Tyrion has the jokes. Tywin has the power. Bran has the sight. And Daenerys has the dragons. But midway through this extremely engaging fourth season, I’m starting to think that Cersei Lannister is the most important character on Game of Thrones. No one else so perfectly captures the show’s myriad contradictions. She’s a queen who is often treated as a pawn, a mother who appears completely devoid of feeling. And yet, the more time we spend with her, the more sympathetic she appears. Her anger is earned; it’s an inheritance more real than any gold or holdings. It’s what keeps her human, even as her actions veer toward the monstrous.
“First of His Name” was the best showcase for Cersei — and Lena Headey, the brilliant actress who plays the character the way a lightning bolt plays a tree — in some time. Though her actions were, as ever, limited to the Red Keep, Cersei’s wine-stained fingerprints were present in nearly every scene. This was an episode that dealt explicitly with one of the series’ central conceits: that the stories we tell children offer no preparation for the unscripted harshness of life. As the narrative winged, like a three-eyed raven, from point to point on the map, we saw again and again how the aspirations of the youngest characters — which is to say the most hopeful; which is also to say the most naive — are continually tested by the unexpected depths of the world they’ve been born into. Arya with her dance routines, Sansa with her pastries, Jon with his honor, Daenerys with her noble obstinance: All were smacked in the face last night by something heavier than the back of the Hound’s hand: reality.
Cersei, by contrast, has no illusions left to lose. Moments after watching her second son take the Iron Throne, she made it clear that she knew all too well just who and what her firstborn was. It was an amazing scene, there in the Sept: Margaery making kitten eyes at the cat-fancying Tommen, then holding her ground like a mean girl as her once and future mother-in-law brushed up beside her. But for once, Cersei came in peace. The cynical part of me — a.k.a. the part that would survive five minutes longer in Westeros than the rest of me (thus bringing my total survival time to five minutes) — knew that this was just Phase 1 in Cersei’s three-point plan to butter up Tyrion’s judges like a pie dish. But I was also transfixed at the way Cersei seemed to be undertaking such a cynical task without the slightest trace of cynicism: She really does want Tommen to succeed; she truly believes that he will need help from someone other than herself. Margaery misread the overture as kindness — “sister” is not necessarily a cool thing to call Cersei; just ask the guy rotting in the dungeon — but that’s to be expected: She’s basically a child herself. Though she has buried two husbands before sleeping with either of them, Margaery still seems to possess a youthful confidence that things will eventually work out. Did you notice the way she subtly backed away from Cersei as they spoke? It didn’t seem like fear. Rather, her clenched body language reminded me of a healthy person during hospital visiting hours. It was as if Margaery feared that Cersei’s poisonous nature was contagious. Little did she know that venom is the only thing keeping Cersei alive.
In the end, the Queen Regent played all the judges expertly, like a wedding band strumming “The Rains of Castamere.” Sympathy from the Tyrells was easy enough; all it cost her was a child she’d already lost. And she had nothing to fear from Oberyn, a sun-stroked warrior-poet who gets to keep all of his children, fuck anyone in sight, and never change out of his pajamas. More impressive was Cersei’s approach to her father. Up until now, the biggest saps on Game of Thrones weren’t the Starks, they were anyone foolish enough to cross Tywin Lannister from across the Iron Desk. But Cersei drew blood by reminding her father of her own. With Tyrion in chains and Jaime in self-imposed exile, the circumstance was right for Cersei to play the loyal daughter. And so without even finishing her wine, she parroted her father’s bromides about family (“The Lannister legacy is the only thing that matters”) and even feigned interest in his hobbies. I found Tywin’s explanation of the Iron Bank of Braavos fascinating. Cersei had the look of someone at a cocktail party having model trains explained to them. (Sidebar: Do you think Tywin is going to regret his family’s cool motto? “The Lannisters are rarely late with their quarterly interest payments” doesn’t inspire much fear, but nor does it make irony-appreciating bill collectors salivate.) Either way, Tywin seemed charmed. Like Cersei, he wants to believe the best about his children, even when all evidence points to the contrary.
Two weeks later, Jaime’s raping of his twin sister continues to fuel articles and argument. But I think it’s best to consider it as only the latest horrific act of violence to be visited on a woman who has been violated, in one way or another, her entire life. Dooming Tyrion isn’t about the truth. It’s about asserting control. While Margaery schemes and Tywin smirks and Prince Oberyn dips his quill at his leisure, Cersei sacrifices her pride and quite possibly more for a purely selfish desire. The justice she craves isn’t for Joffrey; it’s for herself. I’m haunted by the words she said by the harbor, staring out at the fairy-tale boat built for the daughter she was forced to give up: “Everywhere in the world they hurt little girls.”
It’s a hard truth to hear but an impossible one to ignore. You’d think Sansa would know it by now, but optimism, like a sticky lemon cake, is just so difficult to resist. One of the best things about “First of His Name” was how quickly certain journeys reached their destinations. Just as I thought Jon Snow would be questing to Craster’s Keep for another week or two, I fully expected Sansa to remain with Littlefinger belowdecks until at least Season 5, but no: Here they were, walking the deadly road into the Eyrie! It was so refreshing to once again be in the presence of Lysa Arryn, the jittery, overprotective, and oversharing mother of the year. Lysa is also Cat Stark’s sister and the woman last seen in Season 1 reenacting controversial covers of Time magazine on her dead husband’s throne. Can I be honest with you? After three years of beheadings and black magic, it was a relief to be back in a world as terrifying as my own.
