Monday, 23 April 2012

Rebel Waltz

A voice that called ,"Stand 'til we fall!
We stand 'til all the boys fall!"

Last week we discussed the difficulties that arise from trying to protect some assets at the risk of others; the idea that the exercise of power (however it is being manifested at the time) is often a balancing act.  In "What is Dead may Never Die", that thought is returned to more than once.  In addition, however, we take a look at some of the inhabitants of Westeros who either don't realise that balance is required, or who are aware of the idea in theory and yet choose to ignore it completely.

(Spoilers below.)

We start north of the Wall, and with the biggest disappointment of the season so far.  The appearance of a White Walker and Jon's braining by Craster at the end of last episode marked a major departure from the book, and implied there could be major alterations to the story of the Watch during a period in which, to be frank, the equivalent book chapters lacks punch.

Instead, Craster simply throws Jon at Mormont's feet, and demands the Watch sling their hook.  As a resolution to a cliffhanger, it feels like a bit of a cop-out.  As a wrenching return to Martin's railroad tracks after a fascinating detour (however brief), it's actually kind of annoying.

It does give Mormont an opportunity to hammer home some hard truths to his steward, however, and link a dominant theme of last episode with one of "...Die": stopping Craster from sacrificing his sons could mean losing untold numbers of Rangers down the road, and - though he doesn't really make this point - leave them without a "friendly" keep to fall back too if everything, ahem, goes south.

Of course, one of the reasons Jon needs to be told this is because he's so much like his father.  Eddard Stark never saw power as a series of balances or exchanges, he simply had an ordering system that he followed rigidly until the day he died. Safety trumped comfort, honour trumped safety, but family trumped everything.  Jon sees babies being murdered, and assumes the only thing to do is to stop it.  Mormont encourages taking a wider view.  It's exceptionally interesting to compare this scene with the massacre of the bastards at the end of the season opener.  Was Joffrey's crime that he didn't have enough of a reason to kill babies?  What if he was right that it was the only way to prevent this continent-wide civil war growing? Would we view these events any differently had Slynt's butchery simply been mentioned, and the fate of Craster's baby son been more graphic?

Speaking of what may threaten Joffrey, we have our first glimpse of Renly this year, as he watches his lover get the crap kicked out of him by Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie, who seems well cast so far).  For a battle-hardened commander, it would be clear what needs balancing - the marshaling of ones strength and a strike before the enemy can become too well entrenched.  Renly's army is twice the size of Tywin Lannister's true, but he has a far greater chance of taking King's Landing whilst Tywin is busy with Robb Stark.  Should Tywin finally manage to beat a boy who's first battle was only a few months ago, Renly's job gets that much harder.

Instead, Renly waits, so convinced that his six-figure army is unstoppable that he has no interest in anything so distasteful as bloodshed.  It allows him to keep his illusion, you seem this King of Summer.  It allows him to ignore the fact that even if he wins, he cannot protect the realm without sacrificing thousands of the men who love him.  Right now, as Catelyn points out, this is just a game - a dance, in fact, this rebel waltz - but once the cold war turns hot, an awful lot of people are going to die. Boys of summer, and all that.

This refusal to appraise the conflicting demands of power returns to trouble Renly later in the episode, when he tries to bed Loras.  Loras, a youth so arrogant he can be impertinent about the speed at which another army is moving through battles his forces haven't so much as sniffed at, even this callow boy has enough smarts to realise Renly needs to impregnate Margaery as quickly as possible.  Robert risked his life and the lives of his closest friends to win the throne in a rebellion that claimed the lives of millions.  All Renly's being asked to do is to screw someone of the wrong sex.  Don't get me wrong, I'd be somewhat less than thrilled if I found myself needing to have sex with Ser Loras, but; dude.  Keep some perspective.

Renly isn't just refusing to see the balances and compromises (how does one win a war but protect one's men, how does one juggle love with the duty of a political marriage), he's wasting his power in the process.  Every day Margaery remains without child is a day everything could fall apart, as his bannermen become less and less happy marching for a man they mock for his effeminate behaviour.  Every day he fails to march, it becomes that much more likely that Tywin or Stannis might come up with something that might make things much more difficult, or that King's Landing will manage to amass sufficient defences to force a long and costly siege once Renly's forces reach the end of the Roseroad.

This is the other theme in this episode, how power can be squandered or lost.  We mentioned last week that power can be lost alongside one's life, that if you choose the wrong thing to protect you can lose everything. So it is, alas, with Yoren at the end of this episode (credit to the writers, by the way, for coming up with some final dialogue even better than "I could shave a spider's arse, if I wanted to!").  There are other ways to lose power, though.  One is to not realise one is even spending it, or to realise that but assume that power is infinite.

