When watching Game of Thrones, it’s all too easy to get caught up in each character’s strategies and fail to ask ourselves why they’re playing in the first place. The high point of “The Climb,” however, threw the motivations of the show’s many protagonists into sharp relief. Varys and Littlefinger’s conversation in front of the Iron Throne isn’t just another verbal tennis match; it’s a contrast that makes one of the central questions of Game of Thrones explicit. And because this is a show that ultimately deals with people in all their complexity, not quests or dragons or even kingdoms, it’s a question that applies to all of us: Why do we do what we do?
For Littlefinger, the answer is pure, slightly malevolent self-interest, making him kindred spirits with Theon’s as-yet-unnamed torturer. He may be one of the show’s most reviled characters, but at the end of the day, Theon’s betrayals were propelled by a profound sense of loneliness and a desire to belong. His captor, on the other hand, is a sadist in a league of his own (or maybe in Joffrey’s). We get a few clues to his identity in his encounter with Theon — that detail about being a hunter comes up later — but at this point, all the audience needs to know is that this boy is exactly what Alfred warned us about back when the Batman trilogy was still good: he just wants to watch the world burn.
But some, including Varys, would like to believe they’re fighting for something bigger than themselves. When Littlefinger essentially points out that “the realm” is a social construct, Varys counters that a world without guiding principles is a world without meaning. And when the alternative is chaos, people like Thoros of Myr and Beric Dondarrion stick to their principles, even when the result is as ugly as giving up an innocent teenager to a terrifying priestess. The encounter between Melisandre and Thoros, a complete departure from the books, reads at first like a contrast between the former’s fundamentalism and the latter’s more flexible interpretation of their shared religion, but instead it develops into something much more interesting. To Arya’s fury, the Brotherhood Without Banners has a strict moral code that trumps even basic empathy — not that the cash bonus made their choice to give Gendry up all that difficult.
Tywin Lannister, meanwhile, falls firmly on the Littlefinger side of things. The King’s Landing arc this week tracks the fallout from his abrupt announcement that Cersei and Tyrion will marry Loras and Sansa, starting with a sit-down between Tywin and Olenna (called it!). Tywin strong-arms the Tyrell matriarch into agreeing to the match between his incestuous daughter and her “sword-swallowing” grandson, and although I don’t see where this is going — in the books, Loras is appointed to the Kingsguard early on as a reward, not a punishment — it’s entertaining to watch.
More emotionally wrenching are the twin tragedies of Tyrion and Sansa. Though she should know better by know, Sansa continued to cling to the fantasy of marrying Loras, demonstrated in a scene where the writers tactlessly reduced an otherwise interesting character to a collection of gay stereotypes. She’s one of the poor souls Littlefinger derides via voice-over, motivated by the delusion of love. Then there’s Tyrion, who acts out of a sense of obligation to a family that at best dislikes him (Cersei) and at worst wants to kill him (Joffrey, apparently). And at this point, it’s unclear what will keep either of them going beyond pure survival instinct.
Last but not least is Jon Snow, whose double-agent operation leads him to climb the Wall itself. Before they start the climb, Ygritte lets him know she realizes he’s not on the wildlings’ side, and that’s okay. Considering Jon’s background as both a Stark and a bastard, Ygritte’s speech essentially makes the case for Jon giving up one moral code — duty and brotherhood — for another: romantic love. Before he has the chance to sleep on it, a near-death experience on the Wall and a breathtaking view bring them together in a way that’s far more believable than last week’s cheesy cave scene. It may have been relatively tamer, but the episode-ending kiss had substance to it, giving Jon Snow the love scene millions of Kit Harrington fangirls deserve.
The remainder of the episode, with the exception of Bran’s snoozefest of a subplot, functions as a setup for one of the original series’ Big Scenes, which, judging by Game of Thrones precedent, will likely land around Episode 9. Jaime and Brienne have dinner with icy, calculating Roose Bolton, who lets Jaime go but keeps Brienne prisoner. Of note is Jaime’s insistence that Brienne come with him (character building!) and Brienne’s ridiculous pink dress (comic relief!). Robb, meanwhile, attempts to make amends with the Freys by marrying off his own uncle. The dialogue in that scene was painful (“The laws of my fist…”), but so is watching the entire Robb plotline. Just like his dad, and just like Varys, Robb fights for a higher purpose. The question is whether that’s enough to get him through a fight that’s quickly heading south.