This Game Of Thrones post is for people who have read at least the first three books in the book series. It is written from the point-of-view of someone who has read those books and for the benefit of fans of the books. All discussion points are valid, up to and including the events of the fifth book. However, we would ask that you clearly mark spoilers from the fourth and fifth books. The review itself will be non-spoilery, and talk of how events here portend future events will be clearly marked with a spoiler warning in the section following Stray Observations. If you would still like to read the review but haven’t read the book, thus, you can, but you should proceed with caution after the spoiler warning and in comments. Those of you who haven’t read the books can also check out our reviews for newbies.
One of the foremost thematic questions Game Of Thrones asks—both as a book series and a TV series—is what makes someone a good ruler. Is it wisdom? Honor? Strength? A divine force reaching down and choosing someone to be king? Or is it something entirely different and hard to explain? Is it just a feeling one gets down in his gut that causes him to look upon his ruler and feel the intense satisfaction of serving that king or queen? The answer is likely some combination of all of those elements, but the course of the series has at times felt like an anachronistic election pitched at both series’ audiences. Nobody much liked Robert as king, but he was a fair sight better than Joffrey, and both were probably considerably better than Aerys had been. And even if you think you know a man, being ruler will change him in ways that are hard to predict. Put another way, if I were casting a vote for the ruler of the Seven Kingdoms, I’d vote for Daenerys, but who’s to say the qualities that make her such a good potential ruler wouldn’t be warped and twisted by ultimate power?
“Kissed By Fire” toys around with these questions, both directly and indirectly. It may be hard to remember now, but the whole series started with a very traditional fantasy figure at its center in Ned Stark, the man whose honor would be enough to see through all the crime and venality swirling around him, who would surely, once the series was over, sit on the Iron Throne and rule fairly and justly, thus providing his subjects with the happy ending they so richly deserved. But George R.R. Martin’s greatest storytelling decision—and, honestly, one he sometimes tries too hard to replicate in later books—was the choice to kill Ned because he didn’t live in a world where honor would be rewarded in that fashion. Instead, the series has introduced us to a variety of characters on the honor spectrum, and it’s also suggested—quite convincingly at times—that being honorable is sometimes the least honorable thing one can do.
Take, for instance, Jaime Lannister, whose killing of King Aerys has hung over his head in the decades since the war that pushed Aerys from the throne. He hasn’t spoken to anyone about the events of that day, because the second Ned came into the throne room and saw him standing over the body of the dead king, he could see that Lord Stark had judged him and found him guilty. It’s an idea I don’t entirely buy—Jaime really wouldn’t have told anyone public enough to make a difference?—but it also provides for the episode’s best scene, in which a broken Kingslayer shares a bath with Brienne and tells him the story of how he got his nickname. It would have been easy to let Nikolaj Coster-Waldau be a wisecracking pretty face on this show, but Jaime’s journey has always been about more than that, and now that Coster-Waldau is into the meat of this story, he’s proving himself more than up to the dramatic challenge.
Yet Jaime’s story also speaks to the central thematic conflicts in the episode: Is a bad king worth saving if he plans to kill thousands of innocents, or if he asks you to do something you simply must not? It’s easy enough to say the choice Aerys presents to Jaime—even if Aerys doesn’t frame it as a choice or recognize it as one—has only one desirable answer: Aerys’ death. But brutal regimes, even failing ones, have been propped up throughout history by people like Jaime, who wouldn’t want the shame that comes from breaking a supposedly unimpeachable oath. The fiction frames Jaime’s choice as almost a black or white one, but where we might see it as Jaime saving innocent people from burning to death (and not having to kill his own dad), the people of the Seven Kingdoms can see only the breaking of the oath. (It certainly helps that distance from a regime that has ended will tend to gloss over the bad parts in the memory. People might remember that Aerys was a mad tyrant, but they remember even more that that period carried relative peace and prosperity.)
