Game of Thrones' Most Fascinating Character

Our roundtable on "The House of Black and White" and the plight of the queen mother


Spencer Kornhaber, Christopher Orr, and Amy Sullivan discuss the latest episode of Game of Thrones.

Sullivan: Is there any more fascinating character on television right now than Cersei Lannister? She’s awful and ruthless—in calling for the head of Tyrion, she’s essentially declared open season on dwarves, as every fool with a sword tries to collect the reward. She can be spiteful and short-sighted—I love the befuddled “are you freakin’ kidding me?” look Jaime gives Cersei when she complains that he’s “never been a father to [Myrcella.]”

And yet, just as you start cheering on Uncle Kevan for calling her out, the sound dies in your throat as you realize that once again, a man is cutting Cersei down to size simply because she's a woman. It doesn’t matter how powerful or cunning or ambitious she is. In her world, Cersei will always be less-than.

“I do not recognize your authority to dictate what is and is not my concern,” Kevan tells Cersei as she tries to assert her role as temporary Hand of the King. “You are the queen mother. Nothing more.” Well.

Cersei is indeed a mother, and in her first scene this episode she actually looks scared for her daughter, Myrcella, who was shipped off to Dorne several seasons ago to forge a political alliance with the Martells through marriage, but who may be more of a prisoner now. The queen has never been happy about the arrangement—she originally protested that she didn’t want her daughter married off for political benefit as she was. But last year, she began expressing concern for Myrcella’s safety after Oberyn hinted that the line between ward and hostage can shift.

If you’ll remember, Oberyn tried to reassure Cersei while also claiming moral high ground for the Martells: “We don’t hurt little girls in Dorne.” To which Cersei had the heartbreaking reply, “Everywhere in the world, they hurt little girls.”

With Oberyn now dead, the arrival of a snakegram would cause any mother to panic. (As well she should, given that the snake was probably sent by Oberyn’s paramour, Ellaria Sand, who has suddenly become a cartoonish villain and begs Prince Doran to “let me send [Myrcella] to Cersei one finger at a time.”) It’s the sight of Cersei in such a terrified state, and not a little guilt about setting Tyrion free, that leads Jaime to embark on a two-man rescue expedition to Dorne. That, in turn, leads the rest of us to squee about the comic banter surely to accompany a Bronn-and-Jaime road trip. It has to be better than discussing wedding menus. Pigeon pie, anyone?

In the meantime, our other favorite road-tripping duo has hit a bit of a setback. Eagle-eyed Podrick spots Sansa and Baelish dining at their pub—“Ready the horses,” orders Brienne. “My lady, we only have one horse.” But Brienne is now 0-for-2 with Stark girls, as Sansa joins Arya in rejecting her offer of protection. “You should leave,” she tells Brienne, sounding like an embarrassed princess dismissing an unwanted suitor.

Pod delicately tries to get Brienne to face facts—“My lady, both Stark girls refused your service. Maybe you’re released from your vow…” But being our bullheaded Brienne, she brushes him off. Their new mission: track Sansa and watch over her from a distance. At this point in Game of Thrones-world, we should know that means Brienne will likely rescue Sansa down the road. Hopefully she’ll have time to give Pod some riding lessons while they wait.

I want to return to the Wall before I hand this off to one of you. And let’s get this out of the way: I know there are a lot of Kit Harrington haters out there. I am not one of them. His Jon Snow—taciturn, poker-faced—seems to me perfectly fitting with a young man who grew up a bastard in the Stark household, knowing his presence was resented by Catelyn Stark. He learned to watch carefully and stay out of the way, while also embracing Ned Stark’s compassion and strict moral code.

Or it could be that I’m just swayed by that glorious head of hair.

Either way, it’s a happy day for Westeros when Jon Snow is elected the 998th Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch. It’s the least he deserves after turning down the chance to become Jon Stark, lord of Winterfell. If you don’t daydream about the remaining Stark kids reuniting at Winterfell and being greeted with bear hugs by their big brother Jon, well then, you don’t have a heart.

After a slower opening episode, there was so much packed into this hour that it sent my head spinning around the Seven Kingdoms. I haven’t even touched on the Water Gardens of Dorne, the most promising new setting we’ve seen in at least a season. Or the total catastrophe that Dany’s rule in Meereen is becoming. Or the return of Arya and her mantra of doom.

Are you excited about Arya’s arrival at the House of Black and White, Chris? Or are you as worried as I am about this plotline, one of my least favorite from the books? You can disagree—just please don’t send me a snakegram.

