This week’s Game of Thrones, Second Sons, is very concerned with manhood. Most of the manhoods dealt with in the episode are figurative, but one or two are literal. At least one storyline ties in the use of one’s manhood with the value of one’s manhood. And most of the episode examines finding your manhood in the shadow of a strong or tyrannical father, lending another layer of meaning to the episode’s title.
The most literal manhood under attack is poor Gendry’s. Bought by Melisandre, he at first thinks he’s got the best deal in the world; the witch takes him to a castle, sets him up in a swank pad and then starts getting her fuck on with him. But the whole thing is a set-up, and Melisandre is just trying to get his blood. The sex play was to get the blood ‘tasty’... and also welling up in one location, making it easier to collect. You have to feel bad for the bastard son of King Robert as he gets a leech dropped on his cock.
Still, it’s a better fate than the one he was originally having. Melisandre wanted to kill him - burn him alive - to get at the power of his royal blood. The reason for the change in plan isn’t clear, but it seems as if Davos, previously jailed for attempting to kill Melisandre, put some reason into Stannis’ head (after discussing the death of Davos’ son, fitting the whole thing into a theme). Either way, the ritual happens, and Stannis throws the blood-engorged leeches into a fire, uttering the names of three enemies as he does so: Robb Stark, Joffrey Baratheon and Balon Greyjoy.
If Gendry’s problems come from a chance connection to a great father, Tyrion’s come from a seriously troubled relationship with a great father. Gendry never knew his dad, but Tyrion knows his all too well. Forced to marry the 14 year old Sansa, the imp discovers that even he has limits - he doesn’t want to deflower a child. But Tywin Lannister demands the marriage be consummated, securing power for the family in the north. The wedding is a farce; Joffrey humiliates Tyrion during the ceremony and at the reception the dwarf gets so drunk that he finally snaps and threatens the King. Or his manhood, at least, telling Joffrey that if the ‘bedding ceremony’ - a ribald tradition in Westeros that feels like something this side of an orgy - happens, the King will be consummating his own marriage with a wooden cock. That little outburst comes after the endlessly entertaining Olenna Tyrell tries to explain the relationships everyone will have after the upcoming royal nuptials - “Your brother will become your father-in-law, of course.” The whole thing is patently absurd.
Tyrion stands up to his father by not laying down with his wife. Despite all the threats, Tyrion establishes his own manhood by not using his own manhood. I could probably get a couple more sentences like this together. Etcetera. You get the point - he doesn’t fuck Sansa. In a world where women are pawns and Tyrion’s stand is rather progressive. I actually feel bad for him, because so much of his ethical stand here comes from self-loathing; if he could just engage with Sansa she would learn that he’s actually quite a catch - funny, sweet and resourceful. The girl is just floating in the sea of intrigue that surrounds King’s Landing, and Tyrion could be the life preserver she needs.
Samwell Tarly also has a bad dad, as does the unnamed baby he’s escorting to the Wall. Samwell’s a tough character, made better in the show by John Bradley’s humanizing portrayal of a character who in the books too often whines and adds nothing. Bradley makes me at least a little empathetic towards the character, but still - Sam’s a drag. His dragginess comes from his upbringing and a father who was cruel to him, so he really understands how Gilly feels about her dad (and the father of her unnamed child), Craster. But even without good parental guidance, Sam manages to step up in the moment when an Other attacks out of nowhere; the ancient dagger Sam previously found comes in handy as it proves to kill the Other with just one strike.
This is one of quite a few departures from the books, by the way. This season has gone offbook in some big ways - Gendry being sold to Melisandre, almost every single scene featuring Margaery, the resolution of the Second Sons problem in tonight’s episode - but most of the time it’s worked. I do wonder about this sequence, though. In the book Sam kills an Other with his dragonglass dagger while still with the Night’s Watch, earning him the nickname Sam the Slayer. Saving Gilly and the baby makes more dramatic sense, but I liked the small amount of redemption in the eyes of his brothers. Of course as George RR Martin wrote it, that’s Sam finding his brotherhood. In the show it’s Sam finding his manhood.
