Game of Thrones Recap: Oh, It’s Lit
Spoilers for the latest episode of Game of Thrones follow, obviously.
Forget Jon Snow’s resurrection: the moment that Daenerys walked out of the cinders of the Dosh Khaleen temple was when Game of Thrones came back to life.
It’s a mirror of her first legend-making rebirth, when she walked unscathed out of her husband’s funeral pyre: something much more than his widow, a miracle perched on her shoulder. When she overturns the braziers and traps the khals in a burning building, this too feels familiar; she has the same dangerously serene look on her face as the day she ordered the sack of Astapor, intoning the word “dracarys” as her dragon filled the face of a slave master with flame. She doesn’t have to say the word here, in Vaes Dothrak. Here, she is the word.
Daenerys is a radical leader given to radical acts; an iconoclast does not want to reform the world so much as she wants to transform it with fire. It’s a sentiment shared not just by Melisandre, who might have better luck finding her savior if she dispensed with male pronouns and looked east, but by the High Sparrow. Evil Bernie Sanders’ war against the King’s Landing aristocracy continues, with a liberation theology designed to overthrow the ruling classes as surely as if he were setting up a guillotine outside the Red Keep. His own pyromancy may be figurative, but it’s still reduced Margary Tyrell to sackcloth and ashes.
Despite the High Sparrow’s shoeless claims of egalitarianism—that neither the rich nor the poor are immune from the justice of the Gods—it’s notable that we haven’t seen any barmaids or shopkeepers getting paraded through the streets naked. That particular punishment seems reserved for women, particularly the most famous high-born ladies; their humiliation not only erodes their personal power, but diminishes them in the eyes of their subjects.
As Jaime noted, the High Sparrow has not been foolish enough to arrest him for his many grievous sins—including killing his own king—partly because he is a less effective symbol for the political statement that these walks of shame are intended to make. They’re not “atonements” so much as they are ritual sexual humiliation of women as class warfare, a specialized (and openly misogynist) weapon deployed against the ruling classes in a battle that poor, fearful young Tommen doesn’t entirely realize he’s fighting.
Cersei, however, has experienced the tender mercies of the Faith firsthand, and knows what lies at the end of the High Sparrow’s pilgrimage of piety: not religious reform but a new world order, and one where the wealthy are not on top. Perhaps her recent suffering has finally tempered her fury into a more politic simmer, but the plan she comes up with to deal with the High Sparrow is perhaps the first truly deft strategic move she’s ever made. By convincing the Tyrells to march their army against the Sparrows to rescue Margarery—as the Lannister soldiers simply stand back and observe—she not only has the chance to take out a hated enemy, but ensure that the blame (and ruin) lands at the doorstep of another rival if things go awry.
Regardless of how the civil war of King’s Landing plays out, the power of the Iron Throne has diminished considerably; once the ultimate seat of power in the Seven Kingdoms, its child-king can’t even defend his family within the walls of his or avenge the murder of his sister in Dorne, let alone provide any sort of stability to the rest of the continent. King Tommen is a paper lion, so insubstantial it seems that even a stiff breeze might be enough to blow him away.
Game of Thrones is a story about dissolution, about watching a world fall apart. Whatever is beautiful about Westeros at the beginning is beautiful so that we will mourn it later, when it’s smoldering in pieces. The Starks themselves are a trap door, the emotional and narrative foundation we were first invited to stand on specifically so that it could fall out from underneath us.
The great Stark diaspora signaled not only the disintegration of a noble house but also the decline of Westerosi culture at large. Anything that represented stability for the people of the Seven Kingdoms has dissolved into chaos: their loved ones have been killed or maimed; their lords executed, their beliefs shattered; their cities burned, their traditions dishonored; their vows betrayed.
When Jon and Sansa finally reunite at Castle Black—the first such reunion of the scattered Stark brood—their conversation drifts almost immediately to nostalgia for how nice things were way back in the series premiere, to their longing for the Eden of Winterfell. “Don’t you wish we could go back to the day we left?” Sansa asks her half-brother. “I want to scream at myself, ‘don’t go!’” Anyone who’s rewatched the show has surely felt the same way.
There are three brother and sister reunions in this episode—four, if you count Jaime and Cersei— and each one highlights not only the way the wars have estranged families and snapped the social bonds that hold society together, but how the sisters—the women of these families have become the driving forces for action, in the face of the weakness, indifference or avoidance of their brothers.
Jon, for his part, has finally hit peak emo in the aftermath of his resurrection, and wants to walk away from it all—Castle Black, the Night’s Watch, the White Walkers, the Boltons. It’s a shortsighted plan, to say the least, and fortunately Sansa is there to put her foot down and demand that Jon stop listening to so many Morrissey songs and rejoin them in the real world, where they’re all going to die if he doesn’t stop pouting.
Theon, meanwhile, reunites with his sister Yara back in the Iron Islands, where he’s still clearly a broken individual, but where he now finds a purpose: putting Yara on the Salt Throne where she belongs. Back in the cells of the Red Keep, Margaery finally gets to visit her brother, the great and valiant warrior Loras, only to find that he’s falling to pieces, and as ready to abandon the fight as Jon. And so it is she who must be strong—perhaps, it is implied, by making her own walk of atonement.
While Daenerys is literally burning down the Dothraki patriarchy to the east, Tyrion has slipped quite easily into his old role as Hand of the King. His grip on Meereen is tenuous, but he manages to negotiate an end to the debilitating guerrilla attacks by offering something Daenerys was never willing to put on the table: a compromise on slavery. Slavery must end, of course, but he agrees give the masters of the nearby cities seven years to make the transition. This transaction of flesh and blood and souls horrifies Missandei and Grey Worm, though Tyrion insists it is a necessary evil unless they want everything Dany has built to collapse.
These are the sorts of compromises politicians often have to make, which is why activists often hate them—and why Daenerys is much happier when she’s burning than when she’s building. It is tremendously satisfying to lay waste to your enemies with the righteous fire of indignation, and tremendously unsatisfying to sit on a throne and make endless concessions to people you hate, each one chipping away a tiny piece of your convictions.
Daenerys is like Robert Baratheon that way—a formidable warrior who was always better with a sword in his hand rather than a sceptre. Ultimately, Daenerys is at her best when she’s a disruptive force, a goddess of destruction carving a path of fire through the world. Tyrion is a political man, and political men are by definition interested in manipulating existing systems of power to achieve their goals—however corrupt those systems may be. But Daenerys is something else: a visionary who sees the world as it could be rather than how it is, and is willing to set fire to everything in order to build something new from the ashes.
She is not a uniter; she is the breaker, the burner, the scourge, the scythe. She is perhaps the id of Game of Thrones, the personification of its desire to destroy. The real question is whether her fire will ultimately bring restoration or end in ashes: if her return to Westeros and claiming of the lost Targaryen throne would stabilize the Seven Kingdoms; if setting the Dothraki hordes loose on its shores would destroy what remains of its civilization; or if she’d even be a particularly good leader, even she ever found her way to the Iron Throne.
If we learned anything this episode—beside the fact that Daenerys doesn’t need rescuing—it’s that the Dany we missed wasn’t the one playing the game of thrones in well-appointed rooms. It’s one who’s overturning the board, sending everyone else to pick up the pieces.
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