Welcome back! Every week, I will be reviewing “Game of Thrones” from the perspective of someone who has read George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire novels (okay, and who lives in a household with an obsidian dagger set, too). My Post colleague David Malitz, who is new to the series, chimes in with his own review here. Spoiler alert: This post discusses both the episode “First of His Name” and Martin’s novels through “A Dance With Dragons.”
“First of His Name” opens with the coronation of Tommen Baratheon (Dean-Charles Chapman), with the High Septon asking for the blessings of the Seven Gods, and Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer) smiling encouragement from the walkway in the throne room where Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) once met with her brother. But Tommen is still a boy, and the great strength of the episode is with its women, operating in side passages and shadows while men claim official power, living as best they can in the conditions granted to them.
When Cersei steps into Margaery’s line of sight during the coronation, it looks like “First of His Name” is going to follow the arc of Martin’s novels, setting a poisonous conflict between the two women that ends with both of them on trial, Cersei stripped and walking through the streets as penance. But something rather different happens. Margaery, trying to be polite, says that she still mourns for Joffrey. And Cersei, in a departure from King’s Landing tradition, decides to speak the truth.
“He would have been your nightmare,” Cersei tells the younger woman bluntly. “You never love everything in the world the way you love your first child. It doesn’t matter what they do. And what he did, it shocked me. Do you think I’m easily shocked? The things he did shocked me.” Turning to Tommen, she muses “He’s only a boy. A good boy, a decent boy. He always has been. Who was the last decent king, I wonder? He could be the first person to sit that throne in fifty years who actually deserved it…He will need help if he’s going to rule well.”
These lessons in shock, and in listening to the counsel of others, are ones that Dany, off in Meereen, might be wise to learn as well (she pops up here mostly to declare her intention to get a queenly education). In King’s Landing Margaery is smart enough to insist that Tommen will have his mother. But Cersei, in an extraordinary admission of her own limits, and recognition of the younger woman’s abilities, promises to broker Margaery’s marriage to her son.
In Martin’s novels, Margaery is a cipher, and we have only Cersei’s paranoia about her to use in assessing the Tyrell girl. But in the show, we have come to know Margaery, and to know that she is more than the “wicked little b—- from Highgarden” Cersei complained about so bitterly earlier this season. If the show were just to pit the two women against each other, it would not be much of a contest, and Martin’s catfight both felt awfully cliche, and lead to one of the worst humiliations of a woman in his series. Given its history, “Game of Thrones” would be wise to avoid that collision, giving us an uneasy alliance that lends itself to a nuanced exploration of female power, especially as one transitions from young and marriageable to the broader scope of middle age.
Cersei shows further perception in her conversation with her father. In getting Tywin (Charles Dance) to agree to a marriage between Margaery and Tommen, Cersei also agrees to the marriage to Loras that was one of the things driving her to drink.
Of course Cersei is playing some greater game. But in bowing to what Tywin sees as valuable about her, Cersei’s consent to strengthen the Tyrell alliance earns her the closest thing she and her father may ever have to an honest conversation. Tywin is a brittle man, and having murdered a woman and her children to secure Robert Baratheon’s tolerance, if not outright trust, he does not seem the sort to admit that he married his daughter to a man who brutalized her. But he can acknowledge to Ceresi that “I didn’t like your husband. Used to pat me on the back a lot. I didn’t trust him.”
It is a small, kind gesture, the sort of thing a parent is supposed to do. And it must be even more meaningful to Cersei that Tywin takes her into his confidence about a shocking matter: the Lannister’s mines have run out, sapping their entire claim to greatness. Not even new-forged Valyrian steel swords can make up for a staggering debt to the Iron Bank of Braavos.
With their relationship repaired, Cersei has a stronger claim to the thing she has always told her father: She was best-suited to be his heir, despite her gender. There is something terribly sad, though, about the diminished claim Cersei makes before she leaves Tywin.
