“Kissed By Fire,” the fifth episode of a season now half over, opens on the flames of the Brotherhood Without Banners. Later in the episode, Ygritte will explain the episode’s title, telling Jon Snow that “kissed by fire” is a wildling phrase to represent people with red hair, who are said to have good luck. There are many other people who use fire throughout, though not all of them experience the same amount of luck as ginger wildlings.
In the hideout with the Brotherhood, the warrior priest Thoros of Myr recites a now-familiar prayer to the Lord of Light, and Beric Dondarrion sets his sword on fire. This party trick was also what made Thoros a household name among warriors in Westeros: he is remembered for laying siege to Pyke (part of the Iron Islands) with a flaming sword during Robert’s Rebellion, as Jaime Lannister and Stark bannerman Jory Cassel reminisced on in Season 1, back when lions and wolves could be friendly to one another.
In this case, Beric is the one wielding the flaming sword, as Thoros and Stannis have done before him. The Hound has been sentenced to a trial by combat to prove his innocence or guilt in the eyes of the Lord of Light. Sandor Clegane is almost laughably larger than Beric, but he seems to struggle against the older knight. Not for nothing, the Hound has a proven aversion to fire, given the trauma of his youth (wherein his older brother, the Mountain, shoved his face into a fire– hence the scars). It’s what sent him running from King’s Landing during the Battle of Blackwater. He looks no less terrified in this scene, especially when his shield goes up in flames, but the fear also seems to propel him. He fights back desperately and ultimately slices deeply into Beric’s shoulder.
Almost as quickly as he dies, Thoros is able to resurrect Beric back from the dead. We’ve heard that the White Walkers do something similar, but their reanimations are more like zombies than wounded old warriors. We learn that this is the sixth time that Beric has come back from the dead. (Is the Lord of Light looking favorably on him, or not? Six times seems an awful lot of times to die for someone so honored by God.)
While Arya is indignant over this seemingly-incorrect judgment, Beric calmly supposes that the Lord of Light isn’t done with the Hound yet, though he is certainly not innocent as proclaimed. This may simply be a case of Beric rationalizing his loss to the bigger, stronger man so that it fits the religious ideology he preaches. Still, no matter what we believe, there’s no denying that Beric rose from the dead. Ultimately, there is some greater power at work, and that power has more in store for the Hound.
When Arya screams, “It isn’t fair!” she serves as a mouthpiece for an audience full of fantasy fans who have been trained to expect the triumph of the good and the just. This belief comes from the medieval myths and stories of our youth. Trial by combat was a very real aspect of medieval culture, and though at the time similar hopes were placed on the ability of good to triumph over evil (or the innocent to triumph over the damned), physical strength and a cunning with the sword was undoubtedly what produced winners in the end, no matter the peoples’ beliefs in the intervention of God. Despite this reality, countless stories have been produced during and after the Middle Ages to further the myth of the era: the good shall always (or, at least, often) prevail, no matter the struggles they may face along the way. This ethos is powerful in our Western mythology; even the hugely-influential Lord of the Rings trilogy follows these values, as well as the entire Harry Potter series.
Whenever I introduce our unit on the Middle Ages to my classes, I play a word association game with them. Inevitably, when my adolescent students think of the medieval era, they think of kings, castles, maidens, knights, and chivalry. They think of heroic knights and King Arthur’s round table, and they are certainly not alone, even among adults. Our view of the Middle Ages has been tainted by fairy tales and fantasy novels. Though everyone can recall the horrors of the era, including the Black Death and the unwashed masses, the abject violence and imperious class distinctions are not often reconciled with our idea of the codes of honor, duty, and heroism. As with much of history, we want to believe in the myths of the begone era without always confronting its brutal realities. Fantasy has long provided us that outlet. However, as with Sansa (an admitted lover of fairy tales), it also blinds us to the harsher truths of that world, and leaves us unprepared for its reality.
