A Brief Treatise on the Rules of Thrones 2.03: What is Dead May Never Die


State of Play

The choir goes off. The board is laid out thusly:

Lions of King’s Landing: Tyrion Lannister, Cersei Lannister
The Direwolf, Catelyn Stark
Mockingbirds of King’s Landing: Petyr Baelish
Direwolves of the Wall: Jon Snow
Kraken of Pyke: Theon Greyjoy
Direwolves of Winterfell: Brana Stark
Direwolves of King’s Landing: Sansa Stark
The Direwolf, Arya Stark
Archers of the Wall: Samwell Tarly
The Rose, Margaery Tyrell
Bears of the Wall: Jeor Mormont
Chains of King’s Landing: Bronn
Spiders of Kings Landing: Varys
Flowers of King’s Landing: Shae

Vaes Dothrak and Dragonstone are abandoned.

The episode is in ten parts. The first is three minutes long and is in two sections; it is set in Craster’s Keep north of the Wall. The first section is two minutes long; the opening image is of Craster dragging Jon Snow in front of Lord Commander Mormont. The other is one long; the transition is by dialogue, from Mormont saying they leave at dawn to dawn. 

The second part is four minutes long and is set in Winterfell. The transition is by hard cut, from Sam to the yard at Winterfell. 

The third is six minutes long and is set in Renly Baratheon’s camp in the Stormlands. The transition is by family, from Bran to Catelyn Stark. 

The fourth is four minutes long and is set in Pyke. The transition is by the theme of idiosyncratic women, from Brienne of Tarth to Yara Greyjoy.

The fifth is ten minutes long and is in three sections; it is set in King’s Landing. The first section is two minutes long; the transition is by hard cut, from Theon to Tyrion. The second is four minutes long; the transition is by family, from Tyrion to Cersei Lannister. The third is four minutes long; the transition is by hard cut, from Shae brushing Sansa’a hair to a blue vial. 

The sixth part is five minutes long and is set in the Baratheon camp. The transition is by hard cut, from Tyrion exiting Littlefinger’s chamber to a view of Renly’s bed. 

The seventh is one minute long and is set in King’s Landing. The transition is by Queen, from Margery to Cersei. 

The eighth is two minutes long and is set in Pyke. The transition is by hard cut, from Tyrion leaving Cersei to Theon making a decision. 

The ninth is five minutes long and is set in King’s Landing. The transition is by hard cut, from a reborn Theon to Tyrion. 

The tenth is nine minutes long and is set on the Kingsroad north of King’s Landing. The transition is by hard cut, from Tyrion to a small tower. It features the death of Yorrin and Lemmy, both killed by the Lannisters. The final image is of a chessboard lying in the grass like it’s the answer to a riddle. 


In one sense, gameplay continues as before. The structure is disorganized, with seven of its twelve transitions being hard cuts. The opening and closing of the episode are in many ways simply tacked on; all are the only scenes dealing with their respective locations and characters, wrapped around a thirty-three minute core that deals with three locations, each of which features one of the five kings (although only two kings actually appear). The title once again comes from a relatively minor part of the episode, with Pyke only getting six minutes. And the episode is dominated by King’s Landing, which is in turn dominated by Tyrion, with other plots seeming to scrape around the outer fringes of a world centered around Tyrion. The overall sense that play is in a chaotic phase continues, in other words.

In another sense, however, there is a focus to this episode that is lacking in the first two of this season. Twice the link between scenes is based on the positions of women within them, first from Brienne to Yara, both overtly martial women who have carved out positions in society that are contrary to gender norms, and then from Margaery to Cersei, a transition of queens. Within such a structure the presence of Arya at episode’s end is much more organic than it would appear: a highborn woman who is literally pretending to be a man. In this regard the final shot is meticulously built to, as Arya makes a tremendously clever decision that marks the first time she’s saved herself entirely through her own wits, thus bringing to conclusion a story about atypical women. 

