Do not read on unless you've seen Season 2, Episode 8 of HBO's "Game of Thrones," entitled "The Prince of Winterfell."
As was the case with last week's episode, "The Prince of Winterfell" was something of a set-up episode. Enjoyable as it was -- and there were a lot of solidly rewarding scenes -- you could be forgiven for occasionally thinking, as I did, that there was a slightly scattered quality to the episode, as the pieces were put into place for the Giant Battle They Have Been Talking About Forever. It was a little like those episodes you'd get near the end of a season of "Lost," where characters trekked all over the island so that they were all in place for the final act of that year's drama.
At some point, we all just want the big "GoT" battle to get here (and it will, soon enough). But there was a lot to like about "The Prince of Winterfell," especially the unforced yet dangerous intimacy that we found several characters sharing, and the sense of quiet menance and foreboding that director Alan Taylor brought to the proceedings. I would almost call the episode's mood mournful, as if characters were already grieving over the bloodshed and sacrifices they know are coming.
While there's a danger in trying too hard to find thematic unity in what happens -- the world of Westeros is a little too chaotic and eventful for that -- there were parallels to be found in many situations, even in an episode that felt a little choppy as the pieces were put into place.
Characters who are allegedly bound by certain codes and customs were forced to contemplate what they actually would do, as opposed to what people of their rank and class are trained to think they should do. Extreme measures were on everyone's minds -- there was talk of the animals that were eaten at Storm's End, the desperation and horror that would descend on King's Landing once Stannis' fleet arrived and the revolt that awaited Theon if he stayed in the North, not to mention the mini-massacre Arya ordered at Harrenhal. Characters were forced to confront awful choices and decide what truly mattered to them, customs and codes be damned.
So many stories involved little brothers; brothers in danger and siblings trying to either rescue family members or vanquish them completely. It's an apt metaphor for the situation in Westeros as a whole: The various regions of the kingdom form one big squabbling family, and individuals in society are trained to see the king as their father, the one who'll protect them, whether they're a washerwoman or a knight. They have to believe they can count on him to deliver them all from danger, even if that's a comforting illusion.
What Robb and all those older sisters are learning is that it's not possible to protect everyone. You have to face reality and make choices, because when the shit truly hits the fan, there simply aren't going to be enough rats to go around. You can't protect all the entrances to your personal kingdom, so you have to pick and choose which ones you'll defend.
Cersei makes it clear to Tyrion that, whatever sort of shaky truce they may have had up 'til now, she values her sociopath of a son over her little brother. But Cersei, who fancies herself an advanced player in the game of thrones, makes a rookie mistake. Tyrion's fondness for ladies of the evening comes in handy at this point, because Cersei makes the wrong assumption about who her brother's favorite concubine is. Peter Dinklage's face was priceless in the Cersei scene, as Tyrion struggled to contain his terror and then his relief when he realized that Shae was probably still safe.
Tyrion is still ahead of Cersei in the game, because he knows more than she does (he does indeed play the game well). But later, he admits just how vulnerable he is to Shae herself. He loves her and would kill for her, and at this point, we know how much this admission costs him. He's spent his life barricading his vulnerability behind a thick wall of sarcasm and wit, and he now has an entire city and country to somehow save. Amidst all the chaos, how can he also save Shae?
All over the place, characters are trying to commit themselves to conflicting plans and goals that can't be reconciled. They all know at this point that nothing is certain and that they'll have to revise their plans on the fly, but at least Tyrion knows something about himself now: He can love, and thus, he's in more danger than ever.
And that's the thing about war and danger: People should make rational decisions that will ensure their safety or the survival of their people, but it's very hard not to end up making short-term decisions, because, well, if you might be dead tomorrow, why not? We're only human, and despite the constant talk of "honor," honor is of no comfort if death is coming your way. Love, warmth, sex, revenge -- they're all more real and immediate than a fluctuating cultural construct known as "honor."
