If there’s one thing that you can take away from “What Is Dead May Never Die,” the third episode of season two, it’s that children have it rough ‘round these parts. Last week’s episode was a stunningly well-executed episode looking at the various family archetypes in “Game Of Thrones,” and this week’s continued the theme with an intriguing examination of the troubles plagued upon the children.
The episode was scattered about Westoros (and Danaerys was once again sadly neglected), and there was plenty of tragedy sprinkled in to make it a gut-clenching, often difficult to watch episode. Tyrion’s machinations to try to figure out who he can trust continues, and he is steadily weeding out potential enemies — this time the old yet devious Grand Maester Pycelle. Yet he also faced down Cersei’s fury at having her daughter be the cat’s paw in his designs, a fury born out of the fear of losing her family. It’s hard not to see that Cersei sees the destruction her family has wrought upon other families and is terrified by the possibility that it will come back to haunt her.
Meanwhile in Pike, the disgraced Theon Greyjoy continues to find nothing but scorn and spite from his true family. Greyjoy has always desperately craved recognition and importance, be it from the Starks or from his own Ironborn. His clashes with his grim father Balon and his sneering, unyielding sister Yara are pushing towards becoming something he never meant to be, something he never wanted. Yet Theon, for all his bluster and arrogance, needs to be someone, and now he has that opportunity. The show has done an excellent job of showing his inner turmoil, and it’s painfully apparent that his eventual decision to turn on the Starks was not a decision made easily. His rebirth, baptized in salt and sea, was one of the more affecting scenes in the episodes, and I have to admit that as distasteful as the character is, Alfie Allen is pretty much nailing it.
Yet no two scenes illustrated the tragedy of the fate of children more than the murder of Yoren of the Night’s Watch, and Jon Snow’s horrified realization of just how harsh the life of a Black Brother is. Yoren, after a quiet and strangely endearing scene with Arya to help her live with her demons, is butchered by Ser Amory Lorch, creating a short-lived battle that results in a demonstration of just how easily children are discarded in this harsh world. Yet the freeing of Jaqen H’ghar and Arya’s quick-thinking save of Gendry showed yet again her increasingly sharpened survival instincts. Maisie Williams’ Arya is becoming less the spunky little girl and more the cunning little mouse, determined to survive through anything that’s thrown at her, while still staying true to the things that her father taught her, things like loyalty, kindness, and compassion.
Yet nothing was quite as brutal as Jon’s confrontation with the Lord Commander in the wake of his discovery of the hideous infanticides of Craster. The Night’s Watch live in a world unlike the rest of Westoros, a world full of terrors and monsters both human and otherwise. They must survive those terrors however possible, including making deals with devils like Craster, regardless of what he represents. It feels like with each week, Jon sinks deeper and deeper into the feral world beyond the Wall and realizes more and more that decisions based on simple morality and righteousness are not only never that simple, but will often get you killed. Unlike Arya, the lessons of Ned Stark are failing him in this new reality that he’s forced to deal with.
“What Is Dead Can Never Die” was a solid episode, filled with its share of gruesomeness and, of course, sex. It’s been an ongoing debate regarding the show, and at least in this episode there seemed a purpose to the sexuality of the show. Most intriguing was the surprisingly calculating honesty of young, doe-eyed Margery Tyrell, who’s pragmatic approach to her marriage showed a wisdom and cleverness far beyond her years. The relationships of Renly Baratheon are given far more detail than in the novels, showing overtly what is only mildly alluded to in Martin’s books. Frankly, I’m OK with that. I’m OK with the expanded role of Margery because Natalie Dormer did a great job in her scene, and I’m OK with the more explicit depiction of Renly and Loras as well. That one was a sticking point for some, particularly during the aurally graphic fellatio scene in the first season. I actually applaud it, as I applaud the heady makeout scene between the two this week. I don’t know if part of HBO’s reasoning is to make a statement, but either way, it’s refreshing to see two gay men portrayed so openly and candidly.
There was much more — the awful and depressing plight of Sansa Stark who finds herself with a new handmaiden, Tyrion’s illicit paramour Shae. I still can’t stand Shae’s character, who has been portrayed with far more petulance and whining than she was in the book, but Sophie Turner has really been doing a great job with Sansa this season after a relatively unimpressive first season. And of course, how could we forget the fascinating (and gigantic!) new character of Brienne of Tarth, Renly’s newest knight and a fan favorite from the books. In the end, while this wasn’t one of the great episodes, it shot the plot forward and did so effectively and with a harsh determination. Whole sections of the novels are being cut out or rearranged, and once-ancillary characters are being given far more attention. So far, it’s working, and that’s in no small part due to the outstanding writing which creates new little worlds with each new character, new landscapes and interpersonal conflicts, and new insights into the main characters by using them as a means to display a greater understanding of the motivations of everyone around them.
But man, being a child in Westoros is decidedly unpleasant.