Game of Thrones was at its absolute most brutal last night, with crucifixion, mutilation, horse slaughter, and a couple of very rapey moments back to back. And then, in the middle of the blood orgy, the show delved into the gruesomeness of fiscal policy. What's that about? Spoilers ahead...
Game of Thrones has always had a certain level of sexual violence — perhaps not surprising in a show that punches your buttons with both sex and violence regularly. King Joffrey has been shown as a bit of a sexual sadist, on a few occasions. But last night's episode featured two near-misses, one after the other.
Theon Greyjoy escapes from the horrible dungeon where he was being tortured, only to get recaptured in the woods after a thrilling insane horse chase — and apparently the punishment for runaways is being "fucked into the dirt." It's a horrible scene, even though Theon is apparently saved by the mysterious ninja who set him free earlier. Except, of course, that alert viewers can tell there's something not quite right about that ninja guy — who incidentally is Simon from Misfits. The would-be rapist seems to know something about the "little bastard," before he's silenced forever, and also the nameless assassin seems to have sent Theon into a trap and then rescued him on purpose. What could Superhoodie be up to?
In the second almost-rape, Brienne of Tarth and Jaime Lannister have been recaptured by some of Roose Bolton's men. Brienne taunts Jaime about his lousy swordfighting, which gets to the heart of Jaime's vanity, and he retorts that she'll be raped as soon as they make camp. Jaime advises her that she shouldn't fight back, or they'll knock her teeth out and then kill her, but then admits that if he was a woman he would make his attackers kill him, after all. Jaime thanks the gods that he's not actually a woman, not realizing that Theon has already proved that men can face the same threat.
When the attempted gang rape actually happens, it quickly becomes all about Jaime Lannister, rather than Brienne herself — we see her attempting to talk her out of it, but then she's dragged off into the darkness. After that, we see Jaime's face while we hear her screams and struggles. Jaime looks pained and conflicted, and then he saves Brienne by spinning an obviously fake story about Brienne's homeland of Tarth being the source of all the sapphires in Westeros, and Brienne's safe return being worth her weight in sapphires. (In fact, Tarth is the "sapphire isle" because the ocean looks pretty.)
And then Jaime pushes his luck — having manipulated his captor into leaving Brienne "un-defiled," he gets cocky and starts rubbing his hard-won book-learning in the man's face. He tries to talk the guy into letting him go, but instead he winds up becoming left-handed by default — he loses the very prowess that Brienne was taunting him about, before he threw it back in her face by telling her she'd be raped.
In both these situations, the rape is a punishment, for Theon's escape and for Brienne's role in Jaime's escape. And re-capturing both these prisoners involves re-establishing the jailer-prisoner relationship with the quickest, most dehumanizing bit of brutality they can think of. It's strongly implied that if Jaime hadn't intervened to stop Brienne's rape, he would still be two-handed.
The insanity of Jaime's maiming is punctuated by the end credits running a raucous rock-music version of "The Bear and the Maiden Fair," a weird-ass song about a woman and a dancing bear, which Brienne's would-be rapists sing earlier in the episode. In the song, the woman resists, until the bear "licks the honey from her hair," and then she goes from kicking and wailing to sighing and squealing — basically, it's a fantasy about a woman learning to enjoy being overpowered by a beast, which is the sort of thing that underlies rape culture. Even Jaime tells Brienne to try and enjoy it: "Close your eyes, pretend they're Renly."
And meanwhile, it's Porky's V
Weirdly, all of this is juxtaposed with the episode's recommended weekly allowance of T&A, accentuated this time by a spot of contortionism, in a storyline that feels like a rejected script for a Porky's sequel. Podrick Payne, Tyrion's squire, saved his life in the Battle of Blackwater, and now the still-virgin Pod is transfixed by seeing Ros' breasts while Tyrion is taking the ledgers of state from Littlefinger, whom he's replacing as Master of Coin.
