Game of Thrones – ‘Fire and Blood’

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DAENERYS TARGARYEN: I am Daenerys Stormborn of House Targaryen, of the blood of old Valyria. I am the dragon’s daughter, and I swear to you that those who would harm you will die screaming.

The first season finale of Game of Thrones starts with the sight of blood, and ends in a vision of fire. Living up to its title, ‘Fire and Blood’ sees the culmination of the beginning of A Song of Ice and Fire on screen. The scene is set. The players have been introduced, at least the initial core who will carry through until the very final season – Jon Snow, Daenerys Targaryen, Arya Stark, Bran Stark, Sansa Stark, Cersei Lannister, Jaime Lannister and Tyrion Lannister – and Game of Thrones has fully established itself as a TV phenomenon in the making.

What these final two episodes of the first season, both directed by Alan Taylor, establish is that Game of Thrones also will not cleve to a traditional TV narrative structure. Besides only running for ten episodes a season, a trend show runners David Benioff & D.B. Weiss would set off across the burgeoning range of cable networks and streaming services over the next decades, Game of Thrones’ final episodes of a season are always structured much like epilogues. Traditionally, the finale has been where the biggest shocks take place in television, where character’s fates are decided, and often cliffhanger endings (hence the colloquial TV term which slipped into popular-culture) which will be resolved in the premiere of the following season. 

This structure feels like a hold-over from continuing drama or soap opera, whereas Game of Thrones always, appropriately, structured its seasons like a novel. ‘Fire and Blood’ ends where George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones ends, with the world established and the characters all heading down roads that will define them next season and beyond. ‘Baelor’ contained the biggest jaw dropping moments – Ned Stark’s execution, the Battle of the Green Fork (even if we never saw it), the death of Khal Drogo – whereas ‘Fire and Blood’ is about consolidating these points of no return and placing the chess pieces in this broad game in place for Season 2, and the show’s adaptation of Martin’s A Clash of Kings. It is very much a prelude for the war to come.

It does, however, quite unusually, pick up where ‘Baelor’ left off directly, with young Arya Stark reeling in horror from watching the execution of her father, even if kindly Watch-supplier Yoren tries to conceal the gory details from her and very quickly shepherds her away, beginning her transformation from Arya to a boy who will blend in. “I’m not a boy!” a traumatised Arya shouts as Yoren reminds her this is the only way she will survive and get out of Kings Landing. Much like several other characters this season, Arya’s journey has been about quietly rejecting the life of a highborn Stark lady – the very idea Catelyn would be able to marry Arya off, as planned in ‘Baelor’, to an ugly Frey child is hilarious in how removed the concept is from Arya’s fate. We already know her path will be vastly different.

What Arya doesn’t have at this stage, what it will take her many seasons of travelling and life experience to gain, is any real definition of who she wants to be. Arya just knows at this stage what she *doesn’t* want – destiny is almost what carries her on her eventual journey from childhood trauma in Kings Landing through the merciless assassin we will see going into the final season. There are nonetheless signs and portents of this in ‘Fire and Blood’ – Yoren assigning her the name derivation of ‘Arry’, her standing up to the attempted, bullying victimisation of Hot Pie, and the first of the alliances and partnerships which will define her journey, in this case with Robert Baratheon’s bastard son Gendry. There is already steel in Arya’s words and behind her eyes as Yoren initiates her transformation into the role she must play to survive.

Though Arya is quite rightly far too young to be sexualised (not that Martin worries about sexualising children in the Medieval paradigm in his books), Arya is nonetheless removed of what femininity she does have by having her hair shorn and being given a male persona. Arya will eventually be a symbol of one of Game of Thrones’ most potent themes – that women have just as much literal strength and power as the masculine stereotype perpetrated in the Seven Kingdoms, but that journey is just beginning for all of the women caught up in this story. Arya’s will be the most extreme, especially wrought in contrast to that of her sister Sansa. The polarising extremes are underscored in how they react to Ned’s execution – Arya is angry, filled with fire, while Sansa collapses in horror.

