|"I am called Grey Worm, after the current state of my genitals"|
Once we get past the sudden appearance of jacuzzis in Westeros - reappearance, I should say, because if you can't use mighty dragons to cook you up a decent bath, then what good could they have been - there's a deeper concern lurking within this episode: the reasons people give for doing the horrible things they do.
(TV spoilers follow)
There are, broadly speaking, three issues to be considered here. First and second are the cause and effect of whatever is being justified. Third is the effectiveness of the justification, both for listener and speaker. Throughout "Kissed By Fire", an awful lot of characters are trying to persuade themselves and others that their actions, no matter how unpleasant or violent - or even murderous - were necessary. Some do better than others in doing so, but then, some have far more to explain away than others.
We start the episode in a fortuitous place, then, and not just because the sword fight between Lord Beric Dondarrion and Sandor Clegane represents the best action sequence so far this season. We talked last time about the nature of control in Westeros, and through that the nature of responsibility. Clegane's insistence that he is not to blame for murdering an innocent boy is of a justification. He was ordered by his prince to kill someone his prince insisted had attacked him; the lies of the prince are not his responsibility. Opinions can vary on the validity of this defence - and really, in terms of Westerosi law, I think Clegane's position is actually pretty strong, and the real problem here isn't what he did but how much pleasure he took in doing it - but apparently the Seven have bought it.
The Clegane situation is very instructive, in fact, because the Hounds is both cause and effect in various different chains of causality. His murder of Micah has clearly had a profound effect on Arya - a young girl screaming desperately for Beric to slaughter a man right in front of her. But in his own way, he's a victim of the Lannisters just like she is. More specifically, he's a victim of the inability of Joffrey, just like both his true parents, to focus more than one move ahead. When you get right down to it, Sandor is basically on trial for having a shit for a former boss.
(Which brings up an interesting point, actually; if the Brotherhood had decided to execute him for desertion, they'd be delivering up a verdict entirely in keeping with the law, albeit in a horribly hypocritical manner).
Despite what we think, then, Clegane has justified himself in the bloodiest way possible. Up in the lands north of the Wall, Jon Snow is facing a similar problem, though with far more difficulty.
Jon's need for justification originally stemmed from his decision to join the Wildlings. To pretend to break his oath. This has become increasingly problematic as the season has gone on and Jon has found himself increasingly impressed with his captors/allies, but as of this episode things have taken a leap forward. Now he justify not merely pretending to break his oaths, but to break them for real. To betray his true allegiance so that he can betray his false allegiance later, the latter of which could end up claiming the life of the very girl who's made him an oath-breaker.
Still, never mind. At least if the cause of his actions are having to sleep with a pretty redhead, the effect gets to be sleeping with a pretty redhead. Would that we could all be given that assignment at work.
And whatever else is true, Jon's pretty clear on the intended effect of his choices: a North not invaded by tens of thousands of savages, all of whom seem to be of the opinion that sex is to be bought at sword-point.
Clegane aside, this seems to be an ubiquitous theme: every character in this episode is arguing they are slaves to their desire to save the realm. Tyrion attempts to wring a few more coppers from the Tyrells because the royal family needs their money to keep the war going, for example, and in so doing hopes to save a few more people from ending up at the mercy of people like Locke. Dondarrion doesn't like the idea of demanding money from the Starks in exchange for Arya, but he'll do it, because he's convinced he needs the gold to finance his personal war to save the Riverlands from the oppression of the high-born. Stannis' strange and unbending conception of what he needs to do to bring peace to the realm has led him to imprison his best friend and his daughter both (it's not clear whether his wife is locked away as well, wandering about her foetus fittings like a deranged geneticist). Daenerys is still trying to thread the needle of owning a slave army commanded to be free. And whilst Gendry's decision to stay with the Brotherhood - knowing full well the painful effect this will have on Arya - seems to be mainly based on his desire to be (relatively) free, the proud claims of the Brotherhood to be fighting to save the realm, even as they steal money from those they judge innocent - may well have worked its way into his decision as well.
