"We've become a great house by entreating into alliances with other houses, and parlaying those alliances into greater power. The best way to forge a lasting alliance isn't by peeling a man's skin off. The best way is marriage." —Roose Bolton
Every man who gets married in Westeros, from the lowliest peasant to the most powerful king, ends his wedding vow by speaking the same phrase: "I am hers, and she is mine, from this day until the end of my days."
The cruel irony is that "the end of my days" tends to come pretty quickly after most Westerosi weddings. Renly Baratheon died shortly after his wedding to Margaery Tyrell. Joffrey Baratheon died during his wedding to Margaery Tyrell. The bloodbath of the Red Wedding gained notoriety across all of Westeros. And "a Dothraki wedding without at least three deaths is considered a dull affair," commented Illyrio Mopatis in the show's first episode.
With so much matrimonial horror in its past, the biggest twist Game of Thrones could unleash in this week's "High Sparrow" was a wedding that went off without a hitch. Enter Tommen Baratheon and Margaery Tyrell, whose royal wedding — held with considerably less ceremony than Margaery's last royal wedding — goes so quickly you could glance away from the screen and miss it.
In its fifth season, Game of Thrones has moved beyond caring about what happens at a wedding. Instead, the show is concerned with what happens after a wedding, and what these high-profile unions between powerful families will mean for the newlyweds and everyone else. As Roose Bolton indicates, we've moved beyond the horrific violence of the clash of kings; with the Boltons and the Lannisters emerging at the top of the heap, it's time to shore up their shaky claims to victory as quickly as possible.
And that's where the power of marriage — and, more to the point, the power of unmarried women from prominent families — comes into play. Game of Thrones has long been one of the most secretly feminist shows on television; the longer this story goes on, the clearer it becomes that the women hold all the cards. (Remember, Westeros' previous two kings — Robert and Joffrey Baratheon — were killed in elaborate schemes orchestrated by women.)
Tommen may be the one sitting on the Iron Throne, but the real power in King's Landing is clearly Queen Margaery, whose newly elevated status comes at the immediate expense of Cersei Lannister. In a series of scenes, we see how quickly the queen mother has fallen: ignored by the cheering crowd, in favor of Margaery, as her palanquin is carried to the wedding; dismissed by her son, who suggests that she leave King's Landing and return to Casterly Rock; and all but openly mocked by Margaery, her new daughter-in-law, who skewers Cersei for her boozing while intimating just how intimately she knows Tommen after their wedding night.
Don't be fooled by the elaborate expressions of love and respect: Cersei and Margaery are in the midst of a clash of queens, every bit as dangerous and high-stakes as the army battles that made up Game of Thrones' earlier seasons. As multiple characters have remarked, Cersei's one redeeming quality is her love for her children — which doubles as her weakness. It wasn't too long ago that Cersei had total control over Tommen; during season two's Battle of Blackwater, she took him to the Iron Throne, ready to commit a murder/suicide if Stannis Baratheon's troops emerged victorious.
But after one wild wedding night, Cersei's control over the weak-willed king has officially passed to Margaery, who has a little more to offer Tommen than his mother. Margaery is one of Game of Thrones' toughest and most versatile characters — catering to the whims of each husband, but only in service of her own goals. Compared to Renly, who preferred her brother, and Joffrey, who preferred torture, an inexperienced teenager like Tommen is a cakewalk. Due entirely to the machinations of Margaery and her grandmother Olenna, the Tyrells are basically running Westeros.
But the royal wedding isn't the only nuptial that threatens to shift the political balance of the country. The marriage of Sansa Stark has been used as a political bargaining chip once before, when she was pushed into a marriage with Tyrion in an effort to shore up the Lannisters' claim to the North. But with Tyrion thousands of miles away, and his marriage to Sansa unconsummated, Sansa is back on the market, and Littlefinger swiftly sets up a similarly useful groom: Ramsay Bolton, Roose's newly legitimized bastard, who stands to inherit control of the North.
Sansa, unsurprisingly, is less than thrilled at the idea of marrying the son of the man who betrayed her brother and took control of the castle where she grew up. But Littlefinger, ever-scheming, counsels her to use the uncomfortable position to her advantage. "You've been a bystander to tragedy from the day they executed your father," he says. "Stop being a bystander. Do you hear me? Stop running. There's no justice in the world. Not unless we make it. You loved your family. Avenge them." When Sansa actually meets Ramsay, she does it with full courtesy, and he tells Littlefinger that he's already smitten. "I hope I can make her happy," he says. "I'll never hurt her. You have my word."
Maybe. But neither Ramsay nor his father realize what they're getting in Sansa. She could hardly have changed more since she left Winterfell, a self-centered preteen mooning over her Prince Charming. Trauma has hardened her. Sansa may not spend her private hours reciting a murderlist like her sister Arya, but she probably has an internal version of her own — and if Ramsay ever turns his flaying knife on her, it's easy to imagine her stabbing right back.
And then, back in King's Landing, there was that perverse religious celebration. Over the course of Game of Thrones, we've heard a lot about the religions of Westeros: Ned Stark prayed to the old gods, Melisandre promotes her "Lord of Light," and most of Westeros subscribes to the Faith of the Seven. But after the High Septon, the religious leader of King's Landing, is caught with seven prostitutes cast as the seven aspects of the new god, Cersei uses some of her rapidly diminishing power to install a new leader of the faith.
The new leader is the High Sparrow (Jonathan Pryce), a devoutly religious priest who serves soup to the poorest citizens of King's Landing. "I tell them no one is special, and they think I'm special for telling them so," he explains. Cersei, seeking allies — and maybe, just a little impressed by the one person in her life who isn't desperately scrabbling for power — makes a speech of her own. "The faith and the crown are the two pillars that hold up this world," she says, offering the High Sparrow all the power she can muster. "One collapses, so does the other. We must do everything necessary to protect one another."
Cersei and the High Sparrow aren't likely to be literally wedded anytime soon, but this is exchange is a kind of vow just the same — a thinly veiled variation on the same promise Tommen and Margaery made to take care of each other. Five seasons in, Game of Thrones' survivors are wise enough to know they need allies to hold onto what tenuous power they have. The question is whether they chose those allies wisely.
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