As we move into the second half of Game of Thrones’ debut season, two of the most central concepts of George R.R. Martin’s saga begin to assert themselves in deeper ways: children and lineage. ‘A Golden Crown’ is an episode filled with the lingering shadows of lost childhood and assumptions, or presumptions, of birthright.
David Benioff & D.B. Weiss present, of course, probably Game of Thrones’ first true watershed, “OMG they just did that!” moment with the horrendous death of Viserys Targaryen, given the titular ‘golden crown’ by Khal Drogo when he finally pushes his luck a little too far with the Dothraki, who take his demands just a touch too literally. Game of Thrones would of course top this many times over – Ned Stark’s shocking execution in ‘Baelor’ at the end of the first season would be the next, and the one the series will forever be immortalised for is the so-called ‘Red Wedding’ in the third season’s penultimate episode ‘The Rains of Castamere’ – both examples of which cement the idea of the penultimate episodes of Game of Thrones always provide the biggest shock events or battles, before a calmer, scene-setting finale. We’re some way from that yet. Right now, Game of Thrones just pulled a flanker in the sixth episode.
In some ways, we should have seen Viserys’ death coming (and naturally those familiar with the book ‘A Game of Thrones’ will have been expecting it). He was a purely one-dimensional creation designed primarily to facilitate the emergence of his sister Daenerys as the Khaleesi, shedding her Westerosi roots and embracing the culture of the Dothraki she was sold into sexual slavery to.
Viserys was designed to be the spoiled, entitled example of masculine, male white privilege which dominates the Seven Kingdoms; not a warrior, not a fighter, but a man who demands respect and obedience purely by the factor of his genetic line and ‘rightful’ inheritance by birth. Viserys spent years as an exile from his own country, allowing the resentment toward the rebels who stole his father’s crown (and his future crown) from under him, and consistently indoctrinating Daenerys to think of him in terms of a sundered future King.
What Viserys never realised, of course, was that he was always just a pawn in a bigger game – that being played by the restoration conspiracy controlled by Varys, Illyrio Mopatis and undoubtedly more shadowy power brokers. From the moment Illyrio gives the dragon eggs to Dany, it’s clear they knew Viserys wasn’t the Targaryen’s to restore and stabilise the realm, but rather his sister off the back on her army of horse lords.
She was the key to regaining control of the Seven Kingdoms, and arguably even by the point she allows Drogo to boil her brother’s head in molten gold, Dany remains still on that path to self-discovery and self-awareness. Placing the dragon eggs in the fire and realising she cannot be burned by the flames is an early point in her mystical awakening as the ‘Mother of Dragons’ to come, but right now she has largely just been radicalised by the Dothraki. The chrysalis is still yet to hatch.
Viserys then soon outlived his usefulness as a player in the game, but he works well as a mirror to reflect how much Daenerys changes when she becomes Drogo’s wife and enters Dothraki culture and customs – to the point she’s eating the heart of a Dothraki horse, raw, with a determination and zeal no princess of the Seven Kingdoms could ever contemplate; a ritual designed to help determine the sex of the child, though Viserys claims worriedly upon learning it’s a boy: “He won’t be a true Dragon”.
Viserys is an example of what rapidly becomes a dying breed; white male entitlement to power. Game of Thrones’ entire journey, often portrayed through Daenerys’ rise to become a powerful Queen of multiple kingdoms, is all about the subversion of these antiquated cultural norms in this feudal world. The fact Dany starts her journey in a derivation of Mongol savagery, far away from ‘civilisation’, arguably serves as the catalyst for her transformation.
The aforementioned ritual continues the show’s leaning toward visions and prophecy, centered almost always around children and lineage. “The stallion who mounts the world”is the Dothraki version of the Azor Ahai legend in many respects, with Dany & Drogo’s already-named child Rhaego believed as the Dothraki incarnation of their manifest destiny; a leader who will unite all Dothraki tribes and conquer all of their lands. Rhaego too serves as a derivation of her brother ‘Rhaegar’, who of course as we now know is the father of Jon Snow, who could well be Azor Ahai reborn and play into the same Westerosi myth story about a man who will save/destroy/create the world in his image. We may be many years away from such realisations and connectives in the show itself, but the fact Game of Thrones is already layering them in displays a significant amount of confident storytelling.
