This Game Of Thrones post is for people who have read at least the first three books in the book series. It is written from the point-of-view of someone who has read those books and for the benefit of fans of the books. All discussion points are valid, up to and including the events of the fifth book. However, we would ask that you clearly mark spoilers from the fourth and fifth books. The review itself will be non-spoilery, and talk of how events here portend future events will be clearly marked with a spoiler warning in the section following Stray Observations. If you would still like to read the review but haven’t read the book, thus, you can, but you should proceed with caution after the spoiler warning and in comments. Those of you who haven’t read the books can also check out our reviews for newbies.
I’m cribbing from George R.R. Martin’s notes a bit here, but the most important scene in Game Of Thrones may turn out to be that riddle Varys shared with Tyrion back in season two. In it, three powerful men sit in a room, trying to convince a sellsword to kill the other two. One is the king. One is very rich. And one is a priest. Tyrion’s answer to which of the men the sellsword obeys is that it depends on the sellsword. That’s a neat dodge of the question—after all, all sellswords will weight power, money, and religion differently—but it ignores the ultimate answer to the question (which is Varys’ point): The person with all of the power in that scenario is the sellsword, because he’s the one who chooses who lives and dies. He could kill all three if he wanted and tear down the riddle’s existing power structure. Or he could kill himself. And yet sellswords continue to pretend the king has all the power, because we make of power an illusion to give order to our worlds. The real power exists not in the sword, but in the social contract. But pseudo-medieval men who believe that they’re safe because of their gold certainly don’t want to hear that.
“First Of His Name” brings this season of Game Of Thrones to its midpoint (yes, already), and it’s fitting, then, that the question comes up again, perhaps more than it has in any other episode this season. Power being an illusion is not a new idea for the show to bring up (since, after all, I just summarized a scene where it was discussed in full), but what’s new and different about season four is how tenuously power’s grasp holds Westeros. Tommen is the king of the Seven Kingdoms, but what power he has is built atop a faulty claim when it comes to all three of the things represented in that riddle. His lineage is not from the prior king, so it’s hard to say that his rule is favored by the Seven. His family is running out of money and is playing games with the Iron Bank. And he’s only on the throne because the Lannisters and their allies won a bloody war that mostly left everybody pissed off. In other words, the illusion of his power is coming ever closer to exposure, and just the right rumor might ignite the powder keg.
Notice how often the characters in this episode talk about the poor versus the highborn, particularly when it comes time for Littlefinger to deliver Sansa to the Eyrie. Power is the tool the highborn use to keep the others subjugated. If it’s used wisely, then those below the highborn don’t consciously think about how little they have compared to others, at least not as often as they might. But when a psychopathic Joffrey or even a drunken old Robert is on the throne, the question starts to slip into the minds of those who are ruled more and more often, with those doing the ruling not realizing that the order can be upended just like that. I don’t know that Game Of Thrones is building to a revolution or anything—I somehow doubt it—but it seems key to me that the episode is full of people either rejecting the illusion of security that power provides (as with the last remaining survivors of Craster’s Keep, who choose to make their own way in the world) or aiming to strengthen it in service of increasing their own power.
We check in with Dany but the once, for instance, and she’s rapidly learning that everything she fought for in the slavers’ cities is falling to pieces. Astapor has been taken over by a man named Cleon, and things aren’t much better back in Yunkai. Plus, Daario and friends have taken a navy she didn’t instruct them to, because everybody’s expecting her to sail back to King’s Landing and make short work of what remains of the Lannister family. But Dany, unlike a lot of people on this show, is plagued with a smidgen of a conscience, and she hasn’t yet realized that for as hard as winning is, ruling is even harder. She believes—perhaps rightly—that if she sails back into King’s Landing, it had better come as someone who’s gotten results (particularly since she would be the country’s first female monarch). She’s a challenge to the existing system, but only if she can back up what she’s talking about. So before she sails back into town, she needs to let the people know she’s on their side. And that means not just being a great winner but a great ruler.
“The people” are one of those concepts that Game Of Thrones tosses around from time to time without really backing it up. This story is about all of those doing the ruling, for the most part. We get occasional visits to see how destructive the powerful can be when their lives intersect with the powerless, but for the most part, the series is interested less in the great disparity between Sansa and all of those men who line up as she arrives than it is the ways that almost all people abuse what little power they have. (How often have we seen a scene of some low-level miscreant employed by some rich man somewhere as a swordsman taking it out on a lowly innkeeper or someone else lower than himself?) Abuse of power is a constant theme on the show, but it almost always occurs in interpersonal dynamics that play out larger, more systemic abuses on more intimate scales. Or, as Cersei (who would know) says, “Everywhere in the world, they hurt little girls.”
