Game of Thrones: “Cripples, Bastards and Broken Things”

Seizing Authenticity

Game of Thrones

HBO, Sundays, 9 PM

Cripples, Bastards and Broken Things

Written by Brian Cogman

Directed by Brian Kirk

“Brave men didn’t kill the dragons; brave men rode them.” – Viserys Targaryen

Where are the dragons? We have dragon eggs in virtually every episode of Game of Thrones so far. We have White Walkers and other monsters mentioned in myths and whispered about in corners. Yet so far what I’m getting is the narrow politics of a highly restrictive society, and the struggles of some of its members to break free and find their own way. Interesting, but it’s not dragons. I want to see some dragons. At least in this episode, we got to hear about them. Dorea (Amrita Acharia, The Devil’s Double), the slave girl who taught Daenerys how to please her husband, is now pleasing Daenerys’ mad brother Viserys (and I love how some of these character names echo their traits: “Viserys” is “vicious”). She loves dragons, so he tells her about the history of the breed, how the line of dragons failed, devolving into weakness and deformity. And he tells her how he memorized the names of all the dragon skulls in the royal palace, even the one whose breath forged the Iron throne from the swords of vanquished enemies. At that point I would have gladly traded every bath and nude scene in this entire series for one glimpse of a dragon flying or searing or melting something. I would even settle for a hallway lined with dragon skulls. Instead, we get nudity and firelight. Is this heroic fantasy or soft core porn? Oh, right. HBO.

“I have a tender spot in my breast for cripples, bastards, and broken things.” – Tyrion Lannister

There’s a hint of supernatural goings-on at the beginning of this, the fourth episode in the series. Young Bran Stark, recovering from a fall that has left him a paraplegic, dreams of a three-eyed raven of omen. There are other hints that he may have gained paranormal powers, in that he awakens just as a direwolf is slain, and his own direwolf becomes his constant companion. Fulfilling his ancient role as Trickster, Tyrion the Imp designs a harness that will allow Bran to ride a horse despite his useless legs. It’s another example of his innate compassion, a compassion he hides under a prickly exterior. He knows what it’s like to be an outcast, and knows better than anyone in the room that Bran’s noble birth will not save him from that fate unless he learns to think outside the box. He does not yet know, though we have had hints, that young Bran will be saved not by riding a horse, but by something else, something having to do with dire wolves and magic. And with luck, some dragons.

“I hear you’re reading a boring book.” – Petyr Baelish

After that teaser, however, it’s politics as usual in the Seven Kingdoms. Lord Ned, disgusted by King Robert’s laziness and spendthrift ways, is investigating the death of his predecessor, none too subtly. He questions Grand Maester Pycelle (Julian Glover, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade) about Jon Aryn’s last hours, and learns he was reading a genealogy book and talking to a blacksmith’s apprentice. Pycelle dismisses the idea that Aryn might have been poisoned, declaring it the weapon of “women, cravens and eunuchs” – phrasing which neatly echoes the title of the episode. Ned sends his captain of guards, Jory Cassel (Jamie Sives, Clash of the Titans) to interview Jon Aryn’s former squire, only to be haughtily rebuffed because Cassel is not a knight. Before Ned can send a more acceptable investigator, the squire (now a knight himself) is most conveniently killed during the tournament honoring Ned’s ascension to the position of King’s Hand. Ned himself discovers that the blacksmith’s boy is King Robert’s bastard son, a find that sits uneasily with a man who has a bastard of his own. Ned’s lack of caution in his inquiries unnerves me; I like Ned, and I hate to see him failing to respect the evil wit of the queen and her spies. At least he has an ally like Baelish, although he’s an ally I would trust no further than I could throw him.

“You will marry a high lord, and rule his castle. Your sons shall be knights, and princes and lords.” — Ned

Sons, or the possible lack of them, strike a recurring theme throughout this episode. Sansa ponders her fate, should she marry Joffrey and then bear no sons. And the son of the current Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch turns out to be the father of Daenerys’ confidant, Jorah Mormont, a man who claims he “betrayed” his own father. In this episode, we also learn that Ned Stark is fostering the son of a defeated enemy, Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen, Accused), who seems to simmer with some resentment. Jon Snow’s new friend on the Wall, Samwell Tarly (John Bradley, Borgia), is threatened not just with disownment but with outright murder by his own father. The most heartbreaking, most telling revelation Jon Snow has given us to date is his confession that he has avoided sex because he doesn’t want to create another bastard like himself.

“I am the wife of the great Khal and I carry his son inside me. The next time you raise a hand to me will be the last time you have a hand.” Daenerys

I am glad to see that the scope of action available to women is slowly growing wider. Some women act in furtive stealth, like the scheming Queen Cersei. Some act through men, such as Lady Stark, who calls on her father’s allies to arrest Tyrion the dwarf on suspicion that he orchestrated the attempted assassination of her son Bran. By reason of her pregnancy with a presumed male heir, Daenerys acquires so much status and power among the Dothraki that she can threaten her brother with maiming, should he dare to strike her. Ned Stark, totally misreading his daughter, tells Arya that her best future lies in bearing sons so they can become knights, rather than becoming a knight herself. In a manner that shows how much of her father is in her, Arya coolly dismisses this idea and asserts her own authentic self: “No, that’s not me.”

“You can’t fight. You can’t see. You’re afraid of heights and probably everything else. What are you doing here, Sam?” – Jon Snow

On the Wall, Jon Snow is learning a few hard lessons about leadership and comradeship. Disgusted by the sadism exhibited towards his fellow recruits by their trainer, he befriends the hapless Samwell, a roly-poly coward with keen wit and insight. It’s a curious bond that draws together a legitimate son and heir to a holding, and a bastard son with no future but what he can make for himself. Because he does not fit the rigid model of manhood prevailing in the Seven Kingdoms, Sam is despised and rejected by his father. Jon, despite his illegitimacy, is cherished by his noble father. In their conversations and their friendship, we see a glimmer of a dawning idea – maybe a man’s worth can be measured by his own actions, not by his accident of birth. Now there’s a revolutionary notion, strong enough to outshine any of these armed rebellions and insurrections. I doubt we’ll see it come to fruition, however, in a fantasy so welded to its medieval concepts. As it is, I’m just glad we get to see two men divided by society allowed to forge a friendship in defiance of its strictures; and I am even more interested in the Watch than before. It may be currently a hotbed of weakness and corruption, but it was founded on egalitarian notions, and I like it.

“I’m not a cripple.” — Bran

There’s a sense of things coming to a head now, which is about time. We’ve had several hours of set-up now, and we’ve gotten to know the major characters. Director Kirk now picks up the pace a little (although scenes like the tournament revelation of the Hound’s scars slow us down for no good reason), and things accelerate to a fast ending, when Lady Cat strikes against Tyrion. Peter Dinklage continues to give us an indelible, unforgettable Tyrion, sage and funny, savage and honest. He has taught Jon Snow, for example, that the truth can be brutal and compassionate, and in any guise it is still better than a lie. Jon and Tyrion were born outside the boundaries; Bran and Tyrion, for physical reasons, will always be outside the boundaries. But it is beyond those boundaries that we see quick wits, the realization that change is coming, and that it is necessary. Some walls are made of ice, some of unspoken assumptions, some of unwritten social expectations, but Tyrion, Jon and, I suspect, Bran will show that passion, wit and courage count for more outside the boundaries than any other virtue inside them.

“Last words are usually as significant as first words.” – Grand Master Pycelle

This show has definitely grown on me. At first it was like looking at a complicated picture with your nose to the canvas; there was too much detail, no coherent organization into a picture that made sense. With each episode, however, it is resolving into a rich tapestry of character and plot. Every week, even when a story contains scenes I have to look away from, there is something that rivets me. There is Peter Dinklage, who steals each and every scene he is in not because he’s a dwarf but because he makes Tyrion larger than life. There is Jaime Lannister, the bad guy you want to like because, despite his apparent amorality, he is a twisted version of every knightly virtue you can name (and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is doing a bang-up job of selling this complicated bastard to us every week). We got actual tournament action this week, with thundering destriers and gory deaths. This show has been in danger of retreating from its magnificent exterior scenes into cheaper but more boring decorated interiors; it’s past time we saw more of Westros itself. And of course, I’m still waiting on those dragons.