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A Bird Without Feathers: Life and Death on Game of Thrones

"You may not have my name, but you have my blood."

Matters of life and death hung over this week's episode of Game of Thrones ("The Kingsroad"), written by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss and directed by Tim Van Patten, in which Bran Stark--nearly killed from his fall--hovered uneasily after nearly shuffling off his mortal coil, thanks to the Lannisters. While Jaime and Cersei--so careful to protect their secret--didn't hesitate to silence young Bran, their treachery is now doubly dangerous as the fall didn't kill the little climber of Winterfell.

But as Bran lies motionless in his room, change is taking place all around him: Ned leaves for King's Landing, where he will serve as the Hand of the King, and takes his daughters Arya and Sansa with him; Jon Snow heads north for the Wall, where he will take the black and become one of the sworn brothers of the Night's Watch; Robb steps forward and assumes the lordship of Winterfell in his father's absence.

A family is split down the seams, as Catelyn tries to keep her vigil over her broken son, his eyes closed deep in slumber, his body unmoving. But even as she and Bran remain constant in that room, unmoving, unchanging, everyone else around them is pulled forward with a significant momentum, traveling north or south as the crow flies. One can't shake the feeling that time may be the cruelest enemy of them all.

"The Kingsroad" is the first episode where the pieces begin to fall into place for the Starks as they leave behind the sanctity and comfort of their home to head out into the world. Winter may be coming, but these Northerners are prepared to meet it head on, to be sword or shield, hand or heart. But the iciness of the frozen north isn't the only thing this great family need contend with: the Lannisters have made it clear that there are no sacred cows. The forbidden love of Cersei and Jaime must be concealed at all costs, even if it means murdering a young boy and breaking the sacred covenant of hospitality in the process.

(Aside: speaking of the Lannisters, Tyrion is already a favorite, as he is in the novels. I loved his speech to Jaime about speaking on behalf of the grotesques and how death is so final, while life is full of possibility. Add to this the scene in the woods between Jon Snow and the dwarf, in which Tyrion shares his wine and his words, and you begin to see just how intelligent, sly, and humorous this character can be.)

Still, we get a brief glimmer of vulnerability behind Cersei's golden armor, as she recounts the death of her first-born son, a "little black beauty," to Catelyn. There's a sense of keening loss embedded within Cersei's tale, of anger at the world and of her husband's fury when a fever stole their baby boy. Is it guilt that brings Cersei to Bran's bedside or a need to see just what his condition really is? Why is it that she reveals this secret to Catelyn, a calculated effort to gain this woman's sympathy... or something more? The haughtiness of Cersei Lannister melts away in Lena Headey's speech about the birth of her son, a "bird without feathers," as she becomes not queen of the realm but another mother with children to protect. (However, that golden hair, discovered in the tower where Bran fell, makes Catelyn question the queen's kindness...)

Those who felt as though the first episode portrayed the women of Game of Thrones as little more than thralls or sexual playthings should keep watching. And hopefully this episode showed the grit and strength that exists within each of them: from Daenerys' effort to tame her wild beast of a husband, to create some semblance of connection between them during coitus to Catelyn's adrenaline-fueled attack on the assassin who has aims to end Bran's life.

Interestingly, there seems to be a clear parallel between the ruined hands of both Daenerys and Catelyn, occurring at more or less the same time. Daenerys' hands are shredded from gripping the reins of her horse, while Catelyn grabs the blade of the assassin's dagger with her bare hands, her righteous anger--a she-wolf in the moment--driving her to protect her offspring at all costs. Brutal and gut-wrenching, it's a testament to her love for Bran and to the strength that all mothers have in their bones, a savage display of maternal instinct at work.