Ultimately, it is this phenomenon which sets up the shock in all of Game of Thrones‘s famed twists. The series is brilliant largely because it subverts our expectations. The Hound beats Beric in a trial he should have never won, and it’s not fair to those of us who were raised to expect differently. The Stark family in particular serves to represent many of the typical fantasy tropes: honor, duty, family, loyalty, pride, service, beauty, love. Undeniably, this family is (was?) the most popular of the series, at least throughout the first season, and that fact alone seems telling of the audience’s expectations for the triumph of the good. However, a major theme of the series is that the Starks are horribly, horribly wrong about the world they live in, and the major tragedy of this show revolves around the fact that we have to sit through the gradual undoing of the family for their overly-simplistic worldview– the same worldview that we too often share.
It’s not until Sansa and Arya are away from their family and isolated from all they’ve ever known that they start to acquire more of the skills needed to play the game. No longer sheltered by their naive parents, they are forced to adapt to the harsh world, and each adopts a different approach. Sansa, though largely passive as of yet, arms herself with lies and subterfuge. Still, she’s not anywhere near mastery; in this episode, she is unable to fool Littlefinger about her plans to marry Loras Tyrell.
Arya, on the other hand, arms herself by meeting (or, attempting to meet) violence in kind. It is all she can do to stop herself from jumping into the trial by combat and slaying the Hound herself. Gendry has to restrain her when the Hound is found innocent in victory. Her first reaction is to grab a knife and attack.
Meanwhile, Robb, who is the only Stark who has been surrounded by his northern bannermen from the start, continues to make one terrible decision after another. He is still very much motivated by his ideals, no matter how misguided they may be. Love triumphed in his decision to marry Talisa over one of Lord Frey’s daughters– a sticky situation, to say the least, now that he has to go beg the Freys for a new alliance in order to have any hope of surviving the war.
Then, he feels himself honor-bound to execute Lord Karstark for killing their two young Lannister hostages. This decision happens to fly in the face of all the advice he is receiving to the contrary. Robb is still living in a fantasy world where honor matters, as it did to his father before him. (Side note: for a fantastic analysis of Robb Stark’s military failings, be sure to check out “Young Wolf, Bad General: What Robb Stark Doesn’t Understand About War” by Spencer Ackerman: “the Young Wolf is a case study in the difference between winning battles and winning wars.”)
Last week, I spoke about honor as it related to Jaime and Brienne. Brienne herself is also living in a different world, separated from reality, where her principles are as important to her as armor, shields, and swords. Unlike with the Starks, where honor is a catalyst for tragedy, Brienne’s honor is a beacon of hope to an otherwise dejected Jaime Lannister. She inspires him to be more than his moniker, “The Kingslayer.” In a great scene at the baths of Harrenhal, Jaime confesses that he broke his solemn oath as Kingsguard and besmirched his honor by killing the Mad King Aerys Targaryen, but not for the reasons everyone thinks. Jaime admits that he chose to break his vows not for personal greed, but because the man was ordering Jaime to kill his own father and threatening to light the city with wildfire.
Jaime’s character highlights the moral ambiguities of the real world: is it more honorable to keep your oaths, or to protect your father? What about to save innocent civilians from the use of a weapon of mass destruction? Jaime doesn’t want to be seen as the Kingslayer, because that name is too morally unambiguous. He is condemned by scores of people simply because they perceive him to be an oathbreaker, fitting him neatly into the “evil” category in their dichotomous outlook on life. At one time, this misconception was perpetrated by Ned Stark. Jaime says that Ned judged him guilty the moment he set eyes on him, without waiting to hear the complex factors that informed the Kingslayer’s decision. He wants to be free of this name, to gain some sense of his personal honor back, and with his last bit of strength insists to Brienne (who still calls him Kingslayer) that his name is Jaime. For better and for worse, Jaime is more than just a Kingslayer. He’s a real man, who is so much more than his myth.
Ultimately, Brienne wants the same as Jaime. She doesn’t want to be known simply as “the woman,” or “the wench,” or “the freak,” but as Brienne of Tarth and all that comes with it. When Jaime insults her ability to protect anyone she serves, including Renly, she stands defiantly to face him, daring him to take it back. She is naked above the waters, but the camera captures her just above her breasts. This is not a moment of attraction for the two. She is more than just a woman, she is a warrior. It is an exchange that exists outside of gender, or sexuality, because she is more than simply “the wench.” She stands up to him bravely, and Jaime, out of much respect, immediately apologizes. We don’t see a raised eyebrow or winking grin from him, nor do his eyes take a slow path down her body, as you might have seen in less serious shows. The show stays true to its multifaceted characters, and to reality. Ultimately, this exchange only furthers the bond between the two misunderstood fighters.
