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 and Kelsey, it's interesting that you both think Margaery is one of the most skillful opponents Cersei's faced, and that Cersei has underestimated her. Because for all of Margaery's social savvy, we've never seen her really delve into the dark side of power politics. This week's episode drove home to me that the new queen is still quite naïve about how things work in King's Landing.
We learn here that Margaery's master plan to sideline Cersei is actually quite simple: she plants the idea in her new husband Tommen's head to "suggest" that his mother return to Casterly Rock. That's how Margaery apparently thinks she can dispose of the woman who once threatened to strangle her in her sleep for calling her "sister." She thinks the king will say it, and then it will just happen.
Yet while Margaery is amusing herself by making Heathers-ish burns about whether Cersei should be called "Queen Mother" or "Dowager Queen," Cersei is busy consolidating control of the Small Council. And previous seasons have shown us that it's these shadowy operators, like Littlefinger and Varys, who hold the real power in the capital.
In the past two weeks of council meetings, Cersei has excluded her son from proceedings, determined that no Hand of the King should be named, appointed the mysterious and unsettling Qyburn to replace Varys as spymaster, and locked up the High Septon as a bid to ally with the fundamentalist High Sparrow.
Meanwhile, the Tyrells' interests are represented on the council only by Margaery's oafish father, Mace, who actually gets up to open a door for a guest at this week's council meeting (something these other blue-blooded nobles would surely make a servant do). Mace's presence shows that Margaery must be aware those meetings are taking place. Yet she doesn't bother to attend, doesn't try to appoint someone competent to represent her interests in her absence, and apparently doesn't think what's happening at them is of any relevance to her.
It seems like a serious blind spot, but I think it makes sense with Margaery's character. Remember that she was set to marry the sadistic monster King Joffrey last year, apparently willing to gamble that she could control him. It was her grandmother, Lady Olenna, who knew better. Olenna, with an assist from Littlefinger, came up with the devious plot to poison Joffrey at his own wedding, so Margaery would be freed up to marry the much more docile Tommen instead. Grandma didn't even bother to inform Margaery until afterward.
Meanwhile, Cersei has no illusions about what's necessary to get power in Westeros, and is willing to break the rules to do it. After she had her husband King Robert killed back in season one, she simply tore up his will in front of the court, before having Ned Stark arrested. To stave off her own exile — and the prophecy that she'd be replaced by a younger queen — she's making alliances with some dubious characters. For instance, she's empowered Qyburn to perform some truly weird experiments on the Mountain, as we see in this episode in a scene that reminded me of an infamous moment in Takashi Miike's Audition.
But Cersei has her own blind spots. Margaery's true genius is in polishing her own public image — she's always ostentatiously doing good deeds like giving food to the poor, and we see in this episode that she's won the loyalty of the cheering crowds at King's Landing. That element of politics is very important, and Cersei is undeniably awful at it. Back in season two, she said that ruling was "lying on a bed of weeds, ripping them out by the root, one by one, before they strangle you in your sleep." It's clear that she fears the people too much to effectively try and use them.
So, I wonder, could it instead be Sansa Stark who's best prepared to strike a balance between political savvy and ruthlessness? As worldly as Margaery may seem, she's actually been rather sheltered from the ugliest parts of Game of Thrones. But Sansa has, at this point, had so many horrible things happen to her — watching her father be executed, being tormented by Joffrey, being assaulted by a mob, hearing of her mother and brother's brutal murder at the Red Wedding, and nearly getting thrown out the Moon Door to her death — that she has no more illusions. She's also learned a great deal about how these horrible things happen through her closeness with Littlefinger, one of the most dangerous and ruthless schemers on the show. And she's learned how to spin some creative lies herself.
This week, Sansa handles Littlefinger's revelation that she'll be heading home to marry the son of her brother's murderer with aplomb. He advises her to get vengeance and to take control, and she decides she'll do it. And when she meets Roose and Ramsay Bolton, her courteous greeting is flawless.
Sansa, too, may soon get in over her head at Winterfell — if she thinks she's seen it all, Ramsay Bolton may beg to differ. But though her circumstances may grow quite difficult, the sum of her past experiences might help her navigate them better than we might expect.
And she may not be entirely alone, as we see when the old serving woman welcomes her home and tells her that "the North remembers." Maybe it's the Boltons who don't really know who they're dealing with.
Read the recap. We'll have thoughts on the next episode Monday morning.