Game of Thrones used to have some great scenes. I know, I know, it’s hard to believe. But once upon a time, before it was the stereotypical high fantasy disasterfest it became, there was a golden age where season after season you would find it stuffed full of great scenes. Episode after episode it would cover you with a fountain of wisdom and keep you coming back with its penetrating wit. All while seemingly building up to an incredible climax. In other words, it was a show nobody would ever think of pulling out of until the very end.
So in sad remembrance of this era, may its good writing rest in peace, I just recently took a look at one of the incredible scenes from the earlier seasons in my cleverly titled article “A Lion Still Has Claws – Deconstructing the Best Scene in Game of Thrones.” Afterwards I thought, what other way can I pad my conte- I mean explore these wonderful earlier scenes? And as if sent by the Seven Who Be In Dat Heaven themselves, or a mild migraine, a thought occured to me: Why not analyse this scene where they played a game of musical chairs during a small council meeting? And I thought “What an absolutely retarded idea.” But I’m flat out of good ideas, so here I am to break down the scene and tell you what makes it such a wonderful microcosm for the characters and, most importantly, how it is a perfect example of the art of wordless communication.
And yes, I am aware I’m not the first person to delve into this topic, as the video’s comment section may tell you. But I’m going to do it bigger, better, in so much more detail and with so many more thinly veiled sexual references that you’ll forget all about those plebians!
Setting the Scene
First, allow your friendly narrator to pull out his candles and set the scene: Like all great scenes it starts with a shot of the living embodiment of badassery that is Tywin, who’s standing next to his chair as Varys, Pycelle and Littlefinger all enter. Tyrion, in his usual manner, arrives just a bit late and with a smirk on his face. Tywin then sits down and stares at them. No doubt undressing Varys with his eyes. Varys moves to sit but there comes Littlefinger to his right, he moves like a bobcat, he dodges and he manages it first! Pycelle waddles behind them as is his custom. Cersei enters, carefully takes one of the chairs and sits next to her beloved father. Finally, Tyrion noisily grabs a chair and moves it to the opposite part of the table to Tywin and sits down. He then makes a joke and the rest of the scene, the talky bits we won’t bother with, begins.
Alright, you still awake? You haven’t gone to snooze after reading a solid paragraph about people moving and sitting on chairs? You haven’t started checking Twitter? Don’t pretend. I saw. I see everything. Yes, that too. Your mother should be ashamed of herself for birthing you.
But alright, I’ll admit that, once again, this scene doesn’t exactly seem like it’s ground-breaking. Why, I wrote a scene about musical chairs when I was in fourth grade. And it had at least twice the amount of chairs! Where are the dragons? Where are the glorious, rolling hills of Westeros we know as Emilia’s tits? Where are all the things that make an Emmy-winning scene truly Emmy-winning? Well, hold on to your hat space cowboy, because the impressive part is that the rarest of Pokémon to be found in the season 8 region of Game of Thrones can be found quite easily right here: Mr. Subtext.
Let’s start where all starts start, at the start… of the scene.
Sitting Down… But Like a Boss!
The first thing we see is the old lion standing there beside his chair and then sitting down. Tywin has always been tha boss, not in small part due to Charles Dance’s performance. And that is illustrated in this moment. Tywin chooses to take the seat at the head of the table. Not the rear, not the back, but the head. The use of the word “head” in regards to the table, as you may be aware if you’ve ever read… at all, not so accidentally also applies to concepts such as “the head of a household.” That is because “the head” of the table is generally recognised as an honourary position. And so by sitting at the head, Tywin emphasizes his leading role. By positioning himself in physical space as superior, he positions himself in psychological space as superior. The clever twat.
But there’s more. When I’m writing about it, there’s always more. Tywin takes the initiative in sitting down and this signals to everyone else that they too should sit. That they must follow his lead. Which, like his seated position, signals both to them and the audience that he is the one who leads here. This time through practice. As the right to initiative is generally in the hands of the person with the highest social status, we ascribe the highest social status to Tywin here.
The Staring Contest Gets Real
Like the good peons they are, they all naturally move to obey. But as the perfumed eggman prepares to move in and take a seat, in one swift motion Littlefinger manoeuvres passed him and takes the seat first, leaving Varys behind him glowering.
Firstly and most obviously this parallels their relationship. They are in constant competition for power and the favour of powerful people. After all they spend most of season 1 fighting over Ned Stark’s affections. In this instance Tywin is the powerful person and physical proximity to him, the closest chair, is a symbollic stand-in for proximity to power in general. File this away in your adorable little noggings if you can, as this will later come up again. And again. And again…
But this sequence of events also illustrates their respective personalities. On the one hand we see Littlefinger’s slyness. He outmanoeuvres Varys here by acting quickly and confidently. We see this in his personality throughout the rest of the series as well. Most prominently perhaps when he betrays Ned, acting at just the right time and with no doubt or any noticeable hint of scruples. Thereby placing himself in the favour of the Lannisters and moving on up, closer to power. Some people are just made for congress.
Varys on the other hand is more cautious. He lets Littlefinger have this one and then calmly proceeds to take the second closest seat. This mirrors how Varys likes to play the long game. Waiting for the right opportunity to strike rather than making reckless moves. The man is patient if nothing else. He waits almost 20 years for Daenerys to become an adult and mozies her as over to Westeros before finally helping her overthrow Robert’s brood. And during Tyrion’s trial he doesn’t defend him, he takes the cautious route and sets him free in secret. It’s just too bad for him Tyrion didn’t share his caution. Because as a result he had to leave his entire life in King’s Landing behind. Then again, he did get to take a fun midnight boat trip, so I guess it all evens out.
