Holy crap, the writing and acting on Game of Thrones keep getting better. Last night's episode was both epic and understated, with small moments that carried huge weight. This was another episode all about rape (arguably, a key theme of the show) and yet it was smart and entertaining. Thanks, in no small part, to Peter Dinklage.
The major arc of the episode was two men deciding not to go along with rape culture. Tyrion Lannister disobeys his father and refuses to deflower his 14-year-old bride, Sansa Stark, until she actually consents to sex. Meanwhile, a merc with a mouth named Daario Naharis has a disagreement with his two colleagues, who really want to rape Daenerys and her female ex-slaves. Daario has his own idea of what is best in life: screwing women who want to screw you, and killing men who want to kill you. (Not so much with the lamentation.)
This show is full of gray areas of sexual nonconsent — Tyrion himself has sex with lots of sex workers, and we've seen Littlefinger tell his "employees" that if they don't perform with alacrity, they will be sold to one of his more sadistic clients. Daenerys herself had a wedding night that seemed at best ambiguously consensual, and in this episode she tells Missandei that she had to learn Dothraki quickly so she wouldn't just be "grunting" at her husband (while he kept taking her like a dog.)
In fact, in last week's episode, when Margaery tells Sansa that women in their position have to "make the best of it," she's basically saying "lie back and think of England." Because that shit is what this society is built on. If you're in the nobility, men like Tywin Lannister decide whom you make babies with.
And meanwhile, poor Gendry gets seduced — by wealth as well as by sexiness — so he can be tied up and have a leech put on his cock. (And he'll be lucky if that's the least that happens to him.)
Tyrion's self-loathing is not helping
This episode was just jam-packed with amazing (and subtle) performances — but hot damn, Peter Dinklage walked away with it. Throughout the episode, we're sympathizing with Tyrion's discomfort and misery — we're totally on his side — and yet, we can't stop seeing how much he's torturing Sansa, and how revolting his behavior seems to everybody watching.
Sansa is the opposite of the sort of woman Tyrion usually prefers: someone who's as cynical and mouthy as he is, someone who doesn't pretend that any of this crap matters. And she just radiates a sense of vulnerability, and Tyrion cannot protect her — as King Joffrey dramatizes by removing Tyrion's step ladder so he can't place the cloak of protection around her shoulders without lowering herself. It's not just that she's barely pubescent and he's been ordered to rape her — she's also exactly the sort of woman that Tyrion can't cope with. Sansa is a reminder of Tyrion's failures.
And so Tyrion reacts to all of this, not with a steady dignity or by trying to show his good qualities to Sansa — but with open, brutal self-loathing. When he gets a precious moment alone with Sansa before the wedding, he tells her that he didn't want this marriage either — but that comes across as rejection, not just as wanting to spare her. When he does compliment Sansa, it seems patently insincere, since he's just deflected her compliment by saying he's the husband of her dreams, with total sarcasm. And being his wife is "a different kind of prison." Way to rub it in.
A shrewd man would make an attempt at wooing his new wife, with a romantic speech about how he hopes she'll learn to love him in time — but Tyrion just puts it all out there.
And the actual wedding banquet is... what the hell. Tyrion gets drunk and starts acting out, putting his absolute worst face forward and making poor Sansa squirm, while all the wedding guests look on with pity and revulsion. The expressions Tyrion makes as he spills wine all over himself are amazing. And then he announces to his dad that he'll build a shrine to himself as the god of drunken lust at the next brothel he visits.
And after King Joffrey attempts to have Sansa dragged off, half-naked, for a "bedding ceremony" at which Tyrion will deflower her in front of everybody (and maybe the King will have a bit of droit du seigneur) Tyrion threatens to cut Joffrey's penis off. Which is probably a bit of a wedding faux pas. After that, all bets are off. Tyrion is forced to act even drunker than he actually is, to cover up the fact that he just threatened to castrate the King, and this leads to him babbling about his tiny penis and the fact that he once vomited on a sex worker mid-coitus. It's a performance that's both hilarious and heart-breaking, all at once — and yet, you can't escape seeing it through the eyes of the people watching.
But the bit where Shae comes in to bring the newlyweds breakfast and sees that the sheets have no blood on them, and just gives Tyrion a little smile — like, "okay, you don't totally suck" — is just brilliant.
Sell-swords, slaves and sex workers
So if Littlefinger will sell his girls to a horrible sadist (like he did Ros) if they don't perform properly, are they slaves? Not technically, no — Westeros doesn't have slavery, which is why Jorah Mormont was driven away from the realm and stripped of his titles.
And certainly Mero, the Titan's Bastard, seems to see sex workers and slaves as interchangeable. When he's taunting Daenerys, he pretends she was working in a pleasure house in Lys — the tongue thing is amazingly revolting — and also keeps threatening her with slavery and gang rape. Later, he's got a sex worker perched on his knee, and he doesn't treat her much differently than he does Missandei the translator.
And yet, Mero sees himself as a whore too — he sells his sword for gold, instead of his junk, but it's the same thing in the end. He's happy to degrade women whom he sees as exactly the same as himself. Because of course, they're not really the same, given that a sword in skillful hands carries a lot more power in this world. Mero doesn't degrade sex-workers and slaves to make himself feel better, he just wants to drag everyone down to his level so they can all lick his ass. It's a worldview built entirely on fellatio and analingus.
