|Daenerys sees the tower through the trees|
State of Play
The choir goes off. The board is laid out thusly:
Lions of King’s Landing: Tyrion Lannister, Cersei Lannister, the Hand of the King Tywin Lannister
The Lion, Jaime Lannister
Dragons of Astapor: Daenerys Targaryen
Bears of Astapor: Jorah Mormont
The Direwolves: Catelyn Stark, Bran Stark
Roses of King’s Landing: Margery Tyrell
The Kraken, Theon Greyjoy
Direwolves of Winterfell: Sansa Stark
The Direwolf, Arya Stark
Archers of the Wall: Samwell Tarly
The Stag, Gendry
Stags of King’s Landing: King Joffrey Baratheon
The Dogs, Sandor Clegane
Spiders of King’s Landing: Varys
Bears of the Wall: Lord Commander Jeor Mormont
Winterfell is abandoned and in ruins. Riverrun is silent. Harrenhal is barren.
The episode is in eleven parts. The first runs three minutes and is set in the Riverlands. The opening image is of Jaime Lannister’s severed hand hanging around his neck.
The second runs four minutes and is set in King’s Landing. The transition is by family, from Jaime to Tyrion Lannister.
The third runs three minutes and is set at Craster’s Keep north of the Wall. The transition is by image, from Varys closing the crate over the sorcerer who cut him to a door closing.
The fourth runs two minutes and is set in the North. The transition is by hard cut, from Samwell turning away from Gilly to Bran running in a dream.
The fifth runs six minutes and is in two sections; it is set in King’s Landing. The first section is two minutes long; the transition is by hard cut, from Bran’s face to Varys and Rosalyn talking. The second section is four minutes long; the transition is by dialogue, from Varys speaking of prodigies in odd places and Roslyn to Margery.
The sixth part runs five minutes and is set in the North. The transition is by hard cut, from Cersei scowling to Theon and Ramsey riding through the woods.
The seventh runs two minutes and is set in the Riverlands. The transition is by allegiance, from Ramsey Snow to Locke, also serving Roose Bolton.
The eighth runs ten minutes and is in three sections; it is set in King’s Landing. The first section is three minutes long; he transition is by family, from Jaime to Cersei and Tywin Lannister. The second is four minutes long; the transition is by hard cut, from Tywin to Olenna. The third is three minutes long; the transition is by dialogue, from Varys and Olenna talking about Sansa to Sansa, and by family, from Olenna to Margery Tyrell.
The ninth part runs five minutes, and is set at Craster’s Keep north of the Wall. The transition is by hard cut, from Sansa and Margery to a funeral pyre. It features the death of Jeor Mormont, stabbed in the back by his own men.
The tenth runs five minutes and is set in the Riverlands. The transition is by hard cut, from Rast to the Brotherhood Without Banners riding.
The eleventh runs six minutes and is set in Astapor. The transition is by image, from fire gods to dragons. The final image is of Daenerys’s Khalisar riding out from the smoldering wreckage of Astapor having completed a Full Web
Like the last time an episode title was a wry joke whose punchline was the death of a series regular, it ends with Daenerys demonstrating how dragons work. And like that one, the person who dies is not a dragon. Beyond that, differences abound. Let us start with a simple question: why does Jeor Mormont die? He is only the fourth credited piece to be removed from the board, after all, and the relative paucity of his appearances combined with the fact that he is an upgraded regular gives the distinct sense that he was credited largely to emphasize the importance of his death. So what does his death do?
Most obviously, it is a terrible blow for the Night’s Watch. But the Night’s Watch already faces insurmountable odds, a fact bluntly highlighted last episode by Mance Rayder. Their rout at the Fist of the First Men took an already infamously unprepared and inadequate fighting force and broke its back. They have no hope against the onrushing wave of Wildlings, little yet against the Great Filter the Wildlings are fleeing from. The loss of their best commander is devastating, but it changes their immediate odds of survival from 0% to 0%.
More interesting – and, significantly, the note his death scene actually ends on – is the change to Sam’s situation, Sam being the actual main character in this plot thread and person whose scene this is in the book. But in terms of the scale of the board, Sam is a minor subplot at best. Let’s face it, if Sam had been killed by the White Walker in the Season Two finale, it would have felt bizarre to call the episode “And Now His Watch Is Ended” instead of “Valar Morghulis.” Which is to say that the scale upon which Mormont’s death matters is clearly the Ice and Fire scale, not the personal one. (And this will, notably, not always be true of credited regular deaths, even if it has been true of them up to this point.)
