Leave it to Queen Cersei to come out with a brilliant bit of life advice. You have no choice but to love your children, but you should love as few other people as possible, if you want to be powerful and free. Last night's Game of Thrones saw several characters flirting with huge betrayals — and the choice between freedom and obligation has never seemed quite so murky.

Spoilers ahead...

Nobody wants to appear weak in the bloody, brutal world of Westeros. Least of all at a horrible time like the War of Five Kings. The Hound would rather boast of the joy of slaughter than admit for a second that he feels a whisper of compassion for Sansa Stark, or anyone else.


As Theon Greyjoy puts it, in a nice counterpoint to Cersei's counsel, "It's better to be cruel than weak."

Theon's hunt

The episode begins and ends with Theon's hunt for the missing Stark boys, Bran and Rickon. Last week, Theon got seduced by Osha, the wildling woman, who then stole out of Winterfell with Bran, Rickon and Hodor. Now, Theon is so desperate to appear in control of the situation, he kicks the shit out of an underling who mentions that he was screwing Osha. And Theon tells Maester Luwin that he'll do anything — anything at all — to avoid being viewed as a eunuch and a fool by his own people for the rest of his life. Even brutalize two little boys.


While Theon is declaring his willingness to cross any line to keep the respect of his real family, Bran and Rickon are weighing a different set of obligations. They've been running for hours, without much food. Bran wouldn't let them go to the kitchens before they fled, because he didn't want the kitchen servants beaten for helping them. And now they've reached a farmhouse where Bran sent two orphan boys a while back. Bran doesn't think they can risk asking the people at the farmhouse for food or help, because Theon will just torture them for information if he suspects anything. Bran would rather give up his freedom than endanger these people who've looked up to him as their lord in Winterfell.


We're not sure how Bran's choice turns out, but Theon's helper (and puppetmaster) Dagmer Cleftjaw does find some walnut shells at the farmhouse, indicating Bran's been there. And we do get to see how Theon's hunt turns out — back at Winterfell, at the end of the episode, he unveils the bodies of two young boys, burnt beyond recognition.

That's sort of the motif of this episode: people being willing to toss aside smaller obligations (like Theon's bond with his former foster brothers) to salvage the more important stuff (like Theon's credibility with his fellow Ironborn.)

Jaime's escape

Speaking of which, Jaime Lannister makes a defining choice in this episode too. He meets the most honorable member of the Lannister family, Ser Alton Lannister — and kills him.


We know Ser Alton is a deeply honorable man, because he even impresses King Robb, with his willingness to deliver a message to the King's Council and then bring their response, delivering himself back into Robb's imprisonment. Ser Alton gets locked up with Jaime, his distant cousin, and proceeds to gush all over him about the day he got to be Jaime's squire at one of the Frey family's many weddings, long ago. It was the best day of Ser Alton's life, getting to be part of the glory of Ser Jaime's victories.

This is just one of many moments in the episode where two characters bond or open their hearts to each other, fleshing out characters who don't get that much fleshing out in the books. (And it's mostly brilliant stuff, although it does make for one of the talkiest episodes of this season thus far, which may not be to everyone's taste.)


In any case, Jaime repays Ser Alton by telling him a similar story about the time he got to be the squire for Ser Barristan Selmy — the member of the Kingsguard whom King Joffrey dismissed unceremoniously at the end of season one. Ser Barristan was such a great artist of slaughter, it was a joy to watch him work, even though Jaime was more of a liability than a help to him. (Ser Barristan was fighting outlaws, and one of them decided to take on the young Jaime directly, and apparently that was a miscalculation.)

Now that the two Lannisters have shared their touching stories, Jaime murders Ser Alton as part of a scheme to escape his cage. Ser Alton is only a very distant member of the Lannister clan, and Jaime doesn't feel he owes the man much — and Jaime really, really doesn't take to captivity.

Jaime's escape attempt almost works, but he gets caught again — and he's nearly murdered by Lord Rickard Karstark, whose family are distantly related to the Starks. Jaime strangled Lord Rickard's son during his escape attempt, and Lord Rickard wants his head in repayment. Jaime's life is only saved because Catelyn Stark herself steps up to forbid his execution.


Catelyn still sees Jaime as a valuable prisoner, and after all she's been told by Littlefinger that the Lannisters will exchange her two daughters for him. But with the Karstarks and various other drunken fools clamoring for Jaime's head, he probably won't survive the night. So Catelyn goes into Jaime's stockade with her right-hand woman Brienne, and asks for Brienne's sword. And then...we're not sure what happens next.

Oh, and Cat has another debate about honor and loyalty with the Kingslayer — who basically says that you swear so many vows in your life, they're bound to come into conflict at some point. Like the oaths to serve your King and obey your father. There's no choice but to pick and choose — sort of the way Jaime chose to sacrifice his cousin, who doesn't matter as much as closer kin might.


