I've heard a lot of bewilderment across social media when it comes to keeping up with the ever-climbing number of characters in this show. Even fans of the books are having a bit of a tough time, since the written chronology is odd — each character's arc is written separately, so you might read in an entirely unpredictable order about events that are presumed to be happening simultaneously.
The show's doing an incredible job of streamlining the chronology and making sure stories unfolding at different corners of the world keep reasonable pace with each other, and at uniting disparate arcs under a common theme. It's titled "Walk of Punishment", and it's about the privileges each individual has (or has not), and what those things cost them.
Sigh. Trigger warning for discussion of rape.
Robb Stark and his army have come to Riverrun, the home of his mother's Tully family, for the funeral of Catelyn's father. That her brother Edmure wastes several flaming arrows trying to hit the pyre, ultimately forcing their uncle, Brynden the Blackfish, to step in, is a good analogy for how badly the younger generation's botching this war effort.
The Stark's greatest failing here is the very thing that makes them noble: the value they place on individuals. Robb sees his enemies by name — Tywin Lannister, and Lannister-affiliated savage Gregor "The Mountain" Clegane. The Mountain's been largely portrayed as a concept here, but he's the brother of The Hound (responsible for burning his little brother's face as a youth, creating The Hound's fear of fire and telling you almost all you need to know about Gregor).
Rather than draw the Mountain into a more advantageous position as Robb had hoped, Edmure wasted resources and lives capturing a relatively-useless mill holding, along with two minor young Lannister cousins, who aren't likely to be worth much as bargaining chips. Good job, family Tully.
This is not the kind of mistake Tywin Lannister, the ultimate general, would make. The only prisoner he really cares about is his son Jaime, a prioritization that doesn't seem to escape the notice of his other two children. As the small council convenes to discuss strategy at court, we get a priceless sequence whereby Cersei determinedly moves a chair to sit alongside her father, across from the men (that's Littlefinger, gossip-master Varys, and the Maester Pycelle). Tyrion one-ups her by pulling his own chair to sit at the table's end, directly opposite their father.
As reward for his service to the crown, Littlefinger, who's been running the books at King's Landing, has been entitled Lord of Harrenhal, but given that Roose Bolton's currently holding that awful shell of a castle for Robb Stark, that title hardly means much. Instead, Tywin "suggests" Littlefinger court Lysa Arryn, Catelyn's sister, who's fancied him since they were children.
Since the murder of Lysa's husband Jon kicked all of these events off by bringing Ned Stark to King's Landing in the first place, Lysa's been hiding out in her mountainous tower home, The Eyrie, with her awful, sickly little son Robert, whom she still nurses at her breast even though he's got to be six or seven years old by now. Marrying Lysa would bring the territory into Lannister hands, though, and give Littlefinger a better title, so he agrees to go — leaving Tyrion to be assigned into the role of Master of Coin.
We join Jaime, Brienne and their Bolton-bannered captors. As presumed Stark allies, this group here couldn't have a more high-value prisoner on their hands than Tywin's favorite son, the famous swordsman. This group is led by a man named Locke, which I only know because of a wiki search. In the novels Jaime and Brienne are held by a group of contract grotesques called the Brave Companions, but the Bolton banner is meant to simplify the number of factions in play.
The song they're singing is "The Bear and the Maiden Fair," a popular ditty about a bear that poses as a knight to rescue a lady. It's often used as a motif in the books, especially when one grotesque ends up in an alliance with a more vulnerable individual — think of the Hound visiting Sansa Stark during the Blackwater battle, or Jaime and Brienne. Except in this case, the "maiden fair" is definitely the Lannister golden boy.
Brienne, less impressed by Jaime's swordsmanship during their brief duel than she expected, insinuates that perhaps Jaime's reputation owes a bit more to Lannister privilege and fame than perhaps Jaime would like to admit. In fact, he wouldn't like to admit it at all, and revenges himself on the idea by reminding Brienne she's liable to be raped in camp. Yet in his way, he also advises her not to resist, counseling her for her safety, even though he can admit he'd rather die than be in her position and he's thankful not to be a woman.
