"Power resides where men believe it resides" - Varys
Indeed, one could get no small distance through this episodes concentrating on romance alone. Plenty of people have done that online already, though, so I'd like to come at things from a slightly different angle. Besides, the bonds of love are pretty much a strict subset of what I wan to talk about anyhow.
Today's question, then: who's really calling the shots?
(TV spoilers below)
No-one who's been paying attention can be surprised that this topic has once again come up, even if they missed the Varys quote near the top of this post. The nature and application of power is a central theme in A Song of Ice and Fire, and oftentimes, as it is here, the power in question is romantic.
Or at least, it's romantic adjacent, by which I mean its one end or another of the scale one could rather simplistically put love on, namely the one that has lust at one end and platonic affection at the other. As I say, this is a limited approach, but it does have some illustrative power, which is all I require of it here. At one end of the scale we have Theon, and the other Jaime. Jon, Ygritte, Robb and poor old Sansa are all somewhere in between. I'm not sure Tyrion actually has any idea where he is, but we'll get to that.
There's another axis we need to consider here as well, that of reciprocation. Because it is the opinion of many - Cersei for example - that love is an inherently dangerous past-time, one that leaves people open to attacks against those they care about. And, like most things Cersei says, it isn't as though she's completely off base here. She's missing something damn important, however, which is that too little reciprocation can be as dangerous as too much. The problem isn't what we love, but what we allow to rule us.
Theon couldn't have provided us with a better example if he'd tried (though doubtless he'd have given it a good go, in the interests of retaining his one-armed kraken). It seems obviously ridiculous to suggest that everything would have gone great for him had he resisted that gorgeous young ex-nun grinding her otter pocket into his nethers, but at the very least he might have avoided losing his pink tentacle when it was at its most, er, attentive. Some men might argue that once the de-cocking knife is out, it doesn't really matter what state you're in, but I say that if you're about to be castrated, it'd at least be nice to know blood loss will be at a minimum.
My point is that Theon is ruled by his lust. His arrogance is a problem too - a more cautious man might think twice about charging at any woman he met, even if he was horny as seven hells - but it's his spurt first, ask questions later approach that's really caused him problems (problems up to and including unknowingly stroking his own sister's hairy squidmaw). The old question of which head was in charge was comprehensively answered this episode, and the results have not been pleasant.
But really, how different is Theon from his foster brother, the King in the North? After all, Robb had all of a half dozen conversations at most with Talisa before he decided to throw away four thousand men and the bridge home in exchange for screwing her on a tent floor. The young are always exceptionally good at persuading themselves their lust is really love, but we don't have to humour them over it. If a man can't concentrate on how to keep tens of thousands of soldiers and Father alone knows how many peasants alive because of his wife's sweet ass, then you have to ask what's stopping Westeros from inventing the cold shower.
That's not totally fair, however. Robb and Theon are of course different in one major respect: Robb cares about how his conquest feels. And not in the "I care that it was good" manner by which men confuse ego for feminism, either. He genuinely wants his wife to be happy. The question then becomes: how much would he do to keep his queen happy, and by extension, how much power does the queen have simply due to being loved by the king?
We need to be exceptionally cautious around this line of thinking, of course. The idea of women pulling men's strings behind the scenes can run into the misogynist weeds very quickly, partially because the very idea of good men being manipulated by wicked women works so well as a way of simultaneously denying women power whilst justifying the hatred of the powerless. I still remain suspicious of Lady Talisa - the fact she's writing letters her husband can't read being one reason why - but perhaps it would be safer to carry this idea over to a rather more balanced relationship.