It isn't.  Or at least, thinking of power as being something that can be spent isn't quite right at all.  Joffrey ordered Robert's bastards killed and faced no consequences.  Cersei taunts the horribly shell-shocked Sansa, secure in the knowledge that there's nothing the Stark girl can do.  Even Tyrion seems somewhat too happy about the prospect of tweaking the Queen's nose, clever though his removal of first Slynt and then Pycelle were.

Power doesn't fade because it is spent.  Power fades in other ways, but that's not really what we're interested in here.  The mistake Joffrey and Cersei have made is to assume that using power against the powerless can't change anything.

In actual fact, as Tyrion tried to point out to his sister in Episode 2 (and we're likely to come back to this theme next episode), each time you fuck with someone, it makes it that much more likely to knock the pebble that dislodges the boulder that crushes you utterly.  Joffrey has been a prick to Arya, to Sansa, to Tyrion, and now to his mother, as well as calling his grandfather an idiot and ordering the Gold Cloaks to savagely murder a fair number of innocent boys.  That's a lot of pebbles.  Cersei has the same problem; she's hacked off almost everyone she's met, has been threatened with death by her own son, and is still screaming and raging that everything must be her way.

She doesn't see the balance either.  Look at her reaction when Tyrion doubles down on the Dorne marriage idea (as others have pointed out, it would be interesting to see what would have happened if Varys had proven the informer: how could Tyrion defend an alliance with Balon Greyjoy and keep a straight face?).  Tyrion's entirely in the right: Dorne is the only part of the Seven Kingdoms other than their own Westerlands to not have either risen up against the Lannisters, or have good reason to not help out (the Vale is ruled by the lion-hating aunt of Robb Stark, and as far as Tyrion knows, the Greyjoys are still helpless whilst Robb holds Theon).  All Cersei can see, though, is that she has a baby girl, and she wants her close.  This has been Cersei's problem throughout, in fact (perhaps it is more obvious in the books): she cannot understand the difference between power and getting what she wants.  Demonstrate the difference between the two, and she will flee in a rage.

In short, both the boy king and the queen regent are wasting their power, not because that power is lessening, but because each new idiotic move increases the odds that something is going to shift, and leave both of them on the shitty end of a spiked wall.

Over on the Iron Islands, we encounter a situation that is both very similar and completely different. Similar, because Balon is determined to go ahead with invading the North, despite knowing full well he won't be able to beat whichever force ultimately wins the Iron Throne, and despite the fact that he lost half of his children the last time he tried this dance.  Completely different, because it's clear from the last two episodes that he doesn't believe any of that for a moment.  Not truly.  He remembers what he lost, and he knows what he's risking.  He just pretends not to because he has no other choice.  This is what the Ironborn do, and so it is what he must do.  Patrick Malahide was an inspired casting choice, his lemon-sour tone and cold-blooded commands completely at odds with his haunted eyes.  Everyone else is fighting to gain something, or to reclaim something, that they intend to hold on to.  Balon can't do that, he tried and failed spectacularly.  He's fighting because he was unfortunate enough to survive the only battle that ever meant anything to him.

Two more quick ruminations on the nature and exercise of power.  First of all, I've seen people criticise Sansa's treatment of Shae, suggesting that it's hard to feel sympathy for Sansa when there's literally only one person in her life she can afford to be a bitch to, and she's a bitch to them.  I disagree, partially because Sophie Turner played the scene with such note-perfect high-strung hysteria that I don't see failing to have sympathy as being much of an issue, but mainly because it fits into a recurring theme in this series: pretty much everyone kicks downward.  But is Sansa's one opportunity to exert power going to loosen a pebble of its own?  How long before Shae gets tired of playing at subservience?

Lastly, let's talk about Varys and Tyrion.  Varys is making a different point to the one I am, but the two are not mutually exclusive.  Indeed, the Spider is also touching on the idea that events take on their own momentum (who was to blame for Ned Stark's death).  He's concerned with pointing out that power is an illusion, but in doing so, he perhaps rides over Tyrion's point too quickly.  It does depend on the sellsword.  Mainly, it depends on two things: who can give him the most, and who's been the biggest prick to him up to that point.

The entire working policy of Cersei and Joffrey is that they're so able to deal with the first criteria that the second doesn't matter.  That Sansa and Tyrion can be threatened at leisure, and pets and children can be dispatched without a thought.

How long will it be before they learn differently?  And, more to the point, exactly what is it that will finally teach them?

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