“When you play the Game of Thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground.” – Cersei Lannister
Thanks for the tip, Cersei. It’s not bad advice, but it’s a tad simplistic. Winning is not always enough. Sometimes winning is roughly equivalent to losing.
In Season Seven’s third episode “The Queen’s Justice” the second element in Tyrion Lannister’s two-part strategy to isolate Cersei’s power came to fruition. As a reminder (correct me if I leave anything out) the proposed plan of operations presented to the allies of Daenerys Targaryen was something like this:
- Besiege King’s Landing with troops from Dorne
- Capture Casterly Rock with Unsullied forces
Had these two military moves succeeded, the hope was that it would demonstrate the fundamental weakness of Cersei’s position, to be used as a negotiating point when Daenery Targaryen’s ravens carried messages asserting her claim to the lords of Westeros.
Dany: Look, it’s not like Cersei’s even really a legit queen. She just ended up marrying dumb Robert and had a bunch of blond bastards.
Lords of Westeros: She does have a point.
Cersei: But I’m on the throne! I’m literally sitting on it at this moment.
Dany: You’re doing an amazing job at keeping my seat warm for me, sweetie.
Unfortunately for the Mother of Dragons, her control of the Narrow Sea was not unchallenged. Plans for the siege operations fell through when Yara Greyjoy’s fleet was attacked by her uncle Euron’s superior fleet. That phase of operations was foiled from the very start.
But Dany’s Unsullied troops did make good on taking Casterly Rock, the ancestral home castle of House Lannister. Tyrion Lannister’s knowledge of secret sanitation tunnel access allowed Dany’s eunuch shock troops to bypass the walls, where their lifelong training allowed them to overtake the Lannister garrison.
Their lifelong training and their vastly overpowering numbers, I should say. Jaime Lannister had left only a skeleton crew to defend Casterly Rock as he’d taken the bulk of available Lannister fighting forces to perform a blitzkrieg siege on Lady Olenna Tyrell’s Highgarden castle.
The Unsullied general Grey Worm’s forces won the battle at Casterly Rock and succeeded in taking the castle. But the fortress had been left unprovisioned and the support ships that brought the Unsullied to Casterly Rock were no longer in play, thanks again to Euron Greyjoy. The Unsullied expeditionary forces had effectively taken themselves out of the game, a somewhat hollow victory.
There’s something familiar about this situation, where a daring military strike scores what would normally be considered a major victory but ends up as a liability.
The story of Game of Thrones is so rich and complex that similarities to well-known events from literature or actual history are readily recognized. But this story is so vast, that it’s also easy to recognize similarities with previous events within itself. We saw something like the taking of Casterly Rock before, in the second season.
Casterly Rock’s fall is a strong echo of Theon’s successful capture of Winterfell, which he felt was a major coup but turned out to be a victory not worth having.
Let’s hit a few points of comparison for discussion:
- DADDY ISSUES
Theon: Taking Winterfell will certainly impress dad!
Tyrion: Taking Casterly Rock would no doubt cause father great consternation. Were he alive.
I think it’s fair to consider that the poor relationships with their respective fathers influenced Theon’s and Tyrion’s decisions to assault Winterfell and Casterly Rock.
After a belittling reunion with his father Balon Greyjoy in the second season, Theon was obsessed with earning his crabby dad’s approval. He’d hoped his bold action in taking Winterfell would deliver that.
Tyrion had suffered all his life with his father Tywin’s overt disapproval, and had lobbied unsuccessfully to be recognized as Tywin’s heir, but the Old Lion was not having any of that. Taking the Rock would not doubt provide some kind of satisfying closure for Tyrion.
- FAMILY BETRAYAL
Theon: I now realize that the Starks were my true family.
Ramsay: Ah. Does it hurt that you betrayed them?
Theon: Well, yeah.
Ramsay: Does it HURT AS MUCH AS THIS?
Tyrion: Well, Cersei could be very hurtful too.
Ramsay: Really? As hurtful as –
Tyrion: No no, I’m sure you’ll win this argument. A wise man knows when to shut up and drink.
Theon was not a Stark, but the Stark children more or less accepted him as a foster-brother. Robb, Sansa, and Bran all referred to Theon as a brother at various times in the series. Although Theon was fighting in support of his biological father (he should get points for his filial devotion) his actions negatively affected the family he’d grown up with. Not cool bro.
Tyrion was clearly going against his father’s wishes in occupying the Rock, in a move that was deliberately intended to weaken his surviving family members’ standing. Tyrion might try to put a positive spin on this.
Tyrion: I prefer to think of it as redeeming the family’s name from morally bankrupt and arguably insane family members. Well, certainly more morally bankrupt than me. No need to question my sanity, either. NO NEED. DON’T DO IT.
I assume that the playwrights in Braavos will be adding a new chapter to the scandalous tale of the Bloody Hand, detailing Tyrion’s newest treachery against his family.
- WALLS? OVERRATED
Theon: I know a way over those walls.
Tyrion: I know a way under those walls.
Both Theon and Tyrion, from their years of living in their respective castles, knew a weakness to exploit.
After ensuring that Winterfell would be undermanned, Theon knew exactly where his unsavory Ironborn could scale the walls under the cover of darkness.
Tyrion, as master of drains, had constructed a tunnel of love which was used in this instance for war. Hey, all’s fair.
It was as if both Theon and Tyrion had been raised to capture the places they’d grown up.
