This post discusses plot points from the May 5 episode of Game of Thrones.
“If you think this has a happy ending, you haven’t been paying attention,” the man who’s been torturing Theon Greyjoy tells his screaming victim as he prepares to flay his finger. George R. R. Martin’s project as an author has always been to mount a critique of chivalric ideals, piercing the purity that armors knights along with their plate, and revealing that behind marriages branded as love lie horrific acts of marital rape. That this episode of Game of Thrones ends with a moment of piercing happiness, as Jon and Ygritte stand on the wall together and she gets to see not just the world she’s known, but the much bigger one South of it, is particularly painful. We’re torn between wanting to believe in the happy ending, in Jon’s joy, in Ygritte’s delight that he not only was true to her, but able to gratify her heart’s desire, and knowing what Game of Thrones has taught us over three years. Believing is a sure road to agony.
This episode is full of people who want to believe, and will take extraordinary risks to pursue their dreams. “It’s a long way up and a long way down. But I’ve waited my whole life to see the world from up there,” Ygritte tells Jon as they begin what appears to be a suicide mission of climbing the Wall. “You didn’t stop being a Crow the day you walked into Mance Rayder’s tent. But I’m your woman right now. You’re going to be loyal to your woman. The Night’s Watch don’t care if you live or die. Mance Rayder don’t care if I live or die. we’re just soldiers in their armies and there’s plenty more to carry on if we go down. With you and me. It matters to me and you. Don’t ever betray me.” Samwell Tarly, whose father was a monster to him, can still sit in the forest with Gilly and her child and sing to them “The father’s face is still and strong / He sits and judges right and wrong.” Edmure Tully sticks by his belief in true love, or at least true lust. “At least I should be able to have the same choice you had,” he tells Robb. “The laws of Gods and Men are very clear. No man can compel another man to marry.” And Robb believes that he can be fair to his uncle in some way. “You’re paying for my sins,” he says. “It’s not fair or right. I’ll remember it.” Sansa is blindly excited by the prospect of her upcoming wedding to Loras, and Loras, though he isn’t sexually attracted to her, seems to be trying to convince himself that everything will be all right. “I’ve dreamed of a large wedding since I was quite young,” he tells Sansa. “The guests, the food, the tournaments. And the bride of course. The most beautiful bride in the world, in a gown of gold and green with fringed sleeves.”
But those dreams start to come apart almost as soon as they’re articulated. Gendry, who told Arya in the previous episode that he planned to join the Brotherhood in part because he’s attracted by their egalitarian governance structure, finds himself sold by them, and neither his appeals to the Brotherhood’s core values, nor Arya’s can save him. “You told me this was a Brotherhood. You told me I could be one of you,” Gendry begs Beric Dondarrion and Thoros of Myr. “You are more than they can ever be,” Melisandre tells him, whether he wants to be or not. “They are just footsoldiers in the great war.” “He wants to be one of you,” Arya screams at her captors. “He wants to join the Brotherhood. Stop them!” “We serve the Lord of Light. the Lord of Light needs him,” Beric tells her, revealing a mix of pragmatism and dogmatism that Arya failed to see before. “Did he tell you that? Or did she?” Arya asks a man she’s come to admire, before turning on Melisandre, telling her “You’re a witch. You don’t hurt him.” But Melisandre has a response that puts Arya back on her heels with a promise of Arya’s own unhappy ending: “I see a darkness in you. And in that darkness, eyes staring back at me. Brown eyes, blue eyes, green eyes. Eyes you’ll shut forever. We will meet again.”
In King’s Landing, Sansa Stark is confronted by a horrible truth, even as Tyrion tries to be kind to her. “How to begin?” he muses, fingers twitching. “This is awkward.” Cersei confronts the loss not just of her independence, but of her legacy. “Joffrey will belong to Margaery, the little doe-eyed whores, and so will his children,” she tells Tyrion bitterly. “History will be taken from our hands.” And Lady Olenna Redwyne and Tywin Lannister debate the details behind the fairy tale wedding Tywin wants to put on for the realm. “My sotmach remains quite strong, however. The only thing that might turn it are details of your grandson’s nocturnal activities. Do you deny them?” Tywin begins, only to find Lady Olenna more pragmatic about the reality than he’d expected. “Oh no, not at all. A sword-swallower through and through,” Olenna she tells him calmly, rejecting the idea that it’s Loras who has something to hide. “Did you grow up with boy cousins, Lord Tywin? Sons of your father’s bannerman, squires, stableboys? And you never…” Olenna asks Tywin.
“I congratulate you upon your restraint. But it’s a natural thing, two boys having a go at each other between the sheets…we don’t tie ourselves in knots over a discrete bit of buggery. But brothers and sisters. Where I come from, that stain would be very difficult to wash out.” But Tywin has a bureaucratic trump card to play, proving he doesn’t care about the personal realities or logistics that move two parties to a meeting in the Great Sept: he’ll force Loras into the Kingsguard if he won’t marry Cersei.
And as Littlefinger explains in a bravura scene that ends the episode, ” “Do you know what the realm is? It’s a thousand blades of Aegon’s enemies, a story we agree to tell each other over and over again until we forget that it’s a lie,” a fairy tale on a massive scale. But he believes that the destruction of that lie provides opportunities for the kinds of people who aren’t normally set up for happy endings, the lords of no consequences, the eunuchs from across the narrow sea. “Chaos isn’t a pit. Chaos is a ladder. Many who try to climb it fail and never get to try again. The fall breaks them. Some are given a chance to climb but they refuse. They cling to the realm. Or the Gods. Or love. Illusions. Only the ladder is real. The climb is all there is.” But his egalitarianism, like the Brotherhood’s, is more theoretical and ruthlessness than the people who espouse it would like to believe. Littlefinger’s all too willing to give Ros to Joffrey to shoot full of arrows to punish her for doing exactly what he did, to try to find patrons who can help her rise, to safety and security if not to greatness. And because Sansa didn’t choose him, he’s contemptuous of her for believing in the very lie of love that’s animated him for so many years after the loss of Catelyn. Even the people who reject happy endings are prone to believe in them for themselves.