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The Vale of Death: The Night Lands on Game of Thrones

"Sometimes those with the most power have the least grace."

What is the difference between a threat and a promise? Whether in this world or the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, the only true promise in this life is death. It is, after all, the one destination that we're all inexorably headed, and while we can perhaps temporarily avoid that journey through a series of detours or byways, the night lands are the one place we all end up eventually.

Of course, the danger is increasingly higher for those enmeshed in the war for control of the Iron Throne than, hopefully, the readers of this review. Extending one's lifespan, staving off the various threats that rise up to hurry you on your journey, requires a certain skill of bargaining. Or the ability to play the titular game. You can choose to be a player or a pawn, or you can have that choice made for you.

The notion of threats lingers over this week's episode of HBO's Game of Thrones ("The Night Lands"), written by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss and directed by Alan Taylor, another fantastic installment that continues to expand the world of the series outwards and further shade the characters we've gotten to know in the first season. But throughout the action, there are increasing perils for several characters.

Arya (Maisie Williams), still in the guise of orphan boy 'Arry, and Gendry (Joe Dempsie) are threatened on multiple fronts: by the sudden arrival of the Goldcloaks with a royal warrant for Gendry, and in the fear of constantly being exposed, having their true identities revealed. Arya is, after all more than a girl in disguise: she's the youngest daughter of the former Hand of the King, and a necessary hostage for the Lannisters. Gendry is more than just a smith's apprentice bound for the Wall; he may be one of the last remaining offspring of the dead King Robert (Mark Addy), now that the Lannisters are tying up loose ends and slaying the bastard offspring of the last Baratheon king. (Arya is also threatened by the caged prisoners on the Kingsroad who accompany the untested Night's Watch recruits, though we are clearly meant to feel some sense of a growing connection between her and the mysterious inmate of the black cells called Jaqen H'ghar.)

Likewise, there's terrible "parable" that Littlefinger (Aidan Gillen) spins for Ros (Esme Bianco), from which the above quotation emerges. His cautionary tale to the red-haired whore is overflowing with menace, pointing out what will happen to her should she not control her tears and smile. Gillen and Bianco are both superb here. While the sequence emerges out of a foundation of sex-and-nudity, their scene is vacant of any shred of sexual heat: it's icy and tense because Gillen's Baelish is so controlled and seemingly even-keeled, his soporific delivery at odds with the malice contained in his words. While Gillen's scenes are always fantastic, this one in particular stands out for its false intimacy, a knife's edge of threat and the promise that his losses will be mitigated, both with the girl from Lysean pleasure house and with Ros, if need be. He is, after all, a businessman, and she is a commodity.

Their exchange is once again a bargain struck: smile or you will be sold onwards and your new owner may not be so kind. Bianco's shudder at the end, an unspoken sigh of resolute abandonment of her emotional freedom, completes the scene perfectly, a realization dawning that the lifespan for a whore in King's Landing may not be long if she doesn't choose her words, and her steps, carefully. Given that Ros is a character created specifically for the show, I am curious to see where they are taking her over the course of the next few seasons; this is the first real scene where the viewer is given access to Ros' inner life, to her true emotions, and to the danger she faces on a daily basis. Hmmm...

Compare their scene to that between Janos Slynt (Dominic Carter) and Tyrion (Peter Dinklage), in which Slynt believes that he has been invited to dine with Tyrion only to learn that Tyrion is exiling him to the Wall and placing Bronn (Jerome Flynn) in charge of the City Watch. While the power politics of the scenes are vastly different (there isn't the sense of personal ownership here that exists in the Littlefinger/Ros exchange), the outcome is the same. Slynt failed to match up with what was expected of him from Tyrion (killing those babies didn't help matters) and he stands in the way of control of the Small Council and of the city. The cruelest thing would be to strip him of his new lands and titles and send him off to freeze to death in the North. Tyrion is most definitely mitigating his own losses, kicking off a silent coup in the heart of the council that will sway favor much more in his direction. Bronn may be loyal, but only to coin; he says as much when Tyrion inquires what questions he would have asked if he had been instructed to kill an infant girl at her mother's breast. (The only question, not surprisingly, would have been for how much?)

