Note: Don't read on unless you've seen Season 2, Episode 7 of "Game of Thrones, entitled "A Man Without Honor."
I'm not going to point you to this slideshow comparing "Game of Thrones" and "Mad Men" just because I'm happy with how it turned out. I bring it up because Sunday's "Game of Thrones" episode felt very "Mad Men"-esque. A couple of scenes in particular felt like they'd fit right in on the AMC show (an alternate version featuring kings, castles, lords, dragons, princesses and very muddy soldiers).
The standout scene was Jaime Lannister's conversation with his unfortunate distant cousin Alton. What "Mad Men" tends to do well, especially once it's worked up a head of steam, is give us late-season scenes that work on a number of levels. What can seem like a workaday discussion between two or three people can actually be an oblique exploration of the themes an episode is getting at; it can shed light on who the people are and what they want; and it can tell us things we need to know about where the story is going. Our past knowledge of the characters' histories and actions often add extra layers of tension or poignance, and there's a tantalizing sense of not knowing what's coming next. You're luxuriating in what's happening in the moment, because it's so well written and acted, and you're pleasurably poised for the scene's punctuation mark, which you can feel coming.
So it was with the conversation between Alton and Jaime, who -- despite their vast differences in age, experience and circumstance -- were able to find common ground reminiscing about the purest moments in their lives.
Of course, great scenes in any show or movie have resonance beyond the people in them; they get at a central truth or mystery that the piece is exploring. All the characters in "Game of Thrones" are caught up in a web of confusion. They're torn by conflicting loyalties and priorities, not sure whether they should protect themselves, their families, their house, their region, their kingdom, their king. It's not possible to do all of that and live to tell the tale.
Everything is under assault, whether it's Sansa's quickly evaporating ideas about chivalry or Jon's unquestioned belief in the political systems and institutions he grew up with. Theon might try to convince himself that the quest he's embarked on is "just a game," but it's interesting that the episode begins with him waking up in bed, and ends with him truly waking up to the idea that none of this a game. He has radically changed, partly because he was forced to and partly because he forced himself to.
There's no safe ground anywhere, hence the appeal of nostalgia (which Don Draper described as the "pain of memory"). The most useful thing about memories is that they can become anything we want them to be. Perhaps the tournament day Alton experienced was every bit as perfect as he described, or perhaps -- buffed and polished by constant use -- that memory has become the shining receptacle of all the dreams he knows will never come true. He's a nobody from a forgotten branch of an important house, and his future is anything but bright. But at least he has that day to look back on -- a day in which he mattered and felt that all was right with the world. Like a lucky talisman in his pocket, that memory is the one thing he can count on, the one dream that came true.
And his simple love of that pure memory got him killed, because someone else was willing to use it against him.
When it came to Jaime's side of the conversation, there was so much more going on than met the eye. Alton was too starstruck to notice, but Jaime was giving his cousin a series of warnings. He told Alton how he came to understand and appreciate the mechanics of killing. His nickname is the Kingslayer and his unlikely survival to this point in the war should have indicated to his cousin (as it did to the audience) that the brain inside that Lannister head is very cunning indeed. How very Don Draper of Jaime to look inside the heart of a "client," tell him exactly what he needed to hear and then take what he needed before the other party knew what hit him.
There's a cold calculation required to get ahead or simply survive in this chaotic world: Robb, Dany, Arya and Sansa are learning it; Bran is getting a taste of it on the fly from a good teacher (Osha); Theon may be learning it too well and Jon Snow has quite a ways to go in that area. Yet this hardness, this cool rationality, is a quality that Tywin Lannister has given his children. As a father, he may not have given them much love, but he at least gave them that, and that might be what has kept them alive thus far. (Not to stretch the parallel too far, but the adults in Don Draper's life imparted similar lessons to him about the irrelevance of sentiment and attachment, and despite his resulting problems with intimacy and trust, like a Lannister sibling, Don has gotten pretty far using the kind of brutally cold math that Tywin employs).
