This year, we’re going to be putting our day-after observations about Game of Thrones into writing, 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 the episode under discussion. This week, Jordan Stokes tackles “No One” (Season 6, Episode 8).
The key line for understanding this week’s episode of Game of Thrones isn’t even in this week’s episode: it’s Varys’s riddle from Season 2, Episode 3. You surely remember this, it’s one of the show’s most famous exchanges:
Lord Varys: Power is a curious thing, my lord. Are you fond of riddles?
Tyrion Lannister: Why? Am I about to hear one?
Lord Varys: Three great men sit in a room: a king, a priest, and a rich man. Between them stands a common sellsword. Each great man bids the sellsword kill the other two. Who lives, who dies?
Tyrion Lannister: Depends on the sellsword.
Lord Varys: Does it? He has neither crown, nor gold, nor favor with the gods.
Tyrion Lannister: He has a sword, the power of life and death.
Lord Varys: But if it’s swordsmen who rule, why do we pretend kings hold all the power? When Ned Stark lost his head, who was truly responsible? Joffrey? The executioner? Or something else?
Tyrion Lannister: I’ve decided I don’t like riddles.
The point of the riddle, of course, is that there are multiple powers in any society, and that one of them — and arguably the most important one, the one that no other power can afford to do without — is the power to do violence.
Several times in this week’s episode, we’re dropped into a situation in which there are multiple centers of power, only one of which is holding the knife. Who’s in charge at Riverrun: Edmure, or the Blackfish(†)? Who’s in charge in King’s Landing: Tommen (and the High Sparrow), or Cersei (and Ser Gregor(†))? Who’s in charge in Mereen: Tyrion, or Grey Worm(†)? Who’s in charge in whatever random forest the Brotherhood Without Banners is camped out in: Beric Dondarrion, or the Hound(†)? In each case, I’ve handed the violence-specialist a dagger.
When people talk about the power to do violence (and specifically about who has that power, and who doesn’t), they’re usually talking about the state. A monopoly on violence IS the state, according to a lot of people, probably starting with Ibn Khaldun, for whom a state is “an institution that prevents injustice other than such as it commits itself.” The riddle about the sell-sword isn’t supposed to be a way to game out a particularly awkward dinner party: it’s unveiling a feudal version of a social contract. The great houses command dozens of lesser houses — but the only reason that the great houses get to be great is that all those lesser lords obey their commands, and those lords in turn owe their lordship to the loyalty of some unwashed men with knives. If the sellsword isn’t listening to you, he’s listening to someone else. And then you’re screwed.
This is generally meant to be a value-neutral description of a state of affairs. It’s neither good nor bad that establishing a state requires a monopoly on violence, it simply is the case. But you occasionally run across the idea that specialists in violence have a quality — “warrior spirit,” or something to that effect — which makes them better at leading, or in some cases grants them the moral authority to lead. This is the idea that the current episode is really grappling with. Because like the riddle with the sellsword suggests, you don’t usually run across a situation where the specialist in violence is him-or-herself making all the decisions. Usually, the people who govern are specialists in governing, and they have a subcontractor who takes care of the violence for them. And sometimes the governor and the subcontractor don’t get along. That’s what we see in this week’s episode, and over and over again we’re asked to pick sides. Does warrior spirit make you a good leader? Or do the stabby-men need to stick to their stabbing, and leave the leading to them as can lead?
The Edmure/Brynden exchange is probably the clearest entry on the pro-warrior spirit side of the ledger. There’s a contrarian case to be made for Edmure having done the right thing here, but man, it sure doesn’t feel like it in the moment. Brynden, the specialist in violence, is right about everything: when Edmure comes up to the gates, it is a Lannister trap. Accepting the Kingslayer’s safe-conduct so that you can go help Sansa is a crazy idea. (I’m not saying that Jaime was lying, mind you: just that no sane military commander would have made the offer, and therefore no sane commander would have accepted it either.) And the Tully forces probably could have survived the siege — and this would have been one more thorn in the Lannister’s side, which is a good thing, because the Lannisters are allied with the Boltons and the Freys, who we (the viewers, I mean), hate with a burning passion. But, no, Edmure had to get scared about the life of his innocent child or whatever, so he surrenders. [Exaggerated eyeroll.] Friggin’ civilian.
On the other hand, we have Tyrion’s interaction with Grey Worm. Grey Worm has a bunch of great lines in this episode, but my favorite is his retort to Tyrion: “You’re trying to tell me what the army should do. And you don’t know what the army should do.” What Grey Worm is advocating here is a separation of powers: not the legislative/executive/judicial separation that we usually think of, but a separation between wartime and peacetime power. Crucially, this isn’t a matter of letting Tyrion set the political goals and then giving Grey Worm free reign to accomplish them by other means. Grey Worm thinks that during war he gets to set the goals as well. This is a subtle point, but it’s definitely there: what Grey Worm wants — and what Tyrion very much doesn’t want — is a tactically sound way to make a glorious last stand. That’s the best military option that’s left, so that’s the one he plans to pursue. Suddenly that warrior spirit looks a lot less appealing, right? (Although, if it really is the best option… luckily Khaleesi lands on the roof before we really have to confront that possibility.)
In King’s Landing, this same basic conflict is mapped onto personal relationships instead of politics. It’s not a struggle between the state and the military, it’s a struggle between Tommen (aided by the High Sparrow) and Cersei (aided by the Mountain). Tommen has all the legal authority, but the presence of the Mountain makes it hard to use that authority for anything without Cersei’s say-so. (The visuals were very expressive here: watching the crowd make way for Cersei and her lumbering bodyguard, watching Tommen’s advisors shoo her to the back of the room, etc. Oh yeah, and that time where Gregor ripped a guy’s head off.) When Tommen issues his ban on trial by combat, however, the personal becomes political. We’re witnessing something like Nietzsche’s “slave-revolt of morality,” where the aristocratic virtue of manly strength is replaced by the proletarian virtues of reason and equality — and note that this is even the reason that Tommen offers in his proclamation! “Trial by combat helped the powerful avoid true justice,” or words to that effect. But the High Sparrow doesn’t really care about the rule of law. He cares about his struggle with Cersei. He’s not going to win a trial by combat while The Mountain is around, so he arranges for trial by combat to be banned. (A neat solution to the struggle between law and violence: simply declare violence to be illegal. To start with, Nietzsche might say, define “true justice” as that which applies to the weak and strong alike…)
Similarly Nietzchean is the final exchange between Arya and Jac’gen… Jahqu’en… urgh, I refuse to look up how his name is spelled. Let’s call him Headmaster Albus Stabbledore, and call it a day. Anyway, Arya’s confrontation with her old teacher takes place in full symbolism mode. By saying over and over that the servants of the House of Black and White are nameless, Stabbledore has been trying to say that no person gets to have the monopoly on violence. The state is just a faceless, anonymous edifice. It has no virtues; it also has no vices. It serves everybody, which is just another way of saying that it serves no one in particular. (So the faceless men aren’t specialists in violence. Counterintuitive, I know. The idea is that the institution specializes in violence. The individual killers — well, that’s just it: the killers aren’t individuals.) So when Arya says that she’s Arya, and that she’s taking her assassin training with her back to Westeros, that’s showing us the alternative to the institutional approach: Arya gets to have the monopoly on violence, because she’s charismatic, and strong-willed, and she’s got the right bloodline. (Yeesh, did her name have to be one letter away from “Aryan”?)
Now, there’s something about this solution to the problem that strikes us as intuitively right, because we’ve seen it so many times before. (It’s more or less the Luke Skywalker solution, for instance.) But before we join in the jubilant chorus about Arya finally getting a chance to interact with the actual plot again, I want you all to pay attention to one thing: this right here? Where Arya decides that, instead of just being a cog in Braavos’s violence-apparatus, she’s going to use her death-dealing skills to advance her own political agenda?
In the real world, we have a name for this. It’s “military coup.”
Unrelated: the gal in the top image could be part of an Aphex Twin music video. o_O My brain is handily replacing her face with Richard D. James.
A military coup of one?
Well, the show is shuttling back and forth betwee versions of this conflict that are about the state (Tyrion’s story) and versions that are essentially about the individual (Arya and Sandor’s stories) and some that are kind of in the middle (Cersei’s story).
So yeah, in some ways it’s stupid to say that Arya’s is “the military,” but it’s a comparison that the show invites.
I’m not certain “coup” is the right (or at least the best) way to describe what Arya is likely to get up to in Westeros. For me at least, a coup calls to mind a particular form of private-political-violence: namely, the deposing of one leader in favor of another.
And that doesn’t really seem to be Arya’s speed. She *certainly* doesn’t want to be the ruler of Westeros herself (so given this show’s love of messing with us, it’s entirely possible she might end up being Queen, Chronicles-of-Riddick-style). And she doesn’t really even seem to care so much who sits the throne – I mean, yeah, she doesn’t want the Lannisters to be running the place, but that’s just because she really, really, hates Lannisters, not because she has any grand political view of Westeros.