Two possible answers present themselves, and as with most dualisms, they are best understood as one. The first is simply the extent to which Mormont is a Great Man of History. The best support for this is simply the way in which one is inclined to refer to him; as Mormont, quite unlike Jorah. (And incidentally, Iain Glenn’s silent performance of “holy shit she’s going to conquer the city with its own army” is a highlight of the episode.) Simply put, even if his death does not change things a lot, he’s the Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, and that inherently matters. The second, however, is that his death marks a significant symbolic point in the same way that, for instance, “Winter is Coming” and “Fire and Blood” describe significant symbolic points, or, for that matter, that “A Golden Crown” did. But what would that point be?
As with “A Golden Crown,” the clue’s in how he dies. Crucially, Rast has been self-evidently right the entire episode. As Jeor himself explained at season’s opening, if they don’t get back to the Wall with what they know, everyone they have ever known is going to die. And as Karl correctly observes, Craster is a daughter-fucking bastard. Mormont’s decision to ally with him has always been framed in terms of his utility outweighing his depravity, with Mormont starkly condemned by Jon Snow for it on two occasions now. Mormont is a damn fool not to skewer Craster, supply up, and complete the march well-supplied.
But equally important is why Craster is there in the first place, which is to say, why he’s not been eaten alive by White Walkers. This is only gradually made clear, although he asserts it bluntly as he dies, reminding them all that he’s right with the gods. His depravity marks a ragged edge of civilization; the most basic techno-religious structure that it is possible to build. In this regard, Craster understands the Great Filter far better than Mormont, having stripped from civilization all that is unnecessary to the task of passing through it. Mormont fails to understand that this is what he has allied with, and dies for it.
But why does Craster die? After all, his odds of survival against the Night’s Watch are equivalent to theirs against the White Walkers. The defenses of his keep are as oriented towards the Great Filter as Harrenhal’s were towards conventional warfare. He is as much a fool to challenge Karl as Mormont is not to challenge him.
This gets to the meat of the episode’s perversity. What Craster fails at is a moment of theater. His circumstances were eminently survivable: all he had to do was have the sense to help nurse the garrison sitting within his keep so they’d move on instead of pissing off an occupying force that outnumbers him literally however many of them there are to one. Craster would barely be able to survive a revolt of his daughters, little yet one of the Watch. But in this staging of challenge and counter-challenge he botches it. (Compare to the Hound, who talks his way out of a similar situation in the very next scene.)
But there’s a central perversity to this juxtaposition of a sort of cod-Shakespearean theatricality and the ragged edge of civilization itself. It’s not quite that the two don’t go together; indeed, their combination is the most compelling thing on offer here. But they are an awkward mix; an unstable emulsion that will separate into unappealing puddles if not maintained carefully. The tension arises straightforwardly enough: the ragged edge of civilization marks history at its most bluntly materialist, as evidenced by the precise breakdown of order at Craster’s Keep. The theatrical, on the other hand, has an altogether more oblique relationship with the material, a point emphasized… well, you’re spoiled for choice there, but let’s go with the bizarre contrivance of Locke having a canteen of horse piss. It is not that there is no coherent philosophy of play here. There is one, previously articulated by Varys and tacitly alluded to here in another beautifully theatrical scene, which holds, in effect, that power is a theatrical performance overlaid onto a material situation.
Let’s turn, then, to the other ragged edge of civilization, Slavers Bay. Although Craster’s Keep and Astapor are never directly juxtaposed, the similarities are clear, with both representing a liminal space between civilization and barbarism. Kraznys and Craster, however, make precisely opposite errors. Where Craster has set up his Keep to defend entirely against the extra-civilizational thread of the White Walkers, Kraznys and the larger system of slavery in Astapor is set up in opposition to a conventional array of military threats. And where Craster dies because he has mistaken being right with the gods for being right with pointy pieces of metal, Kraznys dies because he fails to imagine the possibility that Daenerys could simply casually discard all of the axioms of Astaporian society in favor of setting some dragons loose on the city.
The result is genuinely spectacular, complete with a giddily over the top shot of Daenerys as a dragon makes a strafing run behind her so that she stands triumphantly in front of a curtain of flame. The scale of the victory is as breathtaking as the speed of it, both in terms of the scene itself and in terms of the season – notably, both Seasons One and Two took a very precise ten episodes to build towards Daenerys’s victories, whereas here she has her biggest victory to date less than halfway through. And yet the most important point is in many ways the most obvious one: that dragons and white walkers are fundamentally similar in their relationship to the structures of society, namely that they exist outside it and threaten to tear it down.