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Image courtesy of HBO
Image courtesy of HBO

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Four Episodes In, Everyone on Game of Thrones Is Having an Identity Crisis

The Lannisters most of all.

Maybe it's easier to act on someone's behalf than it is to act on your own. That's the strangely humble mantra haunting Game of Thrones this season. As our dwindling crop of prospective Kings and Queens stumble trying to live up to their own legends, their satellites are busily making all kinds of arrangements on their behalf. Cersei has restocked the Small Council (in Tommen's name), Ramsay Bolton flays people (in Roose's), Brienne follows Sansa (on behalf of a long-dead Catelyn Stark), and Petyr Baelish is making marriage proposals (that don't involve him).


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This is the surprising moment when a show obsessed with names and titles starts exploring the power of anonymity.

Unless you're an actual contender for the crown, acting in your own self-interest on Game of Thrones means acting in someone else's. Self-determination isn't even a hope. You have no right to your own goals; they have to be refracted through the authority of a more powerful name.

But as the power of human names dwindles, more and more characters are acting on behalf of the names of the gods. This season of Game of Thrones is all about the complicated power of the proxy—the powerful, often destructive effects of borrowing authority in order to do great or unspeakable things. As religion rises and individual names become dangerous, the wisest course of action is to attach to a greater identity that will authorize (and safeguard) your survival.

This is the surprising moment when a show obsessed with names and titles starts exploring the power of anonymity. The labels and identities that have made Game of Thrones so compelling for so long are reshuffling under the weight of too many contenders. The great families are decimated. Their names have become liabilities.

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Photo: Macall B. Polay/Courtesy of HBO

Myrcella is in danger because of who she is. So is Sansa, who's been traveling as Alayne. So is Tyrion. Jon Snow is safe as long as he refuses Stannis' offer to make him a Stark. His vow to the Night's Watch is the only thing standing between him and whatever forms of death the Warden (or Wardenness) of the North can expect in this climate. As much as he annoys everyone on the show every time he says "I made a vow" (so many times!), it's only in his capacity as a sworn member of the Night's Watch that Jon Snow can carve out anything like a personal life—as a leader through merit, as a man who still loves Ygritte. (Screw you, Melisandre!) Has Jon Snow ever looked happier than he does behind that desk, merrily doing paperwork? These days, on Game of Thrones, it's crucial that you find someone to serve.

But service hurts the ego. The erosion of identity that a life of service implies in Game of Thrones is exactly what Arya struggles with most. How can she give up her own name when names are all she thinks about? Namelessness hurts Jon Snow too; he confesses to Sam how hard it was to turn down Stannis' offer since he's wanted to be a Stark all his life.

If Tyrion's name once earned him respect, now it's the thing most likely to get him killed.

And then there's Tyrion, who can hardly stand his enforced anonymity; he keeps compulsively hinting at his identity to people. "MY FAMILY IS KNOWN FOR PAYING WHAT THEY OWE, HINT HINT," he says to a prostitute, practically screaming the Lannister motto. But if Tyrion's name once earned him opportunity, luxury, and respect in a world where his appearance tends to attract attention and scorn, now his name is the thing most likely to get him killed.

As the power of names corrodes, the power of symbols is rising. Snakes are suddenly everywhere. The Sand Snakes of Dorne want to avenge Oberyn's death with spears, scorpions, and eyeliner. Bronn kills a snake that was making for Jaime Lannister's face. Myrcella's necklace arrives packaged inside a cobra's mouth—which prompts Jaime to wonder if it's a threat. "Of course it's a threat!" Cersei hisses. (Understandably. Jaime. Dude.)

If the hissing after Mossador's execution is any indication, Daenarys' claim that "angry snakes lash out" is proving to be true in ways she didn't anticipate. Her strategy was to provoke her enemies in order to isolate them, identify them, and cut off their heads. It's backfiring; the resistance is Hydra-like and unidentifiable. Meanwhile, at the Wall, Shireen teaches Gilly to read an S by tracing it with her finger (like a snake!). And greyscale not only transforms its victims into Stone Men, but turns their skin into scaly flesh.

Birds are becoming equally important symbolically. Varys' malicious little birds from former seasons, his traffic in gossip and secrets, have metastasized into a giant angry avian metaphor for faith. Varys has lost all control—he's the caged bird now—and religions are cropping up all over the place. There are Sparrows, Sons of the Harpy (named after a bird of prey with a woman's face); even Arya's admission into the House of Black and White begins with her beheading a pigeon. Birds have evolved into figures for the erasure of identity: The Sons of the Harpy hide behind masks, while the Sparrows carve insignias into their foreheads to eradicate their old identities and signal their new ones.

