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Game of Thrones Recap: What’s Love Got to Do With It?

First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes the heir of Winterfell in a baby carriage!

Or is it first come chains, then comes very grudging respect, then comes rescuing your beloved from a bear pit?

Love unspools in many ways in Westeros, as last night’s episode, written by the big guy, George R. R. Martin, and directed by Seymour Butts Michelle MacLaren, made clear. But because the game of thrones is a long, bloody, brutal-minded campaign, each moment of cherishing comes seeded with its own death. Osha’s haunting story about her wilding man, Bruni, leaving the hut to get a pack of cigarettes one day and coming back a hungry zombie cast a pall over the hour, and promised nothing good for our bands of lovers.

Here’s Robb and Talisa, in what felt like an incredibly modern scene: He’s the young McKinsey consultant, knee-deep in spreadsheets, whose lissome wife keeps distracting him with sexy times — and then, like a Google or Hallmark commercial, the news that she’s pregnant. Robb’s ardor for his wife is palpable and real. But how can you ignore that pointed, pained look on Catelyn’s face as she watches her daughter-in-law gently towel off his wet hair? Catelyn — like Cersei in episodes past — plays the role of Mother Cassandra here. She knows that further slighting Walder Frey can only make a bad situation worse; the old man is already seething that he didn’t get the wedding he wanted. Showing up late now can only stoke the fire. But, again like Cersei, what’s a mother’s warning in the face of young love?

Will you come with me to Volantis when this is all over? Talisa asks her husband. But I think you and I know, dear viewer, that that’s a self-defeating question, because none of this is ever going to be over.

Farther north, Robb’s brother Jon is in the thick of it with Ygritte, after his own butt-centric scene with his beloved. Last week, Ygritte made Jon swear that, wildings and rangers aside, their ultimate alliances were going to be to one another. But it’s easy to make promises in a sex haze, especially when you throw a waterfall into the mix. This week, when Jon and Ygritte play their own round of when-this-is-over — maybe I’ll take you to Winterfell and ply you with silk dresses; maybe I’ll take you there when we take back our land — Jon has to stop her with the cold, hard truth. Ygritte doesn’t have the benefit of a Seven Kingdoms education and doesn’t know that the wildings have invaded six times already, only to be put down six times.

There was a moment when I wondered how much stock we should be putting in Jon’s Winterfell-penned history lessons. (Remember Littlefinger’s admonition last week about “the realm” being nothing more than a collection of stories, or the reveal that the Iron Throne doesn’t quite sport a full thousand blades.) But the emotional truth of the matter is that theirs is a kamikaze kind of love. Jon and Ygritte do have a genuine connection — and this is the best I’ve ever seen Kit Harington — but their passion is fueled by taboo, by extreme conditions, and by the scent of death on the horizon. You don’t need Orell up in their business to tell them that their relationship is doomed. In their hearts, they already know. But it’s interesting, isn’t it, to see a wilding resort to tribalism — you should be with your own kind — when their whole ethos is supposedly one of collective individualism.

Tormund, at least, seems to approve of the pairing, using it as an excuse to offer a zesty lesson in lovemaking that relies rather too heavily, for my taste, on similes involving baby seals. (Harington’s blank stare has never been used more effectively than here.) To the South, in King’s Landing, Margaery is trying to offer Jon’s sister Sansa her own birds-and-bees lesson. Sansa, sweetly, is a bit dim on such matters. So Margaery tries to get her friend excited about the possibilities that a husband like Tyrion might provide. When given a chance to sample all of the delights of the man buffet, the more experienced Margaery notes, a woman may find that she likes all types of dishes — and word around the way is that Tyrion has more than a little Podrick in him. And that’s not a size joke. I’m beginning to believe that Margaery really does care for Sansa, as she says she does. (Her claim that Olenna wants Sansa to be happy, as well — the jury’s still out on that. I bet Olenna would throw Sansa under whatever the Westerosi equivalent of a bus is if her happiness ever threatened the Tyrells’.)

I loved the easy rapport of this scene and the way it brought a bit of sunlight into the show. I can’t imagine that either of these women’s marriages is going to be rainbows and lily ponds and sexy grapples over a pile of furs, but in their friendship, at least, they may find some succor. I also loved the way the scene was undercut by the following scene, in which Bronn and Tyrion have a similar, if more frank, conversation about future Lannister-Stark conjugal relations. (Speaking of Bronn, we have all seen this, yes?) Part of me is actually happy Sansa will be paired off with Tyrion, because his basic decency means she’ll probably be protected, to some degree, even if it also means she’s being drawn further into the Lannister wasp’s nest. At the same time, she’s still basically a child, and any notions Tyrion has toward her are, as he notes, bound to be “evil” ones.

