Game of Thrones S3E2: Ladies, leave your men at home

The Game of Thrones universe is all about how disadvantages are balanced against advantages: Every major character or faction has a unique set of challenges, and then a trump card. Tyrion Lannister's unfavorable height, scarred face and status as the family black sheep is balanced by his superior wit and endless disposable income; as Queen Regent, Cersei almost has the power she wants — but then of course, she's tasked with mothering and managing awful Joffrey. Daenerys' dragons were her trump card even when she had nothing else. And young Bran Stark has lost everything, including the use of his legs, but he has "green dreams."

Magical phenomena in Game of Thrones are applied with a light hand, generally. You could almost forget you're watching a show about a fantasy universe instead of a show about medieval wartime politics until it asks you to believe in undead wights, or in skin-changing wargs, people that have the ability to project themselves into the bodies of animals. Bran's dreams of a three-eyed crow and a peculiar, small young man are more than ordinary dreams. When he sleeps he roams the world in the body of his direwolf, Summer.

After fleeing occupied Winterfell, Bran, along with the wildling woman Osha, his dear steward Hodor and his little brother Rickon, plans on going to the wall, from whence Bran doesn't know his half-brother Jon Snow has defected on a spy mission against the wildlings. But in this episode Team Bran meets the crannogfolk Jojen and Meera, who've presumably found Bran through the boy's nighttime searching in Summer's skin, and we get the impression this three-eyed raven of his dreams might become a more important quest.

The lost Stark children seem endlessly to orbit their family — mother might be at Riverrun, Jon at the Wall, Robb on the warfront — and as the courses of their travels attract new potential allies (will Littlefinger really help Sansa reunite with Catelyn, or use her for his own ends?), they seem always a step behind. The Stark family's wish to reunite drives what might be the primary narrative arc of Game of Thrones. We just want to know if their mother is going to get her children back.

Things aren't good for Lady Catelyn right now. Her eldest son blames her for the fall of Winterfell, the rest of her children are missing or captive, and she's just gotten word from Riverrun that her father, Hoster Tully, has died.

To make matters worse, Robb has broken an alliance with the Freys that saw him promise to marry one of their horrible daughters in exchange for passage at the Frey-owned Twins holding last season. He's married a Volantene girl, and you see how deeply Catelyn mistrusts this choice. If there weren't already enough people blaming her for the botched-up war effort, she confides she thinks the gods are exacting vengeance on her because she once wished for Jon Snow, her husband's bastard, to die, and then failed to be a mother to him.

Robb decides to divert his troops toward Riverrun so that the family can attend his grandfather's funeral. Family is core to the Starks' identity, and yet Robb's consistent choice of love and loyalty and the noble pursuit of vengeance over strategy is clearly threatening his bid for the throne. Northmen loyal to the Starks are getting restless, and grizzled Arnolf Karstark tells Robb of his bride, "I think you lost the war the day you married her." Ooh, was that the prickle of foreshadowing? I sure hope not.

Legendary swordsman and charming incestor Jaime Lannister is, at the behest of Lady Stark, remains in the custody of Brienne "The Beauty" of Tarth. She's clinging doggedly to her mission to bring this incredibly high-value prisoner to King's Landing, believing he can be traded for the Stark girls. The Lannisters, of course, have made sure nobody knows they only have one Stark girl — Arya is, of course, posing as a sword-wielding boy in the countryside with her friends — but let's worry about that later.

The characters discuss the late Renly Baratheon and his "degenerate" "proclivities" often during this episode. Renly, of course, was gay, and in love with Loras Tyrell, the handsome Knight of Flowers, but the books always made that fact implicit. The show's decision to deal with it explicitly, and even to portray the physical relationship between Renly and Tyrell in earlier episodes, is an interesting one.

I always felt dealing with issues of discrimination and oppression through period dramas is sort of the easy, or lazy thing to do — of course everyone is racist and ableist and sexist and homophobic, that's just the world they live in, and so forth. But the show has taken pains to create empathy for the ways characters try to move within the limitations their universe has prescribed, so we feel for Loras and Renly's unexpressed love, and the fact that most characters seem to feel Renly's orientation would have made him unfit to be king.