- THOSE [EXPLETIVE] IRONBORN
Theon: I hope my dad, the king of the Iron Islands, sends reinforcements to help me hold Winterfell. What am I worried about? Of course he will.
Tyrion: Hmmm. I hadn’t really thought about the pretender-king of the Iron Islands and his fleet. I hope he doesn’t find a way to cork this up. Oh, what am I worried about? He’s probably still trying to get some ships built.
Both Theon and Tyrion miscalculated in regards to the level of effort the Ironborn would exert in either supporting them or opposing them. In both cases, the besiegers who captured these legendary fortresses found themselves unprepared to hold their prizes for long. Theon was left with a castle and not enough men to realistically defend it. Tyrion’s proxy Grey Worm was left with a large force of men but no way to keep them fed.
- WORTH IT? OR WORTHLESS?
Theon: Woohoo! I’ve captured Winterfell! This is the best!
Balon: Dammit, Theon. You had one job.
Robb: I know, right? It’s like when Uncle Edmure just had to pick a fight with Gregor Clegane’s men and drove the Mountain away from the trap I’d set.
Balon: May the Drowned God save me from family members. They’re worse than enemies.
Tyrion: When Grey Worm captures Casterly Rock, the war will be nearly won.
Jaime: You might be more correct than you realize, little brother. This war is nearly won.
In other circumstances, the capture of Winterfell and Casterly Rock would probably have been a bigger deal, but Theon and Tyrion overvalued the benefit of capturing these castles. Supporting Theon in Winterfell didn’t fit into Balon’s overall strategy (or else he would have sent reinforcements) and Jaime deliberately left Casterly Rock undermanned. Jaime was willing to sacrifice his home in exchange for the much more valuable real estate of Highgarden. In both cases, Theon and Tyrion’s forces were left having to choose whether to futilely stay put and hope to hold out, or to abandon their prize.
Is there anything to be learned from this apparent similarity? There’s no guarantee that the fallout from Casterly Rock’s takeover will continue to parallel Theon’s disastrous outcome at Winterfell.
But let’s indulge in some speculation.
Winterfell was eventually retaken by northern forces when Theon’s crew mutinied, turning over their turncloak captain to the besiegers. But these northern forces happened to be from House Bolton, so Theon’s Ironborn were summarily flayed and Winterfell was torched. Ramsay Snow had no personal loyalty to the Starks, and destroying the symbol of Stark power opened the door for the House Bolton to rise up and nearly succeed in taking the North for themselves.
In short: the Stark ancestral seat was captured and then “liberated” by someone far, far worse. Could this happen to Casterly Rock and keep the comparison viable?
The Unsullied have taken Casterly Rock, but it’s not likely for them to remain. Jaime said as much to Lady Olenna: the occupiers can either stay in the Rock and starve, or abandon it and head inland since there’s no way to escape across the waters.
So who is in a position to liberate Casterly Rock? Well, that would be Euron and his Ironborn. Jaime, who seems to have plenty of prophetic exposition this season, already mentioned that the first Greyjoy rebellion attempted during Robert’s reign was kicked off with Euron attacking Lannisport, the city under the protective shadow of Casterly Rock.
In pulling his troops from the Lannisport area and leaving Casterly Rock essentially undefended as a honeypot to lure in the Targaryen troops, Jaime has left the region open for Euron to muscle in. If he so chooses.
Euron could choose to continue to play nice, just like Ramsay could have opted not to burn Winterfell, but the notorious pirate now seems to have a poker chip in this high-stakes game. Cersei already owes him for the gift he provided her. She’s implied that once the war is won she’ll be his bride, but I suspect that not even Euron can imagine Cersei honoring her bargain.
Salladhor Saan: And why should she? The only pirate she’s destined to be with is Salladhor Saan!
Me: Whoa, this is another deep cut to Season Two. Hey Salladhor. Where have you been?
Salladhor Saan: Salladhor Saan has been waiting for Stannis to pay him.
Me: Ah. Good luck with that.
Cersei might have a harder time double-crossing Euron without consequence if he can take control of Lannisport and Casterly Rock. Unlike the Unsullied, Euron would be able to bring supplies from the nearby Iron Islands to his entrenched forces occupying Lannister soil, and bring in troops to harass anyone trying to besiege the Rock. It’s not like anyone has a fleet that can challenge him.
Cersei’s forces are currently enjoying some wins, but Euron might have some surprises of his own if he feels he can get a better bargain. Particularly if Cersei feels secure enough not to give Euron his due.
Daenerys: Whoa, what are you doing here?
Euron: Ever since I was a little boy, I’ve wanted to marry the most beautiful woman in the world.
Missandei: Captain Euron, I’m spoken for! And you have nothing I want or need. Literally.
Daenerys: Let’s assume he means me. Captain Euron, why on Eartheros would I agree to what you’re suggesting?
Euron: Well, I have ships that you could use (so it’s best that you not have your pets set them on fire FYI.) I can give you Casterly Rock and let you keep it this time. Admit it. You’re desperate.
Tyrion: Have I been drinking? I feel like I’m hallucinating.
Alright, I doubt things will play out exactly like that, but I assume a double-double-cross is on the horizon.
Rolling this back on topic, winning is certainly better than losing. Cersei and her allies appear to have the upper hand at the moment, especially in how prescient planning allowed them to lose Casterly Rock but pull off a winning move in regards to Highgarden.
But sometimes you winning is the necessary requirement for your enemies to win even bigger. Be careful of that middle ground.