When I wrote about Game of Thrones last week, I talked about how I – someone generally averse to swords-and-dragons culture – found myself fascinated with the way this particular fantasy universe and its translation to high-concept television drama had some things to say about our modern environment. You know, the whole “questioning traditional social roles,” “finding value in diverse identities” “challenging the gender binary” thing. With that in mind, I’m quite excited that this most recent episode gives me so much to work with. Allow me to recap for you?
We open our episode with the fascinating condition of Theon Greyjoy. After having reunited with his family, he’s got something to prove to his father Balon, who has precious little pity for his son’s long lifetime away from home as a ward of the Starks of Winterfell.
His sister Yara (Asha in the books; the show’s creators feared audiences might get confused with the wildling Osha) recently took the time to mock her long lost brother’s sexuality before revealing she’s been proving her worth as a conqueror in her own right. As retaliation, Theon has somewhat clumsily taken the Stark’s homestead of Winterfell from its prior lord – little Bran Stark, paralyzed from the waist down. Good victory, bro.
It’s not a good day for Theon; his most recent act was to messily hack off the head of the man who first taught him how to use a sword, in a misguided attempt to gain Winterfell’s obedience. And now Osha, herself a Stark prisoner who became sympathetic to the family, has seduced Theon so she could sneak herself, Bran, his littlest brother Rickon and the slow-witted Hodor (who carries Bran in a basket on his back, thereby acting as Bran’s legs) – out of the occupied Winterfell. Mission accomplished.
Before you feel too sorry for Theon, keep in mind he's betrayed the family that raised him over a handful of childish daddy issues and the fantasy of being a prince with an armload of "salt wives" . But he's been thwarted at every attempt to prove his manhood: He’s let a “half-wit,” a “cripple”, a “whore” and a little boy out of his sight, and he must recapture Bran and Rickon if he’s to keep everyone believing that his ownership of Winterfell is really a “thing.”
The books portray Theon as a sad and disgusting creature who smiles too much and bullies too many women for his own good, but in Alfie Allen’s portrayal of the character we see some nuance – here’s a kid subjugated to his dad’s ideas about manhood, struggling to get right with himself. It’s surprisingly sad. One of the great things about this television adaptation is that we can see the flicker and flux of emotion of individuals forced into highly literal, pragmatic circumstances.
Meanwhile, the late Ned Stark’s bastard Jon Snow, a “crow” of the Night Watch, has gotten in over his head, too. While investigating the wild lands beyond the wall that separates Westeros from madness, he’s ended up alone with a captive, the fiery-haired Ygritte – and who knows who’s actually the prisoner between the two of them?
In the face of his chaste watchmen’s vows, the woman teases him relentlessly about the hard-on he got while they were forced to snuggle through the night for crucial warmth in the brutal cold. He has her bound on a rope lead, but he’s lost in the snowy lands while she needles him about his blue balls. “You know nothing, Jon Snow,” she tells him.
The core of the tension between Ygritte and Jon is sexual, yes – but she takes it further than that. His vows have prohibited him from flesh acts, but have also separated him from her people’s world of lawlessness and freedom. Her mockery of him as regards abstinence becomes a treatise on political liberty– who made any of these laws, anyway? Who has the right to claim governance of any place?
One of the more interesting liberties taken by the show is to shed some light on an inevitably complex relationship. There's Lord Tywin Lannister – architect of the war against the late Ned Stark's vengeful son Robb, and father of the incestuous twins that’ve secretly birthed Westeros’ current brutal brat-king Joffrey – and Arya Stark, the incognito daughter of our dear Ned. Arya’s stayed alive by posing as a boy, until Tywin’s keen eye found her for a girl and plucked her from Harrenhal’s torture pits for his cupbearer. You get the sense that he knows there’s more to her than she lets on, especially when he learns she can read – but this little short-haired tomboy keeps a straight face and a level head in the face of the lord whose family killed her dad and wants to kill her brother next. His underestimation of Arya is almost cute, and her resilience is incredible.
