What is weakness in the end? The inability to let things go, the desires that make us who we are, the sense of sentiment and of familial bond? Should we all strive to be as unyielding as stone and sea? Or is that weakness is inherently part and parcel of who we are as human beings, defined as much by those frailties as we are by our innate strengths? In the end, can we help ourselves from giving into our true natures?
On this week's episode of Game of Thrones ("What Is Dead May Never Die"), written by Bryan Cogman and directed by Alik Sakharov, the concept of weakness, both political and psychological, weighed heavily on the action, as Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) sought out ways of securing his hold on the small council, while unaware of his own potential soft spot, one that could easily be exploited by those looking to do him harm. The same holds true for many of the characters in this episode: a bull's head helm, a source of pride for Gendry (Joe Dempsie), becomes both a weakness and a virtue; Shae (Sibel Kekilli) is brought to King's Landing by Tyrion, but her presence there is a potential way of getting to the Hand; the loyalty of Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen) becomes malleable when crushed under the heel of his "true" family' the affection of King Renly (Gethin Anthony) for Ser Loras (Finn Jones) prevents him from fulfilling his kingly duties and producing an heir. In other words: that which makes us strong can also be easily used against us. A child can become a hostage, a lover a danger, a helm an emblem.
For Arya Stark (Maisie Williams), she is being stripped away of everything that she once held dear: her family, her place in the world, her sword, her very identity. Every bit of how she once defined herself is being cast off, burned in a fire, as she emerges perhaps stronger and better forged by the flames. Once a young lady of Winterfell, she's alternately an orphan boy, a hungry thief, a prisoner. But if our self-identity can weigh us down, Arya is the freest of all of them right now, safe precisely because those signifiers of wealth and class have been removed. The same holds for Gendry. Because Lommy (Eros Vlahos) took his helm before the attack and then was killed (with Arya identifying the slain Lommy as Gendry), no one now knows that Gendry is alive and well. While what new dangers await them are unclear, they're safe from being identified as themselves, safe from dying by the sword because the Goldcloaks are searching for them. Casting off one's name is a shield of its own in these perilous times.
Brienne of Tarth (Gwendolyn Christie) chafes under the weight of her gender, chiding Catelyn (Michelle Fairley) for referring to her as a "lady." She has so much to prove, to her king, her father, to herself, that she's sublimated her own identity in one that she constructs for herself, a female knight of honor and ability, one who wishes to pledge her life and sword to her king, to join his Kingsguard, to find a new identity for herself and eradicate what she perceives as the weakness of her sex. In denying her title, she denies herself; in wishing to reconstitute herself as a knight, she wishes to forge a new path for herself. But it's her height and strength that too are both her assets and her weaknesses, making her a source of mockery for others like Loras, who calls her "Brienne the Beauty." Yet, there's a sense that there are metaphorical connections between Brienne and Arya; two wild girls who don't see that they should be pigeonholed by their gender, who see themselves as warriors rather than as ladies.
(While we see only a little bit of Brienne, I have to say that Christie nails the fan-favorite character. She's strong and imposing; Christie imbues Brienne with a sense of honor that's entirely keeping with both her character and the ideals she holds up for knighthood.)
Likewise, Theon finds himself caught between his blood relations and the family who raised him. Does he see himself as a brother who fights beside King Robb (Richard Madden), a warrior of the North? Or is he an Ironborn, the heir to the Seastone Chair? If Balon (Patrick Malahide) gave him up all of those years before, "like a dog," who does he owe his fealty to in the end? How can one choose between duty and family, between honor and blood? His affections for the Starks, for his gaolers, is a weakness, one that is allegedly washed away by his decision to first burn the letter to Robb Stark (in which he tells him that their proposal to Balon has been rejected) and then his reconsecration to the Drowned God, a baptism on the beach performed by the Damphair, in which he recommits himself to the god of his people and to the Ironborn.
