“Cersei could smell weakness the way a dog smells fear.”
Synopsis: Tyrion takes his first Small Council meeting, gets Cersei to agree to his appointment as Hand of the King, begins to consolidate power in a capitol gone from bad to worse, meets with Varys (again), and sleeps with Shae.
SPOILER WARNING: This chapter analysis, and all following, will contain spoilers for all Song of Ice and Fire novels and Game of Thrones episodes. Caveat lector.
The Tyrion plot-line in A Clash of Kings…how shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Seriously, when I was struggling through Bran chapters in AGOT I kept myself going by thinking of how much I loved this story and how badly I wanted to write about it. So badly in fact that I kind of pre-wrote a good deal of what I wanted to say in my Hands of the King essay about Tyrion – consider that my first-draft synthesizing argument and these recaps are the evidence and analysis to back that up.
In this section, I want to cover four main themes – first, the Small Council, its (dys)functioning, and Tyrion’s relationship to it; second, Tyrion’s meeting with Cersei; third, Tyrion’s first impressions of King’s Landing; and fourth, Tyrion’s meeting with Varys and Shae and what that holds for the future.
The Small Council’s Counsel
To the extent that anything actually happens this chapter, it’s that Tyrion joins the Small Council as the acting Hand of the King, although not without more than a fair bit of effort (more on this in a second) – and the Small Council itself is a major part of his mission as Hand (much more on that later). So how is Tyrion received?
- Cersei reacts with open disbelief and scorn, stating that “This is absurd…my lord father has sent my brother to sit in his place in this council. He bids us accept Tyrion as the Hand of the King, until such time as he himself can join us.” She’s the one person there who actually reacts honestly and speaks her mind – which isn’t a good sign of her political chops, when she’s surrounded by schemers and liars. Her disbelief is rooted in a rather ironic (given her earlier statements to Ned Stark belief about the formal trappings of power – she’s been openly decreed as Queen Regent, so the power is supposed to flow to her, and people are going to do what they’re supposed to, so that when they don’t she gets thrown off-balance and takes a long time to recover.
- Grand Maester Pycelle plays his one card – unctuous, “ponderous” kissing up. “It would seem that a welcome is in order” didn’t fool Ned Stark, and it’s certainly not going to fool Tyrion Lannister. More proof that Pycelle was always the weakest of reeds on the Small Council – although interestingly, we get almost no sense of what he’s actually been doing on the Small Council.
- Janos Slynt is openly, laughably incompetent, a man raised above his ability (if not his station), also looking to suck up to the new guy. Indeed, so bad is he at basic politics that he both openly admits his own haplessness (“We have sore need of you, my lord. Rebellion everywhere, this grim omen in the sky, rioting in the city streets…”), and leaves himself open for Cersei to snipe at him about “ whose fault is that, Lord Janos?…Your gold cloaks are charged with keeping order.” (Note how quickly Cersei goes from zero to finger-pointing here) Indeed, while later Cersei will try to justify the Small Council’s decision later, Janos Slynt is the first she throws under the bus: “Janos should have sent more men. He is not as competent as might be wished.”
- And for all that Littlefinger is held up as a master manipulator and arch-conspirator, his weaknesses have never been more evident than they are with his interactions with Tyrion here. Given that Tyrion is the new Hand of the King, and moreover a Hand whom Littlefinger openly fingered for execution as a child-murderer, and moreover a Hand with a mandate to execute him if Tyrion finds it necessary, this is not how you interact with him:
“Littlefinger laughed. “Well said, Lannister, a man after my own heart.”
“Tyrion smiled at him, remembering a certain dagger, with a dragonbone hilt and a Valyrian steel blade. We must have a talk about that, and soon. He wondered if Lord Petyr would find that subject amusing as well… “
Littlefinger laughed. “You’re a braver man than me, Lannister. You do know the fate of our last two Hands?”
- Throughout this chapter, Petyr Baelish needlessly draws Tyrion’s attention to himself, and accomplishes nothing by doing so besides getting to throw a few veiled suggestions that Tyrion is going to be assassinated in his face. It’s not a particularly impressive performance.
