Thursday, 25 April 2013

A Cyclone Of Control

Considering that ending, there was never much chance I'd spend this post talking about much else (at least now that my rage over Podgate has begun to abate).  But, as usual, not every instance of this episode's general theme was as obvious as the ceremonial transferal of control from one person to another.  Take a moment to check who's strings you pull, and who pulls yours, and then let's talk awhile about "And Now His Watch Is Ended".

(TV spoilers after the jump).

I want to start off talking about Dany.  Not just because the show served up what was arguably the most effective episode ending since Eddard Stark met his end, but because it's worth considering the motivations of the Unsullied's former masters, now d/b/a barbecue scraps in sandals.

It's been suggested in certain circles that Dany's solution to her dilemma was pretty obvious, and as a result, the Great Masters were utter idiots.  The first criticism is entirely fair, as it happens.  Dany has already burned a woman alive and sealed two enemies in a vault to asphyxiate (or maybe starve to death).  To assume she'd play fair with a bunch of sadistic slavers she despises would be fairly naive, even if the show chose to hide the fact she could speak Valyrian until the last minute (Kraznyk doesn't find out any earlier in the book, but the reader does).

We should note, though, that the Great Masters almost certainly know none of this.  Moreover, consider their position.  Even though the TV show makes almost no mention of this, it's clear from Kraznyk's attitude, the numbers being cast around, and the name of the entire region, that slavery in general and the Unsullied in particular are massive business.  They have reason not to suspect they will be challenged by a young woman with a few dozen green-faced Dothraki.  Far more formidable potential buyers will have come their way in the past, and massacred exactly nobody.  This, after all, is only good business sense.  Kill the people who make the Unsullied, and there will be no more Unsullied.  Moreover, trying to do so will be difficult in the extreme, since the Great Masters themselves have access to the eunuch super-soldiers.

Where Kraznyk and his colleagues make their mistake is in not recognising that Dany simultaneously requires the Unsullied and hates the idea of making more.  Using the ones she buys to prevent more from being made isn't the self-defeating idea it would be elsewhere, it's a logical progression.  Their true mistake though is in allowing Dany to buy the entirety of their stock.  No untested customer should ever be sold more than half the Unsullied available at most, so as to ensure they cannot do exactly what Dany did.  A little digging into Dany's past (or even simply asking Melissandre to comment more fully and carefully on Dany's responses) would have led the Masters to realise that their first line of defence against attack - people want more Unsullied - had fallen, meaning they absolutely had to fall back on the second.

Of course, they neglected to do this, because they wanted a dragon.

For all that it wasn't a particularly surprising end result, then, the final moments of the episode do make a strong point - nominal ownership and actual control are not the same thing (Varys made the same point to Littlefinger last week, of course).  Oftentimes the downfall of characters in Game Of Thrones stems directly from them believing they have control over people who, for whatever reason, have other ideas.  The most obvious example of this is of course Eddard Stark himself, but it's also how poor old Jeor Mormont died in a shit-stained hut miles from home, stabbed to death by a man who had sworn an oath to obey him.  It's how Craster was brought low in his own home, convinced to the end that a man's hovel is his castle.

It might be tempting for those of us here in the 21st Century to suggest Mormont and Craster were also more than a little foolish, in that both of them relied on the former's command of his battered and bone-weary clutch of survivors.  I wouldn't say I'm entirely unsympathetic to such thoughts, but we need to remember to remember how different Westeros' world is than ours.  The relationship between those in control and those under control is not how we have come to understand it.  The clearest example of this is the Hound's defense at his murder trial: he claims he murdered a child because Prince Joffrey ordered him to and that's enough to bring in an element of uncertainty as to his guilt.  He's literally arguing "I was only obeying orders" and a group of men almost defined by their status of deserters say to each other "Well, fair enough, maybe".  Joffrey made the choice to murder a kid, and the method through which that choice was enacted is essentially irrelevant.  Joffrey had the choice, and therefore the control

(Another example of the difference between our comprehension of power and that of our characters is Robb's fury at learning Edmure Tully had overstepped his authority last episode.  There are people who blame Robb for not taking the seemingly obvious step of just informing Edmure of his plan ahead of time, which isn't a ridiculous point, but it can be taken too far by those who don't grasp the utter unquestioning devotion even the most important lords are expected to show to whomever is one step further up the ladder of power.  More on this issue with regard to Robb can be found here.)

Much like the slavers of Astapor, then, both Craster and Mormont can be forgiven for not seeing what was coming (Eddard Stark rather less, since he was ultimately betrayed by people he thought he'd already bribed).  They are, of course, no less dead for that.  And like I've said, this problem of misunderstanding one's level of control is a common one in Westeros.

