'Game of Thrones' and the Problem of Pretending

On the season finale, the characters struggle to conceal who they really are.

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HBO

"You're not the man you're pretending to be."

- Maester Luwin

"You may be right. But I've gone too far to pretend to be anything else."

- Theon Greyjoy

When it comes to authenticity, Maester Luwin is more qualified to offer advice than nearly anyone in Westeros; as the sworn advisor to the Lord of Winterfell—whoever that lord may be—Luwin knows exactly who he is, and exactly what role he has to play. But that makes him a rare figure in Westeros. Two seasons in, the vast majority of Game of Thrones' major players are still discovering the truth about themselves as the battle for the Iron Throne rages on. Games of Thrones' entire second season has been about pretending, and last night's season finale, "Valar Morghulis" finds each character confronting their own nature: who they truly are, who others think they are, or who they pretend to be.

Unfortunately for Theon Greyjoy, who fails to heed Maester Luwin's advice, the question comes as he mounts a last stand that's as pathetic and misguided as the rest of his brief reign over Winterfell. When Theon launches into a speech full of clichés about bravery and glory that feels cobbled together from leftover bits of Gladiator and 300, he's attempting to play the part of the heroic leader. But despite his best efforts, no speech can disguise the pointlessness of his cause, or the long string of missteps he's made. (In fact, his stupidly grandiose speech is almost exactly the opposite of Tyrion Lannister's pragmatic "Let's go kill them!" call to arms in last week's "Blackwater," which was both more honest and more stirring.) Theon may feel trapped as the man he's pretending to be, but it's a trap he set for himself when he betrayed Robb Stark, and it's hard to imagine he'll be remembered as anything but a Winterfell's version of Benedict Arnold—if he's remembered at all.

Which isn't to say that actual heroism guarantees a legacy. They say history is written by the winners, but Tyrion Lannister's spectacular success in the Battle of Blackwater has already been overshadowed by the contributions of his father Tywin, who Joffrey names both King's Hand and "savior of the realm." But despite the injustice of his dismissal, Tyrion has gained something more valuable than a new castle, a new title, or a bag of gold: true, unshakeable self-knowledge. In Game of Thrones' first season, Tyrion offered Jon Snow a piece of advice that summed up his general philosophy in life: "Never forget what you are. The rest of the world will not. Wear it like armor, and it can never be used to hurt you." At the time, he was talking about being a dwarf—a fact that defined even his own understanding of himself. But in "Valar Morghulis," Tyrion finally defines himself not just by how others see him, but by what he truly is: a skilled player in the game of thrones. "It's what I'm good at. It's what I am," Tyrion explains to Shae, and though his actual power may be diminished, his sense of purpose has never seemed stronger.

If only Tyrion could lend some of his new perspective to Jon Snow, whose own sense of purpose is shaken to the core when he kills Qhorin Halfhand, a fellow brother of the Night's Watch, in order to infiltrate the wildling army beyond the Wall. If word ever reaches the Night's Watch, Jon will be cursed as a traitor—somewhat paradoxically, since killing Qhorin is the best way to serve the Night's Watch. Jon Snow has always been a hero, but his heroism has never come at the price of his own reputation until now. On the surface, after all, there's no difference between Jon Snow's "betrayal" of Qhorin Halfhand and Theon Greyjoy's betrayal of the Starks—and in the end, the consequences may prove to be just as severe.

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Scott Meslow is entertainment editor at TheWeek.com.

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