I adored the scene between Tyrion, Varys (Conleth Hill), and Shae (Sibel Kekilli), which overflowed with double-entrendres regarding tasting Shae's fish pie and that they may yet make a fisherman out of Varys, a eunuch. (Shae knows instantly that Varys isn't a lover of fish pie.) There's a fantastic juxtaposition between Tyrion placing his hand on the door to prevent Varys' exit and Varys doing the same to Tyrion with a single finger upon the door. The unspoken threat that Varys levels--stay on my good side or I shall tell your lord father that you brought Shae to King's Landing--may go over Shae's head, but it lands precisely and with a shuddering intent upon Tyrion. These two might be the smartest men in the kingdom and, both outsiders, these two would make for ideal allies, yet there's a sense that both is too wary of trusting anyone (and too good at manipulation) that they will forever be dancing around one another instead of co-plotting.

Across the Narrow Sea, Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) and her ragtag khalassar continues its journey in hopes of finding somewhere to rest, but their journey is full of threats: starvation and dehydration, and violence from other khalassars they may encounter, as the khals will not tolerate a woman leading a Dothraki horde. And then there's poor Rakharo's head in the saddle bag of his horse. It's emblematic of both a threat and a promise of more violence to come, and connects with the episode's title, as we learn that Dothraki's corpses must be burnt if their souls are to join their ancestors in the night lands. Severing his braid means that Rakharo's soul has been stolen from him and keeping his body renders a funeral incomplete, but Dany promises that he will have his funereal pyre and that his soul will be at rest. Could it be that Daenerys is learning the importance of capturing her followers' hearts and minds? They are trapped in a never-ending sea of sand, with no oasis to bolster their spirits, no home to call their own, a nomadic people wandering for eternity, heading nowhere but ever closer to the night lands themselves.

The unspoken promise that Theon (Alfie Allen) believes is that his return to Pyke will be heralded by the Iron Islanders, the return of the heir to the Seastone Chair, but no one waits for Theon at the docks, no one cheers, no one cares at all that he's returned, not even the father, Balon Greyjoy (Patrick Malahide), who gave him away as a hostage. There's a sadness within Theon that we've not seen before in the headstrong, arrogant youth: the realization that he belongs nowhere and with no one. Even his own family has turned their backs on him and he comes home dressed in the clothes of a Northerner, his cloak fastened with a "bauble" paid for with gold, rather than by the iron price. Even his place as heir apparent has been usurped, by his sister, Yara (Gemma Whelan), whom he does not recognize (and, in a scene that's far more toned down than in the novels, tries to have his way with her) and who has become the son that his father wished for, an Ironborn not weakened by Theon's time in the north, a warrior born of water and salt.

Once again, the gorgeous direction of Alan Taylor is on display here, giving us that amazing shot of Theon and Yara on horseback, galloping across the shore. There's a sense of reality here that can't be gotten with CGI, transporting the viewer to a windswept coast that comes alive with sea air, sand, and damp. The beauty and severity of the Iron Islands is perfectly captured in that one haunting shot, and Taylor once again proves the breadth of his natural fluency with the visual language of Martin's novels. Theon's homecoming is turned to ash, much as the letter Robb (Richard Madden) sends to Balon is reduced to cinder in the fireplace. He is a stranger here, the self-made promises little more than lies he told himself. Life has moved on without Theon Greyjoy, and the Iron Islands are where he realizes his own happiness is a grey thing indeed.

The notion of threats and promises continues throughout the episode. Melisandre (Carice van Houten) sees visions of the future in her flames, so why does she whisper to Matthos (Kerr Logan), the son of the Onion Knight Davos Seaworth (Liam Cunningham), that the fire provides the purest death. Is it that she knows something of Mattios' end? Is it s self-fulfilling prophecy, or a threat as to the extent of her great powers? Hmmm. She also promises Stannis (Stephen Dillane) an heir, and offers herself to him in lieu of his sickly wife, Selyse. (They couple literally on top of an emblem of Westeros, a metaphor that's surely too big for the room.) Davos barters with the pirate Sallador Saan (Lucian Msamati) and offers him promises of wealth... and of the queen that awaits him should he seize King's Landing for Stannis.