- Varys, as is his wont, sits back and snarks (“How kind of Lord Tywin. And his sealing sax is such a lovely shade of gold…it gives every appearance of being genuine” and while observing how the new arrival handles himself. When he’s gathered his impression – namely that Tyrion is easily able to match wits with anyone at the table – he makes his introductions elsewhere, where he can’t be as easily observed. His caution is notable in comparison to Littlefinger’s bravado, and as we’ll see will pay dividends.
It’s certainly a Small Council that better fits Tywin’s description of “your son’s short reign” as ” a long parade of follies and disasters. That suggests that someone is giving Joffrey some very bad counsel,” than Cersei’s defensive claim that “Joff has had no lack of good counsel. He’s always been strong willed. Now that he’s king, he believes he should do as he pleases, not as he’s bid.” While it’s true that Joffrey’s sadism has been responsible for the biggest fuckup of them all, it’s also true that this is a Small Council that doesn’t have a plan of what to do after Cersei’s counter-coup besides hunkering down to await a siege.
What’s interesting about Tyrion in comparison to his immediate predecessor, is that where Eddard Stark failed to understand the office of the King’s Hand and Tyrion will show an instinctual understanding of his ability to act independently of others, he doesn’t spend very much time actually meeting with the Small Council as a whole. Throughout ACOK, Tyrion attends two Small Council meetings other than this brief introduction, and does an enormous amount of political work in their absence, preferring to interact with the Small Councilors individually, which gives him much more control over information.
Paper and Power – Tyrion’s Meeting With Cersei
Tyrion’s meeting with Cersei is even more interesting, a delicate negotiation taking place between two people with not even a minimum of trust between them, in which we (and Tyrion) learn an enormous amount – and the overall theme is the nature and origin of power, a running theme of the entire book. It’s foregrounded at the very beginning of the chapter when Tyrion is confronted with the problem of Ser Mandon Moore: “Bronn and Timmett could likely kill the knight if it came to swords, but it would scarcely bode well if he began by slaying one of Joffrey’s protectors. Yet if he let the man turn him away, where was his authority?…A small victory, he thought, but sweet. He had passed his first test.”
Rather than a simple case of might making right, Tyrion is in a delicate position; he has around 150 men overall, but that’s far fewer than Cersei has, but the reasons why anyone obeys Cersei’s orders also apply to him (another echo of Varys’ riddle). As a Lannister and one who Tywin has invested with supreme authority, he can potentially undercut Cersei’s position entirely, but only if he can get others to recognize his claim.
The central question in his meeting with Cersei is whether she will recognize that he has been named Hand of the King:
“…our lord father has named me.”
“He cannot do that. Not without Joff’s consent.”
“Lord Tywin is at Harrenhal with his host, if you’d care to take it up with him.”
“Has father lost his senses? Or did you forge the letter?…I wanted him to come himself…I am Joffrey’s regent, and I sent him a royal command.”
“And he ignored you,” Tyrion pointed out. “He has quite a large army, he can do that. Nor is he the first. Is he?”
“If I name this letter a forgery and tell them to throw you in a dungeon, no one will ignore that, I promise you.”
“No one…least of all our father. The one with the army.”
As I mentioned above, Cersei is weirdly clinging to legalisms here, believing that a boy king’s consent and royal decree has force sufficient to make other people recognize them, when clearly as Tyrion points out, that’s not the case.* The true power is held by Tywin as the leader of House Lannister, the only one of them with a real army, and the only real hope of saving King’s Landing if it comes under serious attack – and Tyrion is holding his commission from Tywin. At the same time, Tywin is far away, and Cersei has local superiority – if she’s willing to use it, at this moment she could absolutely throw him in jail and wreck his paper shield (something Tyrion will be very aware of going forward). At the same time, Tywin’s ultimate authority is quite real and Cersei knows that she can’t ultimately cross him and that he can outright ignore and countermand her.
* an interesting side-note: Tyrion claims that Tywin is “not the first” to ignore Cersei. This could be a reference to Cersei’s decrees at the end of AGOT to Robb, Renly, and Stannis, but it could also be a reference to the Crownlands. One interesting question is why King’s Landing’s defenses fell entirely to the Goldcloaks. Even adjusting for the fact that Stannis has already claimed the loyalty of some 3,000 of the Crownlanders, and that Tywin may well have forcibly recruited some men from the northern Crownlands around Duskendale to repair his losses from the Green Fork and later the Battle of the Fords (which would explain why his army is always described at 20,000), there should still be several thousand troops from the lesser Houses of the Crownlands. The fact that none of them appear behind the walls of King’s Landing during the siege may well suggest that their previous Targaryen loyalists led them to sit out the war.