Of course, it's not Catelyn who finishes off the assassin, but Bran's direwolf, Summer, who comes to his master's aid and rips out the throat of the killer before curling up on Bran's bed. We're beginning to see the beginnings of the rapport between child and animal that I mentioned briefly in my discussion of the first episode, but it's still very surface-level here. We have Summer coming to Bran's aid and Arya's direwolf Nymeria biting Joffrey when he is brutalizing poor Micah, the butcher's boy. (Nymeria's behavior is at contrast with the earlier scene in which Arya tried to get the direwolf to fetch her gloves.)

The direwolves are savage beasts, just as protective of their masters as Catelyn is of Bran, but I'm also still not seeing the emotional connection between the animals and their owners, the sense that they're two halves of the same coin. Arya has to throw rocks at Nymeria to get her to run away (for her own good) and Sansa is panicked when Cersei wants to kill Lady, but it's difficult to show the emotional depth that is truly there in George R.R. Martin's novels. (In fact, it's not even clear in this episode that Jon Snow has brought Ghost with him to the Wall, a question my wife asked me plainly when we watched the episode. And we have no sense of Grey Wind or Shaggydog either.) Still, as in the novel, the death of poor Lady--a sacrifice to Cersei's cruelty and warped sense of justice--hits home. Fittingly, it's Ned who delivers the killing blow rather than allowing this Northern creature to be brutalized by the Hound or the King's Justice, Ser Ilyn Payne.

If there is some sense of simpatico spirit between the Starks and their wolves, what does it mean that two of them have now been separated from their direwolves? Sansa's wolf is dead and Arya's is lost in the woods. And why does Lady's death seem to be the moment in which Bran opens his eyes for the first time since his fall? Hmmm...

Just what will Bran remember from what he saw that day? And what has he been dreaming of during his long slumber? Which of the Lannisters sent that hired blade to dispatch Bran? Why did the killer carry expensive Valyrian steel? And was it a "mercy" killing as the swordsman suggests? These are mysteries that will have to wait as we're left with the stirring image of Bran awakening as we fade to black for the episode.

It's not the only mystery that looms large over the action. I loved the scenes between Jon Snow and Arya, in which he gives her a custom-made sword ("Needle") and says his goodbyes to both her and Bran (and we're given a glimpse of the enmity between Catelyn and Jon), and I'm curious about the identity of Jon's true mother. While Jon asks his father for the truth of her identity and whether she is alive, Ned won't come clean but says that they'll talk of her when next they meet... and he darkens considerably when King Robert starts poking around Ned's past, speaking of his bastard's mother as "Wylla," but not revealing any details about Jon's birth. Just who was Wylla? And why did Ned come home from the war "with another woman's child" in his arms? For Catelyn, Jon Snow is a constant reminder of her husband's unfaithfulness nearly 20 years ago, an emblem of something she'd rather forget.

Still, while Jon and Ned don't share the same name (bastards in the North are routinely given a second name of "Snow"), it's clear that they are made from the same stuff, bound by blood and destiny. They are Starks through and through, the North forever in their blood, no matter what direction their lives might turn. With dark days ahead, something tells me they'll need that strength more than anything...

Next week on Game of Thrones ("Lord Snow"), Ned is shocked to learn of the Crown’s profligacy from his new advisors; Jon Snow impresses Tyrion at the expense of greener recruits; suspicious that the Lannisters had a hand in Bran’s fall, Catelyn covertly follows her husband to King’s Landing, where she is intercepted by Petyr Baelish, aka “Littlefinger,” a shrewd longtime ally and brothel owner; Cersei and Jaime ponder the implications of Bran’s recovery; Arya studies swordsmanship; Daenerys finds herself at odds with Viserys.

Comments

Bella Spruce said…
Joffrey is such a horrible, little brat! But, sadly, a brat with a lot of power. I can't believe that his stupid actions caused the death of the butcher's boy and Sanda's direwolf (though, almost serves her right for not sticking up for her sister). I love that the kids are such a big part of the story and not just set decorations. Can't wait to see what happens with Bran now that he's awake.
mern said…
It's just sad to know that the person who got the power was actually the one who don't deserve it.

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