Two seasons ago, “Lord” Varys posed Tyrion Lannister a riddle: Who has the power when a king, a priest and a rich man each command a sellsword to slay the other two? Last season, he said the answer was that power obviously lies with the sellsword, since the man has the choice to kill one, all or none of those commanding him to attack. The truth, he said, was that power sat where people agreed it should sit. But is it that simple? This week’s episode challenged some of that by presenting those who had control over their lives and the lives of others and showing just how little power they really have.
Danaerys Targaryen is called the “Mother of Dragons” because she has three dragons under her control. Except that she’s not really in control of them. They scout the countryside, attacking herders’ flocks and making off with sheep on which to feed. Her response to it is to apologize to the herders and pay for the stolen sheep. Unfortunately, she’s too busy learning how to maneuver the world of Meereenese politics in order to become a better ruler for Westeros. And her first lesson seems to be that she’s not in as much control as she thinks she is in as she’s forced to sit all day and hear the pleas of her people, rich and poor alike from atop her throne. By her command, 163 of the richest slave masters died, crucified for their actions against the slaves she arrived to free. But even that small bit of vengeance has to give way when a wealthy Meereenese comes asking for his father’s remains. Hizdahr zo Loraq asks for his father’s remains and Dany cannot refuse him. Because if she wants to be a good ruler, she must make concessions. Her new throne controls her as much as she controls it.
There’s no doubt as to who is in control of Theon Greyjoy. When his sister Yara finally arrives to free him from the clutches of Ramsay Snow, his response is not one of joy, but of terror. He sees in his sister’s face another form of torture by the man who has broken him physically, mentally, emotionally and every other way you can imagine. He rejects his name and shouts that he’s Reek, the name Ramsay bestowed upon him. Yara had sailed from the Iron Islands with a desperate goal to save him, but also to reclaim control of the North from the Boltons. Instead, she is forced to flee and leave her brother for dead. Ramsay, proud of his handiwork, rewards Reek with a bath and sets him on a path to clear out what remains of the ironborn in the North. The task his father, Lord Roose forced on him to prove his worth, will now be accomplished by the broken thing Ramsay controls.
Stannis, meanwhile, sails across the Narrow Sea to pay a visit to the Iron Bank of Braavos. He needs their backing in order to buy the ships, the warriors and the food he will need to continue his war. It’s been the Iron Bank’s support that has allowed the Lannisters to wrest control of Westeros from him and his hope is that they can be swayed to switch allegiances. But for the Iron Bank, it’s immaterial who has the rightful claim of king. Stannis may be the truest Baratheon there is, but he sits on a rocky island with a few men supporting him. On the other hand, Tommen sits the Iron Throne with his grandfather, Lord Tywin, in control of the Seven Kingdoms.
Except that, as Davos explains to the Iron Bankers, there’s no guarantee that the Lannisters will pay back all the Iron Throne owes to them should something befall Tywin. King Tommen is just a boy with no understanding whatsoever of politics, finance or the debts incurred by those under his rule. He will be under the control of whoever is in charge of House Lannister. That may be Tywin for the moment. But would Cersei? Jaime? Some other Lannister lord? Stannis is a man of honor, who honors his debts. The Iron Bank agrees with this assessment and funds the erstwhile king. Davos sets on the task of bringing in his old friend, Sallador Sahn into the fold so that they may continue Stannis’ war. In the end, the Iron Bank has a great deal of indirect control over who will end up ruling the Seven Kingdoms, whether the Baratheons or the Lannisters care to admit it or not.
As for the Lannisters, the time came for Tyrion to have his day in court. Talk of Unsullied armies following the last scion of House Targaryen may be of interest to the Small Council, but that paled in comparison to the task of finally finding guilty the man who murdered King Joffrey. And Cersei has been busy rounding up witnesses to Tyrion’s guilt. Not coincidentally, every single witness had something against Tyrion – whether the insulted Meryn Trant, the spiteful Grand Maester Pycelle or Queen Cersei herself. Even Varys, his friend, did not stand in the way of the guilty verdict that was certain to come. That’s because Lord Tywin was controlling the proceedings in such a way as to ensure he got what he wanted. And what he wanted was Jaime Lannister.
Tywin is no fool. He knows that Jaime loves Tyrion and will do anything to save him from the death sentence that is coming. He also knows that a dead Tyrion is no good for the legacy of House Lannister. So he’s allowed Cersei to bring as airtight a case as she can – built on the lies and hate of others like herself – in order to coax a particular response out of Jaime. And that response is for Jaime to finally agree to be the heir to his house, abandon the Kingsguard and return to Casterly Rock to father the next line of Lannisters. When Jaime finally does, Tywin lets it stand as if it was Jaime’s idea and agrees to banish Tyrion to the Night’s Watch. All Tyrion has to do is confess to his crime and beg for mercy.
Sadly for Tywin, all of his control over the trial disappears the moment Shae returns and betrays Tyrion on the stand. She spins their entire history together – how Bronn found her, their nicknames and events, even their time after his wedding – in such a way as to paint him as a nefarious, treacherous and dark individual. Why does she do it? “She’s a whore, remember?” She’s betrayed Tyrion using the words that he used with her when he dismissed her in his fear of what his father would do.
That proves to be too much for Tyrion, who finally blows his top and snarls at the audience, the judges, his family and his father. Rather than admitting his guilt, he accuses his father of hating him for his dwarfism. Instead of throwing himself on the mercy of the court, he charges those attending as hypocrites for forgetting how he and not Joffrey saved their lives from Stannis’ invasion. He admits he wished he had killed Joffrey to Cersei’s face and, instead of begging for mercy, he demands a trial by combat. Tywin’s carefully-planned show blows up into a million pieces in front of him. His control of the situation is inexorably smashed.
This is the problem with control. You have it for so long, you begin to think that it cannot be taken away. You think that it’s something that’s internal to you or that others just complicity give over. But it’s not. Control is as ephemeral as power. It’s with you for a while and gone just as fast. And for those who play the game of thrones, finding this truth can be quite hard. Bloodlines don’t make you king. Paid armies do. Family doesn’t mean love. Sacrifice on their behalf does. Titles don’t give you power. The ones who obey give it to you. Control is not something you always have. For at any moment, the accused may be driven beyond the point where he cares for anything and is only after hurting you back.
That’s the heart of vengeance: returning pain in kind. No matter the cost to oneself.