Monday, April 29, 2013

Game of Thrones recap: it's hard to be the Kingslayer

Characters (literally and figuratively) expose their secrets in the low-key, but still plenty compelling, "Kissed By Fire."

Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as Jaime Lannister (don't call him Kingslayer).
For a show so heavy on battles, beheadings and dragon fire, Game of Thrones has always featured a substantial amount of talking. There's a lot of backstory to be gotten to on this show, to the point where there have been entire episodes - most notably the first season installment "Cripples, Bastards and Broken Things" - that are almost entirely composed of people giving speeches. It's something, then, to say that Jaime's speech to Brienne in "Kissed By Fire" is one of the finest, most compelling, most revealing and most emotional speeches anyone on the show has ever given.

Jaime has spent the season becoming a more sympathetic character, to the point where it's (almost) possible to forget about that time he pushed Bran out the window because the boy saw him having incestuous sex with Cersei. One of the reasons Jaime is now so much more identifiable is that he personifies the difficulties of staying the honorable course, or even figuring out just what the honorable course is. After all, the man was despised by Westeros' resident honorable man, Ned Stark, for killing the man who executed Ned's father and brothers, because Jaime was, at the time, a sworn member of Aerys Targaryen's King's Guard.

That's not even the whole story, as we find out when Jaime opens up to Brienne (by the way, I am becoming a complete Jaime and Brienne 'shipper - not necessarily in a romantic way, although I wouldn't object, but definitely in a friend way). Jaime had remained loyal to the Mad King even as he burned any opposition alive and turned the kingdom against him. When Tywin Lannister, who had promised to support Aerys against Robert Baratheon's rebellion, turned against him, Jaime urged the king to surrender. Instead, Aerys ordered his head pyromancer (which seems like an appointment that should have raised some eyebrows) to burn King's Landing with wildfire, and ordered Jaime to kill his father. Jaime then poses a question to Brienne, a character who, like Ned, defines herself by her honor and her loyalty. "Tell me," he says, "if your precious Renly had commanded you to kill your own father, and stand by while thousands of men, women and children burned alive, would you have done it? Would you have kept your oath then?"

Brienne being Brienne, she asks Jaime why he didn't explain himself to Ned; she assumes that if Lord Stark had known the truth, he would have understood why Jaime did what he did. "Kissed By Fire," however, is full of examples that indicate just how well Jaime understands men like Ned Stark. We have Barristan Selmy telling Ser Jorah that his sense of honor has led him to serve two bad kings: Aerys Targaryen and Robert Baratheon. We have Robb losing half his army because he is afflicted with the same admirable, stupid nobility as his father and executes Lord Carstark for killing two captive Lannister squires. We have Beric and Thoros letting the Hound go after he survives trial by combat, and we have Ser Davos telling Shireen Baratheon not to come see him, because he is a traitor. In Westeros, nobility doesn't always mean doing the right thing; it means obeying your oaths to the bitter end, a definition that doesn't always line up with what's right.

The issue of nobility and the importance of oaths are themes that Jaime's monologue develops, and that echo throughout the episode. The scene isn't entirely about Jaime, however; it is also about Brienne, specifically about seeing her begin to accept that power and femininity are not mutually exclusive. Gwendoline Christie put it best in an interview with
The moment of nudity is an act of defiance from Brienne. In that moment she realizes the power of her womanhood without the armor, without the fighting, without killing anyone [...] She overcomes her own issues about her own femininity and vulnerably and gender and in that moment finds the power of not only what it means to be a woman, but who she is as a woman.
It's interesting to read Brienne's story in "Kissed By Fire" as it contrasts with Cersei's. In many ways, Brienne is everything Cersei wants to be; she has broken out of the expected female role and has succeeded at establishing a place for herself on the battlefield, that most male-dominated of spheres. Cersei embellishes her gowns with armor, but Brienne is equipped with the real thing. (It should be noted that Ygritte has a similar role, but it appears that wilding society is fairly egalitarian, which makes  her less of an anomaly than Brienne.)

The limits of Cersei's power have never been as apparent as they are in this episode. She begins the hour enlisting Littlefinger in her scheme to out-maneuver the Tyrells. Notably, she's wearing one of her armored dresses; this is Cersei's war, and she's dressed for the occasion. By the end of the episode, though, the ambitious Queen Regent is reduced to, in her words, nothing more than a "brood mare," forced by her father to marry Ser Loras as a way to secure the allegiance of the Reach. In the end, Cersei is just as much a pawn as Sansa Stark, who will be engaged to Tyrion to ensure that the Lannisters retain the "key to the North." Her final, plaintive plea, "Father, don't make me do it again, please," is like a punch to the gut; this powerful, ambitious, manipulative woman is seen by Tywin as a bargaining chip, useful only because of her fertility. At this moment, it's possible to understand the forces that twisted Cersei into the bitter, scheming woman she has become. Westeros is not a friendly place for strong, powerful women.

If anyone can really challenge the extremely patriarchal status quo, however, it's Daenerys. Everyone's favorite Targaryen is tough, intelligent, compassionate and perfectly capable of sticking to her own moral code. Unlike so many of the characters featured in "Kissed By Fire," she's bound by no oaths or allegiances but her own. She's not circumscribed by her gender - the 8,000 soldiers at her back, not to mention her dragons, have taken care of that. And while Barristan Selmy worries about the effects wading through the muck of Westerosi politics might have on her ideals, the conviction with which she frees the Unsullied suggests that she's not so easily corrupted. If there's anyone on the show who can transcend the limitations faced by women, by the powerless, and by the unshakably honorable, it's Daenerys.


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