Erosion and Growth in “And Now His Watch Is Ended”
By Tyler Davis
Roots bind earth together while overtaking the most expertly laid stonework–they need only time to subsume the projects of men. So when Lady Olenna of House Tyrell mocks her family’s words–“Growing Strong”–for lacking the bracing call of the Stark “Winter is Coming” or implied menace of the Greyjoy “We Do Not Sow,” her self-deprecating humor veils the real lesson she takes from the Tyrell motto: the importance of playing the long game. In “And Now His Watch Is Ended,” Game of Thrones presents patience and adaptability as the factors most essential to the success of any mission, be it survival, justice, revenge, or conquest. In this exploration, questions raised earlier in the season about service, choice, and punishment are given at least one answer: it isn’t enough to doggedly pursue a single path; to thrive, one must shape the world according to one’s wishes through influence and seized opportunity, ever remaining prepared to sprout through the ashes of plans laid low by the fires of change.
“Influence is largely a matter of patience” and it “grows like a weed,” Varys informs. When Tyrion seeks help in determining the responsible party behind the attempt on his life during season two’s Battle of Blackwater Bay, Varys offers little in the way of concrete answers. But in telling the tale of his slavery, mutilation, and eventual abandonment by the sorcerer who abused him, Varys makes one thing clear: the quest for revenge can sustain a person for quite some time. Step by step, Varys tended his influence until its “tendrils reached from the Red Keep” to the “far side of the world.” The imprisoned sorcerer Varys reveals when he cracks open a crate is physical testament to the truth of his advice. If Tyrion has the stomach for it, revenge will be his in time–the patience is all.
I was happily surprised how Varys-centric the episode was. Conleth Hill has always been masterful in the role, but here he was particularly effective as both a teacher and practitioner of steady manipulation. What’s most significant about Varys is that he–like Littlefinger–exemplifies forbearance taken to an extreme. Littlefinger, however, is conspicuously absent–a negative space in an episode where he’s often the topic of conversation. I think this is an effective strategy on the part of the showrunners: Varys becomes our window into the world of long-deception precisely because he’s presented as the necessary counter to Littlefinger, while Littlefinger – the Spider’s only equal in plotting – is kept absent (thus leaving his plans inscrutable to audience members, and merely guessed at by fellow players on the King’s Landing stage). As Ros, Varys, and Olenna speculate as to Littlefinger’s true motives, we see two networks of influence competing for the same turf. Navigating the garden maze where even the shrubbery has eyes and ears is challenging, but mastering this path is valuable beyond measure.
The same deliberate extension of influence is visible in Margaery’s interactions with Joffrey. What unnerves Cersei so profoundly about Margaery isn’t just that the young lion appears to be intoxicated by the Tyrell perfume, but that Cersei’s entire dedication to family–the mission she accepted from father dearest–threatens to result in her exclusion and irrelevance. Strengthening the Lannister name is Cersei’s exclusive goal, particularly as it relates to her immediate family, and yet the rigidity of this plan proves detrimental when contrasted with Tyrell adaptability. After years of indulging the savage she bore, Cersei proves fundamentally incapable of courting his favor when his sanguinary tastes outgrow her pampering. And as Olenna’s protégé, Margaery is a consummately flexible player. Her introduction of Joffery into the public relations sector harkens back to her stint among war orphans, and it suggests that she’s planting seeds wherever possible such that she will never be far from familiar and controllable territory. Because she does not overinvest in a single strategy – remember that she’s just recently made a nimble transition from being Renly’s bride – she’ll thrive.
Like its most intelligent characters, the show itself has taken up the long game, and episode four’s position in the season’s narrative trajectory mirrors its thematic content. The triad of episodes introducing the season – though punctuated with big moments – feel anticipatory, whereas episode four resolves or dramatically intensifies existing plotlines in the way a finale might. Jaime’s loss of a hand at the end of “Walk of Punishment” is a colossal event within his arc, but it’s not signalled by the scenes preceding it, suddenly arriving in the time it takes for Locke’s cleaver to thunk through flesh and bone. As compared to the lightning strike that was the Kingslayer’s mutilation, episode four – in narrative terms – feels like reaping a harvest after the storm.
I’ve spoken in the past about how Thrones is structured around fragmented character moments that eschew the private interiority of the novels–something all but essential if the scope and spirit of Martin’s novels are to be successfully adapted. This means that each season’s earliest episodes are burdened by their duty toward exposition and storyline reintroductions while still moving the plot forward (a task that seems to intensify as the show progresses, each season introducing more characters than it kills off). And while it’s my opinion that season three has proven agile despite shouldering this burden, episode four drops the weight and sprints. Consider Dany’s sack of Astapor, the Hound’s capture and impending trial, Theon’s revelation that the boy helping him is not what he seems, the Tyrell commitment to countering Littlefinger’s plans, and the mutiny at Craster’s Keep; in each case, plot lines that had been germinating for episodes finally bore fruit. This is remarkable primarily because we’re only four episodes through a season of ten, and in some respects these events carry the gravity of season-enders. But there’s a real sense in which the first two seasons–despite Ned’s beheading and the Battle of Blackwater Bay–were just preludes to the events unfolding now. The third book was written as a conclusion to the first major leg of ASoIaF’s story, and the brunt of that momentum is now visible in the show, with questions introduced earlier being rapidly answered.
