I am a big Game of Thrones fan–the HBO series now in its 3rd Season. It is known 1. Anyway the eps this season have been off the charts and IMHO have some of the best acting on TV today. It doesn’t hurt that the book this Season is based on is probably THE best books in the 5 book series (to date there are 5 but there will be 7 or 8 in the end) with tons of action, character development and just outstanding writing. There is plenty of grist for the mill for the HBO series.
Most of the GOT eps don’t have themes per se and the writers/producers, David Benioff and D. B. Weiss, aka D&D as they are known online, have been pretty clear that “Themes are for eight-grade book reports“. That all being said, I can’t help but think that last night’s episode entitled “The Climb” had some pretty big themes in it. In GRRM’s 2 books and now this show people are shown in all their beauty AND ugliness. No one comes out of it clean or neat. No one is as pure as Aragorn in LOTR 3 (who annoyed me because of it BTW). This morning as I was reading some recaps and reviews of Sunday’s episode something occurred to me that I wanted to share here.
If you aren’t watching the show now but plan on it later don’t read below–there are SPOILERS!!!!!! If you are watching it this season, then feel free to read my thoughts on last night’s episode.
SPOILERS!!!!! SPOILERS!!!!! SPOILERS!!!!!
In “The Climb” at the end Varys and Littlefinger (aka, LF) have a conversation about power, chaos and social order before LF leaves the capital to begin a new chapter in his life 4. The incredibly ambitious and unctuous LF reveals for the first time just how far he is willing to go to get what he wants and the audience realizes that LF probably has been behind most of the major crises in the kingdom.
Here’s how the scene breaks down. Varys finds LF in the throne room having one last look at the Iron Throne. Varys, in that wonderfully roundabout way that any great spy master can, accuses LF of wanting to sit on that throne, or at the very least control who sits on it. He also indicates that he knows LF was behind the leak to the Lannisters about the secret engagement between Sansa and Loras 5. LF, for once, does not dissemble or hide his glee at having thwarted just about everyone. Instead he admits his involvement and then goes Varys one better. He tells Varys why he has been plotting and scheming all along.
Varys’ admits his own motivation is “the good of the realm” and I believe this to be true. LF derisively calls the “Iron Throne”, essentially the Westeros’ feudal power structure, an illusion of control and structure over chaos. Varys warns LF,
But what do we have left when we abandon the lie? Chaos. A gaping pit waiting to swallow us all.
LF’s response is a great bit of writing on the show that isn’t in the books (this is a MAJOR SPOILER, youtube video of the scene). LF says, “Chaos isn’t a pit. Chaos is a ladder.” While LF reveals an almost pathological and definitely sociopathic need to rise in power up the so-called “ladder” he is purposely trying to create, the point of view shifts to show King Joffrey walking away from poor Ros 6 strung up and looking like a pin cushion 7 . Ros is used as an example of those who tried to climb the ladder and fell, breaking in that fall. Then it switches to Sansa weeping uncontrollably for the loss of hope, the loss of any escape as she stares out to the ocean where LF’s ship sits waiting to sail away without her. LF is probably thinking of Sansa when he says,
And some are given a chance to climb but they refuse. They cling to the realm or the gods or love. Illusions. Only the ladder is real. The climb is all there is.
The final scene of the episode was Jon and Ygritte making it to the top of the wall. Their own epic “climb” is at an end and they stand to enjoy the view from the top of the 700 foot wall. This scene made me think about the illusion of the wall. To be sure it is a very real thing, an almost insurmountable barrier between the North and the South. Why was it created? It was created, so most Westerosi will say, to keep wildling raiders at bay. It was more likely created to stop the White Walkers from coming South and destroying almost everyone on the continent of Westeros as they did 8,000 years in the past. 8 In either case it is an illusion too. The wall has not stopped wildling raids and there are stories passed down of wildlings coming over or under The Wall to take livestock, people, etc or to settle in the South. And if wildlings can do it, the White Walkers and the Others 9 certainly can. After all, these frozen zombies have no fear and greater than human strength. The Wall will only be a speed bump to these supernatural beings.