Was any of that story about Ser Barristan Selmy true? It may have been (my knowledge of the books is rusty). But it didn't matter; recalling or constructing a dream that "was more real than your life" was a strategy to get Jaime what he wanted. Tactics, strategy -- call it what you will, Jaime's well-told tale gave Alton a figurative and literal closeness to his cousin that he should have known was unearned.
What made this conversation truly memorable is the fact that it went to the heart of the conundrums that give the HBO show its narrative and thematic drive.
Does a quest for truth or a devotion to honor trump survival? How do you even define "honor"? If survival is a person's only concern, does it matter who gets hurt in the process? Should you attempt to protect others? Should you ever trust anyone else? Is it, in fact, "better to be cruel than weak," as Theon thinks? Or is it better to just chuck the whole system and go with the fierce, individualistic anarchy of the Free People? Let's face it, despite the frosty environs the Wildlings live in, abandoning the complicated system of vows and pacts that Jaime (correctly) diagnosed as unworkable seems like one of the saner options at this point.
There are no clearly defined answers to any of these questions; one thing George R.R. Martin's tale is particularly good at is pulling the rug out from under everybody, big and small, important or insignificant.
But what makes Jaime so compelling, and so worthy of our continued attention, is this fact: Despite the horrible things he's done, he knows who and what he is. He's actually a lot like Tyrion, in that he's aware that people have pre-judged him, and as a result, he wears his cynicism like armor. But Jaime is hated not just because he killed a king, but because he's a living, breathing symbol of something the people of Westeros don't want to face: He's a reminder that their system is full of unreconcilable contradictions. How could he continue to serve a king who was roasting alive those who served him and slaughtering the innocent smallfolk? Where was the honor in that? It's a valid question that lots of people in Westeros don't want to face.
In his view, Jaime embraced a larger truth that allowed him to forsake his vow and kill his king. He did what nobody else was willing to do and which arguably needed to be done; in way, he made a sacrifice for Westeros. But everyone would rather preserve their ideals about what honor means -- and for good reason. If the system of kings, lords and bannermen (a system in which some good people do real good in their communities) were to fall, what would follow? It's highly unlikely that a fairer, more just Westeros would emerge from the ashes, almost certainly not in the short term.
Most people stick to the system they've always known -- and hate Jaime as a result -- because the alternatives are terrifying.
But change can't be held back, no more than the Wall held back the Wildlings. Tywin may be the most powerful member of the old order, but even he recognizes that the worst thing a leader can do is be unprepared for unconventional attacks and bold little bands of nobodies. In Westeros, assaults on the system are coming from all over (as Winter continues its inexorable march toward a people who don't even know the potential danger they face from Dany and her dragons).
The Brotherhood Without Banners is on Tywin's radar and the Free People have their own brave (and elected) leader, who's assembling them into a guerrilla fighting force. There are weird things happening north of the Wall, King's Landing is on the verge of revolution, and "everywhere, the ceremony of innocence is drowned." On top of all that, every lord has his own set of conflicting loyalties. The war that's raging through the land is based partly on treaties and long-established agreements, but it's also based partly on people's desire to get what they can while everything's up for grabs.
Greed and change -- and the role that both play in altering the course of history -- aren't limited to Westeros, of course. Qarth is experiencing a revolution from within, one that didn't go so well for the tradition-bound Thirteen. If the episode had one flaw, it's that the speech by Xaro Xhoan Daxos -- at least one line of it -- was a little on the nose. I liked what he had to say about outsiders and charlatans being able to found kingdoms; it's certainly true. But I would have cut this overwritten line out of his speech: "Those on the margins often come to control the center and those in the center make room for them, willingly or not."
What, is Daxos writing "Game of Thrones" weekly reviews now? Leave the lumbering pontification to the professionals, sir!
In all seriousness, however, "A Man Without Honor" was a fabulous hour, full of the kind of illuminating character moments that don't necessary move the plot forward in conclusive ways but help us enter into the minds and hearts of the characters. Late-season "Game of Thrones" episodes are a rich stew of ideas, alliances and dilemmas, and this one was especially well-paced, with several characters either teetering on the precipice of decisions or taking the plunge and putting their plans into motion.