Ultimately, Tyrion’s victory in this meeting comes, not through the crude use of force (“power is power” as show-Cersei put it), but rather from the power that comes from understanding people. Tyrion knows what levers will move Cersei (in his words, “His sister fancied herself subtle, but he had grown up with her. He could read her face like one of his favorite books, and what he read now was rage, and fear, and despair.“) and knows that while “it was our father’s presence that I commanded,” that “it’s Jaime you want.”
The two of them make a bargain based on deception and lies, on mistrust and the manipulation of human need:
“If I accept you, you shall be the King’s Hand in name, but my Hand in truth. You will share all your plans and intentions with me before you act, and you will do nothing without my consent. Do you understand?”
“Do you agree?”
“Certainly,” he lied.”
Once again, we get this interesting blind spot where the same woman who ripped up Robert Baratheon’s last will and testament thinks that once she’s given Tyrion the power he needed from her, that she can somehow hold him to that deal. It’s astonishing that Cersei proposed it in the first place, or thought for a second that it would limit Tyrion in any way. But by reminding her that Jaime “is my brother no less than yours,” Tyrion is able to forge just enough of a common ground (along with an offer to scare Joffrey straight, which is what Cersei momentarily wants) in order to get her to agree to his proposal that if she “give[s] me your support and I promise you, we will have Jaime freed and returned to us unharmed.”
And once Tyrion makes this meaningless concession that he’ll run everything buy her first, he can peel open Cersei like a ripe fruit: instantly, he finds out that Sansa but not Arya are captive, and begins to unravel what happened in A Game of Thrones from her perspective (including her murder of Robert Baratheon). And what we get is a narrative that puts all of the blame on others: “Joffrey had Lord Eddard killed,” which in turn ensured that it was impossible for them to have “made peace with that son of his.” “Littlefinger gifted us with Lord Slynt,” which is presented as none of Cersei’s doing but at the same time absolutely necessary: “Littlefinger made the arrangements. We needed Slynt’s gold cloaks. Eddard Stark was plotting with Renly and he’d written to Lord Stannis, offering him the throne.” “Varys dismised Ser Barristan” but Cersei wasn’t clearly paying attention to a minor detail that “allowed Joff to throw a bone to his dog,” and clearly “had not considered” the big-picture, long-term implications of dismissing Ser Barristan, or anything else really. (They also mention whether she had anything to do with Jon Arryn’s death – but I’m running long here, so I’m going to push that discussion back to Tyrion’s meeting with Littlefinger.)
Even the one thing that Cersei can point to as her own accomplishment isn’t that complementary when you get to it: “We might have lost all. Even so, it was a close thing. If Sansa hadn’t come to me and told me all her father’s plans…the girl was wet with love. She would have done anything for Joffrey.” Even if we granted that Sansa was primarily responsible for her father’s downfall, this still points to Cersei fluking a victory, rather than taking any pre-emptive action to prevent defeat. However, as I’ve pointed out previously, this is absolutely not the case – Ned had already told Cersei his plans before Sansa could have told Cersei about them leaving; PrivateMajor’s timeline pegs Sansa’s visit to Cersei as 15 days after Ned’s talk. Moreover, Sansa didn’t know anything about Eddard’s conversations with Renly or Stannis or the gold cloaks – only Littlefinger did.
Wrapping things up, the portrait of Cersei that emerges here is someone who’s not nearly as good at politics as she thinks she is, who barely out-plotted someone who didn’t understand political power, and now Tyrion is running rings around her.
Who Would Want This Job? The Situation in King’s Landing
Thanks to his political skills, Tyrion has now inherited the worst job in Westeros – he’s Hand of the King under a King and Queen Regent who both hate him and want him dead, the Small Council is completely untrustworthy, and he’s got almost no resources with which to fight an inevitable siege. And even before Stannis arrives, the situation is godawful:
“The Streets of King’s Landing had always been teeming and raucous and noisy, but now they reeked of danger in a way that he did not recall from past visits. A naked corpse sprawled in the gutter near the street of looms, being torn at by a pack of feral dogs, yet no one seemed to care. Watchmen were much in evidence, moving in pairs through the alleys in their gold cloaks and shirts of black ringmail, iron cudgels never far from their hands. The markets were crowded with ragged men selling their household goods for any price they could get..and conspicuously empty of farmers selling food. What little produce he did see was three times as costly as it had been a year ago. One peddler was hawking rats roasted on a skewer.”
