Back in Game of Thrones season two, we heard a lot about how Tyrion was taking to court intrigue in King's Landing. How he was enjoying playing politics, and discovering he was quite good at it. The sad thing? He was horrible at it. Almost as bad as Ned Stark. Last night's episode pretty much proves it. Spoilers ahead...
When Tyrion came to King's Landing, he'd just been appointed acting Hand of the King, and he was suddenly eager to prove that he was smarter than the previous Hand, Ned Stark. But last night's episode shows him facing the exact same fate as Ned, because he couldn't stop being too clever for his own good.
Tyrion's masterstroke was that he told three different people three different plans, to see which one got back to his sister Cersei: Littlefinger, Varys and Pycelle. Whoever told Cersei, Tyrion would know he couldn't trust. When Pycelle ratted Tyrion out to Cersei, Tyrion had Pycelle tossed in a black cell. And then Tyrion went ahead with his real plan, sending Cersei's only daughter Myrcella away to Dorne to be protected (or to be a hostage.)
There are a few key flaws in Tyrion's cunning ruse, however. First of all, he should have known already who he could trust: nobody. Second of all, the two people he came away deciding he could trust were Littlefinger (who framed him for murder, although he doesn't know that) and Varys (who just testified against him at his trial.) Third of all, he made an enemy of Pycelle, who is only too eager to make up crazy stories about Tyrion stealing every poison on Earth from Pycelle's stash.
This whole business of figuring out who you can trust is only slightly different than Ned Stark insisting on giving Cersei a fair warning before revealing her secret — in both cases, it betrays a misunderstanding of how the world works.
And Tyrion wouldn't be on trial for Joffrey's murder if he'd played his cards even slightly right. He basically did the opposite of the smart thing on every occasion, openly defying Joffrey and mocking the idiot king to his face. He even joked about kings dropping like flies. And meanwhile, Tyrion made an enemy of Cersei, instead of humoring her admittedly bonkers notions.
What's amazing about Tyrion's trial for Joffrey's murder is how much of the testimony is true. There are some distortions here and there, and people leave out stuff — like Ser Meryn Trant doesn't mention what Joffrey was doing when Tyrion defied him in the throne room, and Cersei leaves out why Tyrion vowed to turn her joy to ashes. But a truly skilled player would find ways to get back at people without getting caught, while putting on a smiling face in public.
Besides Pycelle, the biggest liar at Tyrion's trial is the person he trusted most: Shae, his lover, who apparently didn't get away after all. She comes out with a massively twisted (and spiteful) version of the truth, in which Tyrion had her kidnapped and treated her as his property, and then conspired with Sansa to kill Joffrey so Sansa would finally sleep with him. Is Shae doing this to punish Tyrion for trying to get rid of her, or was she forced into it? It sure looks like the former, from the way she looks at him when she says she was just his whore.
And then in this episode, Tyrion takes a losing hand and plays it incredibly badly. From the start of his trial, he's talking back and making jokes about how maybe Joffrey just choked to death on his pigeon pie. He tries to claim that he's actually on trial for being a dwarf, which wins him zero points.
And then Tyrion is given a chance to save himself, and he throws it away. Jaime makes a deal with their father: If Tywin lets Tyrion live (and go to the Wall as a member of the Night's Watch, with a fairly low life expectancy, admittedly), then Jaime will obey Tywin's wishes. Jaime will give up his oath as a member of the Kingsguard, go to Casterly Rock as the new lord, and marry some suitable woman to carry on the Lannister line.
It's probably the best deal Tyrion is going to get, but after Shae's knife-to-the-heart testimony, Tyrion flips out. He pretends he's going to confess, then instead goes on a tirade about how he saved King's Landing and he's sorry he didn't poison Joffrey, and he wishes he could poison the rest of them. And then, instead of taking his verdict, he opts for trial by combat — which worked for him last time, in the Eyrie. But probably won't in King's Landing, where they have some serious killers. (Who does Tyrion think will be his champion? One-handed Jaime? The AWOL Bronn?)
In any case, Tyrion's trial comes at the end of an episode which sees three other people discovering the high price of wielding power. And paying it.
