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Game of Thrones recap: The high price of honor
In tonight's "Kissed By Fire," the HBO drama's characters are forced to confront what honor really means in Westeros
Honor: One thing Joffrey doesn't have to worry about.
Honor: One thing Joffrey doesn't have to worry about. HBO/Helen Sloan
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man of honor keeps his vows even if he's serving a drunk or a lunatic. Just once in my life before it's over I want to know what it's like to serve with pride, to fight for someone I believe in.

Ser Barristan Selmy

Since Game of Thrones' first season, we've heard numerous characters speak to the unimpeachable honor of Ser Barristan Selmy, the aging but talented knight who recently joined Daenerys in her cause after being booted from King's Landing by Joffrey. But in tonight's "Kissed By Fire," Ser Barristan confesses that he's spent his entire life "honorably" serving dishonorable people — which, given the kings we know Barristan has served, calls the whole "honor" thing into question.

And Ser Barristan's self-reflection is far from alone in tonight's terrific Game of Thrones, which continues to deepen and complicate our understanding of the show's characters. "Kissed By Fire" offers a unique opportunity to evaluate what honor really means in Game of Thrones — and to assess whether or not the "heroes" and "villains" are as heroic or villainous as they seem.

In "Kissed By Fire," King in the North Robb Stark proves yet again that, for better or worse, he is his father's son. When powerful ally Rickard Karstark decides to let off some steam by killing a couple of 8-year-old Lannister hostages, Robb goes against the advice of literally everyone else in the room and orders Karstark killed instead of imprisoned. It's a decision that doesn't sit well with Karstark's soldiers, who promptly desert Robb's cause, cutting his army in half and delivering a crushing blow to his already flagging cause. "I'm not fighting for justice if I don't serve justice to murderers in my ranks, no matter how highborn," insists Robb, as he follows his late father's time-tested advice by both passing Karstark's sentence and swinging the sword.

But watching "Kissed By Fire," I couldn't shake the feeling that Robb's decision was hard to justify from both a strategic perspective and a moral perspective. Rickard Karstark's actions were indefensible, but Robb's utter lack of pragmatism recalls Ned Stark's ham-handed attempts to outmaneuver Cersei in King's Landing — and we all remember how well that turned out for both Ned and the rest of Westeros. If Robb is going to be a more successful leader than his father, he needs to find the balance between retaining his honor and willfully ceding half his strength to keep it. Like it or not, his father's death should have taught Robb to tread a little more carefully when it comes to the highborn of Westeros —and the rash decision to execute a lone man that he could just as easily have left rotting in a cell has put Robb's family, his army, and his cause at an exponentially higher risk.

Fortunately, not every Stark child is following the black-and-white worldview practiced by Ned. North of the Wall, Jon Snow is learning that things aren't as cut-and-dry as they once seemed. When Jon killed Qhorin Halfhand at the end of season two, he began a deep-cover operation designed to infiltrate the ranks of the Wildlings to take them down from within — but the line between pretending to betray the Night's Watch and actually betraying the Night's Watch grows thinner with every episode. In "Kissed By Fire," Jon breaks another of his oaths by having sex with Ygritte (who utters yet another "You know nothing, Jon Snow" before he proves her very, very wrong). Jon Snow is in an extraordinarily precarious position, and as Mance Rayder's army gets closer and closer to the Wall, he'll have to choose a side once and for all — but no matter which he chooses, he'll be betraying someone.

As always, the Starks function as Game of Thrones' moral compass, but "Kissed By Fire" also offers a glimpse of Jaime Lannister's approach to honor, when the Kingslayer tells Brienne how he earned his nickname. It's common knowledge in Westeros that Aerys Targaryen was a less-than-ideal ruler — you don't earn the title "Mad King" for nothing — but no one alive except Jaime knows just how mad he really was. According to Jaime, Aerys stashed wildfire all around King's Landing, planning to burn the capital city and its many thousands of residents before he could be captured. When Aerys revealed his plan, Jaime stabbed him in the back both figuratively and literally, sullying his name by performing what is arguably the most far-reaching and heroic act in the series' history. As Jaime points out, it's the kind of thing that Ned Stark would never have done, but Jaime's willingness to tarnish his own name for the greater good is far more heroic than Ned's refusal to break his own ironclad code. I would never have predicted that the man who pushed a child out of a window in the show's first episode would turn out to be more heroic than our ostensible lead hero — but here we are.

But pushing honor aside, the question, as always, is who's going to come out on top in the battle for the iron throne — and some careful maneuvering by Tywin Lannister makes him the safest bet yet again. Game of Thrones tends to get more attention for its action sequences — including the terrific fight between Beric Dondarrion and The Hound that opened tonight's episode — which makes it easy to overlook that this show does soapy intrigue better than anything else on television. (Yes, that includes you, Downton Abbey.)

In a single family meeting at the episode's end, Tywin Lannister proves that his strategic mind is good for more than just the battlefield by arranging two politically advantageous marriages: Tyrion is ordered to wed Sansa Stark, and Cersei is pushed toward a union with Ser Loras Tyrell. Even as Robb Stark returns to Walder Frey to apologize for breaking a marriage pact, Tywin has invented two of his own that will, if successful, almost certainly win him the war. The fact that both his children will be trapped in loveless marriages is a non-issue in service of Tywin's greater cause: Winning the kingdom and adding to the glory of House Lannister. Few would describe Tywin Lannister as "honorable," but it's hard to argue with his decades of results, or with the genius of his plan at a time when his enemies seem to be stumbling. And in the end, if honor is no issue and life hangs in the balance, it's clear that he's the one you'd want on your side.

Read more Game of Thrones recaps:

Game of Thrones recap: Revenge is a dish best served hot
* Game of Thrones recap: 'Walk of Punishment'
* Game of Thrones recap: The women of Westeros
* Game of Thrones recap: 'Valar Dohaeris'

Scott Meslow is the entertainment editor for TheWeek.com. He has written about film and television at publications including The AtlanticOutside Magazine, and Think Progress.

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