Sieges are a major part of warfare in Westeros — they're the reason for those stout castles, and a huge reason why dragons were such game-changers. Last night's episode of Game of Thrones was all about people preparing to be under siege.
And the way they thought about siege tactics told us everything we needed to know about their characters. Spoilers ahead...
Siege warfare has been a major topic in Game of Thrones from the very beginning. Last year, there was a running debate about what would happen if a Dothraki horde managed to cross the Narrow Sea. Some people felt the Dothraki would be no trouble, because the lords could just hide out in their castles, and wait for them to give up and go home. But King Robert pointed out that the Dothraki could run around pillaging and destroying, while the lords slowly starved and lost their legitimacy because they couldn't protect their people.
So now it's looking like we might actually get to see a siege, although probably not one that lasts for months and months. And here's what's in store:
The siege of Winterfell
Theon Greyjoy is feeling pretty good about his situation. Growing up as the hostage/adopted son in Winterfell, he always heard Ned Stark say that a hundred men could hold Winterfell indefinitely against a much larger attacking force. So what if everybody in the North, including Robb Stark, wants Theon dead? He's got the stout castle.
All he needs is for his sister Yara Greyjoy, to come and give him some reinforcements. Unfortunately, when Yara shows up, she's not there to reinforce him. At all.
Yara calls him a stupid cunt (I think we heard that word last night more than I've ever heard it on television. Eat your heart out, George Carlin) and tells him that he's an idiot for taking a castle that he can't possibly hold onto. Not to mention murdering the only two hostages he had, the Amazing Stark Boys.
And Yara makes another point, that echoes throughout all the other storylines in the episode: Theon is a long way from home. (If you think of the Iron Islands as his home, that is.) He's hundreds of miles from the sea, which is where the Ironborn get their strength from. It is one thing to be under siege in your own home, but it's another thing to hunker down far away from all your sources of support. Home is your strength, both spiritually and physically.
Yara mostly mocks Theon's stupidity, but when they're alone together, she has one brief moment of tenderness, recalling how she didn't strangle him when he was a baby. She asks him to come home, and not die so far from the sea. Now that he's been re-baptized as one of the Iron Islanders, he should die at sea or nearby.
Theon doesn't listen to his sister, which will probably turn out to be an excellent decision — since we know that Roose Bolton's "bastard" is on his way to retake the castle.
Meanwhile, we discover — to nobody's particular surprise — that Theon did not, in fact, kill the Amazing Stark Boys. He killed two farmers' sons, and he attempts to give the farmer some gold "for his trouble." Only to find out the farmer has already paid the Iron Price. (One of these days, Theon will figure this Ironborn thing out.) Meanwhile, the Amazing Stark Boys are actually cowering in their ancestors' crypt, where Bran overhears that two innocent boys died for him and Rickon.
The siege of King's Landing
The other huge siege that's brewing is Stannis Baratheon's assault on King's Landing — which may not be much of a siege. As Tyrion points out, Stannis can just batter down the Mud Gate and get inside in minutes. Tyrion is reading up on the histories of the great sieges of Westeros, by an author who's both unreadable and unpronounceable, and it's not doing him much good.
Stannis would be a pretty terrible king, but he at least understands the fundamentals of sieges in a way that Good King Joffrey does not.
Stannis remembers the siege of Storm's End, when he held the castle for King Robert, even after all the food ran out and they had to eat the horses, the cats, the dogs, the rats and probably the drapes. They were saved from starvation when Davos Seaworth sneaked inside with a boat full of onions, potatoes and a bit of salt beef. For that service, Davos is now Ser Davos, the Onion Knight, and he's in line to become King Stannis' Hand when Stannis takes the Iron Throne.
Meanwhile, Joffrey thinks that a siege means he'll just stride out of the walls and kill Stannis with his big scary sword, carving Stannis a "red smile." Joffrey is unclear on the concept of sieges, which is that you stay the fuck inside the walls and force your attackers to wear themselves down.
Tyrion thinks it's a good thing that Joffrey wants to be in the thick of the fighting, though — it'll inspire the small number of men to fight much harder, knowing the King is right there with them. And he'll have the best armor and the Kingsguard surrounding him, so he won't be in any actual danger.
Queen Cersei, however, is also unclear on the fundamentals of the situation — namely, that if King Joffrey hangs back and doesn't fight, that doesn't mean he'll be safe. It just means that he'll be killed later, when Stannis takes the city. In fact, if Joffrey stays out of the fighting, this may be the surest way to ensure a horrible death for him.
