This post contains spoilers through the May 6 episode of Game of Thrones.
There’s a lot going on in tonight’s episode of Game of Thrones, but many of the developments shared a common, nasty thread: the lack of real control people have in Westeros over their bodies and sexuality, whether they’re high born or low, in King’s Landing or Beyond the wall. For a number of the female characters, there’s an ugly coming to terms with what men believe is valuable about them, and with their ability to control what’s so crudely reduced to a commodity. Cersei cannot save her daughter Myrcella from the same kind of arranged marriage she found so odious, and tells her brother Tyrion, who has brokered Myrcella’s marriage into Dorne, that she hopes he becomes vulnerable by loving someone as Cersei loved her daughter so she can wound him in the same fashion.
Joffrey, if he hasn’t demonstrated how much he hates Sansa by stripping and beating her before the court, only reinforces how little he values her continued well-being by telling his guards “Let them have her” after Sansa is chased off by men who mean to rape her. It’s the Hound, a man who insists he stands apart from chivalric tradition, who returns to save Joffrey’s ostensible lady, telling Tyrion when the Hand thanks him, “I didn’t do it for you.” There’s pleasure, it seems, in not reducing a woman to a womb, to a piece of dismembered meat as the rampaging crowd does to a septa in Joffrey’s entourage. And the fate the Hound saves her from is a shock to Sansa, even after everything that’s been done to her by the man who was once her ideal. “He hated me, the man who hit me,” Sansa tells Shae. “I saw it in his eyes. I never met him before, but he wanted to hurt me.” And it’s the former prostitute who’s left to explain to Sansa the intersection of seething class rage and misogyny. “You are everything he will never have,” Shae explains to Sansa. “Your horse eats better than his children.”
Dany isn’t assaulted the way Sansa is. But as she tries to first command and then bargain her way into the ships and armies she needs to launch an invasion, she’s presented with a stark economy in which the currency is units of her body—a night in her bed for a ship, a lifetime for untold riches. “Does he think I’ll whore myself for a boat?” she asks bitterly. The spice merchant who cuttingly informs Dany that “I admire your passion. But in business, I trust in logic, not passion” may be turning her down, but he’s at least doing her the compliment of asking her to bargain with something other than her body.
Unlike Dany or Sansa, Osha is willing to pay a fleshly price to a man who’s only recently and reluctantly begun to participate in the iron economy, hacking off Ser Roderick Cassel’s head and doing it poorly. It’s telling that Theon rejects Osha’s promise to fight for him, but not to have sex with him. When she bares herself to him, explaining “there are other ways to serve, my prince,” she gives him something he thinks he can understand. But he misses the implication wrapped up in her promise that “We know things, the free people. Other things. Savage things,” just as his guard falls pray to Osha after she tells him “He says I’m to make the rounds and keep you warm.” Both men who think they can take what they please, and those who think they’re getting something for free run the risk of being gravely mistaken.
Then, of course, there’s Jon Snow, who thinks he doesn’t want anything at all, but is in danger of discovering different. Ygritte teasing him as they bed down to avoid freezing to death is one of the few funny moments in an otherwise grim episode. Where Tyrion uses humor as a means to distance himself from a world that sees him as a monster or incapable, disdaining them first before they have a chance to dismiss him, Ygritte’s using this joke as a means of forging connection between the one other warm person near her in a cold world. Robb wants the same thing, from a woman he seems determined to recast as a lady, though raising her station can’t compensate for the fact that he’s engaged, or as his mother puts it, he owes a debt. “I wish that you were free to follow your heart,” Cat tells him. But some men’s lives are sold away from them, too. And unlike the women of their station, they’re ill-prepared to submit meekly to the yoke of marriages they didn’t choose, to the very idea that they never had a choice.