After a series of unfortunate car troubles and power outages, I was finally able to make it over to my bartender’s house and catch my weekly viewing of Game of Thrones, and I’m glad I did, because episode four was my favorite of the series so far. We open with the dwarf Tyrion Lannister returning to Winterfell following his visit to The Wall. With him he has brought plans to help build the newly crippled Stark boy a saddle that will allow him to ride a horse. At this point in the series most of the interactions we’ve seen between the Lannister family and the Stark family have been antagonistic. When asked his motivation for helping the Stark boy, Tyrion quips, “I have a tender spot in my heart for cripples, bastards, and broken things.” And there we have it, our theme. For the next hour Game of Thrones explores the lives of the black sheep of their families, the weak ones, the weird ones, the ones who never live up to expectations.
Given this running theme, it makes sense that a large portion of the episode would consist of us catching up with the Stark bastard Jon Snow as he settles into life guarding The Wall. The Night’s Watch has a new recruit named Samwell Tarly and he’s much too fat, cowardly, and bad at everything to be of any use to the brotherhood. When he first shows up for training, Allister Thorne, the man who puts the young boys through the Watch version of boot camp, deals with the burden on his system by having the rest of the recruits beat Sam into a pathetic heap of bruises. Lord Snow doesn’t think that this is the proper way to handle the situation, and this puts him in conflict with the leadership. He lets the rest of the guys know, through intimidation, that if they take part in the bullying of Sam things won’t end well for them. Snow seems to think that developing a sense of camaraderie between the members of the Watch is a better strategy than creating divides in the force. When everybody starts following Snow’s lead we get yet another instance of the power structures switching in this show, with those that are currently in charge being undercut by new players. Authority in Game of Thrones is always tenuous at best. Owen Teale does a great job playing Allister Thorne. When I think back on the books I remember Thorne as being a completely contemptible and insecure character who made choices that only supported his own fragile ego. Things don’t seem so straightforward for the TV version. Teale gives a monologue about the oncoming hardships of winter that does a great job tempering his actions out on the training field. There’s a sense that he does what he does not to punish those that he is threatened by, but to strengthen them for the hardships that are on their way. When Jon spends an afternoon doing chores with Samwell he hears the story of a boy who was threatened by his father that if he didn’t leave home and join the Night’s Watch, then he would probably meet an unfortunate end out in the woods while hunting. Despite living a life as a bastard, it’s not until Jon learns about Sam’s life that he really understands what it is to be an unwanted son. And suddenly it seems, after making it through such a hard childhood, that Sam might not be such a weak person after all.
Overseas with the Targaryen children, things are getting even more dramatic than they are on The Wall. Viserys hasn’t reacted kindly to the authority that his sister Daenerys has wielded ever since she became the bride of Khal Drogo. The physical abuse that he has systematically relied on since they were children no longer controls his younger sister. As a matter of fact, Daenerys tells her brother that if he ever lays another hand on her it will be the last time he ever has hands. Despite the fact that Viserys has presented himself as the biggest growing power in the world, this episode re-solidifies the fact that the perception of power has shifted in the Targaryen Clan. It’s even said that Viserys isn’t the last dragon at all, his older brother Rhaegar was. It turns out that our would-be King was actually the disappointment of his family, the impetulant runt, and Daenerys is starting to realize it. She even remarks that not only would Viserys never rule as King, but that if he was given the opportunity he would never be able to handle it anyway. If the Targaryens are to reclaim their rightful place as the rulers of the Seven Kingdoms, it’s a burden that is going to fall on the younger sister: the one who to this point considered herself weak.
Much of the story we get back at King’s Landing is a little detective tale where Ned follows the trail of what happened to the King’s previous Hand, Jon Arryn, before his death. His trail leads him to a young blacksmith’s apprentice named Gendry, who Ned pretty quickly puts together is the bastard son of King Robert. His efforts earn him not only some illumination about what Jon Arryn was up to in his last few moments on the job, it also gets him a visit from Queen Cersei. The back and forth here is delicious, as neither Ned nor Cersei clearly come out and threaten one another, but they make it clear through double entendre that both are primed and ready for a fight. Which side Robert will ultimately come down on in this battle is unclear, as he is still spending most of his time drinking and carousing. And probably the coolest part of the episode comes during the first round of his tournament of champions. During the opening joust, The Hound’s older brother Gregor Clegane brutally puts a wooden staff into the throat of his competitor, killing him in front of all the women and children; and all the while Petyr Baelish gleefully relays the story of The Hound’s origin to the young and horrified Sansa Stark. When they were boys, Gregor found a young Hound playing with one of his toys near the fire. Angry that his little brother would put his hands on his property, he held his face close to the fire until most of it was roasted and destroyed. The Hound might not be a cripple or a bastard, but he most certainly seems to be a broken thing. As if he wasn’t frightening enough to look at already, he clearly has some rage boiling inside of him that’s bound to come out at some point.
Tyrion Lannister opened the episode, and we get an ending sequence with him as well, for a nice little bookend. If there’s anyone who must be viewed as a disappointment, it’s the imp whose siblings are gorgeous and powerful twins. Back on the road after his visit to the Stark children at Winterfell, he finds himself seeking refuge at the same Inn where the Stark mother Catelyn is taking a meal. The situation is tense, as Petyr Baelish implicated Tyrion as being the one behind the attacks on Bran, and Catelyn is thirsty for revenge. Despite the kindness we see Tyrion pay the boy in the show’s opening, the ending finds him surrounded by drawn swords and ironically being taken into custody as an attempted murderer. Why Baelish implicated the imp in the attack on Bran isn’t clear, but as the episode closes, the words he spoke to Ned earlier at King’s Landing rang in my ears, “Distrusting me is the wisest thing you’ve done since you climbed off your horse.” The arrest of Tyrion will surely be seen as an affront to the Lannisters, and will stoke the fires of conflict that are already burning between their family and the Starks. But what, if anything, does Baelish have to gain by instigating the fight? He’s one to keep your eye on for sure. If this episode proves anything, it’s that it isn’t just the heavy hitters like the King, the Queen, and Ned Stark that are possible players in this struggle for power. Sometimes it’s the underdog who comes out on top. It’s the cripple, or the bastard, or the youngest child who has spent his entire life struggling against the odds. In struggle man finds strength. If episode three showed the characters in this show drawing their swords, then episode four is when they find someone to point them at. And in the preview for episode five we are promised bloodshed. The best is yet to come.