This post contains spoilers through the May 13 episode of Game of Thrones.
I enjoy watching Game of Thrones so much, and identify so deeply with some of the characters, that occasionally—horrific violence and lack of proper sanitation aside—I forget that they exist in a profoundly different era. Last night’s episode explored one of the psychological ways in which that’s true: what happens when people who have lived their lives governed by others’ wills find themselves confronted with the prospect of choice.
First, there’s Dany, who in recent weeks has become a less admirable character as she’s refused to assert her will or even attempted to discern it. It’s one thing to insist that her claim to the throne of Westeros is good in foot-stamping terms, another to actually devise a strategy of her own beyond the offers the members of the Thirteen are willing to make her. Her vacillation, and her rebuffs to the people who attempt to help her through a deliberative process, leave her vulnerable. Last week, she found her dragons stole and her khalasar slaughtered. This week, she finds that the deed’s been done by men of greater vision and will than she currently possesses, who saw in her a way to claim Qarth for their own. Will can’t merely be affirmed in this conflict, it must be asserted.
But is it possible for it to be complete? Tywin Lannister’s conduct this week suggests that he knows Arya to be false, but wants to keep her with him anyway. “If you’re going to pose as a commoner, you should do it properly,” he warns her, letting her know both that he sees through her facade and that there are limits to his tolerance, to this whim in the midst of his exercise of his will. “Have you met many stonemasons?” Arya asks, testing Tywin as he tests her facade. “Careful, girl,” he warns her. “I enjoy you, but careful.” Even a man of iron will has some remaining softness for a girl who reminds him of his daughter, but it remains an open question whether this whim will fortify Tywin’s will or be his doom. She still has one death left to dispense, after all.
And speaking of Tywin’s daughter, I thought this was a fantastic episode for Cersei. Mostly, this season, she’s seemed at the edge of madness and certainly in the throes of caprice, but here, in her scenes with Tyrion and Sansa, she’s careful to outline what can go wrong when you give yourself up to sentiment. To Sansa, devastated at the onset of her menses and the assumption that she’ll shortly be wed and bedded by the king she’s come to abhor, Cersei counsels a tight reign on sentiment. “Love no one but your children,” Cersei counsels the younger, new-made woman, sounding more like she means the nickname of Little Bird she’s given Sansa since her father’s death. When Sansa wants to know if she isn’t obligated to love Joffrey, Cersei tells her sadly, “you can try,” but offers no promise that Sansa’s determination to fulfill an ideal of courtly love will make it so. When she and Tyrion meet, there’s the first sign of understanding and potential reconciliation between them. When Cersei chastises Tyrion for his management of Joffrey, telling him “I’m not the one giving the boy whores to abuse,” she’s not just faulting him for a failed tactic, but for thinking Joffrey’s cruelty is a whim rather than his nature. In fact, Joffrey may be her punishment for indulging her own whims and lying with—and loving—her brother.
In the North and in captivity after a failed escape, that same brother is meditating on the impossibility of submitting to the wills of those who command you when they conflict. “So many vows. They make you swear and swear,” Jamie tells Catelyn Stark, who has saved him through an assertion of her own will and her claim to have her orders recognized. “What if you father hates the king? What if the king murders innocents?” Catelyn has no answer but to request Brienne’s sword, to move from the world of principle to the world of whim herself, faced with her own version of Jamie’s dilemma: the men her son commands want to slaughter Jamie, and to waste his value as they spill his blood. Sometimes, whim is a means of liberation from the iron prison of will, the rules that would let three men burn to death in a barred cart, that would let a valuable diplomatic tool be killed for honor.
And beyond the wall, Jon Snow, the foster son Catelyn hated as a violation of the rules that governed her world, is facing a world where the prospect of true choice may be more threatening than the snow. Ygritte, ostensibly his prisoner, but soon clearly his captor, mocks Jon as a virgin, but she’s indicting a society that would deny her sexual autonomy as well. “Now I can never marry a perfumed lord. What will my savage father say?” Ygritte jokes, mocking the idea that her virginity is her father’s property, to be bartered in exchange. “Soemone tried to tell us we couldn’t lay down as man and woman, we’d shove a sword up his ass.” Ygritte disdains a life where choice is ripped from her, and Jon may find that he has to learn how to make choices stripped of the oaths that saved him from having to know his own mind. “You know nothing, Jon Snow,” Ygritte tells him. It’s true of the geopolitics that will define a continent, and his heart, kept secret from even himself.