The emotional highs and lows of this show are almost too much to take sometimes. Last week's episode left us cheering and pumping our fists in triumph, but this week's episode, "Kissed by Fire," was more likely to have us weeping copiously in a black fog of sadness and despair.
Don't get me wrong, however: the emotional peaks and valleys are a large part of the appeal of Game of Thrones, and the highs would not seem so high, or the lows so low, if these stories and characters were not so well crafted. I said last week that the pursuit of power was a long game on this show, and it occurs to me now that that's true for the writers and actors as well: they've built these characters so carefully—patiently layering in the histories and personalities, successes and failures, conflicts and contradictions—that every emotional moment is all the more powerful now for being completely earned.
We understand, by now, what it has cost Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), behind his smirk, to have carried the title Kingslayer all these years; we've seen what Arya (Maisie Williams) has been through, and so we truly feel how much it hurts for her to lose yet another brother; we know how solitary and solemn a life Jon Snow (Kit Harrington) has lived, so we recognize what a huge thing it is for him to make a tender connection to another human being, and to accept even a stolen moment of joy. Where other shows manipulate their audiences with sudden shocks and cheap sentimentality, everything that happens on this show—good and bad—is more powerful for developing naturally and believably out of what has come before.
"Kissed by Fire"—written by Bryan Cogman, and directed by Alex Graves—is one of the darkest and most somber episodes of Game of Thrones to date. Not surprisingly, it's also one of the best.
"I'm not fighting for justice if I don't serve justice."
The throughline this week—the theme connecting all of these emotional stories together—is rules: the codes we live by, and what it means to keep them, and what it means to break them. As we've often discussed before, this is a world governed by rigid rules, where all decisions are determined by codes of honor, sacred vows, and strict allegiances. The resulting tension between these strict societal rules and the inconvenient, often unwieldy emotions of individuals is one of the major themes of Game of Thrones, and one of its most common sources of conflict and drama.
For—as many characters have pointed out—rules are tricky things, aren't they? In the Season One episode "Baelor," Catelyn Stark (Michelle Fairley) tries to enlist the cooperation of Walder Frey (David Bradley) against the Lannisters by invoking his vow to serve her father, but he reminds her that it's not that simple. "Oh yes, I said some words," he says. "But then I swore oaths to the crown too, if I remember right." And Jaime made the same point to her last season in "A Man Without Honor." “So many vows," he says. "They make you swear and swear...No matter what you do, you’re forsaking one vow or another.” Also in "Baelor," Maester Aemon (Peter Vaughan) tells Jon Snow that "love is the death of duty," and even Ned Stark (Sean Bean)—universally recognized as the most honorable man in Westeros—chose to forsake his honor, in the end, out of love for his children.
It's hard to live by the letter of the law, and it turns out that Rickard Karstark (John Stahl) can't do it. Still grieving from the death of his sons at the hands of Lannisters—one who fell in battle, and one who was murdered by Jaime—Karstark finally enacts a small revenge by killing two Lannister hostages, Willem and Martyn (Timothy Gibbons and Dean-Charles Chapman). That these are two teenage boys, of no particular strategic value, doesn't matter: enraged that he couldn't revenge himself on Jaime (whom Catelyn set free for her children), Karstark acts out of pure emotion and murders these relative innocents in their cells.
Robb (Richard Madden) is horrified, of course, because he—more than anyone—has tried to live by the honorable teachings of his father. His ways are the old ways, and he believes in justice, and neither of those codes allows room for the slaughter of defenseless children. But rules are tricky things, especially in war: it might have been treason to kill these boys, Karstark points out, but it was also treason when Catelyn set Jaime Lannister free. ("Ay, leave me to the king," Karstark mocks, bitterly. "He wants to give me a scolding before he sets me free: that's how he deals with treason, our King of the North.")
Should Robb have executed his own mother for her treason? Probably, by the letter of the law, he should have—but of course he couldn't do that, wouldn't do that. There is always an element of pick-and-choose in which codes you obey and which you don't, and, like Ned did, Robb is clumsily trying, in each decision, to do what is right.Now, his closest advisers caution him to let Karstark live, and keep word of the murdered boys from reaching King's Landing, but Robb won't break that code: "Would you make me a liar as well as a murderer?...I'm not fighting for justice if I don't serve justice." It may lose him half his army, and it may lose him the war, but he can't abide the murder of children anymore than Ned could. Robb executes Karstark himself, because the man who passes the sentence should wield the sword: his father taught him that, too.