Yet pursuing honor to a fault can damn someone just as quickly as trying to figure out the right thing to do in a tricky, ever-shifting moral calculus. We saw that with Ned, and now we’re seeing it with his son. His wife, mother, uncle, and great uncle all beg him to spare the life of one Lord Karstark, even though Karstark killed a couple of Lannister squires who were being held prisoner. The boys were as innocent as one can get in wartime, but they were Lannisters, and without Jaime around as prisoner, there’s no one for Robb’s men to spit upon. Thus, that aggression gets taken out on a couple of boys who don’t deserve it, and thus, Robb decides that Karstark must die, as surely as the non-nobles who assisted him must hang. It’s a dark moment, one of those “loss of innocence” moments this series does so well, but it’s also one that inextricably dooms Robb, at least in the short term. Without the Karstarks, he’s down by half his army, and even going back home is going to require a fight. All he can do is wait to unravel. And yet it’s in this moment that he has a bold and promising idea: Turn to Walder Frey for more men, then go and take Casterly Rock. Do to the Lannisters what has been done to him, and go back on the offensive.
Jaime’s not the only one dealing with the consequences of breaking an oath in this episode, either. Jon, up North and desperately hanging onto his undercover job among the Wildlings, confronts the question of whether his initial oath to the Night’s Watch is more important than his promise to infiltrate the Wildlings and find out what they’re up to. As with any undercover officer, he’s going to have to do stuff he’s uncomfortable with, but that really takes the cake this week, as he both gives up information on the Night’s Watch’s defensive positions along the Wall—including the only three castles that are manned—and finally gives in to all that simmering sexual tension with Ygritte. Has he broken one oath to preserve the other? Does one supersede the other? And, at the end of the day, does it even matter if he stays alive? Oath-breaking is serious business on this series, and Jon seems to take it more seriously than many others. But that makes sense. He is at least part Stark.
Now, “Kissed By Fire” is a considerable comedown from last week’s heady series of climaxes. That’s likely necessary. Any show that plunges forward at the speed with which last week’s episode moved will run out of story before too long. What keeps it from feeling too incoherent is the fact that these questions of oaths and honor, of why subjects follow particular rulers, resonate throughout all of the storylines. (Also, it has a really kick-ass sword fight to lead things off with, which never hurts.) Hell, Jorah and Barristan actually sit down and talk about the episode’s themes for a bit, just to make sure we’re getting the point. (Inevitably, after seeing Dany torch a guy to death via dragon and obtain an army 8,000 strong, her adventures feel slightly more down to earth this week.) But that’s okay. I like it when the show takes a break from the heedless forward momentum to consider the deeper questions of this world. It’s just necessarily less visceral.
Yet it’s hard to complain too much when an episode breaks down so nicely into little vignettes like this one does. Even a scene that seems shoehorned in there to keep a particular plot advancing like Tyrion’s meeting with Olenna is full of great little barbs and moments. And when the episode comes to its end, it’s examined how nearly every one of the characters left feels about the questions posed in its best scenes. Think, for instance, of that scene at the end, which on the one hand advances the plot by having the Lannisters learn of the Tyrells’ plan to marry Sansa to Loras, then circumvent said plot by deciding that Sansa will wed Tyrion, instead, while Cersei weds Loras. The series has done a surprisingly good job of building up Cersei and Jaime as a weirdly doomed romantic love—look at how Coster-Waldau plays Jaime receiving news of his sister’s well-being from Roose—but her anguish here at being a “brood mare” is palpable. Tyrion’s horror at being asked to marry a child is immediately understandable, but Lena Headey makes you feel every bit of anguish at being asked to marry yet another man she doesn’t love (and one, this time, who can never love her) and at being forced to once again give up whatever power she’s accrued due to her gender. It’s powerful stuff, and once again, it asks where these characters’ loyalties lie. To their father? Or to their own better instincts?
Maybe, when it comes down to it, there simply is no way to follow a man once you’ve realized that any man chosen ruler is just as venal and horrible as all the rest. This is what Arya is learning among Beric and his men, with this week’s appearance of the Lord of Light magic music accompanying Beric’s resurrection from the dead after the Hound slices him through the shoulder during their trial by combat (the aforementioned kick-ass sword fight, which is lit predominantly by flame and looks gorgeous for it). It’s a haunting, eerie moment, but it’s made all the more eerie by Beric’s very human reaction to having died and been resurrected so many times. (This is his sixth, by his count.) As you travel between worlds, pieces of you get chipped away, and he can already tell that he’s lesser somehow. It’s another place where the show instantly defines a new character via a quiet little speech, and it’s all quite beautiful.
