Now things are beginning to move. After the exposition of “Valar Dohaeris,” last night’s “Dark Wings, Dark Words” brought new character development and some genuine plays on the chessboard. And all the moves dealt in some way with the many faces of truth: as a weapon, as leverage, as power, as a secret, a bridge, or a burden.
For Arya, the truth of her identity was something she needed to keep hidden from the Brotherhood Without Banners, until it was finally pried loose by the unexpected arrival of the Hound. For Mance Rayder, the truth of impending supernatural invasion was the one blunt instrument with which he could unite a divided and tribal people. For Bran, who has finally encountered the Reed siblings, the truth that he’s a warg – a telepath able to enter the minds of animals – offers the first path to renewed powers since his injury took his legs. And for Theon, truth is merely a horrific game. His captor – presumably Ramsay Bolton, since Theon doesn’t appear at all in “A Storm of Swords” and the shows writers appear to be working off what we’re told in “A Feast For Crows” after the fact – tortures him until he confesses truths that don’t seem to yield any value other than the satisfaction of mere anthropological curiosity.
But it was the women of the “Game of Thrones” world who had to grapple with truth most poignantly last night.
In the case of Brienne, the towering female warrior who’s pledged to bring Jaime Lannister to King’s Landing in exchange for Lady Catelyn Stark’s daughters, that burden is quite literal. Physically restrained, Jaime resorted to indulging his nihilistic streak, peeling back her own physical awkwardness, her love for Renly, and Renly’s homosexuality, probing for a weakness or perhaps just an amusement. Brienne endured him admirably, perhaps even earning some piece of Jaime’s own unique brand of respect, but he couldn’t resist testing her fully. At which point, he bit off more than he could chew. It was an interesting and bracing diversion from the novel, which – in what may have been a fit of male wish fulfillment – portrayed Jaime as a nearly unstoppable swordsman even when shackled. They both paid the price for his arrogance.
For Catelyn herself, truth turned from a burden to a bridge. Her long monologue to Talisa last night, in which she named her own failure to love her husband’s illegitimate son as the cause of the avalanche of tragedy that’s struck the Starks, was hardly rational. But human decency is not a technocratic achievement – it arises from deeper, irrational forces. If Cat were not the sort to heap upon her shoulders grand narratives of sin and punishment and an impossible sense of duty, she probably wouldn’t be as admirable or noble or humane as she is. Certainly not in the tribal, religious, blood-soaked landscape of Westeros, where mere humans must not simply govern but rule. It’s a painful and beautiful demonstration of how all good things cannot go together.
Just as Cat couldn’t keep her promise to Jon, so Robb couldn’t keep his promise to Walder Frey, and thus married Talisa. However vibrant their relationship, that failure remains its bitter foundation. But it’s in their mutual failures that Talisa and Cat begin to come to some kind of understanding.
On the other hand, Olenna Tyrell – Margaery’s Tyrell’s grandmother and the aptly named “The Queen of Thorns” – found truth to be a critical tool with which to protect her granddaughter. By marrying Joffrey, Margaery has entered into the chess match of her life. The honest assessment of Joffrey’s nature they finally managed to ply from Sansa last night enabled Margaery to begin constructing a strategy for dealing with her sociopathic husband.
It’s never been clear to what extent, if any, Joffrey is a sexual being. The last time Tyrion tried to tame him with physical gratification, things did not turn out well for the prostitutes called upon to do the taming. But this time, Margaery Tyrell cracked the code quickly, rocketing expertly from girlish reticence and distress – confessing to just enough knowledge of Renly’s proclivities to both protect Joffrey’s ego and gain his confidence – to giddy delight in her husband’s entirely artificial capacity to deploy violence. By the end, she had him wrapped around her finger. It was a hell of a tightrope performance, and laid bare how equally dangerous and pathetic Joffrey really is.
But it was for Sansa that truth was at its most powerful and costly. The slow conversation by which Margaery and Olenna gained her confidence – breaking down her learned politeness and all the layers of dutiful artifice Sansa has constructed to survive, while slowly building a genuine camaraderie – was the centerpiece of last night’s episode. And the war between fear and trust, between survival and at least some modicum of psychological freedom, on Sophie Truner’s face when her character uttered the words “he’s a monster,” was its emotional capstone.
Whether a weapon, a shield, a tool, or simply a statement, truth is always a dark and terrible thing.