Game of Thrones returns to disjointed form this week, transitioning straight from the longest continuous scene in its history to the sprawling story that makes Game of Thrones so difficult to discuss as a cohesive plot. But there was one motif, at least, that seemed to run through the episode, and might come the closest to a season-wide theme that we’re going to get. The premiere indicated that our major players would be spending their time dealing with the aftermath of the Red Wedding and the war it technically concluded. Add to that the downfall of yet another monarch, and you’ve got a meditation on what happens once the fighting’s over and a king’s reign is done. How are rulers remembered, and more importantly, what do they leave behind?
“Breaker of Chains” starts immediately where it left off, a cliffhanger-style choice that’s a first for Game of Thrones. But a more interesting place to start a recap is Tywin’s speech to Tommen, which ends up being only the second most insensitive thing to happen over Joffrey’s dead body this week. Notably, our first glimpse at the king’s corpse mirrors a shot from the pilot almost exactly. Then, we were looking at Jon Arryn, the King’s Hand whose passing began the chain of events that eventually led to war. Now, the camera uses the parallel to prompt us into contemplating the fallout from Joffrey’s death, which almost certainly won’t be good.
Tywin Lannister, however, is wasting no time in picking up the pieces and moving on. His lecture is a third-grade civics lesson with a dash of Socratic seminar, filling his grandson in on all the royal mistakes that came before him. The history of Westeros is one of the more difficult knowledge gaps that Game of Thrones has to fill in, and Tywin fleshes it out with a realism that’s as compelling as it is darkly comic. We meet the unstable zealot who preferred fasting to governing, a Ned Stark-style idealist who lacked a ruler’s necessary pragmatism, and the version of Robert that will go down in the history books: great warrior, terrible king. If our high school teachers had Tywin’s panache, maybe American political rhetoric would be a shade less depressing.
His thesis is simple: “A wise king knows what he knows and what he doesn’t. You’re young; a wise young king listens to his counselors and heeds their advice until he comes of age. And the wisest kings continue to listen to them long afterwards.” It’s also probably correct. Whatever his personal failings, Tywin is a damn good politician. It’s very possible that a Seven Kingdoms governed by him and only him, as opposed to him and his psychopathic grandson, will soon be on the road to a postwar recovery. Then he ushers Tommen away for a birds-and-bees talk that thankfully happens offscreen.
That scene introduces us both to the general idea of kings’ legacies and tells us what we already know: that Joffrey, to put it lightly, was “not a good king.” With his body barely cold, several other characters render their judgement of his mercifully short rule. “You may not have enjoyed watching him die, but you enjoyed it more than you would have enjoyed being married to him, I can promise you that,” Olenna intones solemnly. She’s justifying her actions, not that she has to; with Joffrey out of the way, Margaery can still marry into the royal family without wedding a psychopath. Tywin, evidently, has come to the same conclusion. And then there’s Tyrion, whose wise-cracking chickens have come home to roost: “The world is a better place without him,” he admints, though “I had nothing to do with it.”
It’s clear how Joffrey will be thought of by his onetime subjects. Interestingly enough, though, Stannis is thinking about the same thing. The news of his rival’s death is bittersweet, considering he’s got no army with which to do anything about it. Not usually one to care much what others think of him, Stannis seems to be dwelling an awful lot on just that: “I will not become a page in someone else’s history book,” he snarls to Davos. Just a single line, but an out-of-character one that fits in rather neatly with the rest of this episode. Staring down defeat, Stannis is starting to think about what he’ll leave behind; right now, it’s even less than Joffrey. Not a position in which any aspiring king wants to find themselves.
Arya and the Hound’s road trip, on the other hand, shows rather than tells what rulers leave their subjects. The farmer and his daughter are flat sketches of textbook collateral damage, but that’s all they have to be. They’re around to demonstrate what warfare does to people like them: it leaves them vulnerable, sitting ducks for Frey henchmen until they toughen up like their foils. We spend most of our time with higher-ups plotting strategy, but Arya and the Hound are developing into viewers’ eyes and ears on the ground, revealing the violence and instability three seasons of fighting have left behind.
The action has taken its toll on Arya, too. The willingness to kill she demonstrated in the premiere will doubtless get more attention, but as this week’s adventure shows, Arya’s also getting better at lying. She comes up with an airtight cover story on the spot, an ability that’s important evidence of her growing, frightening pragmatism. That said, there’s still considerable moral distance between her and the Hound. But his response to her outrage at stealing from the farmer hints that wartime conditions will only force her further in his direction: “I just understand the way things are. How many Starks do they have to behead before you figure it out?” She hasn’t completely lost her innocence—yet.
Finally, there’s Daenerys, who understands that a compelling narrative is just as important to a ruler’s success as an army. Unlike Stannis, she knows exactly how she’ll go down in the history books, or at least how she’d like to: as the episode’s namesake breaker of chains. Her liberation rhetoric continues to be equal parts inspiring and discomfiting, but for now at least, it’s effective. The final shot certainly seems to think so; like Dany’s rousing speech, it places a slave front and center, with a terrified master waiting on the periphery to see what he’ll do next. Tywin is (once again) right for fearing what’ll happen when she turns to Westeros. She has something his grandson never did—an awareness of her impact on the people, and how she’ll be seen both by the subjects she hopes to win over and those that come after her.
This is still Game of Thrones, though, so only three-quarters of the episode conveniently falls under that particular theme. Elsewhere in Westeros, we get the season’s first true sexposition scene to tell us all about Oberyn Martell’s macho brand of hedonism; Sam and Gilly’s storyline continues to be lackluster; and in a perfect encapsulation of this entire show, a happy family bonding moment is interrupted by a violent death. It’s a wildling raid on a village, and however awful he is, Jon’s superior officer agrees with him that protecting Castle Black is the right thing to do. Looks like he’s squarely back in the brotherhood’s good graces.
I’ve saved the episode’s most uncomfortable scene for last. Jaime Lannister’s first appearance in “Breaker of Chains” is consistent with his general moral trajectory: he’s the only person who bothers to ask how Tommen is doing after watching his brother die, and he recoils at Cersei’s suggestion that he kill Tyrion before their sibling has the chance to acquit himself at trial. But after forcing myself to rewatch the scene that follows, it’s clear that the newly sympathetic Jaime, the man who rescued Brienne from imminent rape just last season, proceeds to rape his twin sister.
Cersei’s dialogue speaks for itself. As Jaime wrestles her to the floor, she denies him repeatedly: “Jaime, not here. Please. Please. Stop it. Stop. It’s not right.” His response, simply, is “I don’t care”—this to a woman who, whatever her sins, is a survivor of marital rape who just lost her firstborn son. Maybe it’s a reminder that Jaime is still the person who shoved a ten-year-old boy out a window. Maybe it’s a demonstration that the twins’ relationship is mutually destructive. Either way, it left me with an awful taste in my mouth, one that lingered long after the credits rolled. This season hasn’t been a good one for Cersei, who’s seen her youth, her influence, and finally, one of her children slip away from her. “Breaker of Chains” has her situation grow even worse.