It Is Known: “No One”

Edmure Tully taking over Riverrun in "No One"

There was a moment in this week’s episode that crystalized much of Game of Thrones’s plot, thematic variations, and, of course, its underlying quasi-medieval reality. And, perhaps amazingly enough, it has nothing to do with violence – and everything to do with obedience.

When Lord Edmure Tully is sent to retake Riverrun for his captors, the Lannister-Baratheon-Frey alliance, he issues simple, quiet demands and fully expects his bannermen and smallfolk to comply. They don’t disappoint, even when they have a strong, well-reasoned voice in the form of Ser Brynden Tully chastising them to employ that ethereal phenomenon called critical thinking, and even when the orders are obviously at odds with what House Tully’s obligations to self-survival would ordinarily entail. Such is the nature – and the power – of a hierarchical society.

Blackfish

That not one Tully man is seen objecting to Lord Edmure’s edicts is hugely dispiriting to a modern viewer; the individual has irrevocably moved to the center of the political, social, and cultural world, even if we as a people still alarmingly tend to unthinkingly follow whatever handler happens to be at the head of the herd. But the development isn’t just meant to be illustrative of the vast differences between present-day and medieval social orders – it also touches upon one of the many main throughlines that Game of Thrones actively spins while wildly careening from one shocking plot development to the next. Lords issue commands; smallfolk have no choice but to obey.

It’s an affliction that even infects the aristocracy itself; King Tommen Baratheon has been seduced by the Faith, essentially allowing the High Sparrow to become the supreme political arbiter as well as the chief spiritual one (although this is greatly abetted by the womanly wiles of Tommen’s wife, Queen Margaery, and is even permissible in the first place by his being an individual who has no strong intrinsic sense of leadership or, even, of self; whoever he is in orbit of produces his current objectives, whether that be Lord Tywin or his mother, Queen Regent Cersei, or the High Sparrow himself). One can even make the argument that it is precisely the same arrangement that saddled King Stannis Baratheon, with the High Sparrow being replaced by the Lady Melisandre and the Seven with R’hllor – or the argument that the exact interplay between faith and governance is yet another of the thematic considerations that the show constantly plays with.

Kevan Tommen Pycelle

But perhaps the most salient way that this mindlessness, as we would call it in a modern context, is expressed is in the orthodoxy of the Faceless Men. When Arya Stark fails to carry out her mission to assassinate Lady Crane, she herself becomes a target, since the Many-Faced God needs a life that is owed to him; it is the numbers here that matter, not the individual person, making it as dispassionate and objective as possible (which, in turn, makes the order’s existential insistence on “no one” understandable). This explains why, when Arya uses this to her advantage and instead offers up the Waif’s life in place of her own, Jaqen H’ghar is so willing to accept the situation (although it doesn’t explain how or why Crane still has to die – one of several seeming contradictions with Arya’s storyline this season).

It is almost as if Game of Thrones – and, of course, its originator, George R.R. Martin – is making the case of the ontological fallacies implicit in the practice of unquestioning acceptance, of mindless adherence, of unflinching institutional dogma. This would make sense, given Martin’s objection to the Vietnam War and the long, deep vein of anti-war commentary within his Song of Ice and Fire books (of which only a portion arrives fully formed on-screen for the HBO series, though viewers doubtless get the gist of the message).

arya needle

But just as with other areas of the story’s narrative domain, simplicity isn’t the name of the game here – both the showrunners, David Benioff and Dan Weiss, and Martin have made it a point to illustrate just how disastrous disobeying orders or social mores can be, as well. To wit: Tywin Lannister and Robb Stark both disregarded commands from their kings (the former refused to return to King’s Landing to defend it from the advancing Baratheon army until the last possible moment, while the latter disregarded royal edicts and feudal obligations alike in his quest to forge his own kingdom and his own family as he saw fit). The three rogue members of the brotherhood without banners eschewed the directives of Lord Beric Dondarrion in their quest to satiate themselves, and one could even include the slave masters’ reneging on their deal with Tyrion Lannister, the regent of Meereen, in this assessment, though there was no strict hierarchy that encapsulates both parties.

