Review: 'Game of Thrones' - 'The Bear and the Maiden Fair': Come blow your horn
A review of tonight's "Game of Thrones" coming up just as soon as I'm impressed by a windmill...
"People work together when it suits 'em. They're loyal when it suits 'em. Love each other when it suits 'em. And they kill each other when it suits 'em." -Orell
After the big events of the last few weeks (Dany ravaging Astapor, the wildings climbing the Wall), "The Bear and the Maiden Fair" is much more of a piece-mover episode, getting characters from Point A to Point B either on the map (the wildlings marching towards Castle Black, Melisandre and Gendry sailing back towards Dragonstone) or on their emotional journey (Sansa and Tyrion both struggling to make peace with their impending nuptials). It's one of the more thorough of its kind, touching on early every plot this season has set in motion. And because it's directed by Michelle MacLaren — bringing over the same eye she applies so brilliantly to "Breaking Bad" — and written by George R.R. Martin himself, it's about as good (and good-looking) a piece-mover episode as you're going to see.
Let's start with the visuals. "Game of Thrones" has employed a lot of terrific directors (Tim Van Patten, Alan Taylor and Neil Marshall, to name just three), so MacLaren's gorgeous work on this one wasn't an anomaly. And some of the episode's best compositions — say, the overhead shot of Melisandre's ship sailing over the ruins of Stannis' fleet in Blackwater Bay — owed as much to the visual effects department as they did to the work of MacLaren and the director of photography. But like the concluding sequence of last week's episode, I appreciated how often "The Bear and the Maiden Fair" let the pictures tell the story.
Take Tywin's visit to the Joffrey in the Iron Throne room. Opening with the very long walk Tywin has to take simply to get from one end of the room to the other underlines the point he'll make later about the time that would be wasted holding Small Council meetings in their traditional location. And the shots of Tywin standing at the base of the steps to the Throne, followed by Tywin looming over his grandson — who at this point still fearfully takes orders from the old man in a way he doesn't from anyone else — neatly told the story of what the power balance in this relationship should be by law, and then what it is in reality.
Or look at Dany meeting with the representative of Yunkai. This is both a transitional story — Dany deciding that eradicating the evils of slavery is worth delaying her trip across the Narrow Sea — and a transitional episode for that story. Yet the pictures — particularly that gorgeous (and VFK-enhanced) image of Dany lounging confidently on her royal sofa, surrounded by her dragons — told so much about the station in life Dany has risen to in only a few episodes, and how comfortable she is demonstrating her new power. (And the inverse shots of the Yunaki ambassador flanked by both his slaves and the Unsullied neatly told the story of that city's entire economy and the threat Dany's army poses to it.)
Also, given that MacLaren was behind the camera for one of the great action scenes in TV history, I can think of few cable directors I'd rather have shooting a fight scene involving an under-armed Brienne of Tarth, a one-handed Jaime Lannister and DID I MENTION THE GIANT FREAKING BEAR?!?!? That was gorgeously staged and executed, and also moved the story of those two along. Brienne had given Jaime a pass on saving her life, insisting his debt to her would be paid if he secured the Stark girls' freedom, but Jaime not only insists on going back for her(*), but leaps right into the pit, knowing that endangering his own life will force Bolton's men to save Brienne's in the process.
(*) Jaime is primarily doing this out of loyalty to Brienne after their time together, but is he also thinking that it's doubtful his father would ever let Sansa and Arya (whom he believes is still a hostage) go free?
Jaime's selfless act goes against the lecture the warg gives Jon Snow early in the episode about the selfishness of all human relationships, and "The Bear and the Maiden Fair" spent a lot of time addressing exactly what ties each character pairing together.
Beyond Jaime and Brienne — who'd be topping my hypothetical "Game of Thrones" Couple Power Rankings for the season, ahead of Olenna/Tywin, Tyrion/Bronn and others, and waaaaaaaaaaay ahead of Theon/Mystery Torturer — the strongest couple material involved Jon Snow and Ygritte, as he got to watch her be dazzled by the most mundane aspects of Westeros, while she in turn realizes that he still views her people as "you" rather than "us." (Though the warg's line about how Ygritte won't love him "when you find out what he really is" suggests things are more complicated than that; it's been hinted at in the past that Jon's mother isn't who Ned claimed she was.) Though Kit Harington may never be the most dynamic actor in the cast, this is definitely a pairing that's gotten much more interesting as they've gotten closer to their destination (and already passed a major checkpoint by getting over the Wall).
