For a brief moment on this week’s Game of Thrones, Ser Bronn of the Blackwater sounded less like “an upjumped sellsword” and more like a randy fanboy. “You think they’re fucking?” he asks his old friend Podrick Payne. “Why not? I’d fuck her. You’d fuck her, wouldn’t you? … Well, he’d fuck her, that’s for sure. And she’d fuck him, don’t you think? The way she looks at him … The way all women look at him is frankly irritating.” The target of his indiscreet inquiries? Their bosses, Jaime Lannister and Brienne of Tarth. In the parlance of our times, when it comes to the Kingslayer and Brienne the beauty, Bronn ships it.
But should he? Obviously, his conversation with Pod is played for laughs, and his insistence on Brienne and Jamie’s universal fuckability is meant to be comically crass. Yet it’s not just Bronn’s bawdiness we’re reacting to here but his oversimplification of one of the most emotionally complex relationships on the show. These two warriors’ connection does not require them to have sex to be as revealing and intimate as anything this (in)famously R-rated series has depicted.
In sex’s absence, physicality has nonetheless played a role in this relationship throughout its history. Jaime first meets Brienne when she manhandles him across the Riverlands, in chains, in an attempt to exchange him for the imprisoned daughters of Catelyn Stark. Glowering and wincing at every insult he sends her way—about her size, her nontraditional femininity, her love for Renly Baratheon, whose homosexuality was an open secret at court—she eventually gets the last word by defeating him in a duel when he attempts to escape. He’s correct to assert that with his hands in shackles and his body weak after a year in captivity, he is hardly at his best during the battle, but that’s beside the point. Her strength and skill wears him down physically, becoming part of the slow process by which he begins to re-evaluate himself and his conduct in the world mentally as well.
That process is given a major shot in the arm when he loses his hand. After intervening to prevent her rape by the soldiers of House Bolton, who capture them after their sword fight, he’s maimed as punishment and made to wear his severed body part on a necklace as a reminder of how his once unimpeachable prowess as a warrior has been castrated. On the brink of suicide, he’s given a brusque but necessary ersatz pep talk by Brienne, who essentially insults him out of depression. “You sound like a woman,” she says of his woe-is-me whining. The line is a sword that cuts both ways: Reflecting the internalized oppression and self-loathing of a woman who’s been mistreated all her life for her failure to conform to society’s standards for her gender, it also reminds Jaime that he’s only now getting a taste of the shit outsiders and the oppressed have been served since birth.
While no sexual contact is involved, the pair’s single most emotionally naked scene takes place when they’re both physically naked as well. Half-swaggering, half-doddering into the baths at the fortress of Harrenhal, where the Boltons are treating them both better to make up for their mishandling on the road, Jaime uses his nudity to make Brienne uncomfortable, as he’s constantly tried to do with any means at his disposal. But soon, worn down by exhaustion, trauma, and the sheer heat of the water, he reveals his deepest secret to her.
“Never forget what you are,” his dwarf brother Tyrion once told Ned Stark’s bastard son, Jon Snow. “The rest of the world will not. Wear it like armor, and it can never be used to hurt you.” This had been Jaime’s attitude toward his insulting nickname, Kingslayer, given to him after he murdered the mad monarch, Aerys Targaryen, he’d sworn an oath to live and die protecting. Only now does he tell anyone the true story behind the slaying, and it’s Brienne who chooses to hear it. The Mad King, he says, had planned to burn the entire city of King’s Landing to the ground with massive underground caches of napalmlike wildfire; Jaime’s betrayal was the only thing standing between hundreds of thousands of people and the conflagration. Yet such was his ego and pride that he preferred to keep this to himself, rather than justify his actions to any outsiders, from Ned Stark on down.
