“The Bear And The Maiden Fair,” the seventh episode of Season Three of HBO’s “Game Of Thrones” was not the best episode in the show’s history. That’s the bad news. The good news is that even the most uneven of episodes is still better than the vast majority of other stories out there, and there were still some terrific moments to be mined from this week’s entry. This was a week when themes of love and loyalty ran strong through each story line, and we learned which bonds are growing stronger, just as we learned that some are fraying, if not outright breaking.
We began in the North, with Jon Snow and the Wildlings. The romance between Ygritte and Jon has not been the show’s finest work, and while they both turn in decent enough performances this week — Rose Leslie in particular, it’s not until their final moments in the episode that there’s any real resonance. The show made curious and somewhat frustrating use of Orell — the warg who is bonded with an eagle has the potential for a far more interesting character than that of a jealous suitor. That said, Mackenzie Crook’s performance was solid and his cynical wisdom — despite being the result of his attempt to poison their relationship — still has a sour, unnerving taste of truth. Ultimately, however, Ygritte’s playful mocking felt out-of-place, which is surprising given that it actually works quite well in the novels. I haven’t been able to quite pin down what it is, but it feels like the chemistry that was so exciting when we first met Ygritte has never quite been matched. That said, the scenes between Jon and Ygritte are salvaged at the end, when Jon desperately tells her of the six devastating failures of the prior kings-beyond-the-wall, leading to a predictable, yet still effective “you” versus “we” moment. Where this will take us — whether Ygritte’s love can overpower Jon’s loyalty — is where the real story is, and where it takes us remains to be seen.
That sense of anxiousness clouding over labors of love surrounded Robb Stark as well. There continues to be a quiet yet fierce feeling of desperation among Robb and his party — it seems common knowledge to them that the marriage with the Freys may well be his only remaining play. In spite of that, the interactions between Robb and Talisa continue to have a strange air of mystery to them. Unlike that of Ygritte and Jon, theirs has had the luxury of time to create a genuine sense of love and trust, and it’s working in their favor, despite how uncertain the future of Robb’s forces seem. With the softly spoken announcement of Talisa’s pregnancy, their story takes on an oddly tender — though nerve-wracking — new twist that will likely bring new complications to an already complex situation. I confess, I’m very much looking forward to Catelyn’s reaction.
Meanwhile, in King’s Landing, the twists are coming faster than we can keep up with. The only downside to the many scenes in King’s Landing was that they felt rushed, as if too much was being shoehorned in, and as a result we had a series of not-quite-fully developed scenes. Sure, the little stroll with Sansa and Margaery Tyrell was saucily charming, yet it also felt a bit too glib. I can’t help but feel that Sansa’s reaction — with all due respect to Tyrion — would be one of abject revulsion and despair, not just because of his physicality, but because it represents her life yet again being manipulated by the Lannisters. And while it was moderately fun to witness the juxtaposition of the cleverness of Margaery with the naivete of Sansa, the entire moment seemed to lack any real emotional weight, which frankly felt like a disservice to Sansa’s character.
There were an entirely different set of issues with the scenes between Tyrion and Shae. Shae’s character has worked only sporadically throughout the show, and that’s in no way due to Sibel Kekilli, who appears to be doing her best with her material. No, the larger issue is that the writers can’t quite figure out what they want her to be — devoted lover, shrewish whiner, streetwise schemer — there’s no real consistency to the character. What we end up with are clumsy and awkward scenes like the one this week, where she reverted to whining and flouncing, and removed any real sense of frustration or tragedy from the moment. In fact, the preceding scene with Tyrion and Bronn — replete with Bronn’s wicked shrewdness and blunt, real-world understanding — did a far more capable job of demonstrating Tyrion’s growing angst over the situation.
Of course, the finest moment in King’s Landing took place before in the throne room, in yet another blistering scene featuring Charles Dance’s Tywin Lannister. It wasn’t really something that I’d bothered to notice before, but it is unusual that there has been next to no interaction between Tywin and the despicable Joffrey. That was gloriously resolved this week, as we witnessed Joffrey trying to exert himself over Tywin. It was a terrific interaction, featuring outstanding performances by both players — say what you will about Jack Gleason’s Joffrey, but any time you can get every single viewer to loathe a character so much, it’s a sign that the actor is absolutely killing it. Joffrey’s paltry attempt to bring his uncle to bear was amusing, but not nearly as much as the ease with which Tywin outmaneuvered him. With but a few words and a deliberate, ominous few steps upwards, there was no question as to where the true power lies in King’s Landing. I’m actually hoping that we’ll see more of this conflict, as it’s one that has great potential for the already tangled politics of the city.