To begin with, because of the Tyrells siding with Renly (and presumably also the resources of the Crownlands going to feed Tywin’s army to the North), the city is already facing staggering rates of inflation, a soaring cost of living throwing thousands of people into poverty, and incipient starvation. This in turn has increased crime rates and social disorder – the Street of Looms would be a neighborhood of relatively skilled workers, so the idea that murder/robbery has become routine and both corpses and feral dogs are not being cleared off the streets suggests that there’s been a breakdown in law and order (naked corpses being the Westerosi equivalent of broken windows).
All of this has been exacerbated by the refugee crisis created as a side-effect of the Small Council’s policies. While it’s certainly a rare bright spot Cersei has thought to “triple the size of the City Watch,” although without any improvement in public order, and “put[ting] a thousand craftsmen to work…strengthening the walls…building scorpions and catapults by the hundred…making arrows…[and]forging blades,” all of this costs money and Littlefinger’s entry tax into the city is both ingenious in terms of allowing for the easy gathering of large amounts of coin but also exacerbates the city’s poverty and disorder problems by creating a whole new population of “troupes of mothers and children and anxious fathers” who are now destitute and desperate.
But, showing a completely different understanding of politics than Ned Stark, Tyrion’s first move here is to shore up his institutional position at Cersei’s experience, by reminding Captain Vylarr who commands the Lannister forces that “his oath is to Casterly Rock, not to Cersei or Joffrey,” and with a quick threat that “one of those empty spikes may have a different lodger,” he quickly establishes his authority. Cersei is down 150 soldiers, and Tyrion is up to around 300 under his command – upwards and onwards!
Tyrion’s Meeting With Varys
When Tyrion gets back to Shae’s lodgings, he finds Varys, who quietly demonstrates his skills in a scene that is misleadingly confrontational, setting up the nice reveal later on that of all the Small Councilors, Tyrion has picked him as his ally. What’s interesting is that, on the re-read, I actually didn’t like this scene as much as I had remembered – Tyrion’s oddly condescending mental dialogue here spelling out Varys’ subtext comes off as a bit clunky. However, I still love Varys’ riddle.
“In a room sit three great men, a king, a priest, and a rich man with his gold. Between them stands a sellsword, a little man of common birth, and no great mind. Each of the great ones bids him slay the other two. “Do it,” says the king, “for I am your lawful ruler. “Do it” says the priest, “for I command you in the names of the gods.” “Do it,” says the rich man, “and all this gold shall be yours.” So tell me – who lives and who dies?”
It’s a fascinating glimpse into Varys’ theory of politics – a topic we’ll return to in a few chapters when we discuss his answer to his own riddle. Inside this koan is an argument for a subjective, cultural, and ideological understanding (indeed, I could definitely see Clifford Geertz signing off on Varys’ thesis here) of why, in a society where political power still rests on a foundation of a military caste, power is exercised through symbols rather than solely through strength.
As we will see, all three of these illusions matter: the illusion of legitimacy embodied in the monarchy is central to Stannis and Renly’s conflict and can move tens of thousands of men to one side or another; the power of faith doesn’t seem particularly influential right now (High Septons being torn limb from limb and all), but we see Aeron Damphair, the High Sparrow, and Melisandre have the power to move the hearts of thousands and thousands of men and women to overturn ancient structures of authority; and in the Iron Bank of Braavos (or alternatively the actions of Qarth, the Ghiscari, and Volantis in ADWD), we see how finance can prop up or overthrow governments.
Finally, a brief mention of Shae – their coupling is quite extensively written, and I remember being a little irritated the first time I read this of the way that Tyrion’s chapters kept returning to what were not particularly interesting or well-written sex scenes. In retrospect, however, I think this is a deliberate choice, to emphasize that for all Tyrion’s political strengths, he still has this driving obsession with women that will be his undoing later, one he cannot stop returning to despite his knowledge that “will you never learn, dwarf, she’s a whore, damn you, it’s your coin she loves, not your cock. Remember Tysha?“
Ok, I had an essay here prepared for the topic of medieval cities under siege, but this essay is starting to run long already, so I’m going to postpone a discussion that can take place in any King’s Landing chapter this book for another chapter.
