On Game of Thrones, knowledge is power and truth is slavery

In the season opener of Game of Thrones, a huge secret becomes common knowledge. (Or at least common rumor.) And a whole bunch of people learn that it's better to avoid seeing the truth that's right in front of their eyes.

Does power come from knowledge, as Littlefinger suggests? Or does power come from other people's willingness to pretend they don't know what they know? Is Tyrion right in more ways than one when he says he's a "slave to the truth"? Spoilers ahead...

"The North Remembers" sets the tone for season two of Game of Thrones — less sex, more violence. And a million dizzying subplots. The episode begins with a bloody swordfight, with the camera lingering mercilessly on the smudge left by a literally fallen knight. And it ends with a baby being slaughtered in a brothel.

And along the way, we get contradictory advice on a huge, central question: Is the truth what the people in power want it to be? Or do people only get to have power because they are keenly aware of the truth? (Or both? In some cases, it's clearly both.)

The huge turning point in this episode is that something we, the viewers, know to be true is disseminated via the Internet of Birds. (I love the fact that actual physical travel is slow in Westeros, but information travels almost instantly, thanks to ravens.)

Stannis Baratheon, the brother of the recently dead King Robert Baratheon, has learned that King Joffrey is a bastard product of incest, thanks to one of Ned Stark's final acts. (At least Ned did one thing right.) And by the end of the episode, pretty much everybody has heard about Jaime and Cersei's happy family — including Joffrey himself, who orders all his father's bastard children killed. (Since these bastards are the main clues that Robert's kids tend to look a lot more like him than Joffrey and his siblings do.) Carrying out the child murder is the commander of the City Watch, the colorfully named Janos Slynt, who has already told us earlier in the episode that he owes his position to Cersei and he'll do whatever he's told.

On Game of Thrones, knowledge is power and truth is slavery

Obviously, the characters who hear the tale of Jaime and Cersei don't know that it's true — it could be just fishwives' gossip, as Jaime says. But whether you believe it or not, the story has a corrosive effect on the legitimacy of King Joffrey's crown, which is why it's such excellent propaganda. (Plus, it comes from Joffrey's Uncle Stannis, who is a stickler for factual truth — if not religious truth. More on that below.)

Joffrey shrugs off the reports of his mom's incest by saying that his claim to the throne isn't a claim — he has the throne by right, end of story. And yet, his urgent drive to wipe out all his half-brothers and half-sisters proves that he suspects the truth could destroy him.

Perhaps the most interesting exchange about this revelation comes between Queen Cersei, Joffrey's mother, and Lord Petyr Baelish, aka Littlefinger. As mentioned above, Littlefinger taunts Cersei, hinting that, as Prince would put it, incest is everything it's said to be. Because the television version of Littlefinger can never resist taunting people with their secrets. Littlefinger says that knowledge is power, and Cersei responds by almost having him killed, and then making her personal guards do stupid guard tricks, to prove that actually, no — power is power. (And there's no doubt that Cersei could have Littlefinger killed, in front of the street-washing kid, and make up some story to excuse it.)

On Game of Thrones, knowledge is power and truth is slavery

Saying "power is power" only makes sense if you believe that power allows you to reshape the truth to your ends, which is sort of Cersei's M.O.

(A couple of side notes: first, when Cersei makes a fuss over Littlefinger's mockingbird pin, was I the only one who went, "OMG, Littlefinger's in league with Katniss"? And second, the only pornotastic moment in the episode, in Littlefinger's brothel, involves newbie sex workers getting schooled in the art of fakery, underscoring that for Littlefinger, both knowledge and falsehood are power.)

Right before Cersei wins her standoff with Littlefinger by proving that knowledge is not as powerful as mindless obedience, you have the scene where Tyrion tries to explain to Shae, his concubine from the countryside, that everyone in King's Landing is a liar — except for him. He's a "slave to the truth," who's so short because he's crushed under the weight of all the truth he carries. The scene takes place in the bedchamber of the late Ned Stark, Tyrion's predecessor as Hand of the King, who was another slave to the truth.

Tyrion gets many of the episode's best lines, including: "Death is so boring. Especially now, with so much excitement in the world." "You love your children. It's your one redeeming quality. That, and your cheekbones." And his description of his many adventures, including pissing off the wall and sleeping in a skycell.

