Pearson Moore provides his take on episode 13, “What Is Dead May Never Die”, in his latest essay for WinterIsComing.net.
The Loyalties of Summer: An Analysis of Game of Thrones Episode 2.03
by Pearson Moore
Hers is not a fair-weather loyalty.
“I fought for my king. Soon I’ll fight for him on the battlefield, die for him if I must.”
Hers is the genuine loyalty every king wishes to see in his subjects, but rarely receives more than lip service from self-absorbed citizens. There is no truer devotion to be found anywhere in the realm, and Renly is wise to trust Brienne, daughter of Lord Selwyn Tarth, with his life and everything that is his. But she is among the knights of summer, and her greatest virtue—her loyalty—cannot endure the privations of darkness and ice. Winter is coming, and the summer virtues—even those perfections represented by the most worthy of Westeros—will be swept aside in the upheavals to come.
Tonight we did not see an episode as much as we heard a poem—a pair of tercets forming a magnificent stanza in six acts—the richest, most eloquent harmonies yet composed in this Song of Ice and Fire. We heard of dead men and ghosts and drowned gods, we witnessed sword and sacrifice, saw images of identity, power, and duty. But most of all we heard a lament for summer’s end, a pained and passionate song to a virtue that never receives its due. Tonight’s episode was about the most ephemeral perfection of them all: Loyalty.
What Is Dead May Never Die
“What is dead may never die, but rises again harder and stronger.”
I have to believe these words would pose a challenge to grammarians and linguists in their strange conflation of tense and mood, but the oath is not meant to be understood outside of the reality of rededication to the Drowned God. The words, actions, and even some elements of the theology match those of the Christian baptism familiar to those in Western cultures. The words, actions, and philosophy of Christian baptism, like their Iron Islands counterparts, make little sense when isolated from the rich context of their faith tradition. But within that tradition, words are wedded to thought, actions become precursor to resolve.
Theon had a difficult choice to make. The baptism in salt water was the ritual sign of his decision, the death of his former wolf identity and resurrection into the harder, stronger heritage of salt and iron. He could have undergone the ritual without severing his ties to House Stark. But he was torn at every level, and Yara knew it.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” he asked his sister. She could have told him, but what would this have accomplished? For the hard women and men of the Iron Islands words have no value independent of thought, action, and resolve. Blood relation does not carry significance in itself, but can only point to commitments that bond one person to another. This is quite different from the Stark understanding of blood as a perfection in itself, a condition that rose above the importance of name, title, or position. Theon was Balon’s blood, as Eddard Stark might have said, but being of iron blood, at least in the Iron Islands tradition, did not in itself indicate anything of Theon’s character or suitability for service to Pyke. This distinction in the meaning of blood is crucial to our understanding of the unique place of the salt-and-iron pirate culture of the Iron Islands in the greater scheme of Westeros. This wholesale reorientation of values will affect every future interaction between Theon, his family, and their seafaring countrymen and vassals as they advance toward the wolf’s lair at Winterfell.
“I wanted to see who you were first,” Yara said. “And I did.” He denied the charge that he was anything less than his father’s son, that iron and salt did not course his arteries and veins.
“I have no other family!”
“Don’t you? Make your choice, Theon, and do it quickly. Our ships sail with or without you.”
In the Christian tradition, baptism wipes away all sin. Even if the candidate has raped, pillaged, murdered, and committed every foul act imaginable, when the minister of the sacrament pours water over her head and intones the formula, “I baptise you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” she is released of every stain of evil or imperfection. She becomes clean, whole, equal in every way to any other member of the community of believers.
I have no idea how Theon’s new relationship to old loyalties will be portrayed on the small screen. But if Yara’s past behaviour and Balon’s temperament serve as accurate guide—and I believe they do—Theon’s baptism into the faith of the Drowned God will not confer on him any special privilege of bloodline or family position. He’s still going to have just one ship to pilot, and he’s still going to have to prove to his father and to his sister that he is a hard man, that he can be trusted to make hard decisions.