Jaime insults Renly to Brienne and makes fun of her both for what he perceives to be her own "masculine" qualities, and for the fact she fancied Renly, but it seems he really just wants to upset her. Jaime is someone who behaves in an openly-arrogant fashion, but may conceal a more thoughtful moral code, if a personal one, than many of the other characters.

You can almost forgive him for having children with his sister Cersei, because through the horrible circumstances of a ruthless, motherless Lannister childhood, he's genuinely in love. When he's had his fill of tormenting poor Brienne, he relents, with probably this episode's finest quote: "I don't blame you, and I don't blame him either. We don't get to choose who we love."

You don't get to choose what your kids turn out like, either. It's hard to say what's a bigger challenge for Cersei: Her monstrous son, or the inconveniently young, beautiful and merciful Margaery, who stands a chance of upsetting the Queen Regent's sloppily-constructed power balance.

Desperate to control Joff, Cersei's expelled all of Tyrion's efforts to undo the damage the boy's done, and has replaced her most intelligent counsel with the kind of thugs and sycophants that will tell her what she wants to hear. Sad to see Cersei digging herself into a trench of destructive paranoia when there's someone out there who really loves her, but this isn't a series that likes happy couples.

The appealing Tyrell family represents a meaningful threat to Cersei, but Joffrey's so excited at the military power the Tyrells add to his kingdom that he derides his mother's insecurity. Luckily it's his very disgust for women that makes him utterly blind to any threat Margaery and her family could pose to his rule. He just sees a lady to impress and control.

The Tyrells also represent the possibility of salvation for Sansa, who, disappointingly, is still too much in love with fantasy courtly ideals for her own good. It's clear she's attached to the idea of picture-perfect Loras Tyrell helping her out, here — she doesn't know she's not his type.

Book fans have been eagerly waiting this episode's introduction of Olenna "Queen of Thorns" Redwyne, the Tyrell family's intriguing matriarch (her son, Mace Tyrell, is Margaery and Loras' father, mostly renowned for eating too much). Her power seems to be in plain speech — "the cheese will be served when I want it served, and I want it served now," she tells a manservant, and that's that.

She's summoned Sansa presumably to hear the truth about Joffrey. Terrified into silence at court, it's the Stark girl's first chance to speak anything other than the pleasant lines she's been parroting for her own survival, and she even has trouble at first, before at last she can confide to Joffrey's monstrousness. It's a risky move, of course, as the Tyrells are ostensibly Lannister allies, but with this woman in charge, you get the sense that if they have their own agenda, they have a good chance of executing it.

Speaking of executing, this episode brings us the most awkward conversation about anal sex that's ever taken place over a crossbow. Awful little Joffrey is clearly much more comfortable with weapons than with women, and we see Margaery tread into dangerous territory as she pretends to show an interest. There's a lot of subtext going on in this conversation — unless she confesses her first husband (and her brother's love) Renly was gay, Joffrey might think she consorted with a "traitor", and failed her "job" of bearing a child to boot. A displeased Joffrey is a physical threat, but Margaery defuses it by claiming to share his appetite for violence.

Yet I wonder how much pretending Margaery's actually doing. We heard her grandmother tell Sansa that it's Margaery's father who insists the girl needs to become a queen, even if that means marrying whichever contender is the closest. When Joffrey tells her that she no longer belongs to her father, the reaction this elicits seems genuine, and when she lets Joffrey embrace her over the weapon, it looks like there's a real thrill there, a secret desire to claim some of that shameless, violent male power for herself — even if it's at their own reflection in the mirror she ultimately ends up pointing the thing.

Ah, and Theon is back. Alfie Allen's portrayal of the character, desperate and insecure and ultimately hunted to a cliff, was among my favorite things about the last season. But his pointless seizure of Winterfell means Robb Stark's supposed ally, Roose Bolton, is sending his people to clean up the mess, and now Theon is a prisoner who'll continue to pay for his juvenile error of judgment and his betrayal of the Starks.

