GAME OF THRONES: “First Of His Name”

Compared to recent events, this was a positively bright and sunny episode of Thrones. Give or take a few murders.

Your friend is dead, and Trant is not, because Trant had armor and a big f-ing sword.

–The Hound, Quote Machine

So it’s all Littlefinger’s fault.

Everything that has happened on this series is a result of one man, one jumped-up, goatee-twirling anarchist who set the continent on fire and then got the Seven Hells out of the way. Ned Stark (RIP, the fool) went to King’s Landing in the first place, back in the first episode of the first season, to find out what happened to deceased Hand of the King, Jon Arryn. He had received a letter from his sister-in-law (and Arryn’s wife) claiming that he was poisoned by the Lannisters, who we had already established were awful people surely up to no good. Thus, a thousand plots — and blood feuds — were set in motion.

Only, it wasn’t the Lannisters at all. Probably the only thing they were innocent of, come to think of it.

Which makes last night’s bombshell — tossed aside as it was — all the more head-scratching. Littlefinger manipulated Lysa to poison her own husband, because Lysa was in love with Littlefinger, who was in love with her sister Catelyn, who was devoted to Ned, who died, then Catelyn died, and then — WELL GUESS WHAT — the love of Littlefinger’s life has a daughter who’s a spitting image of her, and needs rescuing from the snake pit of King’s Landing.

Is that what all this is for? The wars, the political gamesmanship, the killing off of beloved characters? So Lord Petyr Baelish can become Lord of the Vale (oh, there’s a Septon right outside the door? How convenient!), an impregnable, unassailable fortress, and somehow eventually chain himself to Sansa Stark? So he can live out his days on a mountain with the virgin daughter of his lost unrequited love, while the rest of the country descends into chaos?

Actually, that’s not a bad plan. Littlefinger IS a genius.

But his ability to predict the long-term movements of the Starks and Lannisters aside (not to mention Aiden Gillen’s continued hammy portrayal of the character), let’s talk about poor Sansa, now known as “Alayne Stone, Baelish’s niece.” Never loved by viewers, Sansa took a lot of heat in the early going for being a spoiled princess, blinded by romantic princely fantasies in a world that was hard and cruel. We rolled our eyes when she defended Joffrey, then felt pity when he finally revealed himself to her as a monster, trapping her in the Red Keep to torment.

Everything she’s ever been told — about her future, or how highborn girls like herself are to be treated — is a lie. Some have even been decent to her, no one more than her doomed husband, Tyrion (who she meekly sticks up for to Crazy Aunt Lysa), but she has long learned that fairy tales are for stupid little girls, and has had no agency of her own. She is shuttled from place to place, manipulated, used as a game piece by more powerful entities. And now, she’s been told by Lysa that she is set to marry Weird Cousin Robin, still breastfeeding, tossing perfectly decent gifts down the moon door. Poor Sansa indeed. Will it ever stop? (Also the sounds of her aunt and Littlefinger consummating their marriage — will THAT ever stop?)

Because if we’ve learned one thing on Game of Thrones — Ramsey Bolton, poet laureate, even spelled it out for us last season — it’s that this story has no “happy ending.” While George R. R. Martin bristles at claims he has a nihlistic worldview, he is committed to realism, and reality is a place where the bad guys win more often than not and the rest of us have to make the best of it. And even at this stage of the story, there aren’t that many truly “bad” guys — the Boltons, obviously, and the mutineers at Craster’s Keep, and The Mountain, but everyone else is covered in varying shades of grey. They fight to survive, for their honor, for the dignity of their family name; some are idealists, like Dany or Jon Snow; others are pragmatic, like the Tyrells or the little-seen Varys. Littlefinger, by contrast, just wants to watch the world burn, which makes him the most slippery and dangerous character of all.

All Hail King Tommen. Cersei catches Margaery making emoji-eyes at Tommen, but instead of hissing at her like Ser Pounce, we get a rare moment of calculated vulnerability: Yes, Joffrey was a monster — “the things he did shocked me,” Cersei admits — but Tommen is a good kid, and might actually deserve the throne he’s sitting on, and will need help from both of them. Marg lies through her teeth that she hasn’t given any thought to what comes next, much less if she’ll be betrothed to Tommen, but now that you mention it what a great idea! “Do I call you sister, or mother?” She asks, and the look on Cersei’s face is worth all the gold in Casterly Rock.

Wait, whoops — there IS no more gold in Casterly Rock! The former Queen Regent, seeing an opportunity to be the child her father is least disappointed in (for the moment), ingratiates herself to Tywin by asking his opinion on matters of state. A new round of weddings in a fortnight? Sure! (Thought you were getting away from Loras, weren’t you, Cersei?) Tywin might be an evil genius, but he is a realist: “The Tyrells are our only true rivals, and we need them on our side.” Specifically, he needs their money. There’s no more in the Lannisters’ Banana Stand, and with the Iron Bank due to start sniffing around, it might be a good time to consider changing the family words. (“A Lannister Always Requests Payment In Installments With A Low Interest Rate,” perhaps?) But Tywin is all about the “Lannister Legacy,” and Cersei knows just how to appeal to him on the eve of her brother’s trial. “Legacy is the only thing that matters,” she says. Does she believe it? Nahhh.

