“First Of His Name”
May 4th, 2014
“I need to be more than that.”
There’s two characters that this week’s episode title refers to, even if only one is made explicit.
“First Of His Name” directly refers to Tommen, who is indeed the first King by that name to rule over Westeros. Tommen doesn’t actually do much in the hour, though, his fate a topic of conversation for those around him more than something he gets to decide on his own. Whether in Margaery’s conversation with her grandmother last week, or Margaery’s oh-so calculated performance with Cersei this week, or Cersei’s careful conversation with her father, Tommen’s future is very much a matter of procedure.
By comparison, however, Petyr Baelish makes his own procedure. There is no coronation for “Littlefinger,” as he operates in the slimy underbelly of the political underworld (yes, underworlds have underbellies). He comes from no strong lineage, with no family to support him or noble deeds to give him claim to glory, and so he has had to toil for everything he’s ever earned. He is the first of his name in a different way, in that he is the first member of his family to be Machiavellian enough to angle his way into a position of power, providing the foundation for a legacy of his own moving forward.
This balance between the self-made Littlefinger and the anointed Tommen sits on the periphery of an episode that functions as a highly logical mid-point of the season. And yet their respective paths are placed as guideposts for other characters who are faced with decisions that could lead them down one path or the other, depending on the choices they make in a moment of transition.
We see only a single scene with Daenerys in the episode, although that isn’t surprising. There isn’t the budget to see Daario and the Second Sons taking the Meereenese Army, nor do we really need to see it: it is a strategic move, and little more. But it raises the possibility for Dany to ride across the Narrow Sea and take King’s Landing, a possibility Barristan thinks is the right move. He believes the people will rally to a true Queen, to a bloodline they know and respect—a name, in other words. He may be right, but Jorah is equally as concerned with the fate of the cities of Slaver’s Bay that she has left behind, whose former rulers have fought to regain power and continue the enslavement she had put an end to. She liberated these cities, but she has made no effort to rule them, and has done nothing to earn the title of Queen that she ultimately lays claim to through her heritage. As she tells Jorah when she reveals her decision to stay and rule over Meereen and its surrounding cities, and as is quoted above, “I need to be more than that.”
It’s a decision that sets the show up to discuss what has always been a broad postcolonial allegory, and one that certainly—like Battlestar Galactica’s third season—has parallels in modern wars of liberation. The problem has always been that Dany has been moving so quickly through her conquests there was no space to explore the ramifications of her actions, and even in this case Cleon’s rise to power in Astapor takes place entirely offscreen (with Dany being unaware it even happened until Jorah informs her). In this brief sequence, Jorah effectively lays out the allegory, and Dany makes the choice that gives the show the opportunity to explore the actual dynamics of this white savior freeing slaves. Although the effectiveness of the storyline still comes down to execution, the episode did a nice job of emphasizing Dany’s agency: this will not be an easy task, but that’s part of the point. As Jorah notes, even if you take King’s Landing—the equivalent to which Dany has now done in Slaver’s Bay—you’re always fighting for something more. While this is telling more or less the same story as the books, the efficiency of the storytelling nicely emphasized that Dany has something to prove, making it less a delay mechanism to keep her from converging with the events in King’s Landing and more an effort to explore the character and her surroundings.
It’s a similar type of agency that drives Bran’s decision-making in the episode. Everything happening with Bran and Jon in this episode is entirely new, and to some degree “meaningless” in narrative terms. When the idea of the storyline was first raised, there were concerns that Jon and Bran would meet, which would inherently alter their respective storylines (since you’ll note that none of the Starks who were separated have been reunited in any way). And so it wasn’t a huge surprise when the storyline passes without Jon and Bran meeting, such that I spent much of the episode imagining the choreography necessary to avoid such a meeting (which was laid out once Locke staked out Bran’s location and told Jon to steer clear).
And yet the storyline was highly effective at giving Bran a degree of agency in his storyline, and in making this a clear choice between the life he lived and the prophecy he’s marching toward. Bran had his chance to go back to Castle Black with Jon, gaining safety, family, and even the claim to Winterfell and the North. That is his legacy: he is the rightful heir to Winterfell, and in that moment had every opportunity to send himself down that path. That he chose not to, instead choosing to ride North to find the three-eyed raven, makes for an important turning point for Bran where one simply did not exist in the books to the same degree. As interesting and as mythological as Bran’s path seems to be, it was being undertaken for nebulous reasons: dreams and “sight” and prophecies are well and good, but they can at times seem abstract in a show that sometimes needs to more clearly establish character motivations. In this case, we see Bran mentally weighing his options—presented perhaps a bit too clearly by Jojen—before choosing to go North to make his own destiny instead of choosing the one he was born into.
