Don't read on unless you've seen Season 2, Episode 6 of "Game of Thrones," entitled "The Old Gods and the New."
The "old gods" of this terrific episode's title probably refers to the deities worshipped by Ned Stark and his family; but to the children in his household, Ned himself was a god. He wasn't just their father (or father figure), he was the lord of all he surveyed and the leader of a whole host of lesser lords and smallfolk. To those who grew up at Winterfell, he was all-powerful; a strong, stubborn, honorable man who tried to wield his power compassionately.
But the young men and women of the Stark household learned the hard way that whatever useful or positive qualities he possessed -- and let's face it, political acumen wasn't one of them -- didn't save him in the end. Now, they're all enduring brutal post-Ned educations, learning heart-wrenching lessons about what they can and can't do.
Absent ongoing adult guidance, in many cases, they're learning what compromises they can make and which ones they can't, who they can trust and how much they need to fend for themselves, outside the protective realm of Winterfell. In "The Old Gods," these children -- none of whom are children any more, aside from poor little Rickon -- are trying to figure out why everything has fallen apart and how to survive in a brutal, confusing world.
Say what you will about Ned, though -- when he swung the sword, he swung it hard and true. Theon hasn't learned that lesson, and Jon learned he simply couldn't behead someone. Not this time, anyway. Of the two outsiders in the Stark households, Jon is still figuring out what kind of man he is. But Theon finally knows.
After filming wrapped on "Game of Thrones" Season 2, executive producer/director Alan Taylor went off to helm "Thor 2," and the loss of his outstanding services made me sad for "Game of Thrones." (Though I'm certainly more intrigued by "Thor 2" now.) The good news is, the show still has a deep bench of very good directors, and David Nutter made a strong impression with his first episode of the show. (Correction: The original version of this story said that David Petrarca directed this episode. That was incorrect; Petrarca directed the last two episodes. Apologies for the mistake).
The first eight minutes of "The Old Gods" was a masterfully choreographed sequence of tension, chaos and dawning horror, which involved not just the nightmare of Ser Rodrik Cassel's brutal death, but Theon's realization that he was the kind of man who would -- who could -- behead a trusted family retainer in public, in front of children. (Who's the most traumatized child on television -- Rickon Stark or Sally Draper? Discuss.)
The entire sequence was shot through with a genuine sense of menace and dread; we didn't see the taking of Winterfell, but we didn't need to, because we saw its aftereffects on the resident's faces, their grim worry and sickening fear. Kudos to the editor of the episode as well, for the fluid, judicious pacing of this sequence, which, amid all the chaos, took time for a quiet yet powerful scene between Bran and Theon, and later, intercut a series of shots that perfectly illustrated Theon's rapidly shifting emotions about killing Cassel.
What drives Theon, and what we heard in his boastful, showy speeches yet again, is a need to trumpet not just his importance, but his existence. As the hostage/guest in the large, busy household of a lord with many other children, and as the son his father all but forgot, Theon always feels the need to assert himself, as if the world was constantly trying to forget about him (which, given his prickly personality, it probably was). His words and actions are all about trying to convince others that he matters -- and trying to convince himself too.
But you could see that he really didn't want to execute Cassel: Killing men in combat was one thing, but this was a very different affair. But he was in an impossible position, which you could see by the look on his face. He risked alienating his own men with one choice and the people of Winterfell with the other. That's to say nothing of the chunk of his soul that's been carved away by turning on the house he grew up in. He didn't always hate them, one surmises, which is why he couldn't answer Bran's question. The tragedy of Theon is that he's never had a safe place to put his love -- not with his family, not with his foster family -- and so his need for affection and attention slowly curdled into resentment and a tendency to bully.
"You are truly lost," Cassel says with a sneer, and even though Theon manages to eventually separate the old man's head from his body, Theon does look lost in that moment. There's no triumph in what he's done; his customary swagger is gone. He's torn between the Stark code he grew up with and the iron price his father demands. The old gods and the new give him no peace, and thus he retreats further behind a wall of brutality and posturing.
Ironically enough, he proves himself to be about as politically savvy as Ned Stark. Sure, his father might take notice of him once Balon Greyjoy learns Theon has take Winterfell -- but like so many other characters in this world, the younger man hasn't quite thought things through. Theon's hold on Winterfell has to be shaky -- he took the castle with a very small force, but keeping it will probably be quite another matter, and he's awfully sure he'll get reinforcements soon. Theon's pretty trusting for someone in a very precarious position: He believes that more Iron Men will come (despite his status as an outcast there as well), and he lets down his guard enough to let Osha spend the night in his bed.
His grip on power isn't really all that firm, but that's one of the things this season has explored pretty well: where power comes from, how it is used and how it its kept. In this game of thrones, people keep declaring themselves kings and saying they have power. But saying you have power and actually having and wielding power -- as these kings are learning -- are very different things, and being in a position of authority sometimes means you don't get to do whatever you want, a lesson Joffrey refuses to learn.
