Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Game of Thrones 3.05: Kissed by Fire

Hello once again, and welcome to the great Chris and Nikki Game of Thrones co-blog project (version 3.0). Well, we’re at the halfway mark for season three (time flies when you’re immolating slavemasters with dragonfire), and after last week’s barn-burner (castle-burner?) we have an episode with a slightly statelier pace, more invested in building story than great dramatic flourishes … which isn’t to say there wasn’t a LOT going on in this episode.

So without wasting any time … Nikki, your thoughts?

"Wait ... I thought you were taking correspondence courses in typing."

Nikki: This episode certainly didn’t have quite the shock and awe of last week’s episode, but it jumped all over the place and covered a hell of a lot of ground in an hour. One theme that linked many of the stories together was betrayal and trust. Robb Stark deals with a traitor, ignoring the suggestions from his advisors around him and letting emotion get in the way of a shrewd political move (which seems to be Robb’s modus operandi, to be honest). In Jaime’s brilliant story about why “Kingslayer” is a bit of an exaggeration, he talks about how the Mad King went mad because he believed he saw traitors everywhere, and could trust no one. Stannis tells his daughter that Davos is a traitor that she shouldn’t trust. Danaerys has clearly gained the trust of the Unsullied simply by freeing them. Loras beds a man who is betraying his secrets to Baelish. And as Cersei is still giggling over the consequences of having betrayed Sansa’s secret to Tywin, she finds out her daddy isn’t exactly someone she should have trusted with the information when she ends up on the butt end of his reprisals as well.

Let’s back up to the Jaime scene. I’ve said this to my husband a couple of times so far, but I think Nikolaj Coster-Waldau does an extraordinary job with Jaime Lannister, especially considering English is not the Danish actor’s first language. He pulls off the British accent impeccably (off the show, he speaks with something close to an American accent), and has somehow completely turned out sympathies to him, rather than against him as they’ve been for two full seasons. And for anyone still on the fence by this episode, his shocking confession to Brienne ought to have pushed you over.

I loved this scene, both for the confession, and for the fact that he bares all while… baring all, while his listener, Brienne, is also naked — vulnerable at first, before taking charge of the situation. (I need to mention once again how I also think Gwendoline Christie is fantastic in this role, and the chemistry between the two of them is marvelous.) The body language alone is worth noticing. She’s immersed in the water up to her neck, scrubbing so hard Jaime tells her she’ll scrape off her skin, and then he walks in, throws off his clothes, and she, horrified, looks away and tells him to go to the other hot tub. He doesn’t, and instead immerses himself in her tub while she cowers in the corner, curled up in a fetal ball while refusing to look at him. Then he continues taunting her the way he’s been taunting her the entire time, seeing her as a male rather than female, mocking the way she’s “protected” him thus far. She, infuriated, suddenly stands up, with her entire body from the thighs up exposed. He stops, stares, and for one moment you realize he’s seeing her as a woman for the very first time. The look of defiance on her face proves that wasn’t what she was going for, she was simply in a warrior position, but he’s humbled, recalling that for a woman, she’s done a hell of a job protecting him. Hell, for a man she’d have done a hell of a job protecting him. She sits back down in the water, but this time her face is one of interest and concern, and she no longer folds herself up in shame. She faces him in the water the same way he faces her, as an equal.

In his story, he sets the record straight on what really happened. Aerys Targaryen, the Mad King, was obsessed with Wildfire. Of course he was, being a “dragon.” He began hiding it with his treasures throughout the city, underneath every part of it, and when Robert Baratheon stormed King’s Landing, Tywin Lannister — who was supposed to be on the side of the king — switched sides, knowing that Aerys’s side was the losing one. Jaime betrayed his father by going to the king and begging him to surrender, telling him that he could stop the slaughter by doing so (it was his second attempt, and he says even Varys told Aerys to surrender, but Pycelle told him the Lannisters would never betray him… Pycelle being proven once again to be the worst advisor ever). Aerys instead told Jaime to bring him his father’s head, and that he’d burn everyone in the city. And so Jaime killed his pyromancer and then stabbed Aerys in the back as he ran away, and then slit his throat for good measure. Betrayal upon betrayal, showing the burden that Jaime has carried with him all these years, being given a name that he believes isn’t his. As he collapses in Brienne’s arms (another moment where both of them are exposed, though there’s nothing sexual about the scene at all except through our collective gaze), she shouts for help: “Help! The Kingslayer!” and before he passes out, he mutters, “Jaime… my name is Jaime.” It’s a mesmerizing scene.