Daario has been a sellsword for a while, but he has a whole romantic view of himself as "fighting for beauty," and a whole ideology based around not paying for sex and only killing people who are trying to kill him. Beauty won't pay the bills, of course, and his fellow sellswords immediately tell him that he won't live long. Which, ha. And, as he tells Daenerys, he does what he wants to and he always has a choice — he won't become a slave, via the transitive property of treating others in his same station like slaves.
Daenerys' face during her two big scenes in this episode is amazing to watch — she doesn't flinch at all, as Mero is demanding to see her vagina. And then later, when Daario shows up with a sword when she's naked in the bath, she looks totally stone faced and asks if the severed heads of his comrades are supposed to impress her.
Her poker face has gotten incredible, and this is clearly an arc that began with her taking power in her relationship with Khal Drogo, by speaking his language and taking control during sex. (And her rise to political power really began with preventing Drogo's bloodriders from raping captive women.)
The juxtaposition of the Tyrion and Daario sequences is really fascinating, as both men rebel in very different ways against the imperative to take women by force — and somehow Daario manages to seem studly and awesome, while Tyrion appears a total fool. Even though Daario is actually kind of an underhanded bastard, who beheaded his own captains and broke the bond of their contract, and Tyrion is being decent and kind.
The whole tone of the episode is set by a debate between Arya and the Hound, who rejects Arya's claim that he's the worst man there is. His brother has killed a man for snoring, and there are plenty of men who would rape a girl as young as Arya — and in fact, the Hound saved Sansa from being gang-raped during the riot in Flea Bottom last season. (And Arya turns out to have misjudged the situation with the Hound anyway, since he's taking her to her family, not back to the King.)
The third man who faces a major choice in this episode is Stannis, who has just taken delivery of Gendry, the bastard son of King Robert. While Daario and Tyrion are trying to decide whether to follow orders, Stannis is trying to figure out what order to give — his priestess, Melisandre, wants to sacrifice Gendry because his blood has great power.
So Stannis goes to seek out his best advisor, Davos the Onion Knight, whom he locked in a dungeon for striking against Melisandre before. Davos has been teaching himself to read, thanks to Stannis' daughter Shireen — just like Daenerys taught herself Dothraki — and he's got some pretty good arguments about not spilling the blood of an innocent who's technically Stannis' nephew.
What it boils down to is, the difference between magic and religion once again. Davos says that Melisandre's god, like all gods, is just something we invented because we get scared of death in the middle of the night. And Stannis points out that Davos has seen stuff, including Melisandre's deadly smog baby, that can't be explained. But does that prove that she worships an actual god, or just that she has magic powers?
When Melisandre is in the middle of seducing Gendry, she talks to him about the difference between the fake chicken in the "brown stew" he ate in Flea Bottom and the real thing — like the fancy wine he's drinking now, you can tell the real thing right away because your tongue knows the difference. So it is with Melisandre and her god — you can tell immediately that it's real, because of some kind of metaphysical taste test.
And then Melisandre starts having sex with Gendry, ties him up, and leech-cocks him.
This bait-and-switch — happy intercourse replaced with leeches — is like a metaphor for religion generally, but it's also a kinder fate than Melisandre had in mind for Gendry until Stannis and Davos intervened. And it's interesting that in an episode where women and girls are threatened with violation that doesn't actually happen, the main violation happens to Gendry, just when he's starting to think he's been selected for something awesome.
Cersei is amazing
In an episode full of awesome performances — including Lady Olenna trying to figure out the tangled family tree that will result after her grandson and grand-daughter are married to mother and son — Cersei's scenes stand out. She goes for the jugular with Margaery, telling her a long and bloody story about the family that tried to challenge the Lannisters and ended up as a set of handy decorations for the wall of Casterly Rock. Margaery's poker face as she hears Cersei's hardly-veiled threats is not quite as good as Daenerys', but she keeps smiling and waving at people, and the scene is just bloody brilliant.
And the sad story of the Reynes of Castermere has been immortalized in a song, whose name incidentally is the title of next week's episode.
Later, when Loras and Cersei are standing alone, he tries to spark up a conversation, and she just slaps him down. She puts more into "Nobody cares what your father once told you" than a lot of people would into a whole smouldering speech.
And yet, Cersei knows she's losing her grip on Joffrey — to the point where, when she sees Joffrey heading off to torment Sansa, she actually tries to encourage him to talk to Margaery instead.
The themes of weird tangled families, patriarchy and rape come together in Joffrey, who tells Sansa that he's the "father of the realm" and thus a suitable substitute for her real father, whose head he chopped off. And his very next interaction with her is to threaten to have two knights hold her down while he puts a Lannister baby in her. It's pretty insane.
The kicker to the episode is Samwell Tarly, failing to make a fire and then discovering he can't fight and hold a baby at the same time, because he's not Chow Yun-Fat, unexpectedly destroying one of the White Walkers with that weird obsidian dagger he found at the Fist of the First Men.
This comes after Samwell and Gilly have a long talk over what to name her son, which sort of turns into what sort of patriarch they want him to take after. Not Craster. Not Samwell's father Randyll, who was cruel in his own fashion. Maybe Lord Jeor Mormont, except that Gilly doesn't realize Mormont is a family name — she doesn't understand the concept of "family name," where a father passes his name down to his children, because Craster was both the ultimate rapist and the worst patriarch, with no sons to carry on his name.
Images via WICNet Tumblr.