In The Old Gods and the New, our players in the Game of Thrones learn valuable lessons about power. Although Varys claims that “power resides where men believes it resides,” that sentiment doesn’t ring true in this episode, as the “powerful” posture and stamp their feet and fail to maintain control, while the “powerless” — the poor, the captive, the foreign and the female — prove that underestimating them might just be a fatal mistake.
Traitors at the Gate
The episode opens with the Stark ward Theon storming Winterfell and declaring it part of the Iron Islands’ new kingdom of the North. I’m not exactly Theon’s biggest fan, but I think Alfie Allen did an excellent job here of conveying the fact that he’s the worst conqueror ever. He doesn’t know what to do, he doesn’t feel comfortable doing it, but he feels that he has to do it, and that his hesitations are only weakness. It’s not enough to make me start waving around the “Yay Theon!” banner, but I did feel some sympathy for him, even as he rampaged through Winterfell and chopped off poor Ser Rodrik’s head. The epic beard is no more.
But, like everyone else in this season, Theon’s going to realise that going around calling yourself a prince (or a king) doesn’t make you one, and that anyone who has to indignantly insist “I’m the prince!” doesn’t actually have the power they claim. In this case, Theon’s first mistake is trusting Osha. He’s been wavering between dismissive and abusive towards her ever since he met her, willing to dismiss her as a wildling whore who will do anything, including betray them all, for her freedom. After refusing to arm her, he’s more than willing to accept that she’ll sleep with him to improve her standing in the castle, and it is this blind trust, and Osha’s understanding of his combination of overconfidence and crippling insecurity, that allows her to escape with the Stark boys and Hodor at the end of the episode.
Let Them Eat Cake
In King’s Landing, meanwhile, princess Myrcella is being shipped off to Dorne in the south for a marriage alliance with the Dornish prince. Cersei is understandably furious that her daughter is being traded for politics and coin, as a similar alliance left her in a loveless, miserable, even abusive marriage with Robert, but Tyrion does have a point. Armies are marching on the city, but the restless, starving people inside the walls are even more of a threat, and neither would hesitate to hurt the princess.
And on the way back from the docks, these hungry crowds push in, demanding bread from the well-dressed, well-fed, seemingly uncaring royalty. When someone throws dung at Joffrey’s face, he, in his usual subtle way, freaks out and demands that his guards kill the crowd, and a vicious riot ensues, as the crowd literally tear the High Septon limb from limb. Once again, Joffrey believes that he has all the power in the situation, as he wears the crown and controls the guards, but he fails to understand that he cannot rule with fear alone, and a few armoured guards have little influence against a starving, raving mob who are screaming for his blood. But, as he is the king, it’s currently others, like the Septon and his fiancee Sansa, who pay the cost of his cruelty.
The chase and near-rape of Sansa was horrifying to watch, and the scene has been criticized as gratuitous, even revelling in Sansa’s victim-hood. Obviously, the audience has by now grasped that Sansa is a victim (albeit a very strong, defiant one) and doesn’t need another reminder, but I think that the moment (as awful as it was) is important for Sansa’s character development. She has been bullied and abused by Joffrey and Cersei for a while, for daring to be a Stark, and she is used to being considered little more than a pawn in their political games. But she has never felt the fierce, burning hatred of people she has never met, who do not even know her name. Strange how the crowd’s belief in her power (as a rich, well-fed noble) makes her even more powerless than before, as they turn all their own unseen power and rage against her.
Beyond the Wall
In the wilderness beyond the Wall, Jon Snow and his companions stumble across a group of wildlings, including the fiery-haired, defiant girl Ygritte. The power-dynamic between Jon and Ygritte is pretty much summed up by their final exchange: he ties her up and tries to assert his control, but she distracts him merely by wriggling, and he is so caught up in the potentially sexual nature of her movements that he doesn’t even notice that she’s sliding out of her ropes.
The Ghost of Harrenhal
The scenes between Arya Stark and Tywin Lannister continue to steal the show. Damn you, TV show, for making me find Tywin an interesting and even sympathetic character, instead of the stony being I found in the books. At this point, Tywin is probably going to adopt his cupbearer, since he seems to find her more worthy than the rest of his children. Arya has all the traits that Tywin admires and attempts to cultivate in himself: bravery, cleverness, insightfulness and a certain kind of ruthlessness that only continues to grow as she struggles more and more to survive. And Arya is another character in a weird limbo of power/powerlessness, as she is trapped inside a Lannister-held castle, working for her brother’s enemy, with her life potentially at risk if she is discovered, but the fact that nobody suspects her identity allows her to steal messages, to disrupt Lannister plans, and even potentially to have these plans “accidentally” misdelivered to the Starks instead. Even when her double-crossing is discovered, her alliance with Jaqen H’ghar continues to give her strength, as well as providing one of the show’s most epic deaths.
Two down, one to go.
Meanwhile, across the Narrow Sea
Daenerys, who finally appears safe after her long trek through the Red Waste, discovers that no amount of posturing, promises and empty threats can win her the power she requires. She might have mastered the art of the epic, passionate speech, and her family words of “fire and blood” do make an impressive threat, but despite this, she has nothing to support her but a pretty face, the charity of others, and the intrigue of baby dragons. Old honorable knights might support her (rare creatures that they are, in both Westeros and beyond), but foreign traders hardly see her claim to a throne as a worthwhile investment. She’s just a pretty girl, with some pretty and rare pets, who would make a good treasure to hang off an arm or use as the centerpiece for a party, but not as an individual who can actually intimidate or intrigue them into handing over their resources.
And then, in a twist that surprised everybody (especially book readers!), Dany’s dragons have been stolen, many of her handmaids, bloodriders and supporters killed, leaving her with almost literally nothing. Without her dragons, without her miracles and the people who believe in her, she has lost all the trappings of power, leaving her simply the lost, uncertain girl that she is.