One may simply conclude that, in Martin’s fictitious-but-loosely-historically-based world, an individual, institution, or country is damned no matter which choice it makes or how mindlessly – or mindfully – it chooses to either adhere to or disregard its leaders. I suspect there is a more nuanced position that is being slowly formed; we’ll need to wait to see how the final two episodes of the season will further address the issue, which will, in turn, prime the matter for its final denouement in the shortened seasons ahead.

 

You can view all previous It Is Known posts here. Or you can peruse my older column, Anatomy of a Throne, here.

45 responses

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    1. I’m not sure the point of what Edmure did was to show the dangers of blind obedience. I think we’ve got the actions of, for example, Aerys’ and Joffrey’s Kingsguard for that. While it’s fun to, in theory, side with someone dashing like the Blackfish, Edmure is the man that actually cares about his people and is willing to sully his own honor and reputation in order to save their lives.

      The fact is that the Tullys are going to lose this battle. Edmure’s actions at least keep them alive to perhaps fight another day.

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    2. Lady Crane died because she had been named; the Waif’s death replaced Arya’s. I could ask why Jaquen is ok with her leaving after so much time spent on Arya’s training, but I guess his religion being the one that it is, any death goes, provided that it has been promised to the God. Numbers count, not identities.

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    3. Wonderfully well articulated argument – underlining the structure of decision-making vis a vis the results. Refreshing to read such structural analysis, rather than the incessant arguments about the efficacy of each decision and plot point!

      Bravo!

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    4. For a moment, I was curious as to why Edmure would believe that Jaime was murderous enough to play “catch the baby” with a castle, but also honorable enough to actually let the Tully soldiers live after surrendering.. and more than likely, have to forcibly stop the Freys from killing everyone.

      But then Blackfish died, and I stopped caring.

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    5. MoF,

      I also thought that the hope of survival through surrendering instead of dying during the storming of the castle pretty much motivated Tully soldiers to obey Edmure rather than his elderly uncle who would rather have them all killed just to keep his home.
      IMO, there was quite a bit of critical thought in that.

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    6. Ehhhhh this episode made me depressed. I was like “oh wait Arya’s using her right hand, she’s out and about, she doesn’t have needle, it’s not Arya. Now there’s some good ol’ fashion GRRM style twists.” No more bad writing…. and then this happened. The rest of the episode was pretty good, Arya just sucked. I haven’t been this disappointed in the show since season 5’s Dornish plot.

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    7. March to the beat of your own drummer. It’s easy to forget that there really was a time where that was not allowed.

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    8. ” the orders are obviously at odds with what House Tully’s obligations to self-survival”

      Total misunderstanding of the situation! Edmure is House Tully not the Blackfish and his action is what saves House Tully (with a new heir no-less) and leaves them alive to fight (hopefully) another day, not only that but his actions saves the “smallfolk” you are so concerned about (even though the soldiers are not really smallfolk and there were no smallfolk in the castle) instead of the Blackfish suicidal last stand!

      Very confused opening paragraphs…

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    9. MoF,

      In a “normal” medieval world Edmure would have been shot by the Blackfish in Ep 7 (or committed a suicide of screen). And the entire speculation about the problem of obedience in the Middle Ages vs modern times is a complete nonsense. Can you imagine disobedience in a modern army? You would simply go to jail. However, in the medieval times, when even the small folk was armed and had some military skills, disobedience was much more widespread and socially acceptable.

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    10. House Applebee:
      Ehhhhh this episode made me depressed. I was like “oh wait Arya’s using her right hand, she’s out and about, she doesn’t have needle, it’s not Arya. Now there’s some good ol’ fashion GRRM style twists.” No more bad writing…. and then this happened. The rest of the episode was pretty good, Arya just sucked. I haven’t been this disappointed in the show since season 5’s Dornish plot.

      Yup. It was just awful. The House of B&W is honourable in the books, only agreeing to kill those who should be killed, not a murder-for-hire outfit, out for profit over honour. Bunch of Romulans/Ferengi in the TV show! And as if Arya could have beaten the waif in the darkness, sword or none. It just doesn’t ring true. Better to have had her leave the House of B&W, allow the waif to attack her and fake her death with fake blood borrowed from the theatre folks, and get on a ship with another face. We are supposed to believe Arya would not have stolen a face to get away?????? DUMB and depressing. Dorne level of crap. Oh well. Rant off.