Arya’s violence is much more likely to be personal than political – she has her list, after all, and there’s still a few names on it.
See, I felt like she made a big deal about being Arya STARK. Claiming that name strikes me as a political move. But maybe not — and certainly they have made a big deal in the past about how Arya’s murder list is the thing that stops her from letting go of her old identity (although it’s been oddly absent for the past few episodes).
A bigger problem with calling this a coup, maybe, is that even if I am right that she’s turning her training to political ends, she isn’t going to be messing with Braavosi politics.
So I dunno, is there a word for this?
• Flee your country under political persecution.
• Enlist in the military of a foreign country. (Does it make sense to think of the Faceless Men as Braavos’s military? In this context — a discussion of the role of violence in a well-ordered state — I feel like it does.)
• Go AWOL, killing one of your instructors on your way out the door.
• Return to your homeland, hoping to use your new training to settle old scores.
It’s not a military coup, but there’s still something unseemly about it — or there would be, if Arya wasn’t one of the designated good guys.
The only one that is coming to mind is The Count of Monte Christo, but it (as far as I can remember) doesn’t really have any kind of training montage for Dantes, as well as the persecution not really being political in nature.
Will Arya stumble on a long-forgotten stash of dragon treasure at the instruction of a red priest?
Given the speech Arya gave to Lady Crane about Cersei which shows empathy with, or at least insight into, Cersei, and the way she subsequently rejects the House of Black and White, (in addition to the conspicuous absence of Arya Stark’s prayer), I wonder if the show is hinting that Arya has lost some of the bloodlust that drove her previously. Particularly given what happens to her in the novels, it seems that her quest for homicide concurs with a loss of her identity, culminating in her time as an apprentice Faceless Man: in order to become the agent of vengeance she wanted to be, she had to lose her identity. Part of reclaiming her identity as a Stark, then, means rejecting something about her quest for vengeance.
So the story that your bulleted version most resembles is the plot of Batman Begins – our hero is exiled from his home country, trains with foreign vigilantes, refuses to kill an innocent at their behest, kill some on your way at the door, use your training to settle old scores.
In the real world, I’m not certain there’s really an analogy. It’s maybe a little bit Robin Hood? (the order is a little different, but the elements are more or less there – foreign training, political exile, vigilante justice)
It might also track the sorts of shenanigans that (mostly) English and American expats got up to in various colonies/former colonial powers – a ne’er do well at home goes abroad, joins a mercenary outfit, stirs up trouble trying to take over as a dictator, then returns to their home country to take up residence as a crime figure?
Is anyone else confused about what it takes to be a faceless man (person)? So Arya is admitted and trained, then goes to far with her personal vendettas and is blinded and kicked out. Then she proves her commitment or something and is restored. Then she fails in a task because of her sense of justice which is at cross purpose with the justice of the faceless men. Then she is again kicked out and sentenced to death by her mentor. Then when she kills her pursuer, she is again admitted to the faceless men.
I don’t know what to think or feel. Did they admit her because she is resilient or because they need her to fill a spot? Is getting kicked out and sentenced to death and then killing your assassin part of what it takes to get into the club?
Since I don’t know what she is supposed to do to be successful, I don’t know what to feel about what she does. Is she doing what she is supposed to? Is she just stumbling into the right thing?
It all feels unfortunately haphazard.
I think a lot of those questions are tied up in the role Arya’s assassin played with the Faceless Men, which the show seemed unwilling/uninterested in answering.
The assassin seemed just as guilty of an inability to shed her identity as Arya. She also was vindictive, and specifically had it in for Arya. Given that Arya implicitly had an advantage after extinguishing the candle, we can infer that the assassin never was blinded as part of her training. (So was the blinding a special-case for Arya? Was Arya further along in her training than the assassin, in spite of having spent less time with the Faceless Men?) And that, in turn, raises questions like, were Arya and the assassin competing for the same “position,” was there ever a scenario where they both could have been Faceless Men, etc.
My personal theory, which has very little support from the show, was that Ja’quen’s pronouncement that Arya is finally no one was a last-ditch effort on his part to bring Arya back into the fold. The Faceless Men don’t want a free agent roaming around who knows their secrets, and since Arya had him at sword point, there was nothing he could have done to prevent her from walking out of the Temple, except try to entice her with the possibility that her training may be near to an end. She was actually no closer to being No One than she had been before, but the pronouncement was meant to be a mind game to get her to stay.
Interesting. Very smart. I also did not make the connection about the darkness and Arya’s blindness, but that is great. Thanks, An Inside Joke!
