Game of Thrones Explores the Symmetry of Westeros and its People in “No One”

For a several years now, Game of Thrones had a fairly reliable format for the structure of its episodes. We spend ten minutes in one location advancing one character’s story, ten minutes in another, and so forth and so on with little repetition beyond the possibility of some sort of coda for one of the stories at the end of the episode. But the show has been playing around with that format this season (with cold opens, longer segments, and other differences) and that trend continues in “No One.”

Instead of a semi-linear progression from place to place, there’s something approaching symmetry to the order in which we visit our heroes across Westeros and beyond. The episode begins with trips to Braavos, The Riverlands, and Meereen, and finishes by returning to these same places and stories in reverse order. The middle portion of the episode comes close to doing the same thing with stops in King’s Landing and Riverrun.

So why the symmetry?

It’s hard for me to look at such a balanced approach to structure and not about Watchmen. (That’s right, longtime readers; over the long haul, any show I review will inevitably be compared either The Simpsons or Watchmen.) It too played around with the ideas of symmetry to show cause and effect, contrast before and after, or examine how a putting the same thing in a different context can result in a very different meaning.

There’s some of all of this in “No One,” particularly the idea that something set up or established in the first half of the episode may be revisited and shown in a different light in the second. That compare and contrast serves a distinct purpose and make it something unique in both structure and storytelling in the Game of Thrones world. But it also fits with the overall theme of the episode, wherein people find themselves caught between two extremes and are forced to decide who they are and what side they’re on. Every major character in this episode–Arya, The Hound, and all three Lannister siblings–fancies themselves one thing and then finds out later that they are, or at least can be, something else.

Nowhere is that idea truer than at the very center of “No One.” And no character embodies these themes better than Jamie Lannister. In the episode, Jamie is juxtaposed with two people: one who sees the best in him, and one who sees the worst. He’s first faced with Brienne, and their reunion is a sweet one despite the circumstances that leave them working at cross purposes. The two of them sharing a scene reminds us that it was Brienne who prompted a shift in Jamie, who brought out his better nature and showed that even someone as spoiled and self-important as Jamie had some good in him. Jamie was introduced to the series as a villain (its first villain really), and Brienne is a reminder of how far he’s come since then.

The episode, however, also reminds us of where he started, and how at least half of Westeros still sees him. In the standout scene of “No One,” Jamie confronts Lord Edmure, who is bound as a prisoner much as Jamie himself once was, a fact which he reminds his captive of and which serves as just one of many ways in which the episode mirrors the two noblemen.

Jamie starts out trying to be reasonable and compassionate with Edmure, to lean into the honor and decency that Brienne sees in him. But Edmure will have none of it. Despite his weakened state, Edmure spits everything Jamie says back at him. He asks how someone who’s been a party to the atrocities that Jamie has, the horrible acts that have changed the balance of power in their land, tell himself that he’s a decent man. Edmure rejects any goodness in his captor and cannot see him as anything but a murderous cad, wholly bereft of honor. How, he wonders, does a man like Jamie sleep at night?

The question seems to get to Jamie, if only for a moment. He then responds with vitriol in kind. Jamie taunts his prisoner. He threatens to kill Edmure to kill Edmure’s son, to kill every Tully across the land that Edmure might care about. He tries to live up to the villainous persona that Edmure sees in him.

But is that the truth of who Jamie is, or even what he’s trying to be?  The result of Jamie’s threats and nigh-mustache-twirling promises of violence suggest otherwise. In the face of this promised massacre, Edmure walks into his castle, calls for a surrender, and this potentially bloody conflict ends with as few lives lost as possible. That outcome certainly suits Jamie’s vocalized goals, but maybe there’s more to it.

Perhaps, Jamie’s snarling response to Edmure’s recriminations was an act, or at least a calculated put-on to get the result he wanted rather than a reflection of his true beliefs. Jamie plays up to the villainous persona that taints Edmure’s vision of him. He nods toward the rumors of incest; he riles up his prisoner by talking about Catelyn Stark; he even references the lengths he’s willing to go “for love” that introduced us to the character in the first episode. It seems as much a mask Jamie is putting on because that’s what his negotiation requires, even if it’s not truly who he is.