The story so drains him that he collapses, requiring Brienne to physically keep him afloat. “Help,” she cries, “help! The Kingslayer!” “Jaime,” he corrects her as he loses consciousness. “My name is Jaime.” This is his true self, truer even than what his sister and lover Cersei has seen. And it’s not just a one-way street, either: Now that she knows he’s experienced such a traumatic level of isolation and pain, Brienne can be assured that he’s capable of understanding hers as well. When she acknowledges this during his departure several episodes later by pointedly saying “Goodbye, Ser Jaime,” the depths of both her newfound respect for him and his wordless gratitude for her are profound. Much transpires between them afterward—his return to rescue her from the bear pit the Boltons have dropped her into; Cersei’s confrontation of her with the knowledge that she loves the man—but it’s all gravy after this game-changing exchange. If I were to pinpoint the show’s single most moving moment, there you have it.
This made their reunion on this week’s episode such a live wire of unspoken affection and unspeakable loss, one in which every line they exchange is humming with power. Sure, they adopt their usual antagonistic odd-couple conversational rhythm to a certain extent. But when Jaime says how proud he is that she found Sansa Stark and thus fulfilled their shared oath to Catelyn, it’s clear to her and us alike that he means it. When she chastises him for saying “girls like [Sansa] don’t live long” by barking back with “I don’t think you know many girls like her,” she’s intuitively echoing his own famous self-assessment—“There are no men like me. Only me.”—in a way that gets through to him, whether or not he can admit it. When she appeals to his decency in asking for his help in ending the siege of Riverrun and aiding Sansa’s cause without further bloodshed, she knows that this decency exists and can be counted on, because she’s seen it in a way no one else has. When he refuses to take back Oathkeeper, the priceless Valyrian-steel sword with the lion-headed hilt he gave her when he sent her off to take up their shared quest, he says, “It’s yours. It will always be yours”—a symbolic representation of the best part of himself, in her possession forever. And when they acknowledge that they might wind up having to fight against each other despite everything, including their own hopes and desires, they both look horrified at the prospect. Nothing brings home the nature of war as a colossal crime against humanity the way forcing two people who are this close to kill each other would.
In the end, Brienne fails in her attempt to persuade the castle’s commander, the Blackfish, to surrender it and march north with her to Sansa’s aid. Jaime, by contrast, succeeds in forcing the ’Fish’s nephew Edmure to assume control and relinquish Riverrun, threatening the man’s infant son in the process. The result is that Brienne and Pod must flee via a secret passage to the river outside the castle walls. Alone on the ramparts at dawn, following his morally dubious triumph, Jaime spots the pair; rather than sounding the alarm, he lifts the golden hand he wears to replace the one he lost in her company and waves goodbye. She waves back, the gulf between them growing wider by the moment, a gulf they both know they’ll never be able to bridge again. The cold morning light makes his devastated face look half gargoyle, half ghost: He knows that, no matter what he says about Cersei, the woman who knows him best is sailing away from him, and a part of his soul is sailing away with her.
All of this is what makes boiling their relationship down to “You think they’re fucking?” so silly. It may be ex-prosecutor Marcia Clark, of all people, who’s best put this into perspective. She and former colleague Christopher Darden formed this year’s other great star-crossed-romance story line in FX’s stunning docudrama The People v. O.J. Simpson. Clark has spoken eloquently of their bond, marked by similar forced intimacy, breaches of trust, and mutual understanding: “Fact of the matter is, Chris Darden and I were closer than lovers. And unless you’ve been through what we went through, you can’t possibly know what that means.” I’m guessing Jaime and Brienne would have more than an inkling.
Which is not to deny the actual erotic potential of those two big, beautiful, blond-haired, brokenhearted warriors going at it. Repurposing the ideal physicality and emotional intensity of your favorite fictional characters into the stuff of sexual fantasy is an entirely righteous enterprise, or at the very least a harmless one. If your goal is to get off, by all means hop on that ship and sail off into the postorgasmic sunset. It can even provide readers or viewers, particularly those whose sexuality has been marginalized, with vital grist for imagining and thus understanding their own needs and desires. The problem with shipping arises when the entire spectrum of intimacy between adults is reduced to the romantic or the sexual. It does a relationship like Jaime and Brienne’s a tremendous disservice to flatten it into “will they or won’t they.” In the ways that matter most, they already have.