As enjoyable as that was, this week’s best moment came in the faraway city of Yunkai. There has been remarkable growth in Danaerys’s character over the course of these three seasons, and this week showed yet another high mark for both the writing and for Emilia Clarke’s acting. The new Danaerys is so spectacularly and wondrously different from the innocent young girl of Season One that it’s almost jarring. Dany’s newfound campaign against the plague of slavery that runs through the cities of the aptly named Slaver’s Bay has brought all-new determination and depth to her character, and if anything has given her the opportunity to expand her personality. It was helped by some truly excellent cinematography — the sprawling, dusty expanse spattered with the determined and disciplined ranks of Unsullied provided a great backdrop. The ominous march of one of Yunkai’s Wise Masters through the ranks of the Unsullied was a silently tense affair, and the subsequent meeting with Daenerys was deeply satisfying. Between the frenzied hunger of the dragons and the cool, direct manner with which she carried herself, the entire scene was wrought with tension and a regal fierceness. This was one of those moments where that girl from Season One was completely gone, and a true Queen took her place. Danaerys’s attitude, ranging from insouciant to intimidating, was unblinking, unflinching, and absolutely enthralling.
Yet despite those solid moments, there were entirely too many others that felt crammed into the episode. Melisandre’s revelation Gendry about his birthright was an unfortunate and poorly constructed scene. While the setting of the carnage of Blackwater Bay made for intriguing set design, the revelation itself seemed so… small. A momentous reveal like that feels like it deserved more. Similarly, Arya’s escape from the Brotherhood Without Banners, while it seemed inevitable, was entirely too hasty an affair. While her brief exchange with Beric did a fine job of demonstrating her tragic, impotent anger, the rest of it seemed to happen without any real punch, especially considering who she ends up running into (although, I’m glad to see The Hound returning so soon). And as for Bran and his unusual little band of travelers — Osha’s story was compelling enough in theory, but it felt at odds with the whole scene, with the whole mission of that group. The conflict between her and the Reeds simply hasn’t developed properly, and thus her undead husband speech felt like it just came out of nowhere.
If there was a scene that left me the most conflicted, however, it was Theon’s. On the one hand, excuse me but holy shit. It was a disturbing and horrifying scene. You knew — just knew — from the moment the two women entered the room, that trouble was afoot, and so when the mystery torturer arrived, it was barely a shock. Yet what was a shock was where they went from there, into a whole new realm of pain for Theon. Yet on the other hand… the entire exercise felt almost too gratuitous. Between the nudity, the unpleasant sexually charged ministrations, and then the final darkening as the men close in on Theon, it finally felt like too much. The initial scenes with Theon and the stranger were compelling because they were unpredictable, and that unpredictability ratcheted up the terror. That feels absent now, and instead it seems like they’re simply trying to find new ways to shock viewers, while the story itself actually stalls out.
Among all of these increasingly complicated and fascinating relationships, the one that continues to be the most compelling is that between Jaime Lannister and Brienne of Tarth, due in no small part to the fact that both actors — Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Gwendolyn Christie, are just tearing into their roles. They’ve both been perfect in their depictions, and they continue to nail it each week. This week, in their meeting in Brienne’s chambers prior to his departure, the tension and pain and sheer emotional discomfort between the two was almost tangible. Both of them are such strong personalities, and both of them conveyed a wealth of emotion and nuance through a heady combination of tone and looks. Brienne’s almost surreal courage in the face of Jaime’s news about her fate caused me to choke up a bit — she never flinches, and never forgets her oath (and, notably, now calls him Jaime with such gripping meaningfulness). And Jaime, upon later realizing that he has damned her through his own cleverness, throws all caution to the wind, commandeering his escort and returning to the dreary ruins of Harrenhall. I will confess that I did not find the struggle in the bear pit to be particularly engrossing — it played out much more dramatically in the novel, to be honest — but the aftermath made the entire exercise worthwhile. After a harrowing and bloody escape, Jaime walks away with a final barb that he jabs into Locke that is just… perfect Jaime.
“The Bear And The Maiden Fair” was probably one of the weakest episodes of “Game Of Thrones,” a classic example of trying to do too much. This week’s episode was, surprisingly, written by George R. R. Martin himself, and so you have him to blame for trying to cram three hours of storytelling into a single hour of television. Yet it was hardly a total loss, as there was still so much to see and enjoy — even if sometimes that joy was profoundly uncomfortable. We got to see the bonds between almost all of our favorite characters be tested this week. Some survived, some even grew stronger. What comes in the days ahead will test them even further, and hopefully provide some truly compelling stories.