Saturday, 20 April 2013

A Tornado Of Transactions

With one of our characters getting themselves a promotion to Master of Coins this week, "Walk of Punishment" was always going to be an episode in which thoughts of economy and currency were going to intrude.  Apparently the show-runners weren't at all unafraid to jump into this particularly murky lake with both feet, though as usual some parts of the overall theme were less literal than others.  Check your coin-purse is secure and your allies have received their customary bribes, then, as we ask ourselves what's for sale, what the price is, and whether or not we can ever hope to afford it.

We've already talked at some length about this theme of consideration and reflection that's been running through the first few episodes of this season, as Westeros takes a breather after the Blackwater and tries to settle on what calamitous events it'll go for next.  The topic of money and expenditure however is a good one to start things moving forwards again. When your counting your coppers and running scenarios through your head, it's because sooner or later you intend to buy something.

Of course, with winter coming on and almost one hundred thousand dead, things are starting to get a bit tight.  Even Tywin Lannister, the richest man this side of the Narrow Sea, is feeling the pinch, mainly because he's expended some thirty or forty thousand men in order to secure a throne some three million in debt to the Iron Bank of Braavos - to say nothing of the three million of his own money King Robert was so good as to piss away.  To make matters worse, Robb Stark has demonstrated an infuriating tendency to utterly crush any army sent against him, which means that spending another fortune to raise another force - weapons, armour and food aren't exactly cheap, even if the men themselves don't get paid; I'm not sure how wages work in a feudal army - would basically be throwing good money after bad, something Tywin is unlikely to be very enthusiastic about.

Of course, there's also the cost in lives to consider, but there's never been any indication that Tywin cares about or even understands the difference.  When you have as much gold as the Lannisters, people are just another kind of currency.  Even Tyrion, by all appearances the most empathic member of his family, has a tendency to find solutions by converting gold into manpower.  Or whorepower, in this case.  What better way to build Pod's confidence than to pay whores to refuse payment after spending the day with him?[1]

This should be enough to start the gears turning in the viewer's mind.  If Tyrion can buy confidence, what else will Lannister gold support?  If Tywin can't buy a military victory - and apparently he's down to generals so stupid they can be beaten by a man so unskilled he can't shoot a man already dead - then what else can he pay for to give Robb a hopefully fatal headache?

The King in the North has the exact opposite problem.  If he had the resources of the Lannisters and their new allies the Tyrells, this war would already be over.  Instead, he's hoarding his forces like a miser whilst he tries to come up with a new plan.  Two hundred Northmen dead at Harrenhal, now two hundred Riverlanders dead defending a mill. Robb's army is dying bit by bit; a death by a thousand cuts.  Robb has a human connection to his forces it would never occur to Tywin to cultivate, but even so, the war has him thinking of his forces as what Littlefinger would call "numbers on a page".  It's a less heartless form of viewing  men as a currency to be saved or spent, but the basic concept is still there.

This shouldn't be surprising, of course.  The link between man and money is everywhere in this strange-but-familiar world the show inhabits.  When Mance Rayder stands in the centre of the White Walker's horseflesh collage, he notes that the Lord Commander "gambled... and lost", as though the death of some two hundred or more Night's Watchmen were reminiscent of a poor dice roll in some dingy tavern.  But then in the lands beyond the Wall things are always different, and this case, more literal.  After all, is not Craster literally buying his continued survival with the lives of his sons? Isn't the whole of Westeros, come to that, even if they forgot the why of it all generations ago.

But for the ultimate expression of this philosophy, we head to Slaver's Bay and the city of Astapor.  In Westeros gold can be converted into manpower, but only in the cities of Old Ghis can the process be reversed.  A few handfuls of seasick Dothraki may be exchanged for ready cash, or their equivalent in lethal slave soldiers.  Here man really is simply one more kind of coin, and the slaver masters of Astapor no different from bankers, save that bankers seldom mutilate the contents of their vaults.