Orr: I’m probably somewhere in the middle when it comes to Arya’s storyline at the House of Black and White: I don’t love it, but I don’t mind it. My hope is that with a little acceleration—and showrunners Benioff and Weiss seem to be providing that to pretty much all of George R. R. Martin’s plotlines this season—it will be fine. I do like the portrayal of Braavos as essentially a more foreboding version of Venice. And did you notice how short Arya’s enemy-list mantra has become? “Cersei, Walder Frey, the Mountain, Meryn Trant.” That’s it! Westeros: where if you’re not quick, someone else will fulfill your vendettas before you.

I’m with you—or at least approaching you—on Jon Snow. I’m no Harrington-hater, but I found Jon among the least interesting characters of the first few seasons, largely for reasons outside his control. He was supposed to be a bit diffident and indecisive, and while Harrington nailed those traits, they’re not terribly cinematic. Plus, until recently Jon suffered from the same geographic disadvantage that has always plagued Daenerys. Like the cities of Slaver’s Bay, the Wall is so remote from the goings-on elsewhere in Westeros (and in King’s Landing in particular) that its subplots have always seemed a bit disconnected. In any case, both of these problems are gradually being solved. First, Ygritte kissed a bit of fire into Jon—embers that have since been stoked by his rise into leadership—and second, Stannis arrived at the Wall, making it very much a part of the geopolitical map. Jon (and Stannis, too, as I’ve mentioned before) have both become all the more interesting for it. Also, regarding the hair, Harrington is contractually obligated not to cut it.

Happy as I’ve been about some of the compressions and omissions we’ve already seen from the sprawl of GRRM’s later novels, I did miss one bit that didn’t make it into this episode. In the books, Jon gets elected 998th commander of the Night’s Watch as the result of some delightful subterfuge conducted by Samwell Tarly, who plays the other candidates off one another with Varys-like cunning. I was sorry this was cut: Sam’s not afforded very many opportunities to be a hero, and this was among his best.

While we’re still at the Wall, I was interested in the scene in which Shireen, Stannis’s daughter, continued her “Reading is Fundamental” campaign with Gilly. Apart from offering yet another example of what a crummy parent Queen Selyse is, the scene served mostly to give us the longest explanation to date of the disfiguring (and typically lethal) disease greyscale. Do I detect foreshadowing?

The new storyline involving Jaime and Bronn seems more than a tad silly: Two men (one of whom is one-handed and has never before set foot in Dorne) are going to trek halfway across the continent to infiltrate the Water Gardens and rescue Myrcella from her royal custody? They may as well cue up Lalo Schifrin’s theme from Mission: Impossible. But at least this gives us more screen time with Bronn, who was largely absent from the books by this point. Even a line as simple as “Jaime fucking Lannister” is given a lift by Jerome Flynn’s delivery.

Speaking of Dorne, it is lovely. (The Water Gardens scenes are shot on the grounds of the Alcazar palace in Seville, Spain.) But what gives with Ellaria Sand? Last season, she was all languid curves and polymorphous perversity. Now that her paramour Oberyn is dead—a fact concerning which no one is more unhappy than I—she seems like a different character altogether. With her short hair, combat-ready attire, and proto-Ramsay torture-lust, I scarcely recognized her.

I don’t have much to add to your take on Brienne, Amy. Perhaps the only thing worse than running around Westeros never finding any Stark girls (which is what happens in the books) is finding both and having them turn down your sword one after the other. Here’s hoping Brienne’s luck changes.

At least Tyrion and Varys are chugging amiably along the road to Volantis (which leads to the road to Meereen). As Amy and I mentioned last week, Spencer, this trip—involving a half-dozen additional characters whom Benioff and Weiss seem to have wisely jettisoned—was interminable in the books, and Tyrion himself a self-pitying boor. At least here he’s still cracking wise, however drunk he may be. (Varys: “Are we really going to spend the entire road to Volantis talking about the futility of everything?” Tyrion: “You’re right. No point.”) Also nice was the visual joke when we cut from Tyrion’s “How many dwarves are there in the world? Is Cersei going to kill them all?” to the severed dwarf-head being rolled out for said sister.

As for the Queen Mother, she’s going to get less sympathy from me than she does from you, Amy. Was Uncle Kevan’s rebuke at the Small Council implicitly sexist? I suppose so. But it was also the most intelligent thing anyone has said to Cersei since Tywin’s death. (You may recall that it was the latter, back in season three, who told his daughter, “I don’t distrust you because you’re a woman. I distrust you because you’re not as smart as you think you are.”) A Cersei unchecked by Tywin or Tyrion is one who will quickly discover she’s not half the plotter she imagines herself to be.