Jamie would like to think himself a decent man, a man worthy of what Brienne sees in him, but maybe to do that, he has to step back into his old role as a villain, to convince someone whose help he needs that he’s every bit the horrible person that Edmure believes him to be. That way, Edmure will surrender in order to prevent this brutal-minded, incestuously love-crazed monster from slaughtering his family and countrymen. I believe, or at least I’d like to believe, that Jamie didn’t truly want to slaughter anyone at Riverrun, but he realized that playing up to expectation, to that part of himself that Edmure believes is the real one, was ironically the only way to be honorable, the only way he could end this mess while killing as few people as possible.

There’s no guarantee though. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau plays the scene ambiguously. Jamie’s little wave to Brienne as he lets her go could be the confirmation that he does, in fact, have goodness in him, and that his confrontation with Edmure, his promise to once again endeavor to kill a child, was just a feint to try to get to this mostly bloodless result.

Or it could be that Jamie was telling the truth when he said that he would do anything to get back to his sister, that he is a man who tries to be honorable, but when faced with people who only see him as a scoundrel, reverts to form and can be as vindictive as his twin. That wave to Brienne could simply be a reminder that the people in Game of Thrones, like the people in the real world, are not all good or all bad, that they have blind spots and sympathies and pain points and people who lead them toward the better and worse angels of their natures. In some ways, Jamie is still on the path to figuring out whether he’s a good guy or a bad guy, and like much of the morality of Game of Thrones, the answer is not necessarily so clear.

His sister’s predicament, however, is not nearly so complex. In her first scene in “No One,” she finally puts Robert Strong to the use he was built for. When her own family member comes to her on behalf of the Sparrows, intending to order her around, he warns her that if she does not comply, violence will ensue. There’s trepidation in her eyes when, in response, she sics her brute on the fanatics at her doorstep. This is to be her saving grace, the thing that either keeps her safe or else leaves her at the mercy of the people who brutalized and humiliated her. But when push comes to shove, her monster prevails in a horrific fashion. And for the first time in a long time, there is the hint of a smile, a note of relief, on Cersei’s face. The reanimated Mountain is her safety net, and as long as he’s around, no one, not even the Sparrows, will be able to harm her.

The second time we see Cersei, however, this protection is swiftly taken away from her. Her son, The King, who cannot even look at his mother, announces that trial by combat is to be abolished in the Seven Kingdoms. Suddenly, the mute champion who was supposed to give her security and safety even in the face of the High Sparrow’s capricious inquisition cannot save her, at least not in the way that she planned.

There’s the turn. In one moment, Cersei is on top of the world, given confidence that her grand plan to save herself will succeed, no matter what she has to face. In the next, that plan is dashed by her own son, with whom she’s become estranged and removed from, and the ground underneath her feet is much more uncertain.

But she isn’t the only Lannister in the episode who sees a grand plan seemingly come to fruition, only for it to fall to pieces when push comes to shove. When we first meet Tyrion in “No One,” he’s declaring to a departing Varys that his plan has worked, that Meereen is a thriving city once more, and that it is all (if not in so many words) thanks to him. There is a Pax Meereena to be enjoyed, and he intends to enjoy it. In the great pyramid, he, Missandrei, and Greyworm all give themselves a moment to imagine what their lives could be without conflict, without the political machinations and internecine threats that have caused them each so much strife.

Tyrion speaks wistfully of having his own vineyard, of creating special blends only for his closest friends. They tell jokes. Greyworm smiles for once, and Missandrei laughs at her companion’s stilted attempt at humor. The three of them have a brief time to consider who they might be in a world without all this risk, all this death, all these tendrils of the old ways wrapping themselves around the necks of the lost souls who inhabit it. It seems like a happier world, one where slaves and imps and the others could breathe, could flourish, could relax and allow themselves to stop and appreciate the better parts of life.

