2.3 “What is Dead May Never Die”
Written by Bryan Cogman
Directed by Alik Sakharov
Commentary by Bryan Cogman and Alik Sakharov
“What is dead may never die, but rises up harder and stronger” is the central tenet of the Ironborn worship of the Drowned God. The significance of the words might be lost on a show-only viewer, since Theon doesn’t go through the full “baptism” ritual in which he’s literally drowned, then resuscitated. In the books, pouring water on the face is really just a blessing, not a baptism. It’s enough to show that Theon has chosen his Greyjoy family over his Stark family, but not quite enough to drive home the title (and theme) of the episode, which is only loosely apparent through most of the episode, anyway.
Dead things being not quite dead, or being unable to die/be killed because people believe they’re already dead, is ostensibly the central idea of the episode. Besides the Drowned God moment, Cogman also has Luwin explain to Bran that magic has gone out of the world, that dragons, giants, and the Children of the Forest are all dead and gone. The viewer knows, of course, that dragons have come back, and that something is taking Craster’s boy babies, so it’s not too much of a stretch to believe that giants and the Children might still be kicking around—or about to return—as well. However, since nobody believes in any of these things, nobody’s agreeing to fight them, as seen in the last episode when the Small Council dismisses Lord Mormont’s request for more men to fight the White Walkers.
While the “may never die” part of the Craster’s baby subplot doesn’t show up for a bit (I don’t remember exactly which episode it’s in), the setup is here. We’re supposed to believe that he’s sacrificing the babies to whatever the dark shape is that took this one, and that they’re likely dead. Of course, we’ll find out later that that’s not exactly what’s happening, but the seeds are planted.
Yoren and Lommy’s deaths also obliquely contribute to this theme. Arya tells Ser Amory Lorch and the Gold Cloaks that Lommy, who Polliver stabbed through the throat rather than deal with the crossbow bolt in his leg, was Gendry. Putting forward that Gendry is dead protects him from continuing to be hunted, letting him continue to live (at least until Melisandre figures out who he is).
There’s a thin counterpoint to “what is dead may never die” in Renly’s camp, when Catelyn points out that Renly’s knights are “the knights of summer, and winter is coming.” These men are enjoying “playing at war” too much, and are unprepared for the true brutalities of warfare. Because they have never faced death and aren’t taking the possibility of death seriously, they’ll be much worse off than those who have when it comes to actual fighting.
Otherwise, the rest of the episode (which is about half of it once you take out Theon and those three scenes) has almost nothing to do with the theme. Most of the episode takes place in King’s Landing, and most of it deals with Tyrion trying to figure out who’s blabbing to Cersei. Bryan Cogman even says he considered titling the episode “The Queen Must Never Know.” And while these scenes are absolutely delightful, and Peter Dinklage is at the top of his game (as usual), the thematic unity of the episode kind of falls apart, at least if you consider “What is Dead May Never Die” to be the theme of the episode. A better title for this episode, to truly link its disparate parts, might have been “A Shadow on the Wall” or something similar; Varys tells Tyrion a riddle about where power resides and says that it resides where men believe it resides: “It is a shadow on the wall. And a very small man can cast a very large shadow.” A good bit of the episode is really about power, not about death or dying or not dying, and how people position themselves to get it, keep it, or be near those who have it.
Tyrion’s story in this episode is where the clearest idea of power comes in, and the initial scene has some really fantastic directing and editing. The setup for Tyrion’s plan—telling three different people three different plans he has for Myrcella and seeing which one gets back to Cersei—is very well done, with seamless transitions from one conversation to the next, allowing the audience to very easily follow Tyrion’s plan. And when Cersei accosts Tyrion, everyone knows exactly who the blabbermouth is. However, the scene they added at the end of last season showing that Pycelle is more than he appears to be becomes even further out of place, because Pycelle clearly isn’t smart enough to realize that Tyrion’s setting him up or to realize that if he does tell Cersei, it will immediately get back to Tyrion because Cersei is not subtle. If the show has been trying to imply that Pycelle is a bigger player than he appears, it drops the ball hard right here. Or, technically, it dropped the ball by implying it in the first place, since all the scenes that show he really is just a doddering old man who doesn’t do intrigue well are book-canon. I understand that Julian Glover didn’t like playing “just” a doddering old man, but giving him a bit more (especially without including the one scene that got deleted with him discussing his pretense with Tywin in the next season) was a mistake on the part of the showrunners and writers. Either they needed to add even more and use it to pump up Tyrion’s intrigue abilities or they needed to leave it out altogether.