This realisation makes Tywin's announcement that he plans to bring his grandson (of course, Tywin doesn't know that in addition to his grandson Joffrey is also, er, his grandson; never mind) particularly interesting.  We learned last season that Joffrey's control over the city of King's Landing was not what he thought it was, and the echoes of that are still being felt (watch Joffrey in his greeting of the people this week; he looks terrified that raising his arm will just give the mob a larger target to throw their cow-shit at), but we also learned that Cersei's control of him wasn't what she thought it was, either.  Even Tyrion might have been a little disconsolate upon awakening from his post-battle coma to find just how easily his hill-men had been bribed into fucking off.  Will Tywin be the fourth Lannister in a row to bite off more than he can chew? Has the man whose exchanged thirty thousand troops for a three million loss and a further three million debt also found himself as the most unsafe child-minder in the Seven Kingdoms?

Even amongst the filthy rich and powerful, in other words, problems of control can be crippling.  This is perhaps what we might want to call the Mollari Revelation, after the final fate of one of genre television's most interesting characters.  Power and control are not the same thing.  Indeed, in so much as control over our own lives is an expression of choice, the two can be entirely independent or even work against each other.  Just look at poor Sansa; the (presumed) heir to Robb Stark's kingdom, but with no choice other than to go along with whichever external power wants to use her for that fact.

One of the major themes of Game of Thrones is the idea that this is true across every strata of Westerosi culture.  We've already talked about the highest level; the four Lannisters circling each other warily in King's Landing.  Let's go down one step, and talk about their missing member, Jaime.

There is a fantasy race in China Mieville's exceptional but enraging Perdido Street Station that define all crime as being forms of "choice-theft".  Murder is the worst kind of choice theft, because it removes all future choices from the victim entirely.  Rape is almost as bad, because so many choices are negated at the time, and closed off or tainted in the future.  The idea is that all crime is a mechanism by which the victim's ability to control their own lives is in some way limited, whether temporarily or permanently.

It should be pretty clear that an awful lot of choices were stolen from Jaime Lannister when Locke decided his sword-hand was surplus to requirements (though I've little doubt Bran Stark would swap a missing hand for his useless legs in a White Harbor second, so sympathy here is limited).  Of course, being the heir of the richest house in Westeros came with far more choices than most people could ever dream about - including of course to piss it away by joining the Kingsguard.  This, I think, is what Brienne was getting at when she laid into him over his willingness to give up (obviously some reverse psychology was being employed as well).  The direct argument that Jaime should consider himself lucky because he's only mutilated instead of being a farmer is hard to credit; I don't want to start comparing rich amputees against fully whole labourers, but it's certainly not obviously clear that losing a hand is preferable to losing a fortune.  But where Brienne is absolutely on the money is that Jaime is experiencing the theft of choice many others suffered on the day they were born.  Or, worse, they suffered for who they were born to, and then suffered again when people like Jaime burned their villages because one rich family started an argument with another rich family.  The hierarchy of Westeros is a form of indentured choice theft, and Jaime doesn't get to give up because fate waited until his early thirties to make that clear.

(Incidentally, how darkly funny is it that Jaime's boasts and threats regarding the father that he can never shut up about ends up with him losing his trade through mutilation, just like the singer who got on the end of the son he can never talk about, who was pissed off about an insult to the guy he thought was his father.  That's some irony right there, my friends.)

So if power isn't control, then what is?  In part, it's understanding one's choices.  This can work in parallel with power, if necessary, but then the latter is a tool rather than the goal.  Take Varys, for instance, who's goal - aside from serving the realm, he claims, and trying to fuck over Littlefinger probably does help in that regard - was to gain revenge upon the sorcerer who mutilated him to acquire spare change for an interdimensional phone call.  That required international influence, and so Varys chose to build up an intelligence network that was ultimately capable of sending him a naked mouth-sewn sorcerer by FedEx.  On the other hand, who has less power in the show at this moment than Theon Greyjoy, a man utterly unable to grasp even the basics of the choices now being presented to him.

Traditionally, the second half of a season of Game of Thrones is where control is lost, or found to never have existed at all (this is also the case with pretty much the second half of any season of any show ever, at least those which don't include the justifiably maligned reset button).  This season has set up that inevitability very well.  We've paused to remember the cost of the first two years, and explored the hidden natures and motivations of characters both old and new.  We've run through the various costs inherent in playing the game of thrones, and now we've considered the fundamental nature of the thing everyone, no matter their station, is ultimately striving for.

In the most basic dramatic terms possible, we've established what everyone involved is aiming for.  Time to bring in the reasons they can't get it.

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