Game of Thrones S3E5: Through the fire and the flames

The latest episode of Game of Thrones was, in my humble opinion, far and away the most exciting one yet. Fire, fire and more fire, fatherhood and impeccable crescendoes. Such payoff for book fans, but what do viewers think?

Let's recap and discuss. I can't wait!

We begin the episode right where the last one left off. With fire! Well, with Sandor Clegane facing trial by combat against the Brotherhood Without Banners. Thoros of Myr may be a witty, drunk sort of character, but we see the way he and his group take the religion of R'hllor quite seriously ('R'hllor' is silly and unpronounceable, so it makes sense he just gets called the 'Lord of Light' on the show). It's a particularly disadvantageous set of circumstances for the Hound, who deeply fears fire.

That we expect he should lose makes it seem divine when he wins: proof of his innocence of various crimes in service of the Lannister crown, most of which have been done by his brother Gregor. Unfortunately for Arya, the Lord of Light can't seem to be bothered to punish Clegane over the death of her little friend the butcher's boy. And he can bring back Beric Dondarrion from the dead a supposed six times, but not re-attach Ned Stark's head. Supposed heroes who claimed to love her father let their religion prevent them from delivering her justice, and plan to sell her back to her family at Riverrun. And Gendry, the only comrade she has left, has decided to stay on in the Brotherhood, as her gender and high birth form something of a ceiling for how close he feels he can get to her.

Poor Arya. All the kid has left is her "prayer" — a list of the names of people she'd like to see dead.

The main religion of Westeros involves the "Seven", a pantheon of deity figures that represent the various faces of humanity (Father, Mother, Warrior, Maiden, Smith, Crone and Stranger). Robb Stark and Lady Talisa had a marriage that paid homage to the Seven, and that's Lady Catelyn's faith as well, although Ned Stark and much of the Northmen worship the Old Gods, as symbolized by the sap-weeping white weirwood tree we see in the season's opening. In the Brotherhood Without Banners, we see another side to the fire-centric religion of R'hllor — we confirm it seems to conjure genuine magic, independently of Melisandre's fanaticism and apparent sorcery.

Other fanatics include Stannis Baratheon's wife Selyse, whom we meet for the first time this episode. Our introduction to Stannis' family serves to illuminate his ambivalence toward the fact he has to use the powers of the "Red Woman" to earn a crown he feels is his by fundamental rights — his own wife is not hurt, but rather delighted by the infidelity he struggles to confess, and feels ashamed of their daughter Shireen, a sweet child deformed by a skin disease called Greyscale.

The jars of Selyse's stillborn sons, I'm fairly sure, are not in the books, and the unsettling imagery helps us empathize with Stannis' private uncertainty about having to consign his purest and most loyal friend, Davos "the Onion Knight" Seaworth, to his dungeons for the treason of speaking against Melisandre.

Speaking of fire, we see redheaded Ygritte continuing to stand up for Jon Snow among mistrustful wildlings like Orell the warg and bearded Tormund Giantsbane. She does this because she wants him, of course, and in this episode we see her get tired of waiting. Snow seems reluctant to fully sell out the defenses of his black brothers to the wildlings' oncoming assault on the Wall — is he lying when he tells Orell which castles are manned? A thousand seems like a lot of crows relative to how badly the patchy Night's Watch has lately been struggling against the Others and one another.

It almost doesn't matter: Giving up his virginity to Ygritte is probably, to Jon, a more significant break with his old life than anything he's done so far. But what a beautiful little scene: She really, really likes and trusts him. Does he like her more than his black brothers, though?

Brienne and Jaime are delivered to Robb Stark's ally Roose Bolton, who enjoys tormenting the Lannister son by dangling details of the Blackwater battle at King's Landing. After losing everything, the idea that the woman he loves — his sister Cersei — might also be dead seems to render him unable to stand any longer. And there's more pain ahead, as malpracticing Maester Qyburn is engaged to try to help save Jaime's rotten stump.

Cersei is fine, of course. After her father rejected her mistrust of the Tyrells, she hasn't let the issue go, and instead engages Littlefinger to help her prove the Golden Rose is plotting against the Lion. Cersei lacks the tact of most of her rivals; threats seem to be the extent of her bargaining tactics, where her brothers seem much more skillful at dangling riches and glory.