Robb is Ned's son all the way, imperfectly living by imperfect rules, making some decisions out of honor, some out of love, and some out of an innate and inarticulate sense of justice. We don't even necessarily disagree with him—Catelyn acted to save her children, while Karstark lashed out in rage to murder children—but we recognize that he's in an impossible situation, everywhere he turns breaking one code in order to adhere to another. Ironically, the end of this episode finds Robb deciding that his only hope is to reach out to Walder Frey, the man he himself broke an oath to when he married Talisa (Oona Chaplin). It was the one purely selfish decision he ever made, the one time he broke the rules without any justification but his own desires, and now everything may depend on it.
"The judgement isn't ours to make."
Of all the dumb-ass rules that govern this world, "trial-by-combat" may be the dumbest, and the most perfectly representative of the irreconcilable conflicts inherent in these codes. In theory, it's an expression of faith, an absolute trust that the world is a just and orderly place in which the innocent will be set free and the guilty will be punished. In practice, of course, it is a fundamentally flawed judicial system, one predisposed to reward might over right. If Bronn (Jerome Flynn) had not stepped forward to fight for Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) last season at the Eyrie, for example, Tyrion would have had to fight for himself and almost certainly would have been both slaughtered and wrongfully found guilty in the eyes of the gods.
On the other hand, I suppose the very fact that Bronn did come forward could be seen as support for the argument that the system works. The case of the Hound (Rory McCann) versus Beric Dondarrian (Richard Dormer) this week adds an interesting wrinkle to this theological debate: is Sandor Clegane guilty for the crimes of his family? Is he to be held responsible for the orders he carried out while sworn to serve Joffrey (Jack Gleeson)? The Mountain murdered defenseless children—the Targaryan children—but he did so in the service of King Robert's rebellion. The Hound, too, murdered at least one defenseless child we know of—Arya's friend Micah, the butcher's boy—but he did so in service of the prince he was sworn to obey. ("It's not my place to question princes," the Hound said, last week.) Should he have refused? Broken his oaths? Ned Stark would have—in fact, he did, refusing to participate in Robert's plot to murder Dany's unborn child—but, again, choosing when and how to be an oathbreaker is a very tricky thing.
In the eyes of the supposed "One True God," anyway, Clegane is innocent, as he bests Dondarrian in one of the better fight scenes Game of Thrones has executed. (McCann's performance has always been excellent, and particularly fine here is the way he conveys how the Hound is fighting through his very understandable fear of fire. Between this and the Battle of Blackwater, Sandor Clegane is being forced to confront his phobias the hard way.) Arya is outraged by this obvious miscarriage of justice, but rules are rules: "The judgement isn't ours to make," Dondarrian tells her.
Poor Arya. Maisie Williams absolutely breaks my heart this episode, and she does it not once, not twice, but thrice. The first is when she leaps up to take on the Hound herself, and her tortured cry of "Burn in Hell!" when she realizes the murderer of her friend is going to go free. The second is when this little girl—who has already lost so many people in her life—discovers that she is losing her surrogate brother Gendry (Joe Dempsie) as well. Gendry says he has served men all his life—lived in accordance to the rules, sworn to one master after another—and now a life of freedom and equality in the Brotherhood without Banners appeals to him. These men, he says, are family. "I could be your family," protests Arya, crying—but no: calling back to the the conversation they had in "The Night Lands," he reminds her that she's a noblewoman: "You wouldn't be my family: you'd be My Lady." The rules are different for family.
The third time, of course, is when Dondarrian explains that he has died and been brought back by his Lord of Light half a dozen times by now. "Can you bring back a man without a head?" she asks Thoros of Myr (Paul Kaye), but the men assure her that it doesn't work that way, and that Ned would not thank them for the favor. "Every time I come back, I'm a bit less," Beric says. "Pieces of you get chipped away." He would not, he says, wish this life on anyone, but Arya disagrees: "I would," she says. "You're alive." There is only one god, and that's the god of death, and the only thing to say to him is Not Today.