And Robb... ah, Robb. So much his father's son. "I'm not fighting for justice if I don't serve justice to murderers in my ranks..." Robb is actually offered two mutually exclusive justifications here, and two very different resulting effects. He can justify keeping Karstark alive by heeding the counsel of his mother, his wife, and his uncle, with the effect of keeping his army together - and increase his chances of liberating others from the yoke of the sadistic King Joffrey - at the cost of his honour. Alternatively, he can justify the loss of "half [his] army"` on the grounds that he has to be fighting for a more just reign than Joffrey's, as well as - and it surprised me this point wasn't made - avoiding the worst-case scenario of Lannister spies learning he'd buried Lannister children in secret, and Tywin responding to the outrage by executing Sansa.
It's not just then a question between pragmatism and idealism, then, despite it having been presented that way by some on these 'ere interwebs (the fact that Rickard Karstark is just begging to get himself executed here should also be remembered; his combination of sneering arrogance and refusing to accept responsibility for his own actions means I actually find myself hating the man more than I do Joffrey). The willingness to cut off their nose to keep an oath to their face might very well define the Stark men, but here Robb has chosen a certain crisis over a possible nightmare. Besides, either way, his honour takes a hit. The books make this explicit, but Karstarks words in his final minutes nod to it too; the Karstarks are so called because they share blood with the Starks. Robb's choice in this episode is between his oath to rule fairly and the implied oath to not kill those from his own family.
Of course, this idea of choosing between competing oaths is very much a recurring issue in Martin's world. Jon we've already discussed; the poor man must spend every moment he's not screwing his red-haired goddess cursing the fact he must choose between breaking his oaths of chastity and his oaths to protect the North from what lies beyond. Yeah, it's bad luck that Ygritte's libido has resulted in him having to choose one or the other, but he can't afford any suspicion that he's holding to his old vows - the listener must be fooled completely - so cunnilingus in secluded caverns it's going to have to be.
This is prefect lace to segue into the centrepiece of this episode; the events at Harrenhal, and the various approaches of Jaime "Jaime" Lannister, Qyburn, and Lord Bolton. Bolton we include here precisely what he doesn't say, which is any attempt to justify his actions. Alright, he didn't personally lop off Jaime's hand or mull over the risk/reward distribution of raping Brienne, but it's hard to believe Bolton sent Locke off believing the man to be a kitten-stroking man of universal peace. More to the point, one can't imagine Lord Tywin Lannister being pacified by an argument to the effect of "this was a failure of middle management". If Bolton is as aware of the current dire straits of his king's campaign as Locke is - and how could he not - a certain degree of prudent grovelling following the mutilation of the seemingly inevitable victor's uncle would very much seem the order of the day. Bolton's total disinterest in doing so - indeed he goes so far as to fuck with Jaime's head - tells us a great deal about the man Robb has left in control of his rearguard.
Bolton's disinterest in explaining himself seems to be mirrored by the men he chooses to serve him. Locke we know already is a creature of sadistic impulse. More importantly, he's a man who either doesn't fear his master's wrath over crippling his quarry, or he doesn't think his master will care. I don't think it's particularly difficult to conclude which side of that particular silver stag the truth lies, especially when lurking in his castle is a disgraced former master whose justifications are as perfunctory as they are concerning.
But it's Jaime we should really talk about, because his confession - explanation, really - in the Harrenhal bath-house brings together a number of threads. On the most obvious level, you have Jaime's fury over his pariah status, brought on by the fact that he made two oaths which proved to be incompatible, and so was forced to break one. The specifics of this are open to quibbling (murdering the king was not the only way to prevent his commands from being carried out), and of course there's a limit to the power an appeal to humanitarianism can have coming from a man willing to murder eight year olds. Put Jaime's recent actions aside, however, and his case is exceptionally strong. The idea that a knight's vows should matter more than the lives of tens of thousands of innocent people is a horribly privileged position to take. This is beyond even the conflict of vows; had Jaime never sworn to protect anyone but the king it would still be an act of supreme self-important callousness to suggest his correct choice of action was to let King's Landing burn. Like the Hound, Jaime's crime would seem to be not so much what he did, as the fact he doesn't feel awful about doing it (though reading his body language as he relates his tale, I'm far from sure his he got out of the siege of King's Landing as unaffected as he, er, affects.)
