“What Is Dead May Never Die”
April 15th, 2012
“They are the knights of summer, and winter is coming.”
This central idea has been at the heart of Game of Thrones from the very beginning: the children we’ve come to know, and the younger characters who jostle for power, do not know the true struggles of both the actual winter (starvation, struggle) and the metaphorical winter (war, bloodshed) that await them in the future.
Unfortunately, almost all of these characters have been faced with this reality sooner than they anticipated, pushing characters like Sansa and Arya Stark, Theon Greyjoy, and Renly Baratheon into positions where they must reconcile their fears and insecurities with a path they might not have chosen if not for the circumstances. Their struggles, however, must remain largely personal: while Theon Greyjoy might struggle to decide between his two families, for example, he has no one on the Iron Islands to talk to but a single flame and a piece of parchment. When he chooses to burn what he’s written, he makes his decision by isolating himself and accepting that this is his burden to bear as his father’s son.
“What Is Dead May Never Die” is about exploring these kinds of relationships, and exploring really is the right word: although partnerships both begin and end in the episode, other scenes are more about the complicated politics of those partnerships as winter approaches. While the show is still at the point where plot remains on the backburner, the pieces moving into place no longer seem motivated by the whims of the script; characters are taking greater agency in this environment, and the result is a strong thematic piece which lays some important groundwork for characters both new and old.
Alyssa Rosenberg wrote about the prominence of female characters before the season began, and “What Is Dead May Never Die” is perhaps most notable for its introduction of two female characters who become part of Renly Baratheon’s makeshift court. Brienne of Tarth is a warrior, defined by her brute strength in the arena as she bests Loras Tyrell; Margaery Tyrell, Renly’s queen, is first shown cheering on her brother with gusto as she sits by his side above the arena. However, perhaps dovetailing with Tyrion and Varys’ conversation about power later in the episode, Brienne’s sword wins her a place on Renly’s Kingsguard, but it is Margaery who most upholds Renly’s claim to the throne.
This is, of course, in part based on pure politics: the Tyrell family has gold and allegiances, allowing Renly to amass the most impressive army in sheer size (hence prompting Robb to suggest an alliance, knowing his force could never overcome Renly’s). However, Margaery also represents legitimacy to a would-be King whose personal affairs are considered less than Kingly by those around him. Although rumors continue to spread about Renly and Loras’ relationship, the marriage with Margaery provides at least the appearance that he is a King like every other.
While the character of Renly Baratheon was expanded on in the first season of Game of Thrones compared to George R.R. Martin’s novels, this expansion was limited. Although his sexual relationship with Loras was elevated from subtext to text through a key sequence in the season’s fifth episode, “The Wolf and the Lion,” Renly’s agency in later parts of the season remained limited. When he fled King’s Landing in the wake of Robert’s death, leaving Ned Stark alone to face Cersei and the deception awaiting him in the Throne Room, his storyline dropped out of view, and although he has been positioned as a would-be King in the early parts of the show’s second season he has to this point remained off-screen.
What we do know places Margaery in the position of Renly’s “beard,” but the show backs away from that characterization (which is effectively the characterization from Martin’s books). There is no doubt that Renly is struggling to live his double life, best symbolized by Loras rebuffing his advances out of jealousy over his elevation of Brienne, and this becomes even more clear as he tries to drink enough wine to force his body into bedding his wife for the first time. However, rather than an obstacle, Margaery turns out to be a partner: she knows she is a part of a larger strategy, and she’s more than willing to invite Loras into the bedroom if it means that she can produce the heir necessary to secure his place (and thus her place) on the Iron Throne.
I’m not totally sold on every element of Natalie Dormer’s performance (the initial “Loras! Highgarden!” was particularly flat), and there’s one phrase – “baby in my belly” – that badly needed a rewrite, but the increased agency works wonders. Although Brienne makes a strong impact, and Gwendolyn Christie looks and acts perfect for the role, it’s Margaery who is positioned as the most pivotal figure in Renly’s claim to the throne, and a key confidante in managing his double life in a world of whisperers.
That world has always been a key part of the show’s adaptation of Martin’s novels, best captured in the increased prominence of the recipients of those whispers in King’s Landing, Littlefinger and Varys. The season has thus far offered plenty of reminders of their “little birds” and “spiders” strewn throughout the capitol, whether it’s the girl washing the floor after Littlefinger’s confrontation with Cersei or Varys’ casual discovery of Shae, but it is never more clear than Tyrion’s grand deception. After last week’s banishment of Janos Slynt, Tyrion turns his attention to curtailing Cersei’s power within the Small Council, devising a clever scheme to unearth those loyal to her. By telling Pycelle, Varys, and Littlefinger different plans for young Myrcella’s stewardship, Tyrion knows exactly who is leaking information to his sister, resulting in Pycelle finding himself in a black cell.
