This post contains spoilers through the May 20 episode of Game of Thrones.
“The Prince of Winterfell” may be a lot of plot setup, but it’s also an episode that illustrates one of the things I love about the scope of Game of Thrones: it’s a big enough world that when coincidences happen and surprising combinations of people come together, they can feel even more miraculous than dragons or white walkers. But that space also means that people can forge different paths than the ones reserved for them by their station and gender.
Brienne of Tarth’s made those choices again and again throughout her life, whether she’s choosing knighthood over the life of a nobly bred lady or loyalty to Catelyn over a conventional oath of fealty to a leige lord. But in this episode, her choices are juxtaposed particularly sharply with those of her inverse, Jamie Lannister. Jamie is a man, and not just any man—”Do you remember Jamie at 17?” Tyrion asks in reflective wonder, considering his talented older brother—but a preternaturally gifted specimen of manhood. He was born to the knighthood Brienne has to fight every day to claim for her own, and instead of upholding the code she worships, he’s spattered it with gore. As they go on the run together, Jamie may enjoy taunting Brienne, asking her first “Have you known many men? I suppose not. Women? Horses?” and then “Has anyone ever told you you are as boring as you are ugly?” But he’s losing the very battle he thinks he’s goading Brienne into. “All my life, men like you have sneered at me,” she tells him. “And all my life, I’ve knocked men like you into the dust.” Jamie may never have the struggles with his gender and vocation that Brienne suffers every day, but she’s vastly more secure in the knighthood she chose than Jamie ever was in the white cloak that suffocated him.
Then, there’s Talisia, who was “raised to be a proper little lady.” She explains to Robb, in a speech that newcomers to the series should remember very, very carefully (along with another important bit of foreshadowing)* how she came to transcend her own state:
When I was 12, my mother and father went to a wedding. Weddings in Volantis last for days…we couldn’t bear to be inside…every child in Volantis was in the bay that day…Drummers were playing for coppers in the east bank. I was treading water, talking to a friend, when I realized I hadn’t seen my brother. I called his name. And then I started screaming his name. And then I saw him, floating face down, and my heart just stopped. I dragged him from the water. My friend helped me, I think, I don’t even remember. He was so little. When we pulled him on to the riverbank, I screamed at him and I shook him, and he was dead. Just dead. A man ran over. He had a fish tatoo on his face. In Volantis, the slaves have tattoos..This man worked on a fishing boat. And he pushed me out of the way. You have to understand, for a slave to push a highborn girl, that’s death, a terrible death…He started pressing on my brother’s chest again and again and again, until my brother spat up half of the Rhoyne, and cried out, and the man cradled his head and told him to be calm. I decided two things that day. I would not waste my years planning dances and masquerades…and when I came of age, I would never live in a slave city again.
Robb’s been attracted to her all along, but it’s this tale of personal alchemy that unmans the young king, leaving him unable to honor his obligations or resist a woman who performed the kind of transformation he needs to undergo in reverse. Making love to her is an act of transgression, a violation of his pledge to pay for the bridge crossing with his future. But if Talisia became what seemed impossible, perhaps Robb can find it himself to transcend his lack of training and take up his kingship, finding a way to become “one of the good ones.”
In King’s Landing, Tyrion’s struggling to transcend his legacy as the warden of Casterly Rock’s sewers and plumbing as he prepares for the seige of King’s Landing. Aiding him are two men who confound him in part because he can’t figure out what they’re aspiring to. All Bronn will tell him is that he doesn’t want to wear a gold cloak. And Varys never answers Tyrion’s question at all, deflecting him into a discussion of Tyrion’s stewardship as hand.
The man Tyrion is up against, whether he knows it or not, has the reverse problem. Rather than perpetually feeling aggrieved, denied a birthright by a father and sister unable to see his worth (or in Cersei’s case, the true seat of his affections), Davos Seaworth is perpetually astonished by how far he’s been elevated. “My father was a crabber. And most sons of lords don’t like to eat with the sons of crabbers. Our hands stink,” Davos explains to Stannis, the man who raised him up after Davos saved his wife’s life and the rest of the garrison at Storm’s End. But Stannis, so traditional in all other respects, is decidedly foreward-thinking when it comes to the merits of the man who’s aided him most. “I gave it up, because he was my older brother and it was my duty,” he tells Davos of what loyalty has cost him, why he wants to indulge himself when it comes to a man of merit. “When I sit the Iron Throne, you’ll be my hand. I expect you’ll be the first crabber’s son to wear the badge.”
And the world that can accomodate Davos’s rise and Lady Talisia’s voluntary fall can present opportunities for even greater escapes. Arya, spurred perhaps by the sight of other men being hung and tortured in her stead in an effort to discover the murderer of Amory Lorch, uses her power over Jaquen to spring herself and her comrades from Harrenhal. And her brothers hide from Theon, with Osha and Maester Luwin’s assistance. Under some circumstances, the survival of three children can be a miracle.
*And that readers of the books will recognize as critically, chockful of allusions to future events and themes, which we can discuss in comments to your hearts’ desire, though please label spoilers from the books as such.