By Paul Krueger
One of the best things David Benioff and D.B. Weiss did when adapting A Song of Ice and Fire was agreeing to let series author George R. R. Martin write one episode per season. His first contribution, “The Pointy End,” was a wire-tense hour that completely unraveled House Stark’s power in King’s Landing (and gave us this heartbreaker). Last year he wrote “Blackwater,” one of the most spectacular things to happen to television, ever. Benioff, Weiss, and their crew are excellent writers, but there’s a special quality to Martin’s episodes. He’s lived with the characters longer, and it shows.
I wish I could say the same of Shae. I understand she’s necessary, and her actions here are definitely motivated by her character. But the same’s true of Betty Draper and Skyler White, and that won’t change the fact that seeing them makes me feel the same way I do when I hear a fork screeching across a plate. The default view the show has of Tyrion is to put him on a pedestal of cool, but here it’s hard not to just feel sorry for the guy. Shae and Bronn know him best and Sansa just became a major part of his life, yet none of them is letting themselves see the same big picture he is.
For a show that’s started out firmly rooted in a pro-Stark mindset, this season has been the year of the lion. Tywin gets a standout scene (but really, aren’t all his scenes standouts?) where Joffrey finally meets someone he can’t just bully, and Jaime gets the great subplot that lends this episode its title. After a whole hour examining relationships between men and women, the story got a much-needed shot of adrenaline by examining the relationships between men, women, and bears. Jaime got to be a dashing knight again, while Brienne did what she always does in the face of adversity: man the fuck up. Brienne is a foil to the delicate ladies around her, and here she shows another facet of that by accepting certain death with the kind of stoicism that’d be expected from a man like Jaime. Most male-female relationships on this show highlight the differences between both sides; this one emphasizes the similarities. Hurray progressive gender politics!
Ygritte and Osha, women from a culture that only values strength, could probably relate. Ygritte spends this episode showing off her tough side, while Osha surprises by revealing her heart. Osha could almost be Ygritte further down the line, really; Ygritte’s loyalty lies not with her king, but with her man, and Osha was the same way until the White Walkers took him from her. It’s a great insight into wildling culture. The power of a king is to be respected, but that will always have a degree of distance to it. The men in your life are much more present, and their strength more immediate. Of particular note in Osha’s scene: the Gurm has said Natalie Tena is the only actor in the cast who’s fundamentally changed his ideas about a character, so it was interesting to see his take on TV!Osha.
If the show’s women are on a spectrum with Margaery and Sansa at one end and Brienne and the wildlings on the other, Daenerys sits comfortably between them both. She has the courtly graces a queen should have, but her travels have put steel in her spine that Ygritte would respect. This, too, is about a man and a woman, specifically how a man copes when dealing with a woman more powerful than he. The answer: not well. The Yunkish delegation is patronizing, showing off its economic power and boasting of its military when that fails. All that chest-beating means nothing, though, in the face of three hungry dragons. The offer of ships to Westeros is a nice meta nod to the audience’s wants. At this point, everyone inside and outside of the show just wants her to sail across the sea already, but she refuses. It’s tempting, and it’d certainly be fun to watch, but this is something she has to do first.
And finally: his Royal Hotness, Robb. His scene with Talisa doesn’t have quite the same fiery alchemy to it that Jon and Ygritte’s do, but the two actors do their best to make their underserved romance believable. With all the other moving pieces this season, their relationship got lost in the face of Robb’s larger troubles, which hurts the dramatic weight of their marriage (especially since we still know little of Talisa). In a society so concerned with bloodlines, though, their plot is the most important man-woman relationship of all: weddings, and the children bound to follow.
- “The Bear and the Maiden Fair” was first referenced in episode three of this season, sung again by Bolton’s men. Originally, this episode was called “Chains.”
- Theon’s subplot is thematically appropriate, too, but that doesn’t make it any more pleasant to watch. Or think about, ever.
- Ramin Djawadi is the show’s music supervisor, and one of its unsung heroes. Tonight I was so struck by his beautiful orchestration of “The Rains of Castamere” at the end that I watched all the credits just so I could listen.
- Gendry finally gets to learn he’s Robert’s bastard son, courtesy of Melisandre. Both characters tend to stay confined to their specific character groups in the books. Giving them extra room to breathe has benefited them greatly.
- Arya runs straight from the jaws of one outlaw into those of another, cementing House Stark’s place as the Bad Luck Brian of Westeros.