If the first two episodes of Game of Thrones established the core characters and concepts the saga will pursue, Lord Snow makes us keenly aware not just of the underpinning geo-politics, but the deliberate level of fractious perception which makes up the realm of the Seven Kingdoms.
Though we have visited the city in previous episodes, King’s Landing is explored in greater detail, with the introduction of Littlefinger and his houses of ill-repute, and characters such as Lord Varys and Grand Maester Pycelle, all of them the kind of elite noblemen and courtiers you would have found in ancient Rome or the round tables of English Kings, part of a city which feels akin to a fusion of Roman architecture and the pulse of Tudor London. For the first time, we see the symbol of power many will come to desire in Game of Thrones – the Iron Throne, a seat constructed of the swords of past Kings, which with the greatest level of irony we’re introduced to as Jaime Lannister perches at the foot of it.
Jaime, being a Lannister, often goes out of his way to reinforce his own narrative about events of the past and present regarding his family. Even though he earned his soubriquet ‘Kingslayer’ for the fact he slaughtered Aerys ‘the Mad King’ Targaryen at the foot of the Throne, Jaime nonetheless blames the will of the people and realm for his murderous actions to Ned Stark, incumbent Hand of the King, taunting the man not only over his position “they say the King shits, and the Hand wipes” but that the noblemen of the realm stood by and did nothing when Ned’s father & brother were murdered in the Throne Room during Robert’s Rebellion. In one conversation, barbed with an undercurrent of hatred, the enmity of the Lannister’s and Stark’s is clear.
One family values truth, the other values *their* truth.
Perceptive levels of truth are all over ‘Lord Snow’. When first we meet Littlefinger, he likes to think of himself as ‘the one who got away’ for Ned’s wife Catelyn, with a suggestion his intelligence has always outweighed his masculine nobility – we learn Catelyn, in their youth, sliced his chest in a duel, which immediately emasculates him as a traditional male warrior figure as the Stark men have always been. This is further proven when Ned confronts the man, getting him by the neck – Littlefinger can’t physically fight back but psychologically? It’s a different story. Littlefinger seems to enjoy his position in King’s Landing, and on Robert Baratheon’s small council filled with “lords of small matters”. This is a facetious underwriting of the power these quiet, servile noblemen in truth yield, which Ned comes to realise. Men such as Varys and his “little birds”, essentially a primitive intelligence network fielding crucial information about the realm back to its spymaster.
What we swiftly discover is that the Seven Kingdoms are effectively being ruled by a distaff ‘government’ of nobles, and chief representative of the learned Maester order, rather than the King himself. Robert has no interest in the realm in terms of actual day to day governance, hence why, almost surprisingly, his rule still uses Targaryen ‘gold dragons’ as currency, despite the fact he usurped their lineage and would like nothing more than to erase them from the history books. This disdain for the literal running of a country will, of course, partly lead to the wars and conflicts to come, but on the face of it given the system in place an outsider would not necessarily believe much had economically changed since the Rebellion.
Ned realises very quickly nothing could be further from the truth. The ‘small matters’ these men discuss are anything but and directly connect to the stunning fact the Crown owes six million dragons, primarily to the Lannister’s. These are the fiscal realities which lie beneath a feudal society, and did so in the actual Medieval age where these systems existed; Kings and Queens may declare war, often for personal reasons such as Robert’s fury over Lyanna Stark’s kidnapping, but for every army sent out there are applicable costs. Edward I of England, for instance, was often forced to tax his subjects in order to fund Crusades or wars to put down troublesome Welsh & Scottish rebels, and frequently found these actions fomented greater discord and insurrection against his rule. In the case of Robert, his successful campaign to unseat the Targaryen’s was thanks to the Lannister’s financial resources, and this is a monetary fact which keeps the Lannister’s aware of their power behind the Throne.
