May 19th, 2013
“I always have a choice.”
“Second Sons” opens with a choice. Arya wakes up to discover that her captor has fallen asleep, and picks up a rock with which she intends to kill Sandor Clegane, a man she believes to be taking her back to King’s Landing. However, as she grows closer, it turns out the Hound isn’t sleeping at all, and he gives her a choice: she can put the rock down, or she can take one shot at killing him with it. The catch is that, should she choose the second option and the Hound remains alive, he’ll break both of her hands.
It’s not really a choice when you think about it, as Arya’s trust in her own strength isn’t quite enough to make her hands worth the risk. It’s also not much of a choice given that she’s his captive, even if he intends to take her to Robb and Catelyn on the Twins as opposed to taking her to King’s Landing and the Lannisters. As much as Arya struggles against the place in life that was determined for her, and as much as she tried last week to go back to the independence she craves, she still finds herself in a position where choices are not available to her.
It’s far from a complicated theme, but what I like about “Second Sons” is the resignation of it all. Arya sitting on the Hound’s lap as he rides toward the Twins is an evocative image, both because of the beautiful countryside mirroring Arya’s hope at seeing her family and because she’s not bound or tortured or anything of the kind. Rather, she’s accepted her fate as the fate put before her, and will comply if only because it’s the most effective way to survive until the day where you have choices you did not have before.
It’s a position that comes to bear on many episodes as the season goes on, as characters struggle with the lack of agency that comes naturally with being born—or being treated—as a second son.
There’s not a whole lot of similarities between Samwell Tarly and Tyrion Lannister, but “Second Sons” focuses on the most prominent one: both are second sons, albeit not in the same way. Sam was technically his father’s eldest child, but his perpetual disappointment meant that once his father had another heir Sam was expendable, sent to the Night’s Watch because that was at least a place where Randall Tarly could say his son was serving the realm. Tyrion, meanwhile, is technically his father’s heir by right due to Jaime’s declaration to the Kingsguard, but he will always be the second son who killed his mother and defames the family name to Tywin Lannister, which is why he has no choice but to marry Sansa Stark at his father’s behest.
This does something to a person. It’s the reason why Tyrion spends his wedding getting progressively drunker, and it’s the reason why Sam has always struggled with his sense of self-worth. Sam ends the episode the hero, his dragonglass blade saving Gilly and her son from a White Walker, but in his mind he’ll always be the coward, the “second son.” And while Tyrion is more confident in his position and has come to relish his reputation in certain ways, there is still pain within him, pain that drives every decision he makes. That he does not consummate his marriage to Sansa is not just a sign of Tyrion’s decency—although that’s part of it—but rather also a symbol of what he has suffered from being stripped of his agency and how he realizes how much worse this is for Sansa as a veritable prisoner in King’s Landing: the only person with less agency than a second son is a first daughter (as Cersei is finding out as well).
What works about this connection is that the episode never goes so far as to make their respective pains explicit. It’s not as though Tyrion lashes out at his father and refuses to marry Sansa, or that Sam tearfully complains about having ever been sent to the Wall. Rather, it’s something they can’t help but wear on their sleeves, a part of them in a way that defines their actions and gives their lives meaning. They are scars, scars of being branded either at birth or retroactively as a lesser member of your own family, and when you are asked to do a duty to your family (as Tyrion does by marrying Sansa), or when you’re asked to reflect on the meaning of family (as Sam is in his discussion of baby names with Gilly), it can’t help but weigh on you.
The episode more broadly takes this concern over agency into a series of interactions where the balance of power is in flux, where there is both an intimacy and a separation between two people. For example, Cersei telling Margaery the story of “The Rains of Castamere” ultimately ends on a threat—“If you ever call me sister again, I’ll have you strangled in your sleep”—but the scene itself has the two characters arm-in-arm, and to a passerby it may instead look like the sisterly chat Margaery desires. Meanwhile, Davos and Stannis’ conversation about Gendry’s fate is not dissimilar from one they would have had when Davos was serving as Stannis’ Hand, but it takes place with Davos behind bars, Michelle MacLaren’s direction continually framing the scene to remind us of Davos’ incarcertation. Both scenes are intimate in one way and divided in another, leaving the question of power an open one, being negotiated with each carefully chosen word or phrase.
