Game of Thrones Week 4: True greatness means letting others do your dirty work

One of the enduring concerns of Game of Thrones, week after week, has been where power comes from. But last night's episode, instead, gave us a window into where power goes.

We saw several unpleasant glimpses of the end result of the struggles of the powerful, and we learned one basic lesson: True power usually means that you get other people to do your dirty work, so your own hands can stay clean.

Spoilers ahead...

Of course, pretty much the first lesson of Game of Thrones came from Ned Stark: The man who passes the sentence should swing the ax. In the show's first episode, last year, we saw Ned decapitate a deserter from the Night's Watch with his own two hands, because that's what leadership means in Ned Stark's world.

So it's not surprising that Ned's son, Robb, is completely willing to get his hands dirty and confront head-on the gruesome consequences of his decisions. The episode begins with two goofy and completely innocent bystanders, who happen to be "fighting" on the side of the Lannisters, trading fart jokes and silliness — until one of them gets a faceful of direwolf, because Robb is attacking.

Game of Thrones Week 4: True greatness means letting others do your dirty work

Afterwards, the aftermath of battle is a horrific affair, the ground littered with steaming corpses. And Robb looks grim but doesn't flinch from the carnage — even when he has to help a beautiful nurse, Talisa of Volantis, saw a man's lower leg off. "The rot has spread," Talisa says, and Robb advises the guy to bite down and be glad he's just losing a foot. Robb not only accepts the horrible consequences of his war, he also rejects the offer from the loathsome Lord Roose Bolton to torture some prisoners on his behalf — using the Bolton family's preferred method, flaying. Robb points out, sensibly, that his own sisters are prisoners, so it's in his own interest not to set a precedent for torturing prisoners. Roose Bolton looks quite put out that he can't flay anybody, because a day without flaying is a day wasted. GIF via Besteros.

Game of Thrones Week 4: True greatness means letting others do your dirty work

Meanwhile, Robb has some sparks with Talisa, exchanging smoldering glances with her during a sexy amputation, and then listening to her sexy criticisms of his pointless war. "I have no hatred for the lad," says Robb. "That should help his foot grow back," she counters. Robb has no plan for what comes after he kills Joffrey — he just wants to go home to Winterfell, and he'll let the Southerners have whatever king they want. Talisa tells Robb the lad was unlucky that Robb was there — and Robb looks like he wants to go dismembering with her every night. (And yes, it does seem like she's his love interest this season — which could cause some problems, since he promised to marry Lord Walder Frey's daughter.)

Good King Joffrey, Sadist and Voyeur

In any case, Robb establishes that he's happy to get muck on his hands when necessary, and he won't let anybody torture others on his behalf. Thus setting a tone which the rest of the episode emphatically fails to live up to. We instantly cut to Good King Joffrey, who's hearing a bizarrely distorted version of the battle's events, involving whole armies of wolves and cannibalism.

Game of Thrones Week 4: True greatness means letting others do your dirty work

Joffrey's response to this latest outrage? Having one of his Kingsguard, Ser Meryn Trant, beat and strip his fiancée Sansa Stark in the throne-room. Says Joff: "Leave her face. I like her pretty."

But he's interrupted by his uncle Tyrion Lannister, who rescues Sansa and reminds Joffrey that the Mad King thought he could do whatever he wanted — and Joffrey's uncle Jaime killed him. Ser Meryn accuses Tyrion of threatening the King, and Tyrion responds: "I'm not threatening the King. I'm educating my nephew. Bronn, the next time Ser Meryn speaks, kill him. That was a threat. See the difference?"

Game of Thrones Week 4: True greatness means letting others do your dirty work

As he leads her from the throne-room, Tyrion quietly asks Sansa if she wants to be let out of her engagement to the bastard King, and she proclaims her love for Joffrey. Tyrion marvels: "Lady Stark, you may survive us yet."

Thing is, Tyrion isn't above having other people do his dirty work, too. In fact, it's pretty much all he does. See above, with him ordering Bronn to kill Ser Meryn. And Tyrion, with Bronn, devises a way to have someone else do his dirty work with Joffrey — and in the process, teach Joffrey a lesson about the upside of using people nicely, rather than cruelly.

Game of Thrones Week 4: True greatness means letting others do your dirty work

It's actually hard to tell what Tyrion hopes will happen when he sends Ros and another one of Littlefinger's sex workers to Joffrey as a late birthday present. Is he hoping that Joffrey will see the right way to use people, by example? Is he hoping that, as Bronn says, getting some of Joffrey's teen horniness out will make him less of a bitch? Or is he just aiming to humiliate Joffrey by sending two girls who've already been with everybody else in town?