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Photo: Macall B. Polay/Courtesy of HBO

If birds and snakes seem like they ought to clash, it's worth noting that the one symbol that unites them is the dragon—a scaly snake-like creature that flies. And while Daenarys is not in control of her dragons—yet—the capaciousness of her symbol bodes well for the Targaeryens.

There's one other argument in Dany's favor: when Mossador kills the Son of the Harpy (and says he did it "for her") she refuses the redistribution of her power that implies. However misguided that public execution may have been, one thing is clear: Daenarys—unlike Stannis, who's given Melisandre wayyyyy too much leeway to act on his behalf—will not tolerate proxies. Neither will Jon Snow, who beheads Slynt himself, effectively refusing to let anyone act on his behalf.

As the power of names corrodes, the power of symbols is rising.

So where does this leave us? WHO ARE WE? WHAT ARE WE DOING?

It's worth taking a minute to think about the most interesting case study of group identity in crisis: the Lannisters. Once the most feverishly, even incestously clannish of the Great Families of Westeros, they're blowing the moment that should have been theirs. Tywin is dead, and the bonds that cemented them died with him. Jaime and Cersei act like strangers now—so much so that viewers are speculating whether Jaime's remark to Bronn that he'd like to die "in the arms of the woman I love" refers to Cersei or (far more interestingly) Brienne of Tarth. Jaime's going to rescue his daughter-niece for reasons that make no sense, even to him. He's not a self-sufficient fighter; he has to bring Bronn along. And his gold—ever the Lannister safeguard—fails to protect him. The Sand Snakes know he's coming.

Daenarys consolidates her power by refusing to delegate ("I am not a politican," she says, "I am a queen"), but Cersei doesn't have that option. She's always straddled the distance between queen and politician, power center and power satellite. She has no choice but to tolerate proxies. She is a proxy. That's what female Lannisters have to be—trading cards shuffled in marriage who must learn how to channel the power of the throne.

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Photo: Helen Sloan/Courtesy of HBO

King Tommen is baffled by Cersei's deployment of the watertight Proxy Defense, which is that you lack the authority to do whatever it is you've just done. "Did I arrest him?" Cersei asks Tommen, when he demands Ser Loras' release. Tommon is unable to demand the obedience that would make his command meaningful. Cersei's influence is, for the moment, greater than his power. She's always been pretty good at turning kings into pawns, but in Margaery she seems to have met her match.

That Cersei is now in a position to address the Crown's debt to the Iron Bank is a test of her Lannisterhood as it was defined by her father: will she pay her debts? And how? It seems she won't: When Mace Tyrell offers help, she refuses. Instead of paying her debts, she sends him off with a Kingsguard who will probably—if the portentous music is any indication—assassinate him.

Cersei has always been pretty good at turning kings into pawns, but in Margaery she seems to have met her match.

Surely Tywin would disapprove. he would be equally skeptical of Cersei's strategy of stocking Kings Landing with people she believes will act on her behalf when the time comes. It's a mistake, according to the way Game of Thrones narrates power. Proxies shouldn't have proxies; everyone is much too likely to start acting directly on their own behalf.

But the biggest blow to the Lannister legacy might be Tyrion's defection. Tyrion has become Game of Thrones' moral center, and if Tyrion really is joining Daenarys Targaeryen and rebelling against his own nephew, then there's not much hope for poor little Tommen. Tyrion excepted, the Lannisters are brittle in the face of tragedy. Tywin was so scarred by his wife Joanna's perfectly natural death in childbirth that he never really recovered. Jaime—if his dependence on Bronn is any indication—isn't getting over the loss of his hand. Cersei will never get over Joffrey's death, Margaery's ascension, or Maggy the Frog's prophecy.

That prophecy, by the way, echoes the season's investment in the power of namelessness. All we know is that "another" will come along, "younger, and more beautiful." That could be Margaery—which seems to be how Cersei's taking it. It could be Daenarys. But it could also be Sansa, who's finally about to stop being a bystander and enter the most dangerous phase of the Game of Thrones. She comes armed with nothing but the Stark name, which at this juncture might matter less than the extensive training she received under Petyr Baelish, the greatest and most manipulative proxy of them all.

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