‘Game of Thrones’ Recap (Season 2, Episode 3): “In Which Hot Lady Macbeth Is Introduced”
Continuing its recent trend of absolute continuity from one week to the next, the third episode of Game of Thrones picks up right after Jon Snow gets knocked out by Craster after some ill-advised snooping. After delivering a sufficient beating to Snow, Craster drags him into the lodge and demands that the Night’s Watch leave his homestead. The Commander then takes Snow aside for some routine father-son role play. The infinite patience he shows the compassionate but clumsy Snow is why we like Lord Commander so much. After all, this show isn’t exactly teeming with guardian angels. He tells Snow that although Craster may be morally repugnant–simply put, he kills his sons and rapes his daughters–he is a valuable asset to the Night’s Watch and picking a fight with this Oedipus-in-reverse would be destructive to their long term plans.
Meanwhile, Sam gives his wildling love interest his mother’s thimble. Yes, he turns a precious family keepsake into a sentimental promise ring. There’s speculation that he’s a Jonas ancestor. Back when they were…fatter.
After an exceedingly brief stint in Winterfell where Bran Stark is Being John Malkovich with his wolves, we get our first glimpse of formidable claimant Renly. Two men are fighting for sport at his camp, and when the winner is decided, she is revealed to be a woman. But not just any woman; this is Brienne of Tarth. She looms well over six feet, and is intimidating in that asexual, not even concerned about sex, is-she-raging-on-testosterone-or-estrogen-or-both sort of way. Her ambiguity on the spectrum of gender and sexuality is all the more compelling because she serves Renly Baratheon, himself facing issues of gender identity. Catelyn Stark stops by, and is immediately insubordinate to Renly (“my son is fighting a war, not playing at one,” she retorts). Catelyn has always seemed so authentic and dignified. It doesn’t seem like her nature to trade barbs for the sake of wit displayed. But then, this is Game of Thrones. Every human interaction needs to be either drenched in subtext and intrigue, or just plainly offensive to one of the parties involved.
The chess pieces are moving in Pyke. Balon Greyjoy is planning to siege The North while Robb is at war. Balon plans to dispatch 30 ships, to be led by Yara. As is custom at this point with the Greyjoys, Theon is degraded and will get a single ship, to be used for pillaging fishermen. Of course, he has yet to swear his complete allegiance to his biological family. At this juncture, he is utterly conflicted. But his choice is made clear later, when we see Theon write a letter to Robb warning him of the planned attack on The North. Then he sticks the letter in a candle’s flame. Theon has officially played Judas to his surrogate family, and the Greyjoys are now legitimate competitors in the Westeros land-grab extravaganza. To make this defection official, Theon is baptized in the Iron Islands’ sea as his father and sister look on.
Back in King’s Landing, Tyrion Lannister tells prostitute/mistress Shae that she may need to masquerade as a “kitchen wench” for awhile so his father doesn’t find out he’s smuggled her in there. Predictably, she petulantly prances around her fancy bedchambers, insisting that Tyrion stand up for her.
Nearby, Sansa Stark and the royal family (sans Joffrey) are sitting down to a frigid dinner. Younger brother Tommen asks Cersei if Joffrey is going to kill Robb Stark. Cersei takes this opportunity to be particularly sadistic, telling her son that it is a good possibility, and that under such circumstances Sansa would still dutifully stand by her king. In moments like this Lena Headey’s performance veers amusingly into evil stepmother/Disney villainess territory. All she needs is a magic mirror and a poison apple to round it out. In her chambers, Sansa is utterly miserable. Moments later everyone’s favorite trollop Shae abruptly arrives as her new handmaiden.
Cut to Tyrion. While watching this tactically labyrinthine sequence, I dreaded having to explain it. Here goes: Tyrion brings in Small Council members Grand Maester, Varys, and Littlefinger individually and tells them each variant versions of a political chess move: to marry off his niece Myrcella to a house in Westeros to create an ally. Most important, he tells each of them that they must not reveal this plan to Queen Regent Cersei. Later in the episode, Cersei throws a tantrum at Tyrion, having ostensibly discovered one of his plans. She screams at him for scheming to foist her daughter off to Dorne–the Southern region that Tyrion told Grand Maester Pycelle he planned to send Myrcella. The snitch has been cleverly exposed. Tyrion bursts in on Grand Maester while he’s with a prostitute and sends him to the Black Cells.