Although speaking of misrule, you’d be hard pressed to do worse than Daenerys this episode. At the very least she could have taken Hizdahr zo Loraq’s advice and just killed the former slave and over-exuberant vigilante in private. Instead, she gathers all of Meereen for his public beheading, and then is surprised when it doesn’t go well? Let me break this down for you, Dany: The ex-masters already hate you; when you get on the wrong side of the ex-slaves, too, that leaves you with no constituency at all. Somebody get that queen a pollster.

How about you, Spencer? What do your polls say? Who’s up, who’s down, and who’s just treading water?

Kornhaber: Cersei leads in my approval polls, though the story would be different if Gallup were to survey King's Landing. Amy, you asked whether there's a more fascinating character on TV than her. I haven't seen every TV show, so I'll just say: Lena Heady is the most compelling actor on the Thrones cast at this point, which is a big compliment. Favorite line reading this week: “It’s a threat,” Jaime blurts upon opening the snake-in-a-box, to which Headey-as-Cersei heaves, “Of course it’s a threat,” looking and sounding like someone impatient at their own nausea.

I'm as scared as Cersei, but it's on her own behalf and not Myrcella's. With last episode’s depiction of the witch's prophecy and the machinations of Margaery (or, as Cersei puts it, “that smirking WHORE from Highgarden”), and this episode’s hostility from Ellaria and Uncle Kevan, the show seems to be setting up some awful calamity for the Queen Mother. If she’s the next character to lay stone-eyed in the Sept—book readers, please don’t tell me whether she is—Thrones will have a massive entertainment void to fill.

It could fill that void, perhaps, with more scenes of Tyrion and Varys bickering like two RuPaul’s Drag Race contestants. Conleth Hill doesn’t get enough acclaim for vesting the Spider with a distinctive blend of flamboyance and nonchalance, but he should after this episode’s caravan conversation, which was possibly the sassiest Thrones scene ever (“Best be careful, you might accidentally consume some solid food” is a Lucille Bluth-level reading). The banter also came with some profundity, like this explanation of what motivates Thrones’s many cripples, bastards, and broken things:

Varys: People follow leaders. They never follow us. They find us repulsive.

Tyrion: I find us repulsive.

Varys: And we find them repulsive, which is why we surround ourselves with large, comfortable boxes to keep them away. And yet, no matter what we do, people like you and me are never really satisfied inside the box. Not for long.

While inside the box, Tyrion appears to be keeping the Brooklyn-y scruff he acquired in steerage, which is fine by me—Dinklage looks good! It’s just one of physical makeovers we’ve seen recently: Ellaria Sand as Cruella de Vil, Sansa Stark as Corpse Bride, and Bronn as nouveau riche. The costume changes epitomize the way that, five seasons into its run, Game of Thrones can now reap the rewards of careful, long-term character development. Even the folks who aren’t sporting new ‘dos and threads have evolved in recognizable ways—Jon into a world-weary leader, as you two mentioned; Arya into a pigeon-decapitating ronin; Jaime into a brokenhearted do-gooder. Regardless of whether the plot delivers as many twists as previous seasons have, the episodes to come should thrill merely because we get to see these familiar faces interact with the world in from slightly new perspectives.

Danaerys too has transformed recently, but into a less confident, more anxious Khaleesi. You can understand: Her trusted adviser just compared her to her mass-murderer father, the ex-slave who she elevated to her council just disobeyed orders, and she sparked a sectarian brawl by executing said ex-slave in public. The return of the prodigal Drogon came as emotional relief—not only is her dragon back in a time of need, but her psychic link with her reptile kids has been reaffirmed—though it’s not clear how he’ll help quash the unrest in Meereen. Rioting subjects are bad, but charred ones are worse.

All the debate in Dany's council over fair trials for a terrorist is an example of how the Dany plotline so often recalls real-world happenings. Meereen's divided populace and insurgents, in fact, have drawn comparisons to Iraqis under American occupation. So it makes sense that the show's political point of view once again is coming into focus. “You are the law,” Mossador tells his liberator, to which Danaerys replies that “the law is the law.” The thing is, in Game of Thrones, the law often is the same as the ruler: Stannis vests himself with the power to make Jon Snow a Stark; the small council bickers in the absence of a suitable king. Dany may have to learn the lesson that Ned and Robb never got the chance to learn, which is that breaking rules in defense of virtue can be a virtue in itself, and that doing the right thing for principle's sake often turns out to be the dead-wrong choice.