Game Of Thrones has always been about notions of honor, and how they both make a medieval society possible, and navigating it impossible. But it hasn’t been as bald and emphatic about that since it chopped the head off its Paragon Of Honor, Ned Stark (referenced overtly here more than once). That was a pivotal moment, both a thematic statement of purpose and a major destabilization of the show’s structure. Things were complex before then, but have gotten even more fragmented since. Tyrion has certainly taken on a more central role, but the show has never felt like it revolved around him as much as it did Ned in his capitated prime.
So this episode is highly focused thematically for a show that’s enormous sprawl generally dictates that it be organized according to which machinations of the byzantine plot have to occur before a particular storyline can progress. So let’s make the rounds and see which vows everyone is honoring and which duties they are shucking aside.
Jon Snow is still gearing up to attack Castle Black with the Wildings, and has to make some strategic decisions as to how much betrayal of the Watch is acceptable in service of a vague plan to help their greater interests. He starts out by putting on the worst poker face west of the Shivering Sea and stalling way, way too long to even name which castles are manned. Luckily for him, Tormund Giantsbane must be a truly horrendous card player, because somehow the big guy knows exactly what he is looking for but does not piece together that there is no reason for any hesitation at all if kid is on the level.
Jon then has to make the easiest sacrifice in the history of lucky bastards by breaking his vow of chastity with Ygritte in the cover of a Harlequin novel. Yeah, I think we were all shocked by that twist.
Robb meanwhile finds himself in a position where his entire war effort is jeopardized by sticking to the letter of his law, and the only way he can keep it alive it is to go crawling back to the only man he’s ever broken an oath to. The specter of his father (who you might recall was introduced by beheading another oathbreaker and ultimately broken by the refusal to bend) hangs heavy over these scenes, as Robb sticks to his professed principles, at great cost to himself and benefit to the thoroughly unprincipled Lannisters.
Those Lannisters are so unconcerned with the diminishing threat of the King In The North that they spend the hour plotting against their greatest allies, the Tyrells. The scene where Olenna effortlessly puts Tyrion on his heels shows just how much Dianna Rigg can do with a speck of screentime and cements her as the best casting the show has pulled off since Charles Dance. Who ends the episode by relentlessly paving over two of the strongest characters on the show without breaking a sweat. He’s done this to both of them individually in recent episodes, but now seems to be upping the difficulty just to keep himself amused. If destroying your children’s chance at happiness were a game of Mortal Kombat, Tywin has progressed to the Endurance Matches and is still scoring a Flawless Victory.
I would totally be looking forward to Tywin’s comeuppance, if I thought it was likely to come from anyone but Joffrey. But I’ll admit that his plan is tactically sound, effectively blocking the Tyrells from extending their influence in a manner they can’t publicly oppose, while simultaneously creating inroads for the Lannisters in both Winterfell and Highgarden. Heartless, but devious.
Across the Sea, we have a single sequence, the crux of which is Selmy expressing his regrets at spending his life in sworn, technically honorable service to a madman and a drunken lout. He made the wrong choices, but stayed within the accepted framework of this society while propping up terrible regimes, so he avoided direct punishment for it.
On the opposite end of the spectrum from Selmy, Jaime Lannister is a man whose life has been defined by achieving an honorable end in a “dishonorable” fashion. His murder of the Mad King is exactly what Robert and Ned intended to do, what they are in fact celebrated for bringing about, but because he’d previously taken an oath to serve a lunatic his reputation is forever tarnished. In a blistering monologue by Nicolaj Coster-Waldau, we learn the full story of how he got his nickname. And that, in fact, it was not simple opportunism but necessity that led him to act, as the Mad King had given orders to torch all of King’s Landing with Wildfire. Coster-Waldau should officially be a movie star after that, and along with the scene where he has the gangrene cut and burned from his stump without opiates, should be enough to make even the most Lannister-hating fans to feel at least slightly bad for him. Brienne sure seems have been won over, and she’s a harder sell than most.
Over at Dragonstone, we meet Stannis’s family for the first time, and see him wrestle with whether it is truly okay to break your vows if it’s in service to God. If that is true, then it would follow that Davos’s punishment for a crime that was an honest attempt service to his king is forgivable. But then, Stannis keeps his crazy wife and disfigured daughter locked away in cells for their entire lives; he’s not the most reasonable of sorts, when you get down to it, and the Onion Knight is running short on digits he can take as symbolic punishment. Perhaps with Melisandre gone for a bit, he might come to some sort of sense, but I’m not counting on it.
The Red Woman is presumably on her way to rendezvous with the fellow fire-worshippers in the Brotherhood, where Gendry has conveniently placed himself for whatever nefarious ends she has in store for him. His goodbye to Arya was a touching moment (Maisie Williams is routinely brilliant in all her brief bits) overshadowed by the crazy developments of the opening. Following a terrific duel, we learn that bleeding his sword on fire is the least of the magic that Baric and Thoros can conjure. This was a terrific shock for us non-readers. I was sure someone as important as The Hound wouldn’t be killed by someone in that character’s second scene (it’s an unconventional show in many ways, but it is still a TV show), but I certainly didn’t expect things to play out as they did.
What makes it so surprising is that while we’ve seen pretty extensive magic before, it was from Melisandre and the warlocks, traditional witch-y types. The Brotherhood just seem like a bunch of blokes, even in the scenes afterward. But I always like when magic has a real cost, so I dug the stuff about how this is not a complete cheat code and Baric comes back a little more diminished each time Lord Of Light has to use pull the Fenix Down out of his inventory. It keeps it just grounded enough not to completely throw world the show has built off kilter, while still feeling eerie and fantastical. It also helps that its introduced resurrecting such a minor character. If they had killed Arya and brought her back with some juju we had never heard of, I would totally be calling bullshit on it.
But they didn’t do it that way. They did it the way that the show has done some much else: the completely bitchin way.
So, is it next Sunday yet? Oh, come on!