Anyway, in between the Frenching, we learned that it was Petyr Baelish, not the Red God, who set the events of the series in motion, thus making him a far more nefarious adversary than I’d realized. As you’ll recall, it was the mysterious death of Jon Arryn, King Robert’s Hand, that brought Ned Stark to King’s Landing. Suspicion had long rested on the Lannisters. Turns out that suspicion was wrong. Forget the Iron Bank; only Game of Thrones can deliver a return like this on such an old investment. Before long, we also learned that Petyr is willing to use every inch of his littlefinger to get what he wants and that Lysa is not lying when it comes to her personal volume settings.
But back to Sansa. Look, she gets a lot of grief from some quarters and it’s not hard to see why. When Arya and Jon Snow are stabbing dudes through the throat, it can be tough to get worked up about the fantasy princess trapped in a snuff film. But after an episode like last night’s, I think Sansa deserves a second look. If you squint you can see that she’s basically Cersei, minus the claw marks life has left on the latter’s soul: just another young woman cruelly batted about by circumstance like one of Ser Pounce’s balls of royal yarn. It’s possible to root for a better outcome for Sansa, though it’s difficult to imagine one, especially now that she has learned that “family” is just the word you use for people who smile when they stab you. (The nicest thing her aunt said to her was, “You’ll be a widow soon!”) You think Sansa’s beginning to figure it out now? The only person who has ever kept his word to her is Tyrion.
Watching Sansa’s faith exit through the Moon Door has been a regular occurrence, but the same thing has been happening to Arya. When falling asleep, she no longer counts sheep, like a regular Northman: She counts corpses. It’s a bedtime story that’s as sharp and brutal as the girl she has become. But it’s still just a story. Rory McCann has had some outstanding mocking laughs during his time on Game of Thrones, but his reaction to Arya’s water dance may have been the best yet. (Would it be too much to ask, when the war is over, for Sandor Clegane to get Joan Acocella’s gig?) Arya still believes that wars are won and lost over concepts like “justice” and “revenge,” when they’re really decided by more prosaic things like swords and armor. Syrio Forel was a great teacher and a better character, but Arya should have known he wasn’t the master he claimed to be. The telltale sign of fighting ability isn’t flourish. It’s a pulse.
Life on the margins was no more forgiving this week. To the East, Daenerys learned that an inspiring vision doesn’t necessarily come with a rearview mirror. In a summit inside the towering pyramid of Meereen, Jorah transformed briefly into his alter ego, Ser Basil of Exposition, and delivered the news of the day both good (Joffrey is dead!) and bad (all the other cities in Slaver’s Bay are backsliding into chaos). This was a rough download to process, especially for those of us hankering to see Dany set sail. (“I heard you like ships,” Nü Daario shrugged, between bites of what I can only assume to be the Meereenese equivalent of wasabi peas. Where’s Surfer Daario when you need him? He would have hijacked two catamarans and three cases of wine coolers and have Dany sailing with him to Catalina by sundown.) The idea of Daenerys’s freedom march shifting into reverse is, at the moment, far more interesting than it is appealing. There’s no way liberating a continent could possibly be as easy as Game of Thrones has made it look over the past few weeks. So, once again, I appreciate the show’s commitment to callous, unforgiving reality. But does it bear mentioning that this isn’t even the continent we’re interested in? Save something for the sequel!
To the North, both Bran and Jon had to make peace with their situations. Not for the first or last time, Jon found himself in combat with a real bastard. Even drunk, Karl got the better of the “pretty crow” by spitting in his face and kicking out his legs and basically doing all the things that cause good men like Ned Stark to shake their heads disapprovingly just before they lose them. (Luckily, one of Craster’s wives, ignored as always, was standing by with a knife.) And Bran was forced to choose the vision in his head over the one right in front of his eyes. This is the second time in as many seasons that Kit Harington and Isaac Hempstead-Wright have shared a scene without ever crossing paths — it’s an irksome narrative trick that I’d imagine works better on the page than on the screen. But giving up the comfort of family isn’t necessarily a bad thing — just ask Sansa. It’s an agency even Cersei could admire.
Here’s the thing: For as much fun as I’ve made of Bran’s spirit quest over the years, there’s something to be said for making your own way in the world, even if that way appears to be leading toward the tree currently occupied by House Keebler. Tommen Baratheon is the “First of His Name,” but he’s not even the first of his immediate family to be coronated this year. Bran can’t walk, but at least he’s blazing his own trail, jaegering gentle Hodor and doing to Locke what Jaime Lannister never could. While everyone else waits for winter, Bran’s the only one marching straight into the freezing heart of it, chasing after a new idea instead of an old title or an even older throne. Let everyone else play the Game. Brandon Stark alone appears dead set on changing it.
[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!]
[Further note: Any questions? We will answer them! Email us at email@example.com and come back tomorrow!]