If you’re anything like me, at this point in this season of Game of Thrones you are counting the remaining episodes and begrudging every moment that doesn’t feel absolutely necessary. For the love of god(s), we scream at the screen, Stannis is sailing up the river to King’s Landing! Arya still has one murder owed to her! Jon and Robb need to get laid! Theon and Joffrey need to get killed in nasty, unbearably painful ways! There are only three episodes left: stop blathering on about ancient history and meaningless tournaments and bloody well GET ON WITH IT.
But that’s just the Impatient Plot Junkie talking. The IPJ may resent an episode that consists of almost nothing but conversations—most of which do not seem to immediately advance the story—but Messrs. Benioff and Weiss (who wrote this episode) know exactly what they’re doing.
"A Man Without Honor" is an interlude, of sorts, but it's the kind of interlude that lends color and depth to this entire season of Game of Thrones. It is structured around a series of one-on-one conversations—mostly between enemies—that shed light on—and cast doubt on—the fundamental beliefs of certain characters. We know there are big fights coming: this episode provides some space for some of our major characters to examine why they're fighting, and to wonder whether any of it is worth it.
As the title suggests, the episode is largely concerned with the idea of "honor"—but that's a term that's used pretty loosely, isn't it? Everyone in this world talks about honor: they honor their vows; they uphold the honor of their houses; they fight to maintain, or restore, the honor of themselves or their families. But what does the word mean?
Game of Thrones has always had a fairly ambiguous view of "honor." "You don't fight with honor," Lysa Stark accused Bronn last season, after he bested her knight. "No," Bronn agreed, the guy who lost fought with honor: Bronn just fought to win. When Catelyn Stark (Michelle Fairley) tried to convince Walder Frey to honor the vow he swore to her father, Frey reminded her that he had sworn a lot of vows in his life, to different people, and it was impossible to honor them all. And King Robert called Ned Stark an "honorable fool": "Honor? I've got Seven Kingdoms to rule! One king, Seven Kingdoms! Do you think honor keeps them in line? Do you think it's honor that's keeping the peace? It's fear! Fear and blood!"
This episode takes a good long look at our characters—and particularly the "villains," those perceived as "dishonorable"—and questions why they do the things they do. And once you start examining the purely human reasons people do things, the whole idea of honor becomes very abstract, and
"Do you know what 'legacy' means?…It's what remains of you when you're gone."
One of the most pleasant surprises of this season has been the pairing of Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) and Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance). The two actors have fantastic chemistry, and the two characters play off each other with amusement, mutual respect, and a sly distrust that makes these scenes a delight. (Charles Dance has always been a wonderful actor, and watching tiny Maisie Williams go toe-to-toe with him is amazing.)
But the best thing these scenes have accomplished has been to humanize Tywin Lannister. Every story we've heard of him has been terrible, and the few earlier scenes he's had—with Jaime and with Tyrion—have shown him to be formidable but fearsome. Those were sons, however, and here we discover what he might have been like with Cersei: Arya brings out a paternal playfulness in him that is genuinely charming. (Part of what is so powerful about their scenes together is the unspoken sadness beneath their dance: he is a natural father-figure, and Arya craves that, having recently lost her own father. But, of course, she lost her father to the Lannisters, and so these two can never really be anything but enemies.)
We learn here too a little more about what motivates Tywin. Last season he and Jaime discussed public perception, and Tywin explained that the point is to be strong, not to appear strong. "The lion doesn't concern himself with the opinions of the sheep," he said, telling Jaime that questions of honor should not bother him. What should concern them, he says, is the strength of the Lannister name: "It's the family name that lives on: it's all that lives on. Not your personal glory, not your honor, but family."
He makes the same point again this episode. Ordering the Mountain (Ian Whyte) to flush out the Brotherhood without Banners, he explains that they cannot allow rebels to operate with impunity. "We look like fools, and they look like heroes: that's how kings fall." And to Arya, he emphasizes the importance of the legacy he leaves behind.
"You think I'd be in my position if I'd lost a war? This is the one I'll be remembered for. The War of Five Kings, they're calling it. My legacy will be determined in the coming months. You know what legacy means? It's what you pass down to your children, and your children's children. It's what remains of you when you're gone."
Tywin isn't concerned with honor: he is only concerned with the survival of his family name, a sort of immortality that comes with power. "Aegon Targaryan changed the rules," he says, as they discuss the dragon riders who burned down Harrenhal. "That's why every child alive still knows his name, 300 years after his death."
But Arya reminds him that the Targaryan male didn't ride alone. "It wasn't just Aegon riding his dragon," she says. "It was Rhaenys and Visenya too." It's a clever nod to the tendency of Tywin—and this society in general—to overlook the importance of the women, and a little foreshadowing that perhaps Tywin should take more seriously this little girl who amuses him. ("Aren't most girls more interested in the pretty maidens from the songs?" he asks her. "Most girls are idiots," she replies.)
"It's better to be cruel than weak."