Those of us privileged to eavesdrop on Theon’s renewed dedication to the family of his youth know there are yet strong reasons to question the authenticity of his conversion.
“Your time with the wolves has made you weak.”
Balon did not question Theon’s physical strength or even his warrior prowess. Balon knew Theon’s heart had found a home in Winterfell. The signs of his true affinities were numerous and clear. Probably he could have predicted Theon’s warning letter to King Robb, perhaps even down to syntax and tone. That Theon burned the letter might indicate to the casual viewer that he has crossed the Rubicon, that bygones are now truly bygones, and he can be counted a true son of Balon Greyjoy. I doubt that Lord Greyjoy believes this happy fiction, and we should not believe it, either.
We speak here of sympathies of the heart—affinities that might be expressed as conviction, or formally recited as an oath of fealty. In the end, though, these sympathies are stronger than the most steadfast virtue, yet weaker than the most fleeting desire. Theon’s baptism at the seashore carries no more significance and has no greater chance of consistent future demonstration than any displays of fealty he might offer House Stark. This is because the virtue under discussion is Loyalty, and this attribute of human excellence is subject to forces that are fickle at best in ordinary times, but positively wreak havoc during periods of war.
We Need Men Like Craster
True loyalty demands sacrifice. We see in Brienne’s willingness to give everything, even her life, the admirable disposition of a soul truly devoted to the convictions of her heart. Sacrifice has been an important motif throughout the thirteen episodes of Game of Thrones, and it was well represented this evening. Sacrifice is sometimes admired, but always difficult, and even when it is reviled, it is often necessary.
Jon Snow became an intimate witness to the cold harshness of sacrifice when he saw the unyielding fire in Jeor Mormont’s eyes.
“Wildlings serve crueler gods than you or I. Those boys … are his offerings.” His sacrifice.
If Lord Commander Mormont had access to the Hebrew Scriptures, he would no doubt read with quiet approbation the chapter from Genesis in which the Creator demanded that Abraham sacrifice his only son, Isaac (Gen. 22:1-19). The reality of life north of the Wall was not always pleasant, not even to the hard men of the Night’s Watch. “We need men like Craster,” Lord Mormont said. Rangers, including Jon’s uncle Benjen, would have perished if not for the hospitality of Craster and his daughter-wives. That Craster served cruel gods was not for Jon to approve or disapprove. It was the way of the uncivilised North, and Jon would simply have to live with it.
We are not members of the Ancient Order of the Night’s Watch, though, and we are not required to surrender our scruples. We know something that neither Jon Snow nor Jeor Mormont can know: the identity of the “thing” that abducted the newborn. Readers of GRRM’s novels know that “thing” as an Other; in the televised version of the story we know these beings as White Walkers.
We should not expect to fully understand Lord Mormont’s rationale. At this early point in the story we have little insight into his history, the history of the Night’s Watch interactions with groups north of the Wall, and Mormont’s personal motivations. He has had to accept unpleasantries as they are rather than molding them into something he would prefer.
But I believe we are expected to move beyond a simple recognition of Craster’s sacrifice as an evil act. He is surrendering his babies to entities he knows to be antithetical to human life. Whether his newborn boys turn into wights or White Walkers, or feed some other unholy design of the blue-eyed demons, he knows he has struck a deal with the Devil. We are no less aware of this truth, but I believe there is yet a more important truth to be absorbed from the events of this episode. Craster’s offering was not the episode’s only depiction of the sacrifice of a male child.
“You gave me away. Your boy! Your last boy! You gave me away like I was some dog you didn’t want anymore.”
Like Craster, Lord Greyjoy gave away his son, his child, as a means of appeasing powers greater than his own. For Theon, the hypocrisy was clear. “You gave me away, if you remember, the day you bent the knee to Robert Baratheon, after he crushed you.”
I suppose we could construct some logical or literary argument in which Craster’s sacrifice is also seen as manifest hypocrisy, but I don’t believe we need to couple the sacrifice of a male child with hypocrisy in order to conclude we are being asked to consider sacrifice of a child as unacceptable in George Martin’s story-world.
