Who cares who the king is, when the most likely outcome for you is to die, alone and in incredible agony, simply because you were in someone’s way?
Existing largely to shift pieces into place for the current season of Game of Thrones‘ climactic final three episodes, “Mockingbird” shouldn’t have been as good as it was. It’s an unfocused hour of TV that skips back and forth between storylines that are several books away from converging, without giving very much time to any of them – and of course, with a smattering of somewhat gratuitous violence and ridiculously gratuitous nudity to mix things up. Somehow, though, the episode, directed by Alik Sakharov and written by David Benioff & D. B. Weiss, is dense and difficult, and for once it offers the viewer a rare glimpse into the true victims of the terrible deeds done during the series.
Game of Thrones is a world where trauma and constant horror is as ordinary as the rising and setting of the sun. Obviously, this series has never shied away from showing that, warts, bloody entrails and all, but for the most part, the suffering and misery are seen only from the highest echelons of society. However, “Mockingbird” shows us definitively that as devastating as the wars for control of Westeros have been for the participants, they are nothing short of apocalyptic for those unlucky enough to live at the bottom of the social ladder.
More than any other episode this season, we see that it’s the outcasts, the inconvenient, the weak, the poor, who suffer most when important people fight over serious things. Kingdoms rise and fall, and wealth comes and goes, but for the vast majority of people, life remains nasty, brutish and short. It’s terrifying to consider, and it underpins almost every moment of this week’s episode. Not bad for a show that, at least this season, has managed frequently to muddy the philosophical waters needlessly.
We begin in King’s Landing, where things are about where we left them last week. After Tyrion’s epic (and probably Emmy-winning) tirade against the hypocrites of the capital city, which culminated in his demanding trial by combat, he’s back in his dank jail cell and entertaining a visit from Jaime.
Tyrion is wallowing in self pity over Shae’s cruel betrayal in last week’s episode. Angry at himself for falling in love with a whore and for being “stupid enough to think she loved me too,” for a moment we’re reminded that this isn’t the first time Tyrion felt this way. Remember how as a teenager, he fell in love with, and married, a peasant girl, only to find out from his father that she was a prostitute? Yeah, that seems like important detail right now, doesn’t it?
But neither we nor Tyrion have time to reflect on his life’s odd and pitiful bookends, because he still needs to find a champion to fight on his behalf. Unfortunately, Jaime still has a long way to go until he’s retrained himself enough that he could actually fight with a sword, much less pick one up, and he’s forced to decline. What he can do, however, is berate Tyrion for throwing away his best chance to live. Tyrion plans on being defiant to the end, however, and takes the opportunity here to remind Jaime that begging for mercy would have been playing right into their father’s hands.
The two of them reflect for a moment on the rotten state of their family, with Tyrion even calling Jaime out for fucking his own sister, but that brief tension between them doesn’t last. They’re both Lannister outcasts now, and seem to recognize they now really only have one another. But while Jaime cannot fight for Tyrion, he can give him intel, in this case the identity of the champion their sister Cersei has chosen.
Cut to Ser Gregor Clegane, AKA The Mountain, now played by Icelandic bodybuilder Hafþór Júlíus “Thor” Björnsson. Our first glimpse of the brother-torturer and murder/rapist is appropriately gruesome: he’s gleefully killing several – I think – condemned criminals with such visceral detail that we actually see one of his victim’s intestines spill out onto the ground. Cersei then enters the scene. Strolling over entrails and corpses with less concern than if she were walking over a mud puddle, she matter-of-factly confirms the Mountain’s willingness to fight as her champion, and we now know how dire Tyrion’s situation really is.
In the opening scene, Jaime tells Tyrion that he’s “the only friend you’ve got left,” and that turns out to be horribly true when Tyrion’s right-hand thug Bronn finally deigns to visit him after several weeks of silence. Cersei, doing everything she can to ensure no champion will stand for Tyrion, has won Bronn over with a huge amount of money and marriage to a young noblewoman whose older sister, Bronn boasts, is soon to meet an untimely end, putting him firmly in charge of her family and their money.
