Checking in with Game of Thrones (4.8)

Spoilers to episode 8 follow: As Tyrion awaits his trial by combat, which will determine […]

Will McDavid / 6.3.14

Spoilers to episode 8 follow:

As Tyrion awaits his trial by combat, which will determine his capital guilt or innocence, he tells the story of a cousin back at Casterly Rock who was dropped on his head by a maester and spent all his boyhood crushing beetles with rocks. The implication is clear: once everything else is stripped away, man’s base instinct is that of violence. Tyrion wanted to know why Orson Lannister killed beetles all day, and Tyrion, whose one weakness in the game is faith in others’ rationality, can’t figure out why Orson would waste his time. In Martin’s world, all humans operate with the same end of increasing their power at the expense of others’. Only the means and degrees of cleverness differ.


For all Tyrion’s brilliance, he could never figure it out. Violence and sex are the two ends that rule Martin’s universe; Tyrion, as an acolyte of the latter camp, has trouble understanding the former. Characters cannot control their desires, and those desires can be manipulated: thus Littlefinger, though indisputably the smartest ‘player’ at this point, has tipped his hand to Sansa. Learn what someone wants, and you can exercise power over him or her.

Cleverness, ruthlessness, and knowledge of others’ instincts are three traits which stratify those who are merely pawns in the game and those who are movers. The Mountain, for all his oafishness, knows evil because he embodies it; this knowledge allows him to outsmart the far cleverer Oberyn. He knows the strength of human passions, and he knows Oberyn’s thirst for vengeance will expose him, in due time.

Justice itself is a passion, often a self-serving one, one which rendered Ned vulnerable, one which led the naive Robb into the throes of the Freys, and one which ultimately killed Oberyn. Characters believe they’re agents, but they’re not. Just because their stratagems are more convoluted than Orson’s doesn’t mean their desires are any different or more easily repressed. It seems the A.V. Club‘s Todd VanDerWerff, in between episodes, has been brushing up on his Jonathan Haidt:

Oberyn’s thirst for justice in the name of his sister and her children had been growing for decades, and his desire to have it quenched ultimately killed him. Had he finished the Mountain off before getting his confession, he would have won, and Tyrion would have been freed. But that’s not how revenge or the animal brain work: Once they have you in their clutches, you’re powerless to stop yourself from playing out the story they let you pretend you’re the protagonist of.

Paradoxically, the belief that you’re the protagonist renders you more vulnerable to manipulation, not less; belief in one’s agency tends to undermine the agency itself. The Mountain lays sprawled out, motionless, and utterly passive, appealing to Oberyn’s sense of mastery and control. What Gregor can’t do through physical prowess, he somehow accomplishes through insight into the human condition.


Martin’s storytelling tends to work the same way: he appeals to our desire to believe that evil is finally, finally defeated, and justice is ready to be served. With Martin, it never quite is, and though I’m as perennially pissed off at him as anyone else, it’s mostly because he’s forcing us to grapple with reality. With that, this week’s power ranking:

1. Tyrells – Still on top, largely because the brilliant Olenna allows Mace to believe he’s in control of the House, and Tywin of the kingdoms. Of course, Tywin is in control, but Olenna’s reserves of political capital are growing every day.

2. Lannister – Apparently the gold mines are dry, so that’s a hit to the family. And Littlefinger, after manipulating them for so long, seems closer and closer to turning; Jaime can’t fight and Tyrion’s in prison. Doesn’t look well on paper, but there’s still the Iron Throne and still, most importantly, the perception that their wealth and power are everything they’ve always been.

3. Targaryen – Won a fleet, lost a counsellor.

4. Littlefinger – Consolidated the Vale, and I’d be stunned, at this point, if Robin Arryn ever produces an heir.

5. Boltons – Moat Cailin shares, along with Winterfells and about four Stark children, the dubious honor of being the “key to the North”. One problem: Roose seems smarter and more level-headed than Ramsay, but legitimizing Snow gives the most sadistic man in the Seven Kingdoms a good bit to gain from parricide.

6. Baratheon – Got coin, ships, maybe even men. And Melisandre may well have had a role in killing Joffrey (remember the leeches thing?)

7. Freys – They’ve been a little absent, but still, the Twins, Riverrun, and lots of Lannister gratitude are nothing to scoff at.

8. Greyjoy – Losing ground every day. If they can’t fight the Boltons properly, it’s a major stretch to imagine them holding their own against unified continentals, as in the days of Balon’s rebellion. It may have been trite, but Ramsay was right to say the Kraken has no bones.

9. Stark – Sansa’s developing agency, Arya’s growing into the kind of (cynical, insane) person who thrives in Westeros, and Bran just keeps getting better at controlling Hodor and wolves. That’s about it, though.

10. Martell – “The Dornishman’s taken my life”, but the Dornishman didn’t fare particularly well, either. On paper, they’re still strong; their on-paper leader still lives somewhere down in the irrelevant desert, too. How will they react to news of Oberyn’s death?

Bonus mention: Varys. Can’t put him at (11) because we really don’t know much of what he’s been up to. But his position seems weak. The only man as clever as he is on a hotstreak up in the Vale, and man he seemed to get along best with at KL is slated for execution. Spymasters do best when interrealm drama flares up; for now, most of the problems are in King’s Landing.