This post contains spoilers through the April 29 episode of Game of Thrones.
Much of the time, the power of Game of Thrones comes from watching people we love manipulated by forces beyond their control — or by the decisions of those they are powerless to influence. Sansa’s limpid eyes can’t restrain Joffrey’s murderous streak; Catelyn’s choices are subordinated to her husband’s sense of duty and her son’s war; Brienne and Sam can’t help being born into bodies that make it impossible to live up to the ideals assigned to them by station and gender. But this week, we see characters severed from the ties that bound and constrained them by tragedy, mistaken identity, and offers of new opportunities — and as a result, we see them faced with, and in some cases, making choices that will have significant implications for them, and for the world that is being radically reshaped around them.
The first person to be cast into the wind is Brienne, who loses her king and the identity and legitimacy he briefly granted her by making her a member of his Kingsguard, when Melisandre of Asshai’s monstrous offspring murders Renly in his tent. In her grief, she swears “I won’t leave him,” but Cat has to remind her of her choices, and of the necessity of making one, cautioning “You can’t avenge him if you are dead.” Once she’s free from her oath to Renly, Brienne ends up choosing a new liege lord, one that’s both beyond the menu of options Cat saw for her, and that’s in keeping with her strict application of the code of chivalry and flexible thinking about who can embody it. “I do not know your son, milady,” she tells Cat. “But I would follow you if you would have me. You have courage. Not battle courage, but a woman’s courage.” Margaery Tyrell’s also cut free from a marriage that was guaranteed to be loveless, and carried some considerable risk beyond that. Her decision is more conventional than Brienne’s, and has larger implications. It helps, of course, that she has someone there to broker the decision for her, the consistently conveniently placed Petyr Baelish, who tells her, “You will note that I am standing here talking to you, not Stannis.” The two of them clashed in the previous episode, with Margaery bridling at Baelish’s nosiness, and his retort that the marriage of a wealthy girl is always of interest, no matter the specifics of her domestic arrangement with her husband and brother. But while their interests were misaligned at that moment, when their interests converge, they can recognize each other as equals in shrewdness. “Do you want to be a queen?” Baelish asks her. Margaery’s answer is attentive to both grammar and geopolitics: “No. I want to be the queen.”
Also making twinned decisions that augur collective tragedy are Theon and Bran, once brothers, now enemies. Theon, frustrated when even after being given command of the Sea Bitch, his launch turns into not a celebration of his authority but another humiliation. But his discussions with Dagmar about the weaknesses of deviating from the job assigned them by Balon gives him another idea — hitting Torrhen’s Square can pull troops out of Winterfell, leaving the much richer prize underdefended. And poor Bran takes the bait exactly as he’s intended. He may have grown into leadership in his parents’ absence, but the style of leadership he’s learned is his father’s and brother’s, a kind of decision-making that’s unable to see deceit and evil. “We have to help them,” he declares when news of the Ironborn’s invasion reaches his holdfast. “if we can’t protect our own bannermen, why should they protect us?” His honor may be his doom.
And Arya gets a lesson in making choices from Jaqen H’ghar, who she saved from fire only to see join her brother’s enemies. If he admired her before, he’s even more impressed by how she’s comported herself in Tywin Lannister’s service, as a stony-faced liar who hides her loyalty to her brother deep enough to declare that he can be killed. “A girl says nothing. A girl keeps her mouth closed. No one hears. And friends may talk in secret, no?” Jaqen muses. He’s about to offer her a tremendously valuable boon, but the lesson that’s wrapped around that offer is the more valuable gift. “I was always a girl,” Arya says, hoping to break down Jaqen’s sense of invincibility. “And I was always aware,” he counters her, parrying her thrusts as Syrio once did. “But a girl keeps secrets. It was not for a man to spoil them.” Information is powerful, as is the right to conceal yourself. When Arya chides him for going into the service of such dreadful men, Jaqen seeks to sharpen her mind. “Why is this right for you and wrong for me?” When she protests he didn’t have a choice, Jaqen refuses to treat her like a child or a victim. “You did. And I did. And here we are. A man pays his debts. A man owes three. The red god takes what is his, lovely girl. And only death can pay for life.” He’s given her choices to make and the tools to help her make them wisely. She dispatches with a torturer first. It remains to be seen what she’ll done with the rest of her decisions.
Those sorts of lessons Dany could benefit from, in a place where she’s getting more options presented to her than good, disinterested counsel and instruction. Xaro offers her “More than enough to buy horses, ships, armies. Enough to go home,” asking her to marry him with the caveat that “I’ve already married once for love. The gods stole her from me.” Pyat Pree offers her refuge in the House of the Undying. And though a mysterious masked woman warns Ser Jorah of Dany that “she is the mother of dragons. She needs true protectors now more than ever,” he has more ardor than advice to offer her. “You would not only be respected and feared, you would be loved,” he tells her. “There are times when I’m with you and I still can’t believe you’re real.” All very well. But not much help to Dany in choosing with wisdom.