To understand Game of Thrones’ fourth episode, you need only to consider the title, for ‘Cripples, Bastards and Broken Things’ quite adequately sums up the focus David Benioff & D.B. Weiss’ series lends as the world building continues to manifest.
It is quite telling that writer Bryan Cogman chooses to begin proceedings at Winterfell, the setting that most encapsulates the concept of bastards across the run of the series, and digs into three very different characters. Bran has his first true vision here of the Three-Eyed Raven, who naturally serves as a primary presaging of his entire character arc across the run of the series, but it comes in the form of a Crow which leads him, walking through Winterfell, to the strange, at this stage unnerving creature.
Bran also continues to deny his status as a ‘cripple’ (unkind word as that of course is), particularly when the other signature ‘broken’ character in the story, Tyrion, as a parting gift chooses to bestow upon Bran technology which would allow him to ride a horse, even without the means to walk. When Bran declares he’s not a cripple, Tyrion replies with “and I’m not a dwarf”. Tyrion has accepted who he is at this stage, forged through years of experience. Bran, as yet, has not.
Nor indeed has Theon Greyjoy, who Cogman manages to explore in greater detail in ‘Broken Things’ (as we’ll abbreviate the episode going forward). Theon thus far has been fairly background, an arrogant friend and slightly-servile aide to Robb particularly, but of course as a Greyjoy he has quite a complicated background as the ‘captured’ son of one of the Five Kings of Westeros, who we will come to see has quite the burning underbelly of resentment for Stark hegemony in the North.
Though Theon has always been treated well by Ned and his family, Theon believes—thanks to his ‘royal’ blood—that he is destined for, and deserves, greater things. The disdain he displays to the older generation in how he talks to Old Nan and when Tyrion winds him up, his fierce declaration that Robb is“not my master”, displays this undercurrent of rebellion.
Further north, at Castle Black, we are introduced for the first time to Samwell Tarly, the fat, rejected son and heir to House Tarly. Sam is immediately cast as another ‘broken thing’, a weak and scared man who Jon recognises as someone first worth his pity, then worth his friendship. Cogman admittedly does draw Ser Alliser Thorne out as quite the sadist in order to cast Sam in just a weak position but it works to establish the character, and how Thorne is actively enjoying what he considers the deficiencies of these societal ‘rejects’ sent north to the Wall. Thorne’s visible rancor at Jon is born from the fact he can see, as we do, that Jon has no such deficiencies – he is at the Wall because of birth, not because he lacks courage or guile. Jon’s Stark honour is what leads him to stand up for Sam, and further antagonise the Watchmen he is supposed to defer to.
Sam of course perfectly fits the overarching theme of Cogman’s episode, and the undulating ideas of what masculinity means in the feudal word of Westeros. Men like Sam, like Theon, like Tyrion, none of them were supposed to be the way they are, not in the eyes of their fathers – all of whom are of a similar mould. Randyll, Balon and Tywin are all middle-aged, staunch defenders of the existing power structure and paradigm. Balon only challenges the people who are in charge, he doesn’t challenge the way the system is set up, even if the Ironborn are more enlightened when it comes to male/female equality in leadership.
That masculine power structure is also being challenged by different kinds of outsiders across the Narrow Sea in Vaes Dothrak. In many respects, Viserys is just as much of a ‘broken thing’ as the aforementioned Westerosi men. He’s akin to how Theon will become in just over a season’s time, just further consumed by his own sense of misplaced, manifest destiny and powerful entitlement based on his racial profile. In truth, Viserys has only his words.
His scene with seductive slave girl Doreah is very interesting, where he tells the story of how the Targaryen dynasty came from Valryia, the story of the dragons he grew up hearing about, all crucial world-building backstory in Martin’s novels. While ostensibly framed against a sexual moment, it simply serves to expose just how easily Viserys can be manipulated. Indeed there is a level of subtext about the dragons which plays into Cogman’s broader theme; how the closer to the Iron Throne they were, the bigger and stronger they became, suggesting the further away from power you are, the more broken you become.