The entire episode was crafted with such expertise that we do not need to rely on arguments as flimsy as these. In fact, the episode was a multi-layered cake (the literary term is chiasm), with frequent allusion to sacrifice made during the episode, sandwiched between Craster’s Sacrifice in the opening sequence and Lommy’s Sacrifice in the closing scene. The second stratum is a discourse on Power, the third layer of the cake deals with Loyalties to House Baratheon and House Lannister, the fourth stratum reveals Theon’s struggle with Loyalty, and the focal point—the delicious centre of this masterful confection—is, paradoxically, out of focus. I will return to this fascinating cascade of events later in the essay.
Our theme in this section is sacrifice. I have mentioned so far only those sacrifices that I believe George Martin and his capable acolyte, Bryan Cogman, are singling out for our disapproval. But before Cogman delivered his coup de grâce with the death of Lommy (an improvement over GRRM’s original, in my opinion), he gave us two instances of sacrifice intended to meet with universal acclaim. Yoren’s sacrifice was obvious and only apparently unnecessary. We might consider that Arya “wasted” Yoren’s self-sacrifice by taking time to liberate Jaqen H’ghar, Rorge, and Biter from their confinement, and that Gendry “wasted” the precious time Yoren gave him by fighting Ser Lorch’s men. However, Arya’s sympathetic action to save the three criminals was not only an act of mercy, but was in itself a second instance of self-sacrifice in which she put the condemned men’s survival ahead of her own escape from capture. In condescending to their necessity, she was also acknowledging their membership with her in the Sisterhood of the Damned. Thus, there was a general cascade of sacrificial redemption in which Arya’s circle of influence grew, in ways that probably will have significance later in the story.
The linear telling of the story and the multi-layered chiastic cake were not rich enough fare for the expert raconteurs of this chapter in the saga, though. Bryan Cogman harked back to the opening scenes of the series in two important homages that emphasised the Power Discourse and the theme around sacrifice. Lommy’s Sacrifice, in particular, was elevated to an importance that deserves its own section.
A Song of Ice and Needle
Lord Eddard Stark sat quietly in the peaceful godswood, oiling his longsword, Ice. He had used the sword only days before to kill a young man who deserved to die. Soon, everyone in his house would come under attack, and members of House Lannister would steal his sword from him. In an ironic turn of events, Ice would be used to execute him, and his sacrifice would become the most memorable event of Season One.
Arya Stark sat quietly in the peaceful barn, oiling her sword, Needle. She had used the sword only days before to kill a young man who deserved to die. Soon, everyone in the barn would come under attack, and members of House Lannister would steal her sword from her. In an ironic turn of events, Needle would be used to execute Arya’s brother, Lommy, and his sacrifice would become the most memorable event of the third episode of Season Two.
The parallel structure was unmistakable, and the intention was quite clear. The measured grace of Arya’s hand motions along the length of the sword—even the cadence of the motion and her concentration—were perfect reproductions of her father’s prayerful attentions from last season. This intricate level of artistic detail was not isolated to the final sequence, but was precisely portioned throughout the episode, creating a tightly stitched thematic whole unequalled so far in the series.
Lest we think this sequence of details around father and daughter, longsword and rapier, is some unnecessary icing on the cake, though, we should give thought to the final objective of this exercise in parallel literary structure. The episode began with heated reference to a despised form of sacrifice. The story ended with a horrible case of child sacrifice. The inner layers of the story brought us into the pain and hypocrisy of Balon Greyjoy’s sacrifice of his only son, Theon.
If not for the Ice//Needle parallel, we might be able to ascribe any observations regarding the idea of sacrifice to an overactive imagination. We could never be sure that the writers wished us to believe that sacrifice was an important theme in this episode, nor that we were being asked to believe certain truths about the nature of sacrifice in Game of Thrones. With the unambiguous parallel to the execution of Ned Stark, any uncertainty regarding the importance of sacrifice to this part of the story can be dismissed and we can get on with the business of delving deeper into the theme.
