This year, we’re going to be putting our day-after observations about Game of Thrones into writing instead of a recap podcast, in a series we call Game of Thrones Unlocked. In keeping with our tradition, these will focus on explicating one scene as an interpretive key for unlocking deeper interpretations of the episode’s themes. These articles will contain spoilers through he episode under discussion. This week, Matt Wrather kicks us off.
We’re all in the same boat now, and the boat is on fire.
It’s impossible not to look at the harbor fire that Tyrion and Varys unexpectedly amble into as a metaphor for the situation the show’s audience is now in: nobody knows how (or if) we’re going to get home. Over at the AV Club, Myles McNutt forgives the writers for making a meal of the cliffhanger, given that a “vocal minority” of viewers has thus far always known what would happen next, and this is the first time they can really lord it over us.
Through the Red God, flames have become connected with prophesy in Game of Thrones, and though this episode holds prophesy in, shall we say, disputed esteem (Jamie feels especially strongly), I think that most of us are expecting the big-ticket pronouncements (Azor Ahai reborn; the dragon has three heads; etc.) to come to pass in some form. But since the Greeks, irony in realization has been a staple of prophecy stories, and Game of Thrones has offered us delayed and thwarted expectations as its stock in trade.
This episode especially deals in reversals and thwarted expectations. In King’s Landing, in Dorne, in Braavos and the north, you can’t ever get what you want, and if you try sometimes, you just might find you get the last thing you expected. Probably killed. The theme is repeated in registers comical, as when Varys explains that the woman Tyrion is trying to help thinks he will eat her baby, and horrifying, as when the sound of hoofbeats and howls starts up again just when Theon and Sansa thought they were safe. Or when Brienne and Pod (who has been practicing) swoop in to save the day.
Let’s run down the list. We start with a surprising reversal at the level of character, where Alister Thorne pulls a Mark Antony. It’s written and played with finesse, and I may be a credulous fool but it seems convincing to me, which is surprising given that you expect Alister to be acting solely out of his sense of injured merit. Olly, having dispatched a certain traitorous Lord Commander, is finally allowed to glower openly instead of ominously at all and sundry while Ser Alister declaims, “As Caesar loved me, I weep for him. As he was fortunate, I rejoice at it. As he was valiant, I honor him. But, as he was ambitious, I slew him” (#shakespeare400).
In King’s Landing, the reversal is tragic for Cersei, and there’s a good bit of acting here from Lena Headey as you watch her face slowly register the dawning realization that Jamie is bringing her daughter home in a box. In Dorne, the reversal is tragic, though played at a slapstick pace, as Ellaria Sand (can I just say that I love how Google autocomplete can pro-actively spell check how many Ls are in the names of GoT characters?) and the sand snakes prove they are woman as red as any priestess of R’hllor.
Often plot reversals rely on dramatic irony or asymmetry of information: at least one character doesn’t have the knowledge that another does or that we the audeince have. We smirk when Danerys the queen is brought low as a Dothraki slave, because despite the humiliating indignity she endures, we know her secret: she knows every word those hideous Dothraki bros are saying, and she will turn the tables to great effect in future. In fact, she does this, and after a little arguing over her name and parentage, she gets her propers from the khal and his bloodriders. But in the final reversal she is tripped up by a bit of knowledge she should have had: khal’s widows join the sewing circle in Vaes Dothrak, and don’t get to do cool stuff like ride dragons.
The key scene in all of this, I think, is when Brienne lays her sword at Sansa’s feet and vows to protect her, and Sansa answers as her father would have. The words are well-established by tradition; Sansa even needs to be prompted on one of her lines. In a world of chaos—a world whose disorder Brienne strives against but Sansa has torturously learned to accept—this unexpected arrival is not a reversal or a setback. We’re meant to see it as hopeful, as admirable even, when Brienne makes her vow.
Vows are prophesies of the self. They are meant to be reliable indicators of future action—Brienne has demonstrated the lengths to which she’ll go to keep a promise. They recreate, briefly and only within certain boundaries, but somehow still successfully, the kind of stability that Eddard Stark represented way back in season one, the stability that has been stripped away piece by peace. “Words are wind,” as the popular Westerosi saying goes, but vows matter.
Contrast this with Ramsay’s lack of interest in the funeral arrangements for Myranda: “She’s good meat. Feed her to the dogs.” He has no time for funerary tradition, which he sees as sentimental and weak. To Ramsay, we’re all just meat.
Though he does get off one vow: “Your pain will be paid for a thousand times over. I wish you could be here to watch.” In the moment it’s a vow to Myrands, but, as with the burning harbor, it’s hard not to hear the writers speaking directly to us.