Watching the Throne: ‘The Bear and the Maiden’

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Each year, A Song of Ice and Fire author George R.R. Martin takes time away from his (hopefully) busy novel writing schedule to pen one episode of the hit series based on the world he’s created. While the superb “Blackwater,” Martin’s second season entry, was marked by an unusually tight focus solely on King’s Landing and the series’ most epic battle to date, this week’s “The Bear and the Maiden Fair” checked in with nearly everyone and yet was still a more intimate episode, focused on the individual relationships between some of the characters. That’s not to say “The Bear and the Maiden Fair” suffered from the relative lack of action, as it’s these smaller episodes which often illuminate the series’ larger themes – like honor, duty, and loyalty – more effectively than those which are more epic in scope.

Although he’s brokered a tentative peace with Walder Frey by arranging to marry Edmure Tulley to one of Frey’s massive brood, love-struck Robb Stark would still rather make out with his bride than pay any mind to just how badly his broken oath dishonored the Freys and alienated some desperately needed supporters. The love scene between Robb and Talisa serves to illustrate just how much of a distraction and a weakness she is to him, as the lure of his naked and newly pregnant (a fact never explicitly stated in the novel) wife draws him away from his battle strategizing. Robb greatly risked his crown by marrying Talisa in the first place and she continues to get in his way, rendering him a smitten and somewhat silly schoolboy lacking the steely determination required of the King of the North.

Similarly, Robb’s foster brother Jon Snow has also broken an oath when it comes to love, as the sexually charged relationship between he and Ygritte continues to deepen into something more meaningful. Although Jon initially succumbs to Ygritte’s advances as a necessary part of his going undercover with the Wildlings, their shared chemistry makes it clear that Jon’s no longer just playing a part, but is developing some real feelings for her. While in his heart he’s still a man of the Night’s Watch, he’s grappling with how to reconcile his feelings for Ygritte with the oath he swore to uphold, trying to somehow be loyal to both. The confusion is mutual, as Ygritte admits to a jealous Orell (Mackenzie Cook of the UK Office and Pirates of the Caribbean fame) that she’s in love with Snow, but is still obviously unsure as to whether or not the former Crow can be trusted.

Meanwhile, in King’s Landing, Tyrion finds