This whole season of Game of Thrones is centered around a struggle for power. A wide variety of characters, separated by endless tracts of land and water, all trying to lay claim to the same throne. And a lot of these characters are fairly young, fairly inexperienced- Renly, Robb and Joffrey stand out as having very little on-the-job training when it comes to actually serving as a king (which makes sense, considering that a lot of the older, wiser leaders were offed last season). Slowly but surely, like any other story in history, youth becomes rebellious and takes power from the old established hands.
This clash between the young and the old serves as the overarching theme in “What is Dead May Never Die.” The young folk act impulsively and on instinct, following their hearts and gut feelings. The old counter with cold. logic, rules, and tradition.
The episode’s very first scene is a perfect example: Jon Snow is disgusted by Craster, thinks of him as a monster and wants nothing more to do with him. The Lord Commander may agree, but ultimately Craster’s presence is a benefit, and if it means standing idly by while innocent boys are left out in the snow for White Walkers, then so be it. Which one of them is really doing the right thing? Would it be better to rid yourself of a man who commits evil deeds, or stand by him if it could save your life one day?
This kind of conflict sprouts up all over “What is Dead May Never Die.” Sam defies the same rules Jon did when he gives a sentimental parting gift to Gilly. Catelyn Stark would much rather see Renly preparing for war, instead of hobnobbing with his soldiers and enjoying the occasional tournament. Maester Luwin tries to convince Bran that his dreams aren’t magical, even though the tone with which they’re handled (and some very cool wolf-related camerawork) suggests otherwise.
This idea of old vs young isn’t necessarily cut and dry, however. The young don’t always overcome the old, and nowhere is that more clear then in the Iron Islands. Given the general scumminess of House Greyjoy, the severe father issues, the creepy incest practical jokes and the backstabbing sneak attack to conquer Northern land, one would hope that Theon would be rebelling as hard as he possibly could. There’s the hope that he might actually be able to rise up from under the will of his father.
That may be wishful thinking. Theon certainly tries to reason with his father and even lashes out at him, but all that earns Theon is a smack in the face and the realization that he’d rather place his bets on the family that abandoned him rather than the family but isn’t his own. Most of the time youth seems like it’ll win out in the end, or at least keep on fighting- Sam will probably try and see Gilly again and Bran almost certainly does have some kind of powers. but with the case of Theon, it looks like his spirit’s been crushed entirely.
But by far, the most interesting aspect to all this comes at the very end of “What is Dead May Never Die,” when Yoren provides living proof of how brash youth can eventually transform into a more wizened figure. The story of his brother’s murderer is surprisingly sweet for a tale that includes burying an axe into another man’s skull, and it makes his grisly (and incredibly badass) death all the sadder now that he’s become somewhat of a father figure to Arya. This final scene is proof that while the theme of this episode (and the overall theme of this season) tends to create conflict and ill will, there’s still good that can come from the old-young divide.
And while Arya herself may not have the strength of a Yoren (or a Brionne) just yet, she’s certainly the smartest member of this particular group of Night’s Watch recruits. Take, for example, that poor kid who couldn’t figure out that ordering a murderous armed guard to carry him was not a bright idea. It seems as though Arya’ll need that resourcefulness in coming episodes.
Speaking of resourcefulness, Tyrion once again proves he may be the most capable character on the show in that regard in what was easily one of Game of Thrones‘s most sharply comic storylines to date. Surrounded by so much darkness and oppression and child murder (seriously, folks- baby murdered at the end of the premiere, baby sacrificed in the woods at the end of episode two, child stabbed in the throat at the end of this one- there seems to be a pattern here), it’s nice to see a character as charismatic as Tyrion manage to come out on top at the end of an episode. And weaving all three Myrcella betrothal stories into one seamless scene was breezy and fun in a way we don’t often see on this show.
Tyrion has the potential to become a huge power player in this world. He’s already been able to court Varys and Littlefinger in ways few others have, and despite having made a major enemy in his sister, Tyrion’s got very few characters out for his blood (at least on a personal level- I’m sure an invading army would treat him like they would any other enemy Lannister). He seems to be one of the few characters who’s really in control here, and like Varys says, “a very small man can cast a very large shadow.”
I’m incredibly glad to see Tyrion become somewhat of a leading protagonist this season (and Peter Dinklage’s got the top starring credit to boot). His charisma practically overflows out of him onscreen and I find myself looking forward to every new Tyrion scene above anyone elses.
That excitement spreads over this whole episode. Where the first two chapters of the season felt a little disjointed and a little like writers Benioff and Weiss were trying to give every character something to do (so that no character really got any significant screen time), “What is Dead May Never Die” cuts out a fair amount of significant characters and grants us a much deeper focus on the ones featured in this episode. It feels a lot smoother and the stories all carry a lot more narrative heft. Those unfocused episodes may just be a consequence of introducing a new season of a show with such a sprawling, intricate world, but I’m glad to see that every episode this season won’t be spread as thin.
And that about sums up “What is Dead May Never Die.” What did all you Game of Thrones fans think?