This post discusses plot points from the May 12 episode of Game of Thrones.
The third novel in George R.R. Martin’s A Song Of Ice And Fire is titled A Storm Of Swords, but through much of this third season of Game of Thrones, the battles have happened off-screen or between the wooden troop markers on Robb Stark’s map and in his mind. Instead, the game of thrones is being played in a more literal sense, as the great lords and ladies of Westeros negotiate who will sit not just in the great chairs of the realm, but beside the people who occupy those chairs—in other words, through marital alliances. It’s only fitting, then, that Game of Thrones should spend an episode grappling with marriage and sex, with the very real difficulties of people who get to choose who they love, as well as with the fears of those who have no choice at all, and with the question of bonds between men and women outside of marriage in a society where friendship across gender lines is almost inconceivable.
The last episode of Game of Thrones, “The Climb,” ended with a transcendently romantic embrace between Jon and Ygritte after they survived a harrowing ascent of the Wall. It was a nasty little tease for a show where no one gets much in the way of happiness, a dare to the audience to continue believing in true love after an episode that brutally eviscerated the possibility of hope. So it’s fitting that their moment of joy immediately comes into question as Jon and Ygritte move from her country beyond the Wall into his in Westeros, and Jon’s choice whether or not to be “loyal to his woman” or to the vows of his that remain to him comes closer and closer.
“Is that how you lot do your fighting? You march down a road banging drums and waving banners?” Ygritte teases him about his country, which seems impossibly civilized to her. “You mean right foot left foot right foot left foot. You lot can’t remember that?” But even though Ygritte pretends not to be impressed by Westeros, her inexperience with civilization is clear. “Is that a palace?” she asks Jon of the first windmill they pass on their trek. “Who built it? Some king?…They must have been great builders, to stack the stones so high.” “If you were impressed by a windmill, you’d be swooning if you saw the great keep at Winterfell,” Jon teases her back. Their banter is a negotiation. Jon is still coming to terms with his liaison with a woman who tells him things like “Why would a girl see blood and collapse?…Girls see more blood than boys.” And Ygritte, for all she sees the wilding in Jon, is still unsure of the solidity of their relationship. “I know that you’re beautiful, and fierce, and wild. I’ll be good to you,” a painfully Jealous Orrell tells her. “You love him? Cause he’s pretty, that it? You like his pretty hair and his pretty eyes? You think pretty’s going to make you happy? You won’t love him so much when you find out what he really is.” And he’s not wrong. “I know it. If you attack the Wall, you’ll die. All of you,” Jon warns Ygritte on the road, unwilling to tell her the full truth of his continued allegiance to the Night’s Watch, but hoping to dissuade her from a mission he sees as suicidal. “All of us,” Ygritte tells him in a declaration that’s also a question. Ultimately, they delay their reckoning. “You’re mine,” Ygritte tells Jon. “And I’m yours. If we die, we die. But first we’ll live.”
If Jon and Ygritte’s affair is enmeshed in a complicated web of social relationships, his half-brother Robb has begun his marriage by throwing off custom and social convention and weaving a cocoon in which his love lives independent of the world he’s trying to rule. By wedding Talisa, a noblewoman from Volantis who herself threw off tradition to come work as a field nurse in Westeros’ wars, Robb broke his promise to marry one of Walder Frey’s daughters. And though the two of them are very much in love—“If you don’t put some clothes on, I can’t promise I won’t attack you again,” Robb tells his wife, who teases him back, “Attack! Attack!”—sheltering their love means it’s untested in certain fundamental ways. “Say hello for me,” Robb tells Talisa as she writes her mother. “Does she know her daughter’s a queen?” “Not yet,” Talisa tells him, then adds a bigger revelation. “Will you come with me to Volantis one day when all of this is over?…I know she’d love to meet you. And her grandchild.” Robb is shocked and delighted, hoping not just for a “little prince or princess,” but “maybe one of each.” “Can you leave the war for one night?” to celebrate, Talisa asks him. But that’s the problem with their relationship. It’s all an escape from the war. Robb may able to be a good husband or a good king. But it’s not clear that he can be both.
And while Jon may be more aware than his brother of the pain that a love match can bring that an arranged marriage cannot, neither of them have ever really suffered the full consequences of their new relationships. It’s Osha, speaking to their younger brothers up North, who offers up terrible wisdom that both Jon and Robb could benefit from, even if it’s in the form of a passionate argument against venturing beyond the wall. She tells the little Stark boys:
None of you know. None of you been up there. I had a man once, a good man. Bruni his name was. I was his and he was mine. But one night Bruni disappears. People said he left me. But I knew him. He’d never leave me. Not for long. Then he would come back. And he did. He came in through the back of the hut. Only it wasn’t Bruni, not really. His skin was pale, like a dead man’s. His eyes bluer than clear sky. He came at me, grabbed me by the neck and squeezed so hard I could feel the life slipping out of me. I don’t know how I got the knife. But when I did I stuck it deep into his heart. And he hardly seemed to notice. I had to burn our hut down with him inside. I didn’t ask the Gods what it meant. I didn’t need to. I already did. The North was no place for men to be. Not anymore. I promised your maester I’d get you to Castle Black, and no further.