How did it compare to the one in the book, Chris?

Christopher: Well, starting with Jaime and Brienne—their conversation in the baths squared up almost perfectly with the novel, and again, much of Jaime’s monologue is word-for-word. I agree with you emphatically: Nikolaj Coster-Waldau was chilling in his delivery, in his sad, detached, almost monotone recounting of the series of events that changed his life forever and made him the man he is today. It made me wonder, as it did the first time I read it, how much of Jaime’s persona evolves from that act of regicide; is his amorality and arrogance hard-wired in him, or is a carefully wrought defense mechanism born of the Mad King’s blood? Did Jaime Lannister hear all that was said of him, all those voices hypocritically condemning his act while being silently relieved (voices like that of Ned Stark) and choose to own the title of Kingslayer and all it entailed? If so, his stubborn assertion that “My name is Jaime” as he faints in Brienne’s arms signals a shift in his character.

I also agree with you that this episode is very much about trust and betrayal. Trust is a precious commodity in Westeros, given that betrayal seems as ubiquitous as cruelty. Jaime and Brienne offer a useful little exchange. “Let’s call a truce,” he suggests, weary of their jousting. “You need trust to have a truce,” she retorts. Jaime’s answer, “I trust you,” is really one of the more extraordinary statements made in this episode, not just because it indicates how his conception of Brienne has changed, but for the simple fact that no one else seems inclined to utter such a dangerous sentiment. Indeed, given the multilayered plots on display in this episode, the simple act of trusting appears as the height of naiveté. Especially on the part of someone like Jaime: trust entails a certain submissiveness, the need to subsume oneself to another’s caprices, not something we expect of Jaime Lannister; it is obvious that Brienne does not herself trust Jaime, which makes his avowal doubly significant.

But where Jaime and Brienne are more or less peers, characters like Gendry have grown weary of having their trust betrayed by the people they serve. Responding to Arya’s distress that he plans to join the Brotherhood, he says “I’ve served men my entire life. I served Tobho Mott in King’s Landing and he sold me to the Night’s Watch. I served Lord Tywin at Harrenhal wondering every day if I’d get tortured or killed. I’m done serving.” As he points out, Beric may be the Brotherhood’s leader, but he’s a leader by the sufferance of the people he leads—after a lifetime in servitude, Gendry is understandably attracted to the Brotherhood’s egalitarian structure and mission. As Beric said last week, the Brotherhood fights on behalf of the common people who have been betrayed by their leaders.

And it is not as if their leaders seem to show any genuine interest in their plight: even our beloved Lady Olenna displays her cynical and self-interested streak when discussing finances with Tyrion. Treading water as best he can in his new position as Master of Coin, Tyrion searches for ways to see the realm through to financial stability, and in the short term that means mitigating the obscene costs of the Royal Wedding. Perhaps he hoped that Olenna’s hard-edged pragmatism and impatience with fripperies would win him an ally in trying to reduce the scale of the wedding, but she is having none of it. The wedding must be excessive, she states firmly—what otherwise is the point of it being “royal”? When he tries again to steer her toward the matter of expense, she points out that the wedding is about much, much more than just crowning a new king—it’s about giving the people a spectacle. However much the intervention of the Tyrells has salved the hunger in King’s Landing, “The people are hungry for more than just food. They crave distractions.” Bread and circuses: the symbolic value of the wedding far outstrips its monetary cost, for giving the people leisure to contemplate their leaders on an empty stomach is “likely to end with us being torn to pieces. A royal wedding is much cheaper, wouldn’t you agree?” And because she is a pragmatist, once she has tortured Tyrion enough, she agrees to cover half the wedding’s costs.

"They never let us do this sort of thing at Downton."

One of the things that consistently impresses me about this show is the way the writers frequently work in balanced themes and set-pieces. The overarching series of novels might be called “Ice and Fire,” but this episode was very much about fire and water. “Kissed by Fire,” the episode’s title, is a reference to Ygritte’s flaming red hair—children kissed by fire are considered lucky among the wildlings—but can also refer to the consummation of the attraction and affection that has developed between her and Jon Snow. Jon is, indeed, “kissed by fire” as Ygritte basically forces him to prove the truth of his betrayal by betraying his final oath, that of celibacy. Like the bathing scene between Jaime and Brienne, the post-coital bath taken by Jon and Ygritte signifies a cementing of trust—and is, it is worth noting, the first genuinely joyful and tender depiction of lovemaking since Robb and Talisa fell in love last season. It was, indeed, something of a relief after four episodes in which sex has been either violent and violative, or purely mercenary. Not that it isn’t emotionally ambivalent: we know Jon Snow is only pretending to turn his cloak, meaning that Ygritte’s trust is misplaced (and just like when I read this scene in the novel, I found myself wondering if her wistful desire to stay in the cave forever wasn’t her intuiting that on some level); but Jon’s desire for her and his growing love is genuine.

