You have to be patient when it comes to Game of Thrones. This show takes its time unspooling its mysteries and revealing its dark secrets. Case in point: Last night's episode, "First of His Name," revealed the answer to a question that bedeviled us back in season one. Spoilers ahead...
Way back in the show's pilot, the big unanswered question was, "Who killed Jon Arryn?" Jon Arryn was the Hand of the King, who was poisoned before the show even began. Jon's widow, Lysa Arryn, wrote to her sister Cat Stark claiming the Lannisters poisoned Jon. So Jon Arryn's old friend Ned Stark agreed to take his place as Hand, so he could learn the truth about Jon's death.
Ned Stark never learned who killed Jon Arryn — but now, we have. Turns out Jon's own wife, Lysa, murdered him on the orders of Petyr Baelish, aka Littlefinger, and blamed the Lannisters. That opened the way for Petyr to marry Lysa and take Jon's place as Lord of the Vale. And it also pitted the Lannisters against the Starks, leading to some chaos that Littlefinger was well positioned to take advantage of.
And now, Littlefinger has gotten married to Lysa and taken up residence in the Vale, where he's safely out of the way of all the drama he set in motion. With them is Sansa Stark, who's pretending to be Littlefinger's niece Alayne. Lysa's pretty stoked to be married to the man of her dreams at long last — even though she can't forget that Petyr was originally in love with Lysa's sister Cat. To the point where Petyr got himself gutted like a pig by Ned Stark's brother in a duel. If only Lysa could rid herself of the suspicion that Petyr similarly has a thing for Sansa...
But it doesn't matter, because soon Sansa will get to marry young Robin, Lysa's son whom she still breastfeeds. (This seems to be still going on, judging from the pose they were in when Littlefinger and Sansa arrived.) And whatever happens in the Vale stays in the Vale — because the Eyrie, the castle there, is virtually impregnable to attack. The only approach is through a narrow pass leading to a gate, which forces any attacking force to walk three abreast and get slaughtered from above.
So it doesn't matter how big an army you bring to the Eyrie, you're still going to get cut down to size, as Littlefinger helpfully explains — one person can sometimes be more deadly than 100,000, in the right circumstances.
That's a bit of a motif in last night's episode: the strongest force and the best swordsmen aren't always the winners.
A big army doesn't make you a ruler, it makes you a conqueror
Early on in this episode, Daenerys makes a fateful decision: She will not sail for Westeros yet. Partly because if she did, half the characters on the show would be dead soon afterwards — but that's not the only reason.
Daenerys now has control over the Meereenese navy, which would be enough to sail about 9,300 soldiers to Westeros. With Joffrey dead and the Westerosi nobles exhausted after endless war, she might be able to take King's Landing with just 8,000 unsullied and 2,000 Second Sons. But just like a huge army can attack the Vale and still lose, Daenerys could take King's Landing and still fail — because she would need to conquer the rest of the country.
And Daenerys can't rally enough Westerosi nobles behind her until she can prove that she has what it takes to rule — as Jorah Mormont reports, her record thus far is very Captain Kirk-esque. She's shown up in two cities, overthrown their governments and freed their people, and then moved on. And as soon as Daenerys left Yunkai and Astapor, the ex-slaves who stayed behind were enslaved all over again, and if anything they were worse off.
So if Daenerys does the same thing in Meereen — liberate it and then bail — she'll be 0 for 3. She feels as though the only way that she can prove herself worthy of ruling Westeros is if she takes responsibility for the city-state she just took over. "How can I rule seven kingdoms if I can't control Slaver's Bay? How can anyone trust me?" she asks.
(Of course, Jorah doesn't point out to Daenerys one advantage she'll have in Westeros that she lacks here: legitimacy. She actually has a right to rule in Westeros, whereas in Meereen she's purely a foreign interloper.)
Fancy swordplay versus brute force and cunning
Meanwhile, in this episode, there are two separate incidents where fancy castle-trained swordfighting is pitted against brute force, in two very different duels.
First, Arya gets up in the morning (after she went to sleep swearing vengeance on her litany of enemies, including her companion the Hound) and practices "waterdancing," the fancy swordplay taught to her by Syrio Forel, the First Sword of Braavos. The Hound, who's probably still a bit put out that Arya still wants to kill him, finds her and gives her a hard lesson — fancy leaping about and twirling does no good against someone wearing heavy armor and carrying a bigger sword.
That's why Ser Meryn Trant, who's kind of a wanker, was allegedly able to kill Syrio Forel. Sure, Syrio was unarmed — but he was also up against a man who was protected against most sword attacks and carrying a big sword. Plus Meryn had friends with him.
