Let’s say your average Game of Thrones episode is a Thanksgiving turkey, stuffed with plotlines like the TV equivalent of a Thanksgiving turkey. If this is our metaphor, then its latest episode, “Breaker of Chains,” is a goddamn glorious storytelling turducken. It’s hard to think of another single hour of this series that’s more engorged with incidents and ideas, or rich enough to sustain entire Tumblrs’ worth of analysis.
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Let’s start with Sansa: The visuals of her scenes alone, with their allusions to “Girl with a Pearl Earring” and images of fog-shrouded ships with dark sails, tell the story here. The young Lady Stark has been whisked from the life in King’s Landing’s soul-sapping, sun-drenched spotlight into a murky nightscape of skullduggery and intrigue. It’s a fairtytale in reverse, with her “happy ending” – an escape from the Lannisters – only drawing her further into the deep dark woods. It’s clear that her new caretaker, Petyr Baelish, was in on the plot to kill King Joffrey up to his Littlefinger; though her kid sister Arya has had a superior succession of killer mentors, this ersatz father-daughter relationship is no less lethal.
From the formerly betrothed to the recently bereaved: Lady Margaery ain’t a lady no more. She’s a queen now, and emotionally worse for the wear. While Marge’s early appearances gave the impression that she was as cunning and cutthroat a game-player as anyone, subsequent seasons have revealed a character who, while shrewd, is also kind of decent. Her dismay over Joffrey’s gruesome death seems sincere despite her open-eyed appraisal of his cruelty, and her interest in her grandmother Lady Olenna‘s experiences with the death of her own husband is refreshingly genuine. It’s rare for this show to grant anyone the opportunity to really open up to anyone else, or to ask a question because they’re simply interested in the answer, not because it’s a matter of life and death.
Margaery’s future husband, meanwhile, is getting groomed for rule before his brother’s body is even cold. Young King Tommen, like his missing sister Margaery, is a cuddly cub compared to the rest of the Lannister lions. His grandfather Tywin recognizes this, and sees in it not just kindness but potentially greatness. Lecturing the kid about the wisdom it takes to run the Seven Kingdoms may be inappropriate given the setting – particularly when two of the counterexamples Tywin cites are the kid’s brother and (as far as he knows) father – but the Lord Hand is not about to waste another minute letting Tommen languish under the dubious tutelage of his mother Cersei.
That said, it takes a certain sociopathic lack of emotion – and a solid sense of humor on the writers’ part — to pull a kid away from his big brother’s corpse in order to give him The Talk. Considering that Tommen’s soon to be wed to a woman who once offered to let King Renly hit it from the back so he could pretend she was her own brother, I’m not convinced Tywin’s characterization of sex as “relatively straightforward” is gonna cut it, to be honest.
That, of course, is nothing compared to the toxic cocktail of sex, death, violence, incest, and abuse that follows. Ser Jaime Lannister‘s transformation from zero to hero had been pretty straight sailing up until this episode; the Kingslayer had morphed into the kind of guy who’d literally leap into a bear pit to save Brienne of Tarth. He reacted to the poisoning of his secret son with evident horror, and his brief moment of connection with his other son as they passed on the stairs was sweet and sincere.
But you can’t change a tiger’s stripes, and this lion still has claws. Sinking them into Cersei in such a horrifying fashion was shocking, even to readers of George R.R. Martin’s original novels. In those pages, Jaime and Cersei’s funereal fucking was indeed fucked-up, but it was also the manifestation of mutual desire, a combination of lust and self-medicating from the grief embodied by the corpse just a few feet away. By contrast, the show depicts Jaime as a man who’s so fed up with his seemingly endless string of losses – defeated and imprisoned by Robb Stark, bested and tested by Brienne, cut off from the hand that made him (in)famous, disowned by his father – that Cersei’s rejection was simply too much for him to take. His act here is repellent even by his own incestuous standards, a grotesque violation not merely of Westeros’ dubious social mores but of the body and spirit of the woman he professes to love above all others. (For all her faults, Cersei truly is crippled by the Seven Kingdoms’ misogynistic system.)
As for Arya Stark, she’s unable to find shelter even when it’s offered to her, no questions asked. Thank the Hound for that: The late King Joffrey’s former mad dog bites the hand that feeds by mugging the kindly farmer who’d offered him and Arya a steady gig, a roof over their heads, and maybe even the comforts of friendship. Sandor Clegane had once told his young companion he was no thief, but he’s been a survivor ever since his older brother the Mountain lit his face on fire, and if he has to steal to survive, then that’s what he’ll do. Besides, the Hound argues, the farmer’s too weak to make it through the winter, thus proving his own point. It’s a hard lesson for Arya: After mainlining the narcotic of righteous, redemptive violence, the poor kid gets a reminder that the business of physically exploiting people unfortunate to find themselves at your mercy is usually dirty.
After a trio of utilitarian sequences setting up future developments with Sam and Gilly, Tywin and Oberyn Martell, and Tyrion and his sidekick Pod, it’s back to the Wall and bedlam. The wildlings are waging total war against the Northern peasantry, in hopes of drawing the Night’s Watch away from their fortifications. An unlikely alliance shoots down that response: Ser Alliser Thorne, the acting Lord Commander and Jon Snow‘s one-time nemesis, relies on Snow’s support to prevent his brothers in black from running off half-cocked. It’s compelling to watch Jon seamlessly slide into a leadership position just days after nearly getting executed for treason.
Finally, far to the East, Daenerys Targaryen delivers the speech of a lifetime. Much has been written, here and elsewhere, about the uncomfortable image of bleach-blonde Dany crowdsurfing above the uniformly brown heads of her adoring ex-slave followers. The show’s creators have attributed the uniformly un-white skintone of the slaves to the pool of available extras on location (the books made a point of how people of all colors and nationalities had been pressed into servitude by the cities of Slaver’s Bay). But they’ve also argued that the ickiness was intentional – that Dany’s emancipation celebration is quite possibly both presumptuous and premature. That argument’s certainly strengthened here, as Dany mouths “Your enemy is not surrounding your country; your enemy is ruling your country” — the sort of rhetoric straight off of George W. Bush’s Iraq War teleprompter. Look at the other leaders on this show who’ve shown Dany’s level of cocksure comfort with command: Robb Stark (early on, anyway), Theon Greyjoy, Renly Baratheon, Joffrey, even Dany’s own brother Viserys. How’d that work out for everyone? “Pride goeth before the fall” might not be a saying native to Westeros, but the sentiment is universally applicable. All who find themselves beneath the shadow of her dragons, may have to learn it the hard way.
Previously: Purple Reign