So who is the man without honor to whom the title of this episode refers? One of the obvious candidates is Theon (Alfie Allen), who—as Rodrik said last episode—“has less honor than a back-alley whore.” Theon has, no doubt, convinced himself that he's fighting for the honor of his house, but in reality he is motivated purely by pride and insecurity. "I'm looking at spending the rest of my life being treated like a fool and a eunuch by my own people," he says to Maester Luwin (Donald Sumpter). "Ask yourself, is there anything I wouldn't do to stop that from happening?" He has mistaken a crippling inferiority complex for honor, and it has made him vicious and desperate. "It's better to be cruel than weak," he says, and he proves again here that he's willing to be unspeakably cruel to avoid even the appearance of weakness.
I think we'd all agree that Theon is a man without honor. And yet, from a different perspective, he is strangely justified, and almost sympathetic: he is, after all, just a deeply damaged boy, raised in captivity, fighting for the love and respect of his true family. Here's an interesting comparison: if Arya (Maisie Williams) were to spend the next ten years with Tywin—a captive treated with kindness, raised almost as if she were Tywin’s daughter—to whom would she owe allegiance in the end? After she spent more than half her life as Tywin’s ward, would we consider it loyalty or betrayal for her to shove a knife in Tywin’s back? Viewed from this perspective, the question of Theon's "dishonor" becomes more complicated, and far harder to judge.
"So many vows."
Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) is the other clear choice for this episode's eponymous figure. "You are a man without honor," Cat says, to his face. "You are no knight. You have forsaken every vow you ever took." But Jaime makes the same point about conflicting vows that Walder Frey made last season:
"So many vows. They make you swear and swear. Defend the king. Obey the king. Obey your father. Protect the innocent. Defend the weak. But what if your father despises the king? What if the king massacres the innocent? It's too much. No matter what you do, you're forsaking one vow or another."
Jaime has been branded with the title "Kingslayer" even since he stabbed Aerys Targaryan in the back, but here he points out—as he once did to Ned—that Aerys was a mad despot who needed to die. What does it matter how he died? ("Tell me, if I stabbed the mad king in the belly instead of the back," he asked Ned last season, "would you admire me more?")
Jaime is really a delightful character: so handsome, so sunny and charismatic, but almost totally amoral: he's the dark side of Prince Charming. Jaime hasn't had much to do this season—this is the first time we've seen him since Episode Two—but this episode makes up for it. In addition to the scene with Cat, he also gets a fabulous scene with his cousin Alton (Karl Davies), in which the two men share memories of squiring for their heroes: Jaime, for Ser Barristan Selmy, and Alton, for Jaime himself. What we discover is that being a knight—for Jaime—is not about the honor, but about the fighting.
"He was a painter, a painter who only used red. I couldn't imagine being able to fight like that, not back then. And to help him do it, to be a part of something that perfect…It's like stepping into a dream you've been dreaming for as long as you can remember, and finding out that the dream is more real than your life."
He was, he admits, a terrible squire—but when he entered the fight himself he discovered his true identity. "It's a good thing I am what I am," he says. "I'd have been useless at anything else."
Last season, Syrio Forel expressed what may be the key philosophy of Game of Thrones: "There is only one god, and his name is Death. And there is only one thing we say to Death: 'Not today.'" Honor and morality are abstract concepts, and ultimately impractical: in this world, the most important thing is survival. (It's certainly a philosophy with which Jaime seems to agree, as he demonstrates by killing his young cousin in order to effect a short-lived escape.)
"You know nothing, Jon Snow."
Or is the man without honor Jon Snow (Kit Harington)? "Love is the death of duty," Maester Aemon warned him last season, in explaining why the men of the Night's Watch must take no wives and father no children. Jon is one of our heroes, but, in a way, he is not so different from either Theon or Jaime: he is driven less by morality or honor than by a need to prove himself, a desire to become something more in the eyes of society than "a bastard." This—and the love he feels for certain people—is more important than any of the vows he has taken. (He has not actually forsaken his vows yet, but he's come awfully close, as when he nearly went AWOL from the Wall at the end of last season because his family was in danger.)
And now he faces a different sort of temptation in Ygritte (Rose Leslie), who openly tries to seduce him, mocks his vows of celibacy, and challenges—persuasively—everything he thinks he believes in. "We're free," she says, of the Wildlings. "Someone tried to tell us we couldn't lie down as man and woman, we'd shove a spear up his ass. We don't go serving some shit king who's only king because his father was." She challenges him, also, on the very notion of the realm he thinks he's serving: "They're not your lands," she tells him. "We've been here all along. You lot came along and just put up a big wall, and said it was yours." When Jon protests that his is the blood of the First Men, and therefore his ancestors lived there just as hers did, she asks—quite sensibly—“So why're you fighting us?”
"The more people you love, the weaker you are."
Cersei, of course, has never cared anything about honor: of all of the characters in Game of Thrones, she's one of the most inarguably villainous. And yet Cersei has always been motivated by one thing and one thing only: her love for her children. It is the source of every hateful and treacherous thing she has ever done, but it is also the one thing that makes her human. (“You love your children,” Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) told her, earlier this season. “It is your only redeeming value. That, and your cheekbones.”) Here, she acknowledges this single obsession to Sansa (Sophie Turner), in the first of two fantastic scenes for Lena Headey this week. "The more people you love, the weaker you are," she tells Sansa. "Love no one but your children: on that front a mother has no choice."