I’ve been interpreting Ja’quen’s final smile as a “Haha, this is the fruition of my master plan.” Telling her she was No One was the last step in this plan, a final test to see if she was truly ready to return to Westeros.
I don’t think he ever intended to turn Arya into No One – for a reason that is as yet undetermined (and may be inscrutable/underdeveloped-since-he’s-not-really-a-character), he always intended for her to return to Westeros as Arya Stark of Winterfell.
I guess what I’m saying is that she had to go all the way to Braavos….to find herself. (cue romantic comedy music)
You know, considering all the fan theories about the relationship between the Faceless Men and the Iron Bank… and considering that Braavosi financiers have been bankrolling at least one side of Westeros’s civil war for a long time now…
Is it possible that there’s an active speculation market in Braavos connected to the fate of the seven kingdoms? Has Ja’qen been buying up Stark futures on the cheap — the bottom must have fallen right the f___ out of that market after the Red Wedding — all the while planning to train up Arya and unleash her on the Lannisters at the most profitable moment?
Personally, I think the only way any of this makes any sense is if both Arya and The Waif were competing for the same spot. That the process for joining the Faceless Men is kind of like becoming a henchmen for The Joker in The Dark Knight. You each get half a pool cue and you make it quick.
So basically, Ja’quen’s motivations for his comment is a last effort to cut his losses on the investment ( of time, mostly) he’s put into training these two proteges. Because there’s no way he’s afraid of Arya, right? I mean he’s trying to not have to kill her right?
Of course, we also don’t know anything about The Waifs situation. Maybe Arya was there specifically for her. Or maybe The Waif just kind of sucks? And they bring Arya as kind of kick in the ass? Considering how much The Waif hates her, I’d imagine that Arya was picked precisely because she’s the kind of person that would tick off The Waif.
This is all my generous pontification. More likely, I think, is that in the changes necessary from transition of book to show, a lot of the plotting, goals and characterization in this story line got mangled and lost.
I was super disappointed by the way the Riverlands plot played out. Why even bother to reintroduce us to the Riverlands if the Blackfish is going to die and his army captured? Brienne went all the way there from the North(presumably via jetpack), and is going back entirely empty handed. ASFAIK, she didn’t even learn anything interesting to take back to Sansa in the North.
Jamie’s character developed a little bit with his siege and his speech about Cersei, but it’s been a whole lot of buildup for that one moment.
The cynical side of me would say it was table-setting to tie up loose character and location (The Blackfish, Riverrun) ends. This might not be how it plays out in the book where a wider array of players is more acceptable to the format, but it does work well for TV where—as we’ve seen all season—it’s hard enough to keep track of the main characters in an hour format, let alone everyone else on the periphery. This will force (presumably) Sansa to ask Littlefinger for a helping hand, so it gets someone we care about back into the picture while tying up several loose ends, and giving Brienne and Jamie a nice reunion / farewell before they presumably fight side-by-side against the great white north.
Plot mechanics aside, I did like that we get yet another reinforcement of the idea that for as good as The Blackfish is at being sensible and hardened, it still doesn’t stop him dying for honor when he could have escaped to fight another day. It doesn’t look so bad when contrasted with Edmure who—as the article points out—could be making the correct overall choice for his people, but still comes off very badly. A decision will look differently to everyone (the Fray’s probably don’t feel *too* bad about the Red Wedding), especially from the outside. One dies and the other lives to fight another incompetent day.
As Bronn so charmingly points out, always assume someone is trying to hit you. Perhaps Edumure figured he’d just brace himself for the blow as best he could.
Speaking of that Bronn/Pod scene, did anyone else think that they were FOR SURE building up to a battle scene where Pod kills Bronn or the other way around?
Sorry to not respond to mezdef or Stokes, but I have a thought along slightly different lines.
So when Hodor died, there was a lot of talk from a lot of people about it. An internet outpouring of grief, if you will. I personally did not get it. I watched all five of the previous seasons for the first time last summer, so I assume it has more to do with extra-textual internet Hodor love than actually to do with the character. Yes he is sweet, and innocent, and yes being mind raped into dying for a person you have been protecting is pretty terrible, but I really did not care too much.
Now contrast that with my feelings about the Brienne/Jamie meeting and convo. These two characters are important actors in the story (not passive protectors, sorry Hodor). They have shared mirrored trials throughout the running of the show. They have evolved and changed as the show has gone on. And they have a really heartfelt meeting.
Maybe I am buying too much into the authorial intent of the sequence (it was featured in the inside the episode post-credits segment), but I feel like this scene does a way better job of reaching me than the Hodor death did.