Arya, however, is learning that justice doesn’t come as easily as she thought it might have. For whatever reason, the Lord of Light isn’t done with the Hound yet, even though he clearly murdered her friend (at least in her eyes). Now Gendry is choosing to stay behind with the Brotherhood, and she’s being kept as a hostage that the Brotherhood might get some gold from Robb when they sell the girl back to him. Arya, like all of the Starks, has a fierce sense of duty and honor, and while she’s not as romantic about chivalry and the like as her sister is, she tends to believe that things behave in a certain fashion and get upset when those systems are disrupted. However, ever since she departed from King’s Landing, she’s come to realize that essentially all of life is those systems getting disrupted, and even when you find one that might benefit you—like a drunken bard who can resurrect his leader—it can’t really benefit you. Heads stay off. Ned will never live again, because this isn’t that kind of world.
What kind of world it is is one where people grasp at the straws they see in front of them and call it good. This episode offers the first significant time we’ve spent with Stannis all season (unless you count that scene where he saw Melisandre off), and it’s a sequence where he questions his own loyalty to himself, in a way. With Melisandre gone and his forces licking their wounds, Stannis finds himself turning to his wife and daughter—who are new to the TV series, if already familiar to book readers—and finds himself confronted with how far he’s fallen. He tries to tell his wife he cheated on her, and she rejoices in his betrayal. He tries to explain to his daughter just why Davos betrayed him, and he’s unable. And when he tries to reconcile the man he wants to be with the man he is, he finds no real way to get from point A to point B. Stannis has the most internal conflict of the whole episode—he’s forced to deal with the fact that he’s done these things in the name of becoming king—but it all plays wonderfully. Sometimes, the question of what makes a great ruler isn’t one for subjects to ask of those who would rule them; it’s one for those rulers to ask of themselves, and always come up wanting.
- Littlefinger gets the job done, doesn’t he? He’s got the Tyrell plot sussed out in about five seconds. If he were on the Iron Throne, there wouldn’t even be a TV show. Because everybody would be dead.
- Adaptation choice I rather like: I know many of you were missing Selyse and Shireen (Stannis’ wife and daughter) last season, but I thought bringing them in here was a great way to play off who he had been and whom he has become. (Also, for those of you wondering, Shireen’s face was affected by a disease called the “greyscale,” which looks like its name.)
- Adaptation choice I’m less sure about: Are they playing up sexual tension between Dany and that Unsullied dude? They know that’s… impossible, right? I mean, even in the TV show!
- I still really like the way the show is playing the Jaime and Brienne relationship, which often seems to drift into the sort of situations a romantic comedy might play with, then undercuts them with raw tragedy, as in the bath scene. Also, Jaime saying his name to her was very touching. I hope they have 5 million babies.
- I always wonder when Tywin says “nasty rumors”—in book and here—just how much he’s allowed himself to realize about the relationship between his children. He has to know it exists, but he also has to put it out of mind in some way.
- All right, book and/or series fans. Maybe you can help me out here. I’m fairly certain the former Maester who treats Jaime’s wounds is supposed to be somebody, but for the life of me, I can’t figure out who. Thoughts? [Update: As always, you guys have the answer, several dozen times over. Look below if you want to know who this is. I will not reveal here, in the spirit of not spoiling any lingering newbies.]
- I recommend you all take names that remind you of the vermin you are. I will be “Ratboy.”
Here be spoilers!:
- For book readers, Jaime’s first meeting with Roose and Robb talking about going to Walder for more men should probably both be accompanied by orchestral stings. You know. “Dun dun DUN!”
- It was nice to have Shireen singing the song Patchface taught her in book two. I’m mostly putting this here because for all I know, the show will turn into the adventures of Patchface and Ser Pounce by season seven, and if speculating about adaptation choices in season two has taught me anything, it’s that I always get them wrong.
- I still have no idea where they’re going with all this “marrying Loras” business. (I mean, outside of the obvious.) Though I will admit that I would watch a show where Loras and Cersei carry on a loveless sham of a marriage and bitterly snipe at each other. Who’s Afraid Of Cersei Lannister? they could call it.