A review of tonight's "Game of Thrones" coming up just as soon as I minister to the needs of devout prostitutes...

"You've been a bystander to tragedy since the day they executed your father. Stop being a bystander, you hear me?" -Littlefinger

It's hard as hell for anyone to amass or hold power in the "Game of Thrones" universe, but it seems exponentially harder if that person was born a woman in a time and place that has so little regard for that gender. That's why it's so impressive that the series continues to have such strong — in every sense of the word — female characters, and such a varied sense of how they might learn to exert influence. If you're not lucky enough to be the Mother of Dragons, or to have the wealthiest man in the Seven Kingdoms for a father, you have to find other ways to get by.

That variety, and those great characters, are on good display throughout "High Sparrow," even though the closest we get to seeing Dany herself is a whore made up to look like her in an Essos brothel. The episode gives us one wedding (Margaery to Tommen), one marriage in the process of being arranged (Sansa finds herself once again engaged to a sadistic monster), one potential new alliance (Cersei with the High Sparrow, played by Jonathan Pryce), one "Karate Kid"-style lesson in mysterious arts disguised as housework (Arya's apprenticeship at the House of Black and White), and even an origin story (Brienne telling Pod just why she was so faithful to Renly). The action up at Castle Black is driven entirely by men, but even in Essos, when Tyrion inadvertently crosses paths with Jorah Mormont, Jorah's decision to kidnap the imp is no doubt motivated by a desire to get back in his Khaleesi's good graces.

It's an episode where the new queen is ascendant, beloved by her subjects and adored by her boy king, who's naive enough to wonder if he hurt her during their wedding night activities. This is Margaery's time, and she's not letting a second of it go to waste, turning their post-coital pillow talk into a master class of manipulation in hopes of sending her away from King's Landing. But Cersei's no dummy, and we see her continuing to scramble for position without Tywin there to back up each of her threats, trying to continue prior deals with Littlefinger and Roose Bolton while banishing the high septon to the dungeon simply because she can. Margaery is a charmer, and she appears to hold all the cards at the moment, but her mother-in-law is a survivor, and it's fun to see that she's not just folding up and moving back to Casterly Rock.

I winced at the realization that Sansa was Ramsay's intended, especially since she and Littlefinger have so little idea that he's essentially Joffrey 2: Now With More Flaying! There is the fact that Ramsay seems more interested in girls than her previous fiance, and that Sansa is older, wiser, and surrounded by people of the North who still feel loyalty to her family, but it's not the best possible situation for her to be in.

Her sister is at least safe over in Braavos, even if she has little idea what Jaqen is trying to teach her. And for all that he tries to get her to divest herself of the trappings of Arya Stark (putting Maisie Williams back in a dress for the first time since season 1), it's not surprising — and it's more than a little touching — that she can't bear to throw away Needle, which is the only thing she has left from her family.

The dead are on people's minds even more than usual this week. Arya won't part with a sword she used in lessons Ned arranged, while Stannis keeps trying to convince Jon to be less rigid than his father. Tyrion finally makes his way to a whorehouse, but is too consumed with thoughts of Shae to partake of its services. And in one of the episode's highlights, Brienne tells Podrick (now a knight-in-training!) the sad but ultimately hopeful tale of how Renly made her the belle of her own ball, rather than the laughingstock all the other boys viewed her as.

"Nothing's more hateful than failure to protect the one you love," she muses, and that's a burden that hangs over almost every major character who remains on the series.

She also expresses a desire to avenge Renly's death one day by killing Stannis, and I hope she gets that chance, even though Stannis at the moment is a more sympathetic figure as the man who's trying to rid the North of the Boltons — who were responsible for the murder of Brienne's next charge. Sympathy on this show is almost as complicated as power. When your two most hated enemies collide, can you root for anything other than mutually assured destruction?

Then again, given how often this series denies justice to the ones who deserve to take it, I imagine things are going to be much more complicated than Brienne getting a look at Stannis and Roose in the midst of the same battle, and having to choose which one to kill.

This was another sharp episode, with more character groups intersecting (Sansa and company at Winterfell, Tyrion and Jorah in Essos), alliances continuing to shift, and a promising new character in the High Sparrow, played by an actor who surprisingly hasn't been on the show until now.

Some other thoughts:

* We get yet another decapitation that evokes Ned Stark, but unlike Dany's move last week, or when Robb killed one of his allies a couple of seasons ago, Jon Snow's very public execution of Janos Slynt seems just, wise and well-received. It's the display of authority he needed to make at the start of his term as Lord High Commander, and he very shrewdly chose the useless coward Slynt as his victim, rather than a man like Alliser who still has both value to the cause and friends among the other rangers. You can see Alliser bracing himself to be assigned as latrine captain, but instead Jon gives that task to a younger man who will accept it with good humor, while he gives Alliser a position of real authority. Stannis suggests that the old adage about keeping your enemies close is a foolish one, and it may turn out that way for Jon in the end, but just watch Alliser throughout that scene, including how quickly he steps aside to let them take Slynt away; that's a man who, for now at least, has thrown in with the new boss.

* The Mountain appears closer to returning to life, based on that darkly amusing, Frankenstein-esque moment under the sheet in Qyburn's lab.

* Theon makes a point to avoid letting Sansa see what he's become, which suggests he still remembers some of what he used to be, even after all of Ramsay's brainwashing.

* Scenes set in Essos have allowed for significantly more casting diversity than the bulk of Westeros, but I'm still not sure I can recall the show featuring an actor of east Asian descent before the woman Tyrion watches preaching the gospel of the Lord of Light in the marketplace. Also, it's interesting to note that she suggests Dany's abilities to survive fire and speak to the dragons are gifts from the Lord.

* Also, when Tyrion mentions Thoros of Myr in that scene, it reminded me that we haven't seen the Brotherhood Without Banners since midway through season 3. Sooo many characters on this show. So many.

As usual (though this may be the last season in which we have to do it, as the show begins significantly deviating from and/or passing the books), all comments will be moderated to prevent book spoilers from slipping in. We are here to talk about "Game of Thrones" as a television show, not do constant comparing and contrasting of the show and the books. There are plenty of other places online to do that, and if your comment discusses the books, it won't be approved.

Also, given the leak of the season's first four episodes before the premiere, let me remind you not to comment on anything that hasn't aired yet. Thanks.

With that in mind, what did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

Alan Sepinwall has been reviewing television since the mid-'90s, first for Tony Soprano's hometown paper, The Star-Ledger, and now for HitFix. His new book, "TV (The Book)" about the 100 greatest shows of all time, is available now. He can be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com