Sunday, 2 June 2013

A Squall Of Siblings

"Second son" is a strange way to describe someone.  It's a term that's doubly founded upon reference to someone else.  You don't get to be a second son unless there's been a first son, and a father before him (women are also required, though this being Westeros, they won't feature in such considerations as much as they should).  In the status-obsessed society of the Seven Kingdoms, it's a strange way to be defined, because it's all about your potential.  To a man of title, a second son is both insurance and risk.  Insurance because they offer you a second chance should your heir meet an early and unfortunate fate, and risk because raising a man to know maximum power is contingent upon his brother's death is a policy that can go very badly wrong.

(TV spoilers below)

In some sense, then, the arrival of second sons increase the likelihood of both the best case and worst case scenarios, being stable dynasty and civil war respectively.  Certainly that's the risk the Yunkaii have chosen for themselves by employing the Second Sons.  The Second Sons have no interest in fighting for the losing side, and they know - Daario Naharis best of all - that they are not powerless to make the choice over which side makes it out alive.  In many ways Dany's story in this episode is entirely functional - another chapter in the tale of how the Mhysa became - but the Sons themselves provide a link to the larger theme.

Actually, so does Dany herself, in a way. One of the recurring motifs in the show, like the books it's adapting - is the two ways this fictional world defines gender.  The first is biological, but the second is behavioural.  Dany's story is very much one the Westerosi would assume belonged to a man.  Carving out empires with armies and dragons is not something they expect from a woman (Tywin showed us last season that even those women who have done such things are quickly forgotten in favour of focusing on the men involved).  In all the ways that are valued in Westeros, Dany is the Mad King's second son far more clearly than ever was Viserys.

Dany is not the only one to generate confusion in this way.  We begin the episode with Arya Stark, who even more than the Last Dragon is clearly playing what her peers would judge a man's role.  With Jon out of the line of succession due to the circumstances of his conception, it's worth considering whether Arya is Ned Stark's second daughter, or his second son.  Even had Bran not had his "accident", there's reason to question whether he could ever have inhabited the role of Northern warrior-lord as completely as Arya does.  Certainly, with Arya changing hands regularly in the Riverlands whilst Bran's small caravan crawls north bickering and skinning rabbits, its Arya that exhibits the risk/reward duality of second sons, as everyone in range (most recently Sandor Clegane, himself a second son) attempts to use her to gain something from the first son, the King in the North.

We could ask Cersei a thing or two about the second son problem, and Tyrion too.  The two siblings hate each other so absolutely it's easy to overlook that they've both built their lives from the injustice they feel over the exact same problem; Tywin doesn't consider either of them worthy of being treated like Jaime.  Cersei lacks the genitals, and Tyrion the stature, and it's driven both them of them crazy, albeit in very different ways.

And it's led them both to the same place - to take the one role a second son can have for themselves.  They're being married off so that the father and the first son can have a stronger power base (how Jaime's status as Lord Commander of the Kingsguard factors into this seems to be an issue Tywin is desperately trying to ignore).  Even this is a form of potential, though, power bases kept in abeyance just in case.  For all the fun of watching Tyrion drink his own weight in Dornish red and threaten to geld his nephew (who, of course, is Cersei Lannister's second son), what takes place on Tyrion and Sansa's wedding day isn't expected to be anything like as important as what will happen later.  We're still dealing with a second son's use in the future, rather than their immediate value as a person.

This is certainly the case for second son Stannis Baratheon.  Ever since the Blackwater the various players in Westeros have dismissed him as a spent force.  A man swearing himself to Stannis's service these days would strike others as mad.  And yet Melisandre is backing hin, gambling on her conviction that some day in the future he will be the one to save the continent, if not the world.  The present is sacrificed for the future.  But is the future of a second son can be something to rely on, it is also something that can be plundered.  The idea of using unfulfilled potential as a kind of sacrifice is one that appears in no small number of fantasy works.  Is this, then, what Melisandre is doing with Gendry, second son (that we know of) to Robert Baratheon?  With Renly dead, and Stannis without sons, Gendry is in a very real sense not only a second son, but potentially second in line to the throne.  That's an awful lot of powerfully different futures that he could end up shaping, right there.  Is that what Melisandre's leeches are feeding off?  The potential of a second son?

If we're going to talk about all this potential, though, it would be useful to have a specific example on hand.  To some extent we have this with Danaerys, who demonstrates how far she has come with an inversion of her introductory scene two seasons earlier.  On that occasion she entered her bath as a timid child.  Here she rises from her bath to demonstrate she needs neither weapons or clothes to measure up to soldiers or assassins.

It's in the final minutes of the episode that we see potential suddenly and completely realised, however, as Samwell Tarly finally proves he's more than just one more mouth to feed.

Sam, of course, is not the younger brother.  He's the eldest son of Randyll Tarly of Horn Hill, and so should in theory have been heir to his father's seat.  But since we've already discussed how the Westerosi understanding of a second son might not actually require someone to be male, then it seems silly to insist they must have an elder sibling.  Sam Tarly is a second son in every way that matters; he's been summarily dispatched - through oath to the Night's Watch rather than a wife - so that he can no longer cause any trouble within his own house.  Hell, given her exasperation of the southern fool and his comical inabilities, I wouldn't be surprised if Gilly thought of him as a second son, too.

So really, Sam is the ignored, useless sibling; a burden on his family now removed, his future as far as his father is concerned no longer of any relevance.  So what does Sam do?  Become the only person in twenty-eight episodes/two thousand pages to kill an Other.  Sam the Craven is now Sam the Slayer.  It's an important reminder of the perils of underestimating anyone in Westeros, and of how quickly situations can change.  When potential energy starts flowing into kinetic energy, things start falling, and the unwary are buried.  Eddard Stark learned that two years ago, and Stannis Baratheon twelve months later.

So who will learn this lesson in the third season's penultimate installment?  And will they live to tell the tale.  A month from now, will anyone remember this episode as anything but "the one before episode nine?"

Soon enough, we shall know.  Things can only remain suspended for so long.  Eventually, potential is realised, for better or for worse, and then objects - and people - fall fast, and fall hard.

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