Monday, April 22, 2013

Game of Thrones recap: how do you say "badass" in Valyrian?

Daenerys Targaryen upends the balance of power in one of the most thrilling scenes the show has ever done.


Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen.
Daenerys Targaryen was one of the most compelling characters in Game of Thrones first season. She started out as a frightened girl, sold in marriage by her odious brother in exchange for an army, and ended the season as a Khaleesi (of a very small, somewhat ragged group, but still a Khaleesi) and a Mother of Dragons. Her journey was compelling, her story had tons of potential, and Emilia Clarke gave one of the best performances on a series full of them.

Then season two happened. Dany spent ten episodes in Qarth, in a holding pattern where she tried to find the money to invade Westeros and yelled about her dragons. The surreal finale sequence in the House of the Undying helped bring some actions back to her story, but it was clear that, when it came to Daenerys Stormborn of the House Targaryen, the show was spinning its wheels.

But no more! The final scene of this week's episode, "And Now His Watch Has Ended," was a masterfully constructed thrill, and Dany finally took her place as the badass powerhouse we all knew she could be. The sack of Astapor solidified the Khaleesi's place as an unquestioned ruler - I don't think Ser Jorah or Barristan Selmy had a single line of dialogue this week - and upended the balance of power in Westeros. If I were a Lannister, a Stark, a Baratheon or a Tyrell, and I heard that the last Targaryen was marching at the head of an 8000-strong army, not to mention in possession of three dragons, I would be very, very afraid.

The idea of drastically upending the status quo had a great deal of resonance with the rest of the episode, and I'll get to that in a minute. First, though, I'd like to talk about the impeccable stagecraft that went into Dany's coup. As soon as she offered a dragon in exchange for 8000 Unsullied, I figured that the unpleasant slaver was toast; after all, the Mother of Dragons wasn't about to walk away from one of her children. But the way in which Dany gets her dragon back, gets control of her new army and, oh yeah, also sacks Astapor and frees every slave in the city, is just as important as the actions themselves.

Every moment in the scene was clearly planned, a cascade of demonstrations designed to show everyone in attendance just how powerful Dany really is. From the reveal that Dany speaks Valyrian (the look on the slaver's face when he realizes the "Westerosi bitch" has understood everything he has said about her is priceless) to telling the Unsullied to turn on the Masters but spare children and slaves, to instructing her dragon to kill the slaver, to telling her army to join her as free men, not slaves, everything is calculated for maximum impact. Dany knows that the story is going to get around, with all the spectacular details included, and that her reputation will no longer be that of a helpless Targaryen princess. It will be that of a fearsome yet compassionate conqueror with a highly-trained army and three dragons at her back.

The carefully planned stagecraft of Dany's coup contrasts sharply with the episode's other major reversal: the Night's Watch rebellion that ended in the death of Lord Jeor Mormont. Even the set design puts the two scenes in opposition; while the sack of Astapor takes outside, in the vast central square of the city, the dissolution of the Watch takes place in the closed, smoky, dark confines of Craster's keep. The rebellion doesn't seem particularly well-planned either; it comes across more as a brawl spun out of control than a full-scale revolt, even though it's clear that two members of the Night's Watch (one played by Torchwood's Burn Gorman!) had been planning this for some time. Sam manages to escape with Gilly in the ensuing chaos, but we don't know what happened to the other men - here's hoping Grenn and Edd are safe - and which side ultimately came out victorious.

While Dany's coup and Jeor's death are by far the most dramatic reversals in "And Now His Watch Has Ended," there are plenty of other power shifts in the hour. We see Margaery continue to consolidate her hold on Joffrey while Cersei gets left out in the cold by both her son and her father. Arya holds power over the Hound when she recounts the murder of Mycah, the butcher's boy, and therefore finds a crime for which the Brotherhood Without Banners can try him. Theon thinks he has escaped from his torturers, only to find out that his rescuer gave him hope so he could take it away again. Jaime's fall from power and privilege is complete, as he wallows in the mud and is forced by his captors to drink horse piss. (Honestly, I spent the whole scene worrying about all that mud getting into Jaime's wound, which has to be all sorts of infected by now). Bran... well, Bran has a dream. I can't tie that one into the reversal theme.

There's one more reversal featured in the episode, one that offers some illuminating comparisons and contrasts with Dany's moment of triumph. Early in the hour, Tyrion goes to Lord Varys in an attempt to  obtain proof that his sister tried to have him killed. Instead, Varys tells Tyrion how he was castrated at the hands of a sorcerer, and how a desire for vengeance led him from a life as a thief to his place as one of the most powerful men in Westeros. Then he opens the crate that has stood in the middle of the room for the entire scene and reveals the sorcerer, imprisoned with his mouth sewn shut, waiting for Lord Varys to exact his revenge.

There are some significant differences between Dany's coup and Varys' revenge. Varys' vengeance is of a much smaller, more personal nature than Dany's desire to avenge the death of her family and the loss of the Seven Kingdoms. Varys' influence comes in the form of secrets and spies, while Dany's is of a decidedly more martial variety. And while Dany has gone from a powerless bargaining chip to a powerful Khaleesi in a fairly short span of time, Varys has been waiting most of his life to get the sorcerer in his hands.

But the Mother of Dragons and the Spider also have some important things in common. Both understand the power of a theatrical gesture, whether that means opening a suspiciously large crate or dropping the whip that represents mastery over the Unsullied. Both have experience with being sold as property (although Varys pretty clearly had it worse). Both are at least a little compassionate; Dany freed the Unsullied, and Varys wants to help Sansa get out of Littlefinger's clutches. (Dany obviously wins on this one, particularly since, while Varys does seem to feel bad for Sansa, he's helping arrange a marriage for her at least partially in an attempt to keep Petyr Baelish from getting any more powerful.) 

Most importantly, both Dany and Varys are extremely dangerous. Each of them poses a huge threat to the parties warring for control of the Seven Kingdoms. And in both cases, the people whose existences are the most at risk from them don't even know how much danger they're in. Which, going forward, could be the biggest advantage that both Dany and Varys have.

3 comments:

  1. I love these posts, but my favourite ones were when you listed all the memorable quotes and commented on them- hilarious! No more of that...?

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  2. Glad to know you liked those! I mostly got bored of doing the photo-gallery part of those posts, which just felt like rehashing the events of the episode, but I liked commenting on quotes too! Maybe next season I'll compromise, and do a more focused write-up with quotes (and commentary!) at the end.

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