"It often comforts me to think that even in war's darkest days, in most places of the world, absolutely nothing is happening."
— Ser Brynden "Blackfish" Tully
From the very beginning of Game of Thrones, we've spent most of our time with the most famous people in Westeros. Ned Stark's appointment as Hand of the King in season one offered an entry point into a world of high lords and ladies with proud histories and names like "Lannister" and "Baratheon." And as the series has continued, and the fight for the Iron Throne has come to dominate all of Westeros, we've spent a whole bunch of time in the strategy rooms of our would-be kings — and relatively little on the battlefield with loyal-but-lowly soldiers.
But remember, the War of the Five Kings is far from over, and the casualties have already been massive — a stark truth that's easy to forget when we simply watch Stannis Baratheon, Tywin Lannister, and Robb Stark move pieces around their strategy board without necessarily thinking about the humanity, feelings, and families of the thousands of soldiers these inanimate objects represent.
Game of Thrones' world is so diverse and sprawling that it's easy to imagine an entirely different series centered on an entirely separate set of characters of a sub-royal socioeconomic background — a fact that the show's creative team readily acknowledges. "We could easily write a show about just, say, Bronn," said showrunner David Benioff in an interview with Entertainment Weekly earlier this year. And while tonight's "Walk of Punishment" doesn't go quite that far, it does a better job than any episode in the series of reminding us just how many thousands of people's fates are tied up in the game of thrones being played by our heroes.
Consider Robb Stark. He has repeatedly lamented the death of his men in episodes and seasons past, but tonight, his fury at his uncle Edmure is all about a strategic misstep of an unnecessary fight, and the subsequent loss of loyal men who are fighting for his cause. "We need our men more than Tywin needs his!" complains Robb — and while it's clear that he feels every death, even the noblest fighter in the clash of kings has to admit that this is, on some level, a simple numbers game.
Game of Thrones offers another, more humanist perspective in the form of the character who has arguably turned out to be the most conventionally heroic in the series: Daenerys Targaryen, who finally cuts a deal to get her own army. Daenerys is in Astapor, which uses the slaves who have defied the city's leaders as a kind of gruesome backdrop. When Daenerys tries to give water to a dying slave, he turns her down so he can die faster, and while she keeps moving, it's clear that she's affected by the experience. Before she agrees to trade one of her dragons for an army, she looks up at a slave girl watching the transaction — and while she may be buying 8,000 ultra-stoic unsullied warriors, her thoughts are clearly also with Astapor's "common" slaves.
In the first season, when Daenerys asked Ser Jorah Mormont whether the people were praying for the Targaryens to return, he replied, "the common people pray for rain, healthy children, and a summer that never ends. It is no matter to them if the high lords play their game of thrones, so long as they are left in peace." It remains to be seen how much Daenerys can do to better the lives of her would-be followers, but unlike some of her Iron Throne rivals, she clearly cares enough to try.
Back in Westeros, as Littlefinger turns over the Master of Coin position to Tyrion, he offers some advice on the common people: "They're only numbers on paper. Once you understand that, it's easy to make them behave." It's equally easy to imagine some of the more callous high lords of Game of Thrones — say, Tywin Lannister — declaring the same thing about their soldiers, as they send thousands off to their deaths on the battlefield as part of a ruthless — and some might say blind — march toward power.
Of course, people aren't just numbers on paper, and it's not always simple for the rulers to make the ruled behave — a lesson Jaime Lannister learns the very hard way at the end of the episode, when he assumes his captor is just another man who will be cowed by the Lannister name. "You think you're the smartest man in this. That everyone alive has to bow and scrape and lick your boots," the man sneers before slicing off Jaime's sword hand — a hand that Jaime once used to kill a king.
Westeros may be a land built on lineage and legacy, but violence is the great equalizer, and Starks and Lannisters bleed just as easily as the rest of Westeros.
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