything he’s done, he’s done for the sake of Tyrion’s family.
Bran tells Maester Luwin about his recurring dream of being a wolf running through the godswood — dreams that recall Old Nan’s stories about magical people who could live inside animals; dreams that Bran believes are true. Luwin gently tells the boy that, while magic may have once been a “mighty force” in the world, it isn’t anymore. “The dragons are gone, the giants are dead, and the children of the forest forgotten.” I hope this means there are going to be giants!
We wrap up the Craster story line, a trim little interlude whose main purposes seem to be (1) to make double-sure we don’t forget that there is Scary Supernatural Stuff Beyond the Wall, (2) to remind us that Morality Is Relative, and (3) to charm the pants off of us with that Sam-Gilly flirtation.
Renly gets a nice, fat couple of scenes that show us both how formidable and how fragile his position is. We open with a joust that, for all intents and purposes, could have been one of Joffrey’s games at King’s Landing. While Robb is actually out in the field, commanding his army, Renly is mastering the poses of royalty.
Luckily for Renly, he’s married Margaery Tyrell, a woman who helps fill in the gaps in his understanding of political optics (and, conveniently, is the sister of his lover, Ser Loras). Like Melisandre, Margaery realizes that a baby will cement their position like nothing else can — though obviously it hasn’t been a foolproof tactic in Westeros thus far.
The Renly scenes also introduce another strong-willed woman: Brienne of Tarth, played by my new girl-crush, Gwendoline Christie. I imagine there will be a lot more to say about Brienne in upcoming write-ups, but I do want to spare a few words for Christie’s eloquent and economical physical performance. The way Brienne walks, the way she stands at attention, the way she composes her face: they all tell you so much about this woman, who has clearly invested so much of herself in her quest to become a knight and serve her king — which she does with a devotion that matches Margaery’s.
Finally, some great scenes for Sophie Turner, whose Sansa is quickly becoming one of my favorite characters on the show. Sansa has the least mobility of any of the major characters, but Turner consistently finds ways to make her interesting to watch: You can see the gears turning. The bit at the dinner table, where Cersei coos that Sansa will “do her duty” even if Joffrey kills Robb, felt a bit too on-the-nose wicked-witchy, but it certainly laid down some heavy stakes for Sansa. I loved the scene with Shae, in which we see Sansa retreating to the one form of power she understands and is still able to wield (i.e., lording over servants) but finds it a hollow pleasure. (As a side challenge to more completist fans than myself: How well does Game of Thrones fare on the Bechdel test? It occurs to me that the scene between Sansa and Shae is the only one I can remember in which two female characters have a conversation about something other than a man.)
I’m also curious to hear what people make of Shae. On one hand, it’s hard not to enjoy the thought of a scrappy, sex-positive gal trading barbs with our boy Tyrion. But I’m confused by the way her character is being developed. Last season, Shae was presented as a woman who clearly knew a thing or two about a thing or two. (I’m thinking of the scene in which she, Bronn, and Tyrion play that Westerosi version of “Never Have I Ever.”) This season, though, she’s banging about, being petulant and drawing attention to herself. I get that being cooped up in that room all day has got to be a drag, especially when it’s been established that Shae’s intoxicated by the city just outside her window. And there’s something appealingly modern about the way Shae makes a hash out of her handmaiden duties. (I’m pretty sure not stomping around your lady’s room or eating her food is, like, lesson No. 1 in Handmaiden School.) But it’s hard to reconcile these character threads, and the clumsier she acts, the less I buy the attraction between her and Tyrion.
Are the writers setting Shae up for some kind of fall? Or is she about to become besties with Sansa, braiding each others’ hair as the kingdom crumbles around their pretty little heads?
We better find out next week, or I’ll start taking eyeballs.