Game of Thrones is not the kind of show you watch to bask in the glow of honorable people doing decent things for one another. But it’s not completely bereft of such moments either. And there seems to be more of them than usual in last night’s “Breaker of Chains.” It was almost as if, for the shows creators, even the death of their single most universally-reviled character was enough to touch off a certain need, however fleeting, for a little gentleness and reclamation.
No where was that more prevalent than in the dungeon conversation between Tyrion and Podrick. Here are two misfits who found themselves, for however brief a time, partners at the very pinnacle of power in King’s Landing. But now Tyrion seems to have concluded this latest scrape – accused by his sister of murdering his nephew – is one he likely won’t be getting out of. His lack of self-pity in that regard is astonishing: his only concern is for Podrick, who may have signed his own death warrant by refusing to testify against Tyrion. As for Podrick himself, he is of course too stubborn and principled to think his life means anything next to his loyalty.
With the last long shot of Tyrion, from slightly above and looking down on his furrowed brow and grizzled visage, you could feel him stringing under the immense metaphorical weight on his shoulders. Yet even at such a moment, Tyrion performs brilliantly – “There has never lived a more loyal squire,” he tells Pod simply. Two misfits to the end.
The show’s most reliable source of moral decency is Sam. He stepped up last night as well, engaging Gilly in one of the most frank discussions of omnipresent rape culture in the Game of Thrones universe I’ve seen. His friends or not, there are a hundred men at Castle Black, “and they’re all thinking of you.” Gilly’s reversal of the question in an attempt to ferret out Sam’s own desire for her was both a bit thrilling and a bit disturbing. Is that what a woman does when she wants to claim her own sexuality? Or what she does when the world has taught her she has no value apart from her sexuality?
Sam’s decision to squirrel Gilly away in the nearby brothel also echoed Tyrion’s decision to finally force Shae to flee King’s Landing. Sam lacks Tyrion’s arrogance and self-possession, so his own desperation and confusion in concocting the plan were all too close to the surface. At the same time, we’ve now had two consecutive episodes in which a man has made a unilateral decision to protect a woman, and she has misinterpreted it as a personal slight. The motif is wearing a little thin.
Sansa’s horror at Littlefinger’s murder of Sir Dontos was also a show of decency, though complicated by the utter powerlessness that has dogged Sansa throughout the show. It’s unclear whether Littlefinger’s reveal that Dontos was paid off, and that the necklace he gave Sansa was forgery had any effect on the young woman’s moral assessments. Sansa remains one of Game of Thrones most frustrating and inscrutable characters. My own hope is that she will be one of its most prominent “slow-burn” ones as well – finally at some point placed in a position of real leverage, and finally having endured so much that she must act to roll back at least some of the horror that surrounds her.
Amongst the Lannister clan, meanwhile, decency seems to have fled entirely. It was brutal to watch Tywin mock his dead grandson – while literally standing over the boy’s corpse – by instructing his still-living grandson in how to be a good king. And the effect on Cercei was pronounced. As Tyrion once observed: say what you will about the woman, she clearly loves her children.
Then there was Jaime’s decision to reinitiate his relationship with his sister by sexually assaulting her a few feet from Joffrey’s corpse. Over at The Week, Scott Meslow observed that this is a noticeable alteration from the books, in which their coupling is much more clearly consensual. But I don’t think the change was the miscalculation he paints it as. Meslow misunderstands the nature of Jaime’s character arc: a genuine moral alteration may still be in the works for him, but at this point what Jaime’s primarily struggling with is the loss of power that came with getting his hand chopped off. His return to King’s Landing has come with the fantasy that everything can finally go back to what it was, and his rage at Cercei is a product of the realization that’s not going to happen. But Meslow’s also correct that the change from the books does nothing to help Game of Thrones’ already profoundly lop-sided balance of sexual power.
Finally, in what was probably the most morally complicated moment of last night, there was Arya’s genuine outrage when her erstwhile protector and newfound partner in crime beat and robbed from a man who had shown them nothing but generosity. It’s hard to dispute the Hound’s veracity when he points out that there are far worse people in Westeros than he. (Or his prediction that the man and his daughter will likely be dead by winter.) But more importantly, the question must be asked: given all she herself has done at this point, is Arya really in any position to judge? Yes, she has not harmed any “innocents” yet, but innocence is a fraught concept – in our world as well as hers. Can we really say she bothered to understand why the people she hates came to be the way they are? Arya has set herself up as judge, jury and executioner as surely as the Hound has, with the only discernible difference being that we the audience should presumably trust Arya with that power because of her innate and superior character.
But trusting in the inherent goodness of any particular person – including yourself – is not a smart move in this world. On the other hand, that makes the goodness all the more valuable when it does occasionally bubble up.