In case, you haven’t noticed, Game of Thrones has come under some rather intense (and not wholly unwarranted) scrutiny during the past few weeks. It began with the certain liberty taken involving the twins Lannister, which I’ve already covered at length, and continued last week with another rape scene invented for the series—though at least this time implied in the books—during a rather awful sequence at Craster’s Keep. Both scenes showcase the absolute worst negative consequences, which border on narrative-damaging, that are inherent with trying to spice up a series through a boorish combination of sex and violence. And both deserve criticism for trivializing sexual assault as something so ho-hum that it occurs out-of-focus in the background of a scene…
…But, for those who attempt to write off the HBO flagship as sexist, misogynistic, or otherwise uncouth, stop for a moment. And then keep in mind that it is still one of the best series for richly drawn female characters and women-led narratives on all of television (never mind Hollywood studio films). Indeed, remaining in tone with author George R.R. Martin’s intentionally genre-defying and expectation-subverting novels—this is the writer who turned heroic King Robb into a boy judged by his knowing mother’s gaze—Game of Thrones offers some of the best female drama currently available in any mainstream entertainment. In fact, in episodes like tonight’s “First of His Name,” it can be the show’s saving grace. Because if it weren’t for the interesting character movements involving several women this evening, the episode could otherwise have been Season 4’s first dud.
After four previous episodes that relied on either explosive events like fighting for chickens or the chicken-hearted fighting for life (and joyously failing), it was inevitable that the board would have to be reshuffled and the pieces would need to move as we headed into the rest of the season. Jaime has sent Brienne in search of Sansa, Tyrion still awaits for his trial, and the Wall endures unmolested by Mance Rayder. Ergo, there had to be a lull before the storm, and this week is it.
However, that is not to say there weren’t some great moments—all of them following the women on the show.
One of the first and most catching was the decision made by Daenerys Targaryen to remain in Meereen after being consulted by both Selmy and Jorah, for entirely separate reasons, to set sail for Westeros. Aye, last week’s teaser ploy that she would even mention King’s Landing turned out to be only that, because Dany is definitely setting up shop in Slaver’s Bay for the foreseeable future. It is an intriguing moral knot that this breaker of chains has tied for herself, and it is worth unpacking for a moment.
With the noblest of intentions, the Silver Queen burned most of the masters of Astapor to a crisp in Season 3. She then followed that up with an encore performance in Yunkai when she took the city without losing a single man through a sneaky sewer attack, compliments of Daario, Grey Worm, and Ser Jorah. And for her hat trick, she, and every slave that followed her, brought freedom to all those in bondage under the shadow of Meereen’s great pyramid. For those who did follow her camp, it is a glory to behold. Yet, for all those viewers who worried that Dany has enjoyed plot armor as of late (seemingly forgetting how destitute her situations were in the first two seasons), revel in the immediate aftermath from being the great liberator.
As it turns out, shattering the slave trade in two city-states built on that institution while creating a power vacuum in your wake has consequences. The Yunkai masters have taken over the city once more, enslaving those that were free and remained behind. Worse still, Dany’s hastily selected council of learned freedmen was displaced overnight in Astapor by a “butcher king” named Cleon. Dany will not abandon any of them fully, choosing to remain in Meereen as a Mhysa rather than return to King’s Landing as a queen.
Despite the continued delayed narrative satisfaction of seeing the Mother of Dragons roasting the Capital, it shows a majorly important weakness of Dany, as well as a possible strength. Her good intentions and stubborn pride are what allowed the enslaved witch to kill Khal Drogo in Season 1, but it is also what provided her the ability to birth three dragons in the same season, and to take an army in the third. Now that same pride has cornered her Meereen. Some may say that it is too foolish to force change this quickly. But is there necessarily an easy way to uproot a practice as evil as slavery in an area known as “Slaver’s Bay?” It is a question we can ponder greatly in future episodes.
In the meantime, some other women got to briefly shine as David Benioff and D.B. Weiss displayed a greater, more nuanced characterization of Cersei Lannister than what is on the page. Yes, I said that.
In the novels, Cersei is nearly as wicked as Joffrey (somewhat explaining his mean streak more). It is Cersei who orders the death of Robert’s bastards, as shown to be Joffrey’s decision in Season 2, and it’s Cersei who has an attempt taken on Tyrion’s life during the Blackwater, an event also reallocated to Joffrey’s actions on the show. In fact, Lena Headey’s Cersei Lannister, the victim of a king’s whims for 17 years, has no illusions about how repugnant her first son was. She even admits as much to Margaery Tyrell, whom despite her hatred for this Anne Baxter of Highgarden, she confides to. “He would have been your nightmare,” she both mocks and shamefully confesses to Margaery’s crocodile tears. Cersei must roll her eyes at this upstart’s politeness, which Margaery lays on so thick, it is a wonder that it didn’t suffocate Joffrey long before the poison hit his cup. Still, she admits that Joffrey was a monster that she can only love because he is her firstborn. Looking at Tommen being crowned, Cersei sees the Realm’s future, but the new king is nothing but a prop for the queen regent to explore her multifaceted emotions, which Headey brings to the surface with the churlish grace that has always been at the heart of the Lannister matriarch.
