One of the major strengths of “Game of Thrones” in its first season that has carried over to this season has been its unpredictability. (SPOILERS FROM PRIOR EPISODES) The arguable main character was decapitated last season, a man was killed via a molten gold crown, and this season a woman birthed a shadow baby that assassinated its uncle. Needless to say, there are no rules in Westeros, save Arya’s decree: any man can be killed.
And while those moments of shock and awe are compelling as hell, even the outbreak of a world war has its downtime. Before the crucial battles commence, there’s a lot of nitty-gritty details that need to be ironed out. And while that reeks of tediousness for even the most impassioned viewer, tonight was a night where cruelty was at nearly everyone’s doorstep. If there is a God in the GoT universe, his will has descended upon them. The sins of these power seekers will be repaid. Whether these sins are stripping land from its rightful owners, having incestuous relations, or perhaps just messing with the wrong warlock, enemies are lurking in the shadows ready to right those wrongs by correcting the imbalance they created.
The story lover and the storyteller in me says that the reason why this episode felt so rich and gripping was because it told the far more intriguing tale. Everyone remembers the destruction that men inflict upon each other and themselves, but the fascinating events that precede them are so alive with probability. Why do bad things happen? Is it a matter of blame, of accident, of greed, of naivete? The ominous future is always ahead of them, and those who fear it are plenty. But those who seem prepared for its reckoning, who have committed themselves to understanding chaos (a paradox, but bear with me) may be the most fit to survive. Dark days breed dark nights, as well as dark knights. Batman, anyone? The question becomes, can anyone keep their soul intact while they do what’s necessary? Even the villains seem pitifully inept at keeping their heads about them, feeling insecure in their sacrifices and atrocities. And the morally incorruptible are realizing that if if extenuating circumstances do exist, these might be them.
Bookending this epic installment of ruined plans, we begin in the North where Theon, the world’s sloppiest conqueror, beats the living sh*t out of the guard responsible for allowing Bran and Rickon to escape. We check in on the lads and Osha and huggable Hodor to see they’re spritely, just a bit starving. Maester Luwin is horrified because Theon’s deperation to be taken seriously may lead to Joffrey-esque behavior. He employs a scorched-earth policy to apprehending the boys and he looks a bit batty when he smiles eerily at the Maester and says, “Don’t look so grim…It’s all just a game.” Beside being perhaps a little obvious for a show called “Game of Thrones,” it’s sufficiently creepy to see a boy who wanted to belong transform into an off-his-rocker and incompetent tyrant.
In the end, Theon returns to unveil two charred corpses. Though our instinct is to worry that Bran and Rickon are those unrecognizable bodies, TV tropes tell us that unidentifiable dead are rarely who we think they are. All indications are that the crispy boys are the sons of the farmer that the hounds followed the scent to, the one Theon kicks like the coward he is. While it is entirely possible that Bran and Rickon were offed, and while I gasped like I’d lost a friend, my better judgement tells me there’s nothing to fear. Well, except that Theon has moved over to the dark side. Whoops.
Beyond the Wall
In the barren cold, Ygritte remains the sassy and alluring wildling I loved last week. Her ribbing of Jon Snow is so riveting and I like him a lot. She comments when they wake that his knife is poking her backside and when he leaps up in embarrassment she guesses correctly that he’s never been with a woman before. She teases some more with a variation of “If you don’t use it, you lose it,” but then the conversation gets real. Ygritte stops with the insects and asks seriously why he would choose to never get naked with a woman so that he could invade someone’s land. Snow goes on the defensive saying that the Starks were among the first men and share blood with wildlings. Then Ygrite wonders aloud why he would want to fight them. While Jon Snow is honor personified, and his sacrifice is admirable, he does carry an air of self-righteousness that I could see would frustrate a “savage.”
This perspective echoed for me the true story of how the Europeans occupied Native-American lands on the principle that they were more advanced and it was God’s will. This mirrors when Ygritte rants about how wildlings may not have stone castles or be so skilled at making steel, but that does not make those like Jon on the other side of The Wall better. Truthfully, the wildlings are more free. If someone told Ygritte she couldn’t lie with a man she’d shove a spear up his ass. Brutish, sure, but that’s freedom. She advocates further for democracy over monarchy and says they don’t serve sh*t kings because of who their father was, they choose their rulers like Mance Rayder. Now we know as modern folks how the democratic process is flawed too, but this nugget of historical fiction and reflection upon our medieval beginnings as an unexpected, but welcome layer for the show to unfold.
