Sure, Games of Thrones is a fitting name for HBO’s lush mytho-medieval drama about dwarves and dragons and the make-believe kingdom of Westeros. It gets at the whole “cynical jockeying for power” aspect of the series, plus it sounds pretty intense—and campy!—when you say it.
But sometimes I think The Odd Couples would make almost as much sense as the show’s title.
And Sunday night was one of those times.
If you’re among the several viewers who have (somehow) been bored by Thrones this season, I can guarantee you weren’t bored by “Mockingbird.” In fact, Episode 7 was easily the most eventful of the year—a precision-tooled narrative contraption designed to act as the pivot upon which the rest of the season will turn.
The intriguing thing, however, is that “Mockingbird” itself turned—crucially, I think—on a series of unusual couplings: bonds formed and broken and reformed in strange new ways. Ultimately, I’m starting to suspect that this concept—the transformative power of a simple human connection—may have as much to do with the “message” of Thrones as, say, George R.R. Martin’s Hobbesian vision of human nature.
Let's stark with “Mockingbird”’s most shocking moment and work our way back. As anyone who’s been paying attention already knows—it was revealed in Episode 5, “First of His Name”—the most transformative connection on Thrones has been the one between the devious bureaucrat-slash-brothel-owner Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish and his secret paramour, Lysa Arryn. It was Lysa (we learned a few weeks ago) who poisoned her husband, Jon, the Hand of the King, and then “sent a misleading note of warning to her sister, Catelyn Stark, all because her childhood crush [i.e. Baelish] had asked her to.” This is what kick-started the entire series, bringing Ned Stark to King’s Landing and compelling him to investigate Arryn’s death. And it happened because a couple conspired to make it happen.
Only it turns out that couple was just a means to an end—at least for Littlefinger. On Sunday’s episode, when Catelyn’s daughter Sansa, whom Baelish has gone to great lengths to retrieve from King’s Landing, slapped Robin Arryn for “ruining” her nostalgic Winterfell snow castle, Baelish at first comforted her by purring that it was “a step in the right direction”—something “his mother should have done a long time ago.”
Sansa seemed emboldened by his attention. “Why did you really kill Joffrey?” she asked.
“I loved your mother more than you’ll ever know,” Baelish replied. “And given the opportunity, what do we do to those who’ve hurt the ones we love?”
He moved in closer. In a “better world,” Baelish said, “you might have been my daughter... But we don’t live in that world.” He paused and touched her red hair. “You’re more beautiful than she ever was.”
And then he kissed her.
“Lord Baelish,” Sansa protested.
“Call me Petyr,” Littlefinger replied.
My first instinct was to think of this new coupling as a textbook Littlefinger manipulation; the scene’s insistent cinematic corniness (“Call me Petyr”!) seemed to imply a certain level of insincerity. Perhaps Littlefinger wanted to turn Sansa against Lysa for some reason; perhaps he wanted to keep her under his thumb, like everyone else.
But then I saw the episode’s final scene. Because Thrones is basically a soap opera, of course a seething Lysa was watching Sansa and Baelish make out from her balcony. Of course Lysa summoned Sansa to the Eyrie immediately thereafter. Of course the Lady Regent of the Vale was standing placidly beside the open Moon Door, the wind rustling her robes. Of course she asked Sansa if she knew “how far the fall is”—then grabbed her, shoved her to the ground, and called her a “little whore.” And of course Baelish materialized (at just the right moment) to save Sansa and coax Lysa away from the ledge.
Except that, because Thrones is a very particular kind of soap opera, Baelish didn’t coax Lysa, his new bride, away from the ledge at all. He shoved her off of it.
“I have only loved one woman—only one my entire life,” he said in parting. “Your sister.”
And so one influential odd couple “breaks apart like an egg”—and another forms in its place...? It’s obviously too early to say what, if anything, Sansa and Baelish will morph into. Maybe she’ll be unsettled by the fact that her suitor is a) three times her age, b) obsessed with her mother, and c) her aunt’s murderer. Or maybe not (this is Game of Thrones we’re talking about here).
Either way, I wasn’t quite right to assume that Littlefinger’s seduction was insincere. As his divorce by Moon Door proved, Baelish seems to have a real—if somewhat Vertigo-esque—affection for Catelyn’s daughter. It will be interesting to see whether he can really re-create a past that never was: whether Sansa, more cornered and alone than ever, will become his Catelyn, and how the ripples of their potential coupling will affect the rest of the story. Lord Petyr Baelish, acting King of the North? Already “Mockingbird”’s murderous twist—he did it for love!—is serving to humanize a character who, until now, has seemed more cartoonish than the rest of Thrones’ leading players.
Speaking of: All of the rest of the major characters were conspicuously coupled up Sunday night—and all of these couplings were consequential. As they continue to trade laconic quips and trot across a smoldering, post-apocalyptic Riverrun, Arya Stark and The Hound appear to be having a polarizing effect on each other. He becomes a little more human; she becomes a little less. On Sunday, this meant The Hound put a wounded man out of his misery—while Arya mused, like some Sartre-esque angel of death, about how “nothing isn’t better or worse than anything—nothing is just nothing.” It also meant that Arya added a man to her revenge list only to stab him immediately in the heart—shortly before the pyrophobic Hound revealed that his brother had vengefully burned his face as a child. “And you think you’re on your own,” he almost whimpered. Like the protagonists of any good buddy movie, Arya and The Hound are transforming each other. I suspect these changes will have a profound effect on the plot in episodes to come.
Elsewhere, Brienne of Tarth and her sidekick Podrick Payne discovered from a displaced pal of Arya’s—the aptly named Hot Pie—that the youngest Stark girl is probably still alive. They also began to strike up a friendship of their own when Podrick surmised that both of the Stark girls (whom Brienne swore an oath to protect) would be headed toward the Eyrie—and a pleased Brienne heeded his counsel.
In King’s Landing, Tyrion Lannister (who was still awaiting his trial by combat) lost two of his most promising allies in quick succession: his brother Jaime, who briefly expressed interest in dying in a duel with the fearsome Ser Gregor “The Mountain” Clegane just to spite their father, Tywin, then backed out, and his former bodyguard Bronn, who took Tyrion’s sister and accuser Cersei Lannister up on her offer (wife, castle) instead. “I like you,” he cracked. “I just like myself more.” Still, it wasn’t long before Tyrion had found a new comrade and champion: Oberyn “The Red Viper” Martell. “All of the people I want dead are here,” he explained. “I will begin with Gregor.”
Finally there was Daenerys Targaryen, who chose one partner for pleasure (the charming sell-sword Daario Naharis) and another for actual leadership advice (her longtime adviser Jorah Mormont, who made her see that idealism and fanaticism are two different things).
So what does it all mean? My hunch is that “Mockingbird” was packed with pairings on purpose. Game of Thrones is so unrelentingly bleak that it can seem at times like that’s the point of the story—to show us how bad human beings really are and how the civilizations we create simply force us into the same old ruts. But I don’t think it is. Instead, I’m starting to wonder whether the point is actually that, somehow, we can be redeemed, despite all the darkness, by our bonds with each other—that these bonds can change us, and others, for better or for worse; that they can make some sort of difference—even if we don’t live in a world, as Petryr Baelish put it, “where love can overcome strength and duty.”