The Many Men of Brienne of Tarth

Daniel Portman and Gwendoline Christie in Game of Thrones. Photo: Helen Sloan/HBO

In the midst of Westeros' trademark gloom, Brienne and Pod's heart-to-heart on Sunday night's Game of Thrones is the closest thing GOT has had to a heartwarming moment. "I'm sorry I'm always snapping at you," she tells him. His response is straight out of an inspirational teacher movie: "If you didn't snap at me, I wouldn't learn anything." And so, Brienne of Tarth finds a new purpose in life: She's going to help Podrick Payne become a knight! Not literally, of course — it takes a knight to make a knight, and Brienne's no Ser — but she'll still teach him how to ride a horse and fight with a sword.

Just by being respectful, nonviolent, and non-incestuous, Brienne and Podrick's relationship is a rare thing in Westeros, and it's unique in being the only relationship we've seen so far where the woman holds 100 percent of the power. (Margaery and Tommen come close, but as king, Tommen has at least nominal authority.) Brienne cares for Podrick, and she tries to do right by him, but throughout their travels, there's never any doubt as to which of them wears the armor-plated pants. And yet it's clear that Pod doesn't resent her for it; he regards her with openhearted awe and admiration. That's to be expected — since Brienne was introduced in the beginning of season two, no other female character has had quite the same variety of interactions with the men of Westeros.

In Westeros, the futures available for women are slim. Cersei chafes at her role, Sansa tries to redefine it, and Margaery works to find as much power as she can within it, but they're all shackled to patriarchy in one way or another. Brienne stands outside it. With her skills and her stature, men can't knock her down, and they can't put her on a pedestal. With no set of instructions to follow, the men of Westeros are forced to take Brienne largely on her terms — one of my favorite GOT litmus tests is to figure out which ones can see her for who she really is. Pod does, of course. Locke didn't; he tried to treat her as a spoil of war, and paid the price for it. Roose Bolton, for all his strategic intelligence, never figured her out, either. His ostensible ally Littlefinger had more luck last week. He pinned Brienne as an evolutionary Ned Stark and broke out his old playbook, How to Deal With a Foe Who's Too Honorable. He wasn't exactly wrong: Brienne's equally guileless, but she's much more attuned to the way the world works, which is why she's alive and Ned's dead. The Hound had her pegged, too, in the brief moments before Brienne sent him tumbling off the side of a cliff. A hardened survivor, the Hound instantly surmised — probably correctly — that Brienne was too much of an idealist to be an effective guardian for Arya at that point.

But none of those men see Brienne the way  Jaime Lannister does. Their relationship started off as The Cutting Edge, with swords: He's the wisecracking jackass, she's the wound-too-tight perfectionist — they slowly gain each other's trust, and eventually fall in love! In the hands of Gwendoline Christie and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, the duo's physical and verbal sparring was invested with true feeling. Watch their tub scene in "Kissed by Fire" again. It's an intimate conversation about an aborted massacre, and it's one of the sexiest scenes the show has ever done — we're seeing two people understand each other.

But despite Christie's shipping, once Brienne and Jaime returned to King's Landing, they did not live together in romantic bliss — Jaime sent her off to search for Arya and Sansa. With a quest of her own, Brienne is not defined by her relationship with Jaime; she's defined by her steadfast honor and loyalty, and that will be the case no matter how her and Jaime's story ends. (In the books, their plotlines remain much more tightly entwined.)

That loyalty also got a spotlight last night, when Brienne revealed why exactly she was so devoted to the memory of Renly Baratheon. As she explained, when she was a girl, Renly had danced with her to save her from embarrassment. In the books, Brienne's affections for Renly carried a romantic tinge, but in the show world, where he is more or less out of the closet, Brienne is allowed to be much savvier about his true nature. "He liked men, I'm not an idiot," Brienne told Pod last night. "He didn't love me, he didn't want me. He danced with me because he was kind and he didn't want to see me hurt. He saved me from being a joke, from that day until his last day." In a world where the best advice is often "trust no one," Brienne proves that there's still room for kindness and devotion.

It's this devotion that forms Brienne's other mission — she's out to avenge Renly's murder by killing Stannis. And by following Sansa north, she's unknowingly headed in his direction. Will they meet up in a dramatic showdown at Winterfell? Even book-readers don't know, as Brienne's plot at this point is a show-only invention. There's no road map — as with so much about Brienne of Tarth, anything could happen.