Game of Thrones Week 4: True greatness means letting others do your dirty work

Whatever Tyrion's goal, it goes horribly wrong — Joffrey orders Ros to beat and violate her fellow sex worker, in one of the most horrific scenes of the show thus far. "He'd want me to get his money's worth," Joffrey says of Tyrion, as he goads them to go further. It's especially horrific, when you remember that not long ago, Ros was almost too shattered by watching the death of a baby (on Joffrey's orders) to carry on — and only a threat to be sold into awful tortures restored her good humor. So this particular bit of sadism is especially horrifying.

The Hand of the King and his Catspaws

Not that this incident stops Tyrion trying to use people to do his dirty work. For example, Tyrion sends Lord Littlefinger to visit King Renly (who's the subject of a hilariously awful dirty joke at the start of the episode.) Littlefinger is actually there to see Catelyn Stark, but he pretends he's traveled there to offer some covert support to King Renly (who hates him, quite openly.) And Littlefinger takes the time out to needle Margaery Tyrrell about her "quite interesting" sham marriage to Renly. "The marriage of a wealthy girl always breeds interest, if nothing else." Margaery gives a very unconvincing tautological explanation of her situation.

Game of Thrones Week 4: True greatness means letting others do your dirty work

But as we mentioned, Littlefinger is really there to see Cat Stark, on Tyrion's instructions. He's even brought her a present: her late husband's bones, as a token of sincerity. Unfortunately, Cat's heard about how Littlefinger betrayed her husband and basically caused his death, so his attempts to woo Cat are doomed to failure — she basically pulls a dagger on him. His plea for her to exchange the captive Jaime Lannister for her daughters, however, seems to go over rather better. Even though she yells at him to get out, you can tell she's thinking about it. And then poor Cat weeps over the bones of the all-too-honest Ned Stark.

Tyrion has one last adventure in making other people do his dirty work this episode. His cousin, Ser Lancel Lannister, shows up and tries to bully Tyrion into releasing the slippery Grand Maester Pycelle from the black cells. (You might remember that Grand Maester Pycelle told Queen Cersei that Tyrion aimed to marry Princess Myrcella off to the Dornish, last week. And was imprisoned for his loose lips.)

Game of Thrones Week 4: True greatness means letting others do your dirty work

But Tyrion turns the tables, and points out the obvious fact that Lancel is boinking Queen Cersei, given the fact that he was just in Cersei's bedchambers late at night, and he smells of her lavender oil. "I am a knight!" Lancel blusters. "An anointed knight, yes," Tyrion responds. "Tell me, did Cersei have you knighted before or after she took you to her bed?" He threatens to tell Good King Joffrey about the Queen Regent's lover — and Lancel totally folds. Once Tyrion has turned Lancel into his bitch, he orders his cousin to spy on Cersei for him. Meanwhile, Tyrion agrees to release Pycelle in the morning — although he can't swear that he hasn't harmed a hair on Pycelle's head, since he sliced off the man's beard.

Letting people starve works, too

Meanwhile, just as Daenerys and her followers are starting to lose hope, one of her three riders returns with a new horse and a message: The elders of Qarth are honored to receive the Mother of Dragons. Qarth is a huge walled city in the desert, and all Ser Jorah Mormont knows about it is that the desert around their city walls is called the Garden of Bones.

Game of Thrones Week 4: True greatness means letting others do your dirty work

When Daenerys finally shows up at Qarth, the Qartheen put on a huge display with soldiers, and a somewhat Monty Python-esque spokesperson. The nameless spokesman is a trader and representative of the Thirteen — charged with the protection of Qarth, the greatest city that ever was or will be. He demands to see Danerys' dragons, and she refuses until he lets her in. They quickly deadlock, because he won't let her in until he sees proof that her dragons actually exist.

And for a moment, Daenerys is in danger of being locked outside the city walls, to starve to death — the ultimate way of killing someone without besmirching your hands. Until Daenerys gives a bitchin speech about what'll happen when her dragons are fully grown: "We will lay waste to armies and burn cities to the ground. Turn us away, and we will burn you first."

Game of Thrones Week 4: True greatness means letting others do your dirty work

This is fiery enough to impress another member of the Thirteen, a foreigner named Xaro Xhoan Daxos. He vouches for Daenerys and her dragons personally, and invokes shumai. (Well, that's what it sounded like. I haven't craved dim sum this much since Alcatraz went off the air.) The gates swing open, revealing the fabled city of Qarth — which does indeed look pretty fucken cool.

The burning rat is like a symbol of this whole episode

You would think that an episode that features a woman being violated with a scepter and a man having his foot sliced off couldn't possibly get any more horrible. And then you come to the burning rat torture sequences. They take place at Harrenhal — which, like Qarth, looks fucken cool, but for totally different reasons. Harrenhal is melted and deformed, as a result of a long-ago attack of dragon fire.

