“A Golden Crown”
May 22nd, 2011
“That was not Kingly.”
Considering the title of the series, and the number of people who appear to be playing the eponymous game, the notion of what makes a true ruler is growing increasingly important as Game of Thrones continues its run. We’ve seen numerous conversations about what it takes to lead Westeros, as Viserys fights to reclaim his throne, Robert fights to keep it, and others on the margins consider whether it is a job they would ever truly desire (Renly, Joffrey, etc.).
We get some definitive action on this accord in “A Golden Crown,” which reveals a more deep-seated question of identity within these kingly questions. Throughout the various stories, notions of power and leadership are merged with questions of gender and sexuality while the duplicity of numerous figures is highlighted in order to further expand the series’ complexity, and further break down any single image of what it means to be the leader of Westeros.
When Syrio works with Arya, he tells her that being troubled is the perfect time to train: it is when you have the most trouble concentrating on the situation at hand, and thus the best way to practice for those situations where you will no doubt be troubled and yet must also defend yourself. As the show becomes more and more “troubled” by a variety of circumstances, we are starting to see how its various characters react in those situations, and we are thus beginning to gain a better understanding of how they operate.
In the case of Tyrion Lannister, we see a cunning figure who uses his desperation and his money to get himself an audience with Lysa Arryn and his wits and faith to win the subsequent trial by combat with the assistance of Bronn, the sellsword. Placed into a difficult situation, Tyrion manages to use his family name to buy his way into a situation where he can outsmart his captors, but there’s a great deal of blind trust in Bronn (who he had no idea who would come forward) on display. Tyrion chose to put his life in the hands of another, a choice that indicates the challenges facing the character. As someone who could never be a “leader” in the traditional sense, never in a position to inherit his father’s land, Tyrion instead became adept at convincing others to do his bidding and display the power that comes with his family name. Although that is largely a financial transaction, he cannot actively pay someone to be his champion after his plan to buy time by suggesting Jaime is thwarted (lest he be seen as having outright bought his freedom), meaning that whoever steps forward from an unfriendly crowd needs to also see something in Tyrion – for Bronn, who has been sort of charmed by Tyrion’s moxie from the moment he walked into the Inn at the Crossroads, there are clear financial incentives but there is something else within their relationship that the show has done a nice job of drawing to the surface largely in the background (if that makes any sense).
I like the way that scene plays out, both for its visceral nature and for the way in which Lysa Arryn chooses her champion. She chooses the man who hesitates to volunteer instead of her more eager champions, largely forcing a younger knight of considerable fame into a position where an older knight with a stronger relationship to her husband might have been a better choice. In the end, the considerable armor slows down Lord Vardis to the point where Bronn is able to find his spots, quite easily wearing him down and then disposing of him through the Moon Door. While Trial by Combat suggests that it is a test of strength, Champion vs. Champion, it’s also a game of wits: the man who with the highest title is not always going to be your victor, as strength can be easily outplayed by speed and stamina in a fight like this one.
On paper, Bronn was supposed to lose that fight, just as Viserys is supposed to be heir to the Targaryen crown as opposed to his sister. And yet circumstances conspired so that it was Dany who ascended to a position of power, and it was Dany who became revered and honored by a community. This is Viserys’ final hour, and I think it shows the way that Harry Lloyd has been able to work with this new material to give the character a greater sense of purpose. He is not simply a vengeful figure in these final moments: he fully understands, perhaps all too well, that he is no longer the true heir to the Targaryen fortune. His attempt to steal the dragon eggs was maybe a bit over the top with the symbolism, actually – faced with the fact that it is his sister who has attained the status he has fought for yet never received, he literally attempts to pilfer a piece of their legacy from her possessions.