Joffrey got a terrifying lesson regarding the effectiveness of fear, greed and intimidation in the long term: They don't actually work, at least not the way he's doing things. The problem with sharing nothing with your people is that they're likely to do anything, because they have nothing to lose. Joffrey's a sadistic sociopath, but that's not even his biggest flaw as a ruler: It's that he inherited his mother's willingness to be blind to any facts that don't suit his purpose. He's not just a cruel king, as Tyrion said, he's an idiotic one.
Robb gets a much more friendly reception in one of his army's camps, but what would the mood be there if the Young Wolf's army had suffered a series of defeats instead of victories? But the fact is, the men around him have freely given him their loyalty, and he's led them well. That kind of give-and-take is not in evidence in King's Landing, where Tyrion is the only one aware that the Lannisters are one bread riot away from a full-blown revolution. Unlike Joffrey, Robb has learned a king can't just take or do what he wants. In some ways, they have more restrictions on them than commoners. He can't run back to Winterfell and defend his family and home; he can't choose the person he loves. Being a king isn't about having unlimited power: It's often about knowing when to pick your battles and having a really good battle plan in place when shit gets real.
In recent weeks, I've written about how the show has done a good job of paralleling Arya and Dany's journeys. But this week, Arya and Sansa had more in common, as women who aren't quite clear on how the game is played. Sheltered Sansa thinks the angry mob had something against her personally, or that a crust of bread from her table would make a difference; life in a cage has left her unaware that her status as a member of Westeros' one percent makes her a target. Also failing to see the bigger picture is Dany, who is reminded by a couple of other characters that she has not offered anything in trade for what she wants. As several characters have observed this season, purity of ideals and nobility of intention are nice, but pragmatism has to figure somewhere in the mix. By the end of the hour, Dany didn't even have the three bargaining chips she refused to use.
All these ideas about the use of power and and the nature of oppression were explored with economy and intelligence, but what really made this hour fly by were that major things happened to almost every character. In last week's Talking TV podcast, Ryan McGee talked about how much of what happened on the show felt like a prelude to something else, and I've had that feeling at times as well: an awareness, as I'm watching, of how all the moving parts are connecting, building on each other and aligning. That awareness is often present when I'm watching TV, but certain episodes of this show are more focused on structure and set-up than others; I don't necessarily enjoy the feeling that a carefully worked-out outline is looming over the whole affair.
What I like to feel is immersed in the characters' situations, emotions and dilemmas: I like that sensation to come first, ahead of anything that could be put under an analytical microscope. Vanessa Taylor's script did that well. It's interesting to note that Season 1 took a great leap forward in its sixth episode; perhaps that will be a pattern for future seasons -- a great deal of setup (this season more elegantly handled) followed by a half season of huge dilemmas and excruciatingly tense and emotional scenes.
It's not as if nothing happened in the first half of the season, it's just that crunch time in a big way arrived for so many characters and places: Winterfell fell; Jon met his match in Ygritte; King's Landing trembled on the edge of a savage rebellion; Sansa went through an awful ordeal; Theon chose his path as a remorseless Iron Man; Arya embraced her self-chosen role as a spy and an arranger of well-timed executions.
Danger, dilemmas, death: All Ned's former children and the Mother of Dragons contended with these things, completely uncertain of how things would turn out. And here's where I'm glad about my fairly terrible long-term memory: I read the books a few years ago, and I've honestly forgotten how quite a few of these things turn out. I'm on the edge of my seat, as you probably are.
A few final notes:
- Maybe it's the mother in me, but during certain scenes set in the Frost Fangs, I kept saying, "Jon Snow, put on a damn hat!" I know we all love Kit Harington's curls, but come on. Jon Snow really needs a damn hat, especially at night.
- I think the transition from the terrific Winterfell scenes to the aerial shots of the frostly landscape north of the Wall may be one of the show's finest moments to date. Everything about the scenes north of the wall, from the interactions of Jon and Ygritte to their chase scenes to the harshly beautiful landscape, made me happy (though I didn't love the implication that Ygritte was trying to seduce him so early on. I am a bit foggy on the books, but I recall the beginning of their acquaintance differently).
- I haven't said much about Arya and Tywin Lannister, but they are as pleasing a pair as Roger Sterling and Sally Draper of "Mad Men."
- So did Littlefinger recognize Arya Stark? What do you think?
- Another fascinating ongoing theme in this saga: where different people draw the line, morally speaking. The Hound doesn't say much, but the show has done a good, subtle job of letting us know what Sandor Clegane thinks of Joffrey's treatment of the "little bird." I greatly anticipate seeing more from Rory McCann, who's done a great job with the role.
- Another character who knows exactly what she is and isn't willing to do is Osha, who engineered the escape of herself, Bran, Rickon and Hodor.
- With the addition of Ygritte, the show adds to its already notable roster or redheads. Redheads are awesome. Check back here soon for a slideshow of a few of our favorites.
- Ryan McGee and I talk every week about "Game of Thrones" (and other shows, including "Mad Men") on our Talking TV podcast, which can be found here and here. This week's edition, which will feature yet another special guest, should be posted Monday night or Tuesday morning.