The promise of power and the thought of sex.
Some episodes of Game of Thrones are harder to find general talking points for others. Thankfully, this time around a character is good enough to spell things out for us: how does one hold power without friends?
(Yaar! Spoilers ahead, m'lads!)
We've talked before about how those close to you can prove a weakness. It's what forced Ned Stark to confess atop the steps of the Sept of Baelor, and it may yet bring down Tyrion too, unless Shae can learn to fly under the radar a little better.
But is doing it alone going to get the job done any better? What does it matter being the leader, if no-one actually gives a shit whether you are or not?
Consider Joffrey, for instance. There's a man who quite clearly has no interest whatsoever in making friends. Or, maybe it's more that he simply assumes everyone is automatically his friend, all the time, because he's the king. Either way, he spends this episode having first his fiance humiliated and beaten, and having far worse done to a whore to send a message to his uncle. His wife-to-be is getting assaulted, his mother gets death threats, and his uncle gets broken prostitutes delivered to his door. Doubtless that last part is because Tyrion had the temerity to point out to him that constantly being a douche to all and sundry was the Mad King's raison d'etre, and it didn't get him very far. You'd hope Joffrey might see at least some lesson in the fact that the man Robert usurped lost his kingdom after executing Lord Stark and failing to take the resultant northern rebellion seriously enough.
Mind you, you'd think Joffrey's mother would have learned the same lesson, and been too smart to raise her boy believing "everyone who isn't us is our enemies." This is the Lannister problem in a nutshell: when you have no friends, you can never truly defeat your enemies, because destroying one lot just leaves a vacuum for the next lot to come along. Right now, the Lannisters are at war with three of the Seven Kingdoms, as well as the Riverlands, they lost their ships to a fourth ten years ago, and two more actively loathe them. Cersei's response to all this is to argue the only kingdom that hasn't rebelled in the last two decades can't be trusted enough to be brought in as an ally in the war.
In short, as is in fairness made much clearer in the books, Cersei is a master of tactics, and thoroughly wretched at strategy, because she only uses the carrot (often found between her legs, if that isn't too disturbing a thought) whilst she's waiting for the stick to arrive. She always assumes today's allies are tomorrow's enemies, and treats them accordingly. It's not hard to work out the flaw in that approach.
Let's move on to the Baratheon brothers, who we see on-screen together for the first time. Watching them, it's like someone cut King Robert down the middle and grew his brothers from the halves. Renly, full of lust for life (amongst other things) is all carrot - his army only becomes a stick if he ever gets round to using it. Stannis, in comparison, is all stick Even his concessions sound like threats as he grinds them out, and amount to just pretending Renly never took up arms against him.
It's because of this that Renly is so adamant that Stannis has no chance of becoming king. "No-one wants you" he tells Stannis plainly, "A man without friends is a man without power". This is the nub of it, of course. Stannis has no friends, and has the smallest force of any of the four kings currently campaigning on the mainland. Joffrey and Cersei have no friends either, and, like Stannis, seem to have no interest in offering anything that might change that.
But is it really so simple that a lack of friends means a lack of power? Clearly there's something to it. Note for instance that Daenerys only survives the Red Waste because she finds a friend amongst the Thirteen of Qarth, though that scene didn't really work for me, since I couldn't come up with any reason why Dany wouldn't show her dragons other than budget trimming . Tyrion is certainly working under this principle, and has been for a while. First Bronn, now Lancell the Imp is doing very well at finding (or installing) friends in the right places.
The strongest counter-argument to the idea though is surely Littlefinger, a man universally mistrusted and loathed almost as often. No-one in fourteen episodes has given any indication of considering him a friend, and yet he (and Varys, for that matter) keep on going, playing behind the scenes. So how does Littlefinger do it? His machinations this episode give at least a partial answer: there is always someone who needs him. Robert needed him to make money, as does Joffrey. Now, Cat may need him, in order to ensure she sees her daughters again. It's perhaps ironic that Melisandre is attempting to make the same pitch regarding Stannis, whether the realm wants him or not, they need him. For the night is dark and full of terrors.
Of course, Littlefinger's approach is its own form of stick and carrot. It's just that the threat is that the carrots stop flowing, and the stick will only come into play once he's gone, like a dead-man's lever linked to some incomprehensible Goldberg device which will do who knows what once it shudders into life.
So what happens next? Will Stannis begin to soften, or Renly harden? Will Tyrion finally force Joffrey or his mother to learn the importance of actually being nice to people from time to time? And most importantly, will anyone on this show ever get pregnant without it being an incestuous "abomination", a graveworm-riddled mutant, or a motherfucking terrifying shadow-man?
A few random extra comments before I sign off:
- Loved Robb's exchanges with the battlefield surgeon. Had I been him, I'd played up the fact that it's pretty tough to imagine any king being worse than Joffrey, but even so, Talissa's point about not having a follow-on plan is an excellent one, to say nothing of exceptionally relevant to modern-day international intervention;
- Hate hate hate the new Mountain, who looks like he's on sticks rather then the seven foot of terror we saw last season. Maybe the change will make more sense later (maybe they figured the new guy a better actor), but right now it seems entirely pointless.
- "I invoke Sumai!" is exactly the sort of dialogue this show should be avoiding, it sounds awkward and it's cliched.
- On the other hand, the Mountain's men win an award for the most inventive and original method of torture I've seen in a while. Simple but effective. They ain't gonna run out of rats, after all...
See you next week.
 Also, did anyone else wish the spice trader was played by Wallace Shawn? "You have dragons with you? Inconceivable!"