David Kinney: Oh Oh It’s Magic: Game of Thrones Gets Weird
One of the most oft-remarked things about the world in which Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire takes place is how much it is like our own. In a genre crowded with mythical and supernatural elements, the plotlines of Martin’s story largely involve humans doing human things like falling in love, lusting for power, killing each other, eating and drinking. Instead of an epic struggle between good and evil, this world, like ours, is characterized by realpolitik and moral relativism. There are moments where the operative suspension of disbelief required of the viewer is only that Earth, or a planet quite like it, has a different geography. Martin has built a possible world not far from our own.
However, as we were sharply reminded at the end of the forth episode of this season, and again at the beginning of the fifth, supernatural elements do exist within the series, even if most of the characters doubt their existence. I’m referring, of course to Melissandre’s shadow-baby, which is born at the end of the fourth episode, and slays Renly Baratheon at the beginning of the fifth. In my opinion, I think Renly’s death should have ended the fifth episode, as I feel a strong conclusion is often better than an ominous cliffhanger. Regardless, other than Jon Snow’s brief encounter with whatever is taking Craster’s sons, this is our first glimpse of the supernatural in this season (besides dragons, of course).
The supernatural elements of the series serve two narrative purposes. At a more superficial level, as I’ve noted before, there is the dramatic irony that comes from possessing knowledge that the characters do not, e.g. that dragons are not all dead, that white walkers exist.
Simultaneously, there is a deeper mystery at the heart of the series’ supernatural elements. There is an intense, brooding mystery at the heart of the goings-on in George R.R. Martin’s world, one that neither character, nor reader/viewer is able to solve. We know that strange things are happening, but we don’t quite know how or why, and we get the feeling that the answers to those questions are ultimately important. This mystery is part of the enduring intrigue of the series, and one that I really hope the television series continues to flesh out. As I go character-group by character-group through last week’s episode, I’ll try and highlight the role that the supernatural is playing at times.
Renly Baratheon/Margaery Tyrell/Loras Tyrell/Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish: As mentioned above, Renly has been killed by a shadow monster conjured by Melissandre. However, since Southerners in Westeros tend to be resolutely rational, the growing consensus is that some combination of Catelyn Stark and Brienne of Tarth had something to do with it. This raises an obvious question: why not blame Stannis, their presumptive enemy?
The answer lies largely in the political geography of the Seven Kingdoms. The two most powerful Southern families are House Tyrell of Highgarden, in the Southwestern Reach, and House Baratheon, in the Southeastern stormlands (the Lannisters, while south of the Neck, identify as Westermen and not Southerners). Having any Baratheon on the throne is probably good for most Southerners, thus the very quick reversal of loyalties from most of the Southern lords. Again, a lot of realpolitik going on in Westeros.
The only people keeping Stannis from drastically tipping the power scales in Westeros are the Tyrells. Standing over the body of their husband and lover, the reactions of Maergery and Loras Tyrell are quiet interesting. Loras is understandably angsty, convinced as he was that he and Renly had a love that would conquer the world. Maergery, who for very understandable reasons could never really love Renly, casually remarks on how handsome he was and seems to be at something of a loss for her next move.
Which is why it’s all the more impressive that the best power broker in the Seven Kingdoms, Petyr Baelish, is standing in the room with Maergery Tyrell. “Do you want to be a Queen?” he asks, to which she replies with a deftly-placed definite article “I want to be the Queen.” Your move, Cersei Lannister.
Theon Greyjoy/Yara Greyjoy: Man I love these Greyjoys. Now that Theon’s chosen his heritage over this upbringing, he still can’t get a break, as both his sister and the crew of his new ship, the Sea Bitch, tease him about his mainland affectations. His mission, to harass fishermen along the Stony Shore, is also a deliberate source of embarrassment. Finally, his first mate turns him on to what, in retrospect, should be obvious. His father is never going to give him the sort of job that would earn him respect. In keeping with the culture of the Iron Islands, he is going to have to take it. Instead of the Stony Shore, he is going to strike at the heart of the North, at a castle called Torrhen’s Square, not far from Winterfell. Later, we see ten-year-old cripple Bran Stark, acting Lord of Winterfell, get the news that the North is under attack.