The second scene at Renly’s war camp is the most compelling in the episode. Renly is fooling around with his lover Loras, who is also his wife’s brother. During their mostly innocent little romp, Loras mentions that Renly’s subjects are beginning to snicker about his inability to have a child with wife Margaery. Then Loras sends his sister in to try and expedite the conception. Margaery enters seductively, and Renly is getting wasted to dull the nerves. As Margaery get topless and presses her seduction, we can only cringe in sympathy for both parties involved. (Renly looks repulsed while making out with his wife.) Eventually Margaery suggests that they bring her brother in to help rev the king’s engine. This seems like knowing mockery at first. Everyone on Game of Thrones is either ridiculed for or ridiculing sexual proclivities. Then we realize Margaery is dead serious. She whispers into her king’s ear that they must have a child in order to consummate their union (which is its own power play) and strengthen his ascendancy to the throne. If her brother will help facilitate Renly’s arousal, so be it. Margaery is a striking mix of shrewd, compassionate, and devious in this scene. She’s a younger, hotter Lady Macbeth. Like so many characters in GOT, The prospect of power seems to bring out the best in her.
In the episode’s final scene, the king’s men return to besiege Yoren, Arya, and the Night’s Watch recruits. If you remember from episode 2, they promised to return with more men in their search for Robert Baratheon’s bastard son Gendry. Yoren refuses to acquiesce, and unleashes one of those rousing blaze-of-glory killing sprees that gets both our hearts and our adrenaline pumping. Alas, he eventually suffers a grisly death–a longsword is jutted into the back of his neck, and literally thrust down his entire torso. Arya, Gendry and the rest of the recruits are captured, but when they demand Gendry, Arya tricks them into thinking they already slaughtered him.
This episode moved some chess pieces forward, while also toying with pawns that bear no strategic connection to Thrones‘ greater narrative arc (by that I mean, Shae). Several important characters and Westeros teams were also left out; no Daenerys, no Robb Stark, and no Stannis or his crimson genie. At this point in the season, and the series as a whole, GOT is achieving magnificent breadth, often as the expense of individual depth. There are so many characters that the show is having a hard time developing many of them.
The New York Times astutely pointed this out a few weeks ago. To be honest, I hardly noticed because I was constantly being blown over by the charismatic triumvirate of sex, power, and violence. Damn critics; always breeding cynicism! But it’s true. Deep down, don’t you miss Dany? She was such a strong, fascinating character in the first season, and thus far this season she has been almost completely exiled. I’d even go out on a limb to say that I would have enjoyed watching her take over for Ned Stark as the equilibrating force in the show. She is certainly sympathetic (her father, brother and husband have all been murdered); she is incredible at rising to unexpectedly trying occasions; and unlike almost all characters on the show (especially Small Council members, who indulge in the same snarky politicizing over and over), she appears to be always changing. Despite her beauty and desert stomping ground, she’s incredibly relatable and worthy of our vested interest.
Now to the issue of power. After Tyrion successfully tricks Grand Maester into his act of treachery, Varys and the Hand of the King have one of those deep, metaphysical conversations that Small Council members love (except for the Grand Maester, who is dumb and potentially senile). Varys essentially tells Tyrion that power is constructed by the collective imagination; it resides where the masses imagine it resides. True. But this got me thinking about another question about the substance of power. If it is indeed imaginary and immaterial, why do these characters want it so freaking badly? Power and sovereignty are by far the greatest driving forces of this show. Family and sex are a close second and third. But to me those desires are more innate, more palpable and visceral than the hunger for power. Like Varys said, power is abstract. Don’t human beings crave corporeal things before abstract ones? What I’m getting at is, in order for the audience to truly believe these characters intensely desire the throne, there must be something meaningful behind their longing.
Robb Stark is avenging his father’s murder; perfect. A driving force is established. Even Queen Cersei’s power plays make sense: she is protecting her family and trying to get back her lover Jaime. And to return to Dany, her will to power is also discernible. As her litany of tragedies grows, her ambition and resolve to conquer a world that has gravely wounded her deepens and deepens. These are the things that the quest for power must be fortified with. Without them, power is light as air, and the pursuit of it vapid and uncompelling.
Here’s hoping that as the season progresses, we get enough character development to see what really makes Stannis, Renly, and even Tyrion tick. Pursuing power for its own sake is like playing a game of make believe. It must be driven by a raging current of blood to matter–the blood of family loved, reviled, and departed.
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