Never underestimate a son’s desire to win approval from his father. Game of Thrones plays like a treatise on selfish ambition, whether conniving (Lord Baelish) or forthright (King Joffrey). It stems from a belief in divine right (Daenerys, Stannis) or simple opportunism (the Lannisters, Xaro). Most of the characters vying for power
will do anything to further their own gains. But we usually only see the finished project.
With Theon Greyjoy, we see the journey. His homecoming to the Iron Islands was not the celebration he expected. He finds himself a disappointment to his father, a hard man who believes a man should prosper only by taking from others. Theon has never been the most admirable of men, but his own ambition leads him to the audacious decision of taking Winterfell, the place where he grew up. If he was prepared to face the scorn of those he grew up with—“Did you hate us the whole time?” asks young Bran, who’d seen Theon as a brother—he didn’t quite count on having to execute his old master of swords, Ser Rodrik. But he does so in order to gain the respect of his men. He’s determined to be an Iron Islander, and that means complete betrayal of the only family he’s known.
Theon’s betrayal is the most gripping storyline in “The Old Gods and the New.” But for a more fully realized backstabber, Baelish appears to yet another encampment. He’s managed to convince nearly everyone he talks to that his loyalty lies with them. Making his trade in both girls and information, he stumbles across both while he visits Lord Tywin and recognizes his cupbearer Arya—a piece of information he’ll most certainly make the most of. She almost finds herself discovered before Baelish can gain from it. But she collects on the debt owed by the assassin Jaqen H’ghar—the life of Ser Amory Lorch who’s found her out—before he can alert Tywin.
But if some men’s paths to evil are gradual, others’ are more immediate. The young king would fall into the latter category. After mocking his little brother for crying at the departure of his sister, he incites a riot, commanding his soldiers to kill all the peasants (his solution to any discomfort or perceived slight), then makes no effort to save his betrothed after she’s stolen away by filthy rapists.
Daenerys Targaryen may have the same visions of grandeur as Stannis Baratheon, but her ambitions are so much more fascinating to follow. Maybe because she’s suffered or been reduced to almost nothing or because she’s proven her strength under the most difficult conditions—or simply because she has dragons (cool!)—but her scenes have been the most enjoyable so far this season (even if all we get is glimpses of the dragons—this episode it was just tails). Here, she’s trying to secure ships for her invasion into Westeros, but she’s running out of options that don’t involve marriage to Xaro.
North of the wall, the Night Watch is a place that beats ambition out of its members. Jon Snow is resigned to a life without prospect of position, power or women. But he hasn’t lost his goodness, and he can’t bring himself to kill a wildling prisoner named Ygritte. The pretty warrior (and rare crossover between Game of Thrones and Downton Abbey, where she plays Gwen) tempts his vows of celibacy in a new storyline.
The only character claiming a crown who doesn’t seem to be doing it for his own gain is Robb Stark. He again runs into Talisa, a beautiful field nurse of noble birth. Despite its impossibility (Robb is already promised to another), watching young love flower between two decent human beings is refreshing—even if, like all things in Westeros, it’s doomed to end in tragedy. Instead of flirting with a cute nurse, Robb ends the episode with an oath of vengeance on his closest friend and “brother.” As Rodrik says with his last words, “Gods help you, Theon Greyjoy. Now you are truly lost.”