This Game Of Thrones post is for people who have read at least the first three books in the book series. It is written from the point-of-view of someone who has read those books and for the benefit of fans of the books. All discussion points are valid, up to and including the events of the fifth book. However, we would ask that you clearly mark spoilers from the fourth and fifth books. The review itself will be non-spoilery, and talk of how events here portend future events will be clearly marked with a spoiler warning in the section following Stray Observations. If you would still like to read the review but haven’t read the book, thus, you can, but you should proceed with caution after the spoiler warning and in comments. Those of you who haven’t read the books can also check out our reviews for newbies.
“The Bear And The Maiden Fair”—the song of the Seven Kingdoms, not the episode—is all about how you never get what you’re expecting. In it, a “maiden fair” is in need of rescue, but when somebody comes along to save her, it’s not the knight she was hoping for but, rather, a big, hairy bear. The song is popular in the Seven Kingdoms because it’s so comical (and because it’s performed by The Hold Steady, number one band in all of Westeros), but also because it subtly reflects the circumstances in which these people live. A character like Sansa Stark might legitimately believe she is the fair blushing maiden, ready to be saved by her one, true knight. But people aren’t like that. Virtue, beauty, and truth are in short supply when you have to scrabble just to stay alive, and you’re far more likely to find a bear than a knight in shining armor or even a maiden fair. Better to hope the bear you find is unexpectedly kind and leave it at that.
“The Bear And The Maiden Fair”—the TV episode—is a somewhat disjointed hour, full of characters moving into place for what’s next and lots of check-ups on the romantic status of our many, many couples and potential couples. Though not filled with fireworks (other than a super sweet bear fight), it nonetheless accomplishes what it sets out to do and gets the majority of the throat clearing out of the way for the season’s final three episodes. It’s written by George R.R. Martin, who often seems to relish the opportunity to leave behind his books and write alternate versions of their characters. (In particular, a scene between Robb and Talisa seems to play around with a popular fan theory about the books and make it text in the series, which is an interesting choice.) It’s directed by all-around AMC superstar Michelle MacLaren, Emmy nominated for her work on Breaking Bad and showing an able hand with the more expansive and sprawling world of Game Of Thrones. She’ll be back again next week, and it’ll be fun to see what she does with something more propulsive.
This episode, however, is largely an excuse to see where our many couples are at in their relationships. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course—a “checking in” episode like this is a good idea before the final plunge—but it doesn’t play to MacLaren’s strengths with breakneck pacing and forward momentum. Maybe that’s why the bear fight plays as so much more visceral than it normally would, what with all the obvious VFX cheats and stunt work in the midst of it: MacLaren is cutting loose, and she makes the most of every inch of real estate between Jaime Lannister and that angry grizzly as Brienne drags the former out of the pit he jumped into to save her from said bear. Jaime’s journey this season has been from a sort of devil may care rapscallion to a man who reveals his true sense of honor, and it’s been fascinating to watch him ruminate both on the woman who set him free and the woman who swore to deliver him to King’s Landing. Being around them seems to have made him a better person, and when he chooses to go back to Harrenhal to rescue Brienne, it feels like a major pivot moment for his character, from self-serving to something closer to that knight in shining armor.
If there’s a pairing Martin seems to favor most of all, it’s Jon Snow and Ygritte, whom his script returns to three times (almost unheard of on this show, where it’s far more common to check in with a character once, then be on our way). I believe I said a couple of weeks back that I’m enjoying Jon and Ygritte more in the series than in the books, and Martin seems to relish the extra time he gets to spend with them, playing off of Ygritte’s surprise at seeing a windmill (which she initially mistakes for a palace) and Jon’s warning to her that the Wildlings can only lose if they try to take down Castle Black, because six Wildling kings before Mance have tried, and six Wildling kings have failed. Yeah, you can find some version of the basic beats of this entire romance in the books, but there’s something more visceral about seeing Kit Harington say these things to Rose Leslie and her spit them back in his face.
Then again, most romance is better served by television or movies than by the page. Don’t get me wrong. There are some great literary romances (though I don’t think I’d classify any in these books as such—maybe Cat and Ned, who got shorter shrift in the show), but there’s something so visceral about love and lust and sex that is carried by a pair of great actors with great chemistry. Harington has never been my favorite among this cast, but he and Leslie have something electric between them, and it’s not hard to see why Martin and MacLaren keep coming back to them. They’re like the story of relationships on this show in a nutshell: There’s a brief moment of happiness and connection, and then both parties realize just how doomed the whole enterprise is.
