Where to start with the most recent episodes of Game of Thrones? Getting somewhat away from rampant sexuality, A Man Without Honor and The Prince of Winterfell instead concern themselves primarily with, well, men without honor; in direct terms, that speaks to the arcs of the truly lost Theon Greyjoy and the utterly, callously nonchalant Jaime Lannister, though the former is at a point where he’s actually become introspective about his own sense of honor while the latter doesn’t appear to give a damn about what anybody thinks of him or how his actions affect the world around him. (Unless it’s his custom to murder his admirers, even those to whom he’s related.) He’s Game of Thrones‘ version of the Joker.
But ignoring the knightly agent of discord and chaos– which only makes sense, since his lack of respectability and esteem don’t bother him one bit– we’re left with Theon. There’s a lot to love about how Game of Thrones has treated the most unlucky and unloved of the Greyjoy clan; in fact I’d go so far as to argue that Theon’s significantly altered narrative represents the best change made between the source material and the show*. A lot of that credit ties back to the writing, but more of it should go to Alfie Allen for his truly captivating performance in the role, through which he perfectly conveys the character’s inner conflict. Allen’s legitimately amazing here; could it be that there’s an Emmy in his future, too?
Let’s get away from Allen and back to Theon. Frankly, it’s easier to feel sorry for the character in the show than in the book– his desire to find his place in the world, coupled with his stubbornness and sensitivity to criticism, makes him an interesting figure on the page but far more empathetic and compelling on celluloid. He’s lived between two Houses his whole life and never felt like he truly belonged in either; his bid to win his father’s aid to Robb’s cause stems directly from that need to belong, as does his eventual return to the Greyjoy fold.
But no matter what he does, Theon can’t escape a simple truth that’s just intrinsic to who he is regardless of what House he calls his own: he’s a screw-up. He can’t get anything right. He can’t win the respect of his men, he can’t keep the two Stark boys locked down, he can’t keep Osha from deceiving him, he can’t figure out that Bran and Rickon are still living in Winterfell. Hell, he can’t even make it as a successful headman after spending years hanging around Ned Stark! That spells “failure” with a capital “F”.
There’s something contemptuous about that; if you’re going to play the villain, you’d damn well better get it right, as Jaime does so effortlessly. But there’s also something terribly sad about Theon’s losing streak, too. He truly, firmly believes that he has to fake-immolate Bran and Rickon, and that he has to hold Winterfell to please a miserable wretch of a man who he probably couldn’t win over if he brought down King’s Landing all by himself. In the midst of his unshakable belief, though, Yara tells him that as harshly as she treats him, she genuinely cares about him**, and simultaneously validates our view of Balon as a heartless bastard.
That might be enough to turn other characters around. But we’re talking about Theon. And he so he totally botches his own shot at redemption and safety. I might be getting ahead of myself a bit here, but Yara’s words of warning are basically Chekov’s words of warning. They’re going to come back to bite Theon on the ass.
He’s not the only person concerned with personal honor, though (or who should be). In fact, that’s something of a trickle-down subject in these episodes, a topic that manages to quietly assert itself in nearly every storyline playing out between the pair. Take Davos’ conversation with Stannis, for example– or, even better, Catelyn and her clash with Robb. She’s normally one of the most upright characters in the entire show and yet we find her breaking her word, releasing Jaime into the custody of Brienne in order to facilitate a trade between the Lannisters, hoping to trade Jaime for Sansa and Arya.
While the act in and of itself isn’t dishonorable, Robb is Catelyn’s king first and her son second– it’s a part of the price one pays for a crown. Catelyn’s actions put Robb in a bit of a bind, one that will almost certainly play out further in the last two episodes of the season, but more than anything they earn her house arrest and a condemnation by the only child Lady Stark currently has any proximity with. The Prince of Winterfell leaves her with a black spot on her honor, but that tarnishing of her word just reminds us that she’s human. We know that mothers in Game of Thrones will do anything for their children; she’s not all that different from Cersei now***. One can scarcely blame Catelyn for wanting to keep her children safe, regardless of her misdeed.
Of course, Robb’s not in the clear either. In a series that makes a point of criticizing people who forsake the oaths they swear, Robb’s moment with Lady Talisa represents a huge transgression. But, just as with Catelyn, that sense of doing wrong ends up feeling completely right. Catelyn’s only crime is disobeying her king for the sake of her daughters; Robb’s, on the other hand, is putting his heart and his desires before his duty as a ruler. It’s interesting that in an entire season**** of television that’s presented sex as a tool for dominion, abuse, conquest, control, and power, Robb’s moment of passion with Talisa represents the single most pure expression of love between two people seen on the show to date. They have no ulterior motives (but there are huge strings attached to their union, whether they like it or not). They love each other, insomuch as what they have can be called “love” given that we have no idea how much time has passed between now and Garden of Bones.
That’s actually one of my biggest complaints about Game of Thrones at present. Are we talking about days, weeks, or months that have gone by since the season began at the beginning of April? Less than minimal effort is exerted showing just how long it’s been since the events of The North Remembers kicked off S2, and while I don’t think it’s unreasonable to presume that we are in fact talking about months, it’d be nice for the writing to reflect that.
What can’t really be denied, though, is that we’re hurtling toward the season’s conclusion at a rapid pace. Next week should be a big one– we all know that the big climactic battle looms ahead (directed by Neil Marshal!), and beyond that we’ll finally, finally get to see the Houses of the Undying after hearing Jorah urge Danerys to go for the umpteenth time. The wheels have been spinning in Qarth for most of the season; it’ll be a relief to actually see the last Targaryen do something.
*Which is saying something, because most of the changes made between the two have been for the better.
**In that tough love way only a big sister can.
***Other than the fact that she’s smarter, wiser, and not completely off her rocker.
****Well, two entire seasons, really.