She continues her Tour of Jury Members with a visit to Oberyn Martell, who she surprisingly does NOT interrupt mid-orgy, to make nice and ask about her daughter, Myrcella. She’s having a lovely time, Oberyn says, playing in the water gardens last he saw her. “We don’t hurt little girls in Dorne.” Cersei, who has been a victim as long as she can remember, retorts: “Everywhere in the world, they hurt little girls.” The Red Viper has many children of his own, and Cersei plays into that, too: “What good is power if you can’t protect the ones you love?” Indeed. Also, Cersei had a ship built, and wants it sailed down to Sunspear for her daughter to…use, I guess? A ship is not a toy. Who can say. But this episode is a remarkable showcase for Lena Headey, who has been so good for so long it’s easy to take her for granted. She underplays these scenes, and somehow manages to earn our sympathy as a woman who has lost a child and might lose more, while being unable to escape the unshakeable will of her father. It’s a high-wire act, but she — with a boost from the writers and this week’s director, Michelle MacLaren — pulls it off. Now for it all to come crumbling down next week, when Tyrion’s trial switches her back into “blind hatred” mode. At any rate, it doesn’t look good for the Halfman.

So You Think You Can Water Dance! We briefly check in with our favorite tag teams: Arya and The Hound, still heading toward the Vale, and Brienne and Pod, heading for the Wall because that’s as good a place as any. Arya is still muttering her list of names every night (Beric Dondarrion? Thoros of Myr? Come on, those guys are cool!), which is driving the Hound crazy, though he sees the merit: “Hate’s as good a thing as any to keep a person going; better than most.” Clegane is still on Arya’s list, however, a notion that seems to simultaneously intrigue and terrify him. And when he wakes up the next morning and finds her gone, he goes into panic mode — not for her safety, but for his. So when he finds her practicing swordplay the Braavos way, as taught by her late “Dance Teacher” Syrio Forel, the Hound taunts her mercilessly. But Arya’s attempt to stick him with her pointy end only meets boiled leather plating, and she gets smacked in the mouth for her trouble. You can have fancy dance moves and a tiny sword, or you can have armor.

Yet where the Hound sees weakness, Brienne sees strength: Podrick might not be good at much (he can’t ride a horse! He can’t cook!), but he is loyal, and he is fearless. She initially tries to send him home as he muddles around awkwardly, but his account of slaying a Kingsguard at the Battle of Blackwater gives her pause, and earns Pod a chance to prove his usefulness. Maybe this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship. These scenes don’t lead to much, but hint at the pair’s importance going forward. What could be in store for them on their journey north?

Queen of Meereen. So much for that giant “Mission Accomplished” banner Dany unfurled last week. No sooner has she left Astapor and Yunkai than the cities have been retaken by the Masters, leaving her domination of Slavers’ Bay in tatters. On the other hand, Joffrey is dead, Daario has captured some ships, and they’ve already got more than enough men to lay siege to King’s Landing and end this thing once and for all. Pros: many houses will rally to her side; she has dragons. Cons: She can take the capital, but not the continent, and Dany frets she hasn’t done enough to earn the throne. Conquering cities is easy — governing is hard. “How can I rule a kingdom if I can’t control Slavers’ Bay?”, she asks Jorah. There’s nothing for it but to stay in Meereen, and learn how to be a Queen. So hold off on that invasion for the foreseeable future. (Sigh.) She’s been on the road for…well, the entire series, really. She’s never stayed in one place this long. Forget if her character is up to it — one must ask if the show itself is, as it slides into the troubled, stagnant A Dance With Dragons part of the story. How will Benioff & Weiss keep things moving, as we continue to wait for the Khaleesi to join the main narrative?

That’s Why You Don’t Taunt A Direwolf. Like last week, we conclude the hour north of the Wall, as Bran and Jon Snow fail to reconnect, again (which would be exasperating if we didn’t agree with Bran’s choice to skedaddle onward to his destiny.) But in the chaos at Craster’s Keep we manage to dispatch with two of the show’s most troublesome characters in one fell swoop: the treacherous Locke, who does succeed in ID-ing and snatching Bran before the little Warg mind-controls Hodor into gruesomely snapping his neck; and the despicable Karl, who Jon gets with a sword through the back of the head (YIKES) with an assist from one of Craster’s wives. Bran, while anguished about having to avoid his half-brother (who will just want to take him back to Castle Black), is the show’s big question mark: we don’t know just what he’s capable of, or what it all means. With Jojen delivering the kind of “you mustn’t let anything stop you” ominous warnings that signal the Reeds could be about to bite it, and simple-minded Hodor unable to fathom what his hands have done while under Bran’s power, the Stark boy is very much on his own journey, taking him further and further from the main action. For now.

For Jon, who for the second time has had a near-miss with Bran, it’s a successful raid: only five of his volunteers are dead (including Locke, whose true motives he’ll never know), the mutineers are wiped out (Rast, ever the coward, is run down by Ghost), and the foul Keep is burned to the ground. Jon offers to take the wives/daughters back to the safety of the Wall, but they rightfully don’t trust anyone but themselves, and will take their chances. With Mance Rayder’s army rumbling south, they’re not safe, but with the White Walkers about, no one is safe. Unless you’re Littlefinger, I guess. He could talk them into buying ice.

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