One of the unsurprising themes to emerge over the course of these reviews is the disruption of viewer expectations. This is obvious with Ned’s death, as most shows don’t kill their heroes so abruptly. But I think even that doesn’t get to the source of the issue. Game of Thrones’ first season holds its shocking power because it kills its patriarchs; it kills the exact sort of people who survive other shows and other stories.
Consider: there are four major deaths in the first season. In order, they are: the rightful King Viserys, the sitting King Robert, the Hand of the King, and the Great Khal, Drogo. Tywin Lannister aside, you could make the argument that these are the four most powerful/important men in Westeros and Essos. They are the patriarchs who are supposed to be leading the story. And they are the ones who end up dead.
Most TV shows prefer to kill the weak. They abide by unspoken rules that if a character is important, he or she is too important to die. Certainly some dramas do kill off their cast members, but far more often than not, they’re side characters, while whoever the main core is moves through until one of the actors bails. Game of Thrones, on the other hand, abides by the rule that the more important a character is within its world, the more likely he is to be a target.
Perhaps the best metaphor for this in “Fire and Blood” occurs in the show’s oddest scene, when Pycelle speaks to Roz and then prepares to meet the Small Council….
For a few minutes, he plays the doddering old man, delivering a rambling monologue in response to a question he doesn’t answer. “He is a capable young man. Strong military mind. Stern, but sternness in defense of the realm is no vice.” Other than that he’s spending time with a prostitute, this is the same Pycelle we’ve seen ineffectually advising throughout the entire season. Then Roz leaves, and Pycelle immediately stands straight up, stretches vigorously, and presents himself as an entirely different man than he’s been the entire series—up until he leaves the room, and which point, he hunches over and looks pathetic once again. I’ve seen several different interpretations of this scene, but the one I keep coming back to is this: Pycelle understands that being seen as the perfect patriarch is desired, but also dangerous—even as he seems to believe that Joffrey fills the role.
That interpretation is given weight by another scene invented for the show, between Varys and Littlefinger. “You must be one of the few men in this city who isn’t a man,” says Littlefinger. “Ah, you can do better than that,” Varys replies. Their sparring here indicates a comprehension, like Pycelle’s, that they can be safer by not appearing as paragons of masculinity. But as we’ve learned from Baelish’s characterization, he may find power from appearing as powerless as he does, but he’s jealous of and bitter toward the masculine warrior types with strong jaws who he feels have wronged him. “A man with great ambition and no morals, I wouldn’t bet against you,” says Varys, but he should also add “A man whom everyone will underestimate.”
As the story progresses, more and more of those embodiments of masculine power die—another half-dozen or so over the next three seasons. In my biggest Game of Thrones piece before I came to Winter Is Coming, I argued that the core theme of the story is the idea that “patriarchy hurts men too.” Unlike other stories with fantasies of powerful men playing dangerous games and consistently surviving, in Game of Thrones, they die. But, as Amanda Marcotte noted in her response, Westeros is also a world where the privileges of patriarchy are considered too appealing for most to resist. Stannis and Renly both declare for the crown, Robb accepts his role as King in the North (with aid from Theon Greyjoy, whose attempts to fill his own role in the patriarchal system of Westeros provide the next season’s biggest tragedy.)
Varys, Littlefinger, Pycelle, and, though it’s not entirely shown in “Fire and Blood”, Cersei, all provide different examples of how non-patriarchs might succeed in the world of Game of Thrones. Pycelle attaches himself to whoever’s in power, possibly influencing them and definitely surviving. Littlefinger manipulates them, putting himself in the right place and the right time to sow chaos and take advantage of it. Cersei wishes that she could be in that patriarchal role, and fights to assume its trappings—note how naturally Joffrey tells her to handle the business of ruling once he’s done having his sadistic fun (“Good! Tongue it is.”). And Varys, well, on the show we still haven’t seen the details of Varys’ plans beyond his desire for stability instead of personal ambition. But as readers know, The Spider’s longer-term plan is for an ideal patriarch to assume power.
The high casualty rate among the men expected to hold the power is forcing changes, however. Even Tywin Lannister, who goes past “patriarch” and into “patrician” recognizes that the image of a proper man isn’t enough, admits Tyrion’s intelligence, and sends him to King’s Landing. “You will go to King’s Landing.” “And do what?” “Rule!” Meanwhile, the biggest challenge to the idea gains form across the Narrow Sea, where Dany—previously powerful mostly for her ability to be used as a strategic chip in the game, marrying and bearing sons—suddenly has an entirely new form of power, and not much to lose. “I don’t want you alone with this sorceress.” “I have nothing more to fear from this woman.”
“Fire and Blood” had a difficult time following “Baelor,” as any episode would. But by moving so confidently outside the story of the people it seems to be about, and into the story of the younger, less masculine, less overtly powerful people in Westeros, it manages to be a great episode on its own.
Notes & Quotes:
- Just a great image of everyone bowing to Cat, “M’lady.”
- “They have your sisters. We have to get the girls back. And then we kill them all.”
- Didn’t entirely fit in the review, but god damn Sophie Turner and Jack Gleeson are great in this scene. “Or maybe he’ll give me yours.” “My mother tells me a king should never strike his lady. Ser Meryn.”
- “Why is there so much injustice?” “Because of men like you.” “There are no men like me. Only me.” Jaime tied to a pole isn’t the greatest use of Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, but the show makes do.
- Jon’s in the episode too, but it’s his friends, then Jeor Mormont, who make it work in the North: “Do you think your brother’s war is more important than ours?”
- I’m going to be heading straight into Season 2 next Wednesday. As of right now, I’m planning on just heading through the second and third season, and maybe doing Season 4 next summer instead of trying to do multiple episodes per week.