'Game of Thrones' and the Problem of Pretending

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


"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.

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.