"Would you have kept your oath then?"
Beric Dondarrion's words echo in our minds as we watch Jaime Lannister now: "Pieces of you get chipped away." Jaime has lost nearly everything, including his hand, and we see more of that torn away in a frankly ghastly scene as a demented ex-maester, Qyburn (Anton Lesser) tends to his wound. (I don't even want to know what you have to do to get excommunicated by the maesters: "They found some of my experiments too bold," is the only explanation Qyburn provides.) Jaime refuses any anesthetic as the man crudely digs away the "corruption" in his arm: he is content to suffer at this point, and he is content to scream.
But he deserves it, right? Ned Stark was the most honorable man in Westeros, and Jaime Lannister was the Man Without Honor, the Kingslayer, the Oath-Breaker: these things, as they say, are known. But now, as he joins his new sister Brienne (Gwendoline Christie) in the bathtub, we hear the other side of the story, and it puts the common wisdom and this entire system of rules and codes into question:
"Have you heard of wildfire? The Mad King was obsessed with it. He loved to watch people burn...So he had his pyromancer place caches of wildfire all over the city: beneath the Sept of Baelor, and the slums of Fleabottom, and houses, stables, taverns, even beneath the Red Keep itself. Finally, the day of reckoning came...I urged him to surrender peacefully, but the King didn't listen to me...We opened the gates, and my father sacked the city. Once again, I came to the King, begging him to surrender. He told me to bring him my father's head. Then he turned to his pyromancer. 'Burn them all,' he said.'Burn them in their homes, burn them in their beds.' Tell me, if your precious Renley commanded you to kill your own father, and stand by while thousands of men, women, and children burned alive, would you have done it? Would you have kept your oath then?
"First I killed the pyromancer, and then, when the King turned to flee, I drove my sword into his back. 'Burn them all,' he kept saying. 'Burn them all'...
"That's where Ned Stark found me...Stark: you think the honorable Ned Stark wanted to hear my side? He judged me guilty the moment he set eyes on me. By what right does the wolf judge the lion? By what right?"
It's worth remembering that other men—like Barristan Selmy (Ian McElhinney)—served the Mad King faithfully right up until King's Landing fell, and were not only forgiven for their service but rose to be highly respected, honorable men in the new regime. They were not punished for the crimes of their King, and they were respected precisely because they kept their oaths. (Selmy says as much this episode: "A man of honor keeps his vows, even if he's serving a drunk, or a lunatic.") Yet Jaime is judged guilty—and it was our hero, Ned, who passed the cruel sentence—for breaking his oath, even though it meant saving the lives of everyone in the capitol. He did, it turns out, what was right, not what was honorable—just as Ned did, just as Catelyn did, just as we judge others (like the Hound) for not doing.
Jaime collapses in the bath, and Brienne calls out "Kingslayer!" But he has had enough of that name, of that curse, of that stain on his character: "Jaime," he says weakly, as Brienne holds him. "My name is Jaime."
This is an extraordinary scene—with fantastic acting from both parties—and the symbolism of this pieta-like tableau—with Jaime cradled in the arms of the Virgin Maid—is hard to ignore: Jaime has suffered for his crimes, and the maester helped purge him of his "corruption," and now this is a baptism, washing away his sins, cleansing his soul and (in Brienne's eyes, at least) his reputation. In an episode where we've already seen one resurrection, here is another, less literal one: he's the Kingslayer no more, the man without honor no more, and it will be interesting to see where we go from here: it won't surprise me if he turns out to be reborn a hero.
"You swore some vows. I want you to break 'em."
And let's end on a happier note. Earlier in "Kissed by Fire" there is another baptism scene, a mirror reflection of the later scene between Brienne and Jaime. If Jaime's plunge into the waters is a cleansing of sin, this one is an immersion in sin, but damn if it isn't the more fun and joyous of the two.
Previously, no one could accuse Jon Snow of being a man without honor: he's kept to his vows as a member of the Night's Watch, and he's kept true to the vow he made himself, long ago, never to be with a woman and risk fathering a bastard son like himself. But, like his father, it turns out he's capable of choosing love over honor; like his brother Robb, he's long overdue to make one selfish decision, and to act on his desires. The night is cold and full of terror, but all these rigid codes of honor have to leave some room for light and happiness. "Love is the death of duty," Aemon warned him, and it turns out he was right.