Thus Bronn won’t be fighting for Tyrion. The two manage to part as friends however, when Bronn offers his condolences and a half-hearted apology for being precisely the person he told Tyrion he was all those years ago when they first began their partnership. “Why are you sorry?”, Tyrion asks. “Because you’re an evil bastard with no conscience and no heart? That’s what I liked about you in the first place.” At least some things in Westeros remain consistent, and Tyrion, despite his increasingly desperate situation, appears to appreciate that.
Fortunately for Tyrion, The Mountain’s past crimes are still a sticking point for a lot of people, especially people of Dornish extraction.
Late one night, Oberyn Martell pays Tyrion a visit. He tells Tyrion how, when Tyrion was still an infant, he, Oberyn, had heard stories far and wide about the deformed monster child of the Lannisters, with red eyes, malformed arms, and a tail. During a visit to Casterly Rock, he met a then-teenaged Cersei who, so Oberyn tells Tyrion, spent days blaming Tyrion for the death of their mother. She eventually took Oberyn to see the infant, but much to Oberyn’s “disappointment,” it turns out Tyrion was a normal looking infant.
Oberyn reveals that Cersei had brutally tortured Tyrion as an infant, at one point even trying to pinch his penis off, and suddenly it’s clear he’s telling Tyrion that he knows her for the villain she is. And then he reminds him of something else: Oberyn didn’t just come to Westeros to have orgies in Littlefinger’s brothel. He’s there to seek justice for the rape and murder of his sister and her children by … wait for it … The Mountain.
With that, Oberyn has acknowledged that Tyrion is as much a victim of Lannister machinations as his sister and her children were. “I want to bring all of those who have wronged me to justice,” he tells Tyrion. “And all of those who have wronged me are right here.” And with that, he promises a clearly moved Tyrion that he’ll be his champion against The Mountain.
The sound you hear is millions of viewers pretending not to be choked up. It’s a fantastic moment, and one can almost believe Tyrion’s fortunes are about to change for the better. Will they? Does HBO have an aversion to gratuitous nudity?
We don’t get to spend much time with Jon Snow this week, but what little we do see suggests that the Night’s Watch is an organization plunging headfirst into its own destruction.
Among the things Jon Snow continues not to know is the fact that Alliser Thorne, the acting Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, is an inveterate prick more concerned with massaging his own fragile ego than defending the realm. Jon has just returned from his mission to put down the mutineers who killed former Lord Commander Jeor Mormont, and for his troubles he’s berated by Thorne for bringing his direwolf, Ghost, into the keep with him.
Thorne is obviously not happy that Jon Snow returned from his suicide mission and is trying to put him in his place. And it almost works. Shortly after, the Night’s Watch are meeting to discuss what to do about the threat from the north. Jon Snow insists that they need to close off any and all entrances the invading Wildlings could use to access the Wall. Thorne, still resentful of Jon Snow, wins the defeat of this suggestion by reminding other high ranking members of the watch of Jon’s time spent living among the Wildlings.
Thorne has won the argument and his ego is secured, but he’s put the Night’s Watch in a terrible defensive position. They’ll clearly need some help if they’re going to survive the impending attack.
Seemingly unrelated, we also spend a few minutes in Dragonstone, home of King Stannis. Stannis is still in transit from Bravos with his enormous loan from the Iron Bank, but his dutiful and supremely religious wife Selyse, as well as his creepy/sexy spiritual advisor Melisandre, are preparing to leave on what is described as a mission of great importance, presumably wherever it is Stannis is headed. Their shared solitude affords the two time for an extremely frank conversation, underscored, it must be said, by Melisandre’s casual nudity, which is extremely distracting, but not unwelcome, just for the record.
Selyse is deeply concerned about her daughter, who we last saw expressing serious doubts about The Lord of Light. The Queen would rather leave her at Dragonstone than take her along for the mission, but Melisandre insists they bring her. As part of her pitch, Melisandre reveals to Selyse that a great deal of the “magic” she displays during the worship of The Lord of Light is nothing more than simple parlor tricks. It’s a bold admission that appears to shake Selyse’s faith, but Melisandre pulls Selyse closer by telling her that she doesn’t need tricks. “You can see the truth for yourself, no matter how harsh,” Melisandre says. Selyse agrees to bring her daughter along, and appears to be even more devoted than before to the Lord of Light.