If there's one image I keep coming back to in this episode, it's Robb Stark's face as he watched Talisa tell the story of her little brother.
He could relate to the gut-churning terror she felt during her brother's near-drowning, and he deeply needed to believe her when she said that changing your entire life was possible. But a lot of the hunger we saw on his face was pure lust.
It's not possible to be the king all the time; Robb is still a very young man and occasionally overwhelmed by the conflicting demands of his unexpected role as general, king, brother, son and father to an entire region. It's a lot, and sometimes a man just wants to take off the crown, and everything else as well. Kudos to Oona Chaplin for her understated work in their scene, and to Richard Madden for imbuing this excellent moment with such tenderness and such heartbreaking need.
Because it's all about needs: There's lofty talk of honor and principles threaded through this story, but more often, these characters are often driven by the need for revenge, the need for comfort, the need for love and the need for recognition. And those connected to the key players see their needs pretty well, which makes them either valuable allies or dangerous opponents.
In this world of little brothers gone astray, even Theon -- poor, stupid Theon -- has a big sister who doesn't want him to throw away his life in pursuit of a dangerously foolish plan. Despite her swaggering demeanor, Yara still feels some sisterly love for her baby brother, whose entire Winterfell gambit has suffered from an overdose of ambition and a severe lack of long-term planning. The Ironborn take what they need, but they don't try to take so much that they're left exposed to their enemies. No matter what he does -- stay or go -- Theon faces humiliation, and we now know that he faked the deaths of the little Stark brothers. His big sister tried to spare him embarrassment and death, but it's unlikely that that scrap of recognition will fill the yawning hole inside angry, desperate Theon.
Osha could try to shield the "little lords" from the knowledge of what happened to their friends at the farm, but Bran learns that they burned, just as Jon knows what happened to a couple of his own Night's Watch brothers, who died at the hands of Mance Rayder's forces. We didn't get to spend much time with Jon, but we know how much of Ned is in him and how much those deaths will weigh on him. Bronn may want to keep his hands clean, and he's able to do so, literally and metaphorically. Bronn is the ultimate mercenary: He doesn't care about the people he kills, as long as their deaths ensure that his head remains attached to his body.
The Stark diaspora doesn't have it quite that easy; Ned and Catelyn trained them to not just feel a sense of responsibility, but a sense of familial duty toward those they rule; hence the guilt that follows them around like a faithful direwolf. All of them have blood on their hands: A great many people have died for all the Stark children, one way or another, and Theon's shed a great deal of blood as well. How do these young men and women function, given how much guilt they feel over what they've done (and yes, Theon too)? Consciences are their familial legacy, but they're also inconvenient at times.
Arya, not surprisingly, doesn't have much time for pondering guilt and responsibility, but then, her situation is one of the most dire. In a way, she's something of a Lannister now: She's got Tywin's resolve, Cersei's ruthlessness and Tyrion's craftiness. Not many people could bargain with Jaqen and come out on top. But Arya got away from Harrenhal, no doubt on her way to try to warn Robb of Tywin's coming attack. (Sidebar: I would agree with whoever on Twitter said Jaqen is not just a boss, but a ninja boss.)
Other stories were put into motion, but the elements involving Dany, Jamie, Stannis and those north of the Wall felt a bit rushed, as if the show were trying to check in on every relevant party before the big showdown. Some of these Around the Horn bits worked better than others, and while I appreciated checking in with various characters, the Jon Snow scenes felt a little perfunctory (despite their awesome settings), and I think I'll come away from this season thinking Stannis is an interesting man I didn't get to know well enough.
I certainly got the sense from Dany's brief scene that she was working a con on Jorah, doing whatever it took, including playing with his love for her, to get her dragons back.
Sure, you might call her the Mother of Dragons, but those little princes of the air could also be considered her little brothers. And it would be unwise for anyone to get in the way of that family reunion.
A few final notes:
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