Sansa’s own journey is less about discovering who she is, and more about escaping the role of a victim. She spends much of the series being abused, in varying ways, by manipulative, controlling and psychotic men. We haven’t yet met Ramsay Snow/Bolton, but he shares much of the genetic madness displayed here by the new King Joffrey – a pathological cruelty that can only come out of sexual relationships which are far from advisable. Both are men who play on Sansa’ innate naivety, femininity and terror in order to get what they need from her. For Ramsey, it will be sexual cruelty. For Littlefinger, more in truth a sociopath than a psychopath, it is political power tinged with a twisted sexual desire. For Joffrey, it feels much less about wanting to sexually abuse her as much as psychologically torment her.

Sansa is witness here to some of the most horrific things Joffrey will do in the show, and he’s only been King for a couple of episodes. Having the tongue ripped out of the mouth of Marillion, the unfortunate (and let’s be honest, plain daft) court jester for singing an ill-advised song, is key given it happens right at the heart of court, near the Iron Throne. Much as the Targaryen dynasty may be ashes, Joffrey acts much in the way you can imagine the Mad King operating as he burned Starks alive in that very same chamber. In a chilling moment, Joffrey is almost gallant to Sansa while the jester, in the background, suffers a terrifying fate. Yet this is nothing to taking Sansa out to the castle walls and showing her Ned’s severed head on a spike.

If ever there was a moment which defined Sansa’s slow journey toward vengeance over the men who torment or abuse her, this is undoubtedly it. “How long do I have to look?” she asks. “As long as it pleases me” Joffrey replied, gleefully. Sansa, let’s face it, never much appreciated Ned when he was alive. She took him for granted, as all children do with their parents, particularly when they’re a teenager. More than Arya or her brothers, Sansa has typified a traditional teenage psychology across this first season; she is vain, self-obsessed, selfish in her outlook, and constantly insecure about her beauty and her future. Whenever Ned tried to show her kindness, give her advice, or even still treat her like a child, Sansa rejected him. Like many teenage girls, she wanted to become a woman. Sansa will get her wish in the most painful of ways, literally and psychologically.

Yet that Stark fire is present. When Joffrey boasts he’ll show her Robb’s head once he takes it, Sansa dares to suggest it might well be the other way around. After being viciously smacked around by the equally vile Ser Meryn Trant (neatly establishing his predilection for torment of children we will see much later), Sansa becomes almost possessed with murderous desire and only the Hound stops her from taking the chance to push Joffrey to a quick, bloody death. “Save yourself some pain, girl. Give him what he wants” is his advice. We haven’t seen much of the Hound yet, or explored further who he is and how he will connect to both Stark girls, but those days are fast approaching. Sansa will heed his advice in the short term but seeds of her inner rebellion are sown here, even if she will spend a long time too consumed by fear to let them bloom.

Grief, naturally, is the primary aspect of this epilogue. Death will become a regular bedfellow for many of the characters across Game of Thrones, but many are still getting used to these radical changes in circumstance, and the loss of those dear to them, in particular the children at the heart of the series. There is an interesting moment which perhaps presages how Bran Stark will end up with deeper awareness of events to come, when his younger brother Rickon claims, in the haunting Winterfell vaults no less, that he had a vision of Ned by the bed. On the face of it, this sounds like Rickon may have encountered the Westerosi version of the folkloric ‘fetch’, described as, according to its Wikipedia entry:

An exact, spectral double of a living human, whose appearance is regarded as ominous. As such it is similar to the Germanic doppelgänger, and to some conceptions of the British wraith. 

The ‘fetch’ often appears in Irish literature, which is appropriate given how the Winterfell sequences of Game of Thrones are filmed in Northern Ireland, and while there is a considered ‘Yorkshire’ aspect to how the Stark’s are portrayed, there is a reverence for folklore and the older mysticism of the world in their belief of legend and ‘Old Gods’. Did Rickon see a premonition of Ned’s death? Was he visited by his father is his dying moments? Why, too, did it happen to Rickon and not Bran? While it’s very likely most of the Stark children, certainly in Martin’s books more than the show, have psychic abilities beyond the natural, Rickon doesn’t really portray a great deal more suggestions he has the ‘sight’ before his unfortunate demise in ‘Battle of the Bastards’. It’s intriguing how the experience doesn’t happen *to* Bran.