Across the Narrow Sea, Daenerys remains firmly in control of Meereen, though not without some rather difficult problems in some of her newly liberated territories. Never mind that just now, however, because she’s finally getting around to trying out one of a monarch’s most important duties – sleeping with the help.
After months of wistful glances at her sellsword Daario, things finally come to a head when Daario sneaks into her private quarters to give her flowers. Daenerys first rebukes him for overstepping his bounds, but Daario pleads that he’s only good at only two things: killing men and bedding women. Daenerys reminds him that Meereen is full of women who could satisfy his physical needs, but he all but says outright that she’s the only woman he’s interested in.
Daario begs her to send him on a mission in which he can at least put his other talents to her service. Daenerys approves, and decides to send him to slaughter the Masters of Yunkai, who we learned last week have re-enslaved the people she freed. Daario is of course happy to oblige her. Then, she orders him to remove his clothes, which he is also happy to oblige her. Cut to black.
The next morning we see him leaving her quarters, clothes in disarray, where he bumps into Ser Jorah, who has clearly been around enough to recognize the walk of shame when he sees it. Jorah is hurt by yet more evidence that Daenerys doesn’t want him, but he manages to keep it together enough that he’s able to give her his customary level of excellent advice. Upon finding out Daenerys plans for the Masters of Yunkai, Jorah makes the case for showing them mercy. Her subjects need to love her, he implies, not live in terror, or she’ll never really rule them. At first, she rejects this advice – they are slavers, she insists, and she will put an end to slavery and punish those who propagate the practice. Jorah reminds her that he too was once a slaver. “And now you’re helping to free them,” Daenerys says. To this, Jorah tells her that had Ned Stark done to him what she plans to do to the Masters of Yunkai, he wouldn’t be around to do just that.
Like many of Game of Thrones‘ powerful people, Daenerys has the potential to become monstrous. Having that pointed out to her by her most trusted advisor convinces her to try something different, and she modifies her plans: The Masters will be given the chance to stop the practice of slavery and submit to her rule. “They can live in my new world, or they can die in their old one,” she says. Daenerys, who recognizes Jorah’s hurt feelings, then throws him a bone, telling him to inform Daario of the change in plans, and further, to inform him that it was Jorah who changed her mind.
Now would be a good time to remind you that last week, we learned that Jorah was informing on Daenerys for the Small Council, but apparently became a true believer, something the Council is trying to figure out how to exploit. Keep that in mind as you consider how good his advice has been.
We rarely see the ground level suffering in Game of Thrones, our view of events restricted to the people who have a chance of actually affecting their outcome. “Mockingbird”, however, makes it clear that even after the war finally ends, the country is probably doomed to decades if not centuries of decline.
Lannister thugs keeping the peace throughout the land have devolved outright into roving bands of rapacious killers, and for the smallfolk who have no part to play in the game of thrones, life is misery. So it is that we rejoin Arya and The Hound as they stumble upon one of the war’s pathetic victims, an old man whose house has been torched and who has been left to die in agony with a wound to the gut.
“Who did this?”, the Hound asks. “I stopped asking a long time ago” says the man. The Hound is perhaps becoming more compassionate as he spends time with Arya, because he clearly feels bad for the old man and offers to give him a quick death. Arya even gets in on the act, counseling the man that even nothing would be better than this. The old man disagrees, arguing that nothing might actually be worse, but he also seems to know he’d rather not suffer needlessly. After a few seconds pause, The Hound stabs him between the ribs, killing him instantly. But lest you think this was pure mercy, The Hound reminds us that he’s also teaching her how to be a better killer, telling her “that’s the heart.”
Arya gets the chance to put her new knowledge to practical use almost immediately, when The Hound is suddenly attacked from behind, as someone attempts to bite a hole in his neck. The Hound fights him off, at which point Arya recognizes the attacker. It turns out he’s one of the thugs who grabbed her back in season two and, you might recall, threatened her with rape. This prompts The Hound to ask “is he on your little list?” “He can’t be,” Arya says. “I don’t know his name.” The Hound sardonically asks his attacker for his name and, stupidly, his attacker gives it. “Thank you,” says Arya, who whips out Needle and stabs the thug right in his heart.
It’s an interesting moment, the juxtaposition of The Hound’s increasing regard for Arya with Arya’s increasing ruthlessness. “You’re learning,” he says, and though it sounds like he’s simply trying to squash whatever naivete she has left, it looks much more like he is beginning to care about her as a human being.