Is it that a promise is offered with an open palm and a threat with a closed fist? Or should we be more wary with those threats (such as those made by Tyrion, Littlefinger, and Varys, among others) that are made with a smile? Davos may trust Sallador, but he's motivated not by king and country, but by gold, much as Bronn is. A sellsword's loyalty, much like a pirate's, is a flimsy thing indeed once the coffers run dry.

North of the Wall, we see the very real threat facing the wives/daughters of wildling Craster (Robert Pugh), who marries his daughters, and--as we and Jon Snow (Kit Harington) discover--sacrifices his male offspring to the things in the Haunted Forest, bartering his son's lives for his continued existence. There's a sense of both blood sacrifice and appeasement here, as we see a White Walker take Craster's son (for eating? for what?) in the forest, as Jon watches, unaware of truly what that thing is front of him. (Kudos to the amazing sound editing team here for the various noises that follow in the White Walkers' wake; it's truly unnerving.) There's a reason that the wildling villages are emptied and Craster continues to live on and that price is paid with the blood of his sons. Which is why the severity of the threat that Gilly (Hannah Murray) faces looms so large, even if she won't come clean to Jon and Samwell (John Bradley) about what Craster does to his male babies. She wants to flee the encampment and seek refuge with the Night's Watch, but this seems a particular folly, not least of all because (A) Craster threatened to remove the hand of anyone who touches one of his daughters, and (B) there are no women in the Night's Watch, a male order that takes a vow of chastity.

But what is bastard-born Jon Snow to do? After seeing what he sees at the very end of the episode (sadly before he is himself spotted by Craster and knocked unconscious), can Jon willingly let Gilly give birth to a child who may be sacrificed to the White Walkers in order to keep the others safe? Is the life of one baby worth more than an entire encampment? Does what's right in a moral sense trump personal safety or the enforced rules of their host? Does Jon have a responsibility to this unborn child, and does he feel a greater tug on his sense of responsibility because he was himself given up by his mother? In seeing what happens to Craster's unwanted sons, can Jon look away?

These types of dilemmas are not easy ones to resolve, both internally and within the group dynamic; in fact, they're at the very heart of group dynamics: does the welfare of the individual trump that of the collective self? In choosing to keep himself and his wives alive, has Craster crossed into a moral darkness or has he simply put the needs of others before that of newborns? (And, yes, it's clear that Craster is a despicable, abusive human being, but there's a sense here that he represents the unknowable cultural "other," given to a set of customs and traditions that we can't understand.) But is it Jon's place, in this situation, to blindly follow or to be the leader we know him to be? Just how willing is he to sacrifice his own life in order to save Gilly's baby? Or in order to uphold the fragile peace of Craster's Keep? Because either way, there looms the greatest threat of all: that one wrong move will send them all to the night lands sooner rather than later.

As Jaqen H'ghar tells us, "A man can't choose his companions." This is true for the imprisoned mystery man as it is for Jon Snow and the Night's Watch as well. You may not be able to choose your family or your companions, but you can choose good from ill, morality over amorality, life over death. But you best be careful: even that choice has its own inherent threat.

Next week on Game of Thrones ("What Is Dead May Never Die"), at the Red Keep, Tyrion plots three alliances through the promise of marriage; Catelyn arrives in the Stormlands to forge an alliance of her own, but King Renly, his new wife Margaery and her brother Loras Tyrell have other plans; at Winterfell, Luwin tries to decipher Branʼs dreams.


Anonymous said…
I'm not sure what you mean when you say that the scene between Theon and his sister was "toned down." Uh, not exactly. It's shorter to be sure, but I'd actually say that it was toned up. In the book, she stops him from groping her. In the show, she actually seemed to enjoy him feeling her up. I thought this scene was completely botched, as the chapter in the book is one of my favorites in the whole series.

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