Saturday, 19 April 2014

Ragweeds And Dandelions

Last week, I talked about the Lannisters never having had it so good as Season 4 opened. And of course much the same can be said of the Tyrells. But although they've ended up in almost as strong as position as their neighbours to the north-west, they've done it using radically different tactics.

(Major spoilers follow, though once again I'll steer clear of any book facts that take place after what we saw this week.)

The most obvious difference between the newly crowned most powerful family in Westeros and the newly crowned second-most powerful family in Westeros is that the former rules through fear, and the latter through ingratiation.  The Lannisters favour the direct approach to punishment; wrong them and they will wipe you from the face of Westeros.  The Tyrells are rather more circumspect - wrong them, and they'll just be all the nicer to your enemies. Why threaten a war when they can threaten to end an alliance?

It's a very politically savvy approach, akin to getting one's way by simply threatening to withdraw regular bribes. And with so many acres of rich arable land and the second-largest city in Westeros functioning as a hub for trade and commerce, the Tyrells can afford a lot of bribes, offering them so freely that one day you wake up and realise you can't live without them anymore. Ragweeds and dandelions.   They flash you the gold whilst the green slowly grows to envelop you.

Obviously this is a more subtle approach than the "Reynes of Castermere" model, and requires a very different temperament. The Lannisters can cultivate an aura of miserable, dolorous vindictiveness, but an attempt to gain power by being the bestest friends of all the right people demands different tactics. In particular, it requires persuading those who can help you that you are doing them a favour.  Lady Olenna is queen of this approach as surely as she is thorns, constantly bemoaning the (comparatively) small dent in her family's coffers as she buys her son's way into the councils of the king and her granddaughter the queenship. Diana Rigg sells this adroit political manoeuvring very well; she effortlessly makes Olenna the most interesting Tyrell on screen. The family is hers, just as the Lannisters are Tywin's.

It's interesting to see how Olenna's approach is reflected in the other Tyrells. It's too soon to tell how well or otherwise her son Mace has absorbed her lessons. From his brief time on screen this episode he seems an utter non-entity (this wasn't helped by a somnambulant performance by Roger Aston-Griffiths, but I may just be letting my impression of Mace from the books colour my view; I always saw him as a loud bumbler) best ignored.  Who knows, though? Maybe that's simply exactly what we're meant to think.  Certainly Mace came out of Robert's Rebellion alive and with most of his forces intact, despite being on the losing side, and the centuries of bad blood between the Tyrells and the Martells means you need a certain minimum of nouse over at Highgarden to not have your southern provinces overrun with Dornishmen.  Perhaps Mace just realises a vacuous nobody is the greatest asset his family could have; constantly having others underestimate his house as it climbs higher and higher under Olenna's direction.

It certainly seems odd that Olenna would have failed to tutor his son in her approach to politics when her two grandchildren have in their own ways embraced her example so thoroughly. In his role as sword-happy young knight, Loras might seem too hot-tempered and direct to be playing subtle games, but his cunning use of a mare in heat during the Tourney of the Hand demonstrates otherwise.  Would we have had the War of the Four Kings without him whispering in Gendry's ear, offering him financial support and filling his head with compliments? It is a supreme irony that he ended up having to see his lover marry his sister, considering the Tyrell siblings have roles far more similar than might be at first apparent.

Speaking of Highgarden's fairest daughter, Margaery Tyrell is exactly what the Tyrell model requires of a young woman; utterly willing to sleep with and/or marry any man that can help her climb the ladder. It's a conscious decision to work inside an ugly, misogynist system that unfortunately shows no sign of going away any time soon (compare this with Cersei, whose constant railing over her society's dismissal of women is completely fair, but also an impediment to her actually getting the most out of what she's been given). Her approach differs from that of her grandmother in that everything is done without complaint - suggesting a threesome with your own brother to tempt your gay husband into impregnating you has to be considered above and beyond the duties of a wife - and every ally she courts, including the smallfolk, is focused upon like they're the most important person in the world.  As soon as an alliance becomes impossible or undesirable, however, and she'll wipe it utterly from her memory and start over, as Brienne discovered in the season premiere.  It's all a trick, and whilst Cersei is getting angrier and angrier that no-one else is seeing through her, the truth is simply that no-one else particularly cares.

Because really, the Tyrell model isn't hard to see through. It's Politics 101, a dance we all pretend to not know the steps to.  We fake ignorance and we feign outrage and we play-act undying friendship because mutually profitable deceit is preferable to constant war.  Predictable lies serve no less well than truth in this regard.

Except, of course, when the lies no longer become predictable. The Tyrell model excels because they've become so adept at turning on a sixpence. A few months after Loras listens to the love of his life describe his loathing of the Lannisters, he's preparing to wed a Lannister so as to help them keep the throne his lover wanted for himself. Margaery has gone from devoted doting upon a living husband to finding discussion of his death something of a chore. Sansa certainly found out how fluid Tyrell plans can be when the plan to smuggle her out to Highgarden was dropped like a hot lemon cake.

Or was it? We come at last to the choking lion in the room.  Just who did kill Joffrey Baratheon? There are no shortage of suspects, and many out in the deserts of the intertubes are suggesting the Tyrells as prime suspects.  What's interesting is how many people seem to find this plausible, but how much trouble they have in explaining why.  What does it gain them to raise Margaery to the rank of queen for all of a few hours? Why would a family with so much access to the king need to murder him in so public a place? Were they trying to set Tyrion up as a patsy?  What good does that do them?

It is a tribute to the canniness of the Tyrell family that so many believe them capable of a callous and brutal murder despite not having any idea as to why it would be to their advantage, beyond saving their daughter from a pretty unpleasant wedding night [1]. But whatever the truth, one seeming certainty in all this is that Ser Dontos is involved, his sudden appearance at Sansa's side mid-kingslaying makes it almost impossible to believe he was simply quick on his feet - a man too stupid to turn up to a king's tournament sober and on time is not one you can rely on to keep his head in a crisis. What if Dontos is smuggling Sansa away, not to the north, but to Highgarden?  Perhaps the Tyrells had never abandoned that plan at all. It's hard to imagine the Tyrell's would consider Sansa a prize worth killing for - if they are indeed responsible for Joffrey's death, there must be more to the game - but it's the closest we can come to right now to at least a partial motive.

To determine whether or not the Tyrells are guilty, we must study their dance from this moment on.  If there is some advantage to their family beyond the personal in Joffrey being removed, it will likely raise its head soon enough.  The dandlions and ragweeds have already sprung deep roots in Kings Landing, and when weeds choke one plant they have grown to surround, they simply move on to another.

[1] It's worth pointing out at this point that it's far from clear exactly how much the Tyrells actually know about Joffrey's proclivities. They know from Sansa that he forced her to look at her father's severed head, and they know from direct contact that Joffrey gets excited at the prospect of killing things, but it's not clear whether they know he had his Kingsguard physically beat Sansa or strip her half-naked in public. It may even be that they don't see a huge difference between the unpleasantness Margaery will find in her marriage and that experienced by Loras in his. Which might suggest theTyrells are unlikely candidates for Joffrey's murder, or it might suggest Cersei would be wise to employ a food-taster as quickly as possible.

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