At the village site of Thoros of Myr's ragtag liberation group The Brotherhood Without Banners, Arya's friend Hot Pie decides to stay behind at the camp. Having lost her pal Lommy in an earlier skirmish, she's down to just one friend, now — the young blacksmith's apprentice Gendry, who doesn't know he's one of the late Robert Baratheon's black-haired bastard (getting a look at Gendry was part of Ned's research into the revelation that Cersei Lannister's children are all inbred).
Help me out here, commenters: Why does Arya ask Sandor Clegane if he remembers the last time he was here?
Losing her father makes Catelyn worry about her own children — remember when Theon displayed two child's bodies of about the right size at Winterfell? Rumor must hold that Bran and Rickon are dead, but Catelyn and her uncle need to have faith, if only to keep Robb's war effort spiritually strong.
Legends hold a lot of power in this world, of course. Note how Lady Talisa, of whose name no one's been reminded since before her wedding to Robb last season, indulges in scaring the little Lannister boys as she treats their wounds.
And how thanks to their skin-changing warg, the Wildlings believe hundreds of the Wall's black brothers might have been killed up north at the Fist of the First Men. Mance Rayder thinks it's a good time for his army to breach the Wall, a long-standing boundary between the Wildlings and the rest of Westeros. That it'll also breach the boundary between the White Walkers and the rest of Westeros doesn't seem to concern him.
But they find only horse corpses, presuming there must be undead, instead of bodies, nearby. However, Jeor Mormont's party of crow rangers is safely at Craster's Keep, where Craster continues being the most awful person in the world. Remember that this man lives beyond the wall so that he can keep a homestead where he has children on his own daughters and sacrifices all his boy children to the White Walkers.
Even given the imminent threat of the undead, Craster saves his best food for his pigs, pitiless to the painful birthing cries of one of his daughters, and suggests everyone should eat Samwell Tarly, because he's so fat. Sam is a bit tired, justifiably, of being made to feel worthless because he's so fat, and Craster's remarks prompt him to seek out Gilly, a girl he'd been fond of at their last visit to the keep, and watch her deliver her baby. Unfortunately it's a boy baby — but we think now Sam might have the chance to try to be a hero.
At Dragonstone, where Stannis is licking his wounds after his last decimating loss at King's Landing, Melisandre is leaving to do who knows what in the ritualistic service of her Red God, the Lord of Light. She says Stannis' "fires" are too low for her to birth another murderous spectre of the type that assassinated Renly, but hints that sacrificing someone else with Stannis' "king's blood" — maybe one Robert Baratheon's bastards — would create enough magic for an advantage.
The books never tell us if Stannis is physically or romantically interested in Melisandre. He's obsessively puritanical, rejects the idea of prostitution whatsoever, demands rigid order among his men, and supposedly maintains a loyal marriage to his wife (known to be ugly) and his daughter, who has a skin disease. That makes the fact he's constantly in the company of the red sorceress more ambiguous, provokes more curiosity about his character. Seeing him patently crave her here makes Stannis seem a little more objectively distasteful.
Still in Astapor, Daenerys continues to be horrified by the consequences of slavery. Despite her promises to take her rights in fire and blood, she instead is negotiating for an army. Her close advisor Jorah Mormont (the son of the Old Bear, the Night Watch's leader) thinks having an army of perfectly-trained slave soldiers is a better proposition for Dany's value system than imperfect, personally-motivated men who often show their ugly sides as they raze and pillage in wartime, but last-gen Kingsguard veteran Ser Barristan Selmy believes in the value of personal loyalty, while Mormont doesn't seem to think nobility gets you much.
The tension between Selmy and Mormont ("'We' already, Ser Barristan?") over Daenerys, in a sense, is quite interesting. We see Dany patiently considering both trusted viewpoints — but neither of them think it's a good idea for her to give away her biggest dragon in exchange for the Unsullied warriors. She does it anyway, and gains the translator Missandei as a companion in the bargain. She seems potentially drawn as an interesting character here, versus in the books when she's often creepily referred-to as "the little scribe".
Tyrion enters Littlefinger's domain of prostitution to collect a wagon full of royal ledgers, where Littlefinger asks apparently-innocent questions about why Ros was punished by Cersei for Tyrion's sake. There are no innocent questions at court, however — Cersei mistakenly believed Ros was Tyrion's lover, and nicked her instead of Shae. That Tyrion is keeping Shae (and hiding her as Sansa's handmaiden) is a crucial weakness to him, since the consequences to the couple are liable to be dire if Tywin ever hears of it.