This also reinforces the sense of these early episodes as emphasizing the accretion of the supernatural at the edges of the board. Hidden within Arya’s increase in agency is a pair of crucial shifts in her mythic significance, as she both takes the action that earns her three names from the Many-Faced God and gets the inspiration for the Death Prayer from Yoren’s story. (A story that is also savvy play in a technical sense; the backstory is an invention of the show, existing to wisely give Francis Magee a scene worthy of his talents before his removal from the board, and in doing so enriching all six of his previous appearances.) 

The story’s title also gestures towards this, putting attention on the Greyjoys and the religion of the Drowned God, notable as the only bespoke deity revealed, with every other god being part of at the very least a dualistic system, if not a larger pantheon. The titular phrase itself is an obvious homage to H.P. Lovecraft, and between it and the Kraken sigil there is a clear underlying statement about the Greyjoys, positioning them as a rawly destructive force. From this perspective Theon’s cowardice is not so much a character flaw as a sort of original sin; a decay implicit in their status as dead, drowned things. 

It also serves as a sort of definitive statement on this initial phase of play; the point where magic’s haunting of the board becomes a near-explicit part of the text. It is particularly fitting, then, that this episode, focused as it is on atypical women and the magical haunting of the board, omits Daenerys, a classic example of Borges’s famous riddle “what is the one word that cannot appear in a riddle whose answer is chess?” 

There is also, of course, a riddle at the center of the episode, as part of Varys’s remarks on the nature of power. This is significant not only because it is one of the most unguarded moments Varys has had to date; he is visibly enjoying himself in his interplay with Tyrion, finding an almost spiritual satisfaction in the fact that he gets to talk shop about the game. It is also notable because it serves as the end consequence of Tyrion’s grand scheme over the course of the episode. (This is, cleverly, set up early on: of the three stories he tells, the idea that Theon Greyjoy, the rotting degenerate after whom the episode is named, would be a strategic match for Myrcella is by far the least plausible, and Hill and Dinklage both play the scene as though aware of that fact.) 

But it is perhaps most notable for its content. The game is illusory; more Mornington Crescent than chess. It’s the water poured on Theon’s head - a ritual component of the worship given to another sort of god. Put another way, the game is just another form of magic scraping at the edge of the very board it seems to define. Tyrion has thus far been playing a game of survival, his only goal being to be clever enough to avoid getting killed. His disposal of Janos Slynt and Grandmaester Pycelle was a means to that end: the nullification of the most obvious threats to his survival. Varys, however, suggests to him that higher goals are available should he have the ambition to pursue them.

In an odd way, this mirrors his conflict with Shae, who is among the least powerful of the idiosyncratic women in this episode (only Gilly is more abject, and unlike Shae, she appears on an upward trajectory), made subservient even to lowly Sansa within it: like Varys, she imagines higher goals than survival. 


Aylwin 5 years, 7 months ago

As you say, the "The Queen Mustn't Know" game is quite illusory, even in its own terms. It exists as a token demonstration of Tyrion being good at this political intrigue stuff, a way of consolidating that fact without letting him make any actual moves that would affect play in a concrete way.

In its specifics, the test is a bit sketchy (Varys's riddle doesn't hold up either). It doesn't prove a great deal regarding Varys's allegiances or discretion, since, as observed, he doesn't seem fooled by the story (I do like the eloquent flatness of his "Theon Greyjoy."). And of course, with Littlefinger it proves nothing whatsoever, because Tyrion gives him an overwhelmingly powerful incentive to keep his mouth shut and stay onside with the scheme.

But then, Tyrion doesn't need a test to find out whether he should get rid of Littlefinger, because he has ample reason to do that anyway. We know (as does Littlefinger) that he knows that Littlefinger in effect conspired to have him hit, and while he may not be sure whether Baelish is actually hostile to him or if that was just a means to some other end, it hardly matters - if you mean to stay in the game, you can't let people try it on like that and get away with it. Just as Tywin had to go to war with Cat's people, Tyrion has to do Littlefinger. And he is currently (for an uncertain but necessarily limited period of time) in a position to do so as easily as squashing an insect. And the great thing is, one of the many ways in which Baelish is unlike Ned Stark is that, while he's extremely dangerous alive, he'd be pretty harmless dead.

