As with solitaire or Angry Birds, we tend to think of the Game of Thrones as a single-player pursuit. We focus on the lords of ancient houses, like Daenerys Targaryen and Stannis Baratheon. We monitor the behind-the-scenes schemers, like Cersei Lannister and Littlefinger. We watch the dark horses moving along the margins, like Jon Snow and Tyrion the Imp. In each case, it seems like power is a weapon only one person can hold in the end. But tonight's episode — "The Gift" — showed just how much this game is a team sport. Friends and family matter at every step, and if you lose them? Game over.
Samwell Tarly's situation illustrates the principle with the bluntness of a war hammer. When ancient Maester Aemon dies — his haunting last words: "I dreamed that I was old" — shortly after Jon rides north of the Wall on a rescue mission, newly minted First Ranger Alliser Thorne is quick to note that the Slayer's allies are growing thin. Indeed, only Lord Snow's direwolf Ghost saves Sam and his girlfriend-in-all-but-name Gilly from his own supposed brothers. "You're losing all your friends, Tarly," Thorne growls. The line recalls Animal Mother's unsentimental warning to Private Joker in Full Metal Jacket: "Hey asshole: Cowboy's wasted. You're fresh out of friends."
At Winterfell, Sansa Stark could use all the friends she can get. Reeling from nightly assaults by her repulsive husband Ramsay Bolton, she nevertheless marshals the courage — and the anger — to try and convince her old acquaintance Theon Greyjoy to help her. The man now known as "Reek" betrayed her family; now's his chance to make up for it. Unfortunately, while she may live up to the House Martell motto ("Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken"), the broken-spirited servant does not. He rats Lady Stark out to her sadistic spouse, who skins the the "Northern friend" who offered a potential way out. Now her best hope lies with people like Brienne of Tarth or Stannis — friends she doesn't even realize she has.
For his part, Baratheon seems like he needs fewer friends, not more. His Hand, Davos Seaworth, is counseling retreat from their march on Winterfell due to a raging snowstorm, while the King sees it as a now-or-never deal. His advisor-slash-lover Melisandre has an even more unpleasant tactic in mind: sacrifice his daughter to the Lord of Light in exchange for the power to plow through and take down the Boltons. Stannis has typically been the Man-nis where his kid is concerned; the question now is whether their blood ties will win out over the Red Woman's blood magic.
Meanwhile, in Meereen, Daenerys is finding just how much the need to rule hand in hand with important allies ties her own hands in the process. To keep the peace, she's marrying the soft-spoken aristocrat Hizdahr zo Loraq — not a bad guy, as far the Great Masters who once ran the city go, but also not one who shares her revulsion at the fighting pits he's encouraged her to reopen. He's also not Daario Naharis, the handsome sellsword who shares her bed and tells her that the duties of the queen have made her "the only person in Meereen who's not free." But perhaps her inability to marry this mercenary is a good thing, given his counsel to kill every single bigwig in the city. "I am a queen, not a butcher," she declares, in one of the episode's most striking exchanges. His reply: "All rulers are either butchers or meat."
It's into this dynamic that Tyrion Lannister and his new pal Jorah Mormont cast their collective lot. After a funny bit of business in which the Imp bullshits his way into becoming a package deal with the exile knight when the two are brought to a gladiator auction, they wind up rather unexpectedly in front of the Queen. Actor Iain Glen's face is a marvel to watch in the minutes leading up to his long-awaited reunion with the Khaleesi — a pit fight between surprise, love, fear, hope, and dread. But his hoped-for welcome never materializes: She orders him removed from her presence, and only a last-minute appearance by Lord Lannister appears to stay her hand. Is this the beginning of a beautiful friendship between the Dragon and the Lion, or will these two rogues bring out the butcher in the queen?
Speaking of butcher queens, the political climate in King's Landing has become, suddenly and astonishingly, even more tumultuous. You can thank the High Septon, the "unwashed fanatic" empowered by Cersei as a check against the growing power of House Tyrell. Jonathan Pryce is a casting coup here: An actor of his playful confidence is the only way the show could sell this newcomer as a person capable of knocking such expert game-players as Queen Margaery, Littlefinger, and Olenna Tyrell off balance. The Lannister queen may be finding that her son the King now has feelings of his own — just as her brother/lover Jaime learns of their daughter down in Dorne, that land of sex, skullduggery, and silk pants — but as long as she's got the Sparrows on her side, it hardly matters.
Which is ultimately her undoing: Like the Queen of Thorns before her, the Queen Mother soon discovers the High Septon cannot be bought or bullied, and she winds up in a cell just like her hated daughter-in-law. Her comeuppance is undoubtedly a delight to behold, but the cost may be too dear not just for her, but for the realm. A faith that respects neither family nor friendship is a game-changer — and fanatics play to win.
Previously: Stark Reality