We barely saw any magic at all in Game of Thrones season one, until the final moments. But now, that's all starting to change. Magic is suddenly bursting out all over, playing a huge role in deciding the course of the war in Westeros. But magic carries a heavy cost with it — and even the power to defy the physical laws of the universe won't make you the ruler of Westeros, by itself.
Last night, we saw many would-be leaders grappling with the question of what gives them power: magic, wealth, or the ability to command the unquestioning loyalty of their followers. As usual, there were no easy answers. Spoilers ahead...
Tyrion Lannister has a habit of cutting to the heart of any question, along with his sidekick Bronn. And last night was no different.
Early on in the episode, Tyrion warns his sister Cersei that the famous Lannister family motto (about always paying debts) may have led their kin to rely too much on gold, and not enough on other stuff. But then Tyrion finds out that Cersei's actually relying on magical forces to protect the city of King's Landing from a siege by whichever Baratheon Brother shows up. (In an absolutely splendid scene, where Tyrion interrogates his cousin Lancel, and then realizes it's not even fun torturing the pathetic wretch.)
Cersei's masterplan: Get the secret order of pyromancers to make some wildfire, which is basically like super-intense fire in glass jars, to defend the city with. Wildfire burns so hot, it melts flesh "like tallow." It can melt through steel and wood, and basically just devastate any attacking force — after the dragons died out, it was how the Targaryens kept their power. (And in the book version, it's made clear that the process of making wildfire is working a lot better than it used to, because the birth of Daenerys' dragons has helped bring magic back into the world.)
But as Bronn points out, it's not fancy magic toys that win wars — it's men, fighting and dying and getting their bollocks burnt off by stray wildfire. No weapon, however mystical, is a substitute for an awesome fighting force. Especially since Cersei's plan relies on people using catapults to hurl the jars of wildfire at the attacking force — those people can be killed or desert their posts, and the wildfire can easily get dropped inside the walls of King's Landing instead. And the pyromancers have already made enough to burn down the entire city.
Luckily, Tyrion has an agile mind — and he looks at the wildfire and sees some potential. Instead of halting the production of this WMD, he tells the pyromancers to make it for him instead. Because Tyrion has just thought of a way to use money and manpower to deploy this particular piece of magic.
And Tyrion has a renewed urgency to prove himself as the protector of the city, after listening to a manic street preacher who openly talks about Cersei and Jaime's incest and names Good King Joffrey as the rotten fruit of incest — and refers to Tyrion as the "demon monkey" who's playing the tune the King dances to. Tyrion has written Joffrey off as a total loss and is just trying to save everybody else — but everybody believes he's just as bad as the King, if not worse. The part about "blood-stained whores" is especially vile, considering what Joffrey did to Tyrion's "birthday present."
Stannis and the Bannermen
Meanwhile, King Stannis faces a somewhat similar dilemma — he has an unbeatable magic weapon, but if he uses it too much, he could lose the raw manpower that he needs to put him on the Iron Throne.
At the end of last week's episode, Stannis ordered his most loyal retainer, Ser Davos Seaworth, to smuggle his red priestess, Melisandre, ashore so she could do her thing. Stannis had already impregnated Melisandre, and she gave birth... to a strange black oozy creature that looks sort of like Stannis himself. The creature murders Stannis' brother Renly — just as Renly is coming up with a deal with Cat Stark that could end this terrible war — and then vanishes. Everybody blames poor Brienne of Tarth for Renly's murder, except Brienne, Cat, and the Tyrells (more on them later.)
So Stannis now has all of Renly's troops — which, added to the pirate ships that Ser Davos finagled for him, gives him superiority on land and sea. He's practically on the Iron Throne already. There's just one hitch: Ser Davos won't shut up about the freaky shit he saw going on with Melisandre. Davos, who normally shuts up when Stannis tells him to, says part of his loyalty to Stannis is telling "hard truths." In this case, the truth that if Stannis brings Melisandre with him to King's Landing, he might lose a lot of his new followers.
"If you take King's Landing with her by your side, the victory will be hers," says Ser Davos. "She's a foreigner, preaching a foreign religion. Some believe she whispers orders in your ear and you obey... You won those bannermen from Renly. Don't lose them to her," Davos urges.
A better leader of men could find a way to convince his troops that Melisandre is a weapon, nothing more — without offending Melisandre in the process. If Stannis had any human touch about him, he could leave his new followers no doubt that he, not his priestess, is in charge, and that the victories are his. But since Stannis is totally devoid of real leadership, he has no choice but to leave his most powerful asset behind as he launches his assault — for the sake of his legitimacy as ruler. Because it's not just about winning the throne, but winning it fair and square.
In return for his honest counsel, Ser Davos the former smuggler gets put in command of the fleet for the attack on Blackwater Bay — something else that Stannis' new bannermen may have a hard time swallowing.