But while the elder Starks are failing to learn their lessons, the people around them in arranged marriages are getting bitter educations. Before Robb learns Talisa’s good news, he discusses plans for his uncle’s wedding. While Robb, in the flush of his own marriage, is optimistic, his mother is cautious about how the Freys will receive them: when marriage isn’t about love, the feelings of other people get rather more important. “He’s getting a wedding,” Cat acknowledges. “It was a king he wanted.” Robb’s dismissive of her concerns. “Edmure will be the best match the Freys have had in the history of their house, he tells her jauntily, not wanting to think about the possibility of disappointment.
Further South, his sister Sansa is getting the bitter education Robb could have benefitted from, after she learns that she’ll be marrying Tyrion Lannister, rather than Loras Tyrell ( a husband who would have offered his own profound disappointments). “They seemed so nice in their painted armor,” Sansa says bitterly. “All those candles burning in all those windows. I’m stupid. Stupid little girl, with stupid dreams, who never learns.” Margaery tries to encourage her. “I want very much for you to be happy, Sansa, and so does my grandmother. You would have bene happy at Highgarden. But women in our position must make the best of our circumstances,” the older girl tells the younger one, trying to help her see her circumstances in full. “Had Lord Tyrion mistreated you? Has he been kind to you?…Far form the worst Lannister, wouldn’t you say?”
And the least-worst Lannister is experiencing the pain of being unwilling and really unable to follow his heart and run off with Shae, rather than doing his duty and marrying Sansa. “What would I do there? Juggle?” he asks Shae when she proposes that they cast off their pasts and cross the narrow sea to be together. “I am a Lannister of Casterly Rock.” “And I’m Shae, the funny whore,” Shae tells him bitterly, summing up their dilemma. In Westeros, Tyrion has value and position while Shae is stuck as a chambermaid, even if to a powerful woman. In Essos, Shae would have resources and control of her destiny, while Tyrion would be forced to reckon with the reality of his position, something his family name has protected him from. “You will have fine clothes, guards to keep you safe, servants. Any children we might have will be well-provided for,” Tyrion tries to persuade Shae that he can keep her as a mistress. “Children? You think I want children who can never see their father? Who would be killed in their sleep if their grandfather found out about them?” Shae asks him, sensibly. “You’ll always be my lady,” Tyrion tries to persuade her of his affections, if not his ability to protect her. “I’m your whore,” Shae tells him. Marriage really does mean something.
But the state of marriage—or what passes for it among wildings—isn’t the only subject of debate in this episode, which is also substantially concerned with sexual happiness. In the North, Jon gets a very funny sex-ed lecture from Tormund Giantsbane, who tells him that he shouldn’t try to have sex with Ygritte “until she’s slick as a baby seal…Don’t jam it in like you’re spearing a pig.” When you choose your partner, rather than getting paired up with her, her satisfaction is of rather more paramount importance than it might be otherwise.
Sansa, whose fantasies of marriage have mostly involved her wedding dress and her new home, is forced to acknowledge that getting married also means having sex. “My son. With him. I’ll have to— We’ll have to—” she tells Margaery, who tries to comfort the younger girl, and reveals some rather interesting things about her own experience. “He’s rather good-looking, even with the scar,” Margaery reminds Sansa, seeing the good in Tyrion yet again, and tries to reassure Sansa that she may find that she likes sleeping with her husband better than she expects. “Some women like tall men. Some like short men. Some like hairy men, some like balld men…Sadly, so many of us get to try so little before we’re old and gray. Tyrion may surprise you. From what I hear, he’s quite experienced….We’re very complicated, you know. Pleasing us takes practice.” Sansa is amazed by Margaery’s sexual knowledge and marvels at where she got it: “How do you know? Did your mother teach you?”* Margaery, in turn, is amused by Sansa’s ignorance, humoring her: “Yes, sweet girl. My mother taught me.”
But the people who achieve the most happiness this episode, perhaps, or at least who forge the most realistic bond are those for whom sex is out of the question, Brienne of Tarth and Jaime Lannister, once her enemy. At first it seems as if their parting will be their last, as Jaime heads back to King’s Landing, leaving Brienne behind in Locke’s custody. Jaime, like his siblings often do, offers up Brienne a chit, a promise to pay a debt to her in the future. But Brienne won’t take it, the rare person who isn’t moved by the Lannisters’ wealth. “When Catelyn Stark released you, we both made a promise to her. That was your promise. You gave your word. Keep it, and consider the debt paid,” she tells him, before using his real name, rather than the evil moniker attached to him, for the first time. “Goodbye, Ser Jaime.” But once Jaime is on the road, when he hears Qyburn tell him what Locke and his men have planend for Brienne, warning him “Beyond tonight, I don’t think they care very much,” Jaime realizes he doesn’t share their callousness, that he can’t stand the idea that his debt to Brienne might be filled without her being alive to know that he kept his word. He rides back for her, risks his life in the pit with the bear, gets her to safety first in defiance of the famous Lannister regard for self-preservation. Friendship, it turns out, can have a price beyond sapphires, or all the gold in Casterly Rock. Marriages in Westeros may be sealed with money. But friendship between men and women can be sealed only by those men and women themselves. That’s a more human bond, a more fallible one. But unlike any of the other pairings in Game of Thrones, Jaime and Brienne truly know each other, and all each others’ crimes and kindnesses, and want to stand with each other anyway.
*A side note: a sex-ed lecture from Lady Olenna Redwyne would be epic.