A major theme of Game of Thrones, at this point, is deception. People are taking on false identities, or otherwise pretending to be someone they're not, or hiding their true intentions. But last night's Thrones showed the other side of the coin: bullies can make you into a different person, and change your very identity, as well.
Westeros is a land of bullies, really. The whole social structure is maintained by bullying, and brutality and cruelty are used to put people in their place. Someone like Tyrion spends a lot of time preempting other people's taunts, despite his high social status, and yet it still doesn't prepare him for his father's abuse.
The most memorable scene in last night's Thrones happens towards the end, when King Joffrey shows off his fancy new crossbow to his betrothed, Margaery Tyrell. Margaery has just come from hearing just what a monster Joffrey is from Joffrey's previous fiancée, Sansa Stark. But she still has to marry him, so she puts on a big show of letting him browbeat her into speaking ill of her previous husband, the would-be king Renly. (She doesn't flinch when Joffrey says he's thinking of making homosexuality a capital crime.)
And then she figures out what Sansa never did — the way to Joffrey's heart. (He already has a thing for her, because of how much she upsets his controlling mother, Cersei.) She knows Joffrey is a sadist who enjoys inflicting pain and death, so she lets him see that he can reshape her in his own image. She, too, will be a bit of a sadist for her husband.
Meanwhile, we see Theon Greyjoy letting another bully know that he'll be whatever that bully wants him to be. The former captor of Winterfell is strung up and being tortured by a man who won't give his name, and who interrogates him — not to get information, but just for kicks. Or maybe to get Theon to give the "right" answers.
(Theon's nameless captor is most likely Lord Roose Bolton's bastard son Ramsay, whom we know Roose sent to retake Winterfell last season. In this episode, Roose bends the truth slightly, and says the Iron Islanders were already gone when Ramsay got there, and also that the castle was already burned down before Ramsay arrived.)
Theon is being tortured in a fairly nasty fashion, with some finger-slicing and some foot-screwing — but the thing that seems to freak him out more than anything is being hooded so he can't see anything. He's undone by the sensory deprivation, to the point where he'll tell his torturer whatever the man wants to hear. And then Theon apparently has a rescuer — a servant who's been sent by his sister Yara to get him out of there. If only Theon can keep himself from giving his rescuer away with his constant begging not to be left alone.
I think I lost count of all the fat jokes in this episode — in particular, Samwell Tarly is back to being called "piggy" by his fellow members of the Night's Watch. One of them in particular, Rast, wants Samwell to lay down and die so the rest of them can move faster. And Rast's brow-beating of Samwell works so well, he actually makes Sam give in and fall over. Some of the other crows, including Grenn, go back for Samwell and try to help him up — but it's only when a bigger bully, the Lord Commander, comes and tells Rast that it's his job to keep Sam alive that Sam's future is secured.
Meanwhile, Jaime Lannister spends the whole episode doing psychological warfare against his guard, Brienne of Tarth, trying to get under her skin so he can get the drop on her. He taunts her about her size, and her lack of scintillating wit, and her affection for her former liege lord, the late Lord Renly who wanted so badly to sit on a throne made of cocks. And at last, Jaime gets his wish — he gets hold of one of Brienne's two swords, and gets free.
But Jaime's campaign to undermine Brienne backfires in a few ways. First, she's already pissed at him so she doesn't listen when he advises her to kill the farmer who recognizes Jaime's face — and who later turns Jaime in to one of Lord Roose Bolton's men. Second, she's actually a way better swordfighter than he realized, and she kicks his ass, even though she's trying not to hurt him and he's trying to kill her. And finally, all of his jackassery keeps them exposed in plain sight on a bridge, where their pursuers catch up to them. Jaime has been trying to make Brienne doubt herself with his bullying — but in the end, all he manages to do is reduce her effectiveness as his protector.
Both Stark sisters are unmasked
Meanwhile, both Arya and Sansa Stark have been dissembling this whole time, but in last night's episode both sisters let their masks fall somewhat.
Arya was pretending to be "Arry," a little urchin boy, in the face of an unending series of brutish tormentors like the rat guy. But Tywin Lannister saw through that disguise, causing her to change her persona to "random urchin girl with a sword." That's a more complicated ruse to carry on — especially when you're being taunted.
In "Dark Wings, Dark Words," Arya and her companions Gendry and Hot Pie get captured by the Brotherhood Without Banners, the group of outlaws that rat guy was searching for back in season two. The Brotherhood claim to be idealists who want to save the countryside from all this war and conflagration. Their leader appears to be Thoros of Myr, a drunken smartass, and his archer friend Anguy. They give Arya and the gang some food, but also keep asking her about her miraculous escape from Harrenhal, teasing her until she shows a bit of her true colors — whipping out her sword and trying to fight Thoros.
But still, Arya is about to make a clean getaway when the Brotherhood brings in a new prisoner: Sandor Clegane, aka the Hound, who fled the fires of King's Landing and got drunk in the middle of nowhere. Sandor identifies Arya instantly, and at last her jig is up.
Meanwhile, Sansa is still trying to pretend to be the penitent wretch, praising Joffrey and condemning her own father and brother. When Margaery Tyrell and her grandmother Olenna Tyrell (Diana Rigg!) summon her to eat lemon cakes and tell them all about Joffrey's fine qualities, she does her best to muddle through as usual in the face of Olenna's bluff honesty.