It might just all come down to Petyr Baelish, however. The character has been on the margins of the story since his most infamous appearance in “You Win Or You Die,” in which he turned on Ned Stark and set the stage for the Hand’s demise. He has certainly been making political moves since, but they’ve been more subtle than his rescue of Sansa and his return to the Vale. And so when Lysa reveals that Littlefinger has been part of the ultimate long con, going back to convincing Lysa to poison her husband Jon Arryn—whose death is what started the political upheaval that began the series oh so long ago—reframes him as perhaps the series’ greatest mastermind. Although Tywin’s orchestration of the red wedding was perhaps more memorable, Littlefinger has operated in the shadows, and has been hitting above his weight class in ways that Tywin has not.
He’s also in a much more ambiguous position than some of the other “villains” in the story. Lysa is quickly reframed through a villainous lens, her jealousy over Littlefinger’s attention to Sansa and her desire to marry her to Robyn effectively transferring Sansa from the clutches of one sinister family into another. And yet is Littlefinger a villain in the same way, killing Joffrey and protecting Sansa? He was responsible for murdering the Hand, planting doubt with Catelyn and Ned, and making various power plays to wrestle control for himself, but is that the act of a villain in a world where the line between good and evil is ever-changing? Similarly, the Hound is still on Arya’s list, and assaults her in this very episode, but is he a villain in the same way as his brother the Mountain? If good and evil is a spectrum, where do characters like these fit? And how much does choosing to be a free agent—as both Sandor and Littlefinger have—affect our understanding of their place on that spectrum?
By comparison, we embrace inherently good characters like Brienne who set out on their own and live up to their code and chart their own path. And we embrace characters like Pod, who stumbles his way through another new role still not entirely sure what kind of person he intends to be beyond someone who does his best to live up to the oaths he makes. And by foregrounding the choices characters make between whether to take on similar transformations, “First Of His Name” does some nice work helping us embrace character arcs that might have otherwise seemed aimless, if not in some cases dull. The episode may not have dramatically altered the trajectory of the story despite making some significant shifts from the books, but it nonetheless added some punctuation that feels as though it will serve the bulk of the show’s characters moving forward into the back half of the season.
- As the rape debate rages on, including in this week’s New York Times, two scenes of import. The first is Cersei’s insistence to Oberyn that “everywhere in the world they hurt little girls,” an implicit acknowledgement of the culture of which she has been a victim. The second is that one of Craster’s daughters plays an active role in spurning her attacker, building on her featured, non-verbal role in Karl’s monologue in the previous episode (which I highlighted in my review). It doesn’t change the fact the show is not actively exploring as a major storyline the repercussions of sexual assault, but the series is also not ignoring those facts in how it’s telling its stories.
- This week in exposition: Tywin’s conversation with Cersei about the Iron Bank of Braavos (which Davos brought up last we saw of him), as well as Oberyn’s discussion of Myrcella’s time in Dorne and his eight daughters. The question now is whether this latter discussion is previewing meeting those characters in the future, or if it’s a consolation for being largely cut from the series.
- “I heard you liked ships!”—I like the idea of Daario shooting the shit with some of the people who have been with Dany since Qarth who are like “Man, you should have seen how much she wanted those ships. It’s all they ever talked about. That and the Dragons.”
- The show hasn’t done a major one-on-one combat situation in a while, so it was nice to get some of that in the scene with Jon and Karl—as much as the outcome was inevitable, some nice sword/knife work in there to help add some action. That said, it did continue to make me feel like that whole interlude was like a level added to a video game adaptation of a TV show to add more action.
- “He used to pat me on the back a lot”—It’s uncomfortable to me when Tywin makes me laugh, but that got me pretty good.
- Cersei’s reactions to Margaery’s efforts to play dumb in their conversation about her marrying Tommen was some of Lena Headey’s finest work in the series (and I agree with some of my A.V. Club colleagues who suggested on Twitter this would make a fine Emmy tape).