The other “couple” we spend the most time with—though we never once see them together (and haven’t since Tyrion so tenderly proposed marriage, presumably by saying his dad was making him do it)—is Sansa and Tyrion, and the whole thing is just filled with the sort of angst that befits a Sansa storyline. Sansa doesn’t want to marry Tyrion, and when Margaery drills down to the heart of it, it all comes down to the fact that he’s a dwarf. Margaery—whom one senses could talk herself into loving that bear if it improved her political situation—tells Sansa that Tyrion knows his way around a woman’s body, but it’s still not quite enough. For his part, Tyrion doesn’t want to marry Sansa for a whole host of good reasons (like her being a teenager), but the main one is that he doesn’t want to hurt Shae. Shae’s a bigger figure in the series than she was in the books—a necessary offshoot of casting an actor in the part—so this has much more pain to it. Tyrion’s solution is a good one from his perspective, but a shitty one from Shae’s perspective, and I thought the episode did a good job of explaining just why the Lannister name means so much to Tyrion, even though he’s well aware how corrupt and messed up his family is: Without it, he’s nothing, just a juggler performing in a comedy troupe across the Narrow Sea.
There’s a kind of sweet tragedy in that storyline that’s severely lacking in the Theon Greyjoy gets tortured storyline, which gets bumped to the main review, because Jesus Christ. Here’s the thing: I’m used to storylines moving a bit slowly on this show, then proceeding forward all at once in a jolt of activity. (This season, only Dany’s storyline really seems to be rocketing along, but we don’t mind because everybody else is packed with incident and good acting.) What the show figured out early in season one was that it could keep doing these scenes in which the characters were mired in basically the same plot situation so long as it kept expanding the emotional playing field they existed on. Yet the Theon storyline keeps hitting the same emotional beats over and over again. Theon’s torturer comes up with a new and even more diabolical way to torture Theon, then he does it. (This week, he would seem to cut off Theon’s testicles and penis, but the camera blurred out before we could see it.) We get it, show: The world is nasty and brutish and harsh, and not even a turncoat like Theon Greyjoy deserves what he gets. The after-effects of this, as portrayed in the books (and I’m not spoiling anything, I promise), are fairly interesting, but there’s a reason Martin summarized or elided much of this on the page: Endless torture sequences don’t make for terribly exciting fiction, and that’s more or less bearing out here.
I suppose you could argue that everybody on this show is being tortured all of the time and exquisitely slowly. That’s probably true, so far as it goes, but they at least have the illusion of agency. Jaime, for instance, has been a prisoner of various parties since the midpoint of season one, but he’s always working on an escape or dealing with a new emotional trauma or hatching some crazy scheme to go back to Harrenhal and rescue Brienne from a bear. He lost his hand, and we’ve gotten far more emotional resonance out of that than we have basically anything in the Theon story arc because that’s been an unrelenting series of catastrophes, cascading over the character from the word go. The horrible things that happen to Jaime force him into a position where he’s a marginally better man. The horrible things that happen to Theon basically just make him even weaker and more sniveling. The bit where he admitted that Bran and Rickon were still alive was important, but I’m not sure anything else that’s happened to him has been.
Fortunately, the show’s writers seem to realize this as well, leaving this storyline to, at most, one scene per episode. But that gives him roughly the same weight as Robb, who’s equally trapped (though by circumstance, rather than being physically trapped) but is in a much more interesting situation because of it. Every choice that anyone on Robb’s side has made since roughly the last part of last season has boxed him in more and more. He’s relying on the hatred of the Lannisters to carry the day with people like the Freys or Boltons, but as Locke says to Jaime at Harrenhal, at a certain point, he’s just happy to see any highborn person suffer, because it visits just a tiny amount of the suffering of the lower-born upon the highborn for a moment or two. And as Qybin tells Jaime, most of the men who rally to the side of their lords don’t have the stomach for long war, particularly when they’ll be dead by winter. It’s all fun and pageantry—with your banners and drummers—for a little while, but it eventually becomes a bout with existential terror.
So Robb is pretty much screwed, but unlike Theon, he’s doing something about it. He’s wedded off his uncle to one of Walder Frey’s girls, and he’s going to make a desperate gamble to get some more men and take down Casterly Rock. Plus, he’s got more to fight for now, since Talisa carries the true heir to Winterfell in her womb (particularly if it’s a boy), and that, paradoxically, frees him up just a bit. So long as Talisa stays alive and gives birth to her child, Robb can die, since the line of succession will no longer proceed through Sansa (remember: Robb isn’t sure Bran’s alive, though he also doesn’t know Sansa is to be wed to Tyrion). The baby isn’t just a happy event for its parents; it’s a vital piece of Robb keeping the North united and called to his banner. Plus, would somebody kill an unarmed pregnant woman? (Signs from history point to yes.)
