“Kissed By Fire”
April 28th, 2013
“You swore some vows. I want you to break them.”
As Ygritte seduces Jon Snow in a conveniently located hot springs, I found myself at odds with the story unfolding onscreen. Although I have long known—unlike Jon Snow, of course, who knows nothing—this scene would take place, there was something oddly romantic about the moment that struck me as off. In the books, I always remembered the scene as more complicated, a sort of alternate passage into manhood as contrasted with the vows Jon swore in front of the heart tree. It was still effectively Jon and Ygritte having sex in a cave, mind you, but I always found the moment less romantic and more adolescent.
This is, of course, because it was more adolescent given that Jon was only a teenager. The same goes for Robb Stark, whose decision to chop off the head of Richard Karstark was less an act of determination and more an act of formation, a moment when he stopped being a boy and became a leader. The show’s decision to age up the younger characters made sense, and it has resulted in a number of positive story developments, but Robb and Jon are two characters whose stories have been transformed by nature of their relative maturity.
In the case of Jon’s encounter with Ygritte, there’s no adolescent fumbling to be found here: instead, he’s a masterful lover, his desire to kiss her “there” proving quite well received. And yet whereas I once saw that scene as this brief moment of solitude, of innocence—and the removal of that innocence—in the midst of a coming war, here it just felt like Jon and Ygritte getting it on, following by some pillow talk without the pillows. It all felt too romantic, which is not to say that romance has no place in this show but rather to say that the storyline came at a point in Jon’s storyline where I did not feel it earned that romance, at least not in the way I had understood it previously.
As “Kissed by Fire” unfolded, however, it became clear that Jon and Ygritte’s encounter had been somewhat shifted in meaning. It wasn’t about breaking up Jon and Ygritte’s journey so much as it was giving us a fleeting moment of romance before destroying every other idealistic notion you could imagine. Their encounter gives the episode a brief moment of solitude, but it’s not for the characters so much as it’s for the audience. It is a moment of lust and freedom in a world where lust is punished, freedom is overwritten by family, and “romance” exists only as the enemy of common sense and good strategy.
The episode ends with the simplest statement of this fact: Tywin may be fighting a battle with Robb Stark, but the real war is with the Tyrells, and Jaime’s retelling of Aerys’ death at his hands paints a portrait of Tywin as someone who is always thinking two steps ahead. Unable to openly wage war against someone on whom he depends to feed his people and win the battle at hand, Tywin uses his children to settle the score instead. Tyrion is to marry Sansa Stark so that Loras cannot, and Cersei is to marry Loras to further embed Lannister power within Highgarden. It’s a genius plan, impossible for the Tyrells to openly reject without betraying their own plot to marry Loras to Sansa and claim the North as their own. It’s also a plot that treats family as currency, as something that can be bought, exchanged, and traded in times of need.
Game of Thrones has always been a show about families, primarily the Starks and the Lannisters, but the definition of family is expanding. “Kissed by Fire” gives us our first look at Stannis’ family rather than his priestess, which includes his ailing daughter, his devoted wife, and their three dead fetuses jarred up as monuments to her struggles to provide an heir. We know from Melisandre’s earlier appearance this season that their blood is required for Stannis’ sacrifice, and yet we hear no talk of that here. Instead, we see simply Stannis returning to his role as husband and father, exploring what that relationship was before he can consider destroying it. It’s also a chance for the show to use Shireen to bring Davos back into the story, and it also creates a larger scale to the world of Dragonstone for the first time in the series.
That sense of scale has been what has complicated notions of family. When you could divide up the show based on family, the Starks and the Lannisters as two central houses, there was simplicity to the show’s views on the issue. But then the Starks were divided, and then the Lannister children’s conflict with their patriarch was made evident, and since then “family” has been no simple vow. Catelyn betrayed her son; Theon betrayed his adopted family in favor of a family that may never truly have been his own; Jon left the family he was never allowed to lay claim to with a name for a family he was forced to give up for the sake of the realm. Family is not just a thing you have in Westeros, but rather something you can lay claim to. It’s what makes the death of the young Lannister cousins that much more tragic: they were killed not for “being” Lannisters but for rather being born Lannisters, two rather different crimes that the Karstarks—in the name of vengeance for the death of their own kin—were not willing to distinguish between.
“Kissed by Fire” largely positions family as a marker of identity, rather than an innate sense of being. We could tie it perhaps to Loras’ homosexuality, a part of himself that he is forced to repress—except when tempted by one of Littlefinger’s spies—because his duty to his family and to society is a more powerful force operating against him. But we could also tie it to the slavery of the Unsullied, and on Grey Worm’s decision to maintain his slave identity for it is his slave identity who was made free, and his former identity who was made a slave. Neither of these situations are easy to explain, simple claims to a name or a title. Rather, they are complicated intersections of society, politics, and personhood, ones that cannot be comfortably fit into a family tree or any other such hierarchy. As much as we use family to organize these characters, we cannot come to understand them solely based on their roles within those households and the society surrounding them; however, at the same time, one cannot pretend that these forces are not ultimately determining their fates.