Theon's plans went awry and his impossible position forced him into ever-greater brutality. In another great scene, Arya and Tywin continued taking each others' measure (and you have to wonder if Tywin's fully aware that his smart little servant is quite willing to slit his throat). Having unsettled Jon Snow with a combination of saucy flirtation and a defiant assault on his conflicting loyalties, Ygritte led Jon Snow into a trap. And having cooked up a plan for domination, Daxos and Pyat Pree upset the election in Pawnee, er, sorry, Qarth and decided to take control of the city, awarding themselves the bonus of Dany and her dragons.
A lot of things were in motion, but the episode gave the characters time to breathe. We had small but telling moments with Sansa and the Hound, the Winterfell refugees (Hodor! I love that he's treating their excursion as one big adventure), and even Shae got a good scene. One gets the sense that if she needed to, she could wield a blade very well.
But my other favorite moment was the scene between Cersei and Tyrion. The show has done a great job of humanizing Cersei, whom I never much liked in the books. Having said that, I don't have to like characters, I just need to be interested in them, and in my opinion, the show has done a good job of giving her the kind of depth and complexity that makes her more interesting. I've often said that a hallmark of a fine actor is what they can do without words, and the halting looks that passed between Cersei and Tyrion as he sidled up to her, attempting to give her some comfort, and as she attempted to let down her well-defended walls -- they were heartbreaking. Tremendous work from Peter Dinklage and Lena Headey as two siblings who aren't quite sure how to rely on each other, never having done so in the past.
As events spin out of control and people evolve beyond what they thought they were capable of (in good ways and bad), the possibility of a truce hung between these two scarred, scared siblings like a question mark. Every character on this show is constantly forced to decide if they have the courage to take a chance, and for Cersei and Tyrion, the biggest chance they could possibly take is to trust each other.
Are they there yet? Not even they know that, I think. We also don't know what happened to Dany after the carnage among the Thirteen, and we don't know what happened Jaime after Brienne handed Catelyn her sword.
All my thoughts lead back to Jaime, who is, in some ways, the poster boy for "Game of Thrones" and an anomaly within its world.
He's one of the few people in this world who's very clear about who he is and what he believes in, yet all that (despite his position) makes him an outcast. It's partly because he loves Cersei; with her, he's "part of something perfect," as wrong as that relationship occasionally feels to both siblings. He's also good at killing and he's willing to do anything to get out from under the Starks' domination. All the rest doesn't matter to him. The mark of a good drama is that it gets us involved in the fates of people we know have done terrible things; "Game of Thrones" wisely never asks us to like the man who threw a child out a window, yet it's not possible to look away from this complex knight, thanks in part to Nikolaj Coster-Waldau's precise, yet passionate performance.
Catelyn comes into Jaime's cage to stir the pot with her son's high-profile captive, sure that she has the high moral ground. He hurt her family; he's the bad guy here. But perhaps it's most accurate to say she wants to be sure that she's better than the Kingslayer. If she is not morally superior to this man, this breaker of vows, then what is this whole war about? Why is her husband dead and why are her children in mortal danger? Surely the certainty that she is right and Jaime is wrong is the one trump card she holds after everything she's been through.
But Jaime knows exactly what she's up to, and he's not having it. He won't let her have this little triumph, this clean moral victory. Since killing his king, Jaime has lived in a moral grey area, one that most of the people around him don't want to acknowledge. It's inconvenient, it's messy, it's confusing. So much of this story skillfully explores the divide between those willing to accept ambiguity and face harsh truths and those who want to interpret the world via a framework of comforting ideas about honor and valor. Jaime's long been denied that kind of comfort, and he's not about to let Catelyn take refuge in it at his expense.
I had to admire the Kingslayer a little as he made it clear he'd be willing to die in order to point out that Catelyn herself had lived inside a moral grey area for a couple of decades. She walled off the knowledge of what Ned had done, but she couldn't forget that he'd fathered a bastard -- good Ned, honorable Ned.
Will Catelyn have mercy on this inconvenient man -- a man of breeding and position who refuses to ignore the things that are not supposed to be mentioned? Or will she find, as so many other characters have, that is mercy overrated?
We'll have to tune in next week to see.
A few final notes:
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