A review of tonight's "Game of Thrones" coming up just as soon as I marry for a bridge...

"I asked him, 'How can a man be brave if he's afraid?' That was the only time a man can be brave, he told me." -Robb

In one of the more satisfying scenes in "The Prince of Winterfell," Tyrion and Varys stand together on a high wall on the perimeter of King's Landing and discuss their shared love of the game that gives this series its title. Tyrion didn't expect to enjoy it, much less be good at it, but it's filled him with a sense of purpose he never had in his earlier days as a wandering raconteur.

Varys has learned to view the politics of Westeros as a game, but the series itself often feels structured as one, where the goal of each episode is as much about moving the pieces from place to place as it is about servicing the characters. In the show's best outings last year and this one, it managed to do both at once, but there have definitely been times in season 2 — and particularly during a late-season entry like this one — where it feels like the game has taken precedence over the people playing it.

Or maybe it's that the game is being played so slowly and carefully this year, and also that it involves so many players. By bouncing from region to region, character to character, season 2 often creates the illusion of forward movement that isn't really there. We've spent a fair amount of time with Jon Snow and Ygritte over the past three weeks, but even though the power has passed from one of them to the other over that time, it still feels like they've been wandering around that glacier for far longer than they have. We jump in on them, or on other characters, and hear them engage in variations on the same discussion, over and over. When it's a good combination of characters — say, Arya and Tywin, or Tyrion and anybody they put Tyrion with — the repetition doesn't matter, but even the good moments (of which this episode had several) can't stop me from feeling like we've spent eight hours putting everyone in position for when the next phase of the story will actually start.

And where the season's early episodes managed to balance the different sets of characters nicely, I fear Benioff and Weiss have started to lose a handle on things. Stannis, it seems, is one of the most important players in this season's game, but his appearances tend to be both brief and intermittent. (I was startled to look it up and realize he had only been absent from the last two episodes; it felt like he was off-screen nearly as long as Jaime was before last week.) The scene where Stannis reminds Davos of the horrors he endured while defending Storm's End on Robert's orders, only to have the place given to Renly, did a better job of drawing in who the would-be king is (and who his Hand-in-waiting is) than his previous appearances combined, but it's also fairly late in the game for a man who's been driving so much of the action, often from a place far off-screen.

"The Prince of Winterfell" also suffered by trying to play the identity of the charred corpses as a surprise to be sprung on the audience in the final seconds. I know some of you assumed last week that Theon had killed Bran and Rickon, but to me (as someone who hasn't read the books and has no idea how long either of the Stark boys survives) it seemed so obvious that his victims were the two orphans discussed in an earlier scene that the possibility of it being Bran and Rickon only occurred to me after discussing it with a friend who had seen it and at least considered the possibility. If you went in believing Theon's ruse, then the final scenes may have played as both a shock and a relief; if you didn't, it was yet another reason to feel impatient with the storytelling of late.

And yet, again, there were moments that, even in their repetition of earlier information, did such a good job of bringing the characters to life. Cersei's confrontation with Tyrion was fantastic, not only because the revelation that she had picked the wrong whore(*) was a surprise — both delightful (because Cersei had been caught in a bluff she didn't even know she was making) and horrifying (because Ros is being tortured for something she didn't do, and because Tyrion is person enough to feel bad about this) — in a way the Bran one was not, but because Peter Dinklage is just so superb in this role. The range of emotions he had to play as he realized the threat Cersei was making — and then what he had to mask once he saw that it was Ros, not Shae, in chains — was among the best moments he's had so far on the show. 

(*) Can someone remind me when Ros would have gotten a Lannister lion pendant from Tyrion? Back when he partook of her services in Winterfell early in season 1? Or was it during some interaction I've forgotten this season?

I also quite enjoyed, even though the development had been telegraphed for weeks and weeks, Robb finally giving into his feelings for Talisa. People on this show are forever telling stories, and at times the sheer weight of the exposition (even when it's presented as sexposition) can become overwhelming. But Talisa's story about how she went from noblewoman to nurse, like Stannis' tale of Storm's End, did an excellent job of filling in a character who's largely existed on the periphery to this point, and also of giving us a better sense of the larger universe that exists outside this clash of kings.

And Robb and Talisa's earlier conversation about Ned helped set up this week's theme of fear dictating one's actions. Yara fears for her brother, but isn't afraid of him, while Theon seems on a suicidal course to hold Winterfell at all costs out of fear of seeming weak to his father and the other Iron Islanders. Tywin thinks that Robb is too young to know fear, where Robb tells Talisa what Ned taught him about being afraid. Catelyn makes the very foolish decision to let Jaime go because she's afraid she could lose all but one of her children. Jorah is afraid of staying in Qarth, but yields to Dany's obsession with reclaiming her dragons. And though Jaqen doesn't exactly fear death, he doesn't seem to look forward to it, either, and becomes trapped by Arya's cleverness into helping her, Gendry and their heavyset friend walk right out of the gates of Harrenhal.

Two episodes to go this season. The ninth and tenth episodes of season 1 are where the series really seemed to take the leap from good to great. It's entirely possible that the events coming up in the next two weeks — and the ways that Benioff and Weiss have chosen to depict them — will make much of this piece-moving seem worth it, in the same way that certain "slow" episodes of "The Wire" would always prove to be essential in hindsight.

Some other thoughts:


* "Midnight Run" is my favorite movie, and the thought of any sequel or remake has been a sacrilege up until now, when I watched this episode and thought that I would absolutely watch a buddy road movie about Brienne of Tarth (in the DeNiro role) and Jaime Lannister (in the Grodin role) traveling cross-country, getting on each other's nerves, and slowly developing a grudging respect for each other, until Brienne lets Jaime go rather than turn him into Robb's forces. "See ya in the next life, Brienne," Jaime would say, and there would be moist eyeballs in the Sepinwall household. For that matter, just make it a between-seasons spin-off, people. Come on. I want to see the Jaime Lannister version of the Litmus Configuration. In the meantime, if anyone wants to start the relevant Tumblr mash-up, be my guest.

* Love that even Tyrion can't pronounce all of George R.R. Martin's ridiculous names properly. (And of course Varys can.)

* Wondering what kind of message those obsidian spearheads are meant to convey to Sam and the other Night's Watchmen who found them. Also, I take it that Halfhand's plan is to get Jon to kill him so he can more convincingly go undercover inside Mance Rayder's army.

* Another good acting moment: Iain Glen as Jorah telling Dany that he won't forget the image of her emerging unharmed from the fire "until I have forgotten my mother's face," and then being overcome with emotion when she touches his face to get him to take her to Warlock Dean Pelton's fortress.

* Due to the Memorial Day holiday next week, my guess is that my review of episode 9 will not be done until Monday night at the earliest, and more likely sometime on Tuesday. Sorry, but my life and the availability of screeners do not always perfectly coincide.

Finally, we're going to keep the book/spoiler issue as simple as possible. We are here to discuss "Game of Thrones" AS A TV SHOW, NOT AS AN ENDLESS SERIES OF COMPARISONS TO THE BOOKS. Therefore, here's the only rule you should remember: if your comment contains the phrase "the books" without it being immediately preceded by "I haven't read," then you should probably delete what you've written and start over. Anything even vaguely questionable will be deleted, and if you see something that I haven't already removed, please feel free to email me. As usual, I've set up a message board discussion thread where you can do as much TV vs. books discussion as you want. In these comments, everything book-related that has yet to come up on the TV show (plot, characters we haven't met, motivation, etc.) is verboten.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com