Game of Thrones Week 4: True greatness means letting others do your dirty work

And yes, this is the place that Tyrion fake-offered to Littlefinger when he was testing everybody's loyalty — the place that Littlefinger said was cursed. To which Tyrion responded that Littlefinger could tear the place down and rebuild it. Now, the once-proud castle is full of the stench of corpses, and there are so many prisoners, the cells are overflowing. We watch a dead-eyed old woman grieve for her newly dead son, plus her recently dead sister and husband.

And there, we meet the Tickler. He's very happy to order others to torture on his behalf — using a weird arrangement of a bucket, a terrified rat, and an open flame. He's torturing people one by one to find out about the hiding place of some gold, and the whereabouts of the Brotherhood — apparently a reference to a group of outlaw brigands/insurgents, the Brotherhood Without Banners, whom we haven't met yet.

How do you avoid being taken by Ser Gregor Clegane, the Mountain, to be tortured by the Tickler's henchman? There's a whole theory about if you stare at the Mountain, he'll pick someone else for the torture — but it turns out to be flawed when both Hot Pie and the theory's originator try it together. Perhaps having one person stare is effective, but not two?

While trapped in the paddock with the other soon-to-be corpses, Arya Stark launches a new ritual, learned from Yoren's story of vengeance last week. She lays on the ground repeating the names of the people she wants dead: Joffrey, Cersei, Ilyn Payne, the Hound. After the Mountain hits a poor begging woman, Arya adds "Polliver" and "the Mountain" to her list.

Game of Thrones Week 4: True greatness means letting others do your dirty work

And then poor Gendry is taken next and subjected to the flaming rat torture — until Tywin Lannister shows up at the last minute and puts a stop to all this nonsense. Cersei and Tyrion's dad scolds the Tickler for wasting "able young bodies and skilled laborers." Gendry, for example, is a blacksmith — someone the castle could actually use instead of torturing and killing. Tywin also recognizes that Arya is really a girl (but not who she actually is) and he chooses her as his cup-bearer. (So now Arya is Tywin's servant, and Tyrion's girlfriend is Arya's sister's servant. This should be interesting.)

You don't win battles with clean methods

At the top of the hour, Lord Roose Bolton cautions Robb Stark that he can't march his army down the high road. And the episode ends with a similar homily: King Stannis tells his most faithful servant, Ser Davos Seaworth the Onion Knight, that "cleaner ways don't win wars."

King Stannis has just been on the receiving end of a lecture from his brother, King Renly, about what makes you a king. Having friends is the source of power, and Stannis has no friends, because he never felt he needed any. Stannis says anyone who denies his right to the throne is his enemy, to which Renly responds: "The whole realm denies it from Dorne to the Wall. Old men deny it with their death rattle and children deny it in their mother's womb."

Stannis may have the most legitimate claim to the throne, once you accept that Joffrey is a bastard in more ways than one. But that doesn't make him King. Melisandre the Red Priestess, whose flaming heart adorns Stannis' banners, offers a different justification: Stannis will be King because he's the chosen of the Lord of Light, "born amidst salt and smoke." To which Renly makes the immortal rejoinder: "Is he a ham?" Cat Stark doesn't help, offering that if Renly and Stannis were her sons, she would knock their heads together.

It's at this point that Stannis asks Ser Davos to help Melisandre do his dirty work. Stannis has shown no sign that he really believes in Melisandre's god, but he does want the son she's promised him and he does believe her powers can help him win the war. And he asks Ser Davos to be a smuggler once again, to sneak Melisandre ashore.

Game of Thrones Week 4: True greatness means letting others do your dirty work

It's worth pausing to consider the story of Ser Davos — he was a smuggler, who broke the law. But during a siege, he smuggled onions and other foods to Stannis, saving him and his men. Stannis rewarded Davos for his heroism by making him a knight — but punished him for smuggling by cutting off four fingers. (And now Davos wears those fingerbones around his neck.) This is a symbol of Stannis' rigid adherence to his own sense of right and wrong — which somehow doesn't forbid covert assassination via shadow creatures in the night.

Because Ser Davos will do anything Stannis commands, he sneaks Melisandre ashore, and is treated to a lecture on morality for his pains. She claims to be a knight, of sorts, and a servant of good and justice. Davos, being realistic, says he's a mixture of good or bad — but she says an onion that's half rotten is a rotten onion. And then she turns on the sexitude, telling him he'll get to see what's under her robe.

Game of Thrones Week 4: True greatness means letting others do your dirty work

Once they're in position, close to Renly's stronghold, she strips off revealing her pregnant stomach, then gives birth to a weird oily shadow creature. Which slinks away to do Stannis' bidding, the ultimate manifestation of dirty deeds done in dirty ways, at one remove from the mighty.

Screencaps and second and third animated GIFs via WICNet