“The Lannister legacy is the only thing that matters,” Cersei says. “You started war to protect this family. Turned your back on Jaime for refusing to contribute to its future. What does Tyrion deserve, for lighting that future on fire?” Cersei makes no claims for herself, here. Her virtue exists in the silent comparison to her brothers, and there is nothing she can ask Tywin that he would give her. Tywin will not kill Tyrion just because she asks. He will not release her from her marriage to Loras, not when their family is so vulnerable. All Cersei is fighting for now is the reduced goal of being someone her father will listen to, maybe even to be someone he might confide in.
In the name of family, Cersei will even humble herself before Oberyn Martell (Pedro Pascal), a man whose lover she has insulted, and who wants to exact bloody revenge on the Lannisters for the rape and murder of his sister. Joffrey’s death has made them equals in futility, and recognizing that, Oberyn gives Cersei the sort of kindness the Lannisters denied him.
“The last time I saw her, she was swimming with two of my girls in the water gardens, laughing in the sun,” Oberyn tells Cersei of Myrcella (Aimee Richardson), far away in Dorne. “I want to believe that,” Cersei tells him. Once again, Oberyn tries to assert Dorne’s moral supremacy over Westeros, though this time, his refrain is tinged with some sympathy. “We don’t hurt little girls in Dorne,” Oberyn, who has eight daughters of his own, and badly needs to believe his claim, tells Cersei. Cersei’s gift is to try to dispell him of his illusions. “Everywhere in the world, they hurt little girls,” she says.
But who hurts them, and how, can be surprising. In the Riverlands, Sandor Clegane (Rory McCann) knows that Arya (Maise Williams) dreams of killing him. But when he finds her practicing her needlework, he gives her a lesson in what she needs to survive. The slap Sandor lays across Arya’s face as she pushes Needle helplessly up against his mail is less a way to put her in her place, and more a means of marking her as an equal. Like Bronn did with Jaime, the blow is less of contempt, and more a sign Sandor thinks Arya can be educated.
In the Eyrie, though, Sansa (Sophie Turner) is finding out that Lysa Arryn’s (Kate Dickie) jealousies and paranoias mean bruises, and that women can be as cruel to one another as men are to women.
“He really cares for you. Think where you’d be without them. In their clutches and on trial for murder,” Lysa tells Sansa, setting a trap for her niece, and then clutching her hard enough to leave marks. “He feels responsible for you. Why? Why does he feel responsible for you?…Petyr is risking his life to save you, the daughter of a woman who never loved him…Are you pregnant?…Was I asking about Tyrion? What have you let Petyr do with your body? Your young, pretty body.”
It is almost worse to see the extent to which Sansa has learned her lessons than it is to see her step wrong. “All he says is that I’m stupid,” Sansa tells her aunt, sobbing, using Petyr’s (Aidan Gillen) criticisms of her as protection. “I’m a stupid little girl with stupid dreams who never learns, and that I’m a terrible liar, so I should always tell the truth.”
The worst is happening in Craster’s Keep, where Karl (Burn Gorman) is preparing to attack Meera Reed (Ellie Kenrick) to make her traveling companions talk. “You left your father’s castle looking for trouble,” he muses, preparing Meera for the idea that she deserves what is coming, priming himself to believe she might like it. “No dresses for you. You like it rough, don’t you. You like it in the gutter, don’t you.”
For all the hideous violence that follows, there is something wonderful about the fact that it is one of Craster’s wives who helps end Karl’s predations with a brave intervention into his fight with Jon Snow (Kit Harington). And in all that mud and blood and snow, it is beautiful that these women, Craster’s no longer, get to decide what happens to them next.
Just like Craster, “Your brother crows beat us and worse. We’ll find our own way,” explains the oldest woman among them, rejecting Jon’s offer of shelter and work at Castle Black. But when Jon, incredulous, asks if they want to stay in the keep where they suffered so much, she is unequivocal. “Burn it to the ground,” the woman says. “And all the dead with it.”
For women like Cersei Lannister, preserving the edifices of family and power may earn her a place and protection. But for women in colder, crueler conditions, sometimes the only solution is to scorch the stones and build the world anew.