Fire is also depicted as an agent of justice (Beric Dondarrion’s vengeful flaming sword) and as restorative (Thoros bringing Beric back from the dead). But it is also destructive and wild, as in Jaime’s story about the Mad King’s plan to burn the city to the ground. In the same way, water—cleansing and restorative in the bathing scenes—has an ambivalent nature. Robb executes Rickard Karstark in the pouring rain; but even more striking is the creepy song sung by Stannis’ sweet but sadly disfigured daughter Shireen, a kind of trippy-horror version of “Under the Sea.” And when we finally meet Stannis’ erstwhile queen Selyse, we find her in a chamber where she has preserved her stillborn sons in some translucent liquid, like a mad scientist’s early experiments.

What did you think of the scenes on Dragonstone, Nikki?

Nikki: :::shudder::: The scenes on Dragonstone, much like the ones in the North with Mance Rayder, feel like something the readers are getting a lot more out of than the non-readers. (Perhaps one of the goals of season 3 is to make all of us read the books once and for all.) It certainly felt like we were missing out on some major backstory. It took a moment for me to realize the woman in the room was Stannis’s wife. And I couldn’t figure out why she and her daughter were locked up in a dungeon-type room. Can they get out? Are they trapped there?

What I could cull from the conversations is that she’s a follower of Melisandre and clearly an acolyte who puts her faith above her own well-being. She shows no judgement or jealousy about the fact her husband was unfaithful to her, because it was with the Red Lady. And yeah… her dead baby boys suspended in a green jelly-like liquid just adds further credence to the idea that anyone who follows the Lord of Light is batshit insane.  

That said, Beric appears to be one of those followers. We hear him say the prayer that Melisandre often chants (and that Selyse also says when we see her), “The night is dark and full of terrors.” He uses fire when he’s fighting, not only symbolic of the fire god but also, more pragmatically, it’s the one thing that makes the Hound pee himself in fear. I don’t know if he’s always been a follower or is a recent convert to the religion, but he definitely embraces it wholeheartedly. He tells the Hound, “The Lord of Light isn’t done with you yet” when the Hound walks away from the battle.

The original light sabre, before they worked out the bugs.

I’m thinking the religion of the show is more fleshed-out and important in the books, but from the show I get a sense that the Lord of Light is a monotheistic religion that stands in contrast to the more pantheistic religions on Westeros. I also get a sense that there aren’t a lot of followers of the Lord of Light in Westeros, but instead in the outlying areas. Would that be correct? Is much made of any major characters in Westeros worshipping any gods? Other than the occasional “by the gods” uttered by certain characters (most notably Catelyn) I don’t seem to sense any particular religious fervor among any other characters.

Stannis’s daughter is adorable, despite the one side of her face that’s been eaten away by disease. Despite her father telling her to stay away from Davos, she immediately goes back over to him, offers to teach him how to read and continues to talk to him the way she was before. Here’s hoping Davos can influence Stannis’s daughter in a way he was unable to influence his own son. I’m very intrigued by the friendship between the two, and am looking forward to seeing where it goes.

Is there anything more that could be filled in about Dragonstone from the books that would be non-spoilery? 
"They called me mad at the university! Mad!"

Christopher: I think what we miss on the show is the bigger picture of Stannis: we get that he’s a hard man, unyielding, wedded first and foremost to his own rigid sense of justice, but the show doesn’t offer some of the nuance and insight into his character the books do. What we probably miss most of all is his simmering sense of resentment: he has always felt he has been denied his due, felt constantly slighted by his brother Robert, and above all else loathes the broader tendency among people to be lax in their morals and selective in the application of law and justice. He is Lord of Dragonstone because that was Robert’s “reward” for him for his service in the rebellion, while he gave Storm’s End (the Baratheon castle) to Renly. He is ill liked among the people, something about which he is painfully aware; and his marriage is cold and loveless. Casting Tara Fitzgerald might have been a misstep in this respect, as she is anything but homely and plain (as Selyse is described in the novels), but then again they did a good job of making her haggard and austere.