Meanwhile, Ser Loras Tyrell is inconsolable about the death of Renly, which he correctly guesses was Stannis' doing. He's all set to go out and singlehandedly slaughter Stannis' entire army to get to Stannis and have his revenge — but Littlefinger convinces him that revenge is like a stock option that sometimes must mature before being fully vested. (That's not how Littlefinger puts it, though.) Notably, Margaery Tyrrell is considerably less broken up about her husband's death — since he was a King, but not the King. She tells Littlefinger, with absolutely brazen calculation in her eyes, that she's interested in being the Queen. Which means that she has to be married to whoever sits on the Iron Throne. I am totally loving this more ruthless version of Margaery.
Arya and the Red God
Arya Stark, meanwhile, is offered the services of a possibly mystical weapon of her own — the assassin Jaqen H'ghar, who can kill anyone without being seen.
Jaqen tells Arya that when she saved him and the two other caged men, she stole three deaths from the Red God — and these must be repaid. So Arya must name three people she wants killed, and whoever they are, Jaqen will do the rest. Rather than naming someone difficult, like Joffrey, Arya goes for low-hanging fruit — the muderous burnt-rat torturer known as the Tickler. (Sorry for mis-identifying him as Vargo Hoat last week!) And soon enough, the Tickler turns up, mysteriously dead, while Jaqen watches from a distance.
Arya is loath to trust Jaqen at first, because he's apparently become one of Tywin Lannister's soldiers, after having been a captive. But Jaqen points out that Arya, too, is now serving Tywin Lannister, as his cup-bearer. So she doesn't have much right to complain. It's all about pretending — as she, in turn, shows a shirtless Gendry, lecturing him on the absolute best way to pretend sword-fight.
Meanwhile, as Tywin's right-hand girl, Arya gets to listen in on all the councils of war about what to do about her brother, Robb Stark. As Tyrion observes elsewhere in the episode, it's exhausting being repeatedly humiliated by Robb. Tywin is losing his patience with his incompetent lords, and even sends his whiny cousin back home to Lannisport. The shrewd Tywin quickly figures out that Arya is a Northerner (though not who she is), and asks her what people say about Robb.
Arya rattles off some fanciful legends about Robb being an unkillable badass who can shape-shift into a wolf — thus perhaps proving that sometimes, having people believe in your magical abilities is actually good for inspiring followers, rather than a detriment as in the case of Stannis and Melisandre. But Arya says she doesn't believe any of those stories, because — as she says while giving Tywin her most deadly stare — anyone can be killed.
What makes men follow you into battle?
Meanwhile, Theon Greyjoy hits absolute rock bottom this episode. He can't possibly go any lower than this. This is the beginning of his rise to greatness. You heard it here first.
Theon shows up to command his one and only raiding vessel, the Sea Bitch, and for a moment he's actually swollen with pride, beaming out at the mighty warship that he'll soon command. He'll be the captain, and everyone will salute him, and they'll go raiding together. It'll be like Pirates! Band of Misfits, only with less ham and monkey butlers. Sadly, as soon as Theon starts trying to command his crew, he finds they don't give a shit about him — they've been raiding since before he was born, and they don't see any value in obeying him particularly.
Worse yet, his sister Yara shows up to rub in the fact that she's got 30 ships under her command, and everybody respects her so much they'll wait months for her, if need be. While Theon's been lording it up with the Starks, she's been proving herself.
All seems lost, until Theon meets his first mate, the weathered old Dagmer Cleftjaw. Who basically leads Theon by the nose — unlike in the book, where Theon surprises Dagmer by suggesting a bold strategy, in this version it's very obvious that Dagmer is conning Theon. Dagmer points out that what really wins people's loyalty is when you offer them tons of spoils, and not just the stuff you get from raiding a few fishing villages. He carefully guides Theon to the idea of attacking an actual castle — say, Torrhen's Square — which is awfully close to Winterfell.
If Theon and Dagmer attack Torrehn's Square, Winterfell will have to send soldiers to help... leaving Winterfell itself mostly undefended. The look of raw cunning and glee on Dagmer's messed-up face is pretty horrible, as Theon the Gullible gloats, thinking that this was all his idea.
And indeed, it works — young Bran Stark is doing his absolute best to serve as Lord of Winterfell while Robb is off humiliating Tywin. (And at his side, the young Rickon Stark, who's cracking nuts loudly and in the least efficient manner possible.) Bran is solving people's petty sheep-farming problems for them, with a modicum of wisdom. But when the word comes that Torrhen's Square is under attack, Bran faces his own test of leadership. And unlike the cunning Robb, he takes things at face value — sending Ser Rodrik Cassel and most of Winterfell's defenders to the rescue.
Bran does this, even though he's had a pretty explicit warning in a prophetic dream — he dreamt that the ocean came and flooded Winterfell, and he was surrounded by drowned men, including Ser Rodrik himself. For those of us who know about the Ironborn coming from the sea, the symbolism of that dream is not hard to figure out.
But Bran still doesn't trust his own magical powers when it comes to exercising leadership and making decisions. (And Osha, the Wildling serving girl, doesn't help matters by refusing to tell him what the three-eyed raven in his dreams signifies.) If Bran believed in his own magical abilities, he might have made a slightly different call — although probably it wouldn't have made any difference, since prophetic dreams tend to come true no matter what.