But when Olenna presses her with kindness, she breaks down and confesses that Joffrey is "a monster." It's like watching someone who's been kidnapped by a cult shake off her conditioning. Or someone who's been in an abusive relationship finally tell the truth about it. (Although the scene plays a little weirdly, and I couldn't help missing the shouting minstrel from the book version.)
Tyrion is no fun
Meanwhile, Sansa's handmaiden Shae goes to talk to her lover/patron Tyrion about Sansa's dealings with Littlefinger. And Tyrion is still rattled from his horrible conversation with his father last week, in which Tywin promised to hang the next whore he found in Tyrion's bed — meaning Shae is toast if she's discovered. Even though Tyrion brought Shae to King's Landing so he could carry on their affair, he forbids her to come see him at all. And he can't stop interrogating her about who might have seen her coming or going. "Having you killed would be the high point of his week," Tyrion tells Shae, of his father.
Shae pretends to be jealous that Tyrion thinks Sansa is pretty, and that Tyrion slept with Ros, Littlefinger's personal assistant. But Tyrion is barely able to be playful, and even as Shae starts to go down on him, he keeps trying to lecture her about how they've come to a dangerous place — leading to the funniest part of the episode as he keeps trying to say "dangerous people" while being utterly distracted.
Tyrion's father can't reshape him in his own image, because he doesn't recognize Tyrion as being like him — so instead he just has to torture and crush his son, leaving Tyrion anxiety-filled even in his moments of pleasure.
Catelyn feels guilty for being evil to Jon Snow
Speaking of parents who can't recognize a child as theirs, we also see a very different side of Catelyn Stark — we've seen her pissed off, self-righteous, bitter and tender, but now we see her wracked with guilt. (A side of her I'm pretty sure we never really see in the books.) Catelyn has a lot to feel guilty for, including letting Jaime Lannister go and helping to start this whole business by imprisoning Tyrion Lannister in the first place.
But she actually feels guilty for being such a wretch to Jon Snow, her husband's (ostensible) bastard. She tells her new daughter in law, Talisa, the whole story: When Ned Stark brought a baby home from the wars, Catelyn was so jealous of the boy's mother she prayed for the baby to die. And then Jon Snow got the pox, and Maester Luwin said he would only survive if he lived through the night. Feeling responsible, Catelyn prayed to all seven gods for the boy to live — and she promised that if he did, she would love him as her own son. A promise she broke, pretty heinously.
And now she feels as though all of the misfortunes that have befallen her family are the gods' punishment for her oath-breaking — rather than the result of some really bad decisions, much later on. Of course, if Jon Snow hadn't gotten sent off to the Night's Watch, he could have come in useful more than a few times when the Starks were in a jam. He could have helped defend Winterfell, for one thing.
And Jon Snow himself definitely shows the results of growing up in a household where he wasn't loved or acknowledged — he gives off the air of being someone who will never entirely fit in anywhere. He's now left the Night's Watch and gone over to the Wildlings, who don't trust him at all. And Jon Snow learns that a lot of his fellow crows are dead from Orell, a "warg" who can do the same thing Bran Stark can do: Project his mind into animals.
Mance Rayder can see the outcast look about Jon Snow, the look of someone who has never really belonged — in the books, Mance Rayder actually witnessed Jon Snow's bastard condition when he visited Winterfell. So Mance tells Jon Snow about quite how ill-fitting his coalition of rejects is: the fens hate the hornfoots, the hornfoots hate another group, and everybody hates the cave-dwellers. (But during National Brotherhood Week...) These are all people who've been beat down and oppressed and mistreated, and now they've joined together — only because they know that they're zombie fodder if they don't get south of the Wall.
"Some people will always need help"
So if bullies shape almost every social institution, and individual, in Westeros, what's the answer? We get a little idealistic pep talk from the warrior girl Meera, who's one of the brand new characters who pops up (as if by magic) this week. She tells the Wildling girl Osha: "Some people will always need help. That doesn't mean they're not worth helping."
This is in response to Osha's comment that Jojen, Meera's brother, is defenseless and needs his sister to protect him. Someone in that situation is always going to need protecting, Osha observes. But Jojen seems to be deliberately defenseless — he flaunts the fact that he's unarmed, and he doesn't cringe or act cowed when he's threatened. He's like Bran, unable to fight for himself but filled with the power of magical visions. Except that Bran didn't choose to be defenseless, and Jojen actually has chosen this. Jojen and Meera came a long way to find Bran, because Jojen's magical visions have shown him that Bran is "the one thing that matters."
Jojen first appears in a dream that Bran has, one in which he's still able to walk and he uses a bow and arrow to hunt the three-eyed raven while his brothers (and the voice of his father) encourage him. But Jojen tells him that he'll never be able to kill the raven, because the raven is himself. Jojen's pride in being weaponless and unmighty is pretty much the most un-Westerosi thing we've seen in ages — and given that magic is becoming a bigger and bigger part of the series now, his faith in the mystical arts rather than castle-forged steel might actually turn out to be a wise bet. Maybe the return of magic means a world where bullies don't always have the last word?
Of course, this is Game of Thrones, so I wouldn't count on it.
Random stuff: Is Gendry right that Arya "could have ended the war" if she'd told Jaqen to kill Joffrey and Tywin? Olenna's assessment of Renly's claim to the throne is pretty refreshingly honest. I liked Gendry and Hot Pie contemplating robbing a minstrel. It's sad that Loras doesn't remember his first meeting with Sansa, when she was so smitten with him.