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    11. House Applebee,

      Well, I did find the first part of Arya’s story underwhelming. I mean it really felt as if she had a plan. And that wound really looked a sure ticket to the otherworld.
      The minute I decided to get over it, however, I liked how it all turn out. Her killing the waif in the dark, as we were pretty much expecting before that weird idea to have her show up like a fool and get stabbed. And offering her face to the Many Faced God, so that there would be no debts. Above all, the fact that she finally decided to head back home. At last.
      Only minus there, there probably won’t be any Jaqen H’ghar anymore. Not that I cared for the character that much (seriously, WHAT character?), but it was always a pleasure watching him!

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    12. Mihnea,

      Yes the ASOIAF wiki, which is strong on book canon, states

      For a price, the guild will agree to kill anyone in the world, considering this contract to be a sacrament of their god. The price is always high or dear, but within the means of the person if they are willing to make the sacrifice. The cost of their services depends on the prominence and security of the target.

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    13. Sou,

      See I think we will see him again. It was odd the way they ended it, with him smiling when Arya said she was a Stark and not no one or whatever it was. For some reason I feel he still has a part to play….maybe he ends up killing Arya in the end…

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    14. I’ve read all the books (once) but am not the expert many on this site are. If I remember correctly from the books the Faith’s rise to power is quite different. I believe GRRM makes a big deal about the debt the Kingdom has to Bank O’ Bravos. The Faith (which is not really poor in the books) offers Cersi (who is running the country for Thommand) to pay off the debts if they can take up arms again like the old days. She is feeling really proud of herself of the deal she made until they lock her up. Correct me if I am remembering that wrong.

      I love the show, but the big thing I wish they were truer to the books was the Direwolves. In the books they have a lot stronger connection to the Stark kids. If I remember correctly the only one that dies is Lady (though they haven’t gotten to Bran and Rickon parts yet). Once again correct me if I am wrong, but I believe Catelyn begged Rob to take his wolf to the wedding, but he said no bc it didn’t like the Freys.

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    15. John No,

      The Faith (which is not really poor in the books) offers Cersi (who is running the country for Thommand) to pay off the debts if they can take up arms again like the old days.

      You’re really close. The Faith forgives the crown’s debt (to the Faith). Cersei straight defers the Iron Bank loans and the IB then calls in ALL the outstanding debt.

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    16. This was a well written piece. I don’t think until Edmure appeared at the gate that Blackfish realized he really had no authority. Perhaps on your next piece you could address the Jon Snow storyline this season, or lack of one. It seems killing the boy did not let the man begin.

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    17. Chuck,

      Well, I do hope we’ll see him again (after all, he was pretty regular), though not to watch him kill Arya!
      Actually I think that Arya is not going to die; I mean this is an 11 year old that survived all alone, I would hate it if she dies.
      That smile Jaqen gave her to me was an aknowledgment but also a “wish you luck, kiddo”. But I respect your feeling of unfinished business (just don’t kill her off!!).

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    18. Snowblind,

      Well, let’s hope that will happen this Sunday!

      Seriously now, although I REALLY enjoy this season, I get a lot the feeling that the show writers want to put so much in that they kind of derail. No time to squeeze in everything. So major characters like Jon got like 10 minutes of total screentime so far. I don’t think anyone has gotten much more than that (except maybe Daenerys), it is just that the whole season 5 cliffhanger kind of made people expect so much more.
      All in all, this season is a great source of frustration for me so far.

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    19. John No,

      The Crown owed the Faith millions of gold dragons, along with owing the Lannisters and the BoB. The Faith forgave the amount due to the Crown. The Crown still owed the other two.

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    20. i was looking for something in the books and came on this between Cersei and Jamie talking about the Tower of the Hand:

      “Let all of King’s Landing see the flames. It will be a lesson to our enemies”
      “Now you sound like Aerys”
      “Guard your tongue, ser.”

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    21. Scene 1: For some reason Thoros of Myr stumbles upon the now decayed and decapitated body of Lady. He sews her neatly back together and resurrects her. Beric and The Hound nods approvingly.

