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The Quality of Mercy: The Pointy End or the Open Palm on Game of Thrones

"When you look at me, do you see a hero?" - Varys

William Shakespeare's Portia said it best in The Merchant of Venice: "The quality of mercy is not strained/It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven." That is, mercy can't be forced; it's either a natural inclination or it isn't. Do you lean towards the pointy end of the sword or the open palm of mercy? Do you enact vengeance or forgiveness? Do you tread meekly or engage your enemy?

In this week's episode of Game of Thrones ("The Pointy End"), written by George R.R. Martin and directed by Daniel Minahan, the notion of mercy hovered over the action as viewers saw multiple characters grapple with the questions above. Daenerys attempts to stop her bloodriders from taking their spoils of war when they encounter the sheep people, preventing the women of the tribe from being "honored" by the Dothraki on the ground. Robb chooses to free a Lannister scout rather than redden his blade with the boy's blood. Sansa begs Joffrey to spare the life of her traitor father... who is of course imprisoned because he too chose the open hand, opting to tell Cersei what he knew about her children, rather than bringing the truth of Joffrey's parentage to the king.

He now rots in the dungeons of the Red Keep, with only the spiders and Varys (the one true spider) to keep him company. Was he naive or foolhardy? Should he have sided with Renly? Should he have learned from the cautionary tale of Jon Arryn and kept his mouth shut?

Of course, the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros have gone topsy-turvy. Ned is attacked in the open street because his wife has seized the Imp. Robb, barely out of boyhood, looks to engage the Lannisters on the open field, with a host behind him. Corpses spring to life and move with unnatural speed. Something is amiss, it would seem. Winter is coming, after all.

The Starks always prove to be right on that account, it seems. Winter does always come eventually, wiping away the smiles of summer, just as Death comes for every man in the end. It's a lesson that unites Arya Stark and Syrio Forel, her "dancing master," whose skill as a swordsman (the First Sword of Braavos, in fact) comes in handily here. The only thing a man can say to Death, according to Syrio, is "not today." While we hope that the winter doesn't come, all things must come to an end eventually, even summertime. Syrio faces down a certain death with naught but a wooden sword and manages to take down several knights before his blade is broken. But his sacrifice is in service to a greater good: to protect his protege and allow her to escape a possible death.

Kudos to the fantastic Miltos Yerolemou for delivering a staggering performance here, allowing us to see the grace and speed of Syrio, his mastery with a sword and his unyielding nature in the face of impossible odds. Syrio's small stature belies his true nature as a giant among men, a fierce force to be reckoned with, and a true savior to Arya Stark. The way the scene in even shot heightens the sense of uneven odds between Syrio and the knights, swooping upwards from the ground to show just how little both Syrio and Arya are in the face of these armored behemoths. Yet, that's the magic of what Syrio has been teaching Arya: seeing, rather than just looking, catching cats in the shadows, etc. Syrio's day of reckoning is upon him, and he faces Death, sword in hand and dying in the heat of battle. A hero's death, really.

Will the same be said for Ned Stark? Imprisoned beneath the keep, he's been removed from the playing field altogether, a pawn rather than a player. His effort to show mercy to Cersei, inherent in his character, signs his death warrant, in way. By confronting her openly, Ned allows the Queen ample time to plot a defense, to enact a plot to ensure that Joffrey stays on the throne and to conceal her secret once more. A different man would have had her arrested and brought before King Robert in chains, but Ned is a true nobleman, a chivalrous believer in the codes that govern society. He's out of his depth completely in King's Landing, not used to dealing with manipulation and machination, but rather the forwardness of Northern men like the Greatjon.

It's interesting here that Sansa Stark is rendered more sympathetic than she is in the novels. In Martin's book, Sansa is directly responsible for her father's current situation, having gone to Cersei to tell her of the plot her father was looking to broker with Stannis Baratheon. (She blames him for both the death of Lady, and for the fact that he would take her away from her betrothed.) Here, however, she's far more guileless, an innocent whose anger at her father is sublimated entirely upon hearing of his incarceration. When she begs Joffrey and Cersei for mercy, she means to save his life out of love and not a sense of guilt, which doesn't carry over from the books. Given that Martin himself adapted this episode, it seems a clear narrative choice to keep Sansa remaining a sympathetic character, rather than a spoilt hellion as she appears at the end of "A Game of Thrones." Which is a good thing, really, for a television series such as this one, as sometimes the edges need to be sanded down a bit in order to give the viewers some characters to root for.

Elsewhere, Dany sought to enact her own mercy upon the slaves taken by the Dothraki. While money is no object to the riders, they are after coin for their planned invasion of Westeros... and the spoils of war that are taken are in her name. However, Dany refuses to let the women of the sheep people be raped or tortured at the hands of her khal, forcing her husband's bloodriders to intervene and save the life of a maegi and her fellow womenfolk, taking them as her tributes. While Dany acts out of good intentions, the road to hell, as we well know, is paved with such trinkets. In the argument that follows, Khal Drogo is sliced open by one of his riders' arakhs. While he says it is nothing more than the bite of a fly, we know better than that, don't we? And there's the maegi herself, ready with healing ointments and smoke, to save the life of the khal whose people just destroyed her settlement and enslaved her people.