Later in the episode, we get to witness the fight between Jon Snow and Karl Tanner, the Legend of Gin Alley. And Karl mocks Jon Snow's fancy dueling skills in pretty much the same way the Hound mock's Arya's waterdancing — plus he echoes Bronn's constant refrain that fighting with honor is just a waste of time.
Jon Snow only manages to beat Karl because one of Craster's wives helps him — and because he abandons honorable combat and puts a sword through the back of Craster's head, causing him to grow a big steel tongue, Xenomorph-style.
Jon and his brothers in the Night's Watch attack Craster's Keep just as Karl is about to rape Meera Reed, one of his new captives. Who also include Jon's half-brother Bran Stark.
This episode does a bit of fancy footwork to avoid having Jon ever: 1) reconnect with Bran, or 2) realize that Jon's new buddy Locke is actually a spy sent by Roose Bolton to find Bran. (Because neither of those things is in the book, and this show was in danger of veering wildly off the books' storyline, if it didn't course-correct pretty quickly.)
As it turns out, Locke tries to kidnap Bran, but Bran wargs into Hodor — then Hulks out in Hodor's body, busts out of his chains, murders Locke and splits. Bran almost calls out to Jon Snow, but Jojen Reed convinces him at the last moment that Jon will drag them back to Castle Black and end their quest to go further North.
The other big development with Bran and Jojen is that Jojen has a vision of a beautiful weirwood tree, far up North, that's identical to the one Bran has seen — and he says more clearly than ever that he, Meera and Hodor only matter inasmuch as they help Bran to reach his mystical destination.
Meanwhile, Craster's wives turn down Jon Snow's offer of protection. They haven't exactly been impressed with the Night's Watch thus far, given the horrors they suffered at the hands of Karl and his pals. It's really nice, for once, to see people get liberated from their oppressors, and then turn around and tell their liberators to fuck off and leave them in peace. Self-determination is a beautiful thing. All the ex-wives want is to see Craster's shithole of a house burn down.
At least the wives get to be free, for however long it lasts — as Karl tells Jon Snow, "You'll never be free. You'll never now what that's like."
But at least Jon Snow gets his direwolf, Ghost, back!
The Podrick and Brienne Show
After some intensely dark, messed-up episodes, this one had a number of lighter moments — chief among them the comedy stylings of Lady Brienne and her squire Podrick. They're kind of an odd couple — Brienne isn't really a knight, and thus can't really have a squire, because she's a lady. And Podrick possesses almost none of a squire's skills, because all Tyrion ever needed was someone to pour wine.
Now Podrick is having to ride a horse, cook a rabbit, and do all sorts of other things Tyrion never needed him to do. Brienne keeps trying to get rid of him, because he only slows her down, but if she cuts him loose then he'll be a failed squire and nobody will ever let him squire for them again. (Plus he'll probably be caught and killed.)
This episode has a lot of lovely shots that bring out the pathos and weirdness of situations — but one that sticks in my mind is the closeup of the rabbit, roasting with its skin still on, staring into the camera like "What can you do?"
What changes Brienne's mind about keeping Podrick around? When he tells the story of how he put a spear through the back of Ser Mandon Moore's head, when Mandon was trying to murder Tyrion during the Battle of the Blackwater. Because when it counted, Podrick was loyal and brave. And that kind of loyalty is hard to come by, especially nowadays. Contrast that odd duo with Arya and the Hound traveling around, while Arya recites the Hound's name among her list of "people to kill."
But Brienne's belief in loyalty has made her miscalculate — she believes that the fleeing Sansa Stark would make for the Wall, to be reunited with Jon Snow. But Jon Snow swore an oath, that means he no longer has a family — he only has the Night's Watch. Sansa might not find much of a welcome at Castle Black if she showed up there. If Sansa was smart or had a cunning advisor, she'd go to the place she actually ended up, the bosom of her Aunt Lysa. (The Hound knows the Vale is the safest place for a Stark girl, which is why he's taking Arya there. So maybe the Hound is a little smarter than Brienne. Of course, the Hound also wants money, which Lysa has and Jon Snow doesn't.)
The secret power behind Westeros
A few weeks ago, Lady Olenna taunted Tywin Lannister that he ought to be worried about the Iron Bank of Braavos — and now we know why.
Turns out the Lannisters' gold mines have dried up, and unless they actually shit gold like everybody says, they're in for some trouble. Tywin bankrolled King Robert's war and the two decades of excess that followed, but now he's run out of money. And the government of Westeros owes a stupendous amount to the Iron Bank of Braavos, which is an institution more solid and implacable than any government or church. (I think we just found the answer to Varys' riddle.)