Perhaps this is an omen about how Bran will ultimately end up more distanced from his family than any of them, beyond mere geography. While Bran’s journey hasn’t truly begun yet, with the key players involved only starting to assemble and the dreams continuing to hint at Bran’s key importance and links to the arcane history of the Starks and Robert’s Rebellion, ‘Fire and Blood’ establishes key portents to storylines and ideas which will only begin paying off toward the very end of the series, in a way that becomes more and more apparent in being able to see the show as a larger, connected tapestry.

Grief affects both Robb and Catelyn Stark in much clearer, more emotional ways, and this makes sense. They have both put a great deal on the line in trying to rescue Ned, so to find they are too late is an understandable wound to their souls. Robb hacking up trees in anger with his sword almost feels like a rebuke to the Old Gods they have held faith in for so long; this isn’t directly voiced by Robb or Cat here, as they’re more consumed by the determination to wreak vengeance upon the Lannister’s and anyone else who killed Ned, but Jaime later makes the point in his cruel jibes at Cat when she questions him about how the Old Gods weren’t there when Ned was killed: “If the Gods are real and just, why is there so much injustice in the world?” That’s a beat of atheism his father would no doubt be proud of.

It does, however, raise an interesting point Game of Thrones will explore much more in future seasons: the place of religion in the world, and the Seven Kingdoms. Benioff & Weiss have already established there is a polytheistic system of worship in the Seven Kingdoms (even if they don’t have the space to explore it in the depth Martin does in the books) but there is a constant sense that characters are rarely rewarded for having faith in a higher power – if anything they are punished for it. As Jaime says, why would benevolent Gods allow a virtuous, good man like Ned to suffer while Joffrey takes power? It’s the same argument atheists and particularly Christians have been having for at least the last century – why believe in a God, or Gods, who allow evil to prosper while good suffers? Game of Thrones seems, on the face of it, convinced organised religion holds no benefit.

‘Fire and Blood’ certainly begins to establish how men, not Gods, are beginning to try and craft their own sense of power and place amongst in their world. Ned’s execution serves as the martyred rallying cry for an entirely united North, who place their armour and steel not behind one, distant King to rule them all such as Renly Baratheon (or his still unseen brother Stannis, whom we shall shortly be introduced to), but rather their own ‘King in the North’. It’s a role Robb practically walks into, a natural choice for a union of houses who have only ever known Stark rule, and particularly after the unjust murder of the leader they all loved. Robb may not be ready but he and Cat are so consumed with vengeance, he accepts it without question. “And then we will kill them all” Cat promises, sounding a little like how Arya will once she puts her kill list in play.

Establishing a ‘King in the North’ doesn’t just further begin to set up the impending War of Five Kings, but it also makes sense from a political point of view. Greatjohn Umber declares: “Why shouldn’t we rule ourselves again?” and his final word is important, because the unified Seven Kingdoms remember only came into being because of, in essence, a ‘nuclear’ power: dragons. When Aegon the Conqueror made all of the Westerosi Kingdoms bend the knee (save for Dorne), he did so because he had a weapon of mass destruction they didn’t, and would never have. It’s a wonder the Kingdoms didn’t declare independence long before now, given Targaryen complacency allowed the dragon line to die out; the Rebellion would never have succeeded, let’s face it, if Mad King Aerys had a dragon or two in his pocket.

