"Game of Thrones" gets its name from the first book of George RR Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire," and while the meaning of that song is a bit obscured, the polarity of Ice and Fire represents many of the main threads running through the story. Literally, the powers are conceptualized in the form of the White Walkers in the North and the dragons in the East, but more interestingly, they refer to two of our main heroes: Jon Snow of House Stark and Daenerys Stormborn of House Targaryen.
"Kill the Boy" focuses exclusively on characters in the North and around Meereen, so comparing the two young rulers gives us insight into the perils of command.
The episode titles draws from advice Aemon Targaryen gives Jon, but applies to all the plot threads where young persons are thrust into positions of power (see also: Ramsay and Sansa). We find that no matter how righteous the cause or noble the conviction, ruling requires more than just pure intentions. White Walkers and slavery aren't enough to end the petty violence between the peoples, and it falls to two last scions of ruined Houses to bring focus onto these existential crises.
The episode begins out east, where Daenerys and company are dealing with the fallout from last week’s carnage. Grey Worm seems to have just barely survived the attack, but Barristan’s glorious career has come to a rather ignoble end at the hands of the Sons of the Harpy. In her rage, Daenerys invokes House Targaryen’s words ("Fire and Blood") as she feeds one of the Meereenese noblemen to Viserion and Rhaegal while the others are forced to watch.
The scene in the dragonpit itself is magnificent, but this act by Daenerys is less so. Sentencing a man to a horrifying death without trial evokes memory of the Mad King more so than the noble and able ruler that Varys claims Dany is to Tyrion. She further expands her punishment by keeping the Great Masters in her custody until she can determine a more permanent solution.
In effect, Daenerys is going through her own version of "kill the boy." Gone are the days where just purpose alone can carry her to victory. Instead, she has to navigate tradition and her own ideals to find a way to restore peace to the streets of Meereen. Bereft of her politic-hardened Westerosi advisors, Dany accepts counsel from Missandei, who herself is distraught over the injuries to Grey Worm. The young scribe reminds the dragon queen that while she has leaned on the advice of her counselors before, her greatest strength has often come from finding a third path that others could not see (indeed, it was this exactly that allowed Daenerys to trick the rulers of Astapor into giving her an army in exchange for dragon fire).
Daenerys’s solution to reopen the fighting pits and marry Hizdar is an inspired one, though a bit uneven given her actions earlier. The manic nature of her handling of the Masters once again calls back to Aerys, as she goes from threatening death on Hizdar to marrying him in a very short span, which finds her applying Westerosi traditions to the culture of Meereen.
Hizdar himself is dumbfounded by all this, not quite sure how to react on the floor of his prison cell. Compromise and peace may have just been achieved for the nonce, but it’s unlikely the noble houses who WON’T be marrying Daenerys will forget this slight against them.
One positive aspect of this storyline is that for the second time this series, the show has used Daenerys to reverse Westerosi patriarchal customs. Last season, we saw Daenerys claim sexual agency over Daario, making him her servant in the bed chamber, something we only see from the men in this show (in fact, we see it with Ramsay and Myranda at Winterfell this episode). This time around, we see Daenerys altering the fate of the Great Houses of Meereen by making Hizdar marry her in an attempt to bring accord to the city.
With Sansa, Cersei, Margaery, Myrcella, and others, we have seen how men making marriage decisions on behalf of their daughters has led to the ruin or despair of these characters. So it is a nice touch (and change from the original text) to make the marriage proposal Daenerys’s idea, showing herself to be slightly more savvy than her actions may otherwise indicate.
While Dany remains the last great hope of House Targaryen, she is not the only dragon lord still remaining to us. Far away at The Wall, Aemon Targaryen still loyally serves Castle Black and its 998th Lord Commander, Jon Snow. Jon comes to the old maester for guidance on how to present the wildling issue to the men of the Night’s Watch.
Without even hearing Jon’s plan, Maester Aemon dishes out wisdom in droves. He reminds Jon that much of Castle Black will oppose his ideas anyway, and that he can’t bother himself with that knowing winter is coming and the White Walkers with it. "Kill the boy," Aemon counsels, "and let the man be born." Every character who has come in contact with Jon Snow (be it Tyrion, The Old Bear, or King Stannis) has realized there is incredible potential in the Bastard of Winterfell; even Melisandre alluded to Jon denying his own great power in her seduction attempt last week. Kill the boy, Jon must, if he is to become the man that Westeros needs to stop the oncoming Doom from the North.