Jon Snow/The Night’s Watch: The men in black have found their way to the Fist of the First Men, a location far north of the Wall (and shot in drop-dead gorgeous Iceland). Jon eventually goes off with the legendary ranger Qhorin Halfhand to raid a wildling camp.
Okay, now it’s time for a little pre-history of Westeros. Prior to about 12,000 years ago The Children of the Forest were the only humanoids in Westeros (they weren’t really humans). The First Men crossed over on an ancient land bridge from Essos, and immediately began conquering the Children of the Forest. When the Others invaded from the North, the Children and the First Men joined together to fight them, and ended up building the Wall to keep them out. As part of the compromise, the First Men agreed to adopt the gods of the Children of the Forest, still worshipped in the North as the Old Gods.
The Fist of the First Men was an earthen fort that the First Men built while fighting the Others. When Sam asks Jon Snow what he the First Men were thinking when they stood there thousands of years ago, Jon replies with characteristic mystery and stoicism. “I think that there was something here they were trying to get away from,” he says. Here is where the supernatural elements of the narrative become less about dramatic irony and more about genuine mystery. There have been allusions throughout the series that something very bad is coming from the far North, in light of which the political conflict in the Seven Kingdoms seems extremely petty. This is the mysterious, supernatural kernel at the heart of the series.
Stannis Baratheon/Davos Seaworth: The main plot development here is that Stannis names Davos, the former smuggler, to lead his fleet when he attacks King’s Landing by sea. Thematically, however, this is a very important scene. Davos knows that Melissandre’s shadow baby killed Renly, and he is profoundly troubled by it. As a man of the world, Davos has enough of an open mind to believe that supernatural influence is possible for people like Melissandre, but he believes that righteous people ought to avoid such sorcery. Loyalty to Stannis is Davos’ primary moral compass, but he is growing increasingly worried that Melissandre is leading them all down a dangerous path. Here, Davos is evincing another prevailing attitude towards the supernatural held within the series: it exists, but good men who believe in the Seven do not trust it. The interplay between the Faustian Stannis, doing whatever it takes to achieve his ends, and the more metaphysically humble, yet fiercely loyal Davos is one of the more intricate character relationships in the series.
Brienne of Tarth/Catelyn Stark: After a smoke monster kills the most popular guy in the Seven Kingdoms, Brienne and Cat need to get the fuck out of the Reach. These two are quite a pair. In Brienne, we have the full-on gender queer, a woman playing a man’s role whose one weakness is her love for a dead, gay man. In Cat, we have the archetype of womanly stoicism, a quietly suffering widow and a mother of soldiers. Brienne recognizes this “woman’s courage” and swears her loyalty to Cat in a decidedly cheesy scene. It was intended to show the extent to which Brienne takes knightly chivalry seriously, but it came up a little lame, in my opinion.
Arya Stark/Jaqen H’gar/Tywin Lannister: Meanwhile, at Harrenhal, Arya is teaching a seriously beefy Gendry better swordfighting technique (recall her lessons with Syrio Forel from last season). Jaqen H’gar, the mysterious foreigner who slept through the syntax unit of his English lessons, has offered her three deaths in exchange for the three lives she saved from a burning cage. She first names the Tickler, he of the gruesome rat-torture scenes from last episode. Soon, we find him fallen from a bridge, with Jaqen smiling slyly in the corner, eating an apple.
Later, we find Tywin Lannister growing increasingly impatient with his war councils as they discuss ways to try and defeat Robb Stark. It’s clear that the elder Lannister does not suffer fools, and a little back-story elucidates this even more clearly. Tywin’s father Tytos was something of a buffoon who liked entertaining, who never called in his loans and nearly brought Westeros’ proudest house to its knees. Tywin is trying to be everything his father wasn’t, which means he won’t tolerate any kind of descent. He discerns that his cupbearer is a Northern girl, and asks her opinion of Robb Stark. Arya smartly responds using hyperbole, claiming that it is said of her brother that he can’t be killed. Asked if she believes it, she replies that she doesn’t, because “anyone can be killed.”