Although this is another episode where things are largely being moved into place, I would argue there is something nteresting in how volatile that movement can become. Melisandre’s seduction of Gendry is a really compelling sequence because of the way it uses our sense of uncertainty to reframe Melisandre’s actions. Eventually, we come to learn that Davos has been released from his cell, and Stannis has convinced Melisandre to only leech Gendry’s blood rather than sacrificing him to R’hllor, but the scene plays with our knowledge. The moment that quells Gendry’s concerns—Melisandre drinking the wine—simultaneously adds to our concerns given the last time the character was involved in such a taste test; given that we just saw Theon fall victim to psychosexual torture last week, we’re probably also a little more wary of seduction than Gendry is at this point. Given that Gendry’s involvement in this storyline is a variation from the books, the scene nicely played with what expectations I had and used Melisandre’s inherent mystery as a tool to turn agency into less of a thing that’s been lost forever and more of an idea that’s in a state of flux.
It simultaneously gives hope to characters like Sam and Tyrion that they will one day gain the agency they crave and reminds us that everything that’s happening right now is the origin story of another loss—or acquisition—of agency. How will Dany’s interactions with Daario shape her future? While Melisandre asserts her naked body as a source of power, Dany begins her scene in a vulnerable position, bathing as the Second Son commander waltzes into the tent and takes Missandei hostage. And yet there’s an intimacy to the scene: they’re in her tent, they’re alone but for Missandei, and given Daario’s love for beauty there’s also something romantic about his gesture. There’s a symmetry with the first time we ever saw Dany, when she was getting into a tub back in Pentos; here, her exit from the tub is an act of power, an acknowledgement that she has control in this intimacy. And yet does she also lose control by allowing her relationship with this sellsword to be defined on such intimate terms? What happens when this relationship forged in such close quarters becomes a part of a wide-scale battle strategy in her efforts to take the walls of Yunkai? And what happens when you team with someone who believes they always have a choice in a world where choice—as the episode points out—can be so fleeting?
While we often speak of these setup episodes as moving things into place, they also move things out of place as well; where things are meant to go is not a fixed value, especially with the show continually making changes from the source material. Yes, this season has been building toward specific events and we’re about to reach the point where storylines will begin to converge more readily (with Tyrion and Sansa’s wedding being one of the first, with all of our King’s Landing characters in attendance). However, for every careful location of characters traveling in a certain direction there has also been a dislocation of agency, and a relocation of power, and on the whole a disarrangement of these characters and their points-of-view; while the episode’s title may imply a clear hierarchy, there is less clarity in Game of Thrones than its traditions may imply.
- Loved the opening shot of Arya with the rock in the foreground, and the subsequent shot of her dirty fingernails grabbing it.
- “I saw a great battle in the snow.” I’ll call attention to this line—which Stannis claims is the vision Melisandre showed him—and put a pin in it. It definitely suggests that the Stark motto grows more ominous by the day.
- Did they dub all of Daario’s dialogue, or was the sound just really weird on my cable feed (which was having some other issues with picture quality tonight)? It was very strange.
- Given the intimate scale of Tyrion and Sansa’s wedding (which is another case of weird power dynamics between two characters, here surrounded by others who hold power over both of them), I’ll be interested to see how much they show us of Joffrey and Margaery’s pending nuptials, which are supposed to be on an entirely different scale.
- There were a few moments in Joe Dempsie’s performance during Gendry’s seduction that he reminded me more of Skins’ Chris than at any previous point in the series. Something about being drawn in by opulence and telling stories of Flea Bottom reminded me of that character’s earnestness.
- Diane Rigg’s Lady Olenna is still largely a minor player in the season, but I liked letting her monologue about the almost incestual relationships the Tyrells and Lannisters will share following these weddings.
- “Astoundingingly long…neck. You have one.” Peter Dinklage did great work overall this week, but funny Tyrion is still often my favorite on a visceral level.
- It’s a bit writerly as a parallel, but Daario and Sam both discuss philosophical difference (the former with beauty the latter between a wink and a blink), which is an interesting point to make as we try to break down the meaning of specific scenes and relationships.
- Fun facts: I am a second son and my father’s name is Randall. So I’ll see you at Castle Black?