Apart from philosophical treatise though, we get Ygritte acting out how she imagines it will go when Jon Snow hands her over to his boss and she relays her fake story of how he “ruined her” (there goes that word again!). It’s fantastic, that sick sense of sexual humor I love in a woman. Then she seduces him, describing her lady parts all tantalizingly, then she gives the rope a swift kick and runs off, leading him into an ambush of her people.
One of my favorite “calm before the storm” scenes occurs here. Maisie Williams and Charles Dance face off again as their respective characters, Arya and Tywin Lannister, dancing around their suspicions and mistrust and relishing in the intellectual stimulation the other provides. After Tywin whines to The Mountain that he wants him to find who killed Amory Lorch because they were probably after him, he talks to Arya about his legacy. He offers Arya his mutton and she holds her knife maliciously for a bit, but then she sinks her teeth into their conversation. He expects that his current war, “The War of Five Kings” will be what defines him, the glory he passes on to his children. He then discusses the history of Harrenhal as the fortress for King Harren the Black. It was tall enough to withstand any ground assault easily, but the Targaryens changed the rules and their dragons flew over the castle giving the towers the smoky look of today and obliterating the men inside.
Arya reminds him that not only Aegon Targaryen rode dragons, his sisters did too. Way to go, feminist kid! Those sisters, Visenya and Rhaenys were fierce warriors. Arya particularly idolizes Visenya, her dragon Vhagar and her Valyrian sword Dark Sister. Tywin asks her why she isn’t interested in the maidens of the songs like most girls. And like a boss she answers, “Most girls are idiots.” BOOM. Then Tywin makes a telling remark that he knows her secret. No matter how she tries to convince that she is a stonemason’s daughter, she is too literate and learned. He knows she must be noble. He corrects her and says that noble women say “My Lord,” commoners say “Milord.” She must play the part better. Is he so enchanted with her, will he not care of what noble birth she is from? The stepping on eggshells while having enlightening discussions is a stellar combo, and a wonderful way to spend this “downtime.”
The Hound gives a foreboding message to Sansa when she criticizes his gleeful attitude toward killing. After he assures her that even her father loved killing (“It’s the sweetest thing there is”), he insists she’ll appreciate the hateful things he does when he is all that stands between her and her beloved king. We know he’s prone to abusing women, this marriage could prove hurtful for her on many levels. That fear paralyzes her when she wakes from a a nightmare to discover she has bled. She can now bear Joffrey’s children. Shae helps her to conceal it and even puts a knife to the throat of another handmaiden who was peaking. But suddenly, The Hound is there hovering over the soiled sheets.
In the next scene, we start to feel bad for Cersei when she describes the sham of a marriage she had with Robert. He would flee to hunt when she was close to labor, then return with pelts. She gave him a baby. Her other womanly wisdom for Sansa is to love as little as possible since it makes you weak. “Love no one but your children.” Then Sansa becomes confused, this whole time she felt it was vital for her to love Joffrey. So when she asks shouldn’t I love the king, Cersei responds: “You can try, little dove.” Chilling stuff. She may, besides her son, be the most manipulative and sociopathic villain there is, there are reasons why she is so horrid.
My ability to “relate” to Cersei increases when she confides in Tyrion (the brother she loathes!) that she’s afraid she’ll have to pay the price for her sins, her incest with Jamie. At the start, Tyrion is calculated and says the advancing fleet of Stannis Baratheon must be dealt with, get Joffrey to start acting like a king, but she can’t. He quips, “it’s hard to put a leash on a dog once you put on a crown on it’s head. But he consoles her when she cites the Targaryens as a family who bred internally and how half of them went mad. She wonders if her uncontrollable child is the madness she deserves for her repulsive sexual acts. Tyrion assures her that the young ones, Myrcella and Tommen are good and although I’m sure Tyrion finds the relationships between his siblings gross, he doesn’t mention it here. Tyrion has on several occasions undermined his sister because he doesn’t trust her, but there’s no doubt how pitiful Cersei is here, and that it takes her down a peg on the villainy scale.