Balon plans to send 30 ships, under the guidance of Yara (Gemma Whelan) to Deepwood Motte, to ravage and pillage the coast, and to conquer the North. While Winterfell may "defy" them for a year, as Balon suggests, it's clear that this war isn't just about plunder and territory, but also about vengeance: a bitter revenge against the Northerners who killed his heirs and took his youngest as a hostage. Balon has been consumed by revenge, it seems, much in the way that Yoren (Francis Magee) was. Yoren's story to Arya--itself a fantastic scene--reaffirms the notion of carrying hatred in one's heart ("a prayer, almost"), giving into thoughts of revenge that would make Emily Thorne proud, and of harboring the desire to destroy one's transgressors, to pay them back in kind, sink an axe into their heads, take their lands, burn and destroy their halls. But vengeance breeds nothing but destruction in the end, something that Arya may not quite understand just yet. Theon, however, in choosing where his loyalties lay, may have given his blood-thirsty father the keys to the North, betraying Robb.
(Arya, meanwhile, chooses to save the Night's Watch prisoners--including Jaqen H'ghar--rather than save herself. She chooses honor above self-preservation, which puts her in danger when she too is seized by Ser Amory Lorch's men. Likewise, Yoren sacrifices his own safety in an effort to give Arya and Gendry a headstart. Sadly, they wind up captured and Yoren is killed, brutally and mercilessly.)
Renly is caught between his love for Ser Loras and his duty as a husband to Margaery (Natalie Dormer) and a king: he must give her a child and his nascent dynasty an heir. Yet, his marriage to Margaery has yet to be consummated and this is a dangerous thing: already his vassals are gossiping and gossip in these situations is dangerous. While Loras and Renly's relationship may be an open secret, it's still a potential threat to his rule. Margaery offers herself up to her husband, and even suggests that Loras "get him started" or that he tell her what she can do to make their coupling possible, shocking him with her honesty. While Renly loves Loras, it's this love that may lead to his downfall. Without an heir, his kingdom may crumble. Without a consummation, his union with the Tyrells is a sham.
Sentimentality is also a weakness. The cruel father of poor Samwell (John Bradley) saw his son as being weak for sitting with his mother whilst she sewed. A thimble is all that he has of her, yet he makes a gift of it to Gilly (Hannah Murray), a token of affection where she wanted rescue and salvation from her life. Likewise, Jon Snow (Kit Harington) sees the killing of Craster's son as an affront and amorality personified, but it's Mormont (James Cosmo) who tries to show Jon that his sense of identity prevents him from seeing the bigger picture: that the "wildlings serve crueler gods" than they do and that Craster's Keep--whatever the reasons for its safety--has meant the difference between life and death for rangers in the employ of the Night's Watch. Mormont is only too aware of what Craster (Robert Pugh) is doing with the sons, but he maintains that they are "offerings" to appease some dangerous entities in the Haunted Forest and that, whatever Jon saw take the baby, he will be seeing it again soon enough.
Is Jon being sentimental or is he simply projecting his own sense of morality onto these "free folk," imagining what they're doing is evil, even though it keeps them alive? Is there a sense that this is just reflective of moral relativism or is there an absolute code of behavior that must be maintained? Is this what separates the so-called free folk from the "civilized" world? Or have we already seen throughout the series, that those south of the Wall behave in just as much a violent and terrible fashion?
The perfect example of this is found in the storyline involving poor Sansa (Sophie Turner), who is being psychologically abused at the hands of Cersei (Lena Headey) and the Lannisters. A guest in name only, the Lannisters seem to relish breaking her down, making her accountable for both her father's and brothers' actions, while forcing her to maintain polite conversation (such as that with Aimee Richardson's good-natured if clueless Myrcella) about frocks and marriage and eat with her captors. (At least wee Tommen seems to the best of his clan and acknowledges that he doesn't want Sansa's brother to be killed.) Forced to regurgitate the false promises she made--to remain true to her king and beloved Joffrey--Sansa is trapped and clearly losing her grasp on her sanity in some respects. Yet, she relishes the opportunity to put Shae in her place, finally finding someone even lower than she is on the totem pole. Could it be that Sansa has been affected by the haughty Cersei, that she's come in contact with cruelty and emerged changed by it? That her role as "lady," even a lady prisoner, means that she's somehow above her servants and able to bend them to her will?
