Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Game of Thrones recap: the only thing that matters is the climb

An intense, revealing scene (and a viscerally horrifying visual) cuts to the heart of Game of Thrones' central power conflicts.

Aiden Gillen as Petyr Baelish and Conleth Hill as Lord Varys.
Honestly, I had a really hard time picking a scene to analyze this week. There were a lot of great moments in "The Climb": Lady Oleanna faced off with Tywin Lannister, Cersei and Tyrion actually showed one another some affection, and Jon and Ygritte engaged in some pulse-pounding mountaineering. In the end, though, I had to go with my gut and choose Littlefinger's tense, complex scene with Varys, purely because it contained the single image that stayed with me long after the closing credits had faded out: Ros's arrow-ridden corpse, tied to Joffrey's bed after Baelish decided that she was nothing more than a bad investment.

In Vulture's recap of "The Climb," Nina Shen Rastogi expresses her disgust with the tossed-off nature of Ros's death. Her reaction is something I completely understand: the fact that Littlefinger, who I'm beginning to suspect is as heartless as Joffrey (if not quite as twisted) ends Ros's life without so much as a second thought is bad enough. That he hands her over to Joffrey for what he knows will be the worst possible death is horrifying. And that he drops the fact casually into conversation, as an attempt to throw Varys off his game, is absolutely sickening.

Where my opinion differs from Rastogi's is that I understand why the creative team made this particular choice, and I find it incredibly effective. To Littlefinger and Joffrey, people like Ros are nothing more than playthings. We see her as a flesh-and-blood woman, trying to rise above her circumstances and gain some modicum of power, and for us her death is a tragedy, but for Joffrey and Baelish - and, let's be honest, most of the other major characters would probably give no more thought to her death than they do - she is an object, to perform as they wish and to be gotten rid of when they can find no more uses for her.

Varys, however, is different, and one thing this scene does beautifully is underline just how different he is from his eternal rival and sometime friend, Littlefinger. As Varys said to Ros in last season's finale, he sees her as more than a "collection of profitable holes," but as a potential ally. When Littlefinger tells him of her death - he doesn't say that she's dead, but Varys is nothing if not perceptive - Varys loses his cool for what might be the first time ever. This being Varys, his shock comes through in the subtlest of ways, but the way Conleth Hill allows his facial expression and voice to change when he says "I did what I did for the good of the realm," it's clear that the man is most definitely affected by her death. No one else will mourn Ros, with the possible exception of Tyrion, but Varys will. And I suspect that his failure to protect her will haunt Varys for quite some time.

Varys's line about protecting the realm is also highly relevant, and it echoes back to another notable Varys moment. Way back in the first-season episode "The Pointy End," Varys visits the dearly departed Ned Stark in prison. After a discussion about Ned's options (which, at this point, are rather limited), Ned asks Varys who exactly he serves. Varys responds with a line that speaks volumes in its simplicity: "The realm, my lord. Someone must."

It's certainly possibly to doubt Varys's sincerity here. His motives are always opaque, and we know that he is a cunning man who has spent his life fighting his way up the social ladder; it's not a stretch to assume that Varys, like Littlefinger, merely wants to increase his influence. And yet I find myself believing Varys and his devotion to serving the realm. Where Littlefinger would, in Varys's own words, see everything around him burn if he could be king of the ashes, Varys understands that the shared idea of "the realm" is the only thing keeping them from complete chaos. In fact, he may be the only character who actually grasps the importance of the realm, and what it stands for.

We've also seen that Varys has some sympathy for those marginalized by the power plays of King's Landing: he tries to save Ned from death and to get Sansa away from the Lannisters, he knows that Tyrion saved the city from Stannis Baratheon, and he sees Ros's potential when no one else does. The theme of marginalization and betrayal is a strong one in this episode; Ros's death is the most powerful example, but characters are getting screwed over because of their status all over the place. The Brotherhood sells Gendry to Melisandre after promising that he would be a part of their family. Edmure Tully is married off to one of Walder Frey's daughters because Robb backed out of his bargain to do the same. And Cersei and Tyrion continue to be nothing more than bargaining chips in a power struggle between the Lannisters and the Tyrells, joined in their misery this week by Loras and Sansa.

All the scenes that deal with the newly negotiated betrothals in "The Climb" are top-notch. Sansa and Loras get some awkward flirting in, where Sansa expresses her excitement about the marriage and Loras talks about guests and decorations and beautiful green-and-gold brocade. (On a side note: be gayer, Loras.) They actually get a moment of bonding over their mutual hatred of King's Landing. Cersei and Tyrion also show some unexpected sibling love, connecting in their mutual unhappiness. And Tyrion, Sansa and Shae get a wonderfully staged, painfully awkward moment in which Tyrion attempts to tell Sansa of her new engagement in front of his girlfriend.

The best scene in the entire betrothal subplot, though, is the face-off between Lady Oleanna and Tywin. Charles Dance and Diana Rigg give everything they have, and it does not disappoint. There are put-downs galore (my favorite is her dig at the "rumor" about Cersei and Jaime's relationship), and the scene ends in what may be some mutual respect, as Lady Oleanna comments that it's rare to find a man who lives up to his reputation. When it comes to the episode's theme of marginalization, however, the conversation between Tywin and Oleanna gets even better. Neither participant talks about Cersei or Loras in a way that suggests either of them is a real person, with real desires and feelings. Loras gets reduced to nothing more than an heir who must have children in order to keep the Tyrells in power, and Cersei is, again, a trophy, useful only for her looks and her fertility.

Meanwhile, Cersei's illicit lover and his new buddy, Brienne, are also dealing with issues of marginalization. Roose Bolton promises Jaime that, when he is well enough to travel, he will be allowed to return to King's Landing, but that Brienne - who is probably feeling a bit objectified herself this week, given that Bolton is making her dress like a lady - will not be accompanying him. It's notable that Bolton, early in their conversation, threatens to kill Jaime and Brienne and burn their bodies. It's one of many such threats made in this episode, as Cersei idly suggests that she and Tyrion could get out of their upcoming marriages by having Loras and Sansa killed, Tyrion speculates that, when Jaime returns to find his sister remarried, Loras could come down with a bad case of "sword through bowels," and Cersei suggests that Tyrion's life might still be in danger.

Of course, it's pretty safe to assume that Loras, Sansa, Jaime, Tyrion and Brienne will all survive, at least for a while (though this is Game of Thrones, so no bet is ever particularly safe). The five of them are all noble, and all but Brienne come from famous and powerful families. Jaime says as much when he shuts down Bolton's threat by pointing out that his father would eventually find out what had happened. The same can't be said for those characters who don't have famous names and noble families to protect them.

Gendry, sold to Melisandre so the Brotherhood can, somewhat ironically, continue to defend the common people of Westeros. Jon and Ygritte, acknowledging that they mean nothing to their respective leaders, and must therefore rely on one another to survive. Sam and Gilly, alone in the forest, hoping to make it to the Wall. And Ros, a smart, ambitious woman who wanted something better than a life of prostitution, and who ended up as nothing more than another, nameless victim of Joffrey's sadism. She tried to climb the ladder without the safety net of rank and position, and she fell to her death.


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