And now she recognizes that the child she has dedicated her life to raising is a monster. "Joffrey has always been difficult," she admits to Sansa, and she confesses to Tyrion that she can't control her son. "It's hard to put a leash on a dog once you've put a crown on its head," Tyrion says, but Cersei is in no mood to spar: she breaks down, suddenly seeming to recognize that her entire life has been a waste. "Sometimes I wonder if this is the price for what we've done," she confesses to Tyrion. "For our sins." Openly acknowledging for the first time the incestuous relationship that produced her children, she wonders if that is the source of Joffrey's evil. "Robert was a drunken fool," she says of her late husband, and Joffrey's "official" father. "But he didn't enjoy cruelty." She has tried to justify her relationship with Jaime by pointing out that the Targaryans married brother to sister for centuries, but now she admits that half of the Targaryans went mad.
"You've beaten the odds," Tyrion tells her, gently. "Tommen and Myrcella are good, decent children, both of them." It's a lovely scene between the two siblings, who normally hate one another: Tyrion, as his earlier comment indicates, respects and responds to his sister's love for her children, and so do we: it does not excuse her crimes, but it humanizes her, and makes her less of a villainous figure and more of a tragic one.
"Killing's the sweetest thing there is."
Is there any such thing as a man with honor? The late Eddard Stark remains our moral compass in Game of Thrones, but his life and death are themselves proof that honor is an almost meaningless term, and I'd suggest that the title of this episode refers to him as much as it does to anyone. Ned's "honor" comes under fire several times in this episode. First, Sandor Clegane (Rory McCann) impugns Ned's memory to Sansa. She tries to thank the Hound for saving her life last week, but he refuses to stop being terrifying long enough to accept her gratitude. "Does it give you joy to scare people?" she asks him.
"No, it gives me joy to kill people. Spare me, you can't tell me Lord Eddard Stark of Winterfell never killed a man." Sansa protests that her father never enjoyed killing, and the Hound says that, if that's what Ned told her, he lied. "Killing's the sweetest thing there is."
And then Jaime, too, calls Ned's honor into question. "You know, I've never been with any woman but Cersei," he tells Cat, cruelly. "So in my own way, I have more honor than poor old dead Ned. What was the name of that bastard he fathered?…You hated that boy, didn't you?…The walking, talking reminder that the honorable Lord Eddard Stark fucked another woman."
I don't for a moment mean to suggest that Ned wasn't a good man, or even that the Hound and Jaime are necessarily right. (We never saw any evidence that Ned enjoyed killing people, for example—though he was very good at it, and probably had a lot of fun fighting alongside his friend Robert in their younger days.) But I do think the show is deliberately reminding us that even Ned—the best man in Westeros, and our hero—was not perfect, and made his decisions based more on necessity and emotion than on any abstract concept of honor or duty. Remember, honor was the most important thing in the world to Ned Stark only until he was forced to make a choice between it and his children, and then he sacrificed his honor willingly.
Jaime and Cersei conspired to kill a little boy, and that act is despicable—but they did it to protect the lives of their children. Ned Stark gave his own life to protect his children, and that act is admirable—but in doing so he had to publicly swear to his gods that Joffrey—Joffrey!—was the one true king. Which is more honorable, and which is less honorable? Jon Snow and Theon are both acting from insecurity and fragmented senses of their own identities, yet one is a hero and one is a villain.
It's to this show's credit that, the longer we spend with these characters, the more meaningless such distinctions become. The most honorable acts are questionable when they're done out of selfish motives, and the most dishonorable acts are understandable—if not justifiable—when they are committed out of love. When we look closely enough, there are no heroes, and no villains either.
(Except, of course, for Joffrey: that little son of a bitch needs to die.)
- Once again I find myself skipping over the Adventures in Qarth this week, mostly because I'm not enjoying them. The one bit I enjoyed this week was the thematically relevent speech Dany (Emelia Clarke) gives to Jorah (Iain Glen) about questioning her own motives and justifications. "Who are my people? The Targaryans? I only knew one, my brother, and he would have let a thousand men rape me if it would have gotten him the crown. The Dothraki? Most of them turned on me the day Khal Drogo fell from his horse." She's causing a lot of damage, as she now realizes, and her cause is fairly uncertain.
- Jorah is another good man whose "honor" is basically selfish: he's dedicated to Dany, but it's based less on her claim to the throne and more on the fact that he's in love with her. In fact, he has betrayed her before, as the mysterious woman in the mask points out.
- Tywin and Arya really are adorable together. "You're too smart for your own good. Has anyone ever told you that?" "Yes."
- I'm posting this after the next episode has aired, so I feel more justified in saying this than I would normally: whether they'd read the books or not, was anyone fooled by the two burnt bodies at the end of this episode?