Dany, herself essentially sold as a slave just two years earlier, is no fan of the idea, even before encountering the eponymous execution esplanade/tourist attraction (never offer water to someone being crucified, by the way; that's just tempting people to have their agonising death extended).  I've argued before that there's little difference between expecting free men to follow your orders in battle up to and including laying down their lives, and demanding the same thing from slaves.  Indeed, as Jorah Mormont makes exceptionally clear, there's a major upside involved, which is that the fall of enemy cities can now be achieved without the attendant cost in human life (see, I'm doing it now).  And all Dany has to do is sell her principles along with her dragon.

The smallfolk of Westeros could be forgiven for not caring about the cost of Dany's scruples, of course - even if her definition of sacrifice is rather more convincing than that of Melisandre's, who unless I miss my guess means by "sacrifice" the hunting down of royal bastards and the theft of their blood.  If her primary aim really was to save the lives of innocents, she could easily achieve this by not invading.  Procuring the Unsullied will lower the casualty rate,but not by any means to zero.  However reluctant she is on the subject, we're still in the territory of those who would buy their desires in the expenditure of human blood.

This, at least on the surface, is what makes the Brotherhood Without Banners unique. Men aren't money with them, men are the land.  It's a straight line from this attitude to Thoros' insistence that Arya is neither prisoner nor hostage, despite the obvious financial benefits to selling her to either side in the surrounding conflict.  Of course, perhaps the Brotherhood are simply better at hiding their true viewpoint than everyone else.  Freedom fighters seldom keep their high morals for very long, whatever their initial intentions.  I hope they manage to stick to it a bit longer, though.  Hot Pie deserves a bit of peace and quiet.

What we've learnt here, then, is that even people with the best of intentions can fall into the trap of mistaking multiple deaths for a simple transaction.  That's not all the episode has to say on the subject, however.  Through Catelyn Stark we are once more reminded of the cost of war - both her father and her two younger sons were lost whilst she was elsewhere, following her eldest through his war.  Littlefinger widens our focus by demonstrating how the acquisition of both titles and spouses work as transactions in Westeros - and allowed Tyrion a nice moment when he tells Littlefinger "Enjoy the Eyrie" and reminds us that Baelish may well have no idea just what he's signing up for.

And then there's Jaime.  Watching this for the first time, the theme of what one buys and how one pays for it struck me as so strong that I assumed his mutilation would follow from a different cause - that, unlike in the book, Jaime would not try to talk his captors out of raping Brienne, but actually rise to her defence, stealing a sword from someone and hacking away to defend her honour before ultimately losing his hand.

Instead, what Jaime ends up buying with the loss of his sword hand is... nothing.  Nothing at all.  A stupid waste brought about by hubris, and nothing more.

But then, that's Westoros, isn't it?  The rules of trade aren't any more reliable than the rules of love, or the rules of war, as Bronn is kind enough to point out by refusing to grant the most basic principles of money-lending.  Money can do a lot of things, but it can't do everything.  On the other hand, it can do things no-one might expect, something that might turn out to be to both Tywin and Dany's advantage.  Alternatively, it can be actively counter-productive, as Jaime just learnt to terrible cost.

So what is it that's going to be bought next?  And who's going to be the one to pay for it?

[1] Several people have argued that this is what happened, and Tyrion's interest in Pod's sexual prowess just a smokescreen.  It certainly strikes me as the sort of thing Tyrion would do, even if the scene is played entirely straight and we're told nothing more.  Mainly, though, I'm determined to believe that Tyrion was working the angles because I can't believe any show - even and especially one that's taken such a beating over it's use of nudity - would be stupid enough in 2013 to imply that medieval prostitutes got any pleasure out of their situation.


Jamie said...

Interesting analysis, but I disagree with your conclusion regarding Jaime. The transaction is quite clear to my mind: he bought Brienne's safety with his; he convinced Locke that Brienne's honour was worth not being 'besmirched', but in the process robbed Locke and his men from some immediate satisfaction that they had clearly been looking forward to. Jaime's smug arguments instead of sitting back meekly and saying nothing made him the ideal alternate avenue through which they could let off steam, with a little light mutilation.

