The Mycah Incident
Right now it’s 6/16/2015, a Tuesday. On Sunday, season five of Game of Thrones finished. Which hasn’t been my only HBO viewing; I’ve gone back into the archives and am rewatching Deadwood’s first season. I mention it because of the interesting contrast between the two shows.
Without spoiling anything, Game of Thrones’ finale was full of disasters for most of the major characters. But those characters are dispersed, so these disasters can’t trigger any chain reactions. Something terrible happens to one character, and then we fly 3,000 miles to watch something terrible happen to another. There’s no connection.
Deadwood is the opposite. All the characters are in one small frontier town, where most of the activity happens out in public, in the muddy thoroughfare. Everyone’s windows overlook this thoroughfare, and one protagonist passes much of his time on a balcony, surveying. When pretty much anything happens, a large minority of the principal cast will be involved, observing from the sidelines at the very least.
Because of this, I feel like I’ve come to know the Deadwood characters better in eight episodes than I have the GoT cast in sixty. (Not to mention the five books.) All characterization is not created equal: five minutes with Tyrion and then five minutes with Dany is not twice as good as five minutes with Tyrion and Dany together – it might even be half.
Though ASOIAF’s action has diffused over time, it wasn’t always that way. The Mycah Incident is minor compared to later episodes, but it’s a lot like Deadwood in that it unites a bunch of characters and reveals something about all of them. It’s probably the most useful chapter in AGOT. Other scenes and moments are more memorable, but it’s material like this that builds the foundation. If you can write this stuff, you’re in great shape.
Let’s briefly review the case for the benefit of the jurors:
As the Starks and Lannisters caravan towards King’s Landing, Joffrey and Sansa spend a magical afternoon together riding in the lands about the Trident. They stumble upon Arya and Mycah, a butcher’s boy, having their own weird little date: the two are fighting with sticks. Joffrey, nasty even when he’s not drunk, forces Mycah into a duel. The ever feisty Arya gets in the mix, and when Joffrey takes a run at her the direwolf Nymeria bites his arm. While he’s crying about his wound, Arya grabs his precious Valyrian steel sword and hammer throws it into the river. She then goes on the run with Mycah.
Four days later, she’s brought before a royal tribunal at the queen’s command. While she recounts the true version of events, Renly has to leave the room, so amused is he at the thought of his wimpy nephew being handled by a girl. Joffrey lies his face off when he gets the chance, and Robert – no King Solomon – is at a loss. He throws his hands up. Ned calls Sansa to the witness stand, but Sansa is so naive that she claims she can’t remember what happened, selling out her little sister. Arya does not take it well. After the guards pry her off Sansa, Robert tells Ned to discipline his daughter. Ned gratefully agrees.
Cersei’s not satisfied; she wants a wolfskin. But Nymeria is still missing. She then suggests that Lady die. Robert agrees to this, and Ned is horrified. But he doesn’t push back, and his code of honor compels him to chop the head off his daughter’s blameless puppy. The whole business ends with Sandor Clegane arriving at with the corpse of Mycah slung over his horse.
A piece of unmotivated cruelty – well, to be generous with Joffrey, let’s say it could have been motivated by wine – leads to a cascade of events that tells us something about Joffrey, Sansa, Arya, Robert, Ned, Cersei, Sansa, Renly, and Sandor.
The fact that Lady finally takes the fall is somewhat absurd. Cersei’s suggesting it in the first place is irrational, but cartoon villainy runs in the family, as we see with Joffrey. But she doesn’t have Joff’s excuses – she’s a grown woman and stone cold sober, and still somehow convinced that taking revenge on a third-party puppy is a nice way to resolve the beef. But I suppose that in Westeros, giving birth does more to a woman than leave stretchmarks – it makes her fundamentally insane in all matters relating to her children. Jaime makes the observation early: “Mothers… I think birthing does something to your minds. You are all mad.” So that’s nonsense, but it’s consistent within the text. (There must be a living yet distant mother somewhere in the mix, but all I can think of are mama bears of various efficacy: Cersei, Cat, Lysa.)
That Ned or Robert would consent to Cersei’s plan is the real stretch, to me. At first Robert’s not having it, but then Cersei challenges his manhood, and he instantly acquiesces. But he hates this woman, at one point audibly damning her in a crowded room. So what does he care about her opinion? Okay, fine, he’s got a fragile ego and he doesn’t want to have to hear about it anymore.
But then Ned offers this appeal, and I reproduce it in its entirety:
“Robert, you cannot mean this,” Ned protested.
Robert tells him to zip it, and Ned spinelessly agrees, thus concluding the most ham-fisted defense since Adnan Syed’s trial. (I’m writing this part on 12/13/2014… surely Serial will still be a hot topic at the watercooler when I release this study?)
Ned is most out of character here, since this is an utterly unjust act, and justice/honor are his primary traits. To better see the inconsistency here, consider this analogue:
Robert’s hatred of the Targaryens was a madness in him. He remembered the angry words they had exchanged when Tywin Lannister had presented Robert with the corpses of Rhaegar’s wife and children as a token of fealty. Ned had named that murder; Robert called it war. When he had protested that the young prince and princess were no more than babes, his new-made king had replied, “I see no babes. Only dragonspawn.” Not even Jon Arryn had been able to calm that storm. Eddard Stark had ridden out that very day in a cold rage, to fight the last battles of the war alone in the south. It had taken another death to reconcile them; Lyanna’s death, and the grief they had shared over her passing.
It’s not very believable that Ned would fold instantly here, even if it’s just an animal. Murdering Targaryen heirs is monstrous but good business sense; killing Lady will only break the heart of his beloved daughter. Do we think Ned is willing to get puppy blood on his hands in order to mollify Cersei Lannister?
So that’s a suspect piece of authorly manipulation, but I like everything else about the scenario. (In fact, I even like the questionable decision on Ned’s part, because hard choices or ostensibly out-of-character choices do more to define a character than the easy and the obvious.) For one, the death of Lady will drive a wedge between the Stark sisters, which is a little more drama. But the major value to me in the Mycah situation is what it tells us about Cersei. We’ve seen her plotting with Jaime, but it’s our first glimpse of her true colors, and how protective she is of Joffrey, the little shit who started it all.
Not only is he valuable for instigating drama, but his position is so useful. If Joffrey has a problem, then the most powerful man in Westeros has a problem, and suddenly major consequences can result from a booboo.
We begin with a cruel impulse: Joffrey wants to mess with Mycah. Mycah is Arya’s friend, so Mycah’s unhappiness or psychic disorder flows to her. She loops this disorder right back to Joffrey, who tries to reflect it back out, and now that Arya is being attacked that creates disorder in the simple mind of the direwolf Nymeria, who chomps Joffrey. Now Joffrey – who had been having a great afternoon! – has major disorder. Who is he going to unload it on now? He goes to momma. Cersei takes Joffrey’s pain, multiplies it, and goes looking for recourse – her husband, naturally. Now Robert’s got a headache he’s looking to get rid of, so he sticks Ned with it, and Ned finally finally grounds the circuit: first by disordering Lady’s head from her neck, and then absorbing all the guilt from it. There’s some blowback here, since Sansa loved Lady and is therefore upset by her death, but she doesn’t have the clout or clear-sightedness to take it out on anybody but her little sister.
At each transfer of disorder, from character to character, we’re getting drama. Think back on the season five finale, now. When something terrible happened, was that disorder able to jump? Did it make a circuit? Or did it fizzle out?