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Game of Thrones Watch: The Walking Dead

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Spoilers for last night’s Game of Thrones below:
“He was a great warrior. And a terrible king.”
“‘Burn them all,’ he said. ‘Burn them in their homes, burn them in their beds.'”

Why is there trouble in Westeros? There are obvious literal answers: The Targaryens seized the Iron Throne, the Baratheons overthrew the Targaryens, the Lannisters usurped the Baratheons, the Starks went to war with the Lannisters. Various alliances and grievances and jealousies went into play and there you have it.

But that’s not Westeros’ problem. That’s the Targaryens’ and Lannisters’ and Baratheons’ and Starks’ and Tyrells’ problem. Westeros’ problem is that it’s had a series of really crappy kings. Aerys went crazy and was ready to immolate his capital with himself. Robert the liberator was a disinterested ruler who spent the crown into penury. Joffrey is–well, Joffrey, but ten times as much now that he’s king.

The noble houses are tussling over the Iron Throne–which, what else is new?–but the more interesting thing that “Kissed by Fire” suggests is that the Iron Throne itself is having what pundits today might call a crisis of authority and legitimacy. Why should most of Westeros care about who sits on that throne of melted swords when, over and over, the rest of the country just gets stuck with the pointy ends?

Interwoven through the episode’s twists and marriage plots–oh, and the occasional resurrection from the dead–is this undercurrent of restiveness, of characters looking for some alternative to Game of Thrones’ whole game of thrones. We start with Arya and the Brotherhood Without Banners, who take the “without banners” part of their name very seriously. Once knights and soldiers of Westeros’ houses, they’ve rejected that culture right down to its gods, choosing the Lord of Light.

And in a touching scene, Gendry tells Arya that he’s chosen them. “I’ve served men my entire life,” he says. “[Beric] may be their leader, but they chose him.” Arya, we’ve seen, has grown beyond her years over the past two seasons, but she’s still naive and insulated enough not to see the barriers that the feudal system puts up between her and Gendry. “I’ll be your family,” she insists, begging him to return to Robb with her. But Gendry–who after all grew up working a smithy within eyesight of the rulers of the kingdom, knows better: “You wouldn’t be my family. You’d be my lady.”

The price of monarchy is also the focus of the Jaime-Brienne scene, which–with equal opportunity nudity–continues to humble and explain the Kingslayer, in this case, by giving his version of how he got that nickname. He betrayed his oath, yes, but because the Mad King demanded his father’s head (a reasonable request, given his treason) and ordered the burning of his own capital and its people (a less-reasonable one). It’s an interesting question whether Jaime was more moved by the threat to Tywin or to the innocents of King’s Landing, but either way it does a lot to explain why loyalty to the Crown is in short supply in Westeros.

Back in King’s Landing, there’s a lot of juicy squabbling and conniving over royal weddings–both their costs and their participants. Tywin’s plan to secure power by marrying off Tyrion and Cersei–to Sansa and Loras–is the punch at the end of the episode. But before those royal machinations there’s an interesting conversation between Lady Olenna and Tyrion, who as new Master of Coin is distraught at the expense of the wedding. She notes that there’s a lot of unrest in the streets of King’s Landing, and a grand wedding for the popular Margaery may be just the entertainment to keep it from getting inside the palace walls.

This, by the way, is one way it’s helpful that Game of Thrones can make up its own timeline; it gives us a medieval kingdom with a Cromwellian/French Revolution-era fear of populist insurrection. A royal wedding: expensive. Not getting strung up by the mob: priceless.

Ultimately the question of whether there is any monarch worth following comes back to Essos, where two old soldiers, Jorah and Barristan, reminisce about the men they’ve wasted their loyalty on and talk about the woman they hope might be more worth it. Robert, Jorah recalls, “was a great warrior. And a terrible king.” Barristan–in contrast to Jaime–never betrayed a king he was sworn to, but at a cost: “Just once in my life, I want to know what it’s like to serve with pride, to fight for someone I believe in.”

Dany, having just freed the Unsullied, might be that ruler—if she can prove any different from the other Targaryens who turned their dragons loose on the cities of Westeros. But even if she could return legitimacy to the Iron Throne, she’s a long, long way away.

Now for the hail of bullets:

* In the episode’s other storylines, we re-visit Jon, who is attempting to blend in with wildlings who are entirely opposed to the notion of lords and dynasties; Robb, who loses half his army by acting with his father’s moral absolutism; and Stannis, who holy crap those are his stillborn baby sons in jars.

* “She’s a lovely girl. Missing some of Ser Loras’ favorite bits, but I’m sure they’ll make do.”

* Beric’s return from the dead isn’t the first one we’ve seen on Game of Thrones–there was Khal Drogo’s, which came at even greater cost. But it was shocking anyway, and I think that’s testament to how effective it is that the show uses magic sparingly: it’s rare, it comes with a price, and thus it’s more powerful dramatically when it arises.

* Speaking of that fierce fight scene, the Hound’s horrified expression at facing the flaming sword nicely recalled how he came to look the way he did—his face pressed into a fire by his even more sadistic big brother, Gregor.

* And finally on that storyline: who would have thought that “Could you bring back a man without a head?” could be such a touching line?

* Neither saw nor especially missed Theon this week, but I’m hoping for more Bran, and soon.

* “There will be pain.” “I’ll scream.” “Quite a bit of pain.” “I’ll scream loudly.”

* Stannis’s daughter Shireen–introduced for readers in the second book of George R. R. Martin’s series–finally shows up. And after her a capella “singing during the credits, I will never be able to hear The Little Mermaid’s own “Under the Sea” quite the same way again.

The usual reminder: If you’ve read the source books, be considerate in the comments of those who haven’t. Feel free to discuss how this (or any past episode) compares with the source material, but please, no references to events from the books that haven’t yet happened in the series. Thanks.