The mysticism across the Narrow Sea is sharply in contrast and parallel to the continued political games taking place in Westeros, as conspiracies and threats continue to spiral around the characters in Kings Landing and beyond, near the Iron Throne. Ned Stark at this stage feels increasingly like a man fighting a losing battle on several fronts, as the traditional pillars of power begin to show moments of weakness; take Cersei’s verbal rebuke of Robert, challenging his authority as Ned—still acting like the lawman—seeks leave to bring in Jaime, the ‘outlaw’, after events at the climax of ‘The Wolf and the Lion’. Robert may strike Cersei for her impudence but she knows Robert’s power is on a knife edge, and is growing more confident and bold to challenge him. “I can’t rule the kingdoms if the Starks and Lannister’s are at each other’s throats”he quite rightly rejoins, admitting how much in debt he is to the still-unseen Tywin. This will prove to be yet another acute observation from the doomed King.
The Starks are being challenged in their own way in numerous ways. Bran may have his saddle that allows him to ride, but the visions of the Three-Eyed Crow continue pointing him toward lineage and destiny, guiding him in dreams toward the Winterfell crypt; it’s remarkable in many ways how important the dead are to Game of Thrones, figures such as Rhaegar or Lyanna Stark, whose shadows cast a long way over the events of family members still living. Bran’s visions provide heavy foreshadowing for revelations and realisations to come. Moreover, his attack by the Wildling troupe—which is where we meet grubby and here venal Osha—hints at how Bran would later come to rely on a Wildling in his voyages beyond the Wall as he begins to embrace his destiny.
It’s interesting how Game of Thrones introduces the Wildlings through these characters fleeing the dangers that lie in their part of the world. “There ain’t no White Walkers down in Dorne”one admits, proving they’re betraying the strict principles of their kind—and ancient laws—to stray beyond the Wall and seek solace in civilisation. They may be crude savages, with Osha ultimately finding a level of redemption in how she helps Bran, but they in their own way prefigure the darker threats and plot developments to come, which we would see primarily through Jon’s interactions in the Night’s Watch. These Wildlings are unkempt and feral, and nothing more than sport for the increasingly wild himself Theon; he tries to pass off reckless murder in saving Bran’s life as a lesson in masculinity for the boy, but Robb can see otherwise.
Though Robb hasn’t truly been characterised yet within the Game of Thrones tapestry—and there’s an argument indeed what characterisation he *does* get doesn’t exactly set the world alight—he works almost in the same fashion as Viserys to Dany in how he further illuminates the more interesting character of Theon. We’ve seen thus far his growing frustration and disillusionment in his status, and how he feels as though his Ironborn steel has been tempered too heavily by Stark honour. He encourages Robb here, in the wake of the attack on Ned to raise banners against the Lannisters, only to be sharply reminded it’s“not your house”. Robb isn’t doing the Starks collectively any favours by reminding Theon he’s an outsider with little say, as it just serves to fuel the misplaced ego and entitlement he feels. In many ways, Theon and Viserys have plenty in common.
The other Stark negatively affected by events that are starting to weigh down their family is Arya, upset by the death of Ned’s loyal vassal Jory at Jaime’s hand, but it takes her sword master teacher Syrio to break her out of that spell. At this point, with the benefit of hindsight, one has to ask the question about who Syrio really is. We know he’s from Braavos, but he seems acutely interested in Arya beyond normality. “How can you be quick as a snake or quiet as a shadow when you are someone else?”he asks her, massively foreshadowing Arya’s later training with the Faceless Men to become an assassin capable of becoming ‘anyone’ by ending up as ‘no one’. Many have speculated that Syrio could be a Faceless Man himself, but isn’t it more likely he is Jaqen H’ghar? We will explore him more once Arya encounters him in the second season but Jaqen guiding Arya toward a sense of destiny in the guise of Syrio feels apt and logical at this point.
