Every week, Todd VanDerWerff will be joined by two of Vox's other writers to discuss the latest episode of Game of Thrones over the course of that week. Check out the recap for this episode here, and follow the whole discussion here. This week, Todd is joined by culture writer Kelsey McKinney and politics writer Andrew Prokop. Come back throughout the week for entries.
Andrew Prokop: Todd, I think you're spot-on that both George R. R. Martin and Game of Thrones critique vengeance as leading to an endless cycle of more and more vengeance. But this episode doesn't have a simple, moralistic message that vengeance is simply wrong and bad and that avoiding it is good. Instead, it explores just how difficult it is for even a well-meaning ruler to tamp down those impulses.
This is evident in the show's first brief scene set in Dorne, where Prince Doran Martell (Alexander Siddig) weighs how to respond to his brother Oberyn's death in King's Landing. It's worth pausing to remember — as Doran points out — that Oberyn really did get himself killed. He volunteered to fight the Mountain, perhaps the most formidable and dangerous combatant in Westeros, in a trial by combat — and he lost, fair and square. What's more, Oberyn did this because he wanted revenge for some even older murders — that of his sister Elia and her children. Look where that desire for vengeance got him.
But Oberyn's lover, Ellaria Sand (Indira Varma) — and, if we believe her, the people of Dorne — doesn't want to hear this. She and they are outraged at Oberyn's death and want bloody payback. "The whole country would have you go to war," Ellaria says. She recommends sending the fingers of Cersei's daughter back to the queen, one by one. (Here, it's also worth remembering that Oberyn assured Cersei last season that her daughter would be safe, saying, "We don't hurt little girls in Dorne.")
Appropriately, Doran is outraged by Ellaria's suggestion. "We do not mutilate little girls for vengeance," he says. "Not here. Not while I rule." But she responds: "And how long will that be?"
So while the show is acknowledging this bloody desire for revenge is quite ugly and often irrational, it's also pointing out that when people want it, it can be very hard for a ruler to deny it to them. And it will likely grow even harder when Jaime Lannister joins this volatile situation.
Dany, too, has to choose between fairness and vengeance this week. When a seeming member of the Sons of the Harpy (the insurgent group that murdered one of Dany's soldiers in the premiere) is captured, she tries to set a new course for Meereen, vowing to give the man a fair trial. In part, this is a political strategy — Dany wants to demonstrate to the people of Meereen, former slavers and freed slaves all, that she'll be an impartial ruler.
Yet Dany also has a more personal motivation at work. As she's weighing what to do, her adviser Barristan Selmy pulls her aside and reveals a hard truth — that her father's nickname, "the Mad King," was in fact an accurate one. (Yes, despite the fact that we viewers have been hearing about the Mad King's dark deeds in other plot lines for years, no one has ever informed Dany about them.) "He murdered sons in front of their fathers. He burned men alive with wildfire and laughed as they screamed. And his efforts to stamp out dissent led to a rebellion," Selmy says.
"I'm not my father," a horrified Dany resolves. But it turns out the entrenched hatred in Meereen isn't so easy to wave away. A former slave on her council kills the prisoner, directly defying her. So to prove her impartiality, Dany feels like she must execute him for the crime he admits to. She tried to do what's right — but instead of a fair trial and a healing process, she ends up with two more dead men and a backlash from her most ardent supporters in the city, the freed slaves.
Is it any wonder, then, that when Dany's missing dragon pays her a visit at the close of this episode, she looks emotional — even intoxicated — at the prospect of being reunited with him? This dragon, recall, burned a 3-year-old girl to death at the close of season four. But burning people with dragons is a whole lot simpler than dealing with politics.
Read the recap. Kelsey will return with more thoughts tomorrow.
Next: Kelsey on the role of family in the show