So Ygritte (Rose Leslie) seduces him, and, to be honest, Jon doesn't put up much of a fight. It may break the rules—though his undercover status with the wildlings leaves this open to interpretation—but it's also the first time we have ever seen Jon Snow really happy. (He even smiles: who the hell knew he had teeth?)
The land beyond the wall, as we've discussed before, represents both the dangers and the attractions of a world without all these rules and codes, all this talk of honor and allegiances. It's the natural world, a world of emotion and danger and desire, all the things that the trappings of so-called "civilization" are meant to keep at bay. "We don't kneel to anyone beyond the wall," Mance Rayder (Ciaran Hinds) told Jon a few weeks ago, and, the first time he met her, Ygritte made it clear that there are no rules here: “We’re free,” she told him. “Someone tried to tell us we couldn’t lie down as man and woman, we’d shove a spear up his ass." Now, she says to him—as she said before—“You know nothing, Jon Snow,” and this time its an invocation, an invitation to unlearn all the bullshit about honor and duty that he's carried with him. Sometimes it's nice to forget everything you know, just for a little while.
So now Jon Snow is an oath-breaker—but it's hard to begrudge him this rare moment of joy, or to judge him too harshly for finding this brief respite from civilization in this primordial Eden of Ygritte's cave. (No pun intended.) If the Stark Family are our heroes, it may be because they all recognize Ned's lesson: sometimes, love trumps duty, honor, and even wisdom.
"I don't ever want to leave this cave, Jon Snow," Ygritte says. And who can blame them?
Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits
- I skipped over a few important developments this week, but they're all on point. Even paragon of honor and dullness Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane) found himself breaking his oath and giving in to his desires last season, and now he confesses that betrayal to his wife: "I've broken a sacred vow," he tells Selyse (Tara Fitzgerald). But it turns out Selyse, too, is in thrall to Melisandre (Carice van Houten) and her Lord of Light, who have their own (terrifying) interpretation of the rules: "No act done in service of the Lord of Light can ever be a sin," Selyse assures him.
- Speaking of Selyse, between her and the Governor on The Walking Dead, I've seen way too many awful things floating in glass jars this year, and her little collection of dead babies does not speak well to her mental state. Far more attractive—downright adorable, actually—is their living child, Shireen (Kerry Ingram), who is such good friends with Davos (Liam Cunningham) that she wants to teach him to read in his cell.
- Meanwhile, in King's Landing, Tywin (Charles Dance) has nasty surprises (and lessons about duty) for two of his children. When Cersei (Lena Headey) uncovers the plot to marry Sansa (Sophie Turner) to Loras (Finn Jones), Tywin decides instead to keep her (and her titles) in the family by marrying her to Tyrion. It was sad and painful to see Tyrion argue against the cruelty of making anyone marry him. ("Joffrey has made this poor girl's life miserable since the day he took her father's head. Now she's finally free of him, and you give her to me? That's cruel, even for you.") But it was delicious to watch Tywin wipe the cruel smirk off Cersei's face, and replace it with the realization that now she is supposed to marry Loras. "My children," Tywin says in disgust. "You've disgraced the Lannister name for far too long."
- Not much happening across the Narrow Sea this week, as Dany (Emilia Clarke) meets the new, democratically elected leader of the Unsullied, Grey Worm (Jacob Anderson). Meanwhile, Jorah and Barristan have their discussion about honor, while Jorah feels the man out and tries to discover whether Ser Barristan knows about his own cooperation in the plot to murder Dany.
- We get some welcome comic relief this episode from the Queen of Thorns (Diana Rigg), who is challenging Bronn for the title of most quotable person in Westeros: "I was told you were drunk, impertinent, and thoroughly debauched," she says to Tyrion. "You can imagine my disappointment at finding nothing but a browbeaten bookkeeper."
- The music over the closing credits has been excellent this season, and in this episode it was downright haunting: Shireen, singing a simple nursery song that speaks to the darkness of this episode, and of the darkness still to come:
The shadow's come to dance, my love,
the shadow's come to play,
the shadow's come to dance, my love,
the shadow's come to stay.