Done well, an origin story helps establish the basis of a character and sets up motivations that persist even when that character is moved very far from those humble, or not so humble, beginnings. Last night’s episode of Game of Thrones actually tells three origin stories of very different sorts… and does them all spectacularly well.
In fact, without a single battle or a dragon to be seen, this may add up to the best episode of the series so far.
When last we saw Tyrion, he was busy wrecking all the carefully laid plans of his father, Tywin.
With Tyrion on trial for killing evil King Joffrey, Tywin had deftly adjusted all the chess pieces. The result was supposed to see Jaime restored to his position as heir of Casterly Rock and sent out of the capitol to begin breeding babies with some woman notably not his sister. It was supposed to see Cersei married off to cement the alliance between the Lannisters and Tyrells. Breeding with Loras was rather doubtful, but always a possibility. And it was supposed to see Tyrion shipped up to the Wall as part of the Night’s Watch, where he wouldn’t be breeding with anyone, or doing much of anything else that would make trouble.
Only Tywin adjusted the strings just one notch too tight, using Tyrion's former lover Shae against him in a way that sent the youngest Lannister sibling over the edge. Tyrion dashed Tywin’s deal and demanded trial by combat.
At the start of “Mockingbird,” we see Tyrion back in his dungeon cell, looking for someone to champion his side in this might equals right contest. First to visit is brother Jaime, who Tyrion seems to consider his champion as a matter of course. Only Jaime, short one hand after his travels through the war-torn kingdom, begs off. He argues that without his right hand, he’s no match for any decent swordsman. And on the other side of this fight is not just a decent swordsman, but “The Mountain,” Gregor Clagane. Gregor, seven feet plus of slavering sadism who is busy practicing the different angles from which men can be gutted in a single blow, is an extraordinary challenge for any fighter.
Jaime knows that if he faces the Mountain in his current state, he will die. Tyrion is struck by the idea that maybe Jaime should die, bringing an end to both Lannister brothers with a single stroke of the Mountain’s double-great sword. However, Jaime doesn’t seem to appreciate the joke. As he departs, Tyrion sinks back into the shadows of his cell.
Next to visit is Bronn, the mercenary soldier who defended Tyrion at the Eyrie and saved his life when Lysa Arryn wanted to push him through her favorite thing in all the world, the chasm-spawning Moon Door. But Bronn, clad in new finery, is not the down on his luck fighter that Tyrion first met. Cersei has gifted him with wealth, a wife, and the possibility of a castle of his own. To gain this prize he only has to do one inconvenient middle-aged woman—a far cry from standing on the sands against the armored mass of the Mountain.
Bronn does have some sense of honor. He gives Tyrion one last chance to top Cersei’s offer, but Tyrion is in no position to hand out either wealth or titles. Most of all, he can’t give Bronn any guarantee of surviving the fight. Bronn, competent and tricky as he is, knows that the Mountain is a match to be feared. In time, he might wear the larger man down and get him to lower his guard long enough to land a blow, just as he did to the hapless knight at the Eyrie. Only, that means many long minutes of dodging blows from the Mountain, any one of which is likely to split him in half. Bronn bows out, and again Tyrion almost disappears into the dark corners of his cell.
Tyrion suggests that he might have to face the Mountain himself, a matchup that would surely be worthy of song. Only the song is likely to be Tyrion’s funeral dirge.
Then a third visitor appears. Prince Oberyn Martell is one of the judges at Tyrion’s trial, and with his readily acknowledged hatred of all things Lannister, he might seem like the least likely person to pay a visit on the doomed man. However, from the moment he enters the cell, carrying a blazing torch, it’s clear that Oberyn has seen through all the manipulations leading up to this point. He knows that Cersei’s visit to him before the trial was designed only to draw his sympathy. He knows that Tywin has arranged events to put his son in this place.
With Tyrion’s face lit by the pulsing glow of Oberyn’s torch, the Prince of Dorne tells him a story. Tyrion’s own origin story. Oberyn explains that when he was a child, he visited Casterly Rock shortly after Tyrion’s birth. Warned that the lady of the rock had given birth to a monster, Oberyn begs to see. When he finally gets his chance to see the fabled beast, Oberyn watches as Cersei tortures the helpless infant and Jaime puts up only a weak defense. But Oberyn is disappointed by what he finds in the crib. It was a baby, says Oberyn. Yes, his head was a little large. His legs a little short, but it was no monster. Just a baby.
It’s a painfully succinct summary of the life that Tyrion has led—tortured by his own family, outcast in his own home, and only rarely recognized by others as being simply a man.
Oberyn takes up Tyrion’s cause for his own reasons, to revenge himself on the Mountain who raped and killed his sister years before. But the light that he brings into Tyrion’s cell seems to come from far more than a simple torch.
Somewhere up the ragged road to the Eyrie, the Hound and Arya continue their roles as the Abbot and Costello of Westeros. Only that Westeros equivalent involves a lot of swearing and sticking swords in people. First they come across a wounded man who is pinned between the desire to end his pain and his fear of death. Arya the philosopher tells him, “Nothing isn’t better or worse than anything. It’s just nothing.” Then the Hound delivers the coup de grace.