One thing we never quite get (at least not so far) is how Melissandre insinuated herself into Stannis’ councils. We know she saw him in her scrying and believes him to be Westeros’ saviour; but why someone as hardheaded as Stannis would throw over the religion of his birth in the name of her red god is never explained. One assumes she offered him what no one else ever did: passion, devotion, and recognition of his supposed greatness.

Selyse’s conversion, on the other hand, is easy to understand. Long neglected by her cold and taciturn husband (in the novels there is passing reference to the fact that Stannis does his “husbandly duties” once a year, and grudgingly at that), Melissandre must have offered something akin to a revelation. We get a hint of her near-fanaticism here; in the novels, she is the most vocal prosthelytizer for Melissandre and her god. Those among Stannis’ men who have converted enthusiastically to the worship of R’Hllor are called the “queen’s men,” whereas those who remain skeptical (like Davos, and like Stannis himself) are the king’s.

We don’t get, it is true, a very strong sense of the religions of Westeros and elsewhere in Martin’s world on the show—which isn’t entirely surprising, as there are limited opportunities for that kind of exposition. Basically, the “old gods” of the north represent a pantheistic form of worship, symbolized by the weirwoods; the “seven” of the rest of Westeros seem at first a polytheistic pantheon, but there is a lot of rhetoric here and there in the novels about how they are just seven faces of the one god. In this respect, they are not unlike Jungian archetypes, each representing different facets of human identity and behaviour (Father, Mother, Maiden, Crone, Smith, Warrior, Stranger).

Melissandre’s religion appears monotheistic, but is closer to an ancient religion like Zoroastrianism—a Manichaean faith built on the mythos of two deities locked in perennial battle. The “red god” R’Hllor is opposed to the Enemy (He Who Shall Not Be Named, if you like), the embodiment of cold, darkness, and death.

There is more I can say, but I don’t want to skirt too close to spoiler territory.

To return to the question of trust and betrayal—which, again, tends to get bound up in the question of service—the interchanges between Ser Jorah and Barristan were interesting, and nicely done. I like the way the two knights’ relationship is evolving, and the way in which each is coming to embody a certain kind of devotion and loyalty. Jorah, we know, is in love with Daenerys; his devotion to her cause is inextricable from his desire for her (what was lovely about the final scene of last week’s episode, as I mentioned, was that we saw admiration on his face when he suddenly realized just what kind of queen she is). But he also does believe in her … as he says in response to Barristan’s question, he believes in her with all his heart. 

But we also know Jorah is a venal man, and that his downfall in Westeros was not so much in falling helplessly in love with a vain woman, but his unthinking willingness to do anything for her … culminating in selling slaves and earning himself exile. Barristan, by contrast, is one of the most famously virtuous knights of the seven kingdoms, and is driven by his sense of honour and duty. That sense of honour sends him to find Daenerys; he has no especial emotional investment, and as we see in his conversation with Jorah, that makes him somewhat more clear-eyed. He tries, tactfully, to suggest that someone with as speckled a past as Jorah might not be the best person to be seen with Daenerys when she returns to Westeros, at least not in the elevated position he now holds. Unsurprisingly, Jorah is having none of it.

The most interesting part of their discussion is when they talk about King Robert’s attempts to assassinate Daenerys—which, as we know, Jorah was initially complicit in, at least insofar as he was feeding Robert intelligence. Jorah has a worried moment, wondering if Barristan knows this … but the other knight blithely says that he didn’t bother attending Small Council meetings, meaning he wouldn’t know that. I need to go back to season one to see if Barristan was in fact present when Ned Stark protested Robert’s desire to kill her: I seem to think he was. And if he was, this part of the conversation was a subtle warning to Jorah.

What do you think, Nikki?

Nikki: I remember Barristan from season 1, when he was the head of the Kingsguard (do I remember that correctly?) and he was with Robert Baratheon when the king died, apologizing for not having been there for him. There was a scene early in the season where Barristan, Baratheon, and Jaime Lannister are sitting around talking about great battles they’d been in, and Barristan says that the Mad King had killed Ned’s father, and it’s a good thing he hadn’t faced him on the battlefield. And then Joffrey disgraces him by removing him from the Kingsguard and claiming incompetency.

He was fiercely loyal to Robert Baratheon, and to Ned Stark. And now, after saying he would have killed Daenerys’s father on the battlefield, he pledges his undying loyalty to the Targaryens. Should we be wary of him, or has he seen the way the Lannisters play the game, and since Ned is now gone he believes Daenerys is the true leader?