Meanwhile, in King’s Landing, Cersei and Littlefinger form a temporary alliance of convenience to help each other get what they want. Cersei wants to tear down Margaery for being younger and hotter (though, I believe that’s a matter of opinion). Littlefinger still wants to keep Sansa for himself. They come to the realization that they can achieve both of their goals together by ensuring that Sansa and the Tyrells are thwarted.
In the last episode, Cersei was goaded by her father Tywin, who claimed that she has done little in service to the Lannister name, despite what she may think. So, she has served him the North on a silver platter, much to Tyrion’s horror. After all, it is Tyrion’s cross to bear. He will have to marry the beautiful young Sansa. He feels a noble sense of pity for the girl (who has already suffered much at the hands of Lannisters) that she should now have to marry him instead of the handsome young Loras. Cersei is delighted by his disappointment until Tywin informs her that she will now wed Loras instead, sentencing her to yet another loveless marriage. Not only that, but she will likely be shipped off to Highgarden, far from the capital and from her longtime ambitions as Queen.
Though we’re all busy sympathizing with how far her brothers have fallen from power, it’s worth taking a moment to pause and reflect on the tragedy of Cersei’s current circumstances. Cersei, ice queen though she may be, is also not as inept as her father claims. In her youth, she was married off to Robert Baratheon, which was not a pleasant, loving, or committed marriage, and may have also verged on abusive at times. She took it all in stride for the good of her family and for the opportunity that one day she might see her son on the throne. Among her bad ideas are good ones, including her disagreement over her son’s decision to behead Ned Stark. Like Tyrion, she keeps on trying to prove to her father that she should have a place in this administration. Still, she is brushed aside by everyone she loves, largely for misogynistic prejudices against her abilities. In the end, she is exchanged to the Tyrells in order to live out her days with a man who does not seem to have an ambition to match hers, nor love to spare her. Though she strives for more, her fate, her life’s purpose, has always been tied to the man she is forced to marry. She is certainly not the best leader in Westeros (though, at this point, who is?). But, in an odd way, it’s a bit sad to see her ambitions squashed by her own father for the simple fact that she is a woman and has no place in his political sphere, outside of creating marriage alliances.
On Dragonstone, we finally meet Stannis’s wife, Selyse. We have apparently not been missing much. Selyse is a brainwashed cult member of the Lord of Light’s following. She believes so strongly in the divine right of Stannis to the throne that she is incredibly willing (and happy, in fact) to overlook his infidelity. She rationalizes this by claiming that it is what the Lord of Light wants Stannis to do in service to him, especially considering that she has been unable to give him a male heir. She even keeps her three dead sons suspended and preserved in jars as a gruesome reminder of her shame (side note: mothers in this series are all portrayed, at times, as crazy– why is that?).
Shireen, their daughter, seems to be hidden away, unacknowledged by the mother until Stannis reminds her (and us) that he has an actual, living child in there somewhere. She appears to be a happy kid with a skin affliction on half her face that may repulse her own father, but not Davos. This disease, called greyscale, is similar to the leprosy of the medieval era in both its symptoms and its stigma. When she finds out that Davos has been put in the dungeon, the smart and precocious young girl sneaks down there and offers to teach him to read to pass the time. This friendship is an invention of the show, but it is a great addition. It’s not too often that we get to see sweetness in Westeros.
There is a lot made of physical differences and handicaps in Game of Thrones. Some of the greatest depth of moral character comes from characters who have had to overcome physical limitations. Even the Hound had his principals, refusing to participate in the abuse of Sansa Stark, and eventually saving her from a mob with lethal intent. Something in Jaime has changed since losing his hand; or, maybe it was there all along, but it took the loss of his hand to get past the cocky exterior to the heart underneath. Granted, he did still push a child out the window, and the Hound did still run down an innocent peasant boy (albeit on Joffrey’s orders), but there’s a definite trend in the characterization: these characters are more than they appear on the surface. What is the source of this? Does George R.R. Martin want to make these characters more obviously sympathetic to the audience, not trusting us to find our way to sympathizing with a character like Jaime without it? I would hate for this to be what’s happening. Or, as in the case of Tyrion and now Shireen, do the physical differences and their internal struggles to overcome them seem to create great mental and emotional character?
