"The Lords of Westeros want to burn the countryside," says guerrilla fighter Thoros of Myr to runaway Stark child Arya Stark at one point. Maybe we should look to the ladies to put out the fire. "Dark Wings, Dark Words" – itself written by a woman, Vanessa Taylor – continued the season premiere's deft handling of its myriad storylines in large part by centering the action on the actions and reactions of women, exploring how they handle political and physical power, and whether or not they should employ what they've got to help the have-nots. The result was an episode that felt sort of like a reversible jacket: It's the same as it was before, but you're seeing a whole new side of things.
Let's start with Shae, the whore-turned-handmaiden who appears to have taken a genuine interest in the well-being of Lady Sansa – not so much that she'll tolerate Tyrion complimenting the girl's good looks, but enough to warn her secret Lannister lover that Littlefinger appears to be up to no good with her. Shae and Tyrion's relationship is a tricky one even before you factor in all the death threats from Lord Tywin, since there's simply no way of knowing how or even if they'd interact if money had never changed hands to facilitate it. But Shae's willingness to risk life and limb to plead with him on Sansa's behalf speaks well of her trust that he'd do the right thing if she asked. Frankly, it's also nice to see someone on this show receive sexual gratification for being basically kind-hearted, instead of as services rendered.
Contrast it with Lady Margaery's skillfull handling of King Joffrey's, ahem, crossbow. Warned by Sansa that Joffrey's "a monster," she responds by striding straight into the (Lannister) lion's den, leading the conversation (accidentally or not, it really doesn't matter) to her traitorous, dead husband Renly, and faux-reluctantly coughing up intel about his homosexuality as a way to get Joffrey's fervid imagination to picture her having anal sex. For the grand finale, she openly treats the idea of killing something while Joffrey watches as verbal foreplay, eroticizing cruelty in a way that speaks directly to the boy king's black heart. It's possible they'll go Westeros Bonnie & Clyde on everyone, I guess, but I'm with Cersei on this one (if not much else): It's more likely that she's playing the kid for all he's worth, just as surely as she wins over the commoners by kissing orphans and showing skin. (She's also the show's way of taking a swipe at gun culture, I suspect: "I imagine it must be so exciting to squeeze your finger here and watch something die over there" sounds like a line a pickup artist would use on Wayne LaPierre.)
Clearly, all Margaery really needed to know about politics she learned at the feet of her fearsome grandmother, Lady Olenna Tyrell. Imagine Downton Abbey's Dowager Countess completely stripped of even the pretense of being polite to anyone for any reason and you've got this delightful old cutthroat, played with deadpan panache by leather-catsuit legend Diana Rigg. In short order she insults Renly, her son, her dead husband, her female friends and relatives and handmaidens, the Lannisters, the waiter – pretty much everyone but the three women sitting at the table, talking treason about the King. Sansa's white-knuckle terror over the very idea of saying something negative about Joffrey for others to hear is so obvious you want to reach through the screen and wrap her in a blanket or something (man, Sophie Turner rules), which only proves how fearless and confident Lady Olenna is in her own security and power. She's rich, powerful, well-connected, intelligent, and just plain out of fucks to give. They say the graveyards of the world are full of indispensable men, but she's not a man, is she? What a thrill to watch three females decide their own fates for a change.
Far less secure in her position right now, Catelyn Stark feels that she's been in control of her destiny, too – and the weight of the responsibility is crushing her. In the space of a year or so, in one way or another, she's lost her husband, her daughters, and now her father, her youngest sons and her home – to say nothing of her stepson Jon Snow, her ward Theon Greyjoy, and her freedom following her release of Jaime Lannister. Confiding in her son King Robb's politically problematic queen Talisa almost in spite of herself, she reveals her conviction that it was her ill-will to Ned's bastard that brought the wrath of the gods upon House Stark. It's a surprisingly blunt and direct expression of religious guilt . . . and yet I find myself kind of fond of it, as a motivator? I've had a hard time with Cat as a character on the show: her sternness and her mothering instinct have been a bit of a two-dimensional combination. Adding some good old-fashioned faux-Catholic guilt reveals why those two characteristics came to dominate her personality.
At first glance it seems like Arya Stark is following in her mother's captive footsteps. After all, she and her little band of Gendry and Hot Pie got shanghai'd by Thoros and his Brotherhood Without Banners. But note that it's she, not the older and stronger and tougher Gendry, who is recognized as the natural leader of the trio (even if Gendry's right that she probably should have aimed her magic shapeshifting assassin friend Jaqen H'ghar in Joffrey and Tywin's direction). She continues making the decisions for the group at the inn where they get their first hot meal in gods know how long, even after she's been shown up as a swordsperson by Thoros. And now that she's been outed as the sister of a king by the Hound, she's likely to become the pivot around which the whole Brotherhood swings in their quest to protect the common man from the Lords of Westeros. It's not agency she's got, per se, but nor is it powerlessness.
The massive Brienne of Tarth isn't what anyone would call powerless – except maybe Jaime, whose constant needling of her appearance, life choices and love for Renly was in retrospect not just a function of his nastiness and arrogance but also an attempt to provoke her into getting sloppy. It worked – briefly. Before long, one of the greatest swordsmen in Westeros, out of practice and hands bound together by manacles, found himself bested at the one thing he does best by a woman for whom he has no respect. Obviously he and Brienne both have bigger fish to fry now that they've been caught by Roose Bolton's men, but it seems certain that the outcome of the duel – the first time we've seen Jaime in action since his street fight with Ned back in Season One – will hurt his ego; it's much less certain that it will boost Brienne's, played by Gwendoline Christie as if she's incapable of experiencing joy.
But I think my favorite scene regarding sisters doing it not just for themselves but for others came from Osha, the wildling who's protecting the Stark boys, and newcomer Meera Reed, the knife-wielding sister and guardian of her psychic brother Jojen. Children of an old war buddy of Ned Stark's, they've developed a symbiotic relationship in which she takes on traditionally masculine duties so that he can use his mysterious gifts. "Some people will always need help," she explains to a skeptical Osha. "That doesn't mean they're not worth helping." It's a brief exchange and an easy one to lose in the shadow of Jojen and Bran's conversation about second sight and wargs, but it's as simple and straightforward a description of what valor looks like in this cruel world as anything.
Simple and straightforward is actually a great way to describe this episode overall, particularly regarding magic and other shockers: the more matter-of-fact you are about it, the more memorable it becomes. Theon Greyjoy's torture sequence looked and sounded excruciating, but the vision of him crucified on that X with a bag of his head said everything that needed to be said about his plight.
Similarly 'nuff-said was the sudden arrival of a mysterious boy in Bran's dream, a boy who then showed up in real life and instantly befriended a wolf that could have swallowed him whole. Ditto Jon Snow strolling up to yet another unexpected paranormal entity: Orell the warg, eyes rolled back in his head, mind in the sky. And even when the supernatural's off-screen, it still resonates: Sam's collapse in the snow from guilt and exhaustion, and his brothers' refusal to let him die, is a powerful little illustration of how the only way humanity's going to survive its struggle against the White Walkers is to survive it together. They'll need all the help they can get, from both genders.
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