So Tyrion decides to reward Podrick for his loyal service, by renting him a few working girls. (Notably, he doesn't ask Podrick if he wants to be de-virginized in this manner, and Pod seems too gobsmacked to venture an opinion.) The whole thing is played for laughs, with Pod getting more and more wide-eyed as more and more nubile ladies come out from behind curtains. Later, Podrick comes back to Tyrion's place with all the money Tyrion paid for his deflowering. Podrick claims he had lots and lots and lots of sex, but it was a freebie because the ladies enjoyed it so much. It's not entirely clear if he's telling the truth — but I guess it's supposed to be the wacky reversal of the earlier power dynamic.
And just like Brienne's rape seems to be mostly about punishing Jaime for his pride, Tyrion is using these three women to express his gratitude to Pod — in both cases, the women are the message, not the messenger. This is sort of underscored by the weird moment where Littlefinger reminds Tyrion that Tyrion's sister had Ros beaten horribly, because she thought Ros and Tyrion had a relationship — something which Littlefinger hints that "someone" led Cersei to believe. Littlefinger is very comfortable with the notion of using whores to send a message, or to be pawns in someone else's scheme.
(Oh, and the contortionist can perform a proper "Meereenese knot," which is George R.R. Martin's term for the plot conundrum that kept him from finishing his novel A Dance With Dragons for years. If only he'd had her around.)
That business is sort of the comic relief in Tyrion's main storyline, which involves him figuring out what Ned Stark knew 20 episodes ago — Westeros is buried in debt, and not just to Tywin, but also to the Iron Bank of Braavos, which won't hesitate to overthrow a government that defaults. Tyrion is forced to explain to Bronn just why debt is so terrible — you have no choice about repaying, with interest, and it's one way that even the ultra-powerful end up being someone else's bitch.
When Varys asked Tyrion that riddle about a sellsword deciding whether to obey a king, a priest and a rich man, he didn't bother to mention that the king was up to his eyeballs in debt to the rich man — which might change the equation slightly.
In an episode that's full of horrible blood and guts, the subplot where Tyrion sinks his hands into the dirty entrails of Westeros fits right in — except that it's covered by the "let's get Pod laid" comedy (and the earlier "Cersei and Tyrion pull chairs around to one-up each other comedy.)
The Tully family aren't the shrewdest
Now we know where Catelyn Stark gets her awesome judgment from — her birth family. Her father, whom we see getting the world's most inept Viking funeral, was such a stubborn idiot he feuded with his brother for 30 years over whether the brother could be allowed to call himself "Blackfish." Meanwhile, Lord Hoster Tully's Son Edmure is a headstrong idiot who can't even shoot a flaming arrow straight and gets 208 of his own men killed scoring a pyrrhic victory against Tywin Lannister's henchman, the Mountain.
At least the Blackfish himself is a bit more level-headed, fixing the botched funeral and later showing up his dumb nephew. Too bad his advice can't do much for his niece, Cat Stark, who turns her grief for her father's death into another chance to berate herself for the wrong things — Cat still won't own up to the actual bad decisions she's made over the years, but she's still stuck in a self-blame spiral. This week, it's about the fact that she wasn't there for Bran and Rickon, who are now presumed dead. (Even though if Cat had been at Winterfell when Theon attacked, she probably wouldn't have been able to do much.)
Meanwhile, we get another vital glimpse of why Robb's marriage to Talisa was a good move personally, even if it was a huge error tactically — she's great with the two captive Lannister children, bandaging their wounds and playfully confirming their superstitions about Robb's lycanthrope.
Too bad Robb's position keeps weakening as a result of things like his mom letting Jaime Lannister go, and his uncle wasting an opportunity to deal a real blow to the Lannisters in favor of seizing a quick, pointless victory. Robb is quickly seeming less and less like a king, as everybody talks back to him — and meanwhile, his sister Arya is being carted off by the Brotherhood Without Banners, who can only see her as an unprotected pawn, powerless but slightly valuable as a hostage or bargaining chip.