      Scene 2: Arya is for some reason back in Winterfell with a lot of gold. She’s haggling about various artifacts which seems to annoy people since they are preparing for the oncoming battle.

      Scene 3: Dany and Drogon are playing along with Tyrion drinking games. Dany for some reason bets her clothes on a dices game and Drogon, furious for seeing her loosing burns down Mereen to the ground.

      Scene 4: Cercei for some reason drops her clothes while Qyburn is brooding in a corner

      Scene 5: Zombie Lady is running rampant on The Twins killing everyone!

      Scene 6: Arya runs out of gold for haggling. For some reason she runs rampant killing everyone inside Winterfell!

      Scene 7: Brienne and Pod for some reason went the wrong way on the river. They end up at The Iron Isles, running rampant and killing everyone!

      Scene 8: For some reason The Nights King is outside The House of Black and White in Bravoos. He’s cold from the rain and is begging to be let in. Eventually Jaqen opens the doors and asks him who he is. “Some guy” he answers. ” Close enough” Jaqen answers.

      Credits…

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    22. I keep wondering why JH met up with Arya in the first place, which was surely delibrate on his part. He sought out the relationship. I predict we’ll see him again in Westeros: I think he has a greater agenda. And, I think becoming no one was never the true goal; instead, I think he meant to more firmly cement Arya’s identity, while training her to not only become a better fighter, but also to master her passions. Maybe this will (somehow) connect to the battle w the WWs. Arya’s future role seems the most ambiguous.

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    23. I wish the northerners would follow the Starks as unquestioningly as the Riverlanders followed Lord Edmure. Of course, Bran is the rightful Lord of Winterfell, not Sansa or Jon, though I’m not convinced they’d be any more willing to listen to him, and Edmure was offering them a chance to save themselves whereas the Blackfish was offering them a multi-year siege followed by almost certain death.

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    24. Sou: So major characters like Jon got like 10 minutes of total screentime so far. I don’t think anyone has gotten much more than that (except maybe Daenerys)

      To me it doesn’t really feel like anyone has gotten a majority of time on screen this season. It has to be Jon I imagine if we count the time he was dead. Daenerys has only had like half a dozen scenes; a couple traveling to Vaes Dothrak, a couple in Vaes Dothrak, goodbye to Jorah, hello to Drogon… Arya was starting to catch up in the last couple episodes… Jaime has had quite a bit. We’ve seen WAY too much High Sparrow.
      ———-
      They have some things to cover in the season finale that could piece up the episode quite a bit on top of the aftermath for the characters in the battles this week to include those that haven’t been on for a few weeks – Sam/Gilly/little Sam, Bran/Meera/Benjen, Euron?, Dorne characters? unless they’re going to continue to ignore them (which is fine with me)

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    25. John No,

      Yes, sadly Grey Wind does die. Tyrion has a chapter right after Cat & the red wedding. He’s in a small council meeting I.I.R.C., because that’s when the nickname of the wedding comes about. Also I believe it was only rumored that their heads and bodies(RobbWind)… I can’t even finish my sentence… I do still vividly remember throwing the book down and not reading for days.

      Also on topic- here in America right now, the idea of mob mentality and the lower class wanting change for change’s sake; that parallel between the Faith and the right wing(I can’t think of a more polite way to describe my very possible future President Trump) is fascinating/terrifying.

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    26. Someone:
      I keep wondering why JH met up with Arya in the first place, which was surely delibrate on his part. He sought out the relationship. I predict we’ll see him again in Westeros: I think he has a greater agenda. And, I think becoming no one was never the true goal; instead, I think he meant to more firmly cement Arya’s identity, while training her to not only become a better fighter, but also to master her passions. Maybe this will (somehow) connect to the battle w the WWs. Arya’s future role seems the most ambiguous.

      I would hope that Arya’s Braavos Adventure will somehow recover value in the writing to come. Up until the conclusion of this episode, I was really infatuated with the mystery. I am hoping for plot band-aids in the shows to follow.

      The polarizing reviews of “No-One” reminds me of the “Kill the Moon” Doctor Who episode. The Moon was just a giant egg, which hatched and was replaced with yet another giant egg. If you can get past the absurd part, everyone worked well.

