“We must do our duty,” Stannis Baratheon says before averting his eyes. For one telling moment, the man who would be king – who technically is king – can’t even look his lowborn, ex-smuggler advisor-turned-prisoner Davos Seaworth in the face. Some part of him knows that whatever powers have been made manifest by Melisandre on behalf of the red god she worships, and whatever utilitarian argument you care to make about sacrificing one life for thousands of others, there’s still something wrong about feeding Gendry to the flames in the Lord of Light’s name. Stannis knows he’s the rightful king, he knows that Melisandre’s god can work dark miracles, he knows what the word “duty” means in this context and he’s laboring mightily to convince himself to do it . . . but there’s something in him that just won’t pull the trigger on some innocent kid, not yet.
Conflicting notions of duty, and of our moral obligation to do it, drive “Second Sons,” as thematically unified an hour of Game of Thrones as we’ve seen all season. (And as beautiful, thanks to Breaking Bad veteran Michelle MacLaren’s second turn in the Season Three director’s chair.) Last night’s episode forced character after character to examine how far they’ll go on behalf of the rulers and rules they serve, and to discover what happens when they hit their limit.
The Hound hit his a long time ago. Fed up not with killing but with killing, and potentially dying a fiery death, in the name of people he can’t stand, he ran from King’s Landing and into the path of a fellow fugitive, Arya Stark. “There’s no one worse than you,” Arya tells him, but he knows better: He may be no knight and honor no king, but his meager code of whom and whom not to brutalize drives him to treat Arya with more deference than she’d find from many other men on the road, particularly men who woke up to find her poised to kill them. It’s an eye-opening encounter for Arya, who is duty-bound by her self-imposed kill list to murder this man who’s become her unlikely savior, even if he’s saving her in exchange for the promise of Stark gold.
Newcomer Daario Naharis is a man the Hound would recognize – a killer for cash. Unlike the Hound, he seems to take pleasure in the badass trappings of a successful sellsword – the rep, the women, the tricked-out dagger hilts – while the Hound himself takes pleasure, and barely, in the act of killing itself. But because of this, Naharis has the flexibility to bend before he breaks. Confronted with a physically stunning, tactically advantaged opponent in the form of Daenerys Targaryen, he kills his comrades and switches sides rather than toss himself into the fray on behalf of a wealthy but likely defeatable city. (As an aside, a show that can find time for an extensive visit to the camp of the Second Sons ought to be able to give Catelyn Stark more to do this season than scold her dopey son Robb. Okay, moving on.) Duty to his captains and his client would appear to leave him little choice, but “Daario Naharis always has a choice,” he tells Daenerys. Judging from her outrageously pulp-fictional bathtub dismount, he chose wisely.
Tyrion and Sansa’s wedding night is markedly less erotic, as you’d kind of expect given the ages of the participants. But everyone involved in the straining political alliances that keep King’s Landing together is too miserable to be passionate about much of anything –except King Joffrey, who’s too in love with his own cruelty to notice. Tyrion’s angry enough with his mistreatment, and his forced conscription into Sansa’s bed, to risk defying his duty to both his miserable little nephew-king and his father Tywin in full view of the entire court. “And so my watch begins,” he jokes, echoing the famous vows of the famously celibate Night’s Watch – though as his girlfriend/kept-woman Shae’s smile indicates when she discovers the pristine state of the marital bed, he’s doing his duty to her even while defying dad.
Sansa’s far more compliant, kneeling to allow her shorter husband to perform the traditional rite (unlike the Sansa of the books, who refuses to bend) and disrobing to allow him to perform a very different duty – but the moment she’s given the freedom by her new husband to choose whether or not to bed him, she grabs it with both hands, making it clear that time will never come. That’s a force of will that Cersei would envy, if she knew about it: Forced to marry Loras Tyrell, she’ll shush him and threaten his sister Margaery, but it’s tough to see her directly defying her lord father’s wishes even after ending 17 years of marriage to Robert Baratheon the hard way.
The most enthusiastic embrace of duty comes from a most unlikely corner, specifically the corner of the abandoned hut that Samwell Tarly, Gilly and her nameless baby boy hide out in on their long flight to the Wall. For all his fumbling and fear around allies and enemies alike, the moment he’s placed between them, the moment he becomes the last line of defense between a woman and child and a White Walker, he’s like a hero out of a storybook – “the sword in the darkness,” to quote the vows he swore to uphold. I’m glad they gave him and Gilly the final scene and final shot, a pure epic fantasy concoction of secret weapons and evil destroyed and flocks of black birds flying straight at the camera like bats out of hell – their courage was suitably epic.
Which leads us to the final act of duty performed in this episode: the one performed by the episode itself. Writer-showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss and director MacLaren delivered pretty much everything a Game of Thrones episode ought to deliver, and then some. Equal-opportunity eye candy (Carice Van Houten! Emilia Clarke! Joe Dempsie and the tiniest glimpse of Gendry’s Baratheon babymaker!). High weirdness in the form of leeching rituals and shattered snow demons. Acting battles between Charles Dance and Peter Dinklage, and Peter Dinklage and Jack Gleeson. Beautiful, thoughtful image-making – a rock held by dirty fingers in a rack-focus shot straight out of the Breaking Bad playbook; a rapturously gorgeous temple shown in splendid detail while sordid political theater is performed inside. Minor characters like the Titan’s Bastard and the world he inhabits sketched out so fully you could probably start a spinoff prequel if you wanted. People forced into close contact and driven to hold each other together or tear each other apart by their intimacy. Game of Thrones is as good right now as it’s ever been. Will it do its duty in the final two episodes of the season? And so our watch begins.
Previously: To Ser, With Love