Monday, May 06, 2013

Game of Thrones (S3E06): "The Climb"

The latest episode from Season 3 of Game of Thrones is called "The Climb" (S3E06), ostensibly because its key event is the ascent of Jon Snow and the Wildlings up the 700-foot wall of ice that separates the more populated sections of the Westeros continent from the area known as Beyond The Wall. Although not as transcendent as the last three episodes (S3E03: Walk of Punishment, S3E04: And Now His Watch Is Ended, S3E05: Kissed by Fire), S3E06 is still damned good television.

Recap (with spoilers)
However, as depicted in the picture above, another interpretation of "The Climb" became apparent in the scene between Lord Petyr Baelish (a.k.a. Littlefinger) and Lord Varys (a.k.a. The Spider) when Baelish revealed what he believes. When Varys says that it is only lies (like the one that says the Iron Throne is made up of the burned down steel of the thousand enemies killed by a long-dead Targaryen king) that keeps the Seven Kingdoms together and without these "lies" there would be chaos in the realm, Baelish replies:
“Do you know what the realm is? [A] story we agree to tell each other over and over until we forget that it’s a lie....Chaos isn’t a pit. It’s a ladder. Many who try to climb it fail, never get to try again. The fall breaks them,” he continues. “And some, given a chance to climb, they refuse. They cling to the realm, or the gods or love. Illusions. Only the ladder is real. The climb is all there is."
And thus we see that "The Climb" in the title also refers to the climb from anonymity and poverty to prominence and wealth, i.e. ambition or upward social mobility. And it is clear that Lord Baelish is one of the most ambitious men in Westeros, and is, as Varys has said, "the most dangerous man in the Seven Kingdoms" and someone who "would burn down the realm if it meant he could be king of the ashes." In the same conversation in this episode, Baelish gloated about how he thwarted Varys' plot to keep Sansa Stark from him (when Varys aligned with the Tyrells to have Sansa married off to Loras Tyrell) by informing the Lannisters of the plot. This results in (Baelish's ostensible own romantic obsession) Sansa being forced to be married off to Tyrion Lannister and Loras being  matched with Queen Regent Cersei Lannister. And we see that Baelish has punished his ambitious associate (and former country whore) Ros by ending her own "climb" by selling her to the sadistic Joffrey for his murderous pleasures in return for her serving as Varys' informant. It's a key scene not just for the episode or even this season, but one that defines the ethos of the show itself. It's interesting that the line is said by the actor Aiden Gillen, who played another key role in another great HBO television series about ideology, systems of power and ambition: The Wire. In some sense all great fiction is about these things, and Game of Thrones is rapidly joining that celebrated canon.

Olenna Redwyne (a.k.a. the Queen of Thorns), the grandmother of Loras and Margaery Tyrell, continues her tour throughout the upper echelons of King's Landing by meeting the real power behind the Iron Throne, Lord Tywin Lannister. Having already bested two of the smartest people in the realm in the form of Varys and Tyrion in previous episodes, Olenna probably expected to win her showdown with Lord Tywin as well.

When the audience says them, they are in the middle of comparing the moral defects of their various offspring and trying to determine who has the most to lose or gain in the proposed marital match between Loras and Cersei. Olenna begins with a complaint about Cersei's age and the reduced likelihood of her producing a new Tyrell heir. Tywin responds with a veiled allusion to Loras' homosexuality with a thoroughly disgusted facial expression. Olenna cheerfully acknowledges the rumor's truth by saying "he's a sword swallower through and through" and then refers to the (also true) rumor of Cersei's incestuous relationship with her brother Jamie and also points out that homosexuality is not unknown among the high born classes, even going so far as to inquire whether Tywin has ever "experimented." Tywin responds very angrily and huffily, refuses to acknowledge his children's incest and points out that if the rumor were true then Joffrey couldn't be king, which would mean that Margaery Tyrell would not become a queen if she married him. He then goes nuclear by saying that if the Tyrells do not agree to the marriage then he will appoint Loras to the Kingsguard, where the attendant vows of celibacy would remove him from being an heir and thus end the Tyrell family name. (The truth of this is questionable, we do not know if there are other Tyrell men of marriageable age, but it is true there are not any in King's Landing.)

Olenna realizes she is beaten and appears to assent to the match between Loras and Cersei, complimenting Tywin on his victory. "It's so nice to meet a man who lives up to his reputation." (One curious point here: Why is it that Tywin referred to Jaime Lannister, who is also in the Kingsguard, as is "son and heir" in the conversation  where he denied those very same titles to his youngest son (Tyrion) way back in episode S3E01, "Valar Dohaeris"?)


  • There was a great scene between Tyrion and Cersei commiserating on their arranged marriages (to Sansa Stark and Loras Tyrell, respectively). Tyrion uses this brief truce in their sibling rivalry to try and determine whether his sister is the person who instructed a member of the Kingsguard attempt to kill him back in S2E09 during the Battle of Blackwater. Cersei lets Tyrion believe that it was her son, Odious King Joffrey who may have done so, since only the King or the Queen Regent can command a member of the Kingsguard.
  • The comparison of homosexuality versus incest and the relative social stigmas against both in Westeros during the verbal tussle between Queen of Thorns and Lord Tywin was fascinating, especially Olenna describing Loras as a "sword swallower" was hysterical.
  • The scene between Ser Sword Swallower himself (waxing poetic about his longtime visions of his wedding (complete with very fey green and gold brocade) and Sansa Stark was bittersweet. How can Sansa not have heard the gay rumors about Loras? She is literally (blissfully unaware) as she considers marriage to the Knight of Flowers while seated by a romantic pond with her presumed betrothed. 
  • Glad to see Gendry getting a bigger profile in the show then he does in the books, although it sucks that that means he is getting sold by his newly found Band of Brothers to Red Witch Melissandre because (unbeknownst to him) he is the last remaining living bastard son of King Robert Barratheon.
  • The action on The Wall was impressively shot, and the visual effects were great. Of course it was supposed to be suspenseful but I doubt anyone really thought that such major characters or Jon Snow or Ygritte would be killed, despite the inherent danger of the situation. Television is able to visually depict this key geographical feature of Westeros in a more effective way than my imagination could do while reading the books. It was also nice that the direction was such that the episode returned to the action of the wildlings scaling The Wall multiple times, giving us a better sense of narrative flow then earlier episodes this season.
  • Tyrion's discomfiture as he has to tell Sansa (a woman he knows is repulsed by his physical limitations) that he is being forced to marry her by his father, which he has to do in the presence of Shae, who is the woman he actually loves.
  • It's always fun to see a shirtless Theon, but it most definitely is not fun to see him tortured by an unknown sadist for brief minutes at a time. Since I have read the books, I know that in Theon's case it is true as the torturer says to him that "If you think this has a happy ending, you haven't been paying attention." The producers have decided to move Theon's story from Book 4 and Book 5 into their adaptation of Book 3, so I hope that by the end of Season 3 we know why this choice was made. So far a lot of time has been spent on this arc, and it's hard to watch.
  • Brandon is one of my favorite characters in the books, and as with Theon, the producers have moved his story arc from Book 4 and Book 5 into Book 3 but in an achingly slow fashion. 
  • There's only so much time in a single episode and thus there was no update on Daenerys Stormborn's story in far away Essos in S3E06.
Grade: A-.
The episode was a slight dip from the last three uniformly excellent episodes in a row, but even an average episode of Game of Thrones this season is basically better than anything else on television, especially as the regular season of network episodic television comes to a close. Next week's episode is titled is (S3E07) "The Bear and the Maiden Fair" which I think refers to a key battle involving Brienne fighting for her life.

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