Not only is the wall an illusion of comfort and strength, so is the Night’s Watch. Jon learns before ever arriving at Castle Black that the nobility of the brotherhood he heard so much in the stories of his youth hides it’s true nature. The brotherhood is a rag tag collection of people who have been cast out of society for crimes or for being the victim of political machinations or for simply having no other place to go, as is Jon’s case. Once joining the Night’s Watch he sees his brothers violate their vows by going to a local town to visit with the whores. He sees the lack of cohesiveness and petty squabbles that threaten their ranks. He notices the squalor, the neglect and the general run-down nature of Castle Black and all of the watch stations that exist along The Wall.
D&D (and GRRM) don’t let anyone get off easy. They strip the illusions from every character at some point, regardless of whether they are good, bad or in between. Even LF isn’t immune. LF is incredibly cynical and bitter. That little bit about “refusing to climb” is pointedly mocking those who would be passive, so unwilling to risk the unknown, the next rung. And mixed in there is disappointment that Sansa, who looks so much like the love of his life, her mother Catelyn, refusing his help. LF wants Sansa and he’s been working very hard to get her. Her rejection stung. So he ups the pressure on Sansa by helping arrange her marriage to Tyrion. Sansa will be more desperate than ever to leave and she realizes, clearly, that she effed up by rejecting LF. She’ll be prime pickins when he does finally leave King’s Landing.
Beyond these little plot points, however, there is a larger theme here. D&D have been showing more and more concrete examples of the power of gods and magic in the series with Beric Dondarrion coming back from death not once but six times, Bran’s warging, Jojen’s far sight, the rise of the White Walkers and The Others, the return of Dragons, Melisandre’s shadow assassins, etc, etc. But at the same time D&D have also been VERY unclear where these gods fit into the continuum of good v. evil, chaos v. order (it’s the same in the books). Indeed, I would argue that the gods, all of them to date, are all evil or at the very least, have their own agenda that doesn’t include humans’ welfare (not that much different than LF come to think of it).
So far the gods’ minions (priests, priestesses, wights, etc) have spent most of their time harming people. Where they have “helped” someone, like Melisandre has helped Stannis in his pursuit to be King, they’ve done so in some pretty evil ways (e.g., burning non-believers as sacrifice, murdering Renly, etc).
The only thing that is clear is that the gods and magic do exist and that they’re getting stronger. That all being said, I don’t think LF (or D&D) was saying that gods/magic, the realm or love doesn’t actually exist. I think his statement about “illusion” is more to say that they don’t matter. They are an “illusion” because you can’t rely on them. According to what D&D are showing us, in the GOT world you can’t rely on those things. The gods have their own agenda and their priests and priestesses aren’t telling anyone else what that might be. Love fails time and time again in this series. And the realm? Well it’s in chaos even while someone sits on the Iron Throne. To LF love, gods/magic, the realm create circumstances to be adapted to or tools to manipulate circumstances into something more favorable to him. In this LF is a socipathic capitalist in the worst sense of the term–a bootstrapper who doesn’t care who he steps on as he moves up in a chaotic free for all market.
Varys has had his own brush with the cruelty of the gods. As a child his private parts were cut off in a ceremony by a priest. As the priest burnt his parts in a brazier a supernatural voice spoke and Varys heard it loud and clear. While he isn’t sure that it was a god, it didn’t matter to him. All that mattered at the time was his survival, his future hope of revenge and a life-long mission to prevent the kind of cruelty and chaos that results from magic. In a way Varys and LF share their disdain for magic and the gods but for different reasons. They both probably realize they exist but neither of them will give them any credence. Varys because magic/gods sow chaos and LF because they are simply tools to be used. Regardless of this similarity, they are at loggerheads on the issue of which is better chaos or order. I wonder how they will cope with the return of Dany to Westeros with her dragons. In the end Westeros will be a nation at war with itself and blind to the threat from the North of an almost unstoppable supernatural force. LF will probably end up being subsumed by the very chaos that helped to create this situation. And Varys will cling to Dany and her dragons as the only means to create order in spite of his disdain for magic.
