The Mad King of Westeros really, really liked wildfire. A lot. Crazy King Aerys has been dead a long time, but he still overshadows the realm — not just because those who deposed him are ruling, but also because his terrible reign raises the ultimate question: When is it okay to break your oath and turn against your ruler?
Last night's episode was called "Kissed by Fire," and it had a lot of fiery imagery, including two groups of people who worship the fire god R'hllor, aka the Lord of Light. (And lots of the redhead Ygritte, who's said to be "kissed by fire" because of her hair color.) But most of all, we got to hear in depth about the final days of the Mad King, Aerys Targaryen II, and we saw Ser Barristan Selmy wrestling with his part in serving him.
The Mad King is like the textbook example of a ruler who's gone too far, to the point where he's forfeited the loyalty of his subjects — and now at last, we've found out from Jaime Lannister, the Kingslayer, just what Aerys was cooking up when Jaime slaughtered him.
Aerys enjoyed burning people to death with the magical incendiary known as wildfire so much, he decided to treat the entire city of King's Landing to the same fate, after Tywin Lannister's sudden but inevitable betrayal. Aerys wanted to watch the world burn — and then emerge from the flames as an actual dragon. Also, Aerys ordered Jaime to bring him Tywin's head, thus giving Jaime an impossible choice between loyalties.
And arguably, the bigger betrayal came from Tywin, who turned against Aerys not on moral grounds — but because he was never one to back the losing side, according to Jaime.
So instead of despising Jaime for breaking his oath as member of the Kingsguard and murdering the King, should people thank him? And just how bad does Jaime's son/nephew Joffrey have to get before he deserves the same fate?
These sort of questions come up a lot — for example, Robb Stark is faced with a bannerman who's openly disobedient and disloyal: Lord Rickard Karstark, who lost two sons to the Lannisters and murders two innocent Lannister boys as revenge. Rickard keeps goading Robb into executing him, because he's lost faith in Robb's leadership after Jaime's escape and the sack of Winterfell. (Plus Robb's ill-judged marriage.)
Robb faces an impossible choice: act like a king and lose half his followers, or compromise and keep his full strength. He can only be a king, with an army to back up his rulership, if he acts like less than a real king — because a king, in Robb's view, would never let treason like Rickard's go unpunished. Robb chooses the kingly route, and is weakened. As Robb steps away from the execution stone, we see a close-up of flames in the rain. (A lot of the scene transitions in this episode are flames melting into each other, across different locales.)
Serving vs. Following
Meanwhile in this episode, there are two big speeches by people who have been upgraded from "serving" to "following." Gendry gives a moving speech about how he's been serving all his life — as an apprentice blacksmith, at Harrenhal — and now he's got the chance to join the Brotherhood Without Banners, where he'll still be doing the same blacksmith work, but as a equal brother rather than as a servant.
He's finally got something he never had: a family. Arya protests that she could be his family, but he says she would be "m'lady" instead — probably because once she rejoins her mother and brother, she'd be Lady Stark and he'd still just be a blacksmith.
And meanwhile, Daenerys gets her new Unsullied soldiers to choose a leader, and offers them the chance to pick their own names — but the new leader of the Unsullied, Grey Worm, wants to keep that name. Because his birth name was the name he had when he was sold into slavery, but Grey Worm is the one he had when Daenerys set him free — so paradoxically, his slave name signifies liberation. He's turning his slave identity into part of his new identity as Daenerys' loyal follower.
Grey Worm's declaration is juxtaposed with the fascinating conversation between Ser Barristan Selmy and Ser Jorah Mormont — Barristan bitterly regrets the fact that he served the Mad King and then his drunken usurper, King Robert. "I whiled away my years, fighting for terrible kings," says Barristan. He swore an oath, and "a man of honor keeps his vows."
But now, Barristan wants to serve someone who's actually deserving — and he believes that Daenerys is that person. But even if it's true that Daenerys deserves Barristan's loyalty more than the kings he served, does he deserve to be her right-hand man more than Jorah, who's stayed by her side all this time? (Except for the part where Jorah informed on Daenerys to King Robert, but nobody mentions that. Once or twice, Jorah looks at Barristan nervously, as if wondering whether he knows.) Their conversation devolves into a pissing match over who is more trustworthy and who will best serve Daenerys when they get back to Westeros, which may be slightly jumping the gun.
You start to wonder if there's a social contract at work in this supposedly absolute monarchy, after all — in which the rulers have to deserve the support of their subjects, who in turn have to prove their worthiness to serve. And once again, we get a reminder that you need to keep the people on your side to keep ruling — Lady Olenna tells Tyrion Lannister that the people need a royal wedding to keep them distracted so they won't tear the royal family and the ruling classes limb from limb (in one of the episode's more surprising, understated yet hilarious scenes, in which Tyrion completely fails to live up to his debauched reputation when faced with the plain-spoken Lady Olenna.)
So again, we're back to the question raised by the Mad King: Can a ruler forfeit the right to rule? Is Barristan, who never broke his oath, better than Jaime, who did?
Good reasons to break your oaths
Jaime isn't the only one in this episode who's broken a solemn oath — the would-be king, Stannis Baratheon, feels remorse for the fact that he slept with the Red Priestess, Melisandre, to make her weird monster kids and kill his brother. He's been avoiding his wife, Selyse, at least partly out of guilt and probably also partly because he's creeped out by her dead babies in jars.
But he needn't have worried — Selyse is even more of a true believer in the Lord of Light than Stannis is, and she knows all about Melisandre's sexytime and death babies. According to Selyse, "no act done in service of the Lord of Light can ever be a sin. When [Melisandre] told me, I wept with joy." In Selyse's mind, earthly oaths don't matter where sacred matters are concerned — and Stannis' first loyalty ought to be to R'hllor.