Here's how Tywin describes the Iron Bank:
A temple is comprised of stones. One stone crumbles and another takes its place. And the temple holds its form for 1,000 years or more. That's what the Iron Bank is — a temple. We all live in its shadow, and almost none of us know it. You can't run from them. You can't cheat them. You can't sway them with excuses. If you owe them money and you don't want to crumble yourself, you pay it back.
And that's why Tywin is so keen on an alliance with the Tyrells all of a sudden — marrying Margaery first to King Joffrey and then to King Tommen, marrying Loras to Cersei. After the Lannisters, the Tyrells are the wealthiest family in Westeros, and the more their fortunes are tied up with the crown's, the likelier they are to pony up.
(And don't forget that we saw Ser Davos write to the Iron Bank, asking them to support King Stannis instead, a while back.)
Tywin drops a great pearl of wisdom this week: "You don't need to make formal alliances with people you trust." Like the debt the Iron Throne owes the Iron Bank, the value of trust is incalculable — but when you fall short, you have to make people your allies however you can.
And it looks as though Cersei is finally learning the value of playing nice.
How far will Cersei go to destroy Tyrion?
This week, we see a side of Cersei we've rarely seen before — maybe back in season one, when she was cozying up to Sansa. Cersei is being ridiculously sweet and friendly, even in the face of some pretty dire provocations.
The episode starts out with Cersei at King Tommen's coronation, where Tommen and his intended bride Margaery are exchanging naughty sidelong glances — Margaery's sneaky visit to Tommen's bedside appears to have paid off handsomely. And you think that Cersei is about to go take Margaery downtown for flirting with her last remaining son. But no.
Instead Cersei... makes nice with Margaery. Even offers wholly unnecessary aid getting Margaery set up as Tommen's bride. Cersei admits that Joffrey was a horrible monster (something she's only admitted to Tyrion in the past, if memory serves), and that Tommen might make a much better king if he gets some help. In fact, Tommen might be the first decent person to sit on the Iron Throne in Tywin's lifetime.
Cersei's performance isn't for Margaery's benefit — they've already made their feelings about each other quite clear — but for her father's. Margery's dad Mace "the idiot" Tyrell has a front row seat for Cersei's little show, as he makes nice during the coronation. Once Margaery realizes this, she starts pushing Cersei's buttons, asking if Cersei is going to be Margaery's sister or her mother.
Cersei needs to butter up Mace because he's been named as one of the three judges at Tyrion's trial. And she will do anything, pretty much, to make sure her brother's head goes on a spike.
The second judge Cersei needs to win over is her own father, Tywin, and that's when they have that conversation about the Iron Bank. Cersei tries to pretend that she puts the interests of her family first, unlike Jaime or Tyrion. Tywin disowned Jaime for the crime of refusing to abandon his Kingsguard vows — so what does Tyrion deserve for poisoning Joffrey? Cersei frames it in a way she knows will appeal to Tywin: as a matter of putting family first (by condemning your son to death. Details.)
The third judge is the most challenging — Prince Oberyn of Dorne, who has sworn vengeance on Cersei's family for the murder of Oberyn's sister Elia and her children. She tries to establish a bond with Oberyn, because they both want revenge for a dead loved one — Cersei for Joffrey, Oberyn for Elia. Oberyn is so obsessed with Elia's murder, he named one of his eight daughters after her — and now he can't speak that daughter's name without becoming first sad then angry.
But Cersei's appeal to Oberyn's vengeful spirit doesn't seem to sway him that much, since he insists that they won't know the truth about Joffrey's murder until they hold a trial.
So instead, Cersei tries to win his sympathy by reminding him that Tyrion sent Cersei's daughter, Myrcella, to live with Oberyn's family in Dorne. (This was back when Tyrion was Hand of the King and he tried to figure out who might be ratting him out to Cersei, leaking different plans. The true plan was to send Myrcella down South for her own safety.) Now Myrcella is an honored guest of the Dornish, but she's also sort of a hostage. Oberyn swears that Myrcella is safe and happy in Dorne — because they don't hurt little girls down there. To which Cersei responds that little girls get hurt everywhere. She asks Oberyn to deliver Cersei's gift to Myrcella: a beautiful sailing ship. But it's not clear if she's managed to make as much headway with Oberyn as she seemed to with Mace and Tywin.
So nobody's really willing to stick up for Tyrion — except, funnily enough, his wife. Sansa tries to insist to her aunt and her new uncle that her husband was just as much a victim of a forced marriage as she was, and Tyrion never harmed her. But Sansa's in pretty much the worst possible place to try and defend Tyrion — this is where he nearly got thrown out the Moon Door, the last time he was falsely accused of murder.