If the season introduction assessed how characters in Thrones faced difficulties in matters of service and servitude, the fourth episode has many of these same characters facing the resolution of this conflict for better or worse. Theon suffers what is perhaps the episode’s most heartbreaking lesson in loyalty when he proclaims that his real father was beheaded in King’s Landing. Last week I spoke of choice and uncertainty–how characters must face up to the existential challenge of acting in a hostile and unpredictable world. If we are the sum of our choices, then Theon must accept the fact that he “chose wrong” and is, in a very real way, no longer able to continue the story of who he was. His narrative is now severed in two. The confessional moment in which Theon laments the path before him is devastating because he, unlike so many Thrones characters, feels genuine remorse. When the boy purporting to rescue Theon assumes that Theon was motivated by revenge, the boy is defaulting to one of the most common motivational standards (especially for this episode) in Westeros. But Theon only ever sacked Winterfell in an effort to live up to his birthright. His lesson is that birthrights and names aren’t worth so much when they compel you to act against your true family, and those truly deserving your loyalty.
Also consider the Hound’s story: when we last saw him in season two, he left us with “fuck the Kingsguard, fuck the city, fuck the king”–surely a grave revocation of servitude if ever there was one. And yet here, on trial, he defends his slaughter of Mycah, the butcher’s boy, by proclaiming that his duty was to the prince. This weak argument highlights a struggle within the Hound’s character, as he grapples with the truth of his actions in the name of service to a terrible master even in the process of trying to extricate himself from that servitude. He may be a dog off the chain, but the undeniable reality is that he once did the bidding of the greater beast holding the leash. We can never escape our actions once we’ve made them–they trail behind us, propelling us forward or anchoring us to the past.
The tension between oaths taken and oaths broken has also been central to storylines in the far north, and the mutiny at Craster’s Keep brings this conflict to a head. Starved and weary, the men of the Night’s Watch–most of them criminals in a past life–revolt because, as Bannon’s funeral reminds them, survival is at stake. Lord Commander Jeor Mormont’s eulogy for the fallen watchman is noble, and demonstrates his dedication to honoring his men even in the cold and dark, but honor will not fill bellies or thaw fingers. There is no suggestion that righteous indignation at Craster’s incest and infanticide motivate the watchmen in their revolt; while Karl spits vitriol to demean and incite Craster, he does so to provoke an attack and not to endorse a moral perspective. Even so, the simple truth is that Craster could keep them from an untimely demise, and he chooses not to. And yet it is clear from the ensuing chaos of battle that many watchmen–Grenn, Edd, others–attempt to defy the mutineers, perhaps because hunger and desperation do not outweigh their dedication to the black. Jeor earned the loyalty of some, but too few. The Great Ranging that began at the conclusion of season one has finally come to a close, and a darker chapter begins for those who remain.
The scene in Astapor provides a counterpoint to the northern mutiny in its demonstration of how loyalty can prevent freedom and servitude from operating at exclusively polar ends of a continuum. Dany has been grappling with the competing views of Jorah and Barristan, her advisors-at-odds, only to reach for a third option: claim the Unsullied, and free them. If the Unsullied will fight a war on her behalf, they will do so willingly. Dropping the slaver’s whip in her wake, Dany memorably abandons an unnecessary implement of control and constraint. This scene is largely about the necessity of Dany remaining true to her character as an unbidden and unexpected variable in the game being played. Just as the Mother of Dragons will not sell one of her children, she won’t emulate the slaveholders she just destroyed–she’ll make her own path.
Dany’s arc over the first four episodes is also a tale of revenge. Kraznys represents a method of rule antithetical to her own, and one far more reminiscent of her brother, Viserys. Similarly, the betrayal of Mormont can also be framed as an act of revenge for the mere toleration of Craster’s selfishness while Night’s Watchmen died freezing. And further, let us not forget that Arya’s story is closely interwoven the the Hound’s; since Yoren taught her his mantra for vengeance, the Hound’s name has been on her lips each night. Varys and his sorcerer, Tyrion and the forces working against him, Tywin’s quest to get his son back; revenge is a central theme around which this episode revolves. But one character refuses to fall neatly into this pattern despite having every reason to do so: Jaime Lannister.
