I wasn’t planning on writing about Game of Thrones today, but here we are.
Saturday night I was at a Mexican restaurant with several friends when the conversation turned to Westeros. “You guys better get ready for this next episode ‘cause it’s going to be the craziest yet,” spouted one of them. A new round of margaritas was called for and a heated debate over the precise boundaries of spoiler territory ensued.
I had actually completely forgotten that the upcoming episode was this season’s ninth, and would have otherwise gone into “The Rains of Castamere” completely cold. But with that realization and the tequila inspired warning, I went into the first part of this season’s conclusion trying to tease out where the story was headed and what could possibly leave me so surprised this far into the series. (Spoilers to follow).
In hindsight though I should have known as soon as Talisa offered Eddard as a name for her and Robb’s unborn child. All episode I’d kept thinking: what could be more shocking than Ned’s death at the end of season one? The definitive answer was of course the death of the late Stark patriarch’s grandchild namesake two seasons later. A death made devastating not by our love for a character we’ve yet to meet, but rather because of the infinitely more gruesome way in which they were purged from Westeros.
Which is an important point I think. Unlike Ned’s death at the end of season one, which while unjust and merciless was not at all outside the boundaries of the law of the land, the death of Eddard Jr. could not have been more savage and anarchistic. Ned was executed for treason; his unborn grandchild was snuffed out for simply portending to exist.
This marks just how far the land of Westeros has descended into chaos—or perhaps only reveals the amoral tribalism that organized its people all along. I’m curious then to see what kind of rule the Lannisters seek to impart once their negotiated alliances have helped them to solidify control of the realm. Their means are ruthless, and they repay their debts thoroughly, whether that means obliterating a family line or paying out a person’s weight in gold. But it’s not at all clear that, on average, their rule will necessarily be as crazy as the Mad Kings, as damaging as Robert’s Baratheon’s negligence, or as sadistic as Joeffrey’s if left to his own devices (literally).
One of the things the show is wonderful at is getting you to care about characters even when they aren’t “good guys.” The first thing season one did to introduce Ned Stark was to show him enforcing some archaic and barbaric capital punishment for wall deserters. We cheer for him and cry over his beheading despite how much his own morality and ours might clash. Season two focused on Tyrion, building him up as the “nicest” and most empathetic of the Lannisters. But despite his success at the battle of Blackwater, Tryion is no paragon of virtue and courage, with many of the developments in season three slowly eroding those qualities which had so redeemed him earlier in the series.
Perhaps the best example of this is Jaime, who many, including myself, fell in love with this season as the show fleshed out more of his backstory. He saved King’s Landing from being burnt to the ground after all! And he’s so witty, and good with a sword, and nice to Brienne, and how can you not feel bad for him when he gets his hand chopped off? Of course, it’s not clear that Jaime really had much to lose by killing the Mad King as his father’s army approached. There was also that whole bit when he tried to kill a child by pushing him out of a stone tower. Jaime’s a bad person. Not just an anti-hero but downright villainous. Yet we love him anyway, and some small part of us wants him to succeed in whatever he does.
Back to Robb then, whose death stings all the more because, in addition to being a likeable character, and a great deal kinder and more merciful than Jaime, also felt like one of the last remaining bad-asses. It’s less important whether he would have been a good king, or a more just one, than the simple fact that he provided some sort of balance-of-power check to Tywin. The chaos born of Robbs rebellion, whether good on the merits, at least provided space for dissent, for a freedom born tenuously of momentary anarchy.
The suffocating feeling that accompanies Tywin’s consolidation of power is communicated most acutely through Arya who literally has no place to turn now. What I presume will be the Hound’s continued protection of her is notable all the more so because she is nothing but a liability at this point. No one with military power, political capital, or financial wealth as any reason to sacrifice their own footing to help hers.
It’s appropriate that the show is called Game of Thrones because you really are always rooting for someone. While it’s still common in shows like Downton Abbey to hope certain characters attain small victories, Game of Thrones takes it to another level because the stakes are so much higher. While I enjoy the her character in so far as it relates to the plot, Daenerys herself rubs me completely the wrong way. She’s arrogant and messianic and deluded. Yet I dearly hope her plans are at least somewhat successful because I would love nothing more than to see Sir Jorah Mormont or Barristan Selmy cut down Tywin.
At that point I wouldn’t mind seeing Mance Rayder come down and put the remaining contenders’ heads on pikes as well. Whatever their shortcomings and ignorance, there is a egalitarianism in the wildlings (even if its born of a hunter-gatherer-pillager mode of subsistence that wouldn’t be sustainable for anyone else) that makes me more forgiving of any one wildling’s character flaws.
The episode left me so defeated then not because I thought Robb Stark was the man, or particularly enjoyed the conversations between he, Talisa, or Lady Stark, but because he stood in the way of Tywin getting exactly what he wants. I loathe Joeffrey, but would love to see him strike an unexpected blow against his grandfather now that both Tyrion and Cersei have sheepishly submitted to his demands.
Perhaps Jaime will muster the courage to defy him, though without his good hand the power to back up his words with deeds is decidedly lacking. Whatever the case though, like a sports fan whose team has failed to make the play-offs, all I can do is wait, watch, and hope that anyone wins but the team mine lost to.