[This is a review of Game of Thrones season 4, episode 5. There will be SPOILERS.]
It is a common thread throughout Game of Thrones that those who attempt to play the titular game outside of their area of expertise are destined to wind up a thing of the past. It happened to Ned Stark when he became the king's hand; he learned too late that the way things were done in Winterfell, and in House Stark, was not as it was done in King's Landing. Ned was an honorable man, he placed trust in others and that cost him his head. That way of thinking also brought ruin to his family, since believing in honor and placing trust where none should be placed earned his eldest son a knife in the heart, care of Roose Bolton.
That idea - that one should know his or her strengths - is key to what transpires all across Westeros and beyond in 'First of His Name,' which begins with the crowning of young Tommen but soon bleeds into a superb demonstration by Cersei that she's keen on something in King's Landing other than her bottomless goblet of wine. Cersei moves through conversations with Tywin, Margaery, and eventually Oberyn with a kind of lucidity, poise, and determination that hasn't been seen in, well…ever. Perhaps it's just that Lena Headey is thrilled to be doing something other than skulking around a darkened room swilling glass after glass of pinot noir, but giving her the chance to air Cersei out a bit and take in a seaside stroll with Pedro Pascal certainly seems to add an interesting depth to her character, and demonstrates that, for all Cersei's faults, she has as sharp a mind for doing what must be done for the good of the Lannister legacy as Tywin does.
Cersei's strength lies in using her name and her influence to ensure that which she can control will remain on course. She's wholeheartedly aware that (although she loved him and partially blames herself for failing to protect him) the late Joffrey was a monster. The kingdom, and, certainly, Margaery are much better off without him. So now the extent of her power shifts to ensuring Tommen – the boy who may just be worthy of the Iron Throne – is afforded every opportunity to ensure he will rule well. If that means marrying Margaery, then so be it.
In a sense, Cersei is lucky. She knows her strengths and she knows her weaknesses, something not many other characters on the series are well acquainted with. As for the surviving members of the Stark clan, they're mostly getting by on a combination of sheer luck and courage. Sansa's been whisked away to aunt Lysa's castle to watch Robin toss glass birds out moon doors, and listen as Petyr Baelish consummates the marriage that's just another part of his intricate and insanely ambitious plan to have "everything." At the moment, Sansa's only strength is the insistence her virtue is still intact, and that she's about as accomplished a liar as Hodor is a conversationalist. Elsewhere, Arya continues to obsessively recite the names of those who need to be killed, while she convinces herself she's the one to do it. After a quick demonstration of her skills to the Hound proves fruitless in terms of ability, it does elucidate the young Stark that no matter her level of determination, her strengths may not lie in striking her targets directly.
Meanwhile, Jon Snow comes within a few feet of finding Bran and Jojen while storming Craster's Keep. Jon certainly knows that he possesses the skills necessary to be a part of – and possibly lead – the Night's Watch, but his clash with Karl shows that although he's a bastard, he still suffers from that Stark malady of approaching situations and conflicts from a point of honor. In the world of Game of Thrones, having honor is one thing – it may even be a personal strength – but relying on it wholly, and living entirely by that honor may just wind up getting you killed.
Perhaps that's why Benioff and Weis have chosen to bookend episodes like this with Daenerys and Jon. While the series continues to excel in demonstrating the moral gray areas and painful compromises that nearly everyone else is splashing around and even thriving in – which 'First of His Name' deftly manages to express time and again – Dany and Jon find themselves held to a higher standard, where their principles cannot be sacrificed simply to get ahead in the moment. Dany may be the Mother of Dragons, but she's now responsible for thousands of people whose liberation she orchestrated and facilitated. Her eye is on the Iron Throne, and even though she's more capable than ever of posing a serious threat to the Lannisters, she cannot forget about the part of the world she's so radically altered.
In that sense, the show, and this episode in particular, excels at putting characters in a kind of uniquely difficult position, one where doing the right thing and living honorably may leave them vulnerable, whereas continuing to do wrong, as others do, will all but ensure them victory. In the end, it's good to know one's strengths, but there's also strength in knowing how to properly utilize what others perceive as weakness.
Game of Thrones continues next Sunday with 'The Laws of Gods and Men' @9pm on HBO. Check out a preview below: