The moral dilemmas of Game of Thrones are a little different than those faced by its audience. We rarely have to choose between allegiance to our father and to the family who held us captive and raised us. Or whether to share the Hand of the King’s secrets with his sister the Queen Regent. Or whether to ally ourselves with the incestuous, infanticidal jackass (pick one) when survival depends on it. But just as we’re drawn to biographies of powerful men and women (or tabloids about royal families), we find few things as fascinating as political theater.
In tonight’s episode, “What Is Dead May Never Die,” Lord Varys tells Tyrion “The Imp” a riddle. “Three great men stand in a room—a king, a priest and a rich man. Between them stand a common sell-sword. Each great man bids the sell-sword kill the other two. Who lives? Who dies?” His point is that “Power resides where people believe it resides.”
Tyrion shows that he’s a master at finding out where people believe it resides. He tests his fellow Small Council Members, telling each that he wants to send his niece Cersei to a different house to form a strategic alliance—and that they are to keep this secret from his sister. When Cersei confronts Tyrion with news that he plans to send Myrcella to Dorne, he knows that it’s Grand Maester Pycelle who’s betrayed him. The dottering old advisor loses his beard and ends up in a cell.
The world of Westeros is a harsh one, but harsher still is what lies beyond the wall to the north. Jon Snow has learned the truth of what’s happened to Craster’s sons. When his wives/daughters have delivered baby boys, they’re sacrificed to one of the “crueler gods” of the Wildlings. Jon saw one of those “gods” take the baby away.
After a chilly homecoming, Therion Greyjoy is still struggling to find his place. Rather than forging an alliance between his father and the Starks, he’s asked to go pillage the towns of the north as Robb Stark’s army moves south. He pledges his fealty to the Drowned God of the Iron Islands and finds himself at war against the only brothers he’s known.
The episode also returns the would-be king Renly Baratheon, who we hadn’t seen since he fled King’s Landing when his brother died. Lady Catelyn Stark has headed to Storm’s End to seek an alliance. He’s taken his wife’s brother as his lover, a fact with which his wife has made peace.
The king’s men finally catch up with Yoren, Gendry, Arya Stark and all the men headed to the Wall. After Yoren dies fighting, Gendry and Arya are captured, but Arya is quick-thinking enough to keep Gendry’s identity a secret. He still doesn’t know why they were looking for him in the first place—that he’s King Robert’s bastard son.
If that seems like a laundry-list of random vingettes, it’s because the show follows so many characters at this point that almost none get more than a single scene. Like the opening clock-work intro, the hour-long show flies from keep to castle, giving us just enough of each venue to keep the plot moving. This week skipped Daenerys Targaryen and her dragons completely.
But a short scene at Winterfell may have been the most revealing. When Bran Stark sleeps, he sees through the eyes of his direwolf. His advisor Maester Luwin, who has fruitlessly studied magic and the occult—and dismissed them as relics—believes it to be nothing. But he also doesn’t believe in dragons. Winter is coming to Westeros, and all the supernatural elements of the ancients seem to be waking.