Since the sword/execution parallel reaches all the way back to the first and ninth episodes of Season One, I believe we should feel some comfort in believing that the theme will bear significance far into future seasons of GoT. If this is true, what should we make of the idea of sacrifice in our Song of Ice and Fire?
Certainly the idea of sacrifice, at least in this episode, seems to be associated with the theme of Loyalty. But if Loyalty is, as I indicated in the introduction, a “summer” virtue unsuited to the exigencies of “winter”, what is the significance of Loyalty to the story?
If we are to grasp the meaning of Loyalty and Sacrifice in GoT, I believe we need to give time to a consideration of the second stratum in tonight’s multi-tiered cake: Power.
The Dragons Are Gone
“Maybe magic once was a mighty force in the world, but not anymore. The dragons are gone. The giants are dead, and the Children of the Forest … forgotten.”
So much for the invincibility of magic, the greatness of dragons, the power of giants. What is power, anyway? “It is a curious thing”, is it not? “It’s a trick, a shadow on the wall”; isn’t that all that magic is anymore, nothing but a trick, a shadow? Aren’t these old ideas nothing more than stories?
“That’s exactly what they are, Bran: Stories.”
“I know a story about power,” Old Nan might have told him. But instead, we heard a story about power from Westeros’ greatest storyteller, Lord Varys:
“Three great men sit in a room. A king, a priest, and a rich man. Between them stands a common sellsword. Each great man bids the sellsword kill the other two. Who lives? Who dies?”
Two stories about the nature of power—the first, a story of ancient powers long forgotten; the second, a story of present-day powers vitally relevant. The first discourse on power occurred in the third scene from the beginning of the episode, the second discourse occurred in the third scene from the end of the episode. If you have not yet fallen in love with the compelling artistry of this beautifully designed episode, I invite you to view the episode again, this time with attention to the fascinating parallels and multi-tiered connections between scenes. It really is a rare instance of small-screen genius.
Recall the pivotal scene from Episode 1.01 in which Bran confronted his father about what the condemned ranger had seen north of the Wall:
Ned: The White Walkers have been gone for thousands of years.
Bran: So he was lying.
Ned: A mad man sees what he sees.
It was evident from Bran’s reaction to Ned’s words that he did not believe his father. Compare the above exchange now to the one we witnessed this evening between Maester Luwin and Bran:
Bran: Old Nan used to tell me stories about magical people who could live inside stags, birds, wolves.
Luwin: That’s exactly what they are, Bran: stories.
Bran: So she was lying. They don’t exist.
We might as well have substituted Bran’s dead father for Maester Luwin in tonight’s exchange; Ned’s words would not have differed even in tone from those delivered by Maester Luwin.
The real genius of these parallel discourses on power was the meeting of two worlds that are usually kept distinct, running side by side on tracks that never intersect. Tonight they were running so close to each other that I found myself hoping for a collision—but of course that monumental event is many seasons away.
The two worlds I speak of here are those represented by the adults-only Game of Thrones and the greater Song of Ice and Fire I usually reserve to what I call the Sisterhood of the Damned. Renly, Stannis, Catelyn, Robb, and Cersei inhabit the adults-only world obsessed with the deadly dance around the Iron Throne, while the Sisterhood of the Damned—and its membership comprising Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things—constitutes the locus of the greater story of our Song of Ice and Fire. These are usually separate stories, with the adult tale drawing attention toward the centre (The major houses, then King’s Landing, then the Red Keep, and finally the Iron Throne), and the children’s story drawing attention to the periphery (Arya at the chaotic centre, outward toward Bran in Winterfell and Drogo in Vaes Dothrak, outward to Jon Snow at the Wall and now north of the Wall, outward to Daenerys Targaryen in Vaes Dothrak and now east of Vaes Dothrak). The greater truths reside at the periphery, available for viewing only by the Damned. Bran walks with wolves, sees through their eyes; Daenerys walks with dragons, shares their comfort with furnace and flame.