Why would anybody want to be a slave to the truth, when you could enslave others by lying? Perhaps because leadership is always a precarious affair, and rulers who ignore certain truths tend not to stay alive. (Just ask the late King Robert.)

As Maester Luwin tells Bran, "Listening to people you'd rather not listen to is one of your responsibilities." Bran is having to step up and be Lord of Winterfell in place of Robb, because he's the oldest Stark left in the castle. And he's forced to pay attention to some minor lord prattle on about the crumbling walls of his holdfast. This is pretty much in direct contrast to a scene where Cersei hears that the city is "drowning in refugees," and basically says they should be tossed out on their ears.

Blindness is Survival

It would be easy to conclude that Cersei is wrong and that Maester Luwin and Littlefinger are both right: Knowledge is power, and leadership requires listening to people who tell you things you don't want to hear. But then we get a third inspirational quote about wielding power, from Lord Mormont, the commander of the Night's Watch. He tells Jon Snow, "You want to lead one day? Learn how to follow."

Excellent advice. Splendid. Except that following, in this case, means turning a blind eye to the truth. The Night's Watch have journeyed north, beyond the Wall, where they have almost no allies and everything is trying to kill them. Their one and only ally is Craster, a piece of filth who marries all his daughters and does something unspeakable with his sons. Except that he's still here, so he must be doing something right. Craster boasts that his roots are sunk deep, so he can't be scared off like all the other local Wildlings, who have run off to join Mance Rayder — a former Night's Watchman who now calls himself the King beyond the Wall, and is gathering a vast army to attack the Wall.

Sometimes, in order to survive or to help the people you lead survive, you have to say things you know aren't true. There's a horrific moment where Craster grabs the arm of his daughter/wife Gilly, and says, "Tell the Lord Crow how content we are." She responds, in a bleak monotone, "This is our place. Our husband keeps us safe. Better to live free than die a slave." Even though you can tell that she's actually living as a slave.

On Game of Thrones, knowledge is power and truth is slavery

It's especially horrifying, because you've heard exactly the same dull, spiritless monotone come out of the mouth of Sansa Stark, earlier in the episode. Sansa, who's still engaged to marry King Joffrey, tells Tyrion with absolutely zero conviction that her family are traitors and she is loyal to her beloved fiance. She tries to tell Joffrey what he wants to hear — "the blow was well struck" — but she's so cowed, she actually comes out the other side and becomes subversive. She's figuring out how to survive under the reign of King Joffrey, and to help others survive — the drunken Ser Dontos gets to be a court fool instead of being slaughtered, thanks to her.

The Knight's Watch wouldn't survive without Craster, and Sansa wouldn't survive if she spoke the truth about King Joffrey.

And then there's Maester Cressen, who serves King Robert's brother Stannis loyally, but is also loyal to the gods. In another one of the episode's quotable maxims about truth and knowledge, the Maester declares that loyal service means telling hard truths. Such as the truth that Stannis cannot win his war against both King Joffrey and his own brother, the self-styled King Renly. But even though the Maester claims to serve by telling the truth, he quickly resorts to trickery.

Stannis has fallen in with a priestess, Melisandre, who is burning the statues of the gods in a big monotheistic pagan beach party. And Maester Cressen decides to abandon his commitment to the truth in favor of suberfuge — a poisoned chalice for Melisandre, which kills only the Maester. Because Melisandre's magical powers apparently include immunity to common poisons.

On Game of Thrones, knowledge is power and truth is slavery

Maester Cressen tries to enlist the aid of Stannis' most trusted advisor, a knight named Davos who's a former thief and smuggler. But when Cressen tries to convince Davos to tell Stannis "the truth" about his strategic position, Davos responds, "What is the truth?" Because Davos' version of loyalty includes accepting whatever truths his liege lord offers.

Meanwhile, Stannis himself is a stickler for the truth, as we see when he's drafting the letter about his sister-in-law's incest, and he keeps nitpicking. And yet, he's also willing to buy into a weird freaky religion that he obviously doesn't really believe in, to get the power he believes he deserves. (He botches the slogan "The night is dark and full of terrors", a sure sign of a reluctant believer, or outright unbeliever.)

Symbols of power

Meanwhile, the episode is full of symbols, including Stannis' burning sword, which he pulls out of the flaming idols of his former gods. And the black cloaks that the Nights Watch wears. And the bull helmet that King Baratheon's bastard son Gendry carries, which is the way that Joffrey's assassins will know him. (Gendry, of course, is traveling North along with the disguised Arya Stark and some other converts to the Nights Watch.)

