At this point in the Game, we know the primary players: the sneering Lannisters, the scheming Boltons, the wealthy Tyrells, and the doomed Starks. But as the scope and heft of Season 4 become apparent, the focus has gradually begun to shift from the powerful, established houses, with their swollen armies and multiplying debts, to a set of more nimble — and, it seems, more deadly — individuals. Unsentimental, dismissive of the old ways, and in thrall to no one but themselves, these are the figures best positioned to win because they’re playing a different game altogether. An optimist might call them visionaries. A traditionalist, like Ned Stark, might call them cheaters. But it’s awfully hard to cry foul when your head’s on a pike.
Lord Petyr Baelish has never hidden who he is or the terrible things he’s capable of. (Who can forget his words as he held a dagger to old Ned’s throat? “I did tell you not to trust me.”) A smart king would have tossed him in a dungeon years ago; a smarter one would have tossed him in the Narrow Sea. And yet again and again, Baelish’s intentions and influence slither through the heart of Westeros practically undetected. Is this because Littlefinger is so good at keeping his profile small? Or is it because he rises only by stooping lower than any highborn could ever possibly imagine?
So of course last week’s royal murder had his (little)fingerprints all over it. I should have known. Everyone probably should have, really. But I’m slowly realizing that my own perspective on this show just might be as hidebound as that very old and very heavy book Tyrion gave his nephew as a wedding present. Just because the second half of last week’s episode was shot with the visual wit and style of Gosford Park didn’t mean it was going to resolve itself in time for tea. “Whodunit?” is the sort of question that can fatally distract someone from more important matters like “Why?” and “What now?” It doesn’t really matter who had motive or who had access to the wine; you can parse the footage as finely as the Zapruder film and still come up empty. Who cares who actually was hiding behind the grassy knoll? What matters is who paid him. The person to pay attention to is the one who wins when everyone else is losing.
So while my private suspicions have shifted from the Martells to the Tyrells — Lady Olenna cranked her “pragmatic sass” meter to the breaking point in her post-poisoning exit interview with Margaery (“The next one should be easier!”) — the reveal of Littlefinger on the deck of the ghost boat was immensely satisfying. Come to think of it, Aidan Gillen seemed rather stoked, too: He played the scene like he had just gobbled up the rest of Joffrey’s wedding cake and then drunk his milk shake to boot. (The way he shouted every line in Sophie Turner’s face made me hope there was a healthy supply of Altoids at Harrenhal.) But what should Lord Baelish care about social niceties when everything broke so well for him? Even the things he couldn’t have planned went perfectly, like Tyrion — his preferred patsy — winding up with the smoking goblet in his hands. And it may have taken an extra season, but our Petyr finally got Sansa Stark, eldest daughter of his great lost love, onto his creepy ship. Thumbs up, Littlefinger. Thumbs up.
And how did he accomplish this? Not by knowing his history but by playing with fiction. Much has been written about how Sansa is essentially a fairy-tale heroine who accidentally wandered into a grind house. With her lemon cakes and dreamy grief, she was as out of place in King’s Landing as a conscience. Littlefinger knew that and played with the tattered shreds of her imagination like a kitten with a ball of yarn: the selfless savior, the precious necklace, the daring rescue. All were revealed to be tricks and cheap glass. Ser Dontos wasn’t a noble drunk. He was just a drunk. Sansa wasn’t being rescued; she was just being captured by someone else. The only time Littlefinger ever told the truth was when he said that everyone in the capital was a liar. Why do Starks — and stodgy, Stark-like people such as myself — keep forgetting this?
It would be hugely frustrating to be stuck on a literal playing field with people like Littlefinger. Kick him a soccer ball and he’ll pick it up and run away. Toss him the pigskin and he’s liable to reenact the opening scene from The Last Boy Scout. But to watch him? It’s great fun. Though Baelish and Sansa sailed away after the opening scenes, I found “Breaker of Chains” to be a wildly satisfying hour across the board. In my season preview, I wondered if this would be the year Game of Thrones finally began contracting its map. With Daenerys finding yet another walled city full of cloak-wearing dandies to sack, it’s clear I was wrong about that. But so far this fourth season has successfully changed the conversation in a manner both surprising and deeply satisfying. Game of Thrones is no longer a battle of haves and have-nots. It’s a clash between those willing to do anything within reason to prevail and those prepared to go quite a bit further than that. In the first season, brave Ser Loras defeated Gregor Clegane in a joust by subtly spooking the Mountain’s steed. Last night, Daario Naharis — the son of a whore — defeated the champion of Mereen by throwing a dagger into the showboat’s horse and then chopping off his head. It was the best use of combat logic since Ser Indiana of Jones brought a gun to a knife fight. “Horses are dumber than men,” Daario winked. And most men aren’t very bright.