Before they have the chance to relax, they’re set on by two of the men who had been prisoners back on Arya’s trip with the Night’s Watch. One of them manages to sink his teeth into the Hound’s neck before being ended. The other, a good candidate for Arya’s list of people who really need killing, helpfully provides his name just in time for Arya to erase it.
As they settle in for a brief rest, the Hound bemoans ever taking up with his tiny prisoner turned sidekick. Thanks to Arya’s rash actions, there’s a price on his head and the road to the Eyrie suddenly looks a lot longer.
When Arya takes up a hot brand to try and treat the wound on the Hound’s neck, he shies quickly away. After a brief pause, he spills his own origin story, revealing how the scars on his face came from his brother Gregor, the Mountain. As a child, the Mountain caught his brother playing with one of his toys and smashed his face down into blazing coals. Worse still, their father sided with the older brother, covering up the crime.
Like Tyrion, the Hound’s motivations go back to a childhood where he was abused and dismissed. As far as his family was concerned, Tyrion was born a monster. The Hound was made into one by his monstrous brother. Both of them have their scars visible to the world. Both of them were saddled with the disdain of their fathers.
Before the final act, we have some quick visits to get in.
After an exceedingly speedy trip up north where Jon Snow still gets no respect, we dash across the sea to where Daenerys finds the mercenary Daario once again slipping into her bedroom. After he tells her that he’s good at only women and war, Dany gives him a chance to demonstrate both, first sleeping with Daario then sending him off to re-capture one of the cities she “liberated.”
However, Dany still doesn’t seem to have the best handle on the politics of ruling. Sure, it’s good that she hates slavery, but marching Daario off to kill thousands isn’t exactly demonstrated Good Practices in Governance. It takes Jorah Mormont, who is clearly more than a little jealous over Dany’s dalliance with Daario (say that three times fast) to get her to show at least a modicum of mercy.
At Dragonstone, it appears that Stannis is getting ready to go on the road again. Queen Selyse barges in to the bath of the red priestess, Melisandre, who fulfills the week’s token nudity requirements by casually strolling around her apartments in the buff. Selyse wants to leave little Princess (and rare possessor of common sense) Shireen behind, but the red woman insists that Shireen has a role to play in what’s coming. She also admits that some, though not all, of her magic is trickery. Be careful, Shireen.
Somewhere outside King’s Landing, Brienne and Pod stop in for a meal at an inn that’s actually not a smoking wreck and not in the middle of being overcome by smelly bandits. A miracle. And who should happen to wait on them but Arya’s old traveling companion, Hot Pie.
Mr. Pie rambles on about his recipes, but clams up when Brienne informs them that she’s looking for Sansa. As they are leaving, Pod tells his new boss that perhaps she should shut up about looking for a girl who happens to be suspected in the death of the king, but just then Hot Pie reappears to put them on the trail of Arya and provide them with a delicious looking dire wolf cookie. Go, Pie!
And finally, we find Sansa in the icy courtyard of the Eyrie where she has constructed a heartbreaking mini-Winterfell out of snow. Her more than a little crazy cousin Robin appears to talk about his obsession with tossing people through the yawning Moon Door and tells Sansa that when they’re married she’ll be able to toss anyone to their death—an idea that doesn’t seem to be completely without its appeal to Sansa.
When Robin mangles the Winterfell tribute, Sansa gets into a fight that’s almost as childish on her side as it is on his. She ends up slapping the little boy, and as he runs off to find mommy, we’re reminded that Sansa is also nothing but a beautiful, and until recently somewhat spoiled, child.
At that point, Littlefinger appears to tell her that Robin needs a good slap or two (which is true). Littlefinger proclaims that everything he’s done, he did because he loved Sansa’s mother, Catelyn. Even the death of Joffrey was because of the boy king’s hand in Cat’s death. It’s something of a nice picture that Littlefinger weaves for Sansa. Too bad it’s all a lie, because Littlefinger was also the one who set up the death of Ned Stark and conspired in the act that started the war, even though he surely knew that it would destroy Catelyn along with her family. Then Littlefinger goes from simply creepy to super-stalkery, as he explains that in “a better world” he could have been Sansa’s father right before he grabs her and starts sucking face.
No sooner is she back inside than Sansa is grabbed by crazy Aunt Lysa, who isn’t mad about her slapping Robin, but is mad(der) about the kiss she saw. She drags Sansa over to that fabled Moon Door and is within inches of forcing her over its empty frame before Littlefinger talks her out of it.
Then Littlefinger gives his own origin story in a sentence. He’s only loved one woman in his life. It’s a statement that seems to please Lysa for a moment, before the final word comes down: that woman was Catelyn.
Lysa is sent spinning into the void.
Just as with the Hound and Tyrion, events of his childhood have shaped Littlefinger. Only his rejection by Catelyn has turned him into a completely voluntary monster, one whose scars are hidden.