The Legend of Qhorin Halfhand
And meanwhile, the Night's Watch is out in the middle of nowhere, beyond the Wall, listening to Samwell Tarly blather on about all the books he's read. And then, they finally hear from the legendary Qhorin Halfhand, who survived an entire winter in the far North. Qhorin's legend is larger than life, which only makes it more striking when he turns out to be just a cunning rat-faced man.
Qhorin has bad news — all of the Wildlings have joined up with Mance Rayder, the former member of the Night's Watch who now styles himself the King Beyond the Wall. They're gathering in the mountains, much the same way the First Men once gathered here to hide from... something. (Something that probably wiped the First Men out, in the end.)
Because Mance Rayder is a former member of the Night's Watch, he knows their methods, and he's taught the Wildlings to be more like the Crows. When the Wildlings attack the Wall, they won't be easily turned away as in the past. So Qhorin says the Night's Watch has to be more stealthy, like the Wildlings themselves. He proposes taking a small party and eliminating the Wildlings' early warning system, so that the Nights Watch can mount a surprise attack and kill Mance himself.
Jon Snow — who's still in disgrace after his run-in with Craster a while back — volunteers to be part of Qhorin's party. And Lord Mormont seems reluctant to let him go. But after Samwell volunteers to take over Jon Snow's steward duties, Lord Mormont finally agrees. Now at last, here's Jon Snow's chance to prove his mettle. Because remember, he's being groomed for leadership in this organization.
The Dragons, the Bridegroom and the Sorcerers
And then there's Daenerys, who's now living it up in Qarth, the greatest city that ever was or ever will be. Now that she's gotten in the door, she's less shy about showing off her dragons — but she faces a choice.
She's being courted by her gracious host, the dashing Xaro Xoan Daxos, who's unimaginably wealthy and can buy her enough ships, horses and soldiers to retake Westeros ten times over. All she has to do is marry him, so he gets to rule at her side. He's got an impregnable vault full of loot, half of which can be hers if she marries him, and gets to impregnate her. (Assuming that's still possible after her miscarriage.) Meanwhile, Daenerys is also receiving overtures from the Undying, a sect of blue-lipped wizards who seem very interested in her and her dragons — and maybe they have a proposition for her as well. Meanwhile, a mysterious woman with a mask of coins seems to know way too much about Daenerys — and Ser Jorah as well.
Daenerys is very tempted by all this alluring attention, and she seems to give marrying Xaro serious consideration — but her right-hand man Ser Jorah Mormont gives her a similar lecture to the one that Ser Davos Seaworth gives to King Stannis. Jorah points out that Daenerys doesn't just have to overwhelm Westeros with men and equipment — she has to win the Westerosi over, and gain their support.
"If you cross the sea with an army you bought and a foreign husband who paid for it," then nobody will support you, claims Ser Jorah. "To win Westeros, you need support from Westeros." (Oddly enough, the plan he's criticizing is, by and large, the same plan that saw Daenerys married off to Khal Drogo in the first place, which he didn't seem to object to back then.) But now, Ser Jorah advises getting just one ship and making her own way, to find allies in Westeros. (Maybe once they see her dragons, they'll fall into line?)
And Ser Jorah gives one of the episode's standout speeches, where he explains why he's so passionate in supporting Daenerys. Not just because she has a good claim to the throne and a birthright, but because she has a gentle heart and would actually make a good ruler. "You would not only be respected and feared, you would be loved. Someone who can and should rule — centuries come and go without a person like that coming into the world." It's a genuinely moving speech, and Ser Jorah, the former slave-seller, really seems to believe in it. (Just as much as Tyrion believes that it's possible to rule justly and save everyone, even with the monster Joffrey on the throne.)
Ser Jorah's speech to Daenerys has an equally stirring counterpart in the episode — the scene where Brienne of Tarth pledges her loyalty to Lady Stark. Not to her son, or to any other man, but to Cat Stark herself. Because Brienne believes that Cat has great courage, even if it is a woman's sort of courage, and nobility. Brienne pledges to serve and protect Catelyn no matter what — as long as Catelyn doesn't keep her from killing Stannis when the time comes.
Catelyn saved Brienne's life, of course, by urging her to flee instead of staying with the corpse of her beloved King Renly, when everybody was bound to assume that Brienne was the murderer. So Catelyn has sort of earned Brienne's loyalty, but Brienne's also gotten to see Catelyn carrying herself with dignity and grace during the negotiations with the Battling Baratheon Brothers.
In an episode full of people trying to buy loyalty and power with gold, or plunder, or magical weapons, these two scenes of heartfelt allegiance really stand out. Ser Jorah and Brienne owe their loyalty to Daenerys and Cat, not just because they have noplace else to go, but because they've seen something good and ennobling about them, and they believe in them. This is power that's earned, rather than just bought or stolen.
Screenshots and animated GIFs via WinterIsComing Tumblr.