There are so many hypotheticals in this chapter that I’m pretty sure I’ll miss some (so please bring your favorites to the comment thread). But here are some of my favorites:
- Cersei says no? So let’s say Cersei goes with her first instinct and has Tyrion thrown into the dungeons right away. Well, some really interesting things start to happen. First, Janos Slynt remains commander of the Gold Cloaks and isn’t shipped up to the Night’s Watch – a lot more on this in the next Tyrion chapter. Second, the boom chain never gets built and the structures near the Mud Gate remain unburnt, which means that much more of Stannis’ fleet survives to trans-ship his army across the Rush and the walls are likely breached, which means King’s Landing likely falls to Stannis. Third, no alliance with Dorne is made – which probably means the Red Viper doesn’t die, and is sent instead of Qyentyn to Daenerys, given his experience with Essos. Fourth, Cersei reacts to Robb’s peace offer – which likely means the escape attempt at Riverrun never happens. Fifth, the Tyrell match isn’t made – which means that Tywin’s counter-attack at the Blackwater doesn’t have the advantage of overwhelming odds (especially since the lack of the mountain clansmen means Stannis’ scouts fare much better) and quite possibly Stannis manages to hold him off and take the city at the same time.
- Mandon Moore gets stabbed? This is an interesting one, and I have to admit that I’d forgotten that the same Kingsguard who blocks Tyrion’s path is the same one who tries to kill him later. If he dies here, it’s possible that Cersei/Joffrey/Littlefinger try again with another member of the Kingsguard, but it’s unlikely. Now, it’s quite possible that Tyrion was screwed either way, but an unwounded and conscious Tyrion could definitely get in on the kudos and rewards following the Battle of the Blackwater, and certainly get in with Tywin to explain his tenture in office before Cersei does. Not that this would mean he gets Casterly Rock, but he certainly would have a chance at a greater reward than what he got (certainly a lordship with some significant lands and income attached), and a chance at forging a better reputation as the Halfman who helped to save the city.
- Tyrion investigates the dagger? This is a particular dangling plot thread of GRRM’s that really annoys me. Tyrion’s big stinger line in this chapter, that he’ll “do justice,” supposedly sets up this whole investigation plot. However, outside of arresting Pycelle, Tyrion never bothers to really put the screws to Littlefinger (after all, while he can’t perhaps kill him, there’s no reason why he couldn’t do what he did to Pycelle) and he’s the man who fingered Tyrion for death. Indeed, it’s highly odd that Tyrion never tells anyone else that Littlefinger played a major role in starting the Stark-Lannister war, which you’d think would shape how Tywin and Cersei deal with him in the future.
Book vs. Show:
Overall, I think Tyrion’s plotline in Season 2 is the major saving grace of the season, elevating the show far above the doldrums of the Jon and Daenerys trainwrecks. I think we see this right off the bat, as the Tyrion/Small Council, and Tyrion/Cersei scenes (which honestly I think is superior to the book version in terms of how pointed the family dynamics are) are absolute masterpieces of witty dialogue, emotional intensity, and quality political intrigue. Honestly, I wouldn’t change a thing there.
If there is one fly in the ointment, it’s Shae. Now, I’m not one of those people who hate Sibel Kekilli’s performance – I think she does a decent job with her material – or the showrunners’ decision to make their relationship a more genuinely emotional one. However, I do think that the show went in a really, really weird direction by having Tyrion not even try to hide Shae, which makes the Ros mix-up scene or any scene with Shae pretending to be Sansa’s handmaiden make any sense (indeed, if they’d showed him smuggling Shae in as a servant, it would make her pretense make more sense, and I don’t get why they went with Shae being incompetent at pretending to be a handmaid, but more on that later).
And the scene with Tyrion and Varys is actually better than the book version, condensing and cleaning up what is a rather drawn-out and over-explained scene in the book into a brilliant matchup between Peter Dinklage and Conleth Hill that I could watch forever.