You can't honor all your assorted family members, and you can't obey all your contradictory vows. There's just no point in trying.

Robb Stark's mercy

The situation with Jaime only gets so far out of control — and Jaime's life is only threatened — because King Robb isn't there to keep a lid on things. He's off at the Crag, accepting the surrender of a minor family, House Westerling. (Robb delegates the all-important task of liberating Winterfell from Theon, but he goes to accept the surrender of a minor house himself. Priorities.)


And he decides impulsively to take Lady Talisa, the sexy foreign nurse, with him, so she can gather some medical supplies from the Maester at the Crag. This is problematic for a couple reasons: First, he explicitly accepts her argument that everybody's entitled to decent medical care, both his own wounded and his enemy's. And second, the longer he rides around with Talisa, the less credibility he has with the Karstarks of the world.

This is partly because they mistrust anyone who seems to care equally about the wounded on both sides. But also because everybody knows that King Robb is promised in marriage to one of Lord Walder Frey's daughters — and that marriage is vital to his strategic position. His honor as well as his military footing depend on not screwing it up.


(But of course, even the saintly Ned Stark screwed around and fathered a bastard, as Jaime gleefully reminds Cat.)

Jon's temptation

That bastard is meanwhile struggling with his own carnal temptation. Jon Snow wakes up next to his wildling prisoner, Ygritte, and they're both frozen stiff from the cold in the wilds beyond the Wall — and that's not the only thing that's stiff. Jon's apparently been pressing his "bone" against Ygritte's rear in his sleep, and she taunts him about it rather a lot.


Ygritte does her level best to seduce Jon — not just by offering him some hot Wildling loving, but also by painting a picture of what it would be like if he foreswore his vows. He could be free, free to eat and sleep when he felt like, and screw whoever he wanted, and he'd no longer have to take orders from the likes of Qhorin Halfhand or Lord Mormont. He could be like Mance Rayder, the former member of the Night's Watch who is now "King Beyond the Wall" and the elected leader of the Wildlings. (GIF via That Wrinkles My Brain.)

In an episode where Jaime is willing to murder his own cousin to be free, Ygritte also paints a pretty nice picture of freedom.


And she keeps needling Jon Snow where it hurts — not just in his long-denied lust, but also in his pride. Jon Snow thinks he's better than Ygritte, and he feels guilty for thinking that, because enough people have given him shit for thinking himself superior. And if he's not really better than her, what's keeping him from joining her?

It's all too much for the bastard, who just wants to be a good Crow and give up sex and any sense of individuality for the good of the Night's Watch — and finally, Ygritte gets him flustered enough that he drops his guard and she takes off running... leading Jon into an ambush, where he's suddenly surrounded by a dozen or so Wildlings. Who've probably been able to track them by the scent of Jon Snow's vow of chastity slowly falling apart.


Sansa's flowering

Sansa Stark, meanwhile, is still a prisoner in King's Landing, a hostage of the Lannisters and also trapped by her betrothal to Good King Joffrey. Even so, Sansa is still free in one important way — as long as she's too young to bear children, she's free of the need to marry Joffrey and share his bed.


Until now, when Sansa has her first period, and becomes officially a woman. This happens at the worst possible time, when Sansa is having PTSD dreams from her near-rape at the hands of the peasant uprising. She's already terrified, and this pushes her over the edge into sheer panic. She and her handmaiden Shae try vainly to hide the evidence, Shae even threatening to slit the throat of another handmaiden who wants to tell the Queen, but it's no use.

And that's when Cersei gives Sansa the bit of advice quoted above, about loving as few people as possible. Sansa can certainly try to love King Joffrey, once he's her husband. But Joffrey's "always been difficult," even when Cersei was giving birth to him. Cersei shares with Sansa a little glimpse of how horrible her own marriage to King Robert was: When Cersei was suffering through Joffrey's birth, Robert was off hunting. (At least she had her dear brother Jaime, who stayed with her in the birthing room each time.)

So Cersei tells Sansa that she has no choice but to love her children, once she's a mother. But beyond that, loving anybody else will only make her weak, and cause her to do things she knows she shouldn't. A big part of surviving in this world is distinguishing between bonds that matter, and bonds that can be sacrificed for power or freedom.


Cersei's realization

It's only hinted in the scene with Sansa, but later in the episode, Cersei makes it absolutely clear: She thinks Joffrey is insane, and there's no controlling him any more. She shares a surprisingly cordial moment with her brother Tyrion, and the two of them seem to have reached a kind of détente, as she confesses her fear that her incest with Jaime is to blame for her son's madness.