Which begs the question: does mercy ever have a place in Westeros and Essos? In such a brutal world, is mercy an outdated concept? Is it better to slay one's enemy than allow them to live to fight another day? The Lannisters know nothing of such things: they slay every member of the Stark household. They give no quarter, no opportunity to regroup, to heal one's wounds and strike back. Ned shows Cersei mercy and she arranges for everyone he came down to King's Landing with to be butchered where they stand. Robb allows the scout to leave and spill word of how many soldiers he has, but that might have been cunning rather than weak. Dany tries to save the women of the sheep tribes, but it's Dothraki blood that's spilt that day.

But while everyone has their sights on the Iron Throne, no one is seeing what is truly happening in the Seven Kingdoms and beyond. Summer snows fall on the Riverlands and the dead walk among us, as Jon Snow and Lord Commander Mormont discover. It's Ghost who alerts Jon to the danger in Castle Black as the Night's Watch sleeps, pawing at the door and leading him to Mormont's chambers, where a dead Brother of the Night's Watch springs back to "life" and tries to kill them both. The weapons of men can't stop this dread wight, but fire can. Could it be that the white walkers are on the move? That these wights are the result of encountering the mythical creatures, roused from their slumber after thousands of years? Is the wildling Osha right?

Perhaps the high lords and ladies shouldn't be so focused on the game of thrones they're forever playing but on the true threats to the kingdom, to the things that lurk beyond the Wall. For Winter is coming, and with it terrible, unspeakable things...

Next week on Game of Thrones ("Baelor"), Ned makes a fateful decision; Robb takes a prized prisoner; Daenerys finds her reign imperiled.

Comments

Rodrik the Reader said…
A great article, but your paragraph about Sansa's betrayal is wrong.

"In Martin's book, Sansa is directly responsible for her father's current situation, having gone to Cersei to tell her of the plot her father was looking to broker with Stannis Baratheon. (She blames him for both the death of Lady, and for the fact that he would take her away from her betrothed.)"

Sansa certainly is _not_ responsible for Eddard's fall. Cersei already knew about his plans when Sansa came to her, the chronology is clear about this in 'A Game of Thrones'.
Yours is a common misreading, but nonetheless a misreading. Of course, this "betrayal" makes Sansa (even more) unsympathetic in the first novel, so your overall argument is correct.
Robb said…
Just want to agree with the above post. Sansa, while annoying, is an innocent girl. She went to Cersei, who she believed to be as innocent as herself, hoping she could stay and be with Joffrey. Ned only told her they were leaving King's Landing, not that he was plotting anything with Stannis. It wasn't out of any sort of spite she had towards her father. She's just out of her element.
Tom Hilton said…
Sansa doesn't tell Cersei about the Stannis deal (she doesn't know any of that), but she does tell her about Ned's plans to send them away (she doesn't want to leave her beloved Joffrey, and hopes Cersei will order Ned to keep them there). That forces Cersei to act immediately (without the girls, she has no hostages); had Sansa not spilled the (Sean) beans, the girls might have gotten safely away (or maybe not, with Tywin just up the Kingsroad), which would significantly alter the balance of power.
Ser Not Appearing In This Film said…
I don't think it's a misreading, Rodrik.

At the beginning of ACoK, Cersei tells Tyrion that "Still, [her getting all her ducks in a row to totally wipe out the Starks in King's Landing] was a close thing. If Sansa hadn't come to me and told me of her father's plans ..." Which leads us to surmise that, absent Sansa's betrayal, Ned may well have gotten his people out of King's Landing safely.
Anonymous said…
In the books ff Sansa hadn't told Cercei the Stark household and Arya/Sansa might have escaped but Ned's predicament wouldn't have changed since he would have attempted to use his paper shield and the gold cloaks to become the Protector of the Realm. Cercei learned nothing of Ned's plan to seat Stannis from Sansa.
Sly said…
I never understand how people blame Sansa so. In the books, she's eleven and no one bothers to explain anything to her. Her "betrayals" that most Sansa-haters harp on are both born of sweet-spirited innocence. First she is too afraid to pick a side between Joffrey and Arya. Arya pushed her to the ground and scratched at her face, but which readers blames Arya for not helping her own cause there? Instead people say Sansa deserved to have her wolf put down for not being brave enough. The second "betrayal" was similarly innocent. All she did was tell Cersei that her father was sending them away, which granted made Cersei decide to act immediately so that she didn't lose the Stark girls as hostages. Would Ned Stark have won if Sansa hadn't done that? Absolutely not. Maybe the girls would have escaped, but Ned would still have been arrested in the throne room for his "treason".
Sansa's case is more one of where believing that people are really good at hard and convincing herself that evil is born of misunderstandings leads to a downfall. Innocence is punished as well as mercy. In the book, anyway. I have no idea what they're doing with the character in the series.

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