There is perhaps no better example of this than Sansa Stark, who has become the key to the North. The tragedy, of course, is that this is what both the Tyrells and the Lannisters think of her. The difference is that while the Tyrells wine and dine her, offering her friendship and visions of a luscious future with Loras, the Lannisters plot behind closed doors to marry her to Tyrion. And yet we cannot separate the two acts as it relates to Sansa’s best wishes: while the Tyrells may mean her less harm and cruelty through their actions, they are just as willing to lay claim to her not as a person but as a title. She is as much a chess piece to them than she is to the Lannisters, even if they’re better at making her feel like she is beloved and welcome within their family.
And yet while Sansa has gotten used to this role, given that she’s been playing it ever since her father died for one house or another (and thus she doesn’t complain at replacing the Lannisters or Littlefinger with the benevolent Tyrells), Arya can’t feel the same way. As devoted as she is to her family, and as much as she wants to be reunited with them, she resents being a bargaining chip for the Brotherhood Without Banners (itself, of course, a makeshift family). It strips her of the agency that, as much as her life has been in danger, she has been able to retain while on the run with Gendry. But when Arya pushes Gendry to come with her to Riverrun, he refuses for much the same reason, an orphan who never had a real family but would rather be able to choose to join the Brotherhood than be beholden to Robb at Riverrun.
I was struck by Arya and Gendry’s argument, as it certainly contains a romantic overtone. When Arya tries to suggest that she could be his family, he responds that this would make her his lady, and that’s certainly implying marriage. But Arya never thought of it that way, perhaps because her notion of family isn’t quite so rigid. Indeed, one of the character’s best attributes is that she’s resisted those gender norms.* In fact, while family has guided her, one could argue that she hasn’t had one since she was rushed away from her father’s execution and given a new name by Yoren. In that moment, Arya didn’t cease to be a Stark but she nonetheless took on a new identity, one which gained a new relationship with family, and one that she will test as she moves back toward her family as a pawn for the Brotherhood to pawn off.
*EDIT: A few people have raised the point that “milady” is likely just referring to Arya’s class status as opposed to marital status. That’s probably a more logical read on the scene—blame the years of pondering over the shipping of the two characters—but I think the larger point still stands in regards to Arya’s identity regardless of how far we read into the term in question.
This review is remaining largely on the side of thematic developments—and I haven’t even discussed the title’s ties to identity being bestowed on you at birth—as opposed to qualitative judgments, but I consider that itself to be qualitative in nature. There was a lot happening in the episode, but I felt a lot of it served a central purpose (or rather served the central purpose of complicating any single purpose). The nudity—spread across both genders for a change—was serving many different functions, none of it as simply as titillation. The politics moved quickly, so quickly that various characters were unable to pull themselves out of harm’s way in time. “Kissed by Fire” delivers that brief moment of solitude for Jon and Ygritte before reminding us that no such solitude waits for them or anyone else in the future, for the night is dark and full of titles, ones which are either laid claim to or hoisted upon others in these trying times.
No one knows this better than Jaime Lannister. The episode’s most powerful moment is when Jaime seeks to reclaim his identity, retelling the story of his murder of Aerys the Mad King as an act of family loyalty and human decency. However, as much as he resents and resists the title of Kingslayer that was bestowed upon him, he also played it. He played it because it was the label Ned Stark placed on him, and it was the position that had been determined for him and thus the one that he would take (much as Cersei and Tyrion are expected to play their parts dutifully). Jaime’s scene with Brienne in the bath was masterful from Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, a reclamation of self that was perhaps only possible once a part of himself—his hand—was taken from him. It’s also a reclamation that he doesn’t ultimately control, instead left to the hands of those like his father who would seek to define his identity for their own purposes.
- I suppose it’s only fitting given that Martin’s awkward sexual dialogue was itself a sort of awakening for my teenage self, but I cringed during Jon’s explanation of oral sex. I just didn’t think it worked.
- That they went three-quarters of the episode before explaining that Beric can be brought back from the dead was kind of strange to me. They didn’t really show Beric “healing” in the midst of the opening battle, so I’d be curious how any non-readers responded to his sudden consciousness and the episode’s long delay before explaining things.
- It was strange seeing Ned and Robert in a “Previously On” sequence, but it was necessary for the episode’s subtle callbacks to Jorah’s treason against Dany to register as he fishes to see whether Selmy was at all aware of it.
- We only got a brief glimpse of it, but the slightly less barren view of Iceland we got tonight was stunning, as per usual.
- A very effective edit from Shireen reading the book about Aegon to Davos to our one and only scene with Dany.
- Perhaps fitting given that it was written by the show’s most devoted book reader, story editor Bryan Cogman, but this definitely felt like a major connective tissue, introducing a large number of characters and setting up both some convergences and divergences from book material. I know I had at least one moment where my anticipation was raised to its strongest levels yet this season.