Really, of course, there's more to it than that; as Brienne points out, Jaime's done himself no favours by refusing to explain his side of the story - though it's not like anyone amongst his accusers is entirely ignorant of King Aerys' outrages. That notwithstanding, though, the problem here is that swearing an oath is far too easy a way to justify one's actions, and watching another fail an oath is far too easy a way to justify disliking someone. These kinds of solipsistic justifications lead ultimately to the egomaniacal fury of Rickard Karstark, and the idea that the lives of young boys are of less value than the desire to achieve revenge through whatever avenues are left open. It's how girls like Arya spend their lives haunting devastated ruins.
The sad truth of Westeros is that the national infrastructure is entirely reliant on everybody playing their roles correctly. The endless Gordian knot of interlocking oaths can't withstand much in the way of tugging from any direction. For all their remarkable qualities, people like Eddard Stark and Barristan Selmy have never grasped this, despite the former having broken his own oath to his king, and Selmy being rather... creative in his interpretation of his oath (I doubt the Targaryens figured Selmy was swearing his loyalty to a chair, rather than the family who'd been in charge for three centuries).
That fact is of particular importance, because it gets to the very heart of the matter. It's not the only difference between them, but the critical thing separating Jaime and Barristan is nothing more than dumb luck. Jaime was with Aerys when the horrible truth emerged, and Barristan was guarding the far more stable and honourable Rhaegar. Jaime was confronted by a situation requiring him to choose between two incompatible responsibilities; Barristan found himself able to interpret his oaths in a way he found internally consistent. Indeed, after being dismissed by Joffrey, Barristan was able to persuade himself (if not necessarily Dany or Jorah, though clearly the latter has his own agenda) that he could legitimately swap royal houses and serve the people sworn to destroy the people he last served, who'd sworn to destroy the people he served before that. It seems it is not the oaths one chooses to take that defines a man's image, or the way in which they cling to those oaths they've sworn. It is how they respond when the bright lines drawn around their lives prove to intersect, and how much outward sign they show of the resulting conflict. Or, to put it another way, how completely their justifications are presented to others, and to what extent they are accepted.
All this is about to matter a very great deal. For the first time, Jaime has to be aware of how others see hin, because he can no longer simply fight his way out of any corner he finds himself placed in. He seems like he might have persuaded Brienne, but who else is he going to need to drag onside? Robb's next military victory is contingent on justifying breaking his marriage pact to the notoriously prickly Walder Frey. Jon is heading with Wildling forces to a castle which in the interests of keeping some of his vows he's inflated the defences of by a factor of at least ten, only to have found himself entangled with one of the people he plans to betray in order to avoid betraying others.
How our characters are viewed by others has never been unimportant, but it's about to become utterly critical. It is not enough simply to want redemption, or even just understanding. Whatever else it is that needs to be added to the mix, we shall surely soon discover.
 This is bollocks, naturally. After some thought on the issue (and some input from vonbloodbath over at the SFX Forum), it doesn't seem unreasonable that the Karstarks might comprise one half of the Northern forces Robb has at Riverrun, which themselves are one half of the full Northern army (the others being with Lord Bolton at Harrenhal), the sum total of which make up one half of Robb's army alongside the Riverlanders.
In other words, losing the Karstarks means losing an eighth of his forces. No small number, admittedly, but not the total disaster implied by the show. But then this has become a wearyingly common problem. Benioff and Weiss lack the money to do Robb's military campaign justice, which is understandable, but they also seem completely unwilling to put any effort into presenting what they can show in a remotely coherent fashion. Robb's storyline this season has been a real case of telling rather than showing, which is frustrating in the extreme. No spoilers, I promise, but book readers know that Robb's storyline is heading for some major developments - events so unexpected and memorable Benioff and Weiss have cited them as major reasons for wanting to adapt the books in the first place. The idea that the show isn't building to these events so much as marking time before they play out is deeply worrying. What's coming has to be earned, and watching Richard Madden frown at maps for three minutes a week is absolutely not going to do the job.