House Bolton has some issues. I mean, their house sigil is a flayed man bound to an X-shaped torture device. Now we see why. And when we see Jaime and Brienne set upon by a posse bearing that flag, we know suddenly the Beauty and the Kingslayer have much bigger things to worry about than one another [*].

Arya is in trouble, too. She and her companions (including Gendry, who doesn't know he's one of Robert Baratheon's black-haired bastards), encounter the Brotherhood Without Banners, a ragtag group of unaffiliated freedom fighters led by Thoros of Myr, a red priest. We were supposed to presume the posse pro-Lannister, as they were singing "The Rains of Castamere," but not so. Arya and friends were going to be allowed to go on their way, but unfortunately an inconvenient prisoner arrives just in time. Sandor "The Hound" Clegane's nightmarish brother, Gregor "The Mountain," has been wreaking havok all over Westeros, but it's the Hound that gets dragged in by the brotherhood.

Recall how, terrified of fire, he fled the battle of King's Landing and has, we assume, been drinking himself into a stupor ever since. Despite everything else Arya has tried to be, Clegane immediately outs her as a "Stark bitch," and we're left wondering what this will mean for her future.

A strong theme in this episode is what women can do with the poor hands they're dealt in this world; one can become ruthless like Cersei, charming like Margaery, or, like Catelyn Stark, root oneselves in motherhood and prayer. We see how the wrong marriage to an apparently-excellent, loving woman can do Robb just as much harm as a decisive battle, and we see how the blunt, fearless candor of Lady Olenna is what makes people fear her. Even Shae, who seems to be interested in securing some genuine safety for Sansa, wields a certain power over Tyrion, easily able to twist him into begging for her forgiveness when it comes to the roving eye of his past.

I'd hardly call Game of Thrones a feminist story, but it does emphasize the way that while the power and movement of women in this world is limited, they use whatever resources they can find to tilt a little favor in their direction. Throughout this episode, we see the male heroes disadvantaged — Robb making every wrong decision, Theon in brutal torture, Jon Snow lost in a foreign society — in favor of examining what the women are able to accomplish behind the scenes. "Men use brawn, women use wiles" is the sort of trite concept typical of reductive fantasy universes. And the exceptions to this rule — Brienne's nobility and incredibly-confident sword hand, Arya's warrior ambition — are somewhat blunted by the fact that in order to have access to that type of power, they need to essentially pass as men. And at the end of the day, what matters most about Arya on a practical level is simply that she's a "Stark bitch."

But there's still enough nuance to make it a pleasant journey for the heart, if one is willing to suspend some disbelief. Terrible things happen to everyone in this story, and we can find a point of empathy for everyone we're watching thrash in the grip of inevitability. We had a lovely discussion in the comments last week, so I'll ask you a question in the hopes of fostering another: Who's your favorite woman in the series, and why?

Finally, another reason it's fun to follow along with Game of Thrones is the social media culture. Here and there I'll try to direct you to neat things I find online, like Marissa Nadler's awesome, haunting a-capella cover of the opening theme. Or Arrested Westeros, my current favorite site, which combines Game of Thrones with quotes from Arrested Development. You wouldn't believe how well it works.

[*CORRECTION: I originally (incorrectly) presumed it was Ramsay Bolton who'd led the party capturing Brienne and Jaime, but friends remind me it's supposed to be the Brave Companions that take them captive here. The book's creepy Vargo Hoat seems to have been replaced with a Bolton-affiliated man-at-arms called Locke who's in charge of recapturing Jaime Lannister, whereas the novel's Brave Companions were mercenaries ostensibly favoring the Lannisters, if I recall. Was Vargo Hoat too awful for TV? Did the writers worry that introducing the Brotherhood Without Banners and the Brave Companions simultaneously would confuse people about unaffiliated teams? Either way, they're probably going to Harrenhal, and awful is awful, right?]