This feels in stark contrast (pardon the pun) to the Dothraki across the Narrow Sea, who we learn do not believe in money as an economical system and are recompensed via conquest with spoils and, crucially, slaves. Much as capitalist excess by elite nobilities and the Crown in that feudal system causes a range of sociological problems in Westeros, theirs is a society where class systems and deference have replaced outright slavery. The Dothraki approach to economy fits their apparent ‘barbarism’ in the eyes of nobility, hence why entitled Viserys Targaryen cannot comprehend the fact he has no literal power in the Dothraki system. His arrogance and belief in a Divine right of dynasty contradicts directly with the Dothraki ideology.
Back in King’s Landing, the arrogance of Cersei Lannister continues to manifest in how she approaches her son Joffrey. Following his cruelty and the skirmish involving Arya and Micah the butcher’s boy, Cersei works hard to manipulate her son into recasting himself as the brave warrior defending his honour, when even the deluded Joffrey doesn’t entirely believe that’s true. Cersei’s words to her son couldn’t be more prophetic about her own future: “Someday you will sit on the Iron Throne and the truth will be what you make it”. Cersei even actively encourages in Joffrey the kind of wanton, adulterous behaviour she despises Robert for once he’s politically married to Sansa. She will become an even deeper, more pointed allegory of Donald Trump much later in the series run, but everything she says to Joffrey here displays her intentionally fake ideology.
Joffrey’s own ideas about power themselves could be seen as predicting Trump’s, in a different context. He talks in the vein less of a King and more of an empirical dictator, believing he can raise and march an army to quell any insurrection to his realm and they will simply bow down before him. Joffrey has no understandable conception of how feudal balances of power work, of lands controlled by Lords who declare loyalty to the Crown, which he describes as “primitive”. What he doesn’t understand is that Robert’s power is thanks to the backing and security *of* these Lords and houses, whereas the Targaryen establishment of the Seven Kingdoms was a monopoly by the force of armies and, more importantly, dragons. The Targaryen’s had the atomic bomb. Neither Joffrey or Robert or even the Lannister’s do.
Though she can be blinded by her own bitterness, Cersei does understand this, showing a pragmatism her father Tywin would be proud of – aware the North could never be held with blind faith alone. Nonetheless, she sets her stall out to Joffrey with, again, a xenophobic approach to the other families and territories of the realm when she states “everyone who isn’t us is an enemy”. This might as well be Trump talking about non-Americans today – Cersei’s territorial distrust of the ‘other’ drives her protection of the Lannister name and her children.
Where Cersei tries to manipulate her children to remain in her shadow, Ned struggles with the idea he cannot stop his own children rejecting their accepted destiny. “War was easier than daughters” he pithily muses. Sansa’s rather cold refusal to accept Ned’s gift of a doll and Arya actively telling her father she doesn’t want to be ‘a Lady’ continues pitching them on opposite paths – Sansa continues rejecting her childhood, while Arya is rejecting her adulthood. She is described at one point as acting like a “beast”, tethering her to the wolf even further. Arya, in her youthful impetuousness, cannot fathom the pragmatism Ned describes in terms of Sansa marrying Joffrey, and how for political security she will always be torn between two worlds. Arya doesn’t think in these same terms. Her world is far more black and white. She refuses to play the ‘game’.
Warnings and symbols continue to play a part in ‘Lord Snow’, from Ned again reminding Arya that “winter is coming”, to more crows landing at Winterfell, and the mythical, ominous stories of Old Nan as relayed to Bran. David Benioff & D.B. Weiss neatly play into the childish fear of the tall tales the old woman relays to the boy (she even mentions Ser Duncan the Tall, from George R.R. Martin’s prequel short stories), even down to Ramin Djawadi’s haunting, building music as Bran hears terrifying tales of White Walkers, giant spiders, and the Long Night. The writers are keen to try and suggest these stories are mythic in-world fiction in how Robb yanks us out of the fantasy, but our own awareness that these legends are likely true gives the scene a different complexion. Even then, Old Nan responds to Robb’s question as to what she’s telling Bran with “only what the little lord wants to hear”. We are, again, playing with truth vs reality.