Despite this, though, I liked how his final moments felt more resigned and reckless than outright insane. While it was dangerous to wield a sword in Vaes Dothrak, and he certainly brought his death upon himself with his behavior, we were able to see what drove him to that point and the ways in which the absence of his promised power began to wear him down almost to nothing. Here is someone who has lived his entire life in the shadow of his ancestors, believing himself to be the future of this title, and so having that stripped away from him leaves him with nothing at all. I would not go so far as to say that Viserys is a tragic figure, but there is a certain tragedy in his fundamental loss of identity: it isn’t so much that he dies because he is unable to reconcile his sister overtaking him, but rather that he fully understand that his sister has become more powerful but can’t live with the ramifications of that.
Dany’s successful rise to power has been pitched as empowerment in the early going, and I think “A Golden Crown” is the moment in the storyline which I’ve sort of always had in the back of my head as people cite the problematic nature of her development. This is not to say that there are not still elements of barbarism in the horse heart ritual, or even in the way that Drogo quite brutally works his way around the “No Weapons in Vaes Dothrak” rule by giving Viserys the golden crown he always wanted, but the way that Dany becomes initiated into their culture is portrayed less as an ordeal and more as a rite of passage (especially when her child becomes as important to the Dothraki prophecies as it is in Westeros). For me, this is the first episode where we really feel like a part of the Dothraki culture, where Dany’s story and their story begin to merge more successfully. While the Dothraki remain fairly surface-level, as does much of the show’s broader characterization if we’re being honest, the integral role they played in the context of Dany’s empowerment and separation from her brother’s tyranny was well-handled here for me.
I don’t want to suggest that issues of gender are more important here solely because this was the only episode co-written by a woman, but I do think that Jane Espenson’s work here draws some clear lines in regards to the role women are able to play in powerful situations. This is not to say that the episode is about empowerment: after all, Lysa must be represented by a man in order to enact justice, Cersei is pushed aside early on, and both Arya and Sansa are forced to obey their father’s wishes in abandoning the capital. However, there is a clear attempt to focus on the relationship between power and those who are separated from that power, which often does involve females within this particularly medieval-esque world. However, the way the episode draws Tyrion into the same fold is important to the its success, and the same goes for Renly (who, off hunting with Robert, has his masculinity challenged just a week after his conversation with Loras about whether he would be fit to be King) and even Viserys.
The brief foray to Winterfell, over fairly early in the episode, ties into the same theme. Bran on his horse offers a useful metaphor in this sense: while it allows him to appear as able as any other man, it’s just an illusion, as he discovers when he is forced off that horse by Osha and the others from North of the Wall. Robb, meanwhile, is forced to consider what it means to be the Lord of Winterfell in his father’s absence, and whether he would be willing to go to war with the Lannisters over Jory’s death and his father’s incapacitation.
On some level, we’re reminded of how all of these figures have to perform certain functions in order to remain in positions close to power. Jaime (although he spends the episode running off to Casterly Rock) has to perform his loyalty to the man who sleeps around on his sister and lover, Renly has to perform heterosexuality in order to avoid being completely ostracized by his already impatient brother, and Joffrey needs to play nice with Sansa in order to maintain some semblance of normalcy in an increasingly volatile situation. Even Cersei and Robert, as we saw last week, have to grin and bear a great deal of frustration and hate in order to hold their kingdom together. Others, of course, can’t bear to serve these roles, which is what leads Viserys to a defiant and reckless death rather than a quiet servitude to his sister’s name.
In all of these situations, you realize that the real illusion of power is that anyone truly has it at all: instead, it really is all a game, a collection of dueling interests and concessions designed to create a delicate (and tenuous) balance which could break down at any moment. If you weren’t already convinced that everything is soon about to take a turn for the worse, “A Golden Crown” should have quite convincingly demonstrated that this will not be the first time that someone meets a gruesome end in their quest for power.
What I like, though, is that the threat to this balance of power actually comes from the very man who has to this point been considered the most level-headed and honorable. Ned Stark is dangerous to Westeros not because he is set to abuse his power, but because he allows that power to be driven by a sense of morality and justice rather than the reality of his situation. While he is partially motivated by revenge when he compels Tywin Lannister to court and sentences the Mountain to death, he is also doing what any “good King” would logically do if someone was running around murdering innocent people. The only thing more dangerous than a reckless man asserting their power in Westeros is an honorable man doing the same, as it threatens the delicate framework which has propped up King Robert for so long.