Though this episode is jam-packed with the show’s great duos, that doesn’t mean we don’t get to spend a little time with some of our favorite loners as well, particularly Arya and Dany. For her part, Arya finds a break in the action from the Brotherhood, headed south to vanquish a Lannister raiding party, and runs out into the night, into the arms of the Hound. Where it’s far easier to see Sansa’s stubborn refusal to notice that life isn’t a fairy tale, there’s a good bit of that woven into the fabric of her sister as well. Arya keeps expecting the world to play by the rules of battle, by the code of honor she’s had drilled into her from a young age, but the world doesn’t give a shit about that. The more she realizes this, the more bitter she becomes. Is it any wonder she names her god as Death? (And you can totally do that in Westeros, Arya. There’s a whole thing about it.)
Finally, we have Dany, who’s doing her level best to free all the slaves, becoming a sort of Abraham Lincoln with dragons. (Hey, Spielberg: Free movie idea!) Emilia Clarke is really showing the steel that made her one of my favorites in season one, after a disappointing season two that seemed to mire her in pointless bullshit. (This was all by design, but it didn’t make it any more entertaining to see it happen.) What I love about how Dany is playing this is that her negotiations are aimed as much at the slaves attending the slavers as they are at the slavers themselves. She’s the one who’s figured out how to work the system to her advantage, and the slavers don’t seem to have any clue what kind of game she’s playing. It’s in this scene that MacLaren does her best work, always making sure that one of those bowing slaves is in the shot (or even the focus of the shot) as Dany and the Yunkai rich dude talk. She’s talking to him, but she’s also talking to everybody in the room; conditioned not to even see everybody in the room, he simply can’t realize what game she’s truly playing.
It’s all about opening your eyes to the reality of the situation, making sure that you understand all the pieces that are in play and then making your move. The game of thrones is not for the short-sighted or rash; it’s for people who are able to realize that when a bear comes along to rescue you from danger, you’d better hop on the bear, rather than waiting for your ideal scenario. Unfortunately, too few people in the Seven Kingdoms realize this is the case, and they’re doomed to be trapped up in their tall towers—or their windmills—waiting for that perfect knight who will never come. The reality is misery and piss and shit, and sometimes, you’ve just gotta grab hold of the fur and ride for dear life.
- Probably my other favorite scene this week after the Dany one (okay, and the bear fight) is Tywin being called down to meet with his grandson and deigning to appear. Joffrey increasingly realizes that he’s outmatched, and MacLaren calls attention to this almost comically, having Tywin loom so much over his seated grandson that we can’t help but notice how he dominates the frame.
- We get another quick check-in with Bran, who really gets the short shrift of things this season, doesn’t he? Anyway, because his little company is taking its sweet time getting to Castle Black and/or beyond the Wall (opinions are split on these matters), we get some nice moments with Osha explaining why she left behind the far north. Basically, her partner got himself killed and came back as a wight. She had to set fire to their hut to kill him. (This is the story of how my marriage will end.)
- Adaptation choice I like: Shit yeah, let’s make Talisa pregnant. That ups the stakes for Robb considerably, instead of just sort of hemming and hawing around how the character Talisa corresponds to in the books might be pregnant. Also, the books take place in a condensed timeframe compared to the series, so it would seem ridiculous to have the other Stark kids maturing into adulthood while Talisa’s baby progresses so slowly. (Also also, if you think I’ve just spoiled you as to book or series, I have done my level best to not do so. Trust me. The situation in the books is so different that to explain it would take another 500 words.)
- Adaptation choice I like less: Well, we already talked about Theon, and that sort of dominated my thoughts in this regard this week. I get why Qyburn’s becoming a more major figure, but I’m less enthused about it than I think the series wants me to be. But this is much more of a “wait and see” disappointment than the Theon thing, which I think the series has outright botched.
- It doesn’t always come off the page in the books, but Martin has a real ear for dialogue, and it’s particularly evident in the Jon/Ygritte scenes in this episode. I’d love if he could write more than one episode per season, but then we’d never get a new book.
- I enjoyed Jaime returning to Harrenhal and expressing his disbelief at Brienne being given a wooden sword to fight the bear. Locke looks over and is basically just, “Oh. You again.”
- Is Theon’s penis really that storied? I certainly hadn’t heard about it.
Here be spoilers!:
- I like that the show is talking about the three-eyed crow as an actual person and figure. For some reason, I kept thinking in the books that Bran was going to talk to a crow, and that would have just been stupid. (Also, I really like the three-eyed crow. Shut up.)
- To a book reader, this episode laid on the foreshadowing about Ygritte and Robb’s eventual deaths a little thickly, but having read David’s review, he doesn’t seem to have really cottoned on to either one, so.
- Okay, what, what, what is going on with Melisandre and Gendry? They’re not seriously going to wander into King’s Landing, are they? I assumed she was taking him back to Dragonstone for the leeching that’s done to one of Robert’s other bastards in the books, but now they’re just floating on by King’s Landing? Hm. Maybe that was just a scene dropped in to check on those two, and I shouldn’t think about it too much. (Too late.)