At this point in Game of Thrones, the values espoused by dear old dead Ned Stark, our season-one hero, have been pretty thoroughly dismantled. Honor, faithfulness, straight-dealing — they’re for dopes. When a (weirdly) avuncular Tywin asks the disguised Arya what killed her father, the girl doesn’t beat around the bush: “Loyalty,” she says.
Still, if there’s one Ned lesson that’s retained its currency, it’s the one he outlined in the show’s very first episode: “The man who passes the sentence should swing the sword." Personal responsibility is still prized in Westeros, and taking matters into your own hands is the mark of a real grown-up.
The first scene of “The Old Gods and the New” explicitly echoes that series opener, as Theon, having newly taken Winterfell with his Ironmen, is goaded into sentencing an insubordinate Rodrik Cassel to death. Rodrik — Theon’s childhood fighting master — reminds the boy that he must be the one to execute him, but he botches it in a spectacular fashion, eventually having to finish the job by kicking the old man’s head off.
We already know that Theon is still a bruised, swaggering child. You can hear it in the way he announces himself to Bran: “I’ve taken your castle. … I’ve taken Winterfell. I took it,” like the castle was a bag of marbles. You can see it in the way he responds to Luwin’s grandfatherly hand on his shoulder, as the maester urges him to reconsider the execution order. The scene neatly encapsulates Theon’s overarching psychic drama: There he is, standing on the precipice of adulthood, as three self-assured father figures prod him into questioning his manhood. Theon’s wild-eyed look at the end of that scene, as if terrified that someone’s about to call him out on his suddenly very public failings, tells us pretty much all we need to know about Theon’s legitimacy as a leader — or as an adult.
Meanwhile, in King’s Landing, something similar is playing out with Joffrey, whose rank evilness is finally boomeranging around in the form of a blob of shit to the face. I’ve complained in the past about Joffrey’s characterization. In a narrative world whose signature element is that every character has multiple facets (or, as is often noted, thinks that they’re the hero of their own story), Joffrey is a bit of an inert blob of shit. There’s something appealing — restful, even — about a character so cartoonishly loathsome that we don’t have to expend any energy sympathizing with him; we just get to hate his guts, pure and simple. (See Willa Paskin’s Salon essay on this point.)
But throughout this season, Game of Thrones has also taken pains to describe Joffrey as a particular kind of villain: namely, one who will never wield the sword himself. He didn’t when he called for Ned to be executed, he didn’t when he demanded Sansa be publicly stripped and beaten. In the stomach-churning scene with the prostitutes in his bedchamber, Joffrey, very pointedly, ordered Ros to do the flogging. In his first appearance this season, we saw him sitting pretty, watching from on high while two knights beat each other to a bloody pulp.
In another story, this tendency might be a way of establishing a certain clichéd kind of perversion: Joffrey is a sick, voyeuristic puppy, as fastidious as he is damaged and power mad. But in Game of Thrones, we’re also to understand his inability to get close to violence as a political failing. Joffrey can never be a leader as long as he refuses to take things, literally, into his own hands. During the riot, as the Hound gathers him up to protect him (has Joffrey ever looked quite so wee?), the boy king yells, “I want these people executed!” It’s almost — almost — touching: the scream of a child who’s used to having adults do things for him. Don’t worry, Joffrey. It’s a normal thing to cry.
In the ever-escalating struggle between Joffrey and his uncle, Tyrion once again wins all of the points — not only because of that “vicious idiot” zinger, but also because he proves that, unlike his sniveling nephew, he can act decisively in a crisis. And compassionately, we might add: Even though rescuing Sansa is politically critical, Tyrion is also consistently the only person in King’s Landing who seems to give a damn about the girl as more than a bargaining chip or a piece of decoration.
(A brief detour: I find the tallying of gory bits as exhausting as you probably do, but the Bacchae-like scene of the High Septon’s arm getting torn off was really pretty gross, eh? Another gold star for the Foley artists. That was a good squelch there. Thanks again, too, to the interactive features on HBO GO, which helpfully pointed out that the poor sap getting ripped apart was the robed man praying as Myrcella sailed off on that little dinghy to Dorne. If you have access to HBO GO, check out the storyboards for that scene: They’re almost as scary as the finished product.)
The importance of taking matters into your own hands and getting close to the action yourself was a theme that threaded through all the other major story lines, from Robb swearing that he’ll take Theon’s head himself to Jon being ordered to take wilding Ygritte’s head to keep her from tattling to Mance Rayder. (Once again, Game of Thrones demonstrates its fondness for the inappropriate meet-cute: If you’re not falling in love with a girl who’s pregnant with her father’s baby, giving her your heirloom thimbles or whatever, you’re getting googly-eyed over a woman’s way with a gangrenous leg and a handsaw — or else, when faced with the task of beheading a lady, you just say fuck it and spoon her instead. The boys of Westeros have been socialized in some funny ways.)
This was really an episode about children, and how they go from depending on others to being self-reliant. Robb, for all the tenderness he shows his mother and the way he accepts her admonishment regarding his sure-to-be-bad-news crush on Charlie Chaplin’s granddaughter, has proven himself ready to take on the mantle of adulthood. Theon, clearly, has not.
Daenerys, meanwhile, remains somewhere in between. Having turned down Xaro Xhoan Daxos, thus forgoing the patronage of yet another powerful man, she interrupts the Spice King’s rehearsal of The Sound of Music to ask for ships to “take back” the Iron Throne — a phrase that, as the businessman tsk-tsks, isn’t exactly accurate, given that she’s never occupied that particular seat of power. “I am no ordinary woman!” she yelps, but it’s clear that Dany hasn’t figured out how to truly inhabit or project the authority she says she holds.
Her strategy vis-a-vis the Spice King seems unfocused, at best: Is she trying to bully him? Cajole him? Seduction is out, and she doesn’t yet have the political chops to coax him in another fashion. Like a kid who aces the SATs but then struggles to figure out how to make it in the real world, Dany can pass tests of courage when they’re presented to her in a straightforward fashion (eat this horse heart!), but when she has to figure out the rules herself, she stumbles around like a little baby dragon. Now that the baby dragons are gone — and, judging by the preview for next week’s episode, her trust in Jorah is getting shakier — Daenerys is going to have to figure out some things on her own, and soon.
Three stray comments before we part:
First: Amory Lorch’s death may have been the first time I LOL-ed while watching Game of Thrones. It was an easy slapstick move, but perfectly executed. (Puns!)
Second: Those beyond-the-wall scenes are gorgeous. They make up for the fact that those scenes, so far, have been incredibly boring.
Finally: Can someone please explain why Osha slept with Theon? Don’t get me wrong, I liked her little naked cat burglar move, and I liked that she was savvy enough to know that Theon would be a sucker for the promise of “savage things.” But couldn’t she have seduced and killed the guard without having to go through him? Did she steal some keys or a signet or something from him? Was it just an opportunity for a cheap bait-and-switch on the question of her loyalties?
See you back here next week, when hopefully you’ll have learned some manners. They threw a cowpie at you, so you decided to kill them all!