Arya has seen more of death than any highborn girl can expect to, and at times it seems as though her entire existence is coated in a veneer of mortality. The list of names in her nightly prayer is growing longer, but it appears that Jaqen can help with this. It is unclear at this point how he is arranging these deaths, but his methods definitely have a touch of the uncanny; it is even alluded to that Jaqen believes in the same “red god” as Melissandre. Arya, for her part believes only in the God of Death. And what do we say to the God of Death? Not. Today.
Tyrion Lannister: I imagine we’ll see Peter Dinklage in every episode, but he doesn’t get a lot of screen time this week. Mostly, we see him further turning his cousin Lacel into his spy against Cersei. Then, he discovers the secret war weapon that Cersei has been hiding from him. It’s keg after keg of wildfire, a liquid substance made by the eccentric pyromancer’s guild. After the dragons died, the fire-worshipping Targaryens continued to commission the production wilfire, this mysterious subsatance might just be the secret to holding the city against the approaching Baratheon onslaught. Having just seen a street preacher call him a “deformed monkey,” he decides he is going to co-opt Cersei’s arms race so that he, not her, can be the savior of Kings Landing.
Danaerys Targaryen: So far, all we’ve seen of Essos, the larger continent to the east of Westeros, is the “savage” world of the Dothraki (after a brief initial scene in Pentos in the first episode). But Essos is home to a myriad of cultures and cities, most of which are far older than Westorosi civilization. On the one hand, you could say that crossing the narrow sea, from the viewers perspective, is like a journey back in time. Where Westeros is decidedly medieval in it’s tropes, Essos has the trappings of Meditteranean, Near Eastern, and Asiatic antiquity. It is more ethnically and politically diverse, and the citizens of the great cities of Essos consider themselves far more civilized than the Westerosi. At the same time, though, some of these cities and societies are in an awkward state of decay.
One of those ancient cities is Qarth, where Dany finds herself at a very awesome night Bazaar. A warlock invites her to the house of the undying, and then performs a magic trick that Xaro Xhoan Daxos dismisses as “parlor trick” (again, no one wants to believe in magic).
Then comes the big reveal, where Xaro explains to her that he is the richest man in Essos, and would be willing to bankroll her conquest of the Seven Kingdoms in exchange for her hand in marriage. From a twenty-first century standpoint, there’s something appealing about Xaro’s offer: a self-made man from the Summer Islands teams up with a deposed Princess to set the world to order. To Jorah Mormont, however, the idea is ridiculous. All of Westeros would rise up against an army bought with foreign gold. Dany, he believes, will need to win friends within Westeros before she sails back there, and she can’t be susceptible to the opportunists who will inevitably be drawn to her. Oh yeah, and Jorah doesn’t want Dany to get married because he’s obviously in love with her, to the point that he decided not to betray her in season one when it would’ve meant he could go home. Also, they both look great in traditional Qartheen dress.
Ok so that was long, but a lot happened this episode, and there really are a lot layers and folds to pick apart. I’m guessing the next two episodes probably have two of the bigger moments in the whole series,: one with Danaerys, and one with Jon Snow (who are really the two most important characters). I hope Weiss and Benioff have the presence of mind to drop a few storylines for a bit and give these the screen time they deserve, in part so I can give them the recap time they deserve.
 Compare this to the world of Harry Potter. Although that series takes place on Earth, we are forced to drastically forgo our commonsense beliefs regarding physical causation, not to mention moral conflict. I would argue the world of Harry Potter is much farther removed from our own than that of A Song of Ice and Fire.
 Interestingly, for all the supposed lack of superstition among the Southerners, they are perhaps the most ardent defenders of the Faith of the Seven, the predominant institutional religion in Westeros. This contrast between institutional religion and other, “superstitious” beliefs, bares a striking resemblance to the strategies deployed in converting Northern Europe to Christianity during the early Middle Ages.
 Every time Arya comes on screen I have to resist the impulse to yell “myyyy girrrl!” I don’t always succeed.
About David Kinney: David Kinney graduated from Dartmouth College in June 2011 and now lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. He needs to get better at not leaving dishes on his nightstand.