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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.