Luwin lectured Bran, Varys lectured Tyrion. Two members of the adult world lectured two members of the Sisterhood of the Damned, and they did so in a thematically- and temporally-parallel, episode-long literary chiasm that has long served as the exciting “sound bite” trailer to the second season.
So, we wait in delicious, excruciating anticipation of the inevitable crossover between these two parallel story-worlds. When these parallel tracks do finally run into each other, the reverberations will echo through the entire story, and no happy dovetailing will this be. Rather, it will shake the story to its core, rattle us, shock us in its audacious gravitas.
But thanks to the structure of tonight’s stanza in the Song, we know something of the contours of the coming storm. What is power, Varys asked. He posed the question, but consistent with his station among those blind to the truths of the periphery, he presumed to provide an answer, too. “Power resides where men believe it resides. It’s a trick, a shadow on the wall, and a very small man can cast a very large shadow.” Power, in other words, is sophistry. It is political science. It is showmanship. It is the modern-day reformulation of the ages-old idea that Man is the Measure of all Things, that women and men can mold power into their own image and likeness.
The Martin worldview would appear to be entirely at odds with this presumption of human ascendency. That power is “a trick, a shadow on the wall” occurs in precise parallel with Maester Luwin’s proclamation that “The dragons are gone. The giants are dead, and the Children of the Forest … forgotten.” We know the dragons live, the giants reside north of the Wall, and the Children—well, of course, Maester Luwin was speaking with one of them. All of these ancient, so-called “dead and forgotten” powers are very much alive.
Notice, though, most importantly, these ancient powers are powers in and of themselves. They do not depend on the caprices of women and men to bring to bear their imprint on the world. Those humans who assert the illusion of power cannot claim to control the tempest or still the sea or by eloquence of word beguile the Children of the Forest. These primal powers are what they are. They are not subject to the whims of humankind or the sweet coercions of sophistry or rhetorical illusion. Power is not Varys’ parlour trick, but Bran’s nocturnal hunt in the godswood; not Varys’ “shadow on the wall”, but Daenerys’ séance in the burning conflagration. Power is real, and integral to Martin’s story-world. Therefore, the ultimate resolution of the Game of Thrones will somehow involve the application of primal power, and the person who sits the Iron Throne at the end of Book Seven will have the backing not only of “shadows on the wall”, but the informed consent of direwolves and dragons, too.
Of Thimbles and Helms
“Don’t lose it again,” Lord Mormont said, pushing Longclaw across Jon’s chest.
Mormont was not lecturing a forgetful child in this scene. Nor was he even admonishing his steward to take better care of the family heirloom he gave Jon last season after the incident of the wight attack. Lord Mormont’s words carried far deeper significance. Longclaw is not a mere possession, or even a cherished object carrying sentimental value. Longclaw is a totem, bearing significance unique to Game of Thrones.
Longclaw is not merely a sword. It could be thought of as the symbolic representation of its owner, but even that mode of thinking does not convey the full meaning of the sword. We can gain a more accurate appreciation of Longclaw by considering Sam’s thimble.
“My mother used it for sewing. She let me sit with her, and I read to her. It’s the only thing I have of hers. She gave it to me before I left for the Wall.”
The critical words are “It’s the only thing I have of hers.” The thimble not only represented Sam’s mother, but was a stand-in for her. In some sense, the thimble didn’t just represent his mother, but was his mother. In the same way, Longclaw was supposed to be passed on to Jeor Mormont’s son, Ser Jorah. Longclaw could be given to no one else; it was to be the steel-and-stone manifestation of House Mormont. When Jorah fled the continent, he severed ties to father and house, and Lord Mormont had no heir for the family totem. Jon Snow solved the problem of a worthy successor to the Longclaw legacy, though, when he killed the wight that attacked Lord Mormont. The Lord Commander had the pommel modified especially for Jon and presented it to him, not as a gift, not as any mystical assertion that Jon was somehow continuing the Mormont line, but as a raw statement of Jon’s identity.
