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How Game of Thrones is about lowly pawns becoming powerful rulers

Bran (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) might be gone for now, but he'll be back. He'll be back.
Bran (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) might be gone for now, but he'll be back. He'll be back.
HBO

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, you’re absolutely right that Game of Thrones is most interested in the "cripples, bastards, and broken things" of Westeros. But I’d argue that both the show and Martin's book series are at their best when those powerless characters actually obtain some power of their own — and that that's what everything is building toward.

A book reader's perspective might be helpful here at simplifying this sprawling story. Six point-of-view characters from Martin's first book — Daenerys Targaryen, Tyrion Lannister, Jon Snow, Sansa Stark, Arya Stark, and Bran Stark — are still around at this point.

While other characters are surely also important, these are the ones who seem to me to be at the heart of the story. And they're divided into two groups — those who've already come from humble beginnings to obtain great power, and those who soon will. But for all six, the experiences they had when they were helpless will shape their choices going forward.

The ones who've already made this transition are Daenerys Targaryen and, as this episode makes clear, Jon Snow. We started following Dany when she was in exile. She was an abused younger sister who was soon unwillingly sold as the bride to a terrifying warlord. Eventually she discovered her inner strength — and luckily happened to hatch three dragons — and became a leader, a conqueror, a liberator, and now a queen ruling over a city. But the experiences she had when she was powerless shaped her to be horrified when she encountered slavery — and motivated her to fight to end it. Indeed, she is so powerful at this point that her biggest struggle may be to remember what it was like to be weak.

Meanwhile, now that Jon Snow's officially in charge of the Night's Watch, he'll also attempt to apply what he learned when he was more humble. The full season he spent with the wildlings wasn't just filler — it was crucial character development, to rearrange his sympathies and to prepare him for the tough choices that he has to make now. As Jon's electoral rival Alliser Thorne reminds us this week, the Night's Watch views the "free folk" as foes. Fending off an attack from the wildlings was the easy part — brokering a peace between them and the Watch, to better prepare for the threat of the white walkers, will prove a more troublesome task.

Tyrion Lannister had a taste of power already, having spent season two as the Hand of the King, as he reminisces about to Varys this week. He lost it, but now seems headed for influence again at Dany's side. "You were quite good ... a man of talent," Varys says. But it's already cost him quite a lot — Tyrion says he "liked" power too much to leave King's Landing with his lover Shae, which may have been his one chance at happiness. Now Tyrion's a drunken wreck barely consuming any "solid food." What will he have learned, if anything, when he has to rule again?

The other remaining point-of-view characters are the three young Stark siblings — Sansa, Arya, and Bran (sorry, Rickon). After having spent the past three years or so imprisoned or on the run, these characters are all now learning skills that will let them be hugely influential later in the story — though not all in the traditionally political realm.

Sansa, formerly a naive young girl and a prisoner of Joffrey, has now been learning the art of manipulation from Littlefinger. She's grown savvier, stopped all the crying, changed her wardrobe, and become a remarkably skilled liar. What I wonder, though, is whether Littlefinger's complete lack of ethics will rub off on her, too.

Arya has concluded her endless wanderings around Westeros to head east and has now been accepted as a student of Jaqen H'ghar, a Faceless Man. Exactly what she'll learn from him isn't clear yet, but it will surely make her even more deadly — and more of a threat to the people on her infamous list, those who've wronged her and her family. But will Arya find anything to live for other than vengeance?

Bran, meanwhile, reached the cave of the old wizard who appeared to him as the "three-eyed raven" in last year's finale, where he'll presumably master his magical abilities. He won't appear in this season, but when he does return, Game of Thrones showrunner David Benioff has promised an effect similar to Luke Skywalker's dramatic reappearance in the third Star Wars film as a fully trained Jedi.

At this point, we've followed these central characters for so long, and seen them in so many situations, that it's fair to wonder whether these storylines are going anywhere (particularly with the three young Starks). I'm fully convinced that they are — I expect these pawns will reach the other end of the chessboard. And that what they do with their newfound powers will be fascinating to watch.

Read the recap. Come back next week for thoughts on the next episode.

Next episode's discussion