A mutilated subordinate is the best security deposit
The middle part of the episode is all about two different men who have mutilated their underlings — and earned both men's eternal adoration and loyalty for it. But Stannis took Davos' fingers to wipe the slate clean from Davos' past crimes, while Ramsay took various parts of Theon as part of erasing Theon's whole identity. To the point where Theon won't even answer to "Theon" when his sister calls him that.
Stannis Baratheon is facing a losing situation before Davos steps in and saves him — they're at the Iron Bank of Braavos, which Daavos wrote to a while ago. The Iron Bank has loaned a lot of money to the Iron Throne already, to pay for King Joffrey's wars, and now Stannis wants them to bet some gold on him, too.
But the Iron Bank's representative Tycho Nestoris (Mark Gatiss!) doesn't care whose claim to the throne is the most legitimate, or whether Tommen is a bastard — they only care about backing a winner. A winner who will pay back their loans. And, as Davos correctly surmises, the Iron Bank already has a ton of money sunk into Westeros.
To Tycho, it's all stories — Stannis has his story, Tywin has his story, and there are books full of words like "usurper." But numbers on a balance sheet are the only story that don't lie.
Just when Stannis' blustering has lost him any chance of getting a loan to hire soldiers and ships, Davos steps in and turns Stannis' biggest liability — his inability to bend or compromise his sense of justice — into a strength. Davos is the living proof that Stannis will always honor his obligations and do the right thing, because Stannis took Davos' fingers off for his past as a smuggler. (Of course, Stannis won't compromise his sense of right and wrong — except when it comes to doing whatever the Red Priestess tells him her god requires.)
This seems even more compelling than when Davos points out that Tywin Lannister is not a young man, and when Tywin dies, there won't be any grown-ups left in King's Landing.
Soon afterwards, Davos has enough told to make it rain for his old buddy Salladhor Saan, the pirate who helped out with Stannis' last attempt to take the Iron Throne and got caught in the carnage of Blackwater Bay. Davos' missing fingers are collateral enough to prove that if Stannis takes the throne, he'll be more likely to pay his debts than even the Lannisters.
And meanwhile, good old Ramsay Snow gets even more proof that he's broken Theon to the point where Theon actually loves his tormentor — he already had Theon shave his face with a straight razor, and now when Theon's sister Yara comes to rescue him with a company of killer Iron Born, Theon clings to his captivity. Theon won't believe it's really Yara, thinking it must be some trick, but also insists that he's not Theon, he's Reek — and he makes enough of a racket that Ramsay gets the drop on Yara's men.
Even still, Yara almost wins the fight and gets to take what's left of her brother with her. The main reason she doesn't? She doesn't do the obvious thing when she comes into a room full of vicious dogs, where her brother is caged up in the corner. She doesn't kill the dogs while they're still caged up, so they can't be sicced on her later. (Sorry, dog lovers.) Instead, she leaves herself open for Ramsay to send her and her remaining men running away, with the dogs at their heels.
Before the fight, Yara tries to instill in her men the ultimate loyalty to Theon — he's their prince, so whatever Ramsay did to Theon, he also did to them. As long as Ramsay can hurt Theon with impunity, "the word ironborn means nothing." In other words, she stakes their whole national identity on Theon's authority. But afterwards, as she jumps in her boat, Yara insists that her brother is dead.
In fact, she'd be better off if Theon were, since he's a huge liability and he's probably going to get a lot more Ironborn killed. He's so broken and terrorized, he can hardly be coaxed into the nice fresh bath Ramsay has arranged for him as a reward. (Alfie Allen's shivering, cringing performance is really pretty extraordinary.) And then Ramsay asks if Theon loves him (he does) and then asks for the ultimate challenge — "Reek" has to pretend to be Theon to help Ramsay retake a castle, Moat Cailin, from the Ironborn.
In other words, Ramsay is betting that Theon is so completely broken that he'll be able to masquerade as his old self without actually turning back into his old self. He'll still be Reek, Ramsay's adoring servant, the whole time, under his "Theon Greyjoy" act.
Neither Davos nor Theon would go back to being the people they were, given the opportunity — although Davos is happy to reminisce (much to Stannis' annoyance) and perfectly willing to consort with his old partner in crime, to get things done. Stannis and Ramsay both desperately need legitimacy (as king and as bastard son) and they get it from the men they've chopped off pieces of. And their underlings' loyalty saves them, when they ought to be screwed.
