Whatever it is you like about Game of Thrones, this episode gave you something to like.
Written by perpetual standout Bryan Cogman and directed with real power by Alex Graves, "Kissed by Fire" marks Season Three's halfway point, and it's the season's finest hour to date. It did everything Game of Thrones does well as well as Game of Thrones has ever done.
You want sword-wielding savagery? I give you the duel between Sandor Clegane and Beric Dondarrion, the best mano a mano fight of the series so far. For maybe the first time, we get a glimpse of why the Hound has such a terrifying reputation – his single-handed sword strokes are capable of cutting shields in half like they were made of popsicle sticks, and he fights like he just can't wait to do the same to his opponent. Dondarrion's flaming sword, ignited by his own blood no less, provides an equally imposing counterpoint, particularly for the pyrophobic Hound himself. The kicker: Clegane's mockery of the gods is cut short when the guy he just sliced from shoulder to navel gets back up and starts talking again.
You want tunic-tearing sex appeal? I give you . . . quite a bit, actually. Loras Tyrell's a bit of a sucker to fall right into bed with a squire that soon – and quite a contrast with the Loras Tyrell of the books, who gives up sex after the death of Renly: "When the sun has set, no candle can replace it," he explained in one of the series' most memorable lines. Still, the squire-spy looked pretty terrific naked, and that's what counts, isn't it? Similarly, I think I liked Jaime and Brienne's duel of asses even better than their duel of swords a few episodes back.
Finally, the deflowering of Jon Snow by his "kissed by fire" wildling frienemy-with-benefits Ygritte was, simply put, super hot. Ygritte's directness is irresistible: "You swore some vows. I want you to break 'em," she says, shrugging Jon's oaths off as though she knows without a doubt that they couldn't possibly matter as much as what they're about to do together. Her similarly blunt and confident "I want you to see me – all of me" gives the show's umpteenth "female character drops robe, turns male character into drooling sex zombie" shot some real honest heat. And I loved that Jon going down on her is presented as equal parts instinct and a particularly adults-only form of sweetness: "I just wanted to kiss you there, is all." It's a celebration of the great good fortune of having access to your lover's body and permission to give pleasure to it, and receive pleasure from it.
(Even though yes, I'll quibble with the editing decision to jump directly from act to afterglow without a buffer scene in between, and with the decision to kick it off with yet another "Ygritte gets the jump on Jon and leads him on a stumbly chase through the snow" sequence, and with the blink-and-you'll-miss-it nature of Kit Harrington's nudity. "Why are you still dressed?" Good question, Ygritte!)
You want man's inhumanity to man? I give you Lord Rickard Karstark, straight-up murdering unarmed boys. Compared to last season we've gotten off easy on the killing-of-children front, so it was grimly compelling to watch the whole thing unfold from soup to nuts: the young Lannisters' dawning awareness of what's coming, the act itself, the judgment and justification as Karstark argues with Robb in front of the boys' bodies, the debate over whether to enforce the usual punishment, and Robb's decision to mete out justice with his sword despite the cost. Violence has consequences, and so do those consequences.
You want madmen in high places? Take your pick: Robb's bannerman Roose Bolton quietly revealing himself to be a steely-eyed sadist as he toys with Jaime regarding his sister's fate; defrocked maester Qyburn's eyes widening with fascination as he operates on Jaime's stump without an anaesthetic; Stannis's fanatical queen Selyse celebrating his infidelity as God's will in between visits to the preserved bodies of her stillborn sons.
You want to watch myths in the making? Daenerys gets yet another big moment with the Unsullied, encouraging them to choose their own names, then listening in awestruck silence as their captain, Grey Worm, tells her he's keeping the name he had on the day she freed him. This is how exile queens become folk heroes, which is just as important to her quest for the Iron Throne as soldiers and gold.
You want scheming and skullduggery? Watch Lady Olenna Tyrell, out-clevering Tyrion Lannister at every turn even while she agrees to do exactly what he wants and finance the royal wedding. Even as unlikely a candidate as Jorah Mormont gets in on the act, sounding out Ser Barristan's knowledge of his role as King Robert's mole in the Khaleesi's entourage. Elsewhere, Littlefinger channels Don Draper: "It doesn't matter what we want. Once we get it, we want something else."
Littlefinger's discovery of the Tyrells' Sansa scheme sets in motion that brutal final scene between Tywin, Tyrion and Cersei, in which both siblings are told they'll be getting (re)married, whether they want to or not. Tyrion's horror at condemning Sansa Stark to, well, himself was touchingly genuine, but no more so than Cersei's near-panic at the prospect of being forced into yet another political marriage. "Father, don't make me do it again, please," she begs, instantly transforming from a tyrant into a terrified teenager. Same with Tyrion, whose lingering fury over his father's involvement in his puppy-love bride's gang rape radiates from his voice like depleted uranium.
That was just the last example of what this episode did best of all: Tear your guts out. It was an emotionally merciless episode throughout. Delirious from pain and heat and 17 years of bitterness, Jaime reveals to Brienne that he slew the Mad King to stop him from burning King's Landing to the ground, but refused to tell anyone because he was so outraged by Ned Stark's pre-judgment that he couldn't even bear to defend himself with the truth. "By what right does the wolf judge the lion?" he demands, weeping through the dirt and shit caked on his face. As if his system can't withstand honesty he then passes out, his nude body cradled against Brienne's own in a shot that rivals last episode's Jaime-and-his-hand tableau. "My name is Jaime," he insists, at long last deciding to be less, and therefore more, than his reputation would make him out to be.
This golden child's plight couldn't be farther removed than that of Shireen Baratheon, Stannis's greyscale-deformed daughter. Hidden away in a remote corner of Dragonstone, her only friend an illiterate and imprisoned traitor, she's an exquisitely painful reminder of how the game of thrones treats pieces that won't advance the player across the board. And man, that morose song she sings – where have you gone, Hold Steady? Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you.
Most powerful of all is Arya Stark, played with a prickly blend of toughness and vulnerability by Maisie Williams; every line seemed like a cruise missile aimed at your heart. Her gutwrenching cry of "Burn in hell!" when the Hound escapes judgment. Her insistence to Gendry "I can be your family," full of subtext I'm not even sure she's aware of. Her cynical dismissal of claims by Thoros of Myr that she's not a hostage. Her grilling of Beric Dondarrion on his ability to come back from the grave ("Every time I come back, I'm a bit less"), culminating in the devastating question, "Could you bring back a man without a head?" Dondarrion tells her he admired her father and thus wouldn't dare wish his own fate on him, but Arya, desperate for the comfort of her family, knows better. To paraphrase Full Metal Jacket, the daughter of Ned knows only one thing: It is better to be alive.
Last episode: King of the Ashes