Therefore, what do the other Kingdoms have to lose? Aware that an illegitimate line have seized the Throne in an effective power coup, it makes sense for powers such as the Starks or Baratheon’s or Greyjoy’s, powers with standing armies and visible leaders, to initiate their own power grabs or attempt to gain a level of independence from a crown which just assumes they will show deference. That confidence and lack of respect for the other powers is clear in Jaime, in how he speaks to Cat even while a prisoner, and he continues to show a level of nihilism borrowed from Tywin as well as atheism: “The dark is coming for all of us, why grab at it?” he suggests, when explaining why he doesn’t just run into the jaws of death. Jaime enjoys life but he’s well aware everything is temporary and in the grand scheme of things, we as individuals don’t really matter.

Even with Jaime, you see flickers of the complicated man he will become, a man struggling with inherent honour against the callous sociopathy of his family. He seems to show a flicker of regret for trying to kill and crippling Bran, even if he can’t quite voice it, which will carry into subsequent seasons as Jaime makes his own long journey back to the viper’s nest. It’s also interesting how Cersei, continuing her ‘thing’ of only really having sex with family members, starts sleeping with the effete cousin Lancel once Jaime is captured – is he just a proxy for the man she can’t have between her sheets? It’s likely, and says much about Cersei’s twisted psychology we will see explored much more deeply as the series progresses. 

Despite their victories, there is an anxiety about the Lannister’s in ‘Fire and Blood’, with Jaime captured. Be it Cersei’s worry or Tywin’s fury, it is now clear the war they have become embroiled in isn’t going anywhere any time soon, given how Ned’s death has rallied the North and thrown the Baratheon’s into the mix. “They have my son!” Tywin angrily declares and it goes back to the primary concern he has: legacy. With Jaime absent, Tywin is forced to use Tyrion in a way he clearly hoped never to do, tapping into the sharp intelligence he gained from his father by making him Hand of the King. It was established as far back as ‘Winter is Coming’ that Tyrion has a unique ability to keep Joffrey in line, so it’s a smart move by Tywin in terms of reigning in Cersei’s own unwise impulses, given he has to continue the war from Harrenhal.

‘Baelor’ nicely gave some depth to Tyrion’s own psychology, particularly in relation to Tywin, so it’s telling that Tywin, despite gifting him these bonuses, declares: “you will not take that whore to court”, referring to Shae. He still has one eye on appearances in a way Tyrion does not, and has rebelled against his entire life, and retains a level of control over his son in this matter. From a distance, you suspect this is all part of Tywin’s calculation, if indeed he has placed Shae inside Tyrion’s bed, but it adds an extra shade to their relationship given what we discovered in ‘Baelor’. Tyrion is not the son Tywin wants involved but events have forced his hand, and sadly Tyrion is self-aware enough to recognise this.

Speaking of court, ‘Fire and Blood’ makes time, even with everything else rumbling around in terms of narrative, for a couple of scenes which further illuminate characters on the edges of the storytelling, sketching in shades some of which will pay off, some of which won’t. The latter is a great scene featuring Grand Maester Pycelle and once again pointing toward how the characters at court are very much performing roles. Pycelle’s secret limberness and how he covers it to show himself a frail old man is never again referred to but it’s a great touch – how he pretends to be infirm as part of his survival technique. In his droning on at the bored (again naked) prostitute Ros, Pycelle discusses Kings and hints at the mental illness which consumed King Aerys “he melted away before my eyes” and it’s interesting to hear how he started as a good man, given Egg was his father.

Egg, of course, as I mentioned when discussing ‘Baelor’, was King Aegon V and one of the two protagonists in Martin’s Dunk & Egg prequels, set a century before A Song of Ice and Fire. King Aerys therefore wasn’t born into madness, or through a particularly incestuous union as Joffrey has, but the parallels feel quite key. What caused Aerys to lose his mind and slip into visions of “fire and blood”? Incidentally, the episode title is the (rather dark) Targaryen motto. It suggests their own demise in an almost prophetic sense, and perhaps their rebirth. Pycelle even seems to maybe have some lost insight into Kings which he trails off from revealing to Ros. It could have maybe contextualised the continued lusting after the Throne we see Littlefinger again doing, in another nice scene added primarily to give Aiden Gillen & Conleth Hill the chance to spar.

