The song "The Bear and the Maiden Fair" that heralds the climax of this episode is about the comedy in unmatched relationships, in pairing yourself inappropriately in accordance with your station.
Yet that's the theme of this episode — love, silly love, in all of its sick permutations. Once again into the breach!
In an episode strongly themed around unbalanced love relationships, the focus on Jon and Ygritte we get is lovely. Jon Snow, born and raised a lord of Winterfell and acquainted with the ways of warfare south of the Wall, is charmed — and challenged — in equal turns by her bafflement at their formalized ways. On one hand, he knows the understaffed Night's Watch is ill prepared to deal with a Wildling assault. And ill-prepared, too, to deal with an army founded in bravery, independence and self-preservation, rather than the marching orders of some distant lord.
When Ygritte mistakes a tumbledown windmill for a palace, we see both the good and the ill in her lack of acquaintance with Westerosi wealth and order. Yet when jealous Orell challenges Jon's ability to "hold onto her," (this is a woman doesn't even know what swooning is, literally) and when she once again reminds him he knows nothing, we can see him struggle with a value system that began unraveling when he failed to feel at home in the Stark family and that only continues when this new "family" not only rejects him equally, but makes him question his long-held values.
But on the other hand, the Wildlings have made six previous attempts to breach Castle Black and failed. If the Wildlings can win this impending battle, then he must break with everything he used to hold dear. If they can't, then Ygritte is likely to die. No matter what happens in the effort to come, Jon has lost things, and will continue to lose them. Ygritte seems to want to convince him that she can be his center — that the loyalty of their love is more valuable than adherence to any side they fight for.
Her statement that they belong to each other recalls Shae's similar declaration to Tyrion last season (as well as Arya's plaintive "I can be your family" to Gendry), and illuminates how inherently untenable these promises are in the Game of Thrones universe when the power in the partnership is so uneven.
The scene with Osha back in Camp Bran illustrates the other side of being a woman like Ygritte — it's a hard life North of the wall, where losing your partner to the White Walkers is a very real threat. Life and death mean entirely different things to Wildlings.
Meanwhile, Robb Stark is wondering how he's supposed to win a war with the distraction of his beautiful, beloved wife lounging around in the nude. How, indeed. And the Young Wolf's Lady Talisa is pregnant, an interesting development for the show to deal with so directly (in the books, the possible pregnancy of Robb's wife is just the stuff of unconfirmed conspiracy theories).
This is important. I had a discussion last week on Twitter about why, if Robert Baratheon could take the throne by rebellion, does, say, Tywin Lannister or some other close heir not now try to take it for himself. The answer is partially because Tywin prefers to rule from behind the scenes, using his children (primarily Cersei's marriage to the late king) to seize power.
But succession is essential to one's power claims — Robert Baratheon had Targaryen ancestry, and lineage is important to the Iron Throne. It's the late king's (supposed) kids, not their grandfather, who are next in line, even arguably over the late king's brothers. Succession and bloodlines are paramount in this world, which is why Sansa's marriage is such a power play, and why Robb having an heir in the oven is a big deal. Talisa's baby would be a very valuable creature in the war for power among families.
The Stark and Tully family are on their way to the Frey-held Twins for Edmure's wedding to Roslin Frey (why did they have to change Asha Greyjoy's name to "Yara" to avoid confusion with Osha, and not change Roslin to avoid redundancy with the late and much-missed Ros?). Unfortunately they are delayed by weather, a hold-up cantankerous Walder Frey is sure to take personally.
Though Edmure doesn't seem concerned, Lady Catelyn is — Frey is getting a wedding, though not "the wedding he wanted," she notes, looking pointedly at Talisa. Some of Robb's allies, including his own mother, have warned him all along that his marriage could lose him the war, and making it up to the Freys right now is essential.
Speaking of lineage, Margaery Tyrell tries to make Sansa feel better (Sansa's embittered reflection about being a "stupid girl with stupid dreams who never learns" is painfully striking) about her upcoming marriage to Tyrion by reminding her about the queenship it will create if she bears a child to the man they call "The Imp."
Poor Sansa's gone from believing she'll marry golden rose Loras and become a lady of Highgarden to being consigned to wed the youngest son of the family responsible for her father's death, and it's clear she's not attracted to Tyrion's stature. The books lavish on Tyrion as being quite ugly; it flatters the character to have him played by handsome Peter Dinklage, but I suppose one can suspend one's disbelief.