We see terrifying Olenna Redwyne as more than a match for Tyrion, eluding his strategies to reduce the extravagant cost of the Royal Wedding, an expense the Crown certainly can't afford. Recall that being unable to pay its debts to the Royal Bank of Braavos might actually cause the powerful lenders to shift its financial loyalty to a rival war effort. Tyrion could just tell his father that, one supposes, but it's meant to be his job to deal with the situation.

We already know Olenna isn't necessarily passionate about the wedding itself — we've seen her make fun of frippery and classism. But she'd probably prefer to bleed the Crown's cash for her granddaughter's sake: Her offer to pay for half the affair seems generous, but is probably geared at making sure the wedding remains as expensive and frivolous an event as possible.

The Northmen have gotten tired of waiting for their revenge. Robb's taken too many personal detours, and the loss of Jaime Lannister as a prisoner might have been irrelevant from a military standpoint, but devastating from a spiritual one. Mad with grief and impatience, The Karstarks, of a clan of distant Stark-cousins, kill the little boys Willem and Martyn Lannister (they're the sons of Tywin's brother Kevan, if you were wondering). These poor kids were the ill-chosen captives of Robb's uncle Edmure Tully, who for some reason decided to take a mill instead of fighting Gregor Clegane.

Robb's all but lost control of every thread of his war effort, and he can't afford to lose the military power of his longtime Northman allies. But when Rickard Karstark suggests Robb is powerless to actually punish him for his ill-advised initiative, Robb feels he he has to step up, even if doing so means he loses half his army. His family unifies to advise him against executing Karstark, but Robb is loyal to the ideal of justice to an actual fault, just like his dad. He'd rather pursue that than to win the war.

We know he's making a bad, bad choice. Then again, a certain dread has overhung all of Robb's choices so far. Now his last remaining option is to go and seek support from the Frey family, who he's recently spurned against his mother's advice so he could marry Talisa instead. An ominous thematic crescendo builds as Robb moves a wolf's head strategic piece toward the Twins, the fort of Walder Frey. Ah, surely this is going to fix everything. It's all going to work out great.

Why does Jaime Lannister have no problem entering the bath with Brienne, despite her mortification? Because he's disinterested in her sexually, sure. But mainly because he knows that if he, still unwell, passes out, she'll save him. He is absolutely safe with her, because she swore a vow, and even if he mocks her for her impressively-stubborn adherence to her oaths, he knows that in spite of her resentment, she will protect him.

Oathbreaking is the highest on the list of Brienne's list of reasons to distrust and dislike the famous Kingslayer. He's been seeing that aversion in the eyes of every foe and comrade alike since he stabbed King Aerys Targaryen quite literally in the back while the Lannister army sacked King's Landing, and never felt the urge to explain or defend himself until now. Maybe after everything he's been through, seeing that aversion in Brienne's eyes is too much to take, so he confides in her.

If Jaime had kept his oath to the hellish Mad King, had not been a Kingslayer, he would have been forced not only to kill his father, but also to watch the entire city and everyone in it burn to death. It was his father, the strategician Tywin Lannister, who gained access to King's Landing under the guise of aiding the Targaryens against Robert's rebels, and then promptly sacked it. Ruthlessly tactful, that. Then, the Lannisters apparently had the Targaryen babies killed. Next, Cersei's wedding to Robert Baratheon, cemeting the family's presence in the capital.

Then the King's Hand, Jon Arryn, died under mysterious circumstances. Then King Robert himself. Oh, except that was an accident.

We see how tortured Jaime still is by the fact he had to break that vow, and how traumatized he is by the things he had to do and see under Aerys. Most of all, the condescension of moral Ned Stark stings. The books show Ned frequently recounting his sense of apprehension at arriving at King's Landing after the Lannisters sacked it to find Jaime sitting in the throne room. On the Iron Throne, in fact. The memory of Jaime in that weaponized chair seems to have been instrumental in sowing Ned's mistrust against the Lannister family, and in bringing him to King's Landing to try to support King Robert. Yet we learn even though King Aerys' madness was poisonous to the city, Jaime still tried to warn him about his own father, even if taking his head was not something he could have done.