Tyrion, who's barely in this episode, is quite worried not just because the King is out of control and universally loathed. The late King Robert's brother Stannis is four or five days' sail from King's Landing, with a fleet of 200 ships, and they don't have a good strategy for fighting him. Cersei tries hard to channel her father, promising to rain fire on Stannis' men... but we've already heard how that strategy is likely to backfire (literally.) The fire will probably rain in both directions, and King's Landing will be toast. Cersei doesn't have her father Tywin's gift for tactics.

If Tyrion has a better idea for defending the city, he doesn't share it with his sister — but he does commiserate with her about her mad son. And he notes that she beat the odds. Back when the Targaryens used to mate brother and sister together, they had a fifty-fifty chance of producing insane children — and only one out of Cersei's three kids is bonkers. Too bad it's the one who's actually sitting on the throne.


Arya's manners

Cersei's father Tywin, meanwhile, has a soft spot for his new cupbearer, who he doesn't realize is Arya Stark, the sister of the man Tywin is warring with. He's letting Arya getting away with being quite sassy towards him, and having long conversations about history and the futility of trying to create a lasting legacy when other people go and change the rules on you. He's opening up to her, giving us a fascinating window into the mind of Tywin.

And he even compares Arya to Cersei, seeing in her some of the same steel he saw in his own daughter at that age. Arya gets a gleam in her eye, talking about the sisters of King Aegon the Conqueror, who rode on dragons at Aegon's side and helped him demolish the once-mighty castle that she and Tywin are standing in, Harrenhal. Arya lets enough of her own guard down enough to reveal something of her dreams of being a hero rather than a lady — and she forgets to talk like a real commoner, something Tywin picks up on.


Arya isn't that much like Cersei, though — because she hesitates to get her hands dirty. She has a knife in her hand and Tywin's exposed throat in her line of sight, and he's lost enough in thought that she might even get at him. But she hesitates, either out of fear or out of affection for the old guy... and then her chance slips away. She's only willing to murder people indirectly, via the agency of her assassin friend, Jaqen.

Tywin shows Arya just how ruthless you have to be if you want to get something done — he believes Jaqen's assassination of Ser Amory Lorch was actually an attempt on his life, and he blames the Brotherhood Without Banners, an outlaw band. (These are apparently the same outlaws the Tickler was trying to find out about, when he was doing the "hot rat" torture a while back.) So Tywin orders the Mountain to go out there and burn down some villages and torch some fields, and generally make everybody suffer, until he gets a lead on the Brotherhood.

Because after all, it's better to be cruel than weak.

Daenerys' trust issues

And finally, in an episode overflowing with storylines, there's one more. Daenerys Targaryen, whose dragons were stolen last week, is having a hard time knowing who to trust any more. Xaro Xoan Daxos swears that his honor as her host depends on his getting her dragons back, and meanwhile Ser Jorah Mormont swears that he will do anything for her. But Daenerys is through with trusting people, now that her trust has gotten most of her people killed.


And with good reason. Because Crazy Mask Lady reminds Ser Jorah (and us) that he's already betrayed Daenerys once — when he gave information to King Robert's spies, and nearly got Daenerys poisoned in the process. He seems determined never to betray her again, because he loves her... but Crazy Mask Lady seems to think Jorah's love is just as likely to make him screw up again.

And Xaro turns out to be even less trustworthy. We learn that Xaro made a deal with the bald sorcerer from the House of the Undying, handing over Daenerys' dragons in return for being made King of Qarth. His campaign platform consists of opening Qarth's borders and embracing new ideas, plus the notion that it's often the people at the margins (like himself and the bald sorcerer) who wind up being at the center of events. The other rulers of Qarth, the Thirteen, are slaughtered, leaving Daenerys apparently at the mercy of Xaro and his sorcerous ally.


Daenerys attempts to flee, but it's not clear where she can run to. And meanwhile, the sorcerer keeps inviting her to come join her dragons at the House of the Undying, where they can be together... forever. (The way he phrases it, it doesn't sound as though she'll be alive, though.) So it seems like Daenerys' trust issues will resolve themselves.

(To be honest, of all the storylines in this episode (and this season) the Qarth storyline is seeming the most half-baked. We've barely met the people of Qarth, and now we've already witnessed a coup, and it's hard to get that invested in Xaro's outmaneuvering of the Spice King. I guess the main takeaway from that strand, though, is that Daenerys has wandered into an exotic city and there are sorcerers, and one of them has her dragons. Probably best not to get too invested in the details of Qartheen politics at this point.)


In any case, as we already saw last week, the Mother of Dragons is nothing without her dragons to give her that title. Because that's the flipside to Cersei's Law. Your children may make you do foolish things out of love — but they also give you your status and your identity.

Screencaps and GIFs via WICnet on Tumblr