We’ve discussed the Machiavellian psychology behind both Littlefinger and Varys this season and this final scene for them this year seems to cap off what Benioff & Weiss have gently been layering with these two grandmasters. They both discuss what each would do if they ever sat on the Throne, which Varys at least knows is a near impossibility – particularly given part of his rebuke to Littlefinger is that he would never want it, countering Littelfinger’s own standard taunting of Varys’s status as a eunuch. “Do you spend a lot of time imagining what’s between my legs?” Varys barbs. It feels like a quietly important scene in the context of power and the broader games being played because it sees both men admire how far they’ve come, and how in some sense they are of one mind, even if their end games are different. “So here we stand, in mutual admiration and respect, playing our roles”. They almost finish each other’s sentences. It’s both cute and a little chilling.

Chilling isn’t certainly something that can be said for Jon Snow, even in the cold wastes at the Wall. He is continuing to grapple with the decision of whether to race off and avenge the death of who he believes to be his father, or stay true to his vows. A really nice touch to Jon’s story in this episode is how Sam Tarly and his friends in the Watch rally to save Jon from his own misjudged sense of pride and honour. Oaths may mean nothing to men like Walder Frey, as we discussed in ‘Baelor’, but they’re central to the Watch and make the point their job is to serve the Realm, the bigger concept, rather than show loyalty to one house or one war. This is what Jon still cannot reconcile – he still can’t let go of the past, or of his Stark blood. It’s a battle Jon will fight across the entirety of his character arc.

There is a nice touch when Mormont shows he’s smart enough to know Watchmen do occasionally break their vows: “If we killed every man who ran away for the night, only ghosts would guard the Wall”. Sam tries to scare Jon by reminding him how, in the grand traditions of many a standing army, the Watch kill deserters, but Mormont accepts the sense of loyal duty to the Watch can be compromised by family honour and even whores in nearby Mole’s Town. One of the central aspects to Jon’s story, and Sam’s to a degree when he emerges into a much more important character, concerns being unable to completely detach from his former life upon joining the Watch, and it’s gratifying to see the Lord Commander have an awareness that while men may take these oaths, holding to them with steadfast fortitude isn’t always an easy task.

Mormont is also smart enough to see a level of the bigger picture and nicely establishes, in his rallying speech to Jon, where the story of the Night’s Watch will go in Season 2 – over the Wall. This has been inevitable since the beginning, and Game of Thrones is to be applauded in many ways for not pulling the trigger on heading beyond the Wall before the narrative feels natural to do so. We’ve seen the White Walker threat is not just a story to scare children but a clear reality. We’ve seen the dead come back to life and threatening to living. We know Benjen Stark has vanished, quite possibly in some kind of skirmish with them. And we’ve met several of the Wildlings who live in these frozen lands, with their terrifying portents and warnings. All the pieces are in place for plenty of exploration of these aspects which have remained background as the Watch, and Jon’s central narrative, have been established. 

What Season 2 will explore is where Jon sits in relation to the Watch. “Are you a brother of the Night’s Watch or a bastard boy who wants to play at war?” Mormont asks, pointedly raising the very character question which will define his arc as they head beyond the Wall to investigate what Mormont considers the real threat to Westeros. His words echo similar Ser Davos Seaworth will voice many seasons to come in referring to the Iron Throne, and how pointless the wars of men or who sits on the Throne are in relation to the threat the Watch are facing. It’s an idea which will carry across and develop in future seasons of Game of Thrones, and for Jon Season 2 begins to define who he really is and how the Watch creates the ultimate King in the North.

As Jon undergoes a personal test to determine his future, so many leagues away in Lhazar does Daenerys Targaryen. It feels fitting that Daenerys should close out the season given she has immediately made a mark as probably the signature iconic character in Game of Thrones, given her striking blonde locks and a storyline which has separated her from the majority of other narratives within the show. Daenerys has moved from the naive, frightened child we met in ‘Winter Is Coming’ all the way through to the radicalised concubine of a warrior savage, and now ‘Fire and Blood’ completes her transformation into a symbolic incarnation of the Dragon, of the totem that raised her family to greatness for generations. It may be the beginning of her journey, but what she goes through here changes her forever.

