'Game of Thrones' and the Problem of Pretending

But "Valar Morghulis" isn't only about people learning to pretend; it's also about people who can't stand pretending anymore. On the other side of the war, Robb Stark—who's spent the season successfully pretending to be a fearless leader, and earned a loyal following for it—throws caution to the wind and embraces what he really is: a lovestruck, impulsive young man. His marriage to Talisa, which betrays the alliance he made with Walder Frey last season, is an indefensible move strategically. But it's unsurprising that Robb, who has thousands of lives that depend on his ability to appear strong, would want marry the one person who seems to accept him for who he really is.

But not everyone has that luxury. Pretending can also mean survival—a fact that Sansa Stark, like Jon Snow, is learning as she makes her way through vastly different (but equally treacherous) enemy territory. As Robb begins his marriage, Sansa sees the end of her engagement, when Joffrey breaks it off with her in favor of a more politically advantageous union with Margaery Tyrell. As Littlefinger reminds Sansa, everyone in King's Landing is a liar, and the obviously scripted, absurdly theatrical process by which Joffrey openly courts Margaery—a queen to the rival king Renly not so long ago—is a reminder that King's Landing bears ample rewards for anyone who's able to play the game well enough.

But strategy and cunning aren't necessarily enough, as Xaro Xhaon Daxos learns the hard way when Daenerys Targaryen strikes back against him. Xaro is one of Game of Thrones' ultimate pretenders: a man with absolutely nothing, who rose to power merely by acting as if he already had power. But he made a serious tactical error by crossing Daenerys—one of Game of Thrones' few truly authentic characters (along with Arya Stark and Brienne of Tarth). If Daenerys had any doubts about the righteousness of her cause, or her ability to achieve it, she lost them in the House of the Undying, when she walked away from the beautiful vision of her husband and son to win back her true "children": her dragons. In every challenge she's faced, Daenerys has proven incorruptible, which makes her a fitter leader for Westeros than any of the squabbling kings—including Stannis, who technically remains Robert's rightful heir even as he falls deeper under Melisandre's spell.

But for all the pretending and scheming that's happened over the battle for the Iron Throne that has defined Game of Thrones' second season, an even darker question looms over "Valar Morghulis": In the end, will any of this matter? The episode draws to a close with a reminder of the enemy that everyone in Westeros underestimates: the White Walkers, who lead an army of the resurrected dead. The White Walkers were present from Game of Thrones' very first scene, but we—like Game of Thrones' main characters—have largely lost sight of them amidst the petty squabbling over the Iron Throne. Whatever their strengths or weaknesses, the inhabitants of Westeros are woefully underprepared for the inhuman enemies marching south to fight them—or for the winter that's still coming.

Note: For the sake of viewers who are experiencing the Game of Thrones story for the first time, we request that those who have read the Song of Ice and Fire series avoid revealing spoilers for upcoming episodes in the comments section below.

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Scott Meslow is entertainment editor at TheWeek.com.

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