You are a man without honor, Catelyn tells Jaime Lannister, at the end of the latest Game of Thrones. But Jaime’s storyline, and the stories of all the characters this week, raise interesting questions about the “honor” that Catelyn values so highly. What does honor really mean in Westeros, where so many people are dishonorable, where morality fails to be black and white, where kings go insane and massacre the innocent, and where knights are reviled for stopping them?
Every character must make a choice in A Man Without Honor: do they uphold their honor, their duties and their vows, or do they make a bid for freedom? Is honor a valid choice? Or is it just weakness, wrapped up in a more palatable disguise?
A Man Without Honor
Events in Robb’s camp open with Alton Lannister returning from King’s Landing to deliver Cersei’s response to Robb’s peace terms. Full of naivety and hero-worship for the Lion of Lannister, Ser Alton is a truly honorable man, returning to his imprisonment in order to fulfil his vow, even when a lesser man than Robb might kill him for the news he brings. He gives up his freedom for his honor, and he pays for it with his life when Jaime, the “man without honor,” kills him to escape. Jaime is selfish and brutal, manipulating his fanboy distant-cousin into trusting him, because, to him, freedom is everything. He learnt a long time ago, when protecting a murdering, psychopathic rapist of a king, that honor means very little. He isn’t suited to anything but freedom and fighting, and he is willing to make brutal, rash decisions to return to that life.
Jaime is, of course, recaptured, and Robb’s bannermen are out for blood, but Catelyn manages to (temporarily) calm their fury with a few well-placed angry words of her own. As always, things are better if people just listen to Catelyn Stark. As a woman, she is not given all the respect that she deserves, but she commands obedience from them, and she displays a fierceness and an understanding of the true cost of war that allows her to put her hated of Jaime aside for some rational thinking. She is not interested in mindless vengeance; enough people have died already, and if Jaime dies, her daughters die as well.
All this leads to one of the best scenes in the show so far, as Catelyn, Queen of Honor, comes up against the dishonorable, “I don’t give a fuck” attitude of Jaime Lannister. As much as I admire Catelyn’s nerve and her iron will, Jaime is the character who really understands the nature of the world he lives in. To him, honor is almost worthless, because all the vows contradict one another, because “fulfilling a vow” can be little more than an excuse for cruelty and brutality, because people would rather despise him and cling to the fantasy of knights and courtesy and honor than accept that none of it is true. Even the “honorable” Ned Stark dishonored his loving wife, because nobody can keep it all in balance. Why not just throw it all aside and be free instead?
And then we have the first meeting between Jaime Lannister and Brienne of Tarth, possibly two of the most diametrically opposed characters in the series, and it is loathing on first sight. Brienne is everything that Jaime is not, and everything that his beloved Cersei is not — unattractive, serious, honorable, dutiful, naive and idealistic, and, as Catelyn suggests, one of the only true knights in the entire series. But, as Catelyn said in Renly’s camp, she is a knight of summer, full of idealism and untried in battle. She still believes in the promises of honor, the promises that Jaime once believed in and saw torn to pieces.
Beyond the Wall
Jon, meanwhile, wakes up after a night sleeping close to Ygritte with a bit of a surprise… one that she’s more than willing to tease and taunt him for for the rest of the episode. He already came up against conflicting notions of honor last week — follow orders, or refrain from killing someone in cold blood who has yet to do anything wrong? — and that confusion continues in this epiosde. As they wander through the wilderness, the show treats us to another set of polar opposites, another pairing of honor versus freedom. Ygritte can’t stand the fact that Jon thinks he is better than she is, because he is an honorable member of the Night’s Watch and she is a wildling, yet she also thinks she’s better than Jon Snow, because she is a “free woman,” and no one can tell her what to do. She questions and mocks the rules of life in the Night’s Watch, pointing out that it doesn’t sound like a life at all, and her arguments make quite a bit of sense. Jon has sacrificed everything about himself to find purpose in the Night’s Watch, an “honorable” order full of rapists and murderers who do not hold to their vows as firmly as Jon might like to believe, and the Wildlings they fight are more interested in living a free life and escaping from the White Walkers than they are in whatever Westeros is up to.
Jon seems almost tempted, and it’s this temptation, more than her independence itself, that makes him tell her to shut up and even draw his sword on her. As long as he does not question, the life of the Night’s Watch seems good and honorable. But can it withstand that kind of temptation? And does even thinking about freedom count as a breach of honor? When Ygritte propositions Jon, his flustering response gives her the chance to flee — the ropes he tied weren’t really holding her at all, and she leads him into an ambush.
Love and Trauma in King’s Landing
While other characters debate the relative values of freedom and honor, neither seems possible for poor Sansa Stark. She is having nightmares about her near-rape experience, and as many people commented that the scene was gratuitous last week, it’s good to see the show treating it as a trauma, with traumatic consequences, as Sansa realizes that even her body can be taken out of her control at any moment. And indeed, when she wakes up, she finds that her own body has betrayed her, taking away her last snatches of freedom: she has her first period. She cannot stop it, she cannot control it, and now the one thing that protected her — her physical childhood — has been stolen from her. She is now able to marry Joffrey, and have his children, and her life is about to go hurtling into further misery as a result.
Her situation is so heartwrenching that even Queen Cersei takes some pity on her, bringing the young girl into her own rooms to offer some womenly advice: love makes you weak. You can’t avoid loving your children, but as long as you love anyone else, you will never be free. “Shouldn’t I love Joffrey?” Sansa asks. “You can try, little dove,” Cersei replies, because even loving your husband, the honorable thing to do, is not always possible for a woman who has no freedom to control her body, her actions or her choices.
Meanwhile, Stannis is sailing towards King’s Landing, and Joffrey is doing nothing to properly prepare the city. Cersei breaks down as she acknowledges that even the one person she is obliged to love is too much for her, as Joffrey is cruel, insane and out of her control. As she wonders whether this is the price for her incest with Jaime, she again hammers home the lack of freedom in her own life. The one (unhonorable) freedom she did exercise — a relationship with the man she loves — created Joffrey, a king who may be as bad as Mad King Aerys himself.
It’s all just a game
Up in Winterfell, Theon continues his desperate attempt to assert his power, preferring to appear cruel than appear weak and lose his position. He hunts down the escaped Bran and Rickon, following them to a farmer’s house outside Winterfell, and returning with the burnt corpses of the two boys. Every step of his journey is filled with a mixture of doubt and bravado, but he has set himself on this path, one without freedom or honor, and he cannot stop now.