“I’d rather face a thousand swords than be shut up inside with this flock of frightened hens.”
It’s an old rule of drama that terror and impending doom tend to bring out the best and the worst in people. Faced with the need to survive, a man like Tyrion can lead men into battle, a man like Lancel Lannister can kill someone.
But one of the things this episode of Game of Thrones did best was to show the layers of a battle like this, the ordinary soldiers puking in the holds and burning to death, and the women and children faced not with death on the field of battle, but with the prospect of becoming the spoils of war. Cersei and her flock of hens spend the episode huddled in the keep, waiting for news of their fate.
None of them can act, none of them know how to pick up a sword and fight. They sing and pray and hope, but Cersei knows that none of these things mean anything. Cersei is always determined to face the world the way it is, to deal with the bare bones of reality. She was raised that way, was raised knowing absolutely that she was locked into a position of helplessness, that her fate would be decided by others.
And as she becomes drunker and drunker, we see her cynical frustration, her hatred of the position she cannot escape, of what her gender is locked into. Her only weapons are feminine, are “what’s between her legs” and poison. She can order people, but there is almost nothing she can actually do. Faced with inaction, Cersei’s response is to try to face reality as it is, and kill her youngest son and herself in order to save them from the sack of King’s Landing. Cersei adores no one but her children, and to kill her son is the ultimate terrible deed, the worst possible sin. But Cersei plans to do it anyway, to save Tommen from what Stannis will do to him and to save Joffrey from death in battle.
Unable to lead the charge, unable to swing a sword, Cersei lashes out at the women around her and does what she can to protect her family. Cersei has never been the best player of the game of thrones, but faced with the hand she was dealt, a hand dealt solely because she was a woman, which could so easily have been her brother’s, she made the best choices she could think of.
“Your sons will be killers someday. The world is built by killers. So you’d better get used to looking at them”
Sansa’s innocent foolishness was the heart of her character in the first season, but innocence and the pretense of it here proves to be her only weapon. Her backhanded comment to Tyrion, her attempt to manipulate Joffrey into getting himself killed, and her defense from the Hound: all of these are conscious uses on her part of her perceived innocence. Cersei may think that the only weapons a woman can wield are sexual, but Sansa uses the weapons at hand to save herself, and are the only thing standing between her and the loss of her self.
Sansa’s standoff with the Hound is one of polar opposites, of the virginal young girl faced with the scarred murderous man. The Hound believes that all men are killers, that the will and desire to murder are what make the world go around. Power comes from willingness to kill, which is why the Hound would never respect Joffrey or Tyrion. For him the world is built on blood, which is all that matters. But Sansa doesn’t believe that, is in fact one of the few characters who (spoiler alert) has yet to kill anyone. The hyper-masculine, blood-soaked world the Hound sees around him is not the only thing left. He couldn’t hurt Sansa because she had the power to make him see a part of the world he was blind to. In perhaps the most powerful feminine act on the show, the Hound leaves Sansa alone.
“No one is raping me.”
I’ve got to say, Shay drove me crazy in the books but I kind of love her here. Paradoxically, Shay is the only character not performing a role. Cersei is playing the part of caring queen, Sansa is playing the part of innocent maiden, but Shay the whore refuses to play anything.
Shay’s position is precarious, but she has the talent of fading into the background. She protects herself by not drawing attention to herself, which is exactly why Cersei’s calling her out is so threatening. Shay’s entire life is built on sex, but rather than selling herself to Stannis’s men she ties a knife to her calf.
It’s her honesty and fiercesness that make Shay so compelling, and her cold refusal to compromise them in the face of something like a siege that makes her strong. Somehow, in all her years of prostitution, Shay managed not to break the way Cersei and Sansa did.