Strangely enough, though, despite this view of Jaime fitting in with the commercial theme you've explored, I didn't approach this episode from your point of view. My reading was that it was primarily an exploration of disempowerment, of being forced to relinquish your inclinations due to the power someone else has over you - and, if you have gone against their wishes, the retribution that ensues. But YMM (and clearly does)V :)

SpaceSquid said...

Hmm. I think I agree with you up to a point, actually, in that if Jaime had kept his mouth shut, Brienne would have been raped, and he'd still have a sword-hand. In that sense at least, the transaction is there.

Having rewatched the scene, though, I'm still of the opinion that Locke's decision to chop his hand off - and note that Locke didn't head off to join the rape gang, so the idea of him needing to let off steam some other way doesn't work - didn't come from saving Brienne, but from the insufferable manner Jaime displayed, talking about how awesome his father was and condescending to Locke throughout.

If Jaime had simply mentioned the sapphires on offer (without then annoying Locke by explaining what they were), if he hadn't been flashing his sixty dollar words, and if he hadn't requested he be released from his chains - all whilst bragging about how awesome his family is - I think he'd still be able to play the cello. So yes, maybe he wouldn't have lost his hand if Brienne had been raped. But he paid with his hand not for saving her, but for being an arrogant jerk.

Care to expand further on your disempowerment theory?

Jamie said...

Locke clearly implied he was going to join the gang rape later, so I disagree there (I believe the line was something like 'I've never had a woman in armour'). I get your point that the transaction was more complex than I perhaps implied before, but I'd argue that it wasn't that Jaime paid for being an arrogant jerk; rather, he just behaved as an arrogant jerk after the point where he assumed the transaction was done. But it turned out that he badly misjudged the price and the manner of payment. I am not at all sure that payment would not have been extracted from him in some way, shape, or form from him at a later point by Locke, had he been able to restrain his attitude at that particular point, but I suppose it's not really possible to know.

I'm not sure I have the time to expand on the disempowerment theme to any great lengths, but I thought it was fairly strongly exhibited throughout: Jon's predicament amongst the wildlings, forced to do their bidding to earn their trust, with knowledge of the consequences spelt out by Mance should he not; the Night's Watch forced to seek Craster's aid under duress, and clearly chafing about it; the Hound and Arya under different levels of bondage with the Brotherhood without Banners, but bondage nonetheless; Theon in the North, desperately throwing himself on the mercy of another to escape his torture, only to discover, perhaps, how deeply enmeshed he is; the Small Council, jockeying for position under Tywin's gaze, but despite their pretensions to one position or another forced to carry out the tasks he sets for them, whether or not they consider themselves suitable; Edmure Tully being chastised for going against his King's orders, evidently previously unaware of the true nature of the relationship between him and his nephew; the discussions of slavery between Dany and her advisors, and her apparent reliquishment of a dragon - essentially her child, and more unique than most children - in order to get what she feels she needs; and, finally, Jaime and Brienne, in possibly the most obvious display of powerlessness in the face of total control.

Of course, much of this links in with transactions of one kind or another, so I'm not disputing your thesis' validity; disempowerment was just what struck me as a running theme on viewing the episode, and upon further rumination.

SpaceSquid said...

Fair point about Locke's comment, which I'd missed/forgotten (though I'm still not seeing how someone would simultaneously be relaxed enough to let his men have all the fun first and yet so het up he'd immediately want to chop something up once he realises his later entertainment is immediate gain at the expense of long-term reward). That said, last night's episode rather suggests that Jaime would have ended up horribly maimed no matter what happened; Locke is clearly just a horrible, horrible man.

I don't really have anything to say against your "disempowerment" theme. At most, I'd point out that some of your examples might just boil down to disempowerment being a fundamental building block of drama - depending on how vaguely one defined disempowerment, in fact, one could argue drama cannot exist without it.

That said, it's not like a general approach to the idea of transactions isn't vulnerable to the same charge, and my discussion of Episode 4 is going to revolve around issues of control, which is close enough to discussing empowerment that I've no wish to criticise the idea here.

At the end of the day, there's no reason one episode can't sustain two themes, particularly ones so fundamental to the nature of storytelling.