Devin Faraci tried to explain (http://birthmoviesdeath.com/2016/05/23/game-of-thrones-had-its-greatest-revelation-in-the-door) how the death of Hodor is a powerful microcosm of the larger narrative about the effects that the rulers/nobility/powerful have on the small folk/common people/weak. Hodor is an innocent who suffers because his lord does not know how to keep from hurting him.
While I don’t disagree, I think that the Jamie/Brienne conversation does a better, or at least more personally interesting job at elucidating similar ideas. Both Jamie and Brienne are not the most in charge. Jamie is beholden both to his son the king and to the head of his house (which I guess is Tywin’s brother Kevan). Brienne is bound by oath to Sansa and to Catelyn before her. They fight for similar purposes and their arcs have taught them lessons about honor, dignity, and justice. To see them speak about their crossed purposes while still respecting and honoring one another, is the true tragedy of the circumstances of Westeros. They are a well matched pair and yet they cannot be friends because of their loyalties. It makes me think of the adage about the American civil war, “that brother fought brother and son fought father.” Two interesting characters that I want to be friends and work together cannot and should not ever in this narrative because of the challenges in Westeros. The disonance between what I want, and the way I know things should be in this universe is more powerful to me than all the character deaths in the world.
“Two interesting characters that I want to be friends and work together cannot and should not ever in this narrative because of the challenges in Westeros.”
Yes! I think this nails what GoT does better than any other story/universe out there: it makes you root for people that are fundamentally at cross purposes with one another, and will have to fight/kill each other at some point if they are going to remain true to their motivations.
The ur-example of this, to me, is the entire King’s Landing plot in Book/Season 2. Tyrion is a great character, and we’re rooting for him to protect the city – except for that to happen, we have to root for the Lannisters, who are bad, so may be want Stannis to win – except if the city is taken, Sansa will probably be killed by Stannis’ forces when they sack the city….
Jamie/Brienne put a name to that problem – they like each other, and have to fight each other.
At various times throughout the series, we’re reminded of that when Dany starts talking about how she’s going to burn Starks, Lannisters AND Barratheons to the ground, because they’re all usurpers. She’s a “good guy,” but her success means all the Starks have to die, so….
Thanks Ben Adams! You more eloquently stated the way I felt.
1. In no way is what Arya doing be classified as “military coup”. Arya can’t even be considered to be a “lone wolf” since lone wolves assassinate/murder for political reasons. A lone wolf is a terrorist that assassinates political figures rather than common citizenry.
Arya is just Inigo Montoya, a person seeking personal revenge. People and power structures be damned.
2. What the show does seem to be setting up is Plato’s Republic. Professional rulers, warriors, commoners but seen from the benevolent and malevolent sides.
3. Yes, power comes from violence. But not all of it. Say you oppose the US empire (violence is power on a global level). You protest, or withhold your taxes, or try to make a citizens arrest – you’ll get beaten or detained by the police, military, etc.
Why do the police or military do what they do? Simply paid to do a job, greased with warrior mentality training and dehumanization. Money is power. But money is a means. What do they intend to do with that money? Attain comfort, pleasure.
So any system that can promise (or at least appear to fulfill) comfort – whether financial, or spiritual, has power.
You’ll probably see a lot more young men protesting the banning of videogames or anime than during a ban on freedom of speech.
And that’s politics. Manufacture discomfort, blame it on an other, promise comfort if supported. #AchievingPower101.
Plato’s Republic is VERY relevant to this discussion. It’s been a while since I’ve read this, but Plato takes a very dim view of soldiers wielding political power, doesn’t he? And doesn’t he spend a whole bunch of time trying to figure out how to trick the violence-specialists into serving the greater good? The guardians are supposed to be totally ascetic and devoted to the service of the state. If they start to be all “Screw you guys, I’m gonna stab whoever I wanna stab,” the ideal state begins its collapse into tyranny.
I think Arya’s leaving might be considered somewhat as a rebellion of an asset the faceless men couldn’t control? Kind of like a state seceding after being created and established by a more mature power. Arya almost seems like America to me (excuse the eagle on my shoulder) in that she fled her home out of fear, landed in a new land, establishing herself, and learning from the locals, but ultimately maintaining her old western/westerosi identity. Then establishing her own agenda and going for it.
I also think it is significant that the faceless men are nameless, besides seeming like your standard dehumanizing organization, they also imply that they are immortal, or at least, the organization is. The faceless men (I believe) are given names of those who are assigned to kill. This gives the impression that the faceless god its followers with the act of being nameless, therefore immune from death.