Even more interestingly, Robb then mentions a story Old Nan told him as a boy about how Westeros and the greater world are supposedly living inside the eye of a giant. “Maybe we do” Bran responds with, and this doesn’t entirely feel like the perspective of an open-minded child. Game of Thrones taps into the kind of deeper existential anxieties about philosophical ideas of simulated existence and theories of reality which these myths play into, from the fictional, feudal perspective of the series. In some respects, these would be prove to have some level of truth for Bran, given how he will end up tapping into a Matrix-style network of time-spanning reality thanks to the natural magical power behind what everyone considers to be accepted existence. Already, the series is mocking what will end up becoming its own esoteric mythology.
Around this, Bran continues to lament the loss of what he considers to be his destiny. Its telling how while the Stark women actively run away from the accepted, presumed path their lives will take as noble ladies, the Stark men do the exact opposite – Bran would “rather be dead” than live as a cripple, still living with the belief he should be a noble Stark warrior like his father and brothers. Jon Snow, too, wonders if he did the right thing and if he wasn’t sold a lie by becoming part of the Night’s Watch, once he faces the mockery and scorn of other Watchmen – the episode title, ‘Lord Snow’, is the ultimate insult to the honour he believes he wasn’t born with, at the lack of power and influence Jon has despite his Stark lineage.
Tyrion Lannister, making the most of his own outcast role by joining Jon at the Wall, reminds the bastard after Jon displays frustration at the commoners who try and beat him up, that the greater skill he has over men like Pip & Grenn is only thanks to his privilege. Tyrion continues to display an honesty and self-awareness which runs antithetically to the rest of his family, as the same would undoubtedly have applied to his brother Jaime; Jon may be a bastard, may have been rejected by the traditions and lineage of his father, but he was still afforded a comfortable life in the Stark home of Winterfell, with the battle training that came with it. Tyrion experienced similar as a noble family member so understands Jon’s sense of privilege is relative – it means little in the reality of the Watch, or outside of the castles and homesteads of Westerosi nobility.
His uncle Benjen later underscores the same point but calls Tyrion out, at the Wall, on his flippant belief that the Wall represents nothing more than a territorial & political idea which helps reinforce the social structures of Westeros. “The Wildlings just ended up on the colder side” is a fascinating suggestion, that events could have worked out differently in antiquity and geography played a major part in the rise of Men over the centuries. Benjen, much like Bran actually, believes in the bigger, ancient, now mythical idea that the Watch protects the people of Westeros from real danger, seeing the Watch as a duty as opposed to the punishment and joke most of the realm consider it. Maester Aemon, the old and wizened Watchman, gives Tyrion a pointed warning the White Walkers are real and the Wildings know it, but Tyrion isn’t ready yet to reconcile legend with truth. He may be self-aware regarding his family, but he still has a way to go.
King Robert displays a level of self-awareness here which also continues playing into ideas of personal truth versus legend. When speaking to legendary warrior Ser Barristan Selmy, Robert doesn’t provide the same with a hagiographic re-telling of his first kill (of a Tarly, indeed). He remembers the pain and fear of battle and slaughter, of men literally emptying their bowels at the point of death “they don’t put that in the songs”. The Seven Kingdoms is a world filled with the legendary recounting of battles and victories past, and there would probably have been a time that Robert talked of these moments with a brave falsehood, but his bitterness that his fighting days are over, that he’s now surrounded by Lannister’s he doesn’t trust but who prop up his rule, strips away the perception he doubtless would want the common folk to have of him.
Truth, therefore, is the central issue at the very core of ‘Lord Snow’, as it is in many respects for Game of Thrones as a whole. As the series continues to construct the narratives and character arcs the show will follow, the players are deciding what is true and what isn’t, despite the reality of the situation. Jaime decides that he doesn’t have to feel guilty at almost killing Bran, because nobody else matters but Cersei and their passionate love; Catelyn decides she can trust Littlefinger and that his dagger was used by Tyrion because it plays into her own endemic mistrust of the Lannister’s. If one person maybe sees through the veil truly, it’s Ned. At several points, he seems to sense it may be the last time he will see certain people he loves, perhaps aware he isn’t likely to survive the truths the realm are about to embrace.
Then again, he certainly won’t be the only one…
Check out our reviews of the first season of Game of Thrones: