After watching Season 2 of Game of Thrones, and later reading the books, and even later reading A World of Ice and Fire, I must admit that I am not much of a fan of the Ironborn. With their violent, war-based culture, the practice of thralling and salt-wives, and a proclivity to inflict misery on anyone who tries to eke out a living on the shores of Westeros, they are an easy group to dislike. That said, our favorite Evil Santa has never been one to shy away from moral grayness, and to this end he crafted a rich history for the Ironborn that is enthralling to read and provides an explanation as to why they are such a violent, war-like people. It is fascinating, and in its own, blood-soaked way, beautiful. This week’s Game of Thrones flew in the face of that.
With their use of versatile, shallow-draft longboats, tendency to raid across the coastline, and warrior-afterlife, it is easy to draw comparisons to the early medieval Vikings that caused no end of trouble for the budding kingdoms of the continent. One of the concepts that Martin lifted from the Vikings is the concept of the þing (anglicized as Thing), wherein the warlords and chiefs would gather together to name their new king. There would be much mead, and each prospective leader would stand before his fellows to make a rousing speech to call the people to his cause, and the men would sound their agreement and support by banging spears on shields or stomping the ground. It would have been something to behold: hundreds of swarthy Vikings (indeed, there would have been many; each claimant would bring as many men to support his claim as possible) yelling and knocking their shields. For the Ironborn especially, it would be spectacular because it takes place in the shadow of Nagga’s ribs. Nagga was the first sea dragon, slain by the first king of the Iron Islands, and her massive ribs crown the top of the hill on which the kingsmoot is held. This offers unlimited possibilities for television, a visual media.
Instead, we get this:
Talk about a wasted potential! Not only is the Kingsmoot in Game of Thrones poorly lit and very dark, it seems like only a few people showed up! Can you imagine the ravenscrolls?
“Sorry, man. My niece’s birthday was this week, so I’ll pass on the kingsmoot.”
“My ravenscroll got lost in the mail, so I did not hear about in time to make it.”
“I had a thing that day. Please excuse my absence.”
So instead of Martin’s imagined scene, with towering ribs and hundreds of participants, we get this paltry imitation of a ComicCon gathering in Dover. Of course, if we compare everything to the source material, nothing holds up. So I will limit myself to show-specific internal logic (LOL) and failings.
We start the scene with a Drowned Man (who actually is Aeron Damphair Greyjoy (Balon’s other brother)) addressing the crowd, asking the (few) assembled who would be king of the Iron Islands. After everyone shuffles in place awkwardly for a few minutes, Yara steps forward, proclaims her title, and claims the Salt Throne. Obviously, none of these assumedly important Iron Islanders would want to be king, they just came for the snacks. Still, Yara begins her speech by deftly batting aside claims that there is no precedent for a Queen of the Iron Islands. Rather than dwelling on it, Yara gets to her bullet points:
- The Lords of Westeros ignore the Iron Islands, unless they are attacked by reavers
- The Kings of Westeros have conquered and humiliated the Iron Islands in the past
- When Yara becomes Queen, she will make the Islands great and build a fleet
Yara is on a roll, and D&D seem well on their way to some proto-feminism. The crowd seems to dig it as well, as they start cheering. The scene seems to be going somewhere until it is derailed by addressing the castrated-elephant in the room: Theon Greyjoy, Balon’s eldest male heir. Obviously, in a culture where kings are decided by moot and kinslaying is applauded, traditional Westerosi laws of inheritance are to be followed, especially these laws have long subjugated the Ironborn and King Balon started his revolution to escape from these laws to return to the Old Way.
Also, on the note of the Old Way, a large part of the Old Way is the resurgence of the Drowned Men and the Drowned God. The whole idea of a kingsmoot and a break away from traditional Westerosi ideals of inheritance and governance are born from the Old Way, and the Drowned God is part of it. Of course, because according to D&D all religion is evil and filled with sheep-minded zealots, a society as “forward thinking” as the Ironborn never once mention the Drowned God after the initial consecration of the ritual by Aeron Damphair. Other religions, or even having no religion, is something of Westeros, not of the Islands. A meeting like this, attempting to get back to the Old Way and its traditions, should be rife with mentions to the Drowned God and the Storm God. Heck, if Yara wanted the religious men to follow her she could have even called the Westerosi agents of the Storm God, agents of evil. In the middle ages (for all you ‘that’s how it was back then’ people) religion was a cornerstone of society, and God was mentioned in some capacity in almost every facet of life. The Vikings did not build many temples, but most of them wore some kind of religious token on them. For there to be a society so secular flies in the face of “historical accuracy,” but I’m getting off topic. Back to the awkward shuffle.
First everyone stands around awkwardly again, perhaps in a vain attempt to create tension in the scene. Theon’s characterization thus far obviously lends itself to kingship, since he has been maimed and his own sister seemed none too keen on his untimely arrival. We, an intelligent audience, know that Theon has no desire or motivation to become king, so the attempt at tension falls flat on its face. If the object is to show Theon’s newfound humility, since it was his pride and foolish ambition to hold Winterfell that cost him so dearly, the writers fail in that almost immediately. Theon steps up and gives a speech, and in attempting to be feminists D&D show that they are the worst kind of ally: the kind that talks over the actual group that they are trying to defend.
Theon could have made a brief (emphasis on brief) speech to renounce his claim and give Yara the chance to continue her speech. Instead, Theon makes his own speech, touting (and rightly so) Yara’s qualities as a leader, but completely undercutting her ability and opportunity to tout herself. As established in Season 2, the Iron Islands are a place for people to have a cult of personality, to brag about themselves. Internal strength and strength of character are prided, which is why Theon has no sway amongst his crew and desperately seeks their approval. Having someone there to tout you as a leader is important, but it is just as important for Yara to establish herself among these lords as someone who is capable of leading the kingdom against the eventual and inevitable Westerosi attempt to retake the Islands. The Ironborn need a worthy leader now more than ever, especially with the immanent winter bearing down on them as well.
So, now that Theon has mansplained the hell out of things, the crowd is really going, and Yara is well on her way to the Salt Throne. Victory is almost assured, since no one else has volunteered to be king. Heck, no one else has spoken except for the two objectors early in the scene. We seem to be deprived of our opportunity to see Yara’s true charisma, since the moot is almost over, but suddenly, this one appears:
It’s Euron, Balon’s brother (who learned English in Denmark somehow?), and he claims the Salt Throne. Euron proceeds to rip into Theon’s failings, because Yara is pretty much beyond reproach, I guess? Didn’t we establish that Theon is NOT in the running for the Salt Throne? Shouldn’t Euron be trying to undermine Yara in the minds of the Ironborn, questioning her leadership? He might mention that she left her brother in Winterfell, knowing full well that the Northerners were coming back in force to retake it and would probably brutally kill Theon since he had allegedly killed Bran and Rickon Stark? That might show something against Yara’s character and the consequences of what being her vassal might mean.
But no. Instead Euron lays into Theon, reminding the audience of Theon’s failure at Winterfell and subsequent mutilation at the hands of Ramsay Bolton. That last part, specifically the part about Ramsay cutting off Theon’s penis, elicits a laugh from the Ironborn. One must wonder why, though. Theon is a living display of how the powers of Westeros have brazenly mocked the Iron Islanders, showing that they could mutilate the Lord Paramount of the Iron Islands/King’s own son with impunity. If anything, Theon is a rallying cry against the mainland, not the punchline of a joke.
So Euron wraps up his roast of Theon by pointing out only such an abject failure as Theon would advocate for Yara as Queen. Again, D&D fumble with feminism: the main challenger to Yara’s claim as Queen does not challenge Yara herself, but instead challenges Yara’s supporter Theon, since Theon’s opinion is obviously the one that matters.
Now Yara engages Euron, questioning his whereabouts and when he returned home. Euron responds with the most unsubtle and vague answer, and Yara accuses Euron of killing Balon. The Iron Islands are many things, but a haven for kinslayers is not one of them, in fact, kinslaying is even more taboo than it is elsewhere. But let’s ignore that, since everyone seems to be doing it this season. As a warrior culture, death is relatively normalised, and a straight-up brawl for the Driftwood Crown would probably not go amiss. You could justify it as the Iron Price of things. Balon’s death was a shady assassination more than anything, and it questions his character as a king.
So rather than deny his role in Balon’s death, Euron openly admits it, saying that Balon “…was leading us nowhere, and we would still be heading there if it weren’t for me. No one loved him, no one followed him. He lead us into two wars we could not win. I apologize to you all for not killing him years ago.” Let us do a fact-check on this. Balon twice rebelled against the Iron Throne, both times when the moment was beautifully opportune: the first when a new king who had usurped the crown was on the throne, the second time when Balon was one of the nominal kings in the War of Five Kings. Strategically, it made perfect sense, and it shows Balon was a man of great ambition, definitely leading his people somewhere. In order to make these wars, Balon had to be at least somewhat admired or revered among the people, otherwise they would not have rallied to his side; the wars would have never even get off the ground.
Sure, the first war was a complete disaster, but no one could have predicted that Robert Baratheon could command such loyalty so quickly after ripping the realm apart. And when did they lose the second war? The Lannisters and Tyrells are too busy trying to kill each other, and only recently finished mopping up the mess that the Starks and Baratheons left on the mainland. If Littlefinger is to be believed, even the attainted Tullys have managed to muster up a resistance against the Freys and retake Riverrun. The war is not over, since Balon was never forced to renounce his crown and no battles have yet come to the Iron Islands. Heck, the only loss they have is to the Boltons, who have forced the Ironmen out of the North and Moat Cailin. By all measure, Balon didn’t do half bad.
Theon, rather than Yara who is TRYING TO BECOME QUEEN HERE, next points out that Euron has spent about as much time at home as Robert Baratheon spent in the Small Council. This is actually a really good point, and furthered by the fact that Yara has remained with the Ironborn to rule and protect them. The only counter Euron offers to this is to indiscreetly call Theon gay or womanly because he uses the word “gallivant.” Yara moves the conversation along with her plan to bring the Iron Islands back to glory: “I will build the largest fleet the world has ever seen.” And? AND!? What are you going to do with this? Yara, this is a perfect opportunity to get on a roll again! Tell them what you would do with a massive fleet, remind them of the power you have on the sea, tell them how you would put fear into the hearts of the Westerosi and send them off to meet the Drowned God! There is so much wasted potential here, and it really annoys me. Since this single sentence concludes Yara’s dialogue, Euron starts again, and accurately picks up the slack where Yara had left it. Any king or queen could build the Iron Fleet, but Euron has a plan for it: use it to woo Danaerys Targaryen, the woman who commands an army of unsullied and three dragons.
Oh, and we get this little gem of dialogue: “I’m going to give it to Danaerys Targaryen, along with my big cock.”
To be fair, Euron has a good plan, in a way. He does not know it, but Daenerys needs ships more than anything, since her army is entirely composed of land-based units. It would also be a strategic win for Daenerys, since Greyjoy support would lend credence to her claim on the Iron Throne: A lordly House of Westeros allying itself with her would be a very good thing, but it also raises its own problems.
By nature of their wars and vast cultural differences, the Ironborn are NOT Westerosi by most measures. They only swore fealty to the Targaryens because the Targaryens had fire-breathing lizards and no qualms about using them. If anything, Danaerys would want to distance herself from the Ironborn, who have shown that, at any opportunity, they will return to their old ways of reaving and bloodletting. Their most recent actions to reach public attention is the slaughter of the two Stark children, and Stark loyalists are still simmering in the wings, waiting for their chance at vengeance. So, as an exercise of thought, lets say Danaerys is wooed by the Iron Fleet and takes Euron as a husband. She conquers Westeros and then what? Euron seems to be operating under the delusion that the Iron Islands would somehow come out on top in this arrangement. If anything, it subjugates them: Danaerys has never been one to share power, and to think that the Iron Islands would maintain any semblance of sovereignty under a newly reunited Targaryen Westeros is pure folly. If Euron tries to usurp control for himself, Danaerys has three giant dragon and over 8,000 fanatically loyal supporters. Good luck keeping a lid on that. (How this compares to the situation in aSoIaF is a little too complicated to get into, but suffice to say, at least questions are raised.)
This, however, never occurs to the crowd. With his one argument, the crowd instantly turns in Euron’s favor. They never even worked up to the volume that they reach, but the assembly suddenly erupts in favor of Euron’s claim. Yara and Theon never even try to challenge this. They look at each other with concern, but they do nothing. For all the support that Yara could have claimed, even with Theon’s mansplaining, they decide to roll over and flee.
The scene then cuts to Euron’s coronation ceremony, wherein he is ritually drowned, while Yara and Theon make a break for the boats, stealing most of Euron’s fleet before he can return. This brings up even more problems.
First off, speaking with CPR certification, resuscitation DOES NOT WORK LIKE THIS.
When someone has a lung full of water, they do not spontaneously cough up the water, especially if they have lost consciousness. We can plainly see that Euron is down for the count, and has to be dragged back to shore. Once there, he is laid on his back and the three spectators watch with mild disdain as Euron coughs up the water all by himself. To resuscitate someone there needs to be a flow of air into the lungs, and this is best achieved by locking lips, pinching the nose, and blowing as hard as possible into the victim’s mouth to force the water out of the way. Even then, CPR has a very low chance of success, with resuscitation succeeding only about one fifth of the time. Standing around with judgmental stares has an even lower success rate. Also, he would have vomited everywhere.
So while this is going down, Yara pulls some grand-theft nauto, but how? The crowd in the kingsmoot is universally in support of Euron’s claim, and one assumes that the victor of the moot would be announced to the boat crews as soon as it occurs. This implies that Yara was charismatic enough to drum up support enough to convince a sizeable chunk of the Iron Fleet to mutiny against Euron. If they had not been told, Yara is then ballsy enough to lie to a a sizeable chunk of the Iron Fleet and steal it out from under Euron’s nose. Either way, it makes one question the ability of Euron or the loyalty of his men, who are now all kinslaying enthusiasts.
So what does this leave us with? Hell, I don’t know. I’m just amazed that this show is still running.
Images courtesy of Rene Aigner, Fantasy Flight Games, and HBO