What’s interesting here is that Tyrion, unlike other characters, does not need his motivations to be secret. Struggling to wrestle power away from Cersei, and fighting against those who would underestimate him based on his stature, it is in Tyrion’s best interest to perform his authority. Tyrion’s plan isn’t about knowledge, and I’d actually argue he knew it was Pycelle when the plan was originally conceived. What his strategy provided was evidence to use as leverage, definitive proof that he could use to eliminate one of Cersei’s sources and consolidate his own power.
It’s a brilliantly designed sequence, beautifully capturing both the deception and the specificity of the various characters, but it’s all foreplay for the moment where Tyrion sits in Pycelle’s chambers, orders his dick fed to the goats, and tells them to make do when he discovers goats aren’t available. Not only is the sequence funny, but it’s also public: this is Tyrion saying, with authority, that he is the one running the show, and it’s the first time where he seems to have gained the upper-hand over his sister in particular.
Of course, not every character in a difficult situation has the authority to make the moves Tyrion makes. Sansa Stark doesn’t have the ability to do much of anything: she has to sit at dinner listening to her would-be siblings-in-law disparage her family. Sophie Turner is technically aging too fast given how much time has elapsed, but it’s beautifully captured Sansa’s forced maturity. There’s always a pause, ever so slight, before it comes, but Sansa has learned her role: she is to renounce her brother’s claim to the throne, disparage her father’s honor, and pledge her undying love for King Joffrey and wish that their wedding were on the morrow. Turner’s performance is really one of the strongest pieces in the puzzle this season: while she doesn’t get big flashy scenes, she nails the level of performance found within Sansa’s role in this story beautifully.
The show is aiming to deconsruct this at least a bit, though, by introducing Shae into her service. The series’ Shae is a bit more of a handful than the one in the books, but the tension brings out the toll being taken on Sansa as a result of living in fear. While we get only a tension-filled introduction here, the introduction of someone who sees Sansa when she’s not in the presence of the queen is important for the character’s development: in truth, Shae remains a fairly flimsy character, but as a tool to move towards a more complex image of Sansa’s personal struggle, she could prove quite useful in her first role beyond pulling exposition out of Tyrion.
The episode ends, however, with the other Stark child, who loses her confidante. Yoren was the one person who knew who Arya was, who had seen her when she was a young girl with a father and a future. Although Gendry might know her secret, Yoren knew her on a level that was invaluable. Their final conversation by firelight is a thing of beauty, a rumination on the kind of fear and terror that you face after you’ve been these ordeals. It’s a quiet scene, the first the two characters share in the episode, which is perhaps why it’s immediately disrupted by the cold reality of war.
It’s not a coincidence, I feel, that the sequence bears a marked resemblance with the final moments of Syrio Forel in the first season. Arya’s larger journey within this story is marked by people who see in her something different from her sister, and from other girls in general. Jon gives her needle as a gift before she goes South, Syrio teaches her how to use it, and now Yoren gives her the confidence necessary to survive without it now that it has been taken from her. While Yoren was technically protecting Gendry specifically, who is now free and clear with Lommy having been identified as Robert’s heir thanks to a conveniently stolen helmet, it’s Arya who feels his sacrifice most directly, and will bear it with her as she moves forward.
Only time will tell if these experiences have properly prepared Arya, or Sansa, or Tyrion, or Renly, or Theon for war; similarly, although his thread disappears quickly, it’s also unclear if Jon Snow is fully prepared for what waits for him beyond the wall, where crueler gods hold power. While Mormont tells Jon that “we have other wars to fight,” Jon’s desire to hold Craster accountable for his offerings of young boys to the White Walkers reflects the prominence of the wars we fight within. Jon has yet to learn that to be a soldier of winter, you need to be willing to check your morality at the door, accepting one gruesome fate to ensure you don’t meet a gruesome fate of your own. It’s a lesson, as well as a theme, that we’ll see continuing to run through the season as a whole, and a key contribution for “What Is Dead May Never Die” to make at this point in time.
- I’m really curious to watch the HD feed of this episode (which didn’t happen tonight, but will sometime this week); based on the screener, it was incredibly dark, and I’m wondering how that read in HD. Certain scenes like Theon burning the letter were evocatively dark, but others just seemed tough to follow.
- Speaking of Theon, I thought Alfie Allen leaned a bit too heavily onto “yelling” as an acting choice tonight, but that does capture the character’s petulance, so I think it’s a choice more than a limitation.
- While I appreciate the lush scenery in general at Renly’s camp, the green screen behind Renly and Margaery was driving me nuts a bit.
- A lovely moment for Sam and Gilly as the Night’s Watch prepares to leave – it’s a simple scene, but an effective one, and with very little screentime they’re turned Gilly into someone we’ll remember.
- The show can occasionally become less than subtle when it starts pontificating about power, but when it’s Conleth Hill and Peter Dinklage doing the pontificating, it’s fun to just sit back and watch the mind games play out. There’s a reason that scene was so central to early trailers – very well built.
- Bold of the show to just throw in a reference to Dorne like this – curious to know how non-readers responded to that one.