But when Littlefinger suggests Tyrion reward his squire, Podrick Payne, for saving his life, Tyrion takes the bait, leaving Pod alone with four of Littlefinger's women. When Pod comes back with the money Tyrion paid still in hand, Tyrion and Bronn realize Littlefinger must have gotten something out of him. Not only that, but Tyrion's got his work cut out for him, learning that Littlefinger's manner of accounting mostly involves borrowing impossible sums. If the deeply in-debt Crown can't make some restitution to the Iron Bank of Braavos, the Bravosi will fund Lannister rivals instead.
Theon's set free from torture at the Bolton family's Dreadfort[*] by the mysterious sympathizer who's promised him his sister Yara Greyjoy is waiting for him nearby. But he doesn't get far before he's hunted down again, and his mysterious savior somehow arrives just in time to rescue Theon from inevitable rape and murder. This guy's pretty good with a weapon for someone we met holding a broom in the dungeon corner, and the last man to die at crossbow-point seems to know who's killed him — "you little bastard," he marvels.
Brienne doesn't seem able to either talk or fight her way out of what the men in Locke's camp plan to do to her. Jaime is a talker, though, and manages to convince them to leave her alone by telling Locke she's worth a load of sapphires to her father in Tarth. Tarth gets its name from its sapphire waters, not from any load of gemstones[**], but Jaime's a charming liar. Brienne then gets to watch the special privilege the fancy, high-value Lannister prisoner looks likely to get from camp because of his rich father.
Jaime tries to impress his gift for fancy language was just due to the education his father forced upon him, but this expression of his privilege seems to alienate Locke, who slowly, insidiously reveals he's a bit more clever than he looks and doesn't appreciate Jaime's efforts to manipulate him with the promise of his father's gold, nor the automatic assumption that he ought to be grateful for whatever glories a Lannister wants to buy him with.
Is it his talent that makes Jaime special, or simply his father's power and money? In a brutal attempt to force an answer to that question, Locke removes Jaime's sword-hand, as The Hold Steady's rousing cover of "The Bear and the Maiden Fair" plays over the credits roll. In the end, privilege pays the highest cost and it's Jaime, not Brienne, who loses something permanent in that encampment.
Jaime is my personal favorite character in the series. He has all the arrogance his class has bought him, but the mantle of Lannister privilege has harmed him, too. He's carried the mantle of "Kingslayer" for his entire career, and it's assumed he was simply the ultimate traitor — slaying the mad king he'd sworn to protect. He's famously handsome, but has only ever been with his sister Cersei, as the twins bonded during a tough and lonely childhood. Now, he's simply the most high-value prisoner at large in the war effort, having lost the only thing that he truly owns — his ability to use a sword.
Game of Thrones wants us to hate the way that privilege challenges others, but it also illustrates that incredible misfortune doesn't discriminate. These are the more interesting subtleties that make us attach to the series' major characters, and not mind so much when it starts throwing minor ones at us. I wonder if one is even meant, ever, to maintain an all-seeing grasp on the plot, its different factions, and their complicated constituencies; maybe it's possible to just pick a favorite family or two and focus on them.
In last week's comments discussion, we talked about our favorite women characters. Whose narrative arc do you find most interesting (try to avoid spoilers, if you know them?) How tough of a time are you having keeping the story and characters straight, if you're new to the series? Do you do the special-nicknames thing (King, king's mom, jerk, jerk's friend, wizard lady, Jon Snow)?
[*I'd previously incorrectly-claimed Theon was being held at Winterfell, which House Bolton is meant to look after on Robb Stark's behalf now that the Ironmen have left. Instead, commenter Roose_Bolton (of course) lets me know they're more likely at the Dreadfort, the Bolton family home. I can't even tell you why I think he's right, because spoilers.
**I'd also made the mistake of thinking there used to be sapphires in Tarth but aren't anymore; my pal Pete (of Anamanaguchi fame) reminds me that it's really just the water that derives the 'sapphire' legend, which makes Jaime's lie a bit bigger.]