Cersei, at least, does have one weakness that we're aware of, one that Tyrion is able to exploit. Say what you will about Cersei's methods, but she does genuinely love her children: enough to kill to conceal their true parentage, and to construct elaborate conspiracies to protect the falseness of their identities. Her tears at the thought that Tyrion would send Myrcella away from her are genuine and heartfelt. Her children may be the source of her strength, but they're also Cersei's greatest weakness, able to be used against her only too easily by Tyrion.
Tyrion, meanwhile, attempts to hide his own weakness, though he can't bear to have Shae sent away. Instead, he has her become Sansa's new handmaiden, which has several advantages: one, he'll be able to keep an eye on Sansa Stark, and two, Shae will be permitted to remain at King's Landing and move about with some discretion. Meanwhile, he attempts to exert his influence on the small council and reveal just who is loyal to his sister. Concocting a plan in which he tells Varys (Conleth Hill), Littlefinger (Aidan Gillen), and Grand Maester Pycelle (Julian Glover) that he's planning on marrying off Myrcella to three different suitors (Theon Greyjoy, Robin Arryn, and the Dornish, respectively), Tyrion unmasks Pycelle as the mole and has his beard sliced off and him sent to the dungeon.
(A few stray observations here: did anyone think that Gillen's accent was strange in this scene? His natural Irish accent seemed to come through way too strongly here, rendering Littlefinger in a bit of a strange light. While it could be that both Gillen and Littlefinger speak in different accents than their natural dialects, it was a little strange to here. Unrelated, I loved the scene between Tyrion and Varys, as Varys offers Tyrion a riddle that's also a warning. These two are so perfectly suited to engage in mental chess plays with one another and I love any scene that has Dinklage and Hill together. "Power is a curious thing," and it is quite true; the scene unfolds with drama and suspense as well as a sense that what's not being said here is just as interesting as what is. Well done, all around.)
Finally, there's the notion, again repeated, that Bran (Isaac Hempstead Wright) is seeing through the eyes of his direwolf, Summer, and we're given a glimpse into one of these dreams as we see what Bran sees, experiencing Winterfell through Summer's eyes, as he pads through the halls of the Northern castle, up the stone stairs, into Bran's room, and finally onto his bed, where the two come face to face, Bran's eyes opening at the same time that Summer sets his on his master. (And is it just me or did Hodor seem to sense something when Summer passes him outside the door? Hmmm...) Maester Luwin (Donald Sumpter) may not believe in skinchangers or the existence of the children of the forest--telling Bran that magic died out a long time ago and that such stories may just be stories--but there's also weakness in not believing the miracles in front of you.
For all that Bran is seeing and feeling, there is truth to these sensations, to the dreams he's having that are alternately prophetic and profound, and to the notion that he may be connected to his direwolf in ways that the Maester can't truly fathom. His limitations close the door to possibility beyond our knowledge set, but thinking about magic--or indeed magical thinking--isn't a weakness, but a massive strength. One that may come in handy in the days and weeks to come. Winter is coming, and we may need all the magic we can get when it does.
On the next episode of Game of Thrones ("Garden of Bones"), Joffrey punishes Sansa for Robbʼs victories, while Tyrion and Bronn scramble to temper the kingʼs cruelty; Catelyn entreats Stannis and Renly to forego their ambitions and unite against the Lannisters; Dany and her exhausted khalasar arrive at the gates of Qarth, a prosperous city with strong walls and rulers who greet her outside them; Tyrion
coerces a queenʼs man into being his eyes and ears; Arya and Gendry are taken to Harrenhal, where their lives rest in the hands of “The Mountain,” Gregor Clegane; Davos must revert to his old ways and smuggle Melisandre into a secret cove.