The rest of the episode is Cersei, after having reflected on how much better the Seven Kingdoms are without Joffrey and how terrible of a human being he is, still orchestrating his justice and revenge, if only in her own mind. She courts first Tywin and then Prince Oberyn, two of the judges on Tyrion’s court, for their aide in bringing the Imp to a violent end. It is a conflicted set of actions as confusing as Cersei’s tumultuous emotions. In the novels, she is a monster who gave birth to an even worse beast, but in the show, she is a victim whose claws have grown as sharp as the father lion that first cut her deeper than Castamere. Consider that the best line of the night belonged to Cersei when she remarked to Oberyn, “Everywhere in the world they hurt little girls.” That pain is what drives Cersei still to protect her family borne from that hurt. She doesn’t even care if her own actions have hurt other little girls too…
Which brings us to the Stark Sisters, both of whom provided some much needed change of scenery this week. In the case of Arya Stark, it was simply for comedic relief. The Hound and Arya have not done too much narratively speaking since the youngest Stark girl got Needle back in the most satisfying death this side of the Purple Wedding. However, since that moment, she and the Hound just peruse the countryside for one conflict after another. But that is okay with us, because the series could make spin-off just based on the imaginable B-roll of these two on the road.
This week, things come to a head when the Hound confronts Arya about her prayer. She in turn reveals that she says it for all the men she means to kill, including the Hound himself. He laughs it off at first, at least until she tries to stick him with Needle. Fortunately, for fans (though not for Arya’s head), the meager Needle is no match for the Hound’s chainmail. Honestly, the Water Dance is the best fighting method possible for a pint-sized assassin like Arya, even if the Hound makes japes. But it is a needed lesson that she will have to be craftier if she means to murder all of her enemies. Until then, she must first find her way to Lady Aunt Arryn, and all the warmth the Eyrie can bring.
Hopefully, Arya will make it to the Vale, because it would be our first Stark children reunion since Season 1 with Sansa Stark already being there! In television time, traveling the continent of Westeros (even by sea) can be much faster when the story needs it to be….
Sansa, now called Alayne Stone, Petyr Baelish’s niece, has reached the Eyrie with her newly named creepy uncle to attend the wedding of actual Aunt Lysa Arryn, Lady Regent of the Vale and sister to dear departed Cat. Also, Sansa is to be betrothed to Robin Arryn, her sickly cousin whom still sits too close by his mother’s love. For the simple humor of seeing Sansa fall from one misery pit into another, these scenes are amusing. She may not be tormented by Joffrey anymore, but Lysa is a few arrows short of a full quiver, especially when all she does is quiver with jealousy and rage. Obviously, Catelyn was the favorite child. And not only for their father. Petyr doted on Cat too, much to Lysa’s chagrin. Thus when brought Sansa to her aunt’s court, practically the first loving words out of the dear woman’s mouth include “are you pregnant?” This will go marvelously for Sansa, I’m sure.
But something also of great note was revealed this week for those who paid attention. In perhaps the single biggest revelation of the night, Lysa told Littlefinger that she was more than a wife to him. She was his closest confidant by doing his little errands, including poisoning Jon Arryn and sending a message to Winterfell, relaying to Catelyn that the Lannisters murdered Jon.
Hold. The Damn. Raven. If you unpack this, it means that Littlefinger orchestrated an entire conflict between the Starks and Lannisters when he convinced Lysa Arryn to murder her husband, the Hand of the King, and then told her to implicate House Lannister to the Starks, knowing full well that Jon Arryn was a mentor to Ned Stark. Let that soak in for a moment and savor that Littlefinger helped push this entire war, the driving force of the entire series four seasons on…a war that displaced the Starks, including his beloved Catelyn’s throat. And to what end? Well for starters, his service as a negotiator during the war earned him the ceremonial title of Lord of Harrenhaal. And now, it also facilitated him the position to rise into power at the Vale as the new husband of Lysa Arryn when he convinced her to stay out of the War of the Five Kings, leaving the Vale’s army refreshed and unused in the year(s) of war that followed. I’ll have more on this later in the week when we unravel just exactly who started the War of the Five Kings, but for those who have always lumped Littlefinger and Varys in the same boat together, please realize the following: Littlefinger is so, so much worse. Fear the Mockingbird.
And this episode did throw us some much-needed war at the end to make up for all the place setting in the rest of the episode. Unfortunately, this action revolved around two things: Bran and the Night’s Watch turncloaks turned rapists. As I explained last week, I am not a particular fan of the Bran storyline, because there are only so many warg transformations that can occur before it grows tedious. And sure enough, seeing Bran warg out, even into Hodor, to kill Locke felt as anti-climactic as the death of Ros. If you are going to create a new character for the series, why then promptly kill him or her off with so little fanfare? Locke was given the important duty in the series of removing the Kingslayer from the hand that slayed the king. Locke was spared judgment for this action to…just be killed by Hodor? Only Jaime could find a great reason to applaud.
Meanwhile Jon got to kill Burn Gorman. But since Burn Gorman characters die in nearly everything, that isn’t anymore satisfying than Locke’s death. Albeit, there is still an inevitable visceral joy of seeing a sword go through the mouth like a particularly nasty piece of dental floss. And while on the subject of teeth, at least Ghost got to sharpen his on Rast.
Overall, the climax to “First of His Name,” while a pretty bit of swordplay with a nice coat of red to smear across the snow, showed its hand upon why it was invented for this episode: it was meant to give some energy and visceral eye candy to an episode predominantly distracted with setting the stage for the next coming five installments. And while it gave us that thrill admirably, the fact remains that few of the characters who died are ones whom audiences cared about. But if it is what is needed to get us over this hump episode into the second half of Season 4, so be it.
In the meantime, it can be savored that we learned a startling revelation about Littlefinger’s role in this war, and we had some very nice character moments in relation to Dany, Cersei, and Sansa. For an episode where men slaughtered and burned other parties in their all-boys club, it was the women who actually made this episode work. And not one of them was forced to take off their clothes to do it. Something for both the show’s writers, and their critics, to think about.