So political logic dictates beard on spike, pronto. But of course, we can't have that. So it's necessary to hide the fact that they're not doing the real thing by acting out a shadow-play of it. Pycelle is a sacrificial substitute, catching the ricochet from Littlefinger's plot armour. Luckily for him, it's just a flesh wound.

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Aylwin 5 years, 7 months ago

All of which, I think, reflects a wider incoherence between Littlefinger's "I'm not going to fight them, I'm going to fuck them" approach (and the practical circumstances that mandate it), and the provocative recklessness of his play. His survival depends on the enemies he inevitably makes being polite enough not to actually fight him, but just hang around waiting to get fucked.

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Bob Dillon 5 years, 7 months ago

Not quite: we know that Peter is acting alone, but there really isn't enough evidence in universe to justify this. You don't kill the catspaw until you know who the cat is. Tyrion could be waiting until he finds out who Peter's real masters are. By the time Tyroin finds out that he doesn't have one, Peter is far away.

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Aylwin 5 years, 7 months ago

But most of the likely backers are already known to be hostile, and absent from court, being either in open rebellion (Baratheons, Starks, Tyrells, Tullys), in exile plotting invasion (Targaryens), or in sullen, Lannister-hating seclusion (Martells, Arryns). None of them are lurking behind curtains in the King's Landing, in a position to respond suddenly and unexpectedly, and most or all of them will already be trying to do all the harm they can to the Lannister regime anyway. If Littlefinger is an agent for any of them, then he's surely their most powerful asset in the capital, and an extremely dangerous one, making his removal all the more urgent in a civil war situation. (I do like that little moment, never explained or followed up on, where he offers to betray the city to Renly. Of course, it works as a pretext for his presence in the camp, but knowing Littlefinger he's also perfectly serious. Why wouldn't he seize the opportunity to set himself up for that likely eventuality?) Perhaps the only uncertain case would be if he was working for the Martells, where eliminating him might interfere with Tyrion's charm offensive.

Broadly the same would apply if he's working for a foreign power - any harm likely to result from their losing such a highly-placed agent would almost certainly be outweighed by the harm they could do through him if he is left in place.

Any second-tier lord would be more of an ally than a boss, less likely to be the mastermind than the foxy Baelish, and less dangerous.

That leaves Cersei, but Tyrion already knows her to be hostile and can't get rid of her, so that the next best thing is to isolate her by getting rid of her most useful clients, as he does with Slynt and Pycelle.

This whole question of possible patrons also goes to my wider problems with Littlefinger as a credible proposition. Historically, such figures lived and died by the patronage of kings - they were generally hated by the elite at large, and when royal favour lapsed or became ineffective they were toast. Without a firmly-established king like Robert to protect him, a Littlefinger would be horribly exposed. For such people, order was a ladder, chaos was a snake. But then, I suppose the fact that he aspires not merely to run the country (perfectly achievable) but to sit on the actual throne virtually moves him into the fantasy column anyway.

And yes, I am thinking too much about this stuff.

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Aylwin 5 years, 7 months ago

Should have said "not merely to be the power behind the throne but to sit on it". Pesky right turn of phrase, never there when you want it.

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Elizabeth Sandifer 5 years, 7 months ago

I think the game was about more than just eliminating Cersei's patsies; it was about figuring out who could be trusted to behave predictably. Pycelle proved himself to be completely in Cersei's pocket, which means that he's always going to be working against Tyrion. Littlefinger proved himself to be straightforwardly greedy. That's a motivation that can be predicted and used. So he stays on board. And Varys proved himself completely and utterly loyal, and more to the point impressed.

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Daru 5 years, 7 months ago

"From this perspective Theon’s cowardice is not so much a character flaw as a sort of original sin; a decay implicit in their status as dead, drowned things.

It also serves as a sort of definitive statement on this initial phase of play; the point where magic’s haunting of the board becomes a near-explicit part of the text."

One of the elements I especially started really enjoying in the show (and the books) was watching the semi-hidden growth of magic in a skeptical world. The whole journey of Bran towards who he become I found gripping and touching.

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Daru 5 years, 7 months ago

The title and the words “What is Dead May Never Die” and the Greyjoy's thematic link with HP Lovecraft was one I had been slow to make, but it makes their characters a lot more interesting.

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