That man Jon must become has one simple task, fraught with infinite complexity: he finds that he must set aside a centuries-old blood feud between the Night’s Watch and the Free Folk in order to save them from becoming part of the army of the dead. Each corpse north of the Wall presents the potential to be a blue-eyed soldier that will descend on the Wall and the rest of Westeros if the Watch cannot beat them back.
While many of the brothers are now aware of the existence of the White Walkers, the recency of the wildling attack on the Wall overpowers any interest in making peace with the Free Folk. Dolorous Edd, one of Jon’s most loyal friends, says as much: he will follow Jon to whatever end, but the people with whom he seeks peace killed Grenn, Pyp, and scores of others; to bring the wildlings into the kingdoms would be a dishonor to their memory, many think.
Most opposed to the Lord Commander’s plan may be the young Ollie, his steward whose family was murdered at the hands of Ygritte, Styr, and the rest of the wildling raiding party last season. Despite Jon’s repeated pleas that the White Walkers present an existential threat, Ollie cannot find any virtue in allowing the Free Folk to pass through the Wall. Jon has few friends left at the Wall after last season, and after this episode, only Sam seems to be firmly in his camp. If he is unable to win Edd and Ollie over to his cause, it becomes nigh impossible for the more adversarial crows like Alliser Thorne to go along with Jon’s plan.
Convincing the Night’s Watch is just one of the balls that Jon is juggling; he also must get buy-in from the wildlings themselves, who now lack a leader after the burning of Mance Rayder.
Lord Snow turns to Tormund Giantsbane, Mance’s highest ranking lieutenant and captive at Castle Black. Both Tormund and Jon are fully aware of the threat from the North, but like Jon, Tormund is aware that the Free Folk will be just as skeptical of making peace with the crows as the crows are with them. Ultimately, wisdom prevails over pride as Tormund agrees to try to gather the remaining wildlings who are holed up at Hardhome…with the caveat that Jon must come along.
A common theme running through the various Stark storylines is Eddard’s adage "the man who passes the sentence should swing the sword."
While this has mostly manifested itself in the form of actual executions, the concept at play is much broader. Jon cannot expect to lead if he sends men off to fight and die when he himself will not; to truly be an effective Lord Commander, he must show his men the way and lead them down it, as reluctant as they may be to follow. Kill the boy, Jon must, if he is to become a leader that inspires loyalty and purpose. The Battle for the Dawn will be the one that rules the fate of all, but it will be the preparations Jon makes before that will determine how prepared the realms of men will be for the White Walkers.
Like Dany, we see Jon shouldering the burden of leading all on his own. Like her, he is slowly losing the advisors around him (Stannis and company are departing Castle Black, and some of his best friends in the Watch are taken aback by his plan for the wildlings), and all major decisions fall to him now, as exemplified by his scene with Aemon, who had no interest in knowing what decision Jon has to make. The problem with all of this is that all fault and anger falls on Jon Snow, and if he makes a misstep as Lord Commander, it may lead to his ruination.
In the cases of both Jon and Daenerys, we are shown two young leaders who have all the fortitude and conviction necessary for command, but who on occasion struggle with the real world politik of it. If one thing is ever present in Game of Thrones, it is that ruling goes beyond just possessing a solid moral grounding; ingenuity, creativity, and a certain level of gamesmanship is also needed. We’ve seen upstanding lords like Ned and Robb perish in their attempts to rule, and the most capable lord of all, Tywin Lannister, was assassinated mid-bowel movement. No matter how strong or pure the ruler, ruin is always a heartbeat away, as House Stark, Targaryen, and now Lannister have come to learn. Jon and Daenerys are carrying the weight of their respective worlds all on their own, and if they stray or fail to play the game accordingly, it may all come crashing down on them and all those for whom they are responsible
Which makes it fitting that our episode climax finds us in the ruins of Valyria, the greatest empire this world had ever known.
The ancient Valyrian Empire covered much of Essos at one point, expanding as far east as Meereen and as far west as Dragonstone. The Valyrians excelled in magic and craftsmanship; it is believed the first Valyrian sorcerers came upon dragon eggs in the mines of Valyria and learned to harness their power and fire. Valyrian Steel, which make up Jon and Brienne’s swords, is the most coveted in the world, as the metal is laced with magic, making it unlike any other weapon in this universe. Simply put, they were the greatest peoples of the earth, "until they weren’t," as Jorah puts it.
