The traditional place to start a story — particularly a story featuring beautiful maidens, brave knights, and extravagant, fairy-tale weddings — is at the beginning. When the sun is shining and the storm clouds of plot are still a ways away, it's possible for an audience to gain perspective and appreciate the purpose of the struggle to come. It's why The Fellowship of the Ring opened with a Hobbit birthday party, not a savage orc battle: It's a necessary glimpse of good before things inevitably go bad.
But Game of Thrones is far from a traditional story for reasons that go well beyond the fact that the beautiful maiden in question is currently a hostage, the brave knight is gay, and Westeros's wedding of the year will celebrate the union of a cleavage-baring schemer and a psychosexual sadist whose mother is also his aunt. Things may have gotten progressively worse in the Seven Kingdoms since the series began, but decline seems to be the natural direction of things in Westeros. As far as I can tell, there have been no good times, only moments that were slightly less bad. Before Joffrey's reign of errors, there was Robert Baratheon, a wine-drunk usurper who treated the Iron Throne room like the MLB Fan Cave. And before Robert, there was Aerys Targaryen, the Mad King, who burned bridges and allies with equal ardor. Barristan Selmy's recognized as far away as Essos as a great warrior, but what he really is is exhausted. "I've burnt away my years fighting for terrible kings," he sighs to Jorah. "Just once in my life, before it's over, I want to know what it's like to serve with pride." The quiet calm of Winterfell we witnessed back in the pilot wasn't merely brief, it was illusory. The crush of plot and the multiple points of view since then have taught Game of Thrones watchers an important lesson: Peace is only pleasant for the winners. And even for them, it always arrives with an expiration date.
"Kissed by Fire" lacked a climax as world-rattling and satisfying as Daenerys's emancipation conflagration (though Jon Snow and Ygritte might beg to differ), but it more than made up for it with an hour of deeply unsettling foreplay. From the wilds beyond the wall to the equally unsafe woods on the other side of it, the old ways and orders are crumbling faster than the crown's finances. What was particularly well done about Bryan Cogman's script was the way it suggested that this societal collapse began long before Game of Thrones did; the hour was littered with the ghosts of past mistakes, the sting of phantom pain. "The corruption," as the radical maester told Jaime Lannister, "has spread." To see the series adopt the mind-set of Lady Olenna during her sit-down with an unusually sober Tyrion — contemptuous of rigid bookkeeping and bored with any attempt to curtail mayhem with manners — was, in a way, exhilarating. But mostly, it was terrifying.
Deep in a cave, the Brotherhood without Banners staged a battle royale for the old gods that instead helped establish the new normal. When the Hound shrugged off his fear of flames and buried his sword in the chest cavity of the fire deity's chosen son, it appeared to be a victory for law and order (not to mention for actor David Michael Scott, who played Beric Dondarrion briefly in Season 1. Who'd want to trek all the way to Northern Ireland for such a quickly extinguished firefight?). But Thoros's whiskey breath is more powerful than it first appeared, and Beric, now in the one-eyed guise of actor Richard Dormer, is revealed to be the Black Knight of House Python: Not even the most savage flesh wound can stop him. Granted, Arya Stark has been in Westeros longer than I have, but she seemed much less freaked out by the sudden revelation of magical resurrection. When death isn't permanent, when Melisandre's red god isn't just blowing smoke, when those without rules seem like winners, what does it say about the game we thought these characters were playing? "It is and it isn't" is how Thoros defines the reality of a strange situation, and the contradiction makes perfect sense for a group that seems to have put itself in better shape by giving up any number of things: old structures, old allegiances, and, as Gendry points out, old debts. And Arya, still driven by anger and vengeance, doesn't seem to understand any of it. Is there a word for "nuance" in High Valyrian? Because the idea certainly doesn't seem to exist in the common tongue.
Speaking of common tongue, Jon Snow also had to sacrifice an oath last night, right along with his virginity. Ygritte had been reaching for the former crow's sword for weeks, but she finally got a hold of it in all of the best ways. Sure, it was awfully convenient that the Wildling camp was located just above the Heart of the Island, with its honeymoon-suite-like hot tub, but only the most cynical viewers could've been left cold by the sight of the scruffy northman going south. And while Ygritte's Anna Faris act had to have been hard to swallow, it was no doubt worth it. After all, it's not every day a bastard transforms into the real Lord of Bones.
Jokes aside, Jon Snow's willingness to roll with both a gorgeous redhead and a series of crazy situations sets him apart from his eldest half-brother. Robb Stark inherited the title, disposition, and strength of character of his beloved father. And this, we're shown again and again, is exactly the problem. When Ser Donald Sutherland stormed the dungeons of Riverrun with the express purpose of murdering two little Lannisters so negligible they were practically kittens, not lions, it was absolutely treason. And Robb had every right to be mad, to stamp his feet, and to hang whomever might make him feel temporarily better. But to behead the head of the insurrection was as much a failure of strategy as it was a win for good morals. And as Lord Karstark would tell him if his heart were still beating, it's strategy that wins wars, not scruples. "I'm not fighting for justice if I don't serve justice to murderers in my ranks" is how Robb spins his decision to his more cynical inner council. But Robb doesn't seem to realize that he's not fighting for justice — that's just an empty concept in Westeros, a fancy word to hang on a brutal reality that helps the highborn sleep better at night. Battles are only about concepts in retrospect; in the moment, they're fought for territory and titles, for power and money. If you aren't interested in any of those things, you might as well stay home, hug your children, and leave the politics for those who actually know what they're doing.