This is further suggested in their next scene together. The Hound is attempting to sew his wound shut by himself, but Arya, who knows a thing or two about these things, tells him he’s doing it wrong. Aware that he hates fire but not knowing exactly why, offers to sear the wound shut for him to prevent infection. This severely freaks him out and he lashes out bitterly, but just as suddenly, in a very big deviation from the book, The Hound spills… everything about the abuse he suffered at the hands of his brother The Mountain.
This bonds Arya and The Hound together in much the same way as Tyrion and Oberyn bonded over their shared suffering at the hands of Tyrion’s family. Their last scene together ends as Arya begins to stitch him up.
Meanwhile, somewhere relatively close, Brienne is still on her mission to find Sansa Stark and bring her home, wherever home happens to be now that the majority of her family is presumed dead. She and Podrick stop at an inn, where by the most contrived of coincidences, they happen to run into our old friend Hot Pie, last seen being sold by the Brotherhood Without Banners to a baker. Because Brienne has absolutely zero guile, she tells Hot Pie about her mission. The next morning, Podrick counsels her to shut the hell up and stop telling people who she is, but at that moment, Hot Pie sneaks out and tells Brienne that Arya is still alive, and that it’s possible she might have ended up with her aunt Lysa, lady of The Vale.
Brienne and Podrick resolve to head there in hopes it might lead them to Sansa. That’s serendipitous, but unfortunate, as things have just become untenably awful for Mrs. Tyrion.
We’ve been waiting for this since he first held a knife to Ned Stark’s throat and told him “I told you not to trust me.”
As the episode draws to a close, we find Sansa slowly adapting to her life in The Vale with her aunt Lysa and her newly-minted Uncle, Littlefinger. We first see her building a replica of Winterfell out of snow when her cousin, Robin, he who still breast-feeds, comes to talk. He’s a well-meaning child, but he’s spoiled rotten and his intense enthusiasm for throwing people out of the Moon Door clearly worries her. Having learned much from her imprisonment at King’s Landing, Sansa knows how to pretend to agree with Robin, but a brief misunderstanding causes poor Robin to throw a hissy fit, which destroys the Winterfell replica. Sansa, clearly influenced by her husband Tyrion’s example of how to handle psychopathic children, slaps him, which causes him to run away crying.
Sansa shouts apologies as he leaves, but before she can chase after him, Littlefinger appears in the courtyard and delivers some rather fatherly advice to her. “If you want to build a better home,” he tells her, “first you must demolish the old one.” Things then take dangerous turn, as Littlefinger confesses his undying love for Catelyn Stark, and expresses his feeling that in a better world, he would have been Sansa’s true father. It’s disturbing enough, but then he tells Sansa that she’s more beautiful than her mother, and kisses her. Sansa pulls away, but not fast enough, as her aunt Lysse has seen the whole thing from afar.
Shortly thereafter, Lysa confronts Sansa about the kiss, and flying into a rage, opens the Moon Door and threatens to shove Sansa through it. It is at this moment that Littlefinger appears, all sweet talk and charm, to convince Lysa to back down. He approaches Lysa, offering sincere-sounding reassurances of his affection for her, but as he gets close enough to touch, his fangs come out. “I have loved only one woman, only one my entire life,” He tells Lysa. She smiles, palpably relieved to hear it, but it’s not what she hoped to hear. “Your sister,” Littlefinger continues, just before he pushes her out the moon door, plunging to her death.
The whole episode had characters confronting monsters. Tyrion faced not only his family, but his own damaged self-conception. Arya her would-be rapist. Daenerys the possibility she herself might become the very thing she seeks to destroy. Jon Snow his smallminded superior officer whose jealousy and bitterness may yet destroy them all. But Sansa got the worst of it. Displaying a limited talent for navigating dangerous, unpredictable people earned from years spent being tormented by the Lannisters, she’s been ostensibly freed, only to discover that her protector is perhaps the worst of all the monsters she’s encountered.
Littlefinger tells Sansa earlier in the episode that he wants “a better world, one where love could overcome strength and duty.” To do it, he’s going to demolish the old one. Unfortunately, he’s made Sansa his accomplice.