The horned bull helm created by Gendry Waters was associated with him from the moment he created it at the forge. The goldcloaks of the City Watch would know Gendry’s identity through this helm. When Arya wished the Lannister bannermen to believe they had killed Gendry, all she had to do was point to the helm. “You already got him,” she said, indicating Gendry’s new surrogate-in-death, Lommy Greenhands.
Balon Greyjoy stripped away Theon’s identity in last week’s episode when he pulled off the chain that held Theon’s cloak in place. When the cloak fell, Theon’s identity as a Stark fell with it. That the identity was false did not reduce the impact of Balon’s bold stripping away of his son’s façade.
Arya’s Needle was more than a cherished gift. “Sansa can keep her knitting needles,” Arya said. “I have a needle of my own.” When the Lorch rider seized Arya’s sword, he was stripping her of her identity just as much as Balon had earlier stripped Theon. In fact, the violent seizure of Arya’s identity was even worse, affected her even more, because Needle had been a valid, accurate, and complete manifestation of Syrio Forel’s dancing student.
This way of looking at GoT totems brings new insight to old events. For instance, what are we to make of the deeper meaning inherent in Ned’s execution? If Needle is the steel-blade incarnation of Arya, can we attach any less significance to Ice? “It wasn’t the wine that killed Robert, nor the boar,” Varys said to Lord Stark in Episode 1.08. “The wine slowed him down and the boar ripped him open. But it was your mercy that killed the king…. I trust you know you’re a dead man, Lord Eddard.” If we interpolate to the accusation implicit in Varys’ words, we could not be far off the mark in believing Varys was saying that Ned was responsible for his own death. We could say Ned’s mercy led to his own death, or his preoccupation with honour was the fault that led to his execution. Now we can include Ice in our deliberations on Ned’s failings, and expand the list of dubious self-destructive virtues to include Ned’s justice, as exemplified in the sword he used to administer the Justice of the North.
Baptismal blessings came to Theon Greyjoy in threes:
Bless him with salt
Bless him with stone
Bless him with steel.
In the same way, loyalties were tested, affirmed, or denied in groups of three. King Renly invited loyalty to his cult of charisma on the part of those closest to him: Brienne, Loras, and Margaery. Tyrion invited loyalty to his authority as Hand on the part of those sitting the Small Council: Pycelle, Baelish, and Varys.
The Cult of Renly, of course, is based on the charismatic leadership of its central figure. It stands to reason, then, that its most ardent member is the one who most faithfully exudes and professes fealty not to cause or country, but to the specific personality of Renly Baratheon. Brienne of Tarth is Renly’s top cheerleader, and the person who most truly expresses the type of devotion he wishes to engender in all his followers.
As close as Loras was to his beloved Renly, he remained unable to surrender himself to the type of loyalty Renly demanded. Loras was not loyal to the personality of Renly, nor even to the idea of Renly. Instead, Loras was loyal to his own glory. When Brienne stole that glory—even a small fraction of it—Loras lost his loyalty and could no longer share Renly’s bed.
One of the most poetically engineered scenes tonight was the bedroom meeting of Renly and Margaery. Renly said he had drunk much wine. “As is your right, Your Grace. You are a king.” The scene ended with Margaery’s confirmation that Renly could do anything he wished, for “You are a king.” Notice she did not even say “You are the king.” Not a single instance of the definite article could cross her lips. Everything she said in reference to Renly contained the indefinite article: “You are a king. A king can do this, a king can do that.” Margaery is not loyal to Renly. She is loyal to “a king”. Compare her words to the person-specific words of Sam for Gilly:
Gilly: You shouldn’t give it [the thimble] away.
Sam: I’m not giving it away. I’m giving it to you.
Margaery, on the other hand, is giving nothing to any particular person. She is giving herself away. She gives herself to “a king”. Any king will do, and since Renly is there, he fits the bill.