“First Of His Name,” then, is also interested in how survival happens in the midst of all of this. How do characters stay alive to fight another day on a series where every other person seems to die in every other episode? Sure, someone like Jojen has the second sight that lets him know his death is coming much later, but for the other characters, survival is never a guarantee. The show depicts the slow realization of just about everybody that the world is not going to treat them fairly just because of a name or a sigil. That was an easy lesson for the various pieces of the Stark diaspora to learn in the wake of Ned’s death (and even here, we see Arya learning the hard way that all of her fancy swordplay isn’t going to mean anything when she comes in contact with someone who wants to win more than anything else). But it’s a lesson that’s beginning to sink in for the Lannisters, who’ve seemed to skate past all of the tragedy until this season, and it’s a lesson even a character like Margaery is coming to realize. No matter who you are or where you are, there’s a target on your back and somebody taking aim at you. The best solution is to put yourself in a position where your elimination would be too inconvenient for everybody. And even then, survival can’t be predicted, because there will always be vengeance and there will always be hate. And hate’s as good a thing to keep someone going as anything.
This is, ultimately, another table-setting episode, but I liked it a bit more than last week’s episode for a number of reasons. For one thing, the action sequences were a bit more pulse-pounding than last week’s, and I loved the intercutting of the frantic swordplay around Craster’s Keep with, say, Hodor’s chain breaking free from the wall as Bran warg-ed his way into the big man. But I also liked the way that writers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, along with director Michelle MacLaren, kept playing with the power dynamics in every single scene. Think, for instance, of an early shot at Tommen’s coronation, where Cersei and Margaery gather in the shadows, each lit by what seems to be a single beam of light. The two discuss their ever-shifting relationship and whether Margaery might be interested in being queen yet again. And it’s clear that they’re both playing a game and, crucially, both know they’re playing a game. At the same time, however, they both seem to enjoy playing it so much that it seems to almost become a lazy weekend activity, a few women batting bon mots back and forth in between rounds of bloodshed. And the way MacLaren keeps playing with their relative positions in the frame in very subtle ways, by having one lean forward or lean back to reflect the war of words, is masterful as well, culminating in that great line from Margaery about not knowing Cersei’s relation to her once she’s married to Loras and Lena Headey’s absolutely perfect facial expression in response.
It’s also interesting to note that this is an episode that is made up, almost entirely, of invented material. I know I’ve promised not to make these reviews a long list of changes from the books (and you can see just that right here), but it’s worth noting that much of what happens in this episode is extrapolation from what’s happening in the books at this point in time or, even more so, complete and utter invention. Sure, it’s stuff we book readers might have imagined going on in between the point-of-view chapters, but it’s also stuff that we never got complete confirmation on or anything similar. The series seems more and more confident in its ability to diverge from the source material in ways both big—the stuff at Craster’s Keep is an invention that takes bits and pieces of other material from the books and reappropriates it here—and small—Podrick doesn’t leave with Brienne but instead catches up to her later. (There’s one fairly major change that I’ll deal with down in the spoiler section.)
Martin is fond of discussing the butterfly effect, the way that one small change to the books can ripple outward in the series in interesting ways, and in its fourth season, that’s never been more apparent on the show. So many things have changed in such small ways that we’re looking at a version of the story that is very similar to what’s on the page, while also being enormously different in ways that get harder and harder to point out without seeming pedantic. The series follows the story, more or less, and it gets to the big events from the book, more or less, but it’s in that “more or less” where all of the other stuff happens.
Honestly, I think that might be a good thing. “First Of His Name” is a chapter between the chapters, a bit of the story that we didn’t get on the page that we do get here, and while it’s not the world’s most eventful episode, it’s fun to watch Benioff and Weiss take a short pause in their story to play out some scenes that add color and texture both to the world of the show and to the characters. Tommen, for instance, is a cipher on the page, but in the hands of Dean-Charles Chapman on screen, you can see how he might grow up into a good king with the right tutelage and time. And the stuff up at the Eyrie, which is a bit more faithful in adaptation, gets right at the instability of Lady Lysa and the way that everything in the Vale seems to be infected with her paranoia and rot. Television is always a medium that works best when writers and directors are allowed to improvise just a bit, to try out things that might work but also might not. Season four of Game Of Thrones has been eventful so far, almost to a fault, but in these last two episodes, it takes a chance to breathe. And in this particular deep breath, the season has found some of its strongest thematic material and some of its best scenes.
