Tuned In

Game of Thrones Watch: Prisoners and Free Folk

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SPOILER ALERT: Before you read this post, finish getting that full-body tattoo and watch last night’s Game of Thrones.

“We can’t make steel as well as you, but we’re free. If someone told us we couldn’t lie down as man and woman, we’d shove a spear up his arse.”

Nearly every storyline in “A Man Without Honor”–maybe the season’s most thrilling and horrifying Game of Thrones episode yet–involved prisoners or captives and their imprisoners. Some of those captives are held in chains, some in service, some in a royal engagement, and some are brutally murdered.

But no one put the question of freedom versus captivity quite as colorfully as Ygritte, who argued persuasively that, even as Jon Snow’s captive, she’s freer than he is. (This before she escapes and turns the tables on him.) The wildlings have been one of the more fascinating aspects of Game of Thrones to me, because they don’t just represent a threat to the soldiers of the Seven Kingdoms, they represent an antithesis. They’re egalitarian, they believe in merit over heredity, they aren’t bound to land–and, it would seem, their women have greater agency over their own sexuality than Westerosi women do. (Or, for that matter, the men of the Night’s Watch.)

So I was glad that she and Jon had a change to have a long, flirtatious talk about their peoples’ worldviews before she escaped–it’s another one of those scenes in which we get an outsider’s view of Westeros, which calls into question the very kingdom that everyone else in the story is fighting for. And their exchange raised an issue that resonates through the episode: that there are many ways to be imprisoned, and that taking prisoners does not necessarily mean you are entirely free yourself.

A war story, of course, lends itself to prison situations, and one advantage of them for this series is that they set up situations of forced covnersation between two characters, dialogue in which much of the show’s “action” takes place.

Take Arya and Tywin. Jesus, I would watch Arya and Tywin talk for an entire episode. I would love a bottle episode that was nothing but Tywin and Arya getting locked in a storeroom in Harrenhal and discussing Westeros history. Instead, we had to settle for one of the most deliciously sparring exchanges of the series, as Tywin tested the idea that Arya was posing as a commoner.

Tywin may suspect Arya–and if her thinks she’s a Northern noble girl, then he must suspect she hates him–but he’s starved for intelligent conversation. (“Most girls are interested in the pretty maidens from the songs.” “Most girls are idiots.”) And Arya–maybe knowing she was giving too much away but unable to resist–gives voice to her feelings, which is one way this prisoner of war can exercise her freedom. Within bounds: “I can’t say I’ve met a literate stonemason.” “Have you met many stonemasons, my lord?” “Careful now, girl. I enjoy you, but be careful.”

There’s a similar captive situation between Stark and Lannister, but one with a different dynamic, in Robb’s camp. On the one hand, Jaime is suffering harsher treatment than Arya, in the hands of captors who know who he is and mostly want him dead. On the other hand, Catelyn knows who he is–and that knowledge is as limiting for her as it is empowering. She has him and has power over him, but his safekeeping is her burden; if he dies, she believes, that’s the death of Sansa. (And, as far as she knows, Arya, who if I recall correctly Catelyn still believes to be in King’s Landing–correct me if I’m wrong.)

In Qarth, meanwhile, Dany is coming to realize that, saved from the Red Waste, she has landed in a richly gilded prison–which has become a literal prison for her dragons and, if Pyat Pree has his way, her. (No spoilers, but so far I am loving the ways in which the Qarth storyline diverged from the books, where it frankly dragged.) What she’s up against is the power of the city–especially the traitorous Xaro–and the freakily awesome magic of Pree (the murder of the 13 by the multi-Prees was one of the most wonderfully nutso images I have seen on GoT).

But she’s also imprisoned by her circumstances–by being in a strange land, as she says she recognizes, without a people to lead, just the promise of a kingdom across the sea. She wants to trust no one, as she tells Jorah, yet she must know that Jorah is right when he says she will never survive without anyone’s help. And yet, repeatedly, she’s seen that trusting people can be a very bad idea–even Jorah, as Quaithe, mysteriously knowing of his “betrayal,” can attest. There are three beings in the world she can trust, and they’re locked up in The House of the Undying.

In another gilded prison, in King’s Landing, Sansa has awoken to find she’s had her period, which means she’s going to be expected to give Joffrey children. She awakens from a dream of her near-rape–which I was glad to see, not to relive the experience but because the episode acknowledged that it wasn’t a small thing to be immediately forgotten. But the story also reminds us that she is–as a hostage princess betrothed to the man who had her father killed–already in a kind of extended hostage-rape situation to begin with, one that is meant to become her life.

Suprisingly, when Cersei sits down to talk to her about her predicament, it’s actually an empathetic conversation. Cersei, as we see elsewhere in the episode, is honestly and deeply distraught to realize what a monster Joffrey has become. (Her more-rounded portrayal is, I think, another change from the book, and for the better.)

It’s not that Cersei has taken Sansa to heart and wants to free her from the marriage–no, the family requires it. But she knows that her son is “difficult” and offers Sansa some advice that is, in her own jaded way, sincere and motherly. Love makes you vulnerable, she says. “Love no one but your children,” she says (echoing, oddly, Dany’s solitary love for her dragon-children).

Which brings us to the storyline, and the scene, that I have been putting off writing about until now. Theon, in command at Winterfell, has no sentimentality about children, and what he does to prove his power is absolutely gut-wrenching–and, even knowing how cruel the world of GoT can be, difficult to watch.

And yet, as he looks back at the disfigured, charred little bodies hanging behind him–what is the expression on his face? Shock? Surprise? Did he not know what his men were about to unveil–did he not see the deed being done–or is he simply not strong enough to own up to the murder of children that he commanded? Throughout the hunt for Bran and little Rickon, you see him talking himself through the idea of violence. Well, he’ll hurt them, but he won’t kill them. Well, but he has to do what he has to do–he will look weak and a fool to his men forever. “It’s better to be cruel than weak,” for if he looks weak, he’ll lose his power.

Theon is certainly better off than his innocent little victims. But it’s clear: he is no free man.

(Here’s my usual request for those who have read the books: you’re welcome to compare what’s happened already on the series, but no referencing plot points or upcoming events–nothing possibly spoilery for the book virgins out there. Thanks.)