This week's Game of Thrones drew a tight bead on one of the show's most important themes, the ineffable qualities of leadership, as the court of the Seven Kingdoms moved to unite around a basically unknown boy king in the wake of his brother's poisoning. Whether Tommen Baratheon will prove to be a good ruler is right now beside the point. Every big character that "Breaker of Chains" touched upon—Jon Snow on The Wall, Daenerys in Meereen, Stannis on Dragonstone, and the Hound in the Riverlands—typified the qualities and drawbacks Tywin is addressing in his conversation with new King Tommen. As much as Tywin was obviously beginning to solidify his influence over his youngest grandson in that scene, the question he was asking was one that's crucial to Game of Thrones: what makes a good king?
Wisdom is the answer Tywin wants from Tommen—wisdom to trust one's advisers, and essentially let the Hand of the King and his Council run the show. The scene plays out over Joffrey's corpse and sees Tywin dialing back his terrifying side while firming up his influence. Charles Dance simply can't get enough praise for the work he does on this show. Last week, when chatting with Oberyn and Olenna or gritting his teeth next to Joffrey on the dais, we got a welcome glimpse of Tywin the diplomat, who seeks to paper over his own ruthlessness and his grandson's vile behavior to secure peace. Rather than seriously suspect Prince Oberyn of Joffrey's murder, he invites him to be a juror in Tyrion's trial and serve on the Small Council, to further an alliance between the crown and Dorne that, it should be remembered, began with Tyrion sending Joffrey's sister Myrcella down south in season two.
It's very easy to view Tywin's behavior in this episode as incriminating evidence for his involvement in Joffrey's murder. He straight-up proclaims Joffrey a shitty king in front of his dead body and grieving mother, swoops in on Tommen, and works to pin the crime on Tyrion and wipe him out. The general lack of emotion is not surprising, but one would think Tywin would be furious that Joffrey's security was so easily breached. Instead, he marches merrily along.
The reveal of Petyr Baelish's involvement in the whole plot could also point a finger at Tywin (the two plotted to secure the Tyrell alliance) but this is Littlefinger, who seems to be happy to do business with anyone. We don't know how involved Petyr was with the actual poisoning, but he seemed to know that it would go down and planned to get Sansa out of there. Aidan Gillen always dials up the creepiness to an unbearable degree in Petyr's scenes with Sansa, and this time was no different. The level of manipulation was so perfect—playing on her love of romantic stories and heroism, making Ser Dontos a tragic hero she would assent to being rescued by, all to get her out of the capital. Is it to keep her safe, out of loyalty to Catelyn (RIP)? It's so easy to think of Littlefinger as being purely sinister.
So wisdom makes a good leader, but "wisdom" can just mean being a puppet to your advisers. Petyr's ruthlessness is key (the execution of Dontos was sad but, by his rationale, certainly necessary to keep Sansa safe), but he represents liberties that must be secretly taken to win the throne. Remember, Ned could have taken better advantage of Petyr's ruthlessness in the first season and failed to do so, dying an honorable but unprotected leader.
Up at The Wall, we're finally getting the picture with Jon Snow. If you haven't figured it out already, he's a changed man since his journey with the wildlings. From both Commander Mormont and Mance Rayder, he's learned about the compromises one has to make as a leader, and now that he's preparing to defend against an army of 100,000 with only 100 men, he's aware that the Night's Watch has to stand idly by as raiding parties pillage south of them. Alliser Thorne is still trying to get under his skin, but Snow has hardened and is no longer the whiner he remembers from earlier seasons. He no longer wants to be in charge just because he thinks he's better than everyone else. He knows what awaits the Watch and how to deal with it. If they think he's wrong, that's their problem.
Over on Dragonstone, Stannis seems to have annoyingly forgotten that maybe the men on The Wall need some help. Instead he's just sitting inside, moping that there's nothing he can do to take advantage of Joffrey's death. Stannis does not lack for steeliness, but he's constantly plagued by indecision. Why else keep Davos around, even though as Hand he's constantly at odds with Stannis' other closest advisor, Melisandre? The red woman says she can secure the throne through magic, and once again Stannis has reason to believe her, but he's too pragmatic to not have one foot rooted in reality, which Davos represents. What happens next? Davos has some bright idea about the Iron Bank, of which more of that in future weeks.
Over in the Riverlands, we get the nasty flipside of the Hound/Arya partnership, as they run into a kindly farmer and his daughter who take them in, and the Hound exploits their softness by taking their food and money and leaving them to die. Arya's protestations are fair, of course, but the Hound answers as he always seems to — this is the way things are. The Starks' obsession with honor continue to run into nihilistic reality, and this may be Arya's final lesson. She was so cold-blooded in episode one, basically setting up a showdown to have The Hound kill her former tormenters. He's less violent this time around, but just as unfeeling, a skill she must learn if she's going to survive without the comforts that came with being a Stark. The Hound is an important character, but it's clearer and clearer that Arya's time with him represents an education for her.
This was a largely strong episode considering it had so much table-setting to do. The plot barely moved forward an inch, aside from Sansa's friendly kidnapping by Littlefinger. Everyone else is just digging in, although Daenerys' siege of Meereen may prove to be a short one. Rather than risk her army or any of her close advisers, she sends Daario against the city's champion (basically an audition for him to show off his rugged sexiness) and attempts to incite revolution from within by promising the slaves their freedom. Daenerys' qualities as a leader are easy to see: she's charismatic and moral, a mix of qualities seemingly forever unknown to the eastern continent. She inspires great men to follow her, she wants to make the world a better place, and, of course, she has dragons. But it feels like the show is really gearing up to challenge her. Daario's speech in the first episode was crucial—she has lofty ideas, but does she understand the world she wants to rule?