“A Golden Crown” is probably not as clean as last week’s outing, but its messiness is part of the charm. It does a lot of really interesting things with important characters, drawing parallels across storylines which speak to the eponymous game better than any episode beforehand. It’s an episode about the political structure of Westeros that never feels explicitly political, instead looking at how the personal and the political can prove wildly different in the hands of those most suited to positions of power. Joffrey, as much of a brat as he is, can turn into Sansa’s prince at the drop of a hat, while Viserys could never settle for being the second dragon even if it means being melted to death. Tyrion has learned how to overcome his physical weaknesses through coin and charm, while Bran has yet to learn the same skill as he masquerades as an able-bodied boy in his dreams and his steed. And, of course, we have yet to fully learn the sacrifices and methods that Robert and Cersei have undertaken to hold the throne amidst a marriage that was never real to begin with.
Starting off the second half of the show’s first season, “A Golden Crown” sets as much into motion as it resolves, demonstrating that the show has reached the point where talking about “setup” means ignoring resolution and conflict. Things have truly begun to hit the fan in Westeros, and from here on out any notion of balance outside of the series’ narrative will be short-lived.
- When the screeners went out, Jane Espenson actually wasn’t credited at all – here, she’s been restored, but only to a co-Teleplay credit, with Weiss and Benioff credited for the story. It’s not uncommon, but it is inconsistent with Bryan Cogman’s writing job earlier in the season. Curious to know how/why the decisions were made, really.
- This was the first episode I’ve watched in HD, after relying solely on the screeners to this point in the series’ run. My initial notes for the episode had “Depends on the VFX” a number of times since they were labeled as temporary, so I was interested in how they evolved. For the most part, they looked pretty good – maybe not spectacular, but they were about as I imagined. I was more impressed with the improvements in lighting and color correction – show looks damn good, it does.
- This is my first time hearing completed music for a while, and it remains pretty sparse and unmemorable – that doesn’t mean it is bad, per se, but the show is clearly going for something more subtle than rousing.
- I’ve been more or less understanding of the absence of the direwolves in scenes that don’t require them, but I will say that their absence during the attack on Bran and Robb seemed particularly bizarre for someone who has read the books. I understand the logic of wanting to involve Theon a bit more, bulking up his role for the future, but I would have liked a “The Wolves are out hunting” or something.
- I saw some discussion on Twitter about Bran being marginalized by the series as opposed to the novels, and I would generally agree with this but argue that it’s not much of an issue. I think the show is purposefully scaling back on some character who will be more heavily featured in future books, and so I have no sense of worry about where they’re headed with the character (especially if the dreams continue to recur, as they are an outlet into his sense of power and leadership despite his condition).
- Espenson didn’t get too many opportunities to display her comic chops, but Mord was brought to life rather wonderfully in his interactions with Tyrion, and Tyrion’s confession was a nice bit of writing that Dinklage sold well as a clear sense of performance. I also quite liked Viserys’ “Well I need a large army” when Mormont questions his choice to take all three eggs, and Robin’s “What happened next” – nice little beats.
- There are some lingering concerns about Dinklage’s accent, but I think its shift works perfectly with the character: it’s different when he’s pleading with Mord than when he’s in front of Lysa at the Eyrie, and that makes perfect sense given his need to overcome his inherent handicap. It’s not subtle, but it’s not meant to be subtle, at least as I’ve come to understand it.
- This week in CSI: Westeros, Ned finally discovers the reason that Jon Arryn was reading that particular tome – more on that next week, I am certain.
- As some of you might well know, the seventh episode is going live on HBO Go tonight – I will be watching that episode, but I am likely going to hold my review until next week, instead taking some time tonight to reflect on the experiment and the problems of access which it creates. That piece is now up, although I’ve yet to be able to watch the episode, so it will be updated whenever that might be (which may be tomorrow night at this rate).