For a start, she loses her child and does not become a conventional mother. Blood magic witch Miri Maz Dhurr reports that Rhaego was born “scaled like a lizard, blind, with leather wings like the wings of a bat” suggesting that while she may have been originally intended to bear a normal human baby, the blood magic ritual turned her fetus into that of aborted, dragon-like qualities. The honest truth is, however, Dany will never quite know; she is unconscious when Jorah takes her into the tent where Miri is reviving Khal Drogo, and we never see her give birth. Dany only has Miri’s word to go by and her testimony is questionable given how she cons Dany with Drogo’s resurrection, turning him into little more than an undead Wight, just without the murderous, zombie characteristics. It’s proof, if anything, that death cannot ever really be conquered, even if magic can prevent it – the body may live but the soul dies. Well… until Jon Snow, that is…

Daenerys’ emotions have been conflicted across this season. She has been under the control and spell of powerful men all of her life – firstly her brother Viserys, and later Drogo. She seeks the restoration of her family to power in Westeros but, equally, she genuinely falls in love with Drogo despite being essentially sold to him in sex slavery, and he risks his power and respect of the Dothraki to worship her as his ‘Khaleesi’. It’s telling that the moment Drogo dies, the Dothraki take off and leave Dany without the army Drogo intended to storm Westeros; while Drogo had come to see his wife closer to an equal, the Dothraki horse-lords are a long way from seeing Daenerys as anything more than a dead leader’s concubine.

It fits Daenerys’ somewhat twisted psychology, therefore, that she would turn her grief about losing her child into a vengeance and transformative rebirth. All season she has been curious about the power of the dragon eggs she was gifted, and has tested the limits of her own immunity to fire, and as discussed in ‘Baelor’ while it fits she would engage in blood magic, it equally fits she would burn Miri at the stake as part of a ritual to become something more than just a sundered woman. It is, of course, also personal for Dany; while Miri took action because she considered the Dothraki burning her village as an affront to her own god, “the Great Shepherd”, she also feared the rise of Rhaego as a warrior who may destroy and pillage the lands she already lost.

This doesn’t necessarily make Miri a bad person, even if she fits the characteristics of a trickster witch. She Dothraki did after all rape and murder most of the people she cared about. Daenerys though is incredulous Miri would betray *her* because of this: “I saved you!” she proclaims, but it was already too little, too late. Miri had already been violated and her world crushed. Though Dany shows the woman no mercy, you sense she learns an important lesson from this – that saving the innocent from slavers and savages isn’t enough once they’ve been abused. She needs to create a world where they don’t have to fear bondage. Her transformation here is the beginning of that realisation.

Daenerys makes some powerful decisions here. She ends the shell of a life Drogo was gifted in exchange for her unborn child, smothering the man she loves to save him from just existing, not living. She offers those the Dothraki had taken as slaves their freedom, and many take it, but she draws a line in the sand and offers a mission statement – she will free all slaves. Jorah makes the point that she could sell the dragon eggs and “live as a rich woman in the Free Cities until the end of your days”. Daenerys is presented with a choice – free from marriage, or bondage, free to let go of everything. She chooses to become the Dragon, to take that step into the unknown, and the final moment of a naked Dany surrounded by newly hatched dragons is a signature, iconic one. The first step Game of Thrones takes into a new world.

‘Fire and Blood’ therefore proves to be an impressive ending to a strong, vibrant and complex first season for Game of Thrones, which has skilfully balanced a great deal of world-building with introducing a vast array of fascinating, deep characters who inhabit a story on the verge of becoming mythical as well as Medieval. Season 2 will begin edging further into territory which spans multiple genres but, in reality, the journey for all of these characters, and this genre-defining show, is just beginning.

Check out other reviews of the first season of Game of Thrones:

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