- A sword through the mouth! A sword through the mouth. Yes.
- I do believe that the “previously on” for this episode featured footage from all four seasons of the show—including a check-in with the long-dead Ned and less-long-dead Catelyn from all the way back in season one. That has to be a new record for the show, whose “previously on” montages are approaching Showtime length.
- Those cheers you hear when Tommen is crowned are the relieved cheers of the “Anyone but Joffrey” crowd. It’s like when candidates arrived at via grudging consensus because everybody hated various other candidates too much to let them win would give victory speeches at old presidential conventions.
- Backstory corner: Lady Lysa was the one who poisoned Jon Arryn, at the bidding of Littlefinger. She also told Cat it was the Lannisters who did it, because Littlefinger can apparently predict everything everyone is going to do with 100 percent accuracy. And the show told you this so I didn’t have to! The more you know! (Truth be told, I found her sudden confession a bit unrealistic. I didn’t buy that she would just spit it out like that, but time is limited.)
- The scenes between Brienne and Podrick don’t really add a whole bunch to the episode, outside of providing some fun bits between two characters we wouldn’t have had reason to check in with in an episode where more stuff was happening. They mostly seem to exist to remind us that Podrick can’t be trusted to do anything right, outside of having sex, apparently. He even tries to roast a rabbit with the skin on! “That’s our Podrick!” the cast exclaims in frustration. (That’s Our Podrick debuts this fall, right after a brand new season of Can’t Tywin ‘Em All.)
- Cersei got Myrcella a boat. She’ll probably be super psyched about that. Lots of opportunities for boating down in Dorne.
- I love how the show set up Locke as this character who seemed like he might become sort of a minor villain and/or might deliver Bran to the Greyjoys, and then he’s killed almost immediately by Bran warg-ing into Hodor. It’s a great little reversal.
- Arya continuing to end her list with “the Hound” was a terrific character beat. Even as these two have come to a sort of grudging friendship, they’re both incredibly likely to kill each other. Just like all the best friendships.
- Adaptation choices: The skirmish at Craster’s Keep is an invention, wholesale, but it does allow for that moment in the book when Bran almost meets Jon. Here, however, it’s reimagined as Bran choosing to continue on his quest, rather than being taken under his brother’s wing. I think I like that a little better, even if the whole Craster’s Keep mutineers thing seemed too much like the show endlessly repeating that the Middle Ages were terrible, yo.
- Oberyn’s little hoodrat friend makes him sick. But after he gets sick, he just gets sad.
- “What good is power if you can’t protect the ones you love?”
Here be spoilers (don’t read if you haven’t read the books):
- Thing that is maybe worth paying attention to: That scene between Oberyn and Cersei is mostly just a way for the show to remind us that Myrcella exists and that Cersei is still upset about how all of that went down. But it’s worth noticing that Oberyn mentions his eight daughters. Now, I rather thought the show was going to avoid a lot of the stuff down in Dorne for time (and because I think I read an interview saying that), but if we get to see the Sand Snakes, I will be very happy.
- The biggest change in this episode is that Littlefinger apparently told Lysa he was headed down to King’s Landing to get Sansa from the first, so she doesn’t just figure out that Littlefinger’s “niece” is actually her niece. This feels like something that could mean Lysa’s death plays out very differently, but most of the rest of the stuff here is pretty close to the book in terms of the sequence of events. So maybe not.
- The visual effects in the scene where Jojen imagines the great tree were terrific and made me excited for these guys to get to the three-eyed crow already. (Also: Jojen and Meera are going to die? No!)
- That scene between Cersei and Tywin about how the Lannisters are out of money made me so sad that we only have Charles Dance for a few episodes more. Please make Can’t Tywin ‘Em All a reality, HBO. I beg of you.
- I don’t know if you saw this, but HBO may have inadvertently spoiled things coming up in the books with its summary of last week’s episode. Tread lightly if you care. If you don’t (like me), go nuts.