Cersei is so outraged that Tyrion wants Joffrey to act like a leader instead of cowering, she captures Tyrion's "whore" and tortures her. Too bad Cersei nabs the wrong sex worker — she grabs Ros, whom Tyrion had a tumble with back in the North, and who was part of Tyrion's gift to Joffrey. Poor Ros has now witnessed infanticide, been forced to brutalize her fellow sex-worker, and been abused... all at the hands of Joffrey and Cersei. Here's hoping that Ros' storyline is going somewhere with all this.
Tyrion promises Cersei that she'll pay for this, and he'll see that her joy turns to ashes in her mouth some day. And then he rushes to see his actual paid girlfriend, Shae, who says she can take care of herself and promises that she's Tyrion's. And he's hers.
But what's Tyrion's plan for the siege of King's Landing? We won't get to find out everything until next week. But his right-hand man, Bronn, has been rounding up all the known thieves so they won't steal all the food the moment the siege starts. And Tyrion has come up with some kind of plan for all that Wildfire Cersei was hoarding. Plus he seems positively inspired when he notes that they have an enormous amount of pigshit.
Meanwhile, we get a fantastic scene between Tyrion and Varys, in which Tyrion wishes they could converse as "two honest, intelligent men." "I wish we could too," says Varys. recalls that his biggest responsibility, as a young man, was the plumbing of Casterly Rock. And now he's suddenly playing the Game, and he's turned out to be quite good at it. He'd like to keep playing it — if Stannis doesn't kill everybody.
Varys says Stannis will burn his captives alive as sacrifices to the Red God. Leading Tyrion to observe that the Drowned God wants to drown all its sacrifices. "Why are all the gods such vicious cunts? Where are the gods of tits and wine?" They should sail to the Summer Isles, where a local fertility god has 16 teats. Too bad they're stuck in the path of Stannis and his vicious fire god.
The siege of the Wall
A third siege is coming, too — the Wildlings are preparing a huge army to attack the Wall. And unlike previous Wildling attacks, this one won't be driven off by throwing a few rocks. They're a huge force, they're organized, and they're led by a former Crow, Mance Rayder. They will keep attacking the Wall until they find a way through.
That's half of the reason so many of the Night's Watch ventured up North above the Wall to gather information. (The other half? To find out about that zombie that got inside Castle Black. Although there hasn't been much mention of frost zombies of late.)
The Night's Watch hasn't made much progress on its mission — although Samwell Tarly and friends do dig up a mysterious cache carved with the sign of the First Men. And inside? A bunch of strange weapons, made of obsidian ("dragonglass") and wrapped in an extremely old Night's Watch cloak. Could these weapons have particular properties that could come in handy down the road? We'll find out, I guess.
As for Jon Snow, he's not exactly making a great start of his career as a Ranger. He disobeyed Qhorin Halfhand's orders to kill the captive raider, Ygritte, and tried to keep her as his prisoner. (Like Theon, Jon failed to understand that capturing and holding are two different matters.) And because Qhorin and his other men circled back to look for Jon Snow, they were ambushed by the Wildlings and all killed except for Qhorin. Their deaths are on Jon Snow's head.
Jon, too, has been captured, because of his brilliant plan of dragging a captive Wildling woman halfway across the snowy wastes. And he's nearly killed by the Lord of Bones — except that Ygritte argues that he knows a lot of useful stuff (even though she tells him that he knows nothing) and he's a Stark bastard. Mance Rayder will want to decide what to do with Jon Snow himself.
Is there any way that Jon Snow can redeem himself and contribute to defending the Wall against the coming attack? Yes, but it's not going to be fun. Qhorin suggests that one infiltrator among the Wildling army could be more valuable than 10,000 defenders on the Wall, when the time comes. But in order to gain Mance Rayder's trust, Jon Snow may have to do something terrible. Qhorin hints at what this might be, by starting a fake fight with Jon Snow in which he nearly kills the green Ranger.
Siege tactics 101: Fighting fair doesn't win sieges. Having good supplies is essential. Having a spy among the attacking forces can turn the tide.
Robb is on the wrong side of that bridge
Jon Snow isn't the only son of Ned Stark who's undone by a pretty face. There's also Robb Stark, the King i'the North. As Robb tells his foot-sawing girlfriend Talisa, he is engaged to marry one of the daughters of Lord Walder Frey. He doesn't even know her first name, or what she looks like.
