In case you missed “The Rains of Castamere” playing over the closing credits, “The Bear and the Maiden Fair” shared an author with “Blackwater,” the extraordinary hour of television that concluded with The National’s mournful power ballad. That author happens to be George R.R. Martin, the man behind the magic — or rather, the original book series. Unfortunately, “The Bear and the Maiden Fair” is everything “Blackwater” was not: routine, uneventful, and worst of all, slowing down a season that just hit its stride after the sluggish pace of its early episodes.
Jon and Ygritte, for example, take three full scenes to repeat exactly what happened last week. Ygritte sees right through Jon, from the way he humble-brags about his castle to his stubborn loyalty to the Night’s Watch. Jon clearly loves Ygritte in the way only a recently deflowered, self-loathing heartthrob can, which makes the wildlings’ inevitable crushing defeat all the more painful. (Although given what we’ve seen of the Night’s Watch so far, I didn’t buy Jon’s conviction that their defeat was all that inevitable. What better time to invade than when the armies of the Seven Kingdoms are busy killing each other?) And to complete the love triangle, Orell is upgraded from rope cutter to unwanted suitor, spitting out truths neither star-crossed lover wants to hear. Which leaves them making out as furiously as they did on top of the Wall, albeit in a much less scenic setting.
Speaking of doomed romances, let’s talk about Robb and Talisa. As Theon’s torturer told us last week, if anyone watching this show thinks this has a happy ending, they haven’t been paying attention. Seriously, what kind of Westerosi couple has mutually fulfilling, candlelit sex? Everyone knows real kings are psychosexual sadists who shoot hookers with crossbows, not great husbands who tell their pregnant wives they love them. Even if you haven’t read the books, if this scene didn’t make you very, very nervous, Game of Thrones hasn’t been doing its job.
Luckily — and as always — the King’s Landing scenes give us the episode’s best dialogue and character work, exploring the impact of Sansa and Tyrion’s betrothal on both parties. Sansa’s latest misfortune seems to have finally burst her bubble, convincing her once and for all that the fantasies of marriage and court life she’s had all her life were lies. Why she didn’t realize this once she saw her father’s head on a spike, we’ll never know, but Margaery swoops in to give her a few tips on the birds and the bees. It’s nice to see Margaery operating without an agenda; she’s motivated here by a genuinely charitable impulse to help a lost little girl out, making her someone the audience can root for on her own terms as we watch her beat the Lannisters at their own game, and not just because she isn’t Cersei.
Tyrion, meanwhile, finds himself unable to follow Bronn’s advice to “wed one and bed the other.” Because he’s actually a good person, he doesn’t want to marry Sansa, and because Shae is a woman with a brain and a sense of dignity, she’s in no mood to sleep with him. Although we’re used to seeing Tyrion as the underdog compared to his family and his colleagues, this scene reminded us that relative to most people in Westeros, he’s in a position of unbelievable privilege, with his name acting as the world’s best insurance policy against any real Bad Things happening to him. At the end of the day, he’s the guy who’d get to drop in and out of the nice house he buys for Shae as he pleases, not the one who’d have to live in hiding.
The other high point of “The Bear and the Maiden Fair” is, unfortunately, just a brief pit stop with Daenerys. The Mother of Dragons has set her sights on a new target, but she’s also adopted a message: she’s not just a conqueror, she’s a liberator. It’s yet another indication of what a great ruler she’ll be, since she knows that no one’s going to get behind her just because she has an army. Instead, she’s bringing freedom to Slaver’s Bay, one city at a time. Her meeting with the envoy from Yunkai was also the first time she’s looked truly regal, with a giant army, a luxurious tent, and as we’re meant to notice, three rapidly growing dragons. Daenerys is finally gaining steam, and her scene was the only bit of this week’s episode that gave the show momentum, pointing us toward what’s sure to be another spectacular victory to come.
The scenes that were clearly supposed to be this week’s highlight, however, just didn’t work. Jaime and Brienne have one last (or so they think) conversation before Jaime leaves Harrenhal, and it’s too obvious a demonstration of how far they’ve come in their unlikely friendship. Jaime also promises to return the Stark girls to Catelyn, a nice moment of dramatic irony that reminds us no matter how many dragons we see, we’re still looking at a world with the informational technology of England circa 1400 — ergo, Jaime doesn’t have a clue that Arya is long gone and currently in the clutches of Sandor Clegane. Brienne’s rescue felt similarly on the nose, a reminder that Jaime has fully redeemed himself and is now a full-blown protagonist, not just a good-looking villain. I’m glad to see Brienne alive, of course, but as with the rest of the show, I’d rather watch ten scenes of character work than one action-packed fight scene, even with a bear.