The Doom came to Valyria approximately 400 years before the events of our story, and the circumstances surrounding it are lost to history. All that is known is that the earth opened up, and great plumes of smoke and fire rose up and consumed the great towers and palaces of the proud dragonlords. Some say the Valyrians grew too greedy with their sorcery, awaking forces they could never hope to control. Others believe it was the gods punishing them for the sin of slavery, which formed the backbone of the empire and whose legacy still dominates most of Essos. Nearly all of the great houses of old Valyria succumbed to the Doom, except for House Targaryen, which had left Valyria decades prior and found refuge on the island of Dragonstone (the current domain of Stannis Baratheon).
Valyria now is nothing more than a smoking ruin, a haunt of Stone Men and demons.
Exiled knight Jorah Mormont views it as an opportunity, however; free of pirates and slavers, the road to Daenerys most directly runs through the crumbled city. Tyrion Lannister and Jorah finally find some common ground here, awing at the wonders of the old empire, and reciting a famous poem about a couple who turned their back to the Doom as it fell upon the peninsula.
Here we get an image of a world lost to us; in a different situation, these two shunned sons of great houses would make fast friends, with their penchant for history and lore. But as it is, Tyrion remains Jorah’s captive, and it almost spells doom for both.
As the little boat sails past an aqueduct, Tyrion gets a glimpse of Drogon, soaring majestically overhead (side note: Valyria and the shot of Drogon are both breathtaking. The CGI continues to impress this season after some questionable moments last year). The winged wonder unfortunately distracts the traveling companions from the Stone Men perched on the bridge above (echoing the poem of the couple with their back turned to the Doom). Valyria is a sort of leper colony for the Stone Men, wherein greyscale has spread inward into their organs and mind, corrupting them of all conscience and thought.
Descending on the skiff, Tyrion tries to fight them off with his tied hands, but ultimately gets dragged down into the depths of the Smoking Sea, and the episode teases us with a long fade to black…
…until Tyrion comes to with Jorah leering over him, on a shore not far from the danger they just escaped.
Tyrion has once again snatched life from the jaws of death, but Jorah was not so fortunate. As he walks away, he pulls back his sleeve to reveal a patch of cracking skin, meaning one of the Stone Men has infected him with greyscale.
As the show has built up over the last few episodes, greyscale is highly lethal and highly contagious, and now adds another complication to Game of Thrones. Not only is Jorah now in mortal danger, but everyone who he may come in contact with is also at risk; Tyrion, Daenerys, and all the rest. And if Jorah is part of Dany’s retinue when (if?) she returns to Westeros, he becomes patient zero for a brand new epidemic. While the White Walkers present a more immediate and concerning Doom from the North, greyscale from the east may unleash a plague upon the peoples of the Seven Kingdoms.
Jorah has been a man lost since he was exiled from Queen Daenerys's presence, and without her presence or cause, he is a man that was already rotting on the inside. In that sense, his contraction of greyscale seems to be a fitting metaphor for the slow decay he's been enduring this last half season. In Jorah's last encounter with Dany, she rebuffed his approach with the phrase "Never presume to touch me again," which carries even more significance now; any contact between the knight and his former queen may have our Khaleesi turning into a stone dragon.
While the climax of this episode functioned more as a set piece and plot moment, the lessons of Valyria hang over all that transpires with Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen.
Ruling is a complicated, often unrewarding venture, and even playing all your cards right can end up in desolation and devastation. The World of Ice and Fire is a dangerous one, and unless these two can manage the turmoil of ruling at The Wall and Meereen, the Doom that befell Valyria may be coming for Westeros.
The show has spent the last few episodes focusing on the themes of life and death, what it means to serve, and rebuilding broken characters. Now, at the official halfway point of the season, the story has returned focus to the game of thrones and all the splendor, grandeur, and horror that comes with it. Meereen is getting a new King, Jon Snow begins a perilous journey to save the remaining wildlings north of the Wall, and Stannis and Roose Bolton set themselves on a collision course under the walls of Winterfell. The endgame of season 5 is finally within sight.
A Couple Extra Ravens
- Before moving on to other parts of the episode, this commentary: aside from the thematic parallels between Jon and Dany, they have another, unceremonious connection: the storylines at The Wall and in the east have been less enthralling than the ones we’ve seen in King’s Landing and the Riverlands. Kit Harington and Emilia Clarke were relative unknowns prior to their casting, and they represent challenges that other characters don’t, filling the role of traditionally good characters in a saga fraught with grey areas. Both the characters and the actors have had their ups and downs over the course of the show; some of it is due to their plots simply being segregated from the intrigue of characters like the Lannisters and Tyrells, while some is due to them being overshadowed by other relatively new actors who get to shine in more complex roles; namely Maisie William’s Arya, Sophie Turner’s Sansa, and Alfie Allen’s Theon/Reek.