Similarly, Lord Beric Dondarrion used to be a loyal servant of King Robert, seeking Gregor Clegane on Ned Stark's orders — but now he follows the justice of R'hllor, to the point where he has to let Sandor Clegane go after Sandor wins the trial by combat. But he's also dishonorable in general, taking Sandor's gold and giving him a crappy IOU, promising to repay him when the war is over.
The actual trial by combat is a chaotic, crazy fight scene that sort of recalls the trial by combat over Tyrion's life, back in season one. Once again, it's a fight in close quarters, with spectators getting in the way right and left — except this time, instead of armor getting in the champion's way, it's the flaming sword. Beric ought to be deriving a huge advantage from his fiery sword, since Sandor is terrified of fire — but he winds up stumbling around in the stuffy cave setting things on fire and swinging wildly, until Sandor turns his fear into aggression and gets in a lucky blow.
And then we learn that Lord Beric is kind of crap at all this, and has gotten himself killed six times, counting his duel with Sandor — but each time, the priest Thoros of Myr has brought him back. He's really only good at dying. And he's less than the man he used to be, when he served Ned Stark.
Meanwhile, Jon Snow is trying to be a good double agent, giving his new friends among the Wildlings just enough information about the Night's Watch without giving away the store — but then Ygritte lures him into a nice warm cave in the middle of the icy wasteland (heated by their torch but also by what looks like a hot spring) and pretty much demands that he break his vow of chastity. So Jon Snow finally gives in and shows her that he doesn't exactly know nothing.
Jon Snow's oath-breaking is partly a testament to his divided loyalties — because part of him clearly does sympathize with the Wildlings in their struggle against the ice zombies — and partly just part of what he has to do as an undercover agent amongst the enemy. He's breaking his vows in order to keep his greater loyalty to the Night's Watch. (Or maybe he's really gone over to the other side. I guess we'll find out!)
And then there's Davos Seaworth, who broke his oath of loyalty to Stannis — because he felt he was acting in Stannis' best interests, and because of his loyalty to his gods. In a lot of ways, Davos is the flipside of Stannis' wife Selyse, breaking earthly oaths for a higher cause. But Davos is also the opposite of Selyse, humble instead of self-righteous. A good bellwether is Selyse's daughter Shireen, who's the first innocent person we've met in a while — Selyse despises Shireen, whose face is scarred as a result of an illness. But Davos and Shireen are friends — even after Davos admits that he really is a traitor.
Stannis was all set to raise Davos up to lordship and make the man whose fingers he chopped off the Hand of the King — but it's only Shireen who thinks to offer Davos one of the crucial hallmarks of lordship: literacy. When she realizes Davos can't read, she decides she's going to teach him, starting with the jolly tale of King Aegon, who conquered Westeros with fire and blood and the power of dragons. Yay!!!
Hostages and brides
Arya Stark has spent the whole time since her father's execution trying to avoid becoming a hostage, which is the fate that more or less befell her sister Sansa. If Arya had been found out in Harrenhal, when she was serving Tywin, she wouldn't have been executed — instead, she'd have been held as a prisoner. But now, at last, the Brotherhood Without Banners proposes to turn her into a hostage, by way of selling her back to her family — so her hostage status is sort of the means to her freedom. Except that Arya's not terribly happy about being bought or sold.
Sansa, meanwhile, is being traded like a horse — and barely even realizes what's going on. The Tyrells are all set to marry her off to Loras, but Cersei asks Littlefinger to snoop on the Tyrells, and Littlefinger sends a hot young thing to do some sexpionage with Loras. (Sexpionage seems to have replaced sexposition on this show. Which, yay.) Littlefinger pays a visit to Sansa to double-check his findings, and learns that, indeed, she's suddenly not so eager to flee King's Landing.
And once Littlefinger reports to Cersei, the Lannisters hatch a plan of their own — Tyrion will marry Sansa... and Cersei will marry Loras. (Once again, any scene where all three Lannisters are together is a gem — Cersei is enjoying Tyrion's squirming, until suddenly she has her own reason to squirm.) In vain, Tyrion protests that Sansa has suffered enough at Joffrey's hands without being forced to marry Joffrey's uncle — but the suffering of pawns is no concern of Tywin's. Sansa will be the key to the North, as soon as Robb is out of the way.
Plus Tyrion reminds his father that he actually was married already. When he was 13 years old, he married a commoner, Tysha — who was then revealed to be a sex worker whom Jaime had paid to sleep with Tyrion. And then Tyrion had to watch all of Tywin's guards rape Tysha, each paying her a silver coin, until Tyrion was forced to have sex with his wife last, paying her a gold coin because Lannisters are worth more. Tywin's only response is that he remembers Tyrion's first marriage "only too well." (It's sort of amazing how, even now, all of Tyrion's wit and cunning are for naught, whenever his father comes into the picture — he'll be whatever his father wants, even if it crushes his spirit.)
As for Robb, now that he's lost the Karstarks, he finally has cause to regret his decision to marry the wrong woman. He's in an impossible position, without enough forces to end this war, and if he goes back home and retakes the North, his bannermen will never agree to ride South again. So he hatches an ambitious plan to attack the Lannister family seat at Casterly Rock — but this will require crawling back to Lord Walder Frey, whose daughter Robb was supposed to marry. Because Robb's remaining followers won't keep following him unless he can offer them a purpose.
Because oaths and vows of loyalty are all well and good — but a king's reign is built on things like marriages of convenience. You get the sense that Tywin Lannister never would have executed Rickard Karstark, if he'd been in Robb's shoes. You have to be pragmatic — or else watch the whole thing burn down around you, and hope you turn into a dragon.