Tonight’s Game of Thrones was not an episode with a particularly strong thematic through line. I could riff on something like “characters make tough decisions” (Daenerys, Bran) or “women deal with violence” (Cersei, Meera). But both are topics that come up every week on this show, and neither is an accurate summation of all the narrative ground “First of His Name” covers. Still, quite a few important important things happen in this episode. So while “shit goes down” is an awfully reductive starting place for a recap, it’s an adequate descriptor for an episode where solving the murder that began this whole series ranks about fifth on my list of topics to cover.
Littlefinger and Sansa is as good a place to start as any, however. And boy, has Sansa’s aunt not stopped being a whackjob the last time we saw her, breastfeeding her preteen son and throwing Tyrion in a psychological torture chamber. Lysa toggles from doting aunt to repressed hormonal teenager to paranoid wife in seconds, making her both terrifying and the perfect target for Littlefinger’s manipulation. The man’s M.O. has always been convincing people richer and more powerful than him that he has something they want. With the Lannisters, it was his knack for spinning nothing into gold. With Lysa, it’s proof that she’s finally more desirable than her older sister.
Lysa is a woman contorted by jealousy, a testament to the psychological impact of a world where even the most privileged women are only as good as the men they marry. From Lysa’s perspective, her older sister had it all: a handsome fiancée, a loyal husband, and worst of all, a besotted suitor who Cat could never appreciate. Meanwhile, Lysa got a loveless marriage to a much older man. No one ever cared enough to make sure she didn’t eat too many sweets. Catelyn’s shadow looms over Lysa at all times: in her marriage, where she finally gets the man who’d always preferred Cat; in her terror of Sansa, who’s yet another pretty Tully girl threatening to steal Petyr away. Her maniacal fixation on Littlefinger only makes sense, given that there’s little else to do at the ultra-fortified Eyrie than mull over old family resentments and let them drive you insane.
But before we move on: holy crap, that pre-wedding confession! For those who don’t remember way back to the pilot, the whole reason Ned goes to King’s Landing and starts a war is because his mentor Jon Arryn dies shortly after he figures out the king’s kids look suspiciously like his brother-in-law. Until now, we’d assumed Cersei murdered him, as is her wont. Turns out it was Lysa who poisoned her husband and pointed Cat in the Lannisters’ direction, ensuring manure would hit the fan eventually. All at Littlefinger’s behest. Which means every character you’ve ever loved is dead because of Petyr Baelish and his creepy, creepy accent.
Cersei might not have offed Jon Arryn, but she’s currently hard at work on her little brother. It’s easy to read her audiences with Tywin and Oberyn as an attempt to regain control. Cersei’s been reminded of her powerlessness quite a bit recently: by Joffrey’s death, by Jaime’s horrific assault, by the humiliation of proposing a marriage she doesn’t want to Margaery. Remember when she told Margaery she’d strangle her if she ever called her “sister” again? Notice how gleefully Margaery calls her just that now? Someone’s going to be running King’s Landing soon, and she’s definitely not afraid of an aging, broke widow.
But Cersei’s manipulation of Tywin and Oberyn proves she’s still no one to fuck with, identifying each of their pressure points and hitting them relentlessly. With Tywin, it’s the Lannister family legacy, or rather his legacy by means of the Lannister family. All the information about the Iron Bank (which has now come up three—three!—times) is a bonus; what’s really important is that however shortsighted she might be, Cersei knows exactly what she has to do to make Tywin hate Tyrion as much as she does. Ditto Oberyn, whose soft spot beneath all that sex appeal is his eight daughters. Just as she and Tywin are both Lannisters, she and the Red Viper are both parents. Cue Game of Thrones’ seasonal moment of self-awareness: “Everywhere in the world, they hurt little girls,” Cersei snaps at Oberyn and also the writers’ room. Might as well make them pay for it with some Hammurabic justice.
Which is fascinating, because even tough Cersei’s at the top of Arya’s kill list, she shares her response to being utterly disempowered. Both have turned homicidal in the face of loss, though Arya’s in even less of a position to act on her murderous impulses than Cersei is. The Hound’s happy to remind her of it too, as he imparts this week’s lesson in the School of Hard Knocks: “Your friend’s dead and Meryn Trant’s not because Meryn Trant had armor and a big fucking sword.” All the water-dancing practice in the world won’t matter if she doesn’t have brute strength, making a habit Arya once thought of as a form of rebellion just another manifestation of her sheltered background.
We’ll do a complete 180 now and head to Essos, where we have finally, officially (book spoilers!) run out of Dany’s Storm of Swords story line. Like Bran later in the episode, Dany is left with a choice between taking something she’s wanted for a long time now that it’s finally within reach or making the right, albeit much harder, decision. She opts to stay in Slaver’s Bay and deliver on her promises of liberation instead of taking Meereen’s navy and moving on to Westeros. But her reasons for sticking around are practical, not moral: she needs to prove she’s capable of governing and not just conquering before she asks the people of the Seven Kingdoms to fight on her behalf. So what’s she going to do now? What queens do—rule, and also take down enemies with WWE-style names like Cleon the Butcher.
Bran’s options are far less grandiose, but they’re consequently much more personal. The Starks were the nuclear family that Game of Thrones began with, and no two of them have been together since Bran and Rickon split up some time ago. So when Bran locks eyes on Jon Snow mid-battle, we know the joy he’s feeling, and the pain of giving up on such a long-anticipated reunion in favor of a bird and a tree somewhere in the North. But give it up he does, after neatly doing away with any divergence from (book spoilers again!) the source material by killing Locke as Hodor. Turns out the Craster’s Keep stuff was some extra plot to take up time, not the game-changing development many mistook it for last week. Bran and Jon are back on track, with no major book deviations to speak of.
We end with a sword through the back of Karl’s head, but not before he threatens to rape one last woman and delivers one last “fuck rich people” monologue. Jon offers to take Craster’s terrorized daughters back to the Wall with him, but the Head Wife/Daughter doubles this episode’s on-the-nose feminism quotient by telling him they’ll go their own way, thanks. And then, to my massive disappointment, Fleetwood Mac does not pop out from behind the bushes and break out into song. Instead, the episode concludes with Craster’s keep burning to the ground, and any potential wights along with it.