And speaking of kings with weakened positions, Stannis wants Melisandre to give him "another son," like the smog baby that killed his brother — but Melisandre says Stannis is too weak for her sex magic to work. So she leaves him, to go get someone else who has Stannis' blood. Too bad Renly had no children, and Joffrey had all of King Robert's bastards killed.
The Godfather horse-head scene on steroids
Back to the horrifying brutality. North of the Wall, the ice zombies serve up a version of the famous "horse head" scene from The Godfather, only many times over and with a nice artistic spiral. There's no sign of the men who were riding on those dead horses, probably because they've all become ice zombies themselves. The horror of this scene is only increased by its weird artistry.
But when Mance Rayder looks at the horsepocalpyse, he sees the Night's Watch weakened — so he sends a party, including Jon Snow, Orell, Ygritte and Tormund Giantsbane, on a mission to the Wall, while he plans a separate attack.
And meanwhile, the awfulness of the horsepocalypse is juxtaposed with the cruelty of Craster, the guy who marries his daughters and kills his sons, over and over. He almost doesn't let the straggling remains of the Night's Watch back into his house, and then he lectures them about his religion, worshiping the "real gods" — meaning the White Walkers, or something that they serve? I don't think he means the same old gods that Ned Stark served in his weirwood.
And again with the emphasis on sexual compulsion — Craster's "wives" never have any choice about marrying him, and they live in terror, something underscored when he tells one of them that Gilly (who's in labor with his baby) can bite down on a rag, or she can bite down on his fist. Craster basically forced himself on Gilly in the first place, or at least she had noplace else to go in this unforgiving terrain, and now he's threatening to beat her while she's giving birth to — unfortunately for her — his son.
Craster's wives are essentially his slaves, and his ownership of them extends way beyond sexual proprietorship into keeping them as part of a self-sustaining system. His "real" gods are probably the same ones who tore those horses apart, and they're the thing that Theon's savior obliquely warns about when he says the old catchphrase that "winter is coming."
The perfection of slavery
And finally, Daenerys comes face to face with another of the faces of slavery. In the "Walk of Punishment," which gives the whole episode its name, she meets a man who's being crucified to death, and who's so eager to die he won't accept the water she offers because it'll only prolong his horrible life. Then while she's haggling with the slaver Kraznys (who's bothering less and less to hide his leering and contempt) she learns once again that the Unsullied, the soldiers she wants to buy, are so unquestioning, they will obey any order from whoever happens to own them at the time. Even if it's an order to fall on their own swords.
The ultimate slave is either driven to want to die, or so empty of will, you can order him or her to commit suicide without question. This is the perfected form of slavery, and it's the thing that most of the people in Westeros seem to be implementing in a more imperfect form.
Now instead of Jorah Mormont, Daenerys has two old warhorses advising her — and her new protector Ser Barristan Selmy insists that wars are won with loyalty, not with mindless obedience such as the Unsullied offer. Jorah responds that the Unsullied will actually be way less brutal than a regular army, because they won't rape anyone, and will only kill whoever Daenerys orders. Both men are aghast at Daenerys' offer to trade one of her dragons for 8,000 slave soldiers — because a single dragon is worth way more, and is an ultimate weapon.
But Daenerys has already seen way too much, with the Dothraki and with the sorcerers of Qarth — she's already grasped a crucial lesson about the nature of power. It's not about controlling the money, or even about winning people's loyalty through your valorous deeds — the ultimate way to power is to seize it with both hands, and to make people follow your orders without question.
And in an episode that's full of casual brutality towards everyone, but especially full of women being treated as property or as means of expressing something or other, Daenerys strikes up a friendship with Missandei, the clever translator, and suggests that they may be able to find a loophole in another one of the show's oft-repeated proverbs: "Valar Morghulis," or "All men must die." Because they're not men, and Daenerys doesn't aim to wield power like a man.