      Sometimes the science of fiction requires a maester of forgiveness.

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    27. It’s possible and to some extent customary to exaggerate the scope of hierarchical thinking in medieval society – both peasants and nobles were often willing to revolt or even resort to assassination when those further up the ladder pushed their luck too far. In a case like Edmure’s it’s highly likely that many of the men would’ve chosen to follow the capable lord who was already their leader rather than the one who’d been in captivity for years.

      European feudalism was not bushido

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    28. “while the latter disregarded royal edicts and feudal obligations alike in his quest to forge his own kingdom and his own family as he saw fit”

      Since Joffrey was not the son of Robert Baratheon, he was not Robb’s king.
      And in any Robert’s Rebellion had already established the limits of Stark loyalty to the Crown when the Crown made itself an enemy of the House …which is entirely reasonable.

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    29. For the sake of being honest….

      Ramsey and Sansa scenes are more entertaining/interesting than Jon Snow and Sansa scenes.

      Jon Snow and Sansa don’t seem to have very good chemistry.

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    30. Danny:
      KevLS,

      Except when it comes to Cersei? At least in the show.

      Did you watch season 4?

      Cersei: kill Tyrion

      Jaime: no. And you’re a hateful person. *lets Tyrion out of jail*

      Cersei: kill Sansa

      Jaime: no. *gives A VS sword to Brienne and tasks her with protecting Sansa*

      After that Cersei stopped asking Jaime to do anything that he wouldn’t have done anyway. RR was the closest and there he had the additional personal incentive of not wanting to fight Brienne. Plus it was literally straight from the book.

      It’s like people don’t even watch this show.

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    31. This explains why, when Arya uses this to her advantage and instead offers up the Waif’s life in place of her own, Jaqen H’ghar is so willing to accept the situation (although it doesn’t explain how or why Crane still has to die – one of several seeming contradictions with Arya’s storyline this season).

      The Waif killed Lady Crane because she could. I don’t think that it was still an owed life, perhaps it very well could have been. However, as I understand it, when Arya failed to poison Crane, Jaquen allowed the Waif to take Arya instead. Essentially the target moved from Crane to Arya and the Waif was eagerly waiting for that particular opportunity. A life is owed, it doesn’t matter to the Many Faced God which.

      The Waif likely enjoyed killing Lady Crane, indicated in the cruel way she was murdered. Lady Crane didn’t “have” to die by the dogma of the Faceless Men, she was unfortunately in the wrong place at the wrong time. But who knows, I am still re-reading and re-watching to find pieces that complete the mythologies of this world and give an enhanced understanding of cohesion.

      Thank you for all the wonderful insight. I enjoy reading everything everyone contributes here.

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    32. I think the best way to describe the Endure/blackfish scene is to change the characters… what if Robb was taken hostage instead of getting killed. And years Benjen comes back raises a big enough army to retake Winter fell… and gets besieged by a massive Bolton plus Lannister army… Youre now outnumbered 10:1 you can hold out awhile- you have the castle, but you are gonna lose…
      And Robb shows up and tells you to lay down your weapons and go home…

      That’s why the Tully men followed Edmure and not the Blackfish.

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    33. I was satisfied with the outcome of Arya’s story arc. Arya allied herself with a powerful knowledge during her interactions with H’quar. My sense is that her fate is to become the Stark family assassin/spymaster in the same way that Bran is becoming the Stark family greenseer and mage.

      I agree with your consideration of the roles of religion and political order/disorder. For me GOT is a tale of social disruption and reorganization. I am curious to know where we end up on cliff-hanger alley for the next 10 months. These past two have been amazing.

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    34. Someone,

      Book spoilers and speculation about Jaqen:

      I think Jaqen, who must have been in the black cells intentionally and possibly with help from “Rugen,” wanted to make his way to the Wall to look for a rare book. His plans were derailed and he met Arya. He never made it to the wall, but he made his way to the Citadel instead. What use do the FM have for rare texts? I believe they are on a mission, either for themselves or a very wealthy client, to learn as much as they can about dragons. How to hatch their eggs, how to master them, how to kill them. It was just luck that Yoren was in a position to save Arya, and at that point Jaqen’s original plan was already in motion.

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