Margaery certainly can, and as she lightly encourages Sansa to be more open-minded sexually, the innocent younger lady wonders how Margaery, whom she assumes to have a similar upbringing to her own, learned such liberal values.
When Sansa asks if her mother taught her, Margaery's amused, condescending response is telling — recall that her marriage to Joffrey depended on the idea that she's a maiden, and that she claimed Renly's "predilections" left her first marriage unconsummated. Margaery is clearly no maid, much more cunning than the sweet noblewoman simply obeying her family she represents herself as. It's good for her the Lannisters haven't quite figured that out.
Tyrion, too, wrestles with the moral dilemma of having to be wedded to an innocent young thing who is sure to loathe him. His friend and confidant Bronn counsels him against wanting to be liked by everyone — a sellsword like Bronn probably couldn't see why marrying a beautiful young virgin and still getting to keep the saucy prositute with whom you're in love wouldn't be a dream bounty for everyone. These aren't thoughts Tyrion particularly wants to entertain, but can he help it?
On to more dark thoughts — these Theon scenes are getting uncomfortably ruthless. Nearly everyone I know who hasn't read the books (and plenty of friends who have) are confused about what's happening to his character arc, why we need to see an illustration of him being so brutally tormented and broken by a man whose identity and motives are not even yet made clear. As we've said, in the books Theon disappears for a while after losing Winterfell, and emerges much-changed by his experiences since. We are now getting to view those experiences.
Last week readers speculated this choice is due in part to a contract issue; they might lose excellent actor Alfie Allen if the show followed the book's chronology and ignored him for two seasons. But it's hard to watch such unspeakable torture and mutilation happening to a character who was smug, unlikable, arrogant and stupid — but fundamentally needy, relatable. He was so stellar last season, so touching as we watched his loss and increasing desperation in the name of claiming his identity and pleasing his father.
Onto further crimes of arrogance: Joffrey is cruel and not particularly bright, but he's noticed his grandfather has gently been freezing him out of any genuine tasks of ruling King's Landing. It seems Tywin plans to make good on his promise to Cersei that he can bring the King to heel, very quickly cowing Joff when he climbs the dais to the Iron Throne to fearlessly tower over the boy.
Yet Joff, who we know to be fascinated by the Targaryens' mad legacy of fire and ruin, is actually a little wiser than his elders here, evidencing genuine concern about the stories of dragons coming from the lands beyond. Yes, Daenerys' dragons are still little — but they can grow big, can't they? Shouldn't King's Landing be concerned?
Remember how coldly Cersei once rejected the notion of sending resources to the Night's Watch to help protect against The Others? She disbelieves that "myths" can have more power than the sort she knows best. The Lannisters are generally too proud to be afraid of things they can't see, whether dragons or White Walkers. As unnatural threats of ice and fire descend on the kingdom from its periphery, we see that the ruling class might tear themselves apart over their own politics before they'll ever be prepared to unite against such things.
They needn't be worried about Daenerys just yet. When she negotiates with Yunkai, a city known primarily for the riches it's earned training and selling "bed slaves," even the promise of wealth and ships doesn't deter her from her slave liberation agenda. For her morals she desires to disrupt the entire economies of places and people she has yet to understand well, even at the expense of her original mission to reclaim her birthright in Westeros.
The Silver Queen's newly-large entourage does need food and resources, it's true, and the dragons — though maybe still too small for war — accord her enough power to make no compromises in the desert. She doesn't want to stop until she's freed the world.
Meanwhile, Tyrion makes an unfortuntely-symbolic gift to Shae of gold chains, which of course doesn't please her, as the man who purports to love her suggests she remain a kept woman while he undertakes the marriage in which he claims he doesn't have a choice. He really doesn't — not so much because he's afraid of his father, but because he wants power, to play the game, and knows gratification from little else. Outside the realm of his status he'd be at an extreme disadvantage. Running away with Shae isn't an option.
