With tonight’s episode, the writers of Game of Thrones continue the trend of organizing each episode of season two around a different theme. Every episode seems to revolve around a Lebowski rug quote (i.e., one that holds an entire episode together like the Dude’s rug held his room together). Last week, Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish (Aidan Gillen) delivered such a line about midway through “The Night Lands” when he declared that “sometimes those with the most power have the least grace.” In “What Is Dead May Never Die,” a title that paraphrases a famous incantatory line from the seminal H.P. Lovecraft short story The Call of Cthulhu, Varys (Conleth Hill) authoritatively suggests that “power resides where men believe it resides. It’s a trick, a shadow on the wall. And a very small man can cast a very long shadow” after Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) puts on a great display of power by ferreting out one of Queen Cersei Lannister’s (Lena Headey) spies.
Power in this episode is thus treated as an act of sorts. At the same time, through the episode’s various different subplots, we see that if power is a kind of performance, it’s a balancing act that’s determined both by how much power is available (how much weight a character can throw around) and how much power they can afford to use (how much weight they can afford to throw).
Within the context of the episode’s exploration of power as a public display of one’s abilities, Tyrion’s story is a fairly extreme example of what one can do with some power. In this episode, Tyrion continues his embattled struggle with his sister, Cersei, who’s been flexing her own muscles since she ordered the execution of Eddard Stark. The consequences of her recent abusive displays of power can most directly be seen in the vicious kingdom-wide hunt for Gendry (Joe Dempsie), possibly the last remaining bastard son of the late King Robert Baratheon.
In “What Is Dead May Never Die,” Tyrion shows Cersei that, because he now effectively controls the Gold Cloaks, he has the power to back up the mandate their father, Lord Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance), gave Tyrion when he appointed him the King’s Hand. So Tyrion dramatically seeks out which one of three advisors is a traitor by feeding each of them false information and then waiting to see whose message reaches Cersei. Varys is one of the three suspects, so it’s fitting that he explains the central thrust of tonight’s episode.
There are many ways to be powerful without being as showy as Tyrion though, as we see when Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) goes out of her way to help free the prisoners that taunted her in last week’s episode. Another comparable counterexample is when Samwell Tarly (John Bradley) declares his devotion to one of Craster’s (Robert Pugh) wives by giving her a Tarly family heirloom. As he explains when she tentatively refuses his token gesture, no one is making Sam give away this memento mori: It’s a choice that he freely makes. Like Tyrion’s gesture, it’s one made in good faith, unlike when Bronn (Jerome Flynn) says he’s almost sorry for having impolitely intruded on one of Tyrion’s private conversations. Bronn then immediately admits he’s not in the least bit sorry.
This distinguishes Sam’s action from Jeor Mormont’s (James Cosmo) political maneuvering to ensure that the Night’s Watch doesn’t wind up pissing off the wrong people (like Craster). It also sets Sam’s gesture apart from the boudoir-centric machinations of Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer), Renly Baratheon’s (Gethin Anthony) wife. Margaery knows that Renly’s gay, but for the sake of both preserving their marriage and the union between House Tyrell and House Baratheon (or at least the portion of House Baratheon that Renly inhabits since Stannis Baratheon, played by Stephen Dillane, is Renly’s rival), she offers herself to him. This gesture really stands out because Margaery goes so far as to literally bend over backward for Renly, saying that she would be willing to do whatever it takes to make him feel comfortable having sex with her. Her attempted act of self-sacrifice is even more memorable since Renly still rejects Margaery with a line as brusque as “Some say that the beauty most desired is the beauty concealed.”
Unlike Sam, Margaery isn’t completely acting of her own free will. Her failed attempt at seduction is at least partially politically motivated. The same is true of the actions of the show’s two diametrically opposed mother figures, Catelyn Stark (Michell Fairley) and Cersei Lannister. Catelyn sees a lot of promise in Brienne (Gwendoline Christie), a freakishly tall tomboy who’s fiercely loyal and a very good fighter.
Here, we see Catelyn latch onto Brienne as someone she wants to ally herself with because she seems trustworthy. Catelyn also thinks Brienne could be potentially useful in her uphill struggle to help her son, Robb (Richard Madden), defeat the Lannisters. By contrast, Cersei doesn’t think that far ahead when she tries to protect her daughter, Marcella, from Tyrion’s schemes. All she knows is that she doesn’t want her daughter to be used by him, even if it’s for utilitarian purposes.
That said, Bran Stark’s (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) story is probably the most compelling of tonight’s subplots because he’s the most powerless character. He reaches out to Winterfell’s head Maester and asks him whether or not magic exists. As the series continues, Bran’s “Green” dreams of a three-eyed crow will only grow more and more intense and he’ll continue to explore his mysterious connection with his direwolf Summer. But for now, Bran is just a crippled boy hoping against hope that the dreams that plague him mean something. His Maester’s counsel is generous, but not especially encouraging in that regard. Still, Bran’s not yet sure just how powerful he is. Will the shadow he casts eventually be big or as small as his broken body?