I'm all in on Kit Harington as Jon Snow. Shaky in the 2nd season, but Ygritte made him real in S3, and the last two seasons he's been boss— The Old Gods & Manu (@ManuclearBomb) May 11, 2015
As I tweeted out last night, I am all in on Harington’s Jon Snow right now. His plot thread took a blow with the aimlessness and unevenness of season two, but after a strong stint opposite Rose Leslie’s Ygritte, Jon is now a character that draws general interest from the viewer. Being opposite actors like Cunningham, Dillane, Van Houten and the rest surely helps, but as a battle commander and eventually Lord Commander, Harington’s Snow has effectively portrayed how the weight of ruling and being one of the last members of a ruined House Stark has informed and complicated the task ahead of him.
I’ve been somewhat more forgiving of Emilia Clarke’s performance than most, but aside from high points in her sacking of the slave cities, the Meereen storyline has been slightly more of a drag. The problem of course is the lack of interesting characters around Dany, especially with Jorah and Barristan no longer there. The show has done wonderful work with Missandei and Grey Worm, exploring compassion and love without a sexual nature, but Daario remains a rather flat character overall, and Hizdar remains more a symbol of Meereenese power than a fleshed-out character himself. The storyline at The Wall has seemingly been fixed, but we will have to wait to see if Tyrion and Jorah can help bring interest back to the Essos plots.
- There’s probably another 3,000 words that can be spilled about the goings on at Winterfell, but as that is mostly coming to a head with the Sansa/Ramsay marriage, I will but my tongue for now. I will say, however, that Ramsay Bolton is having trouble "killing the boy" within himself. He initially tried playing the courteous lord around Sansa, but that lasted all of a couple of weeks as he returns to his twisted, torturous ways by inflicting Theon and Sansa upon each other. To Theon, Sansa is a reminder of the family whose trust he betrayed, and how that betrayal led to the downfall of House Stark and the only real family he ever had. To Sansa, Theon is the man who burned her youngest brothers and started the end of Robb Stark’s campaign. While Theon did not in fact kill Bran or Rickon, he can’t risk exposing what happened out of fear of what Ramsay will do to him, punctuating the point that Reek is not Ironborn anymore.
- It was also perverse to hear Ramsay utter the words "The North Remembers," if for no other reason than the hope that those words are meant to muster.
- Brienne and Podrick remain a stones-throw away from Sansa, and seemingly have let Sansa know (through a group of smallfolk loyal to House Stark) that she can call for help by lighting a candle in the Broken Tower. The Broken Tower, of course, being the one Bran fell from in the series pilot. A nice visual callback to the site where the rising action of our tale began.
- Speaking of callbacks, Stannis gets to drop the "fewer" grammatical correction again when he corrects a Night’s Watchman’s reference to having "less enemies" if the wildlings were to die. Stannis did this in season 2 as well, when Davos was telling the story of how he came to have four "less" fingers.
- Stannis also has a brief discussion with Samwell Tarly in the Castle Black Library; first they dish on Randyll Tarly, the only man to have won a battle against Robert during his rebellion. The dialogue then turns to White Walkers and dragonglass, which Sam confesses not knowing the connection of how the latter could be used against the former. "Keep reading, Samwell Tarly" Stannis says, knowing that the real war to come lies with the White Walkers, and anything they can learn to help throw them back is of paramount importance.
- As well-executed as the scenes at the Wall have been, I was a bit worried that not enough lip service was being given to the White Walkers. The Night’s Watch know they are coming, and that’s why Stannis sailed North in the first place, noting that the War of the Five Kings paled in comparison. Yet much of the early season has focused on the wildlings and Boltons, so it was refreshing to hear so much talk of the Walkers and winter this episode.
- The CGI this episode is probably the best the show has done to date (which, really, should not be an insight given the show’s expanding capability and budget). The dragons feeding, Valyria, and Stannis’s departure from the Wall were among some of the more gorgeous shots this episode.
- Fun book reader note: the two books that this season are (loosely) adapted from are separated by geography rather than chronology. Book four, "A Feast for Crows" focuses on King’s Landing, Dorne, the Riverlands and Braavos, while the fifth installment "A Dance With Dragons" focuses on the Wall, Winterfell, and the areas around Slaver’s Bay. This episode focused only on those last three locations, giving it a very ADWD-feel. If I’m not mistaken, I believe this is only the third episode out of 45 without a scene at King’s Landing, joining "The Rains of Castamere" and "The Watchers on the Wall" in that regard.
Let the man be born.