One other thing about these illusions that is important to point out….no one is spared from death and suffering in GOT. Indeed it was first made painfully clear in Season 1 when the most important character in the series up to that point, Ned Stark, was beheaded. No matter how honest, honorable, innocent or young a character may be and regardless of whether they are seeking to actually climb the ladder at all they can fall. They are all on the ladder. In addition there are so many things out of their control. So many characters end up being unwitting obstacles to other characters. Some end up being in the wrong place at the wrong time (e.g., Lady, Sansa’s direwolf was killed instead Arya’s, the butchers boy who befriended Arya). Sometimes the bad person wins but if justice were true they should not (thinking of the sword fight between The Hound and Beric in Ep. 5 this season). Unfair things happen, all the time in that world (and in ours).
The best one can hope for is to stay alive by clinging to the ladder as long as possible and in some cases continuing the climb no matter what the set backs are (e.g., Jaime after the loss of his hand). I think D&D (and GRRM) are telling us that yes, illusions exist, but in order for these characters (and us) to successfully navigate life at least until they run into the uncontrollable thing that can kill them, they must not only see through those illusions but also work within and through those same constructs. Not seeing through those illusions blinds them to what is and is not actually controllable. In this Varys and LF are exactly alike. They see through the illusions, have a clearer vision of the possibilities and are therefore better suited to avoid being claimed by the uncontrollable. 10 That’s as good as it gets.
1. You would only understand this statement (“It is known”) if you had read the books that the show Game of Thrones are based on. Series is called “A Song of Fire and Ice” by George R. R. Martin. These “fantasy” books are different and better than anything else I’ve read in the fantasy genre since I started as a teenager. They’re very accessible to non-Fantasy fans because the magic is peripheral. It’s not the point of the books, it’s simply a device that helps propel and explain the story. I highly recommend them if you like intrigue and complicated plots.
2. George R. R. Martin’s acronym name
3. Lord of the Rings by Tolkien, can you tell I get tired of typing crap out and use lots of acronyms?
4. Littlefinger is going to the Eyrie to marry Lysa Arryn, sister of the woman he really always wanted, Catelyn Stark.
5. Because of LF’s meddling, Sansa can no longer marry Loras and escape her long captivity under the sadistic control of King Joffrey. Instead she will be forced to marry Tyrion and Loras will be forced to marry Cersei. No one is happy except for LF, who tipped off the Lannisters to the secret engagement, and Tywin, whose plan it was to change the marital partners in the first place. LF was going to steal Sansa away from the capital but she refused his offer because she thought Loras would be a much better option (and she was right, he would have been).
6. Varys used Ros, a prostitute who had risen pretty high in LF’s confidence as a spy and she told Varys about LF’s plan to run away with Sansa. Varys helped set up the Loras/Sansa engagement to prevent that. LF found out and made Ros pay for her disloyalty with her life.
7. She is filled with arrows that Joffrey shot at her with a crossbow. The number of errors that did not strike her indicate he toyed with her before putting over 5 arrows in her that finished his sadistic fantasy. I won’t include the pic of it here, it is far too graphic.
8. In the GOT world there are two main seasons, winter and summer, which can last for years. About 8,000 prior there was a winter that got so cold and lasted so long it was called “The Long Night“. That was the last time the White Walkers ravaged the population of Westeros.
9. The White Walkers are some kind of supernatural being that have the ability to reanimate the corpses of people and animals. The reanimated zombies are called The Others.
10. Tyrion is another who sees through illusions BUT he hasn’t gotten to the same point as Varys or LF. If you have read all of the books to date you know his story arc shows that he is getting there.