Lacking the spectacle of Dany’s assault on Astapor or the horror at Craster’s Keep, Jaime and Brienne share a subtler story this week. Even so, I think it’s one of the more important glimpses we get into Martin’s world because Jaime offers a unique complication to the panoply of characters lusting for power, justice, heroism, and so on. Jaime has only ever been a person defined by love–love first and foremost for his sister, and secondly for his family. There is a sense in which everything he’s ever done hasn’t been for glory or honor, power or riches, but rather duty to the powerful and ill-fated union with Cersei that sparked to life in his youth, and never snuffed out. So while he is Tywin’s preferred heir, and while he is the man who slew the Mad King, we’ve never been given the impression that either of these facts particularly matter to Jaime so much as they matter to the world he inhabits. He already had everything he wanted long ago, and ever since he has merely been trying to hold onto it.
Known for his extraordinary prowess with the sword (a skillset more easily developed than academic valor, as Jaime battled with dyslexia while young), the sole role in which Jaime was able to make a mark on the world was that of the warrior. Thought was never given to plans, and thrills came only when an adequate challenger appeared. His sword hand forcibly removed, the Jaime Lannister known to the world is effectively dead. “I was that hand,” he laments. And yet when Brienne motivates Jaime to survive by imploring him to seek revenge, he remains unmoved. Convincingly, he declares that he has no interest in paying his debts. The Jaime Lannister of season one confronted Ned Stark in the middle of King’s Landing because Tyrion was taken prisoner, whereas the dismembered Jaime of season three – his warrior’s impotence confirmed by a desperate and failed attack on his captors hours prior – lacks even the spirit for righteous indignation.
What keeps Jaime alive? The answer, I think, is the very one he is unable to give when Brienne asks him why he helped her. The moment in episode three in which Jaime decides to selflessly stick out his own neck on her behalf is one in which he willingly turns from the pattern of behavior that had defined him to that point. This isn’t the self-loathing Jaime who would do anything for those closest to him, and little for those not. In that moment, aware that he has the power to possibly save the life of someone possessed of virtues he’s unfamiliar with but begrudgingly admires, he chooses to do so. For his choice, he pays dearly. As with Cersei, the Lannister weakness is rigidity; of the children, only Tyrion has shown true adaptability, but even he refuses to leave the deadly familiarity of King’s Landing for an unknown world at the close of season two. The price the Kingslayer pays is the cost of an awakening: if Jaime Lannister as we knew him is now dead, who will he become? And so Jaime, too, must begin playing the long game if he wishes to survive. To adapt, he must secure another reason for existing–one that doesn’t involve being the most expert death-dealer in the Seven Kingdoms, and one which may test him in ways he has heretofore avoided. What’s clear is that whatever compelled him down this path–whatever unspoken answer to Brienne’s question dwelled within him when he decided to lie on her behalf–existed well before he lost his hand.
“You have a taste, one taste of the real world, where people have important things taken from them, and you whine, and cry, and quit,” Brienne judges, and she’s right; the characters who are able to weather the the harshest changes and withstand the deadliest wounds have the greatest chance of surviving. Varys was mutilated by the hands of a sorcerer, Littlefinger was sliced by Brandon Stark in a duel long ago (his shattered pride and broken heart more painful by far), Tyrion was born a reject, Jon Snow has forever been a bastard, Bran’s body was ruined when he fell, Brienne has faced a life of discrimination, Dany rose against her brother’s systematic abuse, and so forth. Unlike his sister, Jaime has begun to feel the real pain of an outer world encroaching on his protected center, and it’s through the shaping agony of his suffering that he might find transformation.
This episode’s events will bear heavily on everything to come, and it’s quite likely that the pace will only intensify from this point forward. Characters who are capable of adapting beyond the precipitous changes will be at a distinct advantage over those who find themselves endeavoring toward outdated goals and identities that have already begun to show signs of wear. Much of Thrones is about how formality is an insufficient bulwark against the tides of reality. As such, Harrenhal is the structural embodiment of how the very best defenses offer no protection when someone changes the rules of the game. Kraznys learns this lesson the hard way when when Dany’s self-confident adaptability devastates the calcified Astapori traditions. Jeor Mormont–admirable, respectable, and yet trapped by the limitations of his post and his rigid honor in a rapidly changing world–suffers a similar fate, albeit one that earns our sympathies. Another parallel can be found in Theon and Jaime: two men, both displaced, both severed from their former identity. And yet where Theon has run out of time, Jaime is still given a final chance to grow differently. Though he is a Lannister by blood, and though he is his sister’s twin, this test will define who he becomes. And in King’s Landing a lusher game is beginning to take shape as roots quietly spread. For all her mocking, Lady Olenna is intimately aware of the dangers of thorns.