As I’ve said before, I’m a fan of the theory that all of the political maneuvering in A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones can really be boiled down to the rivalry between Varys and Littlefinger. Once again the show gives us a scene in which the two of them face off, explaining how decisions made by other seemingly in-control characters such as Olenna Tyrell and Tywin Lannister, are really down to them. They stand for opposite values: Varys for order or the Realm, Littlefinger for chaos. Both acknowledge the political ideal of the Realm to be a fictional construct, but whereas Varys believes that the lie must be sustained in the best interests of the people Littlefinger sees the opportunity for his own advancement of power. “Chaos isn’t a pit,” he croons, “it’s a ladder.” And he is scaling that ladder, one rung at a time.
Whether showrunners David and Dan are privy to any secret information from G.R.R. Martin, they certainly seem to be card-carrying members of this theory given the amount of times they’ve written these Varys/Littlefingers stare-downs. Conleth Hill and Aiden Gillen are two masters of the unsavory, making these scenes some of the juiciest. They are also two of the funniest characters. There’s something perfect about Littlefinger’s admission that he’s counted the two hundred or so swords in the Iron Throne and found their number disappointing: He is truly patience personified. Varys is a master of one-liners, and he loves to dig at Littlefinger such as when he calls the “ugly yet appealing” Iron Throne “the Lysa Arryn of chairs.” He knows that, for Littlefinger, Lysa is just another rung which must be climbed on his way to the top. Whether or not we should be rooting for Varys is another question entirely, but it would seem that the political strife is all leading to a final conflict between these two.
Neither Varys nor Littlefinger, at this point anyway, has much to do with the fringes of the story, where the magic (and the true chaos) abides. Both are totally urban and urbane. Out in the wild, we’re given glimpses of where the real story may be happening: With Dany and her dragons, Jon Snow and Bran up in the North and beyond the wall, and wherever the followers of the Lord of Light lurk. I was surprised to see Melisandre show up where the Brotherhood were, and even more surprised that she came for Gendry, but it seems as though Gendry is taking the place of Edric, Shireen’s cousin in the books, which makes sense because honestly, how many bastard sons of King Robert do you need running about in this show? Not having read past book three, I honestly don’t know what fate Gendry will meet at Dragonstone, which is sort of exciting.
Generally I choose certain scenes in an episode to focus on, but in this episode I’m finding that every scene is worth discussing detail. Ygritte’s declaration of loyalty to Jon Snow, instead of being romantic, flattering or comforting, came across distinctly as a threat. Not just the kind of empty threats of physical dismemberment which are her stock and trade, but an actual moment in which he is being presented with a choice and instructed to be loyal. Now that he has deserted his Night’s Watch vows by sleeping with her, can we trust him when he says that he’ll never betray her? Is he fooling himself, or outright lying? Maybe he doesn’t even know. Their climbing scenes and especially the view from the top of the Wall were beautifully shot. With a TV budget Game of Thrones can’t do epic cinematography all the time, but when they do they go for the money shot and it pays off.
Then of course we still have the closed door scenes in King’s Landing. Tywin and Olenna were sparring delightfully, and though Tywin had more leverage it’s hard to say who had the upper hand. In Olenna’s favor, as least she recognizes the flaws in her own hand, such as Loras’ sexual preferences, and at least Loras is begrudgingly willing to play along despite those preferences. Tywin is willfully ignorant of his children’s incestuous relationship. That he “wins” the scene is incidental to how much power he wields: The choices the Lannisters have made and their monstrous behavior towards each other will bear fruit, for Tywin not the least.
And of course we got poor Tyrion who had to explain their latest predicament to poor Sansa in front of poor Shae. To use Tyrion’s word, “awkward.” As always his humor both undercuts and enhances his ridiculous bad luck. The writers are milking this unromantic quadrangle of Tyrion, Cersei, Loras and Sansa – in which no one is getting who or what they want – to hilarious effect. My favorite line in the episode was his honest admission to Cersei that “it’s hard to say which of the four of us is getting the worst of this arrangement.” If that weren’t insightful enough, he admits that it’s “probably Sansa,” although we the audience know that that is not true. As Sansa watches Littlefinger’s boat sail away for the Vale, weeping for the unfairness of her life and the stupidity of not taking Littlefinger up on his offer, we know that she’s much better off with Tyrion than with Littlefinger. Martin has a great ability to great dramatic irony and complex shades of gray, and that moment was one of the best in an episode filled with memorable moments.