And then, of course, there’s poor Shae, the funny whore. Last week, Sansa was asking her whether she’d be able to invite her family to her wedding to Loras; this week, it’s Shae asking her lover whether she’ll be invited to his. She repeats her plea to run away across the Narrow Sea together, but as he told her once last season, Tyrion is a Lannister. No matter how his family uses and abuses him, that’s an identity he can’t shed lightly. And as he tries to tell his beloved that he’ll set her up in style in the city, with golden chains and fine clothes, she reminds him that “whore” is not an identity that she, in turn, will be allowed to cast off any time soon. Shae, like Orell, is the third wheel that threatens to run romance off the tracks.

And finally, defending their Couple of the Year medal for the umpteenth week running, we have Jaime and Brienne. The slow burn of their love — and it is love, even if I don’t see any hot stump action in their future — has been one of the most satisfying things on the show this season. You can hear it all in the way she greets him in their first scene, when he comes to see her in her cell: “I thought you’d gone,” she says softly, guardedly. “Tomorrow,” he says, the tears welling behind those pretty eyes. Ships ahoy!

For all their bickering and (very funny) squabbling, Jaime and Brienne have come to know each other in a way that goes beyond words. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of another pair on the show that has that kind of intimate familiarity — maybe Cersei and Tyrion, sometimes? There were two nods Brienne gave Jaime last night that seemed, to me, to sum up the new reality of their relationship. The first is when he comes to tell her that she’s to remain at Harrenhal with Locke, and she makes him swear to keep his promise to return the Stark girls to their mother. Jaime agrees, and she nods, slowly, her typical haughtiness shaded into a softer respect as she says “Good-bye, Ser Jaime” — using his name, as he requested at the end of his long bathtub monologue, and not the “Kingslayer” epithet she used to favor. Then, after he comes back and rescues her from the bear pit — swoon! — and he tells Locke that she’s coming with him to King’s Landing, she gives him the slightest up-nod, cementing their partnership, and thus their place in the buddy-comedy-romance firmament.

That first shot of Brienne in that pit, blood smeared across the bodice of her pink gown, facing off a GIANT BEAR, was one I won’t soon forget. (Girls really do see more blood than boys, don’t they?) Like the jarring, oblique shot of the wilding giant in this season’s first episode, it was one of those visual fillips that reminds us, even more so than the scenes of Dany’s flamboyant dragons, that this world is an alien one. But the deepening regard between the Kingslayer and the Maiden Fair — that’s something we all can recognize.

Some loose threads to touch on:

  • Okay, so Gendry knows he’s a Baratheon baby now. Good. And we learn a bit about Melisandre’s parentage, too. The fact that she was born a slave — how much does this motivate her? And to what extent will that dovetail with Daenerys’s new mission?
  • I don’t know if this comes from some deep-seated cultural distrust of female leaders (Ring the alarms! I’ve internalized the patriarchy!), but Dany came across as unappealingly smug last night. I don’t know how you can find someone who wants to eradicate slavery unlikable, but something about the obvious pleasure she took in dressing down the Yunkish emissary seemed to undercut the piety and righteousness of her mission. Maybe I’m just wary that her pride necessarily presages a fall.
  • Arya, like Tyrion, is not being altogether well served by this season’s story lines. She’s such a naturally active character — a foil to her passive sister — that it’s frustrating to see her constantly acted upon. I wonder if Maisie Williams feels the same. As she charmingly told Vulture about playing Arya: “You find yourself in every scene shouting at someone or being angry at something. You feel like a bit of a grump at times!” Let’s see if the Hound gives her something more to play off of.
  •  I never want Tywin to have his comeuppance. I want him throwing shade at Joffrey for the rest of the show’s run. Yet another excellent dramatic use of a chair on Game of Thrones.
  • Theon. Theon. Theon. What is there to say about Theon? I’m genuinely stumped by this plot. I still have Ros’s death on my mind, so part of me is inclined to say, well, at least this story line is promising some kind of payoff, even if it’s taking its sweet, gruesome time getting there. But the longer this goes on, the more it reads like simple torture porn. It’s a sick gloss on the Stations of the Cross, with neither consequence nor revelation, and it’s wearing very, very thin.
Photo: HBO