Daenerys is already losing the high ground
The other big part of the episode involves Daenerys following up on her principled decision to rule over Meereen, the slaver city-state she just liberated. Like Stannis, Daenerys has a claim to the throne but needs to prove that she has other kinds of legitimacy. And she's decided that taking care of the slavers and their former slaves is how she'll prove herself.
Unfortunately, Daenerys is already finding that ruling is a lot harder than conquering, and that being in the right is a lot harder when you have to try and hear all the different points of view. One of her dragons barbecued a goatherd's entire flock (and nearly takes out the goatherd's son, too). And one of the 163 slavers she crucified was actually a super nice guy, who restored some lovely architecture and argued against crucifying those slave children. Daenerys tries to make things right, paying off the goatherd and letting the crucified guy's son give him a proper burial.
But now she's on the slippery slope, and there are 212 more supplicants to hear from.
Meanwhile, we see Tywin and the rest of the Small Council, back in King's Landing, debating what to do about Daenerys — for now, she's a young girl, half a world away, and her adolescent dragons probably won't be conquering anything soon. But Tywin doesn't want to wait until Daenerys is at their doorstep, and he's especially worried that she has Ser Barristan Selmy, whom Joffrey rashly dismissed, at her side.
So Tywin enlists Varys to send a message to someone in Meereen, to make some trouble for Daenerys. (Who is he writing to? And about what? One hint comes from the fact that Tywin mentions that Daenerys' other advisor, Jorah Mormont, used to be a spy for King Robert. Jorah has stopped reporting on Daenerys and is totally loyal now, but Daenerys doesn't know about Jorah's past betrayal. Tywin may try to use that information to his advantage somehow.)
Also in that same meeting, Tywin puts a pretty hefty price on the head of the Hound, who's traveling around with Arya Stark and leaving a trail of dead bodies and dented heads.
Desire and power
This episode has some pretty impressive visuals, even more than usual for Game of Thrones. There's the massive statue standing astride the straits that go into Braavos, forcing ships to upskirt the proud soldier on their way in. There's Daenerys' dragon coming up over the cliff and terrifying a child and his goats. There's Daenerys' huge throneroom. And there's Ramsay's dogs.
There's sort of a visual motif of massive forces that overwhelm individual people.
In the middle of all this, Varys has an interesting chat with Prince Oberyn — Varys and Littlefinger, even more than in the books, are sort of a Greek chorus, delivering sermons about the nature of power in a lot of episodes of the TV show.
This time around, Oberyn is talking to Varys about Essos, where Oberyn traveled for five years and saw the Unsullied in action. Oberyn wanted to see the world because he has an insatiable desire to live life to the full, and not be as constrained as most people. And they also talk about sex, which is Oberyn's great obsession — like Tyrion, Oberyn really really likes brothels. But unlike Tyrion, Oberyn likes both boys and girls and has no need to keep secrets.
Oberyn seems to regard his raw sexuality as a source of strength, not just because he flirts with everyone he meets but because it puts people off their game — but to Varys, lack of sexuality is a greater strength. Varys claims that even before he became a eunuch, he had no interest in either men or women — and when he sees what desire has done to Westeros, he's glad to have "no part in it."
Not having a sex life gives Varys more time to focus on other things — and when Oberyn asks what those things might be, Varys just looks pointedly at the Iron Throne.
This is every bit as incoherent as Littlefinger telling Sansa Stark that he wants "everything." Varys can't seriously think he'll ever be crowned King of Westeros, any more than Littlefinger can ever have everything. Both answers are more like stand-ins for raw ambition (and maybe in Varys' case, a genuine desire to serve the realm) than mission statements.
Oberyn asks Varys how he came to be in Westeros, and Varys refuses to answer because it's a story he only tells people he trusts — but we already saw him tell a big chunk of that story to Tyrion.
And during Tyrion's trial, Tyrion only asks one witness one question: he wants to know if Varys still remembers what he said to Tyrion about having saved King's Landing from Stannis. This question has absolutely no strategic value in proving Tyrion's innocence. Tyrion only asks it because he's feeling wounded and betrayed, and because he's still trying to do the same thing he was doing when he was Hand of the King and he told three different people different stories: figure out whom he can really trust.
That need to trust puts Tyrion in a position of weakness, and sets him up for Shae's betrayal. Instead of trying to trust others, he should have been trying to make other people utterly dependent on him.