It’s fitting that the other major Stark player, Sansa, is oblivious to these significant political events and direct threats to her family at this stage. Sansa remains encased in her romantic fantasy bubble, to the point when her Septa tries to remind her of her roots, and how much she is blending in with southern ways, Sansa cruelly puts her down. Joffrey reinforces her fantasy, presenting himself as the gallant Prince Charming who will sweep her off her feet and allow her to become his Queen, and interestingly we don’t see any flip side to Joffrey here, given he is almost certainly speaking complete falsehoods implanted in him by Cersei in order to keep Sansa in the Lannister wheelhouse. Therein lies the irony of how Sansa directly cues up Ned’s crucial realisation toward the end of the episode, going back to the central concern of birthright.
Ned remains trying to do the work of the Hand of the King while Robert continues indulging in his own romantic, heraldic fantasies. “You weren’t a man until you’d fucked a girl from each of the Seven Kingdoms”boasts Robert on what will turn out to be a quite fatal hunt, telling Renly about the tradition of ‘Making the Eight’. Renly’s unimpressed rejoinder about how Robert’s halcyon memory of war and rebellion ignores the thousands who died in order to take down the Targaryen’s is undoubtedly fuelled a little by his closeted homosexuality, and Baratheon-frustration he couldn’t be openly sexually ‘free’ like his brother was, but his point is utterly valid. Robert’s swagger is crude and ignorant, and romanticises a devastating political and sociological point in Westerosi history – a truth the man just cannot face, because too many walls may metaphorically come crumbling down if he did.
While Robert is out boasting, Ned is attempting to hold everything together given reports that the Mountain is now rampaging across the Riverlands acting as, essentially, a lawless terrorist against the state. Littlefinger hints that he may be equivalent to Jaime, another outlaw operating under Lannister orders, but Ned right now isn’t entrenched enough in the game to see Littlefinger’s manipulation to further his bigger agenda – creating war between Stark and Lannister, instigating the War of Five Kings to create a chaotic political destabilisation of the Seven Kingdoms. It’s Littlefinger’s whisperings which leads Ned to cast Tywin as the man to answer for the Mountain’s pretty horrific crimes, though he cautions against such a rich man being held to account:“Gold wins wars, not soldiers”to which Ned replies “Then how come Robert is King, and not Tywin Lannister?”
If Ned knows the answer to this, he is being intentionally droll, though one wonders if he is politically savvy enough to understand the power and control of Tywin’s capitalist grasp on the Seven Kingdoms. Robert may be King by name and actions, but in the feudal economy of Westeros, men like Tywin and behind him the Iron Bank of Braavos, those who control the flow of gold, control the political spectrum. The game, in many respects, is a falsehood, and certain characters will voice this openly and subtly across Game of Thrones, but at this stage the seeds are merely being sown. Tywin remains a shadowy manipulator and the Iron Bank may not even have been mentioned. Benioff & Weiss are starting to layer in these deeper societal themes which will play into the narrative much further down the road.
‘A Golden Crown’ ultimately, as a title, has a double meaning. On the face of it, the reference is to Viserys’ disturbing, deadly fate, but the deeper layer connects to the overarching concepts of birthright which dominate across the episode; Ned comes to understand, in Sansa’s determined refusal to leave King’s Landing as Ned realises his family are in danger, that the old books denoting the lineages of the families of the Seven Kingdoms contain personal biographical data which proves Robert’s heirs are as much Baratheon’s by blood as Ned is – the blonde hair of Joffrey, Tommen & Myrcella stands out a mile against the generations of black-haired Baratheon’s. The golden crown isn’t just Viserys’ poetic justice, but the blonde cuts of Cersei and Jaime’s incestous Lannister children.
This realisation underscores what ‘A Golden Crown’ is all about. The importance of lineage, of privilege, and how in the world of Game of Thrones who you are, where you were born, and who your family is, does not always mean you are destined for power. Viserys, in his final words, calmly says “That was all I wanted… what was promised”. Poetic justice indeed.
This post first aired on Cultural Conversation, which you can find here.