On Those Shambling Skeletal Remains in a Robe
Then we have Pycelle. By the gods, Pycelle. He, being the old fart he is, slowly shambles towards the third chair managing, by some miracle, not to cough up a lung and slip on it before getting there. On the surface what this shows is that he can’t keep up with the schemers around him. He’s just an old, nearly senile man completely out of his prime. He cannot get close to power, he is simply outmanoeuvred. But, if you’re familiar with the Game of Thrones deleted content (and if you’ll remember the kung-fu smack he gave the little birds that tried to stab him, slow motion replay available here for your viewing displeasure, and him galavanting around with prostitutes) you’ll know this is nothing but a mask.
In reality he’s quite spry for his age. He could’ve quite easily tried to take a seat right next to Tywin, whom he has a bit of a doughy-eyed mancrush on. Yet he doesn’t do this. He keeps on the mask and waddles, like he’s afraid he’ll pull a muscle if he moves more than one of them at a time, to the third seat. Because it is more important to him that he keeps his cover, that he’s an old senile man who people are bound to underestimate, going than to win an insignificant symbollic advantage. As he himself says rather long-windedly: “So many flowers, my lord. Each wanting to grow the tallest, bloom the brightest. And one by one sooner or later they all get plucked. I don’t want to be the tallest or the brightest. I only want to remain in the garden.”
When You’re Too Good to Sit and Shut It
When Cersei enters she looks over the room imperiously, only just barely managing to suppress her incessant need to yell “I’m better than all of you” at the top of her lungs as she is contractually obligated to do hourly. The obvious thing to do, of course, would be to simply take one of the remaining seats. But this is Cersei “blow-up-the-Vatican” Lannister so, having never been one to take the sane course, she does not do so. Instead she takes one of the remaining seats in her hands, lifts it up and goes to sit at daddy Tywin’s side.
This signals very clearly that Cersei will not be less than anyone. She will not let herself be pushed to a lower position (as sitting further from Tywin, who represents power, represents) by anyone. Something which is more than obvious in her later conflict with Margaery and the Tyrells. Where almost every single action she takes and word she speaks exudes this desire. Most prominently her attempt to frame Margaery with the Faith Militant.
It also shows us that she’s willing to take initiative for this and, finally and perhaps most importantly, that she’s her daddy’s little girl. She wants to be at Tywin’s side. She wants his approval and she wants his power. She wants to be wanted, and needs to be needed. Might almost be adorable if she wasn’t so murdery. And if you’ve read the books you know she identifies with him. She wants to be him. Tywin with teats, but sans the intelligence.
Like Nails on a Chalkboard
The last one standing is of course our intrepid Tyrion. At this point the only seat left is the one furthest away from Tywin. Furthest away from power. Sitting there would signal very clearly that he is the lowest among them. Not only that but, because Cersei has taken the other chair, there is now even a gap between this final chair and Pycelle’s. So if he sits there Tyrion is not just lower, but there is a significant gap between him and even the person right above him.
This situation strongly mirror’s Tyrion’s life. Due to his dwarfism and his father’s dislike of him, he was seemingly doomed to be relegated to mockery and a life of being distant from power. Yet how he reacts to these circumstances is also how he reacts to them in the rest of his life.
He takes the chair and moves it to the head of the table. He takes his fate into his own hands, refusing to be relegated to the outskirts of power. Just as he took to his role as hand of the king, he takes this wooden bull by the stiles. If only the sound editor had thought to add an epic soundtrack to this moment.
Not only that, but he moves the chair to the head of the table. This not only gives Tyrion a commanding position himself, as the non-lobotomized among you may remember the head of the table represents power and leadership, but in doing so he directly challenges his father. He not only claims a seat of equal power but sits directly opposite him, a cinematic technique which is often used to show opposition. Which, of course, isTywin and Tyrion’s relationship writ small.
Tyrion is always ready to challenge his father, one of the few people who is. Just look at all of the times he contradicts him. Or the when he refuses to rape Sansa. Or, perhaps most spectacularly, the moment he demands a trial by combat. Which, it should be noted, also has them directly facing each other as they are here.
And it’s not just what he does, but how he does it. Tyrion doesn’t just grab the chair, lift it up and gingerly move it there. The little scamp takes it in his hands and then casually drags it over to the head making an incredible irritating noise that gets on just about everyone’s nerves. Especially on Tywin’s, who immediately shows disapproval.
So not only does Tyrion enter into direct competition with Tywin by sitting at the head, but he goes out of his way to get on his father’s nerves and defy him. Like a puppy pissing on your rug, looking him straight in the eye as he does it, fully aware of what he’s just done. Not quite unlike, oh I don’t know, every time he’s made jokes that annoy his famously humourless father.
The Rousing Conclusion
And just like that everything that needs to be known about these characters and their dynamics has been communicated. By using Tywin (and his position at the table) as a symbol for power, physical proximity to represent the abstract concept of proximity to power and by choosing very carefully which characters do what in what way, this scene manages to do wordlessly in less than 2 minutes what season 8 could not do with an entire script. If the creators were Michelangelo this would be their Sistine Chapel, while season 8 would be the outhouse they painted as kids.
- A Lion Still Has Claws – Why Reforging Ice is the Best Scene in Game of Thrones
- When Littlefinger Gets Littlefingered – Why the Baelish Death Scene Makes No Sense
- A Lot – What Went Wrong with Game of Thrones
Copyright: The images used in this article are screenshots taken from the episodes of the show. We are allowed to use them under section 107 of the US Copyright Act of 1976. Game of Thrones is created by David Benioff and D. B. Weiss, belongs to HBO and was inspired by the book series “A Song of Ice and Fire” by George R.R. Martin.