Apr 18, 2012

Game of Thrones, Ep. 13, "What Is Dead May Never Die"

Photo by HBO
First, my apologies for skipping Episode 12, "The Night Lands." When I wrote my post on the premiere, I hoped to review each episode on a weekly basis. That obviously won't be happening, since I couldn't even review two consecutive episodes. Going forward, if I miss an episode or two, but still want to discuss them, I'll just include my comments in the next post. So, you'll find commentary on "The Night Lands" sprinkled throughout the below discussion of Episode 13, "What Is Dead May Never Die."

Let's start with the Greyjoys, since the episode title comes from the religious saying of the Iron Islands. After spending the first season as sidekick to Robb Stark, being gross to women, and generally acting like a bit of a prick, Theon Greyjoy now finds himself center stage in his own familial drama. The backstory is this: 9 years before the start of the series, Balon Greyjoy (Theon's dad), attempted a rebellion against King Robert Baratheon. Robert, with the help of Ned Stark, crushed the uprising. Theon's older brothers were both killed in the struggle, and Theon himself was taken to foster at Winterfell. Ned and Robert basically took Theon as a political hostage, since his captivity and status as Balon's only surviving male heir would ensure the Iron Islands' future passivity. Of course, the Starks, being perhaps the most decent people in Westeros, treated Theon like a welcome guest, leading him to think of himself as an adopted member of the family. Now, Theon is back on the Iron Islands, trying to convince his father to ally with Robb - the son of the man who destroyed the Greyjoy family, and took Theon away in the first place. Balon doesn't much like the sound of that.

Besides Balon (who was expertly cast, Patrick Malahide plays Balon exactly as I imagined him), we also meet Theon's older sister, Yara (Asha in the books, but the shows' writers thought "Asha" sounded too much like the wildling woman "Osha," so her name was changed - even though "Yara" sounds an awful lot like "Arya," but I digress). Asha is one of my favorite characters in the books, and I have to say, I'm a bit disappointed with Yara so far. She's just so dour and serious! In the books, Asha/Yara is still a woman warrior, a commander of men, a seasoned soldier, and the apple of her father's eye, but she's also fun. She's strong, sexual, funny - she takes joy in her life, which makes sense, since her father has granted her a freedom few noblewomen in Westeros ever experience. Instead of wearing skirts and sewing handkerchiefs, she's tossing battle axes at pirates and sleeping with whoever she wants. I'm not sure if it's the writing, the direction, or Gemma Whelan's performance, but so far, Yara seems more sinister, more of a she-clone of her father (especially given their similar haircuts and manner of dress), than her counterpart in the books. The Asha of the books helps to humanize the Iron Islands. Balon is stern, unforgiving, and occasionally cruel; Asha understands and accepts the harshness of her homeland and her family. With her father's blessing, she's managed to make a life for herself that she enjoys. It's the life Theon might have had, if he'd never been taken away.

Keeping with the theme of women warriors, let's discuss the newest cast additions: Brienne of Tarth and Margaery Tyrell. Spoiler: both women go on to play a major role in the series. Brienne, as played by Gwendoline Christie, is another example of terrific casting. It's true that in the books she's supposed to be almost extraordinarily unattractive, but Christie perfectly captures Brienne's awkwardness when it comes to any aspect of life not determined on the battlefield. Even moreso than Yara, Brienne is a solider. Her dream is to serve Renly Baratheon as a member of his Kingsguard, a dutiful knight bound by honor to protect the life of her king. Like Yara, she has a father who was willing to let her play with swords, instead of forcing her into the traditional role of a noblewoman. She's tall, strong, and good at she does. Her interaction with Catelyn also leads to that lovely, sad moment where Cat watches Brienne walking away, clearly thinking about her own daughter who didn't want to be a lady either. It's a quick piece of characterization for Brienne, but it also underscores Catelyn's love for her children, and the constant worry and terror she feels for her missing/imprisoned girls.

While Brienne does battle with a sword and shield, Margaery Tyrell does battle with words and schemes. Margaery is another one of the most enigmatic characters in the books. We never experience the story from her point of view, or even from the point of view of any of her trusted friends or advisers. She's presented as a political adversary to various characters, but because she plays the game from behind a veil of feigned innocence and naivete, we never know just how clever she is, or how far ahead she's thinking. Clearly, the show plans to do away with at least some of that mystery, as the series quickly delves into the inner workings of Margaery's political marriage to Renly Baratheon. In the books, characters speculate early and often as to the status of Margaery's virginity, whereas here it's made plain that she knows her way around the bedroom. She also knows that a) Renly is gay, b) he's in a relationship with her brother and c) all that matters is that she get pregnant in order to seal the alliance between their houses. She's almost ruthless in her attempt to seduce her husband, offering to bring Loras into the marriage bed with them, or turn around so Renly can pretend she's her brother. Here, Margaery is brazen, smart, and savvy. I like this take on her character, and the personal agency the writers have given her. She isn't some innocent little dove, she's a hawk wearing a dove's feathers.

Speaking of "little doves," was the scene between Sansa and her new handmaiden, Shae, the first time two women on this show have discussed something besides their fathers, brothers, husbands, or sons? I think so. I liked that scene. I liked poor Sansa, who is living a waking nightmare in which she is constantly reminded that as soon as she gets her period she will have to marry and have sex with Joffrey, being a total bitch to Shae, a woman she considers beneath her. In turn, Shae responds with something almost like kindness. Sansa might currently have less freedom than any other character besides Jaime Lannister, and that's only because Jaime is literally in chains. We've seen Tyrion regard Sansa with sympathy in the premiere, and it's not hard to imagine him asking Shae to have some patience with her new mistress. While Shae often gets petulant and moody with Tyrion, with Sansa, she dials back the attitude. It's a sweet scene between two women who have much more in common than Sansa realizes.

I'm fascinated by the women of Game of Thrones because of the strict rules and inferior status forced upon them by their society, however, those same rules and gender norms press upon the men of Westeros too. Men do have more options - depending on their birth, they can be knights, lords, kings, maesters, business owners, farmers, members of the Night's Watch, mercenaries and more - but those options all come with their own expectations and limitations. We see what his role as his father's heir is doing to Theon, we watch Renly trying to be a king while in a sexual relationship with his wife's brother, even Tyrion must work overtime to prove his place in a family that values physical prowess and combat skills (Jaime) over cunning, intelligence, and strategy (Tyrion). Patriarchy has ruled the Westerosi political system and culture for so long, that almost all of Game's players suffer under its thumb, trapped in a system that prefers straight, strong, attractive men from wealthy families above all others. Our characters find themselves on a playing field built by their ancestors, struggling against a set of rules few of them truly understand. While the most adept players seek to rig the system in their favor and win the game, the wiser option might be to realize there's a whole world beyond the edges of the known board.

Or, you could hatch three dragons eggs in the fires of your husband's funeral pyre, thereby giving yourself power and options beyond what anybody else can even imagine, and letting you slowly but surely define your own existence, while everyone else hacks each other to pieces in the latest iteration of the wars fought by their families for generations.

Call that "Option C."

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