I hope the same can be eventually be said about both Bran and friends and Theon and his torturer, but for now I'll be fine just waiting for the former group to get into wildling country. And I have no need to witness more of The Passion of the Greyjoy, regardless of who the nameless man is or what his agenda is.
On the other hand, Sansa and Tyrion separately trying to make peace with their upcoming union was excellent, including the first good Tyrion/Bronn scene in several weeks, Marge realizing the depths of her soon-to-be-aunt's naivete, and especially the painful Tyrion/Shae conversation. Not only was it another discussion for the hour of the nature of a relationship, but one where — like Dany meeting with the man from Yunkai and Brienne and Jaime discussing his debt to her — a question of value was raised. Tyrion thinks he can shower Shae with trinkets, money, a home, bodyguards, etc., and things will be okay; she knows the danger his father represents, and also what will happen as she ages and Tyrion spends more time with his beautiful child bride. Tyrion's a good man — and, location aside, the best of Sansa's three marital options, not that she understands that — but he has his weaknesses, including his attachment to his family and their wealth. Marrying Sansa plunges him deeper into his father's power games, and though Shae has no psychic powers, she can clearly see what the future will look like for them if this marriage takes place.
In all, not a terribly eventful episode, but aside from a couple of season-long weak spots, a very satisfying — and pretty — one.
Some other thoughts:
* Among the more frustrating parts of the Bran/Jojen story: Jojen is the kind of character "Lost" sometimes trafficked in, who knows a lot more than he's willing to say, and insists that he'd give answers if he could. Yawn. Osha at least knows how to tell a story.
* Without putting a stopwatch on it, I'd guess Arya had this week's briefest appearance for a major character, as she flees from the Brotherhood and winds up immediately in the arms of the Hound. We've seen in the past that Clegane had fondness for Arya's sister (and offered to liberate her from King's Landing well before Littlefinger or the Tyrells offered), but Arya's shown nothing but contempt for him, suggesting she's just become somebody else's hostage.
* Is this the first that the show has mentioned that Tywin was Hand to the Mad King?
* Some of the commenters have been suspicious of Talisa in the past, but tonight's post-coital scene with Robb — centered around the news that she's pregnant with his child — is the first time I've begun to wonder if she might be spying on him. Something about the staging of the scene and Oona Chaplin's performance seemed off, and intentionally so.
* I really enjoy the sound design of the Unsullied, and the way they always clank their spears and shields in unison. An enormous, precise killing machine.
* Still have to wait and see what Melisandre has in store for Gendry, but she certainly isn't talking or relating to him like she's planning to drain him of his blood when they get back to Dragonstone.
* The Tywin/Joffrey scene was useful not only for showing us that, for now, Tywin is able to control the kid in a way his mother can't, but keeping us up to date on what the Lannisters know about what's happening elsewhere in the series. As with the Small Council's dismissive reaction last season to news of zombies up north, we know that Tywin is underestimating the danger he'll eventually face from the east, even with Dany's relatively small dragons.
* I love that Hodor needs a long pause to consider Osha's question before offering his usual reply.
As always, I'd like to keep the book/spoiler issue as simple as possible, however difficult that may be for some to understand. 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. You may think you're being clever and not giving too much away; in almost every case, you are wrong.
As usual, I've set up a message board discussion thread where you can do as much TV vs. books discussion as you want. And if you don't want to go to the message boards, by all means go to one of the dozens upon dozens of sites (whether "Thrones"-specific or not) that provide a venue to discuss the books to your heart's content. 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.
Based on the comments to that initial review, a lot of people are having a hard time understanding this, so I will put it very simply: If people cannot stop themselves from discussing the books in the comments, then there will no longer be comment sections for these reviews. Life's too short.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org