At the beginning of this season, one of “Game of Thrones’” TV overlords, David Benioff, told Grantland’s Andy Greenwald that “Themes are for eighth-grade book reports.” There is a reason the people who make stuff don’t get the final say on the meaning of that stuff. “And Now His Watch Is Ended” was particularly theme-y — the theme being revenge — but it also demostrated how little “Game of Thrones” cares about creating “normal” episodes of television. The huge cast of characters have been flitting in and out all season. Now they are starting to show up for what amount to special appearances, both short — Bran appeared in one scene — and long — Daenerys gets the most fist-pumping segment of the season thus far, but only in the episode’s last 10 minutes. Four episodes in, it still feels like the season’s pieces are being put into place, and it seems that the best way to watch would be to wait and binge on it all at once.
But on to revenge: In this episode, revenge is presented as a reason to keep living. Difficult, taxing, gross, revenge is still a thing that gives one’s life purpose, not a force that hollows one out and makes him a terrible, terrible person — even though it surely does that, too. Spymaster Varys tells Tyrion the story of how he was castrated: As a boy he was purchased by a sorcerer who, without anesthesia, sliced him “root to stem” and lit his testicles on fire. (They spoke; the burning balls or some such sacrilege.) An impatient Tyrion has not yet taken the full measure of Varys and quibbles that he “wants actual revenge against the actual person who tried to have me killed.” Varys then demonstrates, as “Game of Thrones” female characters often do, how little real stones matter to having stones. After the sorcerer abandoned him, Varys sold his body and gathered information, his “influence [growing] like a weed” until he was powerful enough to go get that sorcerer — who now lives, rotting and trapped, in a coffin in Varys’ care. “I have no doubt the revenge you want will be yours in time, if you have the stomach for it,” he tells Tyrion.
If revenge gave Varys the will to survive, it is also Brienne’s suggestion for Jaime. After being fed horse piss, humiliated and beaten senseless in a mud pit, he is not that keen on living. “You need to live to take revenge,” Brienne tells Jaime, but he doesn’t care. Brienne, who also doesn’t need stones to have stones either, sneers at him, “You have a taste — one taste — of the real world, where people have important things taken from them, and you whine and cry and quit. You sound like a bloody woman.” Jaime eats his bread, having been wholly chastised by a woman much tougher than he, a woman who is upending the stereotype of what a woman “sounds like” even as she’s using that same stereotype to make a point. (Arya, the bravest little munchkin in all the land, continues to do her part to dispense with this stereotype, too. She fingers the Hound for Micah’s long-ago murder, trying to serve her revenge up cold.)
Meanwhile, Cersei is over being discounted because she’s female. She tells her father it’s crap he won’t let her be his adviser. She’s learned his lessons best of all his children. Tywin counters that he doesn’t want her advice, not because she’s a woman, but because she overrates her intelligence and has let her psychopathic son run wild. While I don’t buy Tywin as an open-minded feminist for one second, he sure is right about Cersei’s lack of judgment. Her anxiety about the Tyrells springs from her jealousy and competitiveness with Margaery, who is running manipulation circles around her. (And also wooing Joffrey by telling him that cruelty’s totally fine if you’re real special: “Sometimes severity is the price we pay for greatness.”) Cersei should be making friends with the Tyrells, but she’s too paranoid and short-sighted. When Lady Olenna banters with her — “We mothers do what we can to keep our sons from the grave, but they do seem to yearn for it …” — Cersei rebuffs her. Perhaps before accusing her father of dismissing women, Cersei should stop dismissing women.
Back to theme of this week’s book report! Theon is the counterpoint to how revenge can sustain you: Revenge, especially misplaced revenge, can also destroy you. (Another counterpoint: Up above the wall, the Night’s Watch get fratricidal after one of their members takes issue with “daughter-fucking wilding bastard” Craster’s crappy food.) Trying to prove himself, to seek a revenge on the Starks that he didn’t quite feel but imagined his father might, Theon has destroyed his life, and, as he far knows, that of the young Starks. To correct for his insecurities, for the simple fact of his not being Robb Stark — whose “life fit him better than his clothes” (a great line) — he has done grievous misdeeds. “My real father lost his head at King’s Landing,” Theon cries. “I made a choice, and I chose wrong. And now I’ve burned everything down.” Immediately after this epiphany Theon is returned to captivity — someone else’s idea of revenge. (Themes aside, this particular storyline didn’t quite scan to me. Theon’s emotional modulation from “I could never be a Stark” to his sadness at killing Starks happened way too quickly — Theon could have used the time devoted to a re-statement of Podrick’s sexual prowess — and I don’t understand why the guy that freed him turned him back in.)
And then we come to Daenerys, who has been walking the vengeful path for some time. In this episode, she takes a huge step toward becoming the just, fearsome, badass Mother of Dragons she’s supposed to be. This sequence is filled with all sorts of “hell yeah!” moments: She speaks Valyrian! She has her dragon light that greedy, jerky slave master on fire! She has the unsullied kill all the bad guys but definitely not the babies! And then she gets the unsullied to follow her as free men! She’s so awesome she somehow doesn’t need a megaphone to communicate to 8,000 dudes! Dany then leads her massive, volunteer army out of the city, one step closer to the iron throne, but not all that much closer to Westeros. We’ve got too many seasons to go.