Speaking of the Lannisters, let’s look at that final scene again. Tywin, Cersei, and Tyrion are all around the table, and Tyrion is boasting of his early accomplishments as Master of Coin, saving hundreds of thousands of dollars on the royal wedding (I’d like to also mention as an aside that my favourite line of the episode is Olenna saying, “What good is the word ‘extravagant’ if it can’t be used to describe a royal wedding?!” Ha!). Cersei has just revealed to her father the plot to marry Sansa off to Loras, meaning the Tyrells would have the hold on Winterfell once the other Starks (inevitably, in their eyes) fall and make Sansa the sole heir. Tyrion makes a snide remark about Sansa missing certain parts that would make Loris happy, but his chuckles don’t last long before Tywin says he’s putting a kibosh on the plan and Tyrion will marry Sansa. (This suddenly changes the nature of the scene a couple of weeks ago between Tyrion and Shae, where he mentioned that Sansa was a lovely girl and Shae immediately became jealous and thought he meant more than just a passing comment on her beauty.) This news is devastating to Tyrion: First, he’s in love with Shae and not Sansa. Secondly, he actually feels compassion for Sansa, and doesn’t want to enslave her to a life with a mutilated dwarf. And thirdly, for his own sake, he doesn’t want to see the look of horror on her face when she learns her fate.

But Tywin’s punishments are not all reserved for Tyrion, as he wipes the smirk of Cersei’s face by saying she will marry Loras, securing their hold over the Tyrells. Cersei is also missing those particular parts that Tyrion had mentioned, and there’s not just a look of shock on Cersei’s face, but a look of utter devastation. He’s already done this to her once, forcing her to marry the fat, drunk, disgusting Robert Baratheon and stand by while he took many lovers, humiliating her along the way while she kept her own lover a secret. Now he’s going to do it to her again, but this time everyone knows that Loras is gay and that she’s being chained to more shame and humiliation, and yet another man who doesn’t love her. It’s one of those rare moments of sympathy for Cersei.

But it’s not the only sympathetic moment in the show. There’s a brief scene with Jaime early on, overshadowed by later scenes of Jaime in the hot tub or getting his stump lanced (and once again, shudder) where he first arrives at Bolton’s place and Bolton slowly describes the battle at King’s Landing, making Jaime think his sister was violated, mutilated, and destroyed. Only, of course, for Bolton to say, “And everyone is okay and lived happily ever after, amen, haha!” at the end of it. Jaime collapses to the ground in relief. After season 1, it’s hard to recall that there was actually a romance between Cersei and Jaime: apart, Jaime becomes more sympathetic with every episode, while Cersei continues to be vile with brief sympathetic moments, but where we see her asking after her beloved all the time, he doesn’t seem to ask about her. Now we see that she’s still in his head, and he still loves her very much. When a sympathetic character is in love with another, we can’t help but begin to see that second character through the eyes of the first. His love for her and his switch to becoming a hero of this show might just alter her in our eyes.

Any last thoughts, Chris?

"Didn't see that one coming, didya?"

Christopher: I was dreading—dreading—that scene where Tywin informs Tyrion he’s to marry Sansa. It was excruciating enough in the novel, and it was just as painful to watch. Poor Sansa … and poor Tyrion. She is really one of the few—perhaps the only—principal character who has absolutely no agency. She’s a lot more sympathetic than she was in season one, but she above all others has no power over her fate. I somehow don’t think I’m offering spoilers when I say she is less than enthused over her betrothal—besides finding Tyrion physically repulsive, she also cannot see him as anything other than a Lannister, and therefore complicit in her father’s murder. Which is unfortunate, as Tyrion displays genuine concern for her … a greedier and more selfish man would have rejoiced in the “gift” Tywin gave him, seeing only a comely wife and a great fortune and title, but Tyrion (besides being in love with Shae) displays the sort of empathy that seems otherwise absent in his family (though Jaime seems to be developing some).

We haven’t said much about Robb Stark’s quandary, and his decision to execute Rickard Karstark for murdering the Lannister boys … which is possibly just as well. I imagine it’s obvious to those who haven’t read the books that this storyline is slowly building to something, so I’ll let it alone for now.

Which, I think, brings us to the conclusion of yet another week. Once again, Nikki, a pleasure—it’s hard to believe we’re already halfway through the season!

"Robb, this just feels wrong without a crossbow."


Joan Crawford said...

Solid, funny work as always, Christopher! Your captions are brilliant (you could get away with just posting screencaps and your quips, you know) and your analysis is thorough and entertaining. You deserve more recognition - god love ya for sticking with it!

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