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: In "High Sparrow," the latest episode of Game of Thrones, Jon Snow finally performs his first beheading, executing the cowardly and disobedient Janos Slynt for insubordination.
But what seems like a simple and brutal scene actually has a great deal of resonance with many of the show's past events. Beheading is practically a rite of passage in Westeros — particularly if it involves a Stark.
Need proof? Here you go.
1) Ned Stark executed a Night's Watch deserter early in episode one
One of the very first scenes in season one showed Ned Stark bringing his children, including Jon, to watch him execute a deserter from the Night's Watch. The young man's situation wasn't unsympathetic — he fled south in terror after encountering the White Walkers. But according to the law, those who abandon the Watch face execution.
Jon cautioned his little brother Bran not to look away. "Father will know if you do." After the deed was done, Ned explained to Bran he had to do the deed himself because the Starks follow the "old way" — "the man who passes the sentence should swing the sword."
2) Ned was then himself beheaded
The end of Ned's story was a perverted mirror image of its beginning. The usurping Lannisters, having murdered the king and installed the illegitimate Joffrey on the throne, arrested Ned for treason. Though Ned agreed to confess his "crimes" to help his daughter, Joffrey went off-script. He didn't look away, but he broke one of Ned's rules — he didn't swing the sword (Ned's own) himself.
3) Jon's relationship began with a failed beheading...
Despite his father's example, Jon Snow has had trouble carrying out two executions he's been ordered to perform in the past. Back in season two, as Jon was on a Night's Watch scouting mission north of the Wall, his group encountered and fought a willing band.
The sole survivor turned out to be a girl named Ygritte. Jon was ordered to execute her, and raised his sword — but couldn't do it. This proved to be a crucial turning point in his character arc.
4) ...and ended with one
Because Jon let Ygritte live, he soon ended up her prisoner — but then pretended to defect to the wildlings, and eventually became Ygritte's lover. Jon was then sent with a group of wildlings to climb over the Wall and attack the Night's Watch from the south.
But when an old man discovered their approach, Jon was ordered to execute him to prove his loyalty. He raised his sword ... and again, he couldn't go through with it, revealing his true sympathies. In the ensuing commotion, he managed to escape. (The old man, sadly, was killed anyway — by Ygritte.)
5) A beheading by Theon Greyjoy began his downfall
The musical cues in this week's beheading scene reference two memorable beheadings in previous seasons, in which young lords tried to demonstrate their authority. The first was back in season two, when Theon Greyjoy captured Winterfell. After Rodrik Cassel, a Stark supporter, defied him and spat on him, Theon — desperate to prove his strength — ordered him beheaded.
At first, one of Theon's henchmen was going to do the deed. But Rodrik reminded Theon of Ned's maxim — the man who passes the sentence should swing the sword. Theon picked up the sword, and hacked away wildly, failing to accomplish the job in one slice. The whole spectacle only ended up revealing his weakness and cruelty. A few episodes later, he was betrayed by his own men, and he's been a prisoner of the Boltons ever since.
6) A beheading by Robb Stark also preceded his downfall
As Robb Stark's war effort began to founder in season three, one of his lords, Rickard Karstark, decided to murder two young Lannister prisoners in his custody for vengeance. Outraged, Robb sentenced him to death, even though it meant losing the support of Karstark's men. The same music from Theon's beheading of Rodrik played as an angry, tearful Robb chose to do justice, even if it meant reducing his already slim hopes for victory even further. Robb, of course, was betrayed and murdered at the Red Wedding a few episodes later.
7) A beheading by Dany last week didn't go well either
Of course, the most recent beheading on the show was just a week ago — and this one resembled Robb's execution of Lord Karstark quite a bit. A freed slave adviser of Dany's, Mossador, decided to murder a suspected member of the Harpy insurgency in her custody, even though she had decreed he'd get a fair trial. Decreeing that Mossador had broken the law, and trying to be fair, Dany had him executed — which resulted in angry hissing and unrest from the free slaves who watched.
Dany, of course, is not a Stark. But it's worth noting that she breaks two of the key Stark rules here. She doesn't carry out the sentence herself, instead having Daario do it, and, as seen above, she looks away from the act. In Ned's eyes, she wouldn't yet be fit to rule.
8) But the beheading by Jon doesn't demonstrate his weakness
Though the music that plays in Jon's beheading scene this week is very similar to that used in the Robb and Theon beheadings, the political situation is completely different. This is a strategic display of power that shows off Jon's strength, not a sign that events are slipping out of his control.
It has that effect because Jon, in contrast to Robb and Theon, had just displayed some surprising shrewdness in dealing with his rivals. In his first address to the Night's Watch that we see, Jon implicitly dangles the possibility that he might name his rival Alliser Thorne to dig a new latrine pit. Instead, though, he appoints Thorne to the important position of First Ranger. It's an acknowledgment of Thorne's skill and competence and an attempt to make an ally out of an enemy.
This strengthens Jon's position in dealing with the much less skillful and competent Janos Slynt, who already has a reputation as a coward. The assignment Jon gives Slynt — to a restore an abandoned castle — isn't particularly bad. He'd even be allowed to have some subordinates. So Slynt's over-the-top defiance is recognized by everyone to be out of line. When Jon orders Slynt brought outside, Thorne stands and looks for a moment like he might interfere — but then backs away, abandoning Slynt to his fate.
This time around, Jon only briefly hesitates — and he follows Ned's guidance, swinging the sword himself.
The act is undeniably brutal, but seems effective. Stannis, at least, approves, giving a nod of support. It certainly won't solve all of Jon's political problems. We're reminded in this episode that he faces the tricky challenge of dealing with the captured wildlings — and Davos Seaworth argues, yet again, that Jon shouldn't leave the North under Bolton control. But for now, Jon has solidified his own precarious position with the men he commands.
Side note: this episode doesn't explicitly remind us of it, but there's a lot of history with Slynt. Back in season one, he played an instrumental role in Ned Stark's downfall — he was head of the City Watch in King's Landing, and took Littlefinger's bribe to capture Ned and back the Lannisters. Then in season two, Slynt personally killed a baby (one of King Robert's illegitimate children) on Joffrey's orders. This disgusted Tyrion so much that he ordered Slynt sent to the Wall — where Jon Snow has brought his arc to a well-deserved finish.
Read the recap. Todd will have more thoughts tomorrow.
Next: Todd on the show's use of religious fundamentalism