Last week, her mother’s friend Peytr Baelish almost spotted her, and Tywin’s knight Amory Lorch almost caught her stealing a message about her brother – good thing her unlikely pal Jaqen H’ghar assassinated Lorch on her behalf (that’s two out of three deaths H’ghar owes her for saving him from a fire). This week, little Arya’s wit keeps her one step ahead of Lord Lannister, universally adored and despised in kind by everyone from his subjects to his own golden-haired children. In the world of Westeros, dirty-faced girls always seem to be a little more powerful than the men with swords at their disposal. In an impromptu conversation about history, Arya reminds Tywin that two out of three of the prior age’s conquerors (who burned the very place they stand, even) were female dragonriders, where "a million men would have been repelled."
Back at King’s Landing, Arya’s elder sister Sansa continues to endure some brutal penalties for her girlish fantasies about noble princes and royal ladies. Virtually imprisoned at court as the vicious young king Joffrey’s fiancée, she barely escaped rape at the hands of an angry citizens' mob in our last episode – Sandor “The Hound” Clegane, the brutal knight with the burned face that Joff calls “dog”, was the one to save her.
Lots of people “ship” Sansa and The Hound, and the show seems to be capitalizing on this; he makes sure she knows that his particular brand of brutality is no less than what’s required to serve the royalty she so fantasized about as an innocent girl. The grotesque Hound is the perfect reality check for her naive dreams. We see Sansa's panic as she gets her very first period, a nightmare given that it means she must tell the nasty queen she's ready to bear kids for awful Joff. The first day a girl sees blood is scary enough without those implications -- even her biology is her enemy within her poignant captivity.
We see Joff’s mom Cersei Lannister, the duplicitous queen regent, shed some tears in front of her “half-man” brother, the uncommonly witty Tyrion Lannister. She says her kids are the most important thing to her, even as brutal and uncontrollable as her wicked boy Joffrey is – and no matter how heavy the mad spectre of the prior Targaryen dynasty’s incestuous heritage hangs. Meanwhile, her number one love – her twin brother – remains a prisoner in the Stark camp.
Jaime Lannister is a fascinating character. He and his siblings have all felt the burn of having Tywin for a father, but he’s always lived by his own code – even though he’s known for killing Westeros’ previous Mad King, you can tell he did it for probably a good reason. And even though he’s had three kids with his own twin sister, he purports to have never been with anyone but her (even though Cersei’s been hooking up with cousin Lancel in his absence!)
Yet when a previous squire gets thrown in prison alongside him – and confides that his day serving Jaime in a jousting competition was the best time of his life – Jaime has no reservations about strangling the poor lad in order to cause a ruckus that gets him out into the stockade. Although a much-honored knight, honor hasn't done too much for Jaime.
Robb Stark is beholden to a very important political marriage, but it can’t stop him – a little bit too righteous, too loving, too young to win this war, we can tell – from continuing a flirtation with a battlefield medic, the enigmatic Talisa. Meanwhile in his camp, the fervor for Jaime Lannister’s head grows. Only Robb's mom, Catelyn, can intervene on behalf of Jaime, the most valuable bargaining chip in her dreams of having her daughters returned. She’s going to let him go, isn’t she.
An ocean away, throne hopeful and Mad King descendent Daenerys Targaryen has lost her dragons to her manipulative Qartheen hosts. Her knight (and would-be suitor) Jorah Mormont investigates on her behalf, only to be witness to a creepy insurrection by the blue-lipped, magical Undying. Ygritte taunts Jon Snow to his limits and manages to escape, leading him into a wildling ambush. And at the episode’s close, Theon Greyjoy displays two tarred little bodies that he purports to belong to the unfortunate Winterfell children, much to everyone’s horror.
There were no boobs in this episode, actually. It was entirely a narrative about what insecure people do when their assumptions about power and privilege are challenged and threatened – there’s king Robb Stark’s inadvisable romance, Lord Tywin’s strange dialogue with his underestimated cup-girl, Jon Snow’s total failure to manage his fire-haired captive, Theon’s desperate actions at Winterfell.
This is a world where a sadistic child king is enabled to run rampant over his people, shattering noble ideals left and right as his prisoner-cum-child-bride still mourns her father, and where disempowered folk must grasp desperately for every advantage, for good or for ill, they can get. There are a lot of people with swords, but those with wits and wiles seem luckier still, no matter how fragile or how small.
The title of the episode is "Men Without Honor." Yes, all these mighty men have been disempowered -- but, okay, you've gotta feel for them a little too, seeing how little honor buys you around these parts.