The crazies come out. While Xaro can’t stop bragging about how rich he is now, he’s also distraught because he took a blood oath to protect Daenerys. Now that her dragons are gone his reputation is tainted: “A man is what he is to others and nothing more,” he says. Ser Jorah returns and although his crush on her is still a source of tension, his counsel is important to her. He understands her trust issues because she has no loyal followers yet (The Dothraki mostly left her), but he knows no one can survive this world without help.
Daenerys then pleads to the Thirteen for help to find her dragons and they are reluctant. The fat, annoying, yet eloquent speaker one says they don’t want to since dragons only bring destruction and misery. Then Daenrys is like, “But they’re my children!” Then one of the Thirteen, warlock Pyat Pree speaks up saying they are cruel to separate her from them. He declares that he has allied with lofty ambitions man, Xaro Xhoan Daxos, to make him King of Qarth and to open up their city to the West. He uses his strange brand of magic then to multiple behind all the remaining members and slit their throats. While not as bizarre (blood spilled is typical now on GoT), it was even more jarring because of how random it was. The warlock was not showcased nearly enough to give me a sinking feeling like I had with Melisandre. Once again men who realize that times have changed do what they are willing to do and cut out the antiquated council and get with the times. The warlock strongly urges Daenerys to find her dragons, that he admits to stealing, in the House of the Undying. That sounds like a fun stroll, right? Nope, sounds like the carnival ride from hell.
Robb Stark’s camp
While a smitten Robb promises to smuggle more medical supplies for the sexy Talisa, bringing her along for The Crag’s conditioned surrender, Jamie Lannister makes a break for it. When his distant cousin Alton relays the news that Cersei ripped up Robb’s demands they hold him in the cell with Jamie. Not Robb’s best choice, but he was pressed and he’s trying to get with a nurse. Needless to say, the man’s busy. Anyway, our time not listening to Jamie ramble on like The Joker about how honorable people are hypocrites seems like wasted time now.
When Alton is first dropped in, Jamie makes small talk asking who he is and Alton says he was once his squire. When he jogs his memory Jamie compliments the lad and reminisces when he was 16 and squired for Ser Barrister Selmy. He describes the honor as being like living a dream. It’s clear how much he values fighting and knighthood. Then he complains how he isn’t suited for subservience like Ned Stark and how he has been planning to escape and that Alton can help. He has no qualms about whispering in the adoring young man’s ear that he will have to die. He clobbers his distant cousin over the head till death and then strangles the guard who comes to tend to him.
Northern bannerman catch the escaped Kingslayer and call for his head, especially Lord Karstark, the strangled guard’s father. Catelyn tells him to stand down in the name of King of the North. The men get rowdy then, getting drunker and ranting about how Talisa has made Robb soft and that they don’t want to die defending a Lannister. Catelyn then confronts Jamie herself. Jamie shows no remorse and even assures that any knight would have done the same. Catelyn believes he is no knight because he has forsaken any vow he ever took. Jamie the retorts that vows can’t be followed dutifully. What if a king he should obey kills the innocent he should protect? The vigilante starts making a lot of sense! Jamie then goes overboard though, pushing the wrong button. He asserts that he’s more honorable than Ned Stark because he has only been with one woman (Cersei) when Ned had a bastard child (Jon) with a whore. He incurs the wrath of Mama Stark and Catelyn asks for Brienne’s sword.
You know when Jamie and Cersei start to seem reasonable that the world’s capacity for ethics has been depleted. Moral relativism is the name of the game. Do what must be done until principle, honor and righteousness are a luxury you can afford. Until then, plan for a sword to stab you in the back by stabbing them first. Even the expert schemers like Tyrion seem woeful for the turn the world has taken. Whether you call it evil, magic, karma, or God’s will, it an undeniable force that is suffocating the order of Westeros with its disorderly conduct. Nothing makes sense, so make your own rules. As anarchy reigns, I await with great anticipation as the dominoes fall. I hope we see our favorite fire priestess soon and that when Stannis’ fleet comes knocking there’s a throwdown for the ages in King’s Landing. For a setup as delightful as any battle due to psychological and philosophical wafare, “A Man Without Honor” earns my allegiance through cunning and contemplation. Westeros is as complicated and complex as ever, but a joy to navigate.
Remember, don’t discuss elements of the books that haven’t aired yet. Don’t spoil it for everyone else in the comments section!