Honorable Ned never asked him though, simply judged. "By what right does the wolf judge the lion," he curses bitterly, a brilliant quote that illustrates the rampant Lannister pride, ruthlessness, as something of an understandable expression of a moral code that simply favors victory — but is no less moral than a sanctimonious, slavish devotion to imperfect ideals of honor. We see that Brienne has heard him, judged him anew, when she forgets all modesty to rush to him and calls for help when he faints.

Margaery has assured Sansa that as queen, she'll have the power to make a wedding between Sansa and Loras Tyrell happen. In the books, Sansa is disappointed to find out she's intended not for Loras (who joins the Kingsguard and thus, like Jaime Lannister, avoids marriage via the station) but for his much less-appealing brother Willas. But the fact Sansa wants to become a Lady of Highgarden remains the same, and for the show's purposes involving Loras is not only simpler, but more dramatic.

Loras will fulfill his family's request even though he's not interested in women. How did his handsome young sparring partner detect his predilection? Well, Littlefinger must have told him, as the young man was a spy sent to find out what Tyrell plot might be underway. When Littlefinger invites Sansa to finally escape King's Landing with him, a friend of her mother's, and she declines, he has confirmation that the Tyrells have already gotten her to collude with the idea. Sansa seems thrilled that Littlefinger doesn't look likely to insist on upsetting her secret plans, but what she doesn't know is that when he says, "I hope you know I'm your friend," what he means is, "don't worry, you're not going anywhere, anyway."

We see a highly-satisfied Cersei at her father's side, positively glowing at finally having brought proof of the Tyrells' scheming to their dear old dad. That Tywin's plan to thwart the Tyrells by marrying Sansa to Tyrion instead absolutely mortifies her little brother only seems to please Cersei more. Tyrion knows how terrorized Sansa is already, and how disappointed she, barely older than a child nursing fantasies of courtly lords, will be in him as a husband, and protests. Tywin insists. He always insists.

Cersei hardly has long to gloat, either. Though she's proved her usefulness at court to her father and saved their family's grip on the crown, Tywin still plans to wed her to Loras Tyrell, to bring the rival family in line and to quell the "rumors" about Cersei and her brother. Her horror at being used as a "brood mare" again is palpable, gutting. Mean, aggressive Cersei is one of the show's least-likeable characters, but is nonetheless empathetic, a victim of her father's system with even less fortune than her brothers, by virtue of her gender and the mistakes her desperation tends to sow.

Some of the best dramatic moments in the entire series have come from Cersei stricken, calling tremulously for her Dad. When Tywin stages a last-minute rescue of his family at the end of the Blackwater battle of season two, we see her fling aside her suicide plan, forgotten at the first sight of Dad, rising to her feet with the soft cry of "father." In this stunning episode finish, she is begging again, her hard protest giving way to naked, broken pleading — "don't make me do it again, please," so soft, so sorrowful.

Game of Thrones would be an entirely different narrative if rooting for the Lannisters to simply be stamped out of King's Landing like an infestation were an easy decision. Yet it is possible to respect Tywin, to feel Cersei's pain and anger, admire Tyrion or Jaime's complex, deeply-personal morality in the face of suffering.The house of the Lion is the red, beating heart of this series, and just when you find yourself wishing most fervently for the tide to turn against them, you end up feeling a little sorry that you did.

I think appreciating the Lannister family is among the most interesting choices one can make in the favorites-picking "war" that Game of Thrones encourages in readers and viewers. The narrative is not always sensible reading. It's not always brilliantly-plotted; it's neither literature nor high art. But it's most intriguing feature is the way it exposes systems within a society, and how systems handicap some and privilege others, affecting their value systems, mobility and the framework of their choices for life. It presents an idea that's obvious when you think about it, but radical in the context of a fantasy story or a hero tale — that morality is in large part relative and dependent on context.

Here, a given faction might find no relevance in the storybook ideal of "the right thing". With an expansive and complicated system exposed, we can empathize with the idea that all most people are able to do is the right thing for them, within the limitations they're given, and that maybe that's heroic enough. Whether intentions are good or ill almost don't matter in a world where fire licks at one edge of the map and cold ice crumples the other.

What was your favorite part of this exciting episode? Yes, I did gloss over the lovely bit where Grey Worm reinforces his fealty to Daenerys, but if you couldn't tell, I was too busy feeling sorry for bad guys this week. Love your discussions in the comments each week. Please, please no spoilers related to any weddings or prospective weddings mentioned in this post. No colors, no initials, nothing. Thank you.