The killing of the Other was pretty great; the show has done a nice job of keeping the Others sprinkled throughout the season, even when they’re largely out of sight and mind in the book. This looming threat looms for a while longer, so David Benioff and DB Weiss (who wrote this episode, as well as being showrunnners) have to keep threading them into the story without getting us too excited for more of them. The death of this Other felt like a nice climax to the latest chapter of that story.
At first the Arya/Hound business seems like a step away from the theme until you realize these two are forging a weird sort of father/son relationship. The Hound - scarred within and without - is actually taking care of the boyish Arya. Yeah, he’s going to ransom her back to her family, but that’s a sight better than the Brotherhood Without Banners - the good guys - were going to do. And in a rare moment of openness he tells her how dangerous the world is, and how he’s protecting her from it... in his own way.
The literal title of the episode comes from the mercenaries who descend upon Yunkai, preparing to throw their swords behind whichever side of the coming conflict pays best. They’re represented by a trio - two absolute assholes and one suave-ass motherfucker, Daario Naharis. Their spokesman, Mero, is a total boor and continuously insults Khaleesi to her face, something that angers the viewers as much as it does Dany’s loyal Grey Worm. She’s calm, cool and collected, though, the strong mother in an episode filled with sons and fathers.
Mero is unhappy with the way Dany reacts, and so he plans to kill her in the night and take her Unsullied. Daario draws the coin (as a Song of Ice and Fire nerd I found the different regional coins used in this scene to be really exciting and a clear opportunity for overpriced memorabilia) and has to do the deed. But when he sneaks into Khaleesi’s bath he surprises everybody by giving her head. Heads, rather - the heads of his fellow Second Sons. He has killed his commanders and pledges his services to Danerys.
This sequence is the second nude scene of the episode. In season one Game of Thrones was a very naked show, and the term sexposition was coined to describe how important information would be given out during gratuitous nude and sex scenes. Things have changed a lot since then, and nudity has been at a minimum this season, especially among the leads. This episode saw Carice van Houten and Emilia Clarke stripping down (Clarke’s first time in a very long time, which is interesting as she was the most naked in season one), but neither sequence feels that gratuitious. It’s worth noting that the Gendry/Melisandre scene is HYPER gratuitous in general, but that her specific nudity in that sequence doesn’t. Melisandre uses her body with confidence; she is the aggressor in the sex scene and she’s totally in control of the activity. Gendry’s nudity represents his weakness and subjugation (this would have been stronger if he had been fully nude; the show has been more than willing to show dick in the past, so I imagine this was an actor’s decision). Khaleesi’s nudity, meanwhile, is multi-layered. She is, without a doubt, flirting with Daario, but she’s also showing her strength through her lack of fear. She stands before the armed man totally nude, unconcerned.
There’s another layer there. In their initial meeting Mero asked to see Khaleesi’s cunt to know if it was worth fighting for. She shows herself to Daario, proving it. This is a very different woman from the one who was sold off in the first season. And it’s crucial to note that Dany’s introduction in the show happened as she was preparing to take a bath, where she was stripped naked by her brother. There her nudity was sheer vulnerability, but now it’s a sign of her impossible strength. I believe that Daenerys Targaryen is one of - if not the - strongest female characters in the history of television, and what makes her especially strong is that we have seen that strength being forged.
It’s the way that Weiss and Benioff manage to weave these themes throughout episodes that impress me the most with this adaptation. They’re not afraid to change the source material (often for the better, although I will complain about Daario losing his weird beard from the books. In print he has a three-pronged blue beard. Totally odd) to service the concepts they’re trying to get across. It’s rare to see a TV this thematically coherent, let alone one based on a series of novels whose themes may not be exactly the same. What a pity this season is almost over - it’s really hitting its stride.