‘Broken Things’ doesn’t of course simply frame fears of deficiency in terms of masculinity, but through Sansa we see feminine anxieties about what the future may bring. She fears being hated by Joffrey, should she become his Queen, if she doesn’t bear him sons and only daughters. While male children in noble houses of Westeros fear not fitting the current masculine power structure, female children like Sansa fear their own fertility may fail to, ironically, maintain this very same power structure; if women seemingly reared and designed to be Queen’s, to bear strong heirs, fail in their task, are they not just as ‘broken’ as men like Sam or Tyrion or Bran? This is precisely the same journey Cersei undertook, and we of course will see how her own twisted inbreeding will lead to those fertility anxieties being actualised in psychologically deficient, damaged children.
Arya, of course, has a very different anxiety – she wants to reject everything Sansa actively fears she won’t be able to achieve. She begins sword training with the effervescent Syrio Forel in King’s Landing, which of course serves as a key beginning of her story arc, prefiguring her journey to Braavos and the rules and risks to her person, much like balancing on a tightrope.
Her father Ned, nonetheless, hasn’t given up hope Arya might take the same ‘Princess’ path as Sansa; though he is no staunch male autocrat like the Tywin’s of the world (Ned is too much of a romantic revolutionary at heart for that), he does fear Arya has too much of the male Stark inclination in her, when she asks to be the same kind of ‘castle builder’ Bran will likely have to become thanks to his deficiency. In reality, Ned undoubtedly recognises a lot of his sister Lyanna in Arya, and given her ultimate fate it’s little wonder he looks anxious about the path Arya has already set herself on – that rejection of the feminine position in Westerosi culture.
The other major outsider and ‘broken thing’ of the episode is, of course, Gendry, who proves to be the culmination in some respects of Ned’s secret reason for becoming Hand of the King – to find out why Jon Arryn was poisoned. As the illegitimate son of Robert Baratheon, Gendry is the ultimate ‘bastard’ in some respects, even if he has no idea that, in real terms, he’s much higher up the chain of succession than Ned would realise, given none of Robert’s children are in reality his.
Gendry, much like Jon Snow, doesn’t fit the literal mould of a ‘broken thing’; he is a strong man, in body and mind, a smith who could easily be forged into a warrior – it is simply his status, or his perceived status, which keeps him in the position he is, and Ned recognises this. The masculine structure, like much of Westerosi society, is built in truth on lies, money and entrenched power. Robert may have overthrown a tyrant, but he just slotted into the same position, only with an awkward alliance of houses propping him up.
Other forms of perceived deficiency crop up in other, more intriguing and subtle psychological ways. Dany almost seems to display a level of Stockholm Syndrome in how she reacts to her union with Drogo, the psychological condition of falling in love with your captor. She is beginning to think in the manner of Dothraki culture in how she talks back to her brother, but desires also to bring him gifts from their culture, aghast when he casts them aside as“Dothraki rags”. There is a sense Dany has started to be radicalised almost by Dothraki culture, and her refusal to be cowed by the entitled Viserys stuns her brother.
At the Wall, the aforementioned Alliser Thorne displays clear signs of the effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in how he describes to Jon & Sam about being abandoned beyond the Wall after a Ranging mission went wrong. “You don’t know cold”he taunts them, and he’s very clearly still traumatised deeply by what he experienced in what, at this stage, is simply a vast, unknowable and terrifying wilderness to us, and to men like Jon & Sam. It is the frontier, beyond which legends and savages exist, the Wall perceived as the edge of civilisation, and Thorne’s description of death and forced cannibalism in that wilderness is harsh and barbed. You realise he is as deficient as the ‘broken things’ he tries to make life a misery for, unable to escape his own mental demons of past experience.
Rippling across ‘Cripples, Bastards and Broken Things’ therefore is a pointed tying together of themes unlike which we’ve seen in Game of Thrones to date. Bryan Cogman does an impressive job of steadily forward story arcs and building out the world and characters of Martin’s series while tethering everything together, from script and story choices, to a central thematic undercurrent.
As we approach the halfway point, the construction and world-building will begin giving way to the key twists and turns which will come to define Game of Thrones, and make the audience aware this isn’t just any old fantasy show, and nor is it going anywhere in a hurry.
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