The other part of the King’s Landing plot involves Shae and Sansa. Shae’s bored. So bored. She wants all the fun parts of being in King’s Landing—like leaving Tyrion’s rooms. Consider that she’s a courtesan and she’s landed the biggest whale possible short of the king himself (and she’s lucky she didn’t land the king, as we’ll see next season). But all the things that are supposed to go along with being the paid companion of a really really ridiculously rich person are being denied her. What’s she supposed to do, though—leave? Go out and try to find another lord who will treat her as more than just a prostitute? And to add insult to injury, Tyrion wants to hide her in the kitchens. Where she’ll get greasy, her hands will get calloused, and she’ll smell like a scullery all the time. As she tells Tyrion, “I am not a kitchen wench.” She probably became a prostitute to avoid being something so lowly as a kitchen wench, after all. Varys finds her a position as Sansa’s handmaiden, and it’s clear Shae even sees this as somewhat beneath her, though better than the alternative, so she puts up with Sansa’s near temper-tantrum with stoicism, if not good grace.
Because Sansa’s having an especially bad night. First she has to have dinner with Cersei, Tommen, and Myrcella, and all Myrcella wants to do is talk about the gowns she’ll get when Sansa marries Joffrey. Then Tommen asks if Joffrey’s going to kill Robb, because that would be awful (poor Tommen), and Cersei says that even if he does, Sansa will still marry him. So when Sansa gets back to her room, she’s already on the verge of tears. She has a moment with her mirror that shows how lost she feels—she’s trapped in a strange and hostile city with people who keep hurting her, she doesn’t have her wolf, and she has to keep saying that she hopes the rest of her family dies horribly at Joffrey’s hand. It’s no wonder she lashes out at Shae (who really is a rubbish handmaiden); she’s had all ability to control her own life taken away from her, and this is a tiny bit of her taking some of it back. Shae seems to pick up on that (she’s obviously good at reading people or she wouldn’t be Tyrion’s courtesan) and allows it without mouthing off at Sansa the way she mouths off at Tyrion.
Which brings us back to Renly’s camp in the Stormlands. This is our first introduction to Brienne and Margaery, two really great characters. Brienne is one of my favorites from the books, and while book-Margaery is a little bit of a wet noodle, the changes they made to her character for the show (aging her up, giving her a bigger role in Olenna’s machinations) made her really fun to watch (they also created a whole host of problems, but I’ll deal with those later). The real trouble in the two or three scenes we get with Renly is Loras. Again, his characterization completely ignores a lot of his book bravado and cockiness; instead, this Loras is defined by his relationship with Renly and his sexuality. When Brienne bests him in the melee and then Renly names her to his Kingsguard (I’m kind of glad they didn’t go with the whole Rainbow Guard thing; I think it would have been too campy on screen), Loras is angry because he feels like losing to Brienne was an affront to his honor and Renly honoring her for it further embarrassed him. He gets really nasty with Catelyn, taking one of Randyll Tarly’s incredibly misogynistic lines from the books, and generally acts like a sulky little boy. He’s still cranky later in the episode and punishes Renly by refusing to have sex with him and instead telling him he needs to start getting busy with Margaery.
On the one hand, having this discussion while they’re in an intimate position helps to underscore the weird position they find themselves in—Renly’s married to Loras’ sister and is obligated to try to act like a husband, which includes getting her pregnant (or at least sleeping with her so people will stop muttering about Renly and Loras’ relationship). On the other, now half of Loras’ scenes involve semi-naked times with Renly, and the other half have him being defeated by a better warrior. Book-Loras is cocky for a good reason—he’s a really good fighter. Never showing us Loras’ abilities (or even really discussing them) flips the script so that instead of Brienne being shown to be a really good fighter, as well, Loras is shown to have lost to a woman, and after already having lost the one other fight we see him in, it’s difficult to believe that he’s as great a warrior as the books paint him. There’s far more to him in the books, despite what a relatively minor character he is, than his relationship with Renly. Reducing him to his sexuality makes it feel token-y and kind of gross, and taking away his prowess—then having him make misogynistic comments—reduces him to a stereotype of a weak, woman-hating gay man. While I appreciate that the change of medium allows much more obvious representation, I think it could have been handled much better.
Renly’s follow-up scene with Margaery establishes her as a player in the game of thrones. She’s clearly willing to do whatever she needs to in order to cement Renly’s power, since that means cementing her own power. She keeps the focus on Renly, reminding him that the best way to keep their alliance together and thus keep him in power is for her to get pregnant, and that can happen however he needs it to, because he is the king. If it means having a threesome with her brother, so be it. Her attitude about Renly and Loras is refreshingly matter-of-fact, and she’s completely sincere in her offer to bring Loras in so Renly can reach arousal and consummate the marriage. She seems genuinely fond of Renly, and it’s nice to see a political marriage free of artifice and conniving (at least internally); it kind of reminds me of Cat and Ned. This also gives us a contrast to Margaery’s later engagement to Joffrey, in which she has to handle him, not just support him.
The talk of power as a shadow becomes much more ominous in a couple of episodes, but in this episode, it’s a shadow everyone is chasing, however small a shadow.
RIP: Yoren, Lommy Greenhands
Next week: Robb is stupid. Tywin is stupid. Joffrey and Meryn are sadistic bastards. Dany reaches Qarth.