And really, it's hard to tell why he even loves her so much. She often evidences admirable savvy and warm bravery in her dealings with Sansa, whom she seems to genuinely want to protect. But with Tyrion she is petulant, jealous, expensive, demanding — on one hand rejecting the characterization of "whore," but on the other, requiring quite a lot of fancy treatment in order to be contented with their relationship. Whatever it is she wants, Tyrion can't or won't provide it to her, and rather than leave, she increases the pressure on his heart and his system of values.
Gendry learns he's a Baratheon bastard through Melisandre, who sails with him through the wreckage of the Blackwater battle. Recall she feels she could have prevented those losses if only Davos hadn't convinced Stannis to leave her behind (on the incredibly sound logic that nobody would respect a King who appeared to take the Throne by foreign sorcery — the capital stands firmly in the faith of the Seven and might mistrust a red priestess).
Arya still hasn't forgiven the Brotherhood for accepting gold in exchange for Gendry's person, and when they decide to take a detour and chase a Lannister raiding party rather than continue bringing her to Riverrun to meet up with her family, it's the last straw for her, and she takes off running — only to be taken hostage by Sandor "The Hound" Clegane. Oops.
In another unbalanced pairing, Jaime is allowed to be escorted to King's Landing by Bolton bannermen, an interesting move on the part of Roose Bolton, ostensibly a Stark ally on his way to Edmure Tully's wedding with the rest of the family. He needs to evade punishment by the Lannisters for what Locke did to Jaime's hand, but he seems a bit eager to curry favor with the Lannisters.
Notably Bolton doesn't seem to want to return Brienne, who should be allowed to go back to Catelyn Stark, if we're all on the same side, here. Jaime's farewell to Brienne is poignant evidence of the fact that despite what they've been through together, he still can do things she can't. The only thing he can do for her is make a promise that he'll see the Stark girls returned — and you get the sense that Jaime means it.
Once he's departed, he learns more about unethical Maester Qyburn and his illicit "experiments" on dying people who wouldn't be missed. Everyone hates King's Landing's Maester, the crony Pycelle, but would this guy really be a better addition to the Lannister entourage?
Jaime also learns his throwing his weight around might have actually resulted in problems for Brienne. His lie about her being worth sapphires saved her from rape in Locke's camp, but has now stymied hostage negotiations with her father, Lord Selwyn of Tarth. When it dawns on Jaime she'll just be used as the "entertainment" for Bolton's unruly pets, Jaime once again plays the Daddy card to force his escort to turn around.
Side note: I've talked before about how Game of Thrones' factions are balanced like a game, and in the actual Game of Thrones board game, if you play as House Lannister, Tywin is one of the most powerful cards in your hand, and you will probably find yourself literally playing the Daddy Card repeatedly.
But it works, and when Jaime returns to Harrenhal to find Brienne facing a bear in a pit armed only with a wooden stick, he finally gets the chance to use his high-value person for something other than bullying people to do what he wants. By jumping into the pit to save her, the bannermen's cruel game is suddenly over — nothing must happen to the Kingslayer, else all of House Bolton will be at risk. And he can leverage the Daddy Card to be allowed to leave with Brienne, too.
The motif that plays as the pair leave the dreary camp is Rains of Castamere, the Lannister fight song, so to speak. You can read the lyrics here or listen to The National's cover from Season 2's Blackwater end credits, but in summary it's a tune about what bleak ruin awaits those who stand up to the Lannisters.
What's notable about the song is the way the lyrics frame the historical narrative — the sin of the decimated Reyne house was not so much its insubordination, but in the fact it even dared to compare itself, to claim its personhood was equal to that of The Lion.
It's an ambiguous anthem for Jaime's leading Brienne away safely from Harrenhal, because ultimately it reminds that despite making the honorable choice, the brave and the caring choice, his triumph over the situation came only from in the fact that in currency of Westeros, he simply had the fortune to matter more than anyone else in that scenario, including her.
For our discussion this week, if this episode was about the complicated fate of love and loyalty in a world of power imbalances, let's ask an easy question: Who's your favorite couple? And less easy, which pairing presented in this episode has the most complicated circumstances?
If Robb Stark were to win the war (and again, no spoilers further than this episode if you know them, please!) — would it be because of love and honor, or in spite of it?
Finally, I'd love to know what you guys make of Shae. I couldn't figure her out in the books and I can't figure her out now. I look forward heartily to your enthusiastic, spoiler-free and respectful comments discussions every week. Please continue!