Standing on ceremony doesn’t do much good when the ground is constantly shifting beneath your feet. It’s a lesson that was burned into the Hound’s mind back at the Blackwater, and it’s one Arya continues to resist. Taken in by a trusting farmer and his rabbit-cooking daughter, the Hound quickly establishes that he can’t be housebroken. First he profanes all seven of the old gods, and then he drinks his stew like Blutarsky chugging a bottle of Jack. His host isn’t offended, though. He’s too busy decrying the changing world to realize there’s no way to change it back. Yes, Walder Frey broke social custom; sure, the “whole country’s gone sour.” But tsk-tsking isn’t really an effective survival method in Westeros; it’s the rare place where opinions aren’t like assholes, because assholes, at least, serve a purpose. Yet before bedding down in the barn, the Hound sounds less like his sturdy self and more like a Wobbly. “Fair wages for fair work,” he says to the farmer’s offer of employment. Has the Hound been domesticated? Or taken a few more grudging steps toward heroism?
And then morning comes, and Arya wakes to the sound of a very naive man being punched in the face by reality. The Hound has taken the money and is more than ready to take off. Arya, with her Ned-ish sense of decency still intact, protests. “He fed us, his daughter makes a nice stew, and they’ll both be dead come winter,” Clegane replies. When Arya calls him a shit, he shrugs. “Plenty worse than me. I just understand the way things are. How many Starks they got to behead before you figure it out?”
“Understanding the way things are” is the most valuable trait in Westeros; it’s more precious than gold, more rare than obsidian. Ser Davos has it. It kept him alive when he couldn’t read; it kept him focused when he couldn’t point. It was no coincidence the Iron Bank was mentioned last week. (For extra details on that particular institution, be sure to read the latest missive from the Maester.) Now it seems Davos is planning on finding out just how willing the Lannisters really are to pay their debts. If Stannis’s armies can’t defeat the usurpers, perhaps a strongly worded letter can?
From opposite sides of a war, Jon Snow and Ygritte seem to get it, too. They’ll fight side by side with cannibals and break bread with rapists if it furthers their cause. And even in the depths of a dungeon, Tyrion still knows the score. It doesn’t matter what he did or didn’t do — what matters is who stands to benefit if he gets stuck with the blame. Not that this knowledge is helping matters much. At least not yet. A week after Old Yeller–ing Shae, Tyrion is forced to do it again to his beloved squire, Podrick. (And don’t get me started on Sam doing the same thing to Gilly. People of Westeros: Stop taking Sting literally!) I loved the way Peter Dinklage took special care with the word “loyal” at the end of the scene. He knows it’s a compliment that will have special resonance for a decent boy like Podrick; he also knows it’s a naive, increasingly worthless concept that’s liable to get a decent boy — or anyone, really — killed.
And then there’s Tywin. There’s no question the eldest Lannister has been the most successful player in the first three years of Game of Thrones. (He’s also, thanks to the deliciously deadpan Charles Dance, the best character. Watch his face when Oberyn offers him a seat on his orgy-bed. Now watch it again. How is it possible for a man to smile so fiendishly without moving a single muscle?) He’s the sort of tactical genius who works best on the fly; his counterpunch is even more deadly than his punch. But it takes real sweat to make everything look so effortless. How long can he keep it up?
The scene in which Tywin schooled his surviving grandson on the finer points of leadership was a stunner. (Here’s hoping DVD extras will include bonus footage of the second half of the conversation: Tywin’s historically rich, emotion-free explanation of the birds and the bees.) Pivoting almost instantly from shock and rage to cool, levelheaded counsel, Tywin reached into the same history books that Stannis hopes to avoid to spin a positively Rumsfeldian anecdote about the value of recognizing the unknown knowns. It was good theater and, it seemed, good crisis management. Tommen seems like a sweet enough boy; temperamentally, he appears to be Joffrey’s exact opposite — but then, so would anyone or anything short of a rabid weasel. He’ll be far more likely to take his grandfather’s counsel. And the benefits of Joffrey’s death don’t end there for Tywin; his postcoital parlay with Oberyn suggests an advantageous partnership for both sides. While other characters have recognized individual dangers massing on the margins — Stannis knows about the White Walkers; Varys is concerned about Daenerys — only Tywin is considering the big picture. Stability can’t win wars, but it can stop you from defeating yourself.
Even after Joffrey’s death, Tywin remains the most powerful man in the Seven Kingdoms. But how solid is his position in the face of the soft, unconventional power wielded by Littlefinger and his like? I’m reminded of the lesson Oberyn taught the Lannister bannermen in the whorehouse back in the premiere: Big swords aren’t all that useful in close combat. (And where did Oberyn stab the one who taunted him? In the hand.) And another thing: Tywin is so skilled at putting out external fires that it almost distracts from the inferno threatening to consume his own home. Almost. Despite all his decades of maneuvering, Tywin’s still the only member of his family capable of ruling. (The king died just as Jaime came back as his bodyguard, and I wouldn’t let Cersei manage a roadside Cinnabon.) The more obstacles he clears for his offspring, the less deserving of it they seem. At the close of last night’s episode, Tywin seemed content to let one son hang for a murder he didn’t commit while the other was busy raping his sister on the floor of a church as the corpse of their illegitimate love child slowly decomposed above them. Tywin Lannister is unparalleled at getting every house in order but his own, and I can’t help but think that, eventually, it’s going to cost him. The biggest trees, family and otherwise, are rarely felled by axes. They rot, you see, and it strikes from the inside out.
Note on these recaps: I have not read the books, and I have no intention to do so. My goal is to analyze and enjoy Game of Thrones strictly as a television show. So please, no spoilers or “I told you so”s in the comments, OK? OK!
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