Say, for example, Jon and Ygritte, where Ygritte's greater worldly experience and comprehension of freedom is pretty much being held to a draw by Jon's superior knowledge of history and basic milling techniques. Here both parties are equally terrified of what might happen when the other shoe finally drops. Ygritte could have Jon killed at any time with a half dozen words in Tormund's ear. Jon could alert the Night's Watch and get the whole party of Wildlings killed - there's not much chance he'd be able to save Ygritte
So neither selfish nor unselfish lust (this episode's second example of which is Tyrion and the quite unbearably unreasonable Shae), nor unselfish love, is free of risk. But then neither is selfish love. Just look at how easily Sansa can be manipulated as she stumbles along listening to the wind cry "Loras". I don't doubt there's lust aplenty there - Sansa also being one of those young people I dissed earlier - but her sudden blood-curdling realisation that she will be expected to open her gates to Tyrion's blond-fuzzed battering ram suggests she is thinking primarily in terms more romantic than those of her elder brother. Of course, in addition to heartbreak, all this single-minded devotion to Loras - blissfully unaware as it is that Loras couldn't be less attracted to her if she were the Mountains tourney horse - has gotten her, other than heartbreak, is into the clutches of Margaery Tyrell. What would Sansa give up were Margaery to ask, promising in return one of Loras' golden locks?
What about the platonic end of the scale, then? The idea of platonic selfishness isn't really one the show will discuss in great depth, since this can be best described as the desire to be liked whilst not giving a shit about anyone, which lacks for bite. Joffrey does display this to an extent, of course, but then he's more about getting respect and obedience than receiving adulation - just look at how much trouble he had with a crowd of happy peasants earlier this season. Instead, this episode sketches out the area around platonic selfishness by giving us a character who you'd think would fit the bill but confounds our expectations: Jaime.
Jaime's first brief scene with Brienne this episode is a very clever one. Clever because of what it suggests - that Jaime is only interested in Brienne's well-being insofar as he believes he owes her - and clever because of how Brienne ties Jaime down by turning a promise into an acknowledgement of a debt. This development leaves us in little doubt that Jaime will at least attempt to return the Stark girls to their mother (if he's smart, he'll try starting with Arya, since that way he can avoid fighting with his entire family in an attempt to get Sansa out of King's Landing), and also nudges us towards thinking Jaime will think no more of Brienne the instant the gates of Harrenhal close behind him.
Instead, he finds himself ruled by his sense of obligation, and - much as he would deny it - friendship. His long-thought-atrophied sense of decency has clambered gasping back to the surface. As a result of which, he throws himself sans sword or sword-hand into a pit so as to distract a rampaging bear. It's a miracle he got out of there without losing any more of him than is already gone.
Lust, love, or friendship. Egomaniacal or empathetic. It all ends up causing problems in the end. Hell, even trying to maintain some kind of generalised goodwill towards all men can create massive pains in the arse, as Lord Beric Dondarrion knows full well, having made so many compromises to keep his hopeless revolution going that he chased away Arya Stark (straight into the arms of the Hound; whoops!)
Maybe the only real option is to not give a damn about anyone's pleasure, including your own. Can it be a coincidence that the tie for most successful episode is between a man who gives a shit about nobody, and a woman who's entire family - husband and baby included - are dead? Two people who show the outside world nothing but glacial calm, with occasional bursts of anger to keep everyone on their toes? Of course, even this doesn't mean both characters are fully in control of their fates. Dany is too reliant on her dragons for that, and sooner or later that burning urge to Free All Slaves is going to drag her down into the same mess everyone else seems to be in. Tywin has it slightly easier in this respect - little chance of him basing his decisions on the succor it will offer to smallfolk - but then he's far more exposed than Dany. Where she has her dragons, he has his reputation, and his tweaking of the king, however carefully crafted, can last only so long as he and his rep are conflated in people's minds. He can only survive as long as he crushes everything, every time, at the slightest provokation.
Which, come to think of it, may mean he has the least control over his own choices of anyone.
Still, it could be worse. At least he's not Locke (who reminds me more of Christopher Guest in The Princess Bride every time I see him), nominal commander of a mighty castle, who can't even have final say over who he gets to feed to a bear. Or he could be Jaime's escort, tasked to bring the Kingslayer to King's Landing ("That was your job! That was your only job!") who's instead forced to head off in entirely the opposite direction on the off chance that Lord Bolton won't mind.
Or, of course, you could be a maiden fair, fed to a bear.
Or you could be a bear.