The scene with Shireen ends with her describing to Davos how Aegon Targaryen once lived on that same island, Dragonstone. From there, he was able to launch his conquest of Westeros, establishing the Targaryen dynasty. Aegon I was known as “the Conqueror” and “the Dragon.” Sound familiar? Across the sea, Daenerys is also hoping to reinstall the Targaryen dynasty in much the same way as her predecessor, and these stories are juxtaposed in the show’s narrative by having Shireen’s description of Aegon as a voice-over during the transition to Daenerys’s scene.
In the opening credits, we see a new city called Yunkai for the first time, but Daenerys hasn’t quite reached it yet. While they are en route, heading north from Astapor, Daenerys has the Unsullied select a leader for themselves from their ranks. They choose Grey Worm. When Daenerys finds out that the names of the Unsullied are given after castration to represent different forms of vermin, she instructs them to pick new names. However, Grey Worm says that his has brought good luck, since he had it when Dany gave him his freedom, so he intends on keeping it.
Meanwhile, in a conversation between Ser Jorah Mormont and Ser Barristan Selmy, the two men circle back to the question of honor. According to Ser Barristan, who has served on the Kingsguard of many terrible kings, a man of honor always keeps his vows, regardless of who he serves, whether he be drunk or mad. Clearly, Barristan’s code of honor is much different from Jaime’s, but it hasn’t done him much good. He was quickly tossed out of the Kingsguard by Joffrey, who found him a relic of a bygone era. Thanks to the imposition of harsh realities on his idealized world of oaths and chivalry, Barristan may actually get his chance to serve a king (or queen) worth fighting for.
For many decades, the lands of Westeros have been held hostage by inept rulers. It is a wonder that they have been able to keep the peoples’ faith in the institution throughout the crisis of leadership, though tides finally seem to be turning against them. As Lady Olenna says, that’s what elaborate royal weddings are for: giving the masses something to look forward to, lest they start to find reason to riot in the streets. After this week, and after the multitudes of failures among the leaders of Westeros, it appears that we will have many more weddings in our future.
Other thoughts on “Kissed by Fire”:
- Ser Barristan reminds us of the whole reason why Jorah was banished from Westeros: Jorah, himself, sold people into slavery, which is not likely to be a great way to ingratiate himself to Daenerys and her followers.
- Another cause for tension between Barristan and Jorah is that Jorah fears that the man might know that he once acted as a spy for Varys on behalf of the Small Council. After all, the only reason why Robert Baratheon knew that Daenerys was alive and with child was due to intel from Jorah. Ned Stark mistrusted Jorah’s information entirely, since, according to Ned, “Once a tratior, always a traitor” (I’m paraphrasing here). Once again, Ned seemed incapable of appreciating multiple perspectives.
- Lots of butts in this episode, right? At least there were equal-opportunity butts this time. Male butts, female butts. Butts for everyone!
- In the books, Robb does not decide to head to Casterly Rock and the heart of the Lannister’s homeland. Instead, he decides to head home to retake the North, which is what Talisa suggests.
- Just as it was nice to see Shireen teaching Davos how to read, it was similarly heartening to see Arya tell Gendry, “I’ll be your family.” It was also great to see what’s called the “Lord’s Kiss” scene (as the book readers call it) between Jon Snow and Ygritte. It’s fun to see these people being kind and/or happy every once and a while!
- I think I’m the only person who was actually rooting for the Hound against Beric. Love you Arya, but you’re wrong about the Hound. “There is still good in him.” – Luke Skywalker
- “She’s a lovely girl. Missing some of Ser Loras’ favorite bits, but I’m sure they’ll make do.” – Tyrion, on Sansa’s planned engagement to Ser Loras
- Another great, surprisingly emotional scene was a simple one: Arya, after seeing Thoros bring Beric back to life, asks with tears in her eyes, “Could you bring back a man without a head?”