But their moment is interrupted by attackers coming in from the coast. The masters that Tyrion thought he had pacified have returned to reclaim their property. Meereen starts to crumble and burn, and it becomes clear that Tyrion is not the brilliant tactician and negotiator he fancied himself. That peace was a pipe dream, and his turn comes as well when Greyworm quickly shuts him down his attempt to take command in the heat of battle.

Tyrion meant and means well. He’s an intelligent man, if not necessarily as brilliant as he presents himself, and he’s seen enough of the inside of the halls of government to know a few things about ruling. But he hasn’t mastered that art, and sometimes he is wrong in a devastating fashion. When Daenerys storms into the pyramid, it’s clear that she is the leader Meereen needs, and that Tyrion is there to help her, but not to rule in her stead. Once again, the ground shifts beneath the feet of a Lannister, and they find themselves stumbling.

The Hound, on the other hand, is much more sure of himself. In the first scene where we see him in “No One,” he is wielding his axe, eviscerating the members of the Brotherhood Without Banners, and reverting to the blithely murderous bastard we once knew. But in the penultimate segment of the episode, he runs into Beric Dondarrion and Thoros of Myr once more. They prevent The Hound from taking out the men who slaughtered his companions with such vigor. They too aim to punish these men who killed in their name for sullying it. Undeterred, The Hound demands to take justice on his own, and Beric and Thoros allow him to kill the ones who wronged him (or two out of three of them anyway), albeit in a much less vicious fashion.

They, like Brother Ray, suggest that The Hound could be someone else. As the show explored last week, the Beric and Thoros suggest there might, perhaps even must, be a reason The Hound is still kicking around. There is a higher purpose for him left to find out there. Sandor Clegane is understandably skeptical. He attributes his continued to survival, his success in combat and cheating death, to him being a tough bastard. What’s more, the violence he engages him seems to fit him as well as the boots he steals off of a dead man. But there’s an idea at the center of these scenes that The Hound could be something more than an indiscriminate killer. He could a force for good, and maybe, though that idea seems to go against his nature, deep down he might even want to be.

Arya faces a similar decision. She can stay in Braavos and be no one, or she can reclaim her name and go back home. It’s the least compelling dichotomy in “No One” (especially since it was seemingly resolved in the prior episode), and it’s the weakest element of the episode. While reuniting Arya with Lady Crane (who receives tearful applause after she takes Arya’s advice on how to play Joffrey’s death scene), is a nice touch, Arya’s chase and battle with The Waif is nigh-wholly underwhelming. I’m willing to cut the show a bit of slack when it comes to Arya being able to survive her injuries and keep fighting, but The Waif is a one-note, uninteresting antagonist, and their run through the streets and blind finish to the story doesn’t add enough flair to the proceedings to make it interesting.

But Arya too, is another person in this episode who is changed from the beginning to the end. When we come upon her at the start, she is wounded, bed-ridden, and seriously contemplates abandoning her quest and joining a woman who resembles her mother across the eastern part of the Narrow Sea. But in the end, she rejects what Braavos has given her, what the faceless men dangled in front of her, and the other paths available, declaring that she is Arya Stark, of House Stark, and she’s going home.

So often the rug is pulled out from under us. We think we have it figured out, that we know who we are, or where we stand, and what’s coming next. We take a moment of peace or stop to reflect and think that the hard part’s over. Then something comes to remind us that the world is far more uncertain that we might like and so are the people within it. All the characters in “No One” are caught in that terrible symmetry, found secure and made vulnerable, pulled between old ways and new possibilities. That balance is unclear, and the structure of the episode seems to suggest there’s an equal and opposite reaction to all of this. The only thing that is certain is that who we are, what side we belong on, is a question whose answer changes with time, even when we think we have it all figured out.

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2 Responses to Game of Thrones Explores the Symmetry of Westeros and its People in “No One”

  1. Adam says:

    I have loved reading your posts on Game of Thrones! Any chance of writing ones for the rest of season 6?

    • Andrew Bloom says:

      Thanks very much, Adam! I have one written up for “The Battle of the Bastards” that I keep meaning to edit and post. I will try to do so soon! I also have a very rough draft of a review for the finale, but I may wait until before the S7 premiere for that one. I truly appreciate the kind words!

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