Loyalty is a summer virtue because the smallest change can have enormous significance to the relationship. Once upon a time, when House Lannister was a monolith ruled by Tywin Lannister, single-minded devotion to Tywin’s whims ensured not only Grand Maester Pycelle’s survival, but his enjoyment of every pleasure available in King’s Landing. Now, with Tyrion’s promotion to Hand, Pycelle’s rote loyalty to Tywin’s surrogate, Cersei, earned him a one-way ticket to a rat-infested Black Cell.
Round Up the Usual Suspects
“Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
Westeros is not Casablanca, and Victor Laszlo is not going to appear in the godswood (or will he?).
That Tyrion and Varys can reject the Vichy water and share a cup of authentic French wine should not signal that Varys has suddenly come in from the cold, or has secretly shared in Tyrion’s agenda all along. Varys’ new alliance with Tyrion is an accident, a convergence of interests that has nothing at all in common with loyalties true, false, or even implied.
Varys is the Master of Spiders. He acts on information, not on devotion to principles or personalities. His brand of espionage succeeded not because he was in tune with Tyrion, but because his ways were most adaptive.
Pycelle failed because his loyalties and espionage were based on conventional relationships. It made perfect sense, then, for Tyrion to entice him with an imagined compact with House Martell. Martell was the only house to resist the Targaryens, and joined the Seven Kingdoms through matrimonial alliance well into the second century of Targaryen rule. This powerful and independent house had long exuded the kind of conventional affinities that would be apparent to anyone who valued pedestrian, vanilla-only information.
Lord Baelish did not fail the test of fealty to the Hand. Rather he failed the test of loyalty to self. He should have known to reject any dangling carrots labeled “Catelyn” or “Lysa”. Instead he succumbed to long-felt temptation and agreed to broker the imaginary liaison with House Arryn.
So Tyrion and Varys do their best impersonations of Rick Blaine and Louis Renault, but I don’t buy it. Varys did not stroll with Tyrion through the underground dragon storage room, speaking of Khal Drogo and Daenerys Targaryen. He escorted Magister Illyrio, and his deference toward House Targaryen did not seem feigned. Would his greatest dreams find fulfillment in a dragon once again sitting the Iron Throne? Or is he so pure of heart that he truly is the intelligence mercenary to the highest bidder, or to the person deemed most likely to affirm Varys’ position? Perhaps he will not drink Vichy water in Tyrion’s presence. But who’s to say he doesn’t drink a toast in private?
Arya has lost Needle—she has lost her identity. Theon lost his cloak—he lost his identity. Sansa long ago lost her identity. Once upon a time, she was the beloved lady of a kind and gentle prince, waiting for the day her storybook romance would blossom into a marriage that would reflect all the goodness of a perfect kingdom.
Not all identity is so ephemeral. Daenerys’ totem is not steel but fire-breathing flesh. Bran’s totem is not an object he can lose, but a creature integral to his being.
Sansa’s mirror image was the central focus, the core of the multi-layered cake. Occurring at 25 minutes into the episode, this brief image formed the conceptual centre of Game of Thrones’ most nuanced and carefully balanced episode to date. The image is sad, worried, bearing concerns that ought to be foreign to the heart of a fourteen-year-old girl.
But we see in Sansa’s imperfect reflection the full realm of possibilities open not only to Sansa, but to everyone, to every member of the Sisterhood of the Damned who has lost her identity. The image is blurred because Sansa has no identity. Free of a totem, free of anything defining her being, she is able now to define herself, to acquire and build up any identity she would like. Sansa, Arya, Gendry, and all whose identity has been stolen can become the people they need to be. And this is as it should be. Those who survive will not waste time in acquiring the armour of the knights of summer. Winter is coming, after all. For the power-obsessed adults this may be just a game. But for Sansa and Arya and Jon Snow and Tyrion Lannister and every other Cripple, Bastard, and Broken Thing, this is no game of thrones. This is a song of ice and fire. And the dragons are not gone.