And then there's the red comet that appears at the start of the episode, which means different things to different people. As the Wildling girl Osha narrates, it signifies that King Robb will win a great victory. Or else, it signifies the Lannisters' rule over the Seven Kingdoms. Or it refers to the death of Ned Stark. Except that Osha seems pretty certain it refers to just one thing: dragons.

Speaking of the dragons, we only glimpse one of Daenerys' dragons for a moment, before it gets put away in a cage. But those dragons are Daenerys' main claim to leadership at this point, now that she's lost her husband and her followers consist of a tiny gang of starved, dehydrated Dothraki and a few horses. Daenerys learns the peril of making too many promises to your followers: "I promised them their enemies would die screaming. How do I make starvation scream?" In every direction, there are people waiting to kill her and take their dragons — and the only thing Daenerys can do is try to project an air of strength and confidence, so her people can hang on. In the meantime, she sends three riders in three different directions, to try and find cities or water.

Meanwhile, Robb Stark, the newly minted "King in the North," is learning quickly that holding on to power means giving your followers what they want and keeping a realistic assessment of your situation. Case in point: Last season, he captured Jaime Lannister, Cersei's brother/lover. And even though he wants his sisters Sansa and Arya back, he knows that if he trades Jaime for the girls, his bannermen would string him up by his feet. At the same time, he tells Jaime that he won't leave Jaime with any one of his lords, because then that lord will face overwhelming pressure from the Lannisters to hand Jaime over. King Robb trusts his bannermen with his own life — just not with Jaime's. (The facedown between Jaime and Robb is just one of the many examples of this show improving on the books.)

King Robb knows exactly how to feed red meat to his followers, and put on a nice bit of political theater for them — like when he gives his completely unrealistic demands to a Lannister cousin, causing everybody to nod and reflexively mutter, "King in the North" to each other. He knows exactly how to tell them what they want to hear, even as he also keeps a realistic assessment of how much he can trust them.

"Which of these lords do I trust more than you?" Robb asks his mother — right before he sends her off to try and negotiate with King Renly, the youngest Baratheon brother. Robb's mom Catelyn responds that he's done so well, and Ned would be proud — at which point Robb looks like a little boy again for just a moment. But Robb also admits that he just wants to reunite his family and go home — all of this, even defeating the Lannisters, is just a means to an end, returning to Winterfell with his family together again.

On Game of Thrones, knowledge is power and truth is slavery

But even though King Robb is pretty good at staying aware of the reality of his situation, he still ignores the 1,000 warnings that people have given him not to trust the Greyjoy family. In case you missed it, here's the backstory: Years ago, Lord Balon Greyjoy of the Iron Islands decided to rebel against King Robert, and Robert and Ned Stark had to go to war against him. All of Balon's sons were killed, except young Theon Greyjoy, who was sent to live with the Stark family as a hostage/ward. Now Theon is all grown up and loves the Starks — so he wants to go back to his dad and convince him to help Robb with his rebellion. Robb says yes, despite his mother's severe misgivings.

"You don't have to call me 'Your Grace' when no-one's around," Robb tells Theon, showing both that he really does trust Theon, and he sees the trappings of power as just an uncomfortable means to an end. And it seems as though Robb's biggest symbol of power is not a crown — he doesn't wear one — but his direwolf, which scares Jaime Lannister in a way that Robb himself doesn't.

On Game of Thrones, knowledge is power and truth is slavery

Maybe because the direwolf represents something real, an ancient power that is beyond mere symbols or twisting the truth around to suit your ends. Like Daenerys' dragons. Because we also see that young Bran is having dreams in which he apparently leaves his body and sees through the eyes of his direwolf, Summer. And those dreams are apparently reflections of reality, since Bran finds the same pool of water as a human that he saw as a direwolf.

In the end, the real power is being able to kill people who get in your way — as Joffrey proves with his mass slaughter of innocents. And for Joffrey, the best symbol of power is a harsh and ugly one. Joffrey says the Targaryens had the right idea about decorating their throne room, with naked stone and dragon skulls, instead of pretty "vines and flowers." Because like his mom with her stupid guard tricks, Joffrey believes that power is best when it's raw and in your face.