King Robb took on this engagement back before his father was executed, when he absolutely needed to cross a bridge that Lord Frey controlled. He still thought he could ride South and rescue Ned Stark, but it turned out to be too late. Now he's stuck marrying a woman he's never met, over a bridge. He'd way rather make nookie with Talisa, who's got moxie and a moving story about how she left a slave city and the life of a useless noblewoman.
But here's the crucial fact that Robb Stark forgets: He's still on the wrong side of that bridge. Fair enough, he doesn't care about that stupid bridge — but he still has to cross it again, if he ever wants to go home. Like Theon, Robb's a long way from where he belongs. And this means his position is inherently weak. (His supply lines? Also depend on that bridge. Or what he can take from local villages.)
So it's fine if Robb wants to snog Lady Talisa — but when he starts saying he doesn't want to marry the nameless Lady Frey, he's potentially weakening his strategic position. Not to mention his all-important honor. Robb makes a huge speech to Talisa about Ned Stark's theory of lord-hood, in which the main thing is caring about your people's welfare. You go to bed with worry, you wake up with worry. Being scared just gives you an opportunity to be brave. But if Robb tries to call off the wedding with Lady Frey, he's screwing all the people who follow him.
Robb's strategic position is already weakened in any case — because he's lost his most important hostage. Last week, Jaime Lannister tried to escape and killed the son of Arnolf Karstark, who vowed to kill the Kingslayer in revenge. Catelyn Stark decided that they couldn't keep Jaime alive in any case, so they might as well trade him for Catelyn's lost daughters. (Score another point for Tyrion, whose gambit worked.) Robb is forced to tie his mother down. (So to speak.)
But now poor Brienne of Tarth is in the same position that Jon Snow was in last week — she's got a tricky captive, who's baiting her and threatening to escape at every turn. And if Jaime escapes, she doesn't get to trade him for the Stark girls — so she has to keep him prisoner until she can hand him over. But Robb's got 80 men hunting for Jaime, and he's also trying to taunt her into fighting him. (Too bad we don't get to see the epic Brienne/Jaime smackdown we deserve.)
Trapped in Harrenhal
And then there's Arya Stark, who is still trapped inside the castle of Harrenhal. The massive castle was built to withstand any attack from outside — but then it was melted by dragonfire. Arya's had a pretty cushy situation, working as cup-bearer for Tywin Lannister and listening to all his secrets, while her assassin friend Jaqen has killed whoever she wanted for her. Nice setup!
Unfortunately, Tywin hears that Stannis is about to attack King's Landing, and he decides to ride all night with most of his troops. Arya will be left behind with the Mountain, who's holding Harrenhal for Tywin — and the Mountain is not as kind or pleasant to work for as Tywin. (Arya's situation is a lot more extreme in the book, where she's potentially going to be stuck with Vargo Hoat, who has a habit of slicing off servants' feet so they can't run away.)
Arya is determined to escape from Harrenhal before she's trapped inside for good - -so she goes to Jaqen and asks for his help. But he won't help her escape, he'll just kill one last person for her, and then her debt is repaid. So she's forced to trick him, ordering him to kill himself. And this does the trick: Jaqen tells her to walk through the gates at midnight... at which point he's killed all of the guards for her. Yay!
Two Against the House of the Undying
The final siege preparation in this episode is the most futile — Daenerys Targaryen proposes to attack the House of the Undying with just two people, herself and Ser Jorah. The House of the Undying is protected by massive sorcery, plus the sorcerer Pyat Pree is in league with Daenerys' former host Xaro Xoan Daxos, who owns the entire city of Qarth. So this particular fortress is secured with more than just sturdy walls.
Jorah tries to convince Daenerys to get on a ship and get out of there without her dragons — because they're not really her children. She didn't actually carry them in her womb, or feed them with her breasts, or anything. But she makes another one of her barn-burning speeches about how she did give them life, and she is their mother in all the ways that count — plus she has magic of her own. Still, it remains to be seen whether one young Khaleesi without a Khalessar and a disgraced former knight can storm the homes of some of the world's most powerful sorcerers.
In the mean time, we're going to get to see Stannis, the victor of Storm's End, lead the assault on King's Landing — and we'll see whether all of Tyrion's siege studies pay off.