For all the reverent talk of Ned Stark last night (Beric: "He was a good man"; Jaime: "Honorable"; Sean Bean: "My schedule's actually pretty wide open!"), it's worth noting that modeling oneself after the former Lord of Winterfell is not a particularly good move for long-term survival. Being respected and admired are currently doing Ned about as much good in death as it did in life. And I fear the same rough ending awaits Robb. It reminds me of what Selmy said about Ned's BFF, Robert Baratheon: He was "a good man, a great warrior, and a terrible king." Ned was honest, decent, and totally clueless. The Meat Loaf Conundrum does not hold in the Seven Kingdoms: Two out of three might not be bad, but it's certainly not enough. While Jon Snow drops expectations along with his pants, Robb and Arya seem fatally bound to them. They seem like they're playacting roles they've inherited — fair crusader, tireless avenger — instead of figuring out who they'd like to be instead.
And the thing is, Ned was a good father! Imagine how rough it is out there for those who weren't so lucky. I don't know much about Papa Bear Baratheon, but he must have done a number on his boys, positioning them so close to power and yet so far away from each other. Revealing the stony sadness behind Stannis's flaming heart was the latest in a series of rewarding reversals from Benioff and Weiss (and, I suppose, Martin, too). How could someone so gloomy and tortured ever be mistaken for a Lord of Light? But, then again, how could someone so gloomy and tortured ever resist the flattery of being called one? Poor Mrs. Baratheon was up in the attic like Bertha, the crazy first wife in Jane Eyre, inventing her own truth and staring at the floating corpses of her dead babies. (In terms of scary things in jars, last night's episode put Game of Thrones well ahead of The Walking Dead.) Faith can be a slippery slope, in any reality. The Fire God seems like a chill hang when you're sipping lean with Thoros and his merry band of outlaws, but seeing Selyse babble on about holy adultery reminded me of how hippie free love crashed and burned at Altamont and how Scientology was responsible for making Tom Cruise a star before it was responsible for Crash. Stannis may be clinging to his new religion to help warm him up, but it doesn't seem to be improving his own parenting skills. So what if his daughter has a light case of lizardface? At least she doesn't stand on ceremony. Teaching Davos how to read is enough to bring an Onion Knight to tears. It also tied in with the episode's underlying message: You're never more free than when you're locked up, and you're never closer to victory than when you've got nothing left to lose.
This topsy-turvydom was present in Daenerys's arc: She gave a slave army their freedom and won their loyalty forever. She instructed them to name themselves; they don't care what they're called as long as she's the one doing the calling. But how will it play out with Game of Thrones’s fascinating first family? This was the episode in which Jaime, a character who made his entrance tossing an 8-year-old out the window like a wad of chewing gum, was revealed to be a broken child himself. Dazed by pain, exhaustion, and the heat of Lord Bolton's his'n'hers Jacuzzi (a long time coming but finally a big week for bathing on Game of Thrones!), the Kingslayer drops the snark and reveals the details of the day he broke his oath as a member of Aerys Targaryen's Kingsguard. As a young man, Jaime was forced to choose between duty and madness, between the Kingdom and his family. Considering his choice — and considering who his father is — Jaime's incest begins to make a sort of sense. Tywin believes in the importance of family above all else, but he certainly doesn't like his actual family. Can you blame Jaime for looking for love and acceptance elsewhere in his home? When he collapsed in Brienne's naked arms, he was in the midst of either a seizure or a Marlo Stanfield moment, but it's telling and sad that the name he yearns for is the only thing no one ever calls him.
In the episode's devastating final scene, the effortlessly malevolent Charles Dance manipulates his scarred and scared children in the same callous way Robb Stark moved the oversize chess pieces on his desktop game of Stratego. First, he announces that he wants Tyrion to marry Sansa Stark in an attempt to secure the North, and before Cersei can drop the Mean Girls smirk from her face, he demands that she in turn marry Sansa's secret intended, the highly uninterested Ser Loras, in order to secure the Reach. In case there was any remaining doubt about Tywin Lannister, this scene removed it: Westeros's most dedicated pen pal is not only the best player in the Game of Thrones (after all, he never backs a losing side), he's also the biggest asshole. Are these two things connected? I imagine so.
The most interesting question still to come is whether Cersei and Tyrion can break out from this punishing, poisonous line and start seeing themselves with their own eyes, not through those of their perpetually disappointed father. Cersei acts like a calculating bitch because that's how her father behaves; Tyrion alternates drunken disaffection with serious work because he can't decide if he wants to kill Tywin or change his mind. But here's a free raven for the two of them: They don't need to win their father's approval to be happy! The truth is, they don't need to win at all. In our world, we like to say that those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it. But on Game of Thrones, it appears that those who forget the past might be the only ones with even the slightest chance of survival.
[Note on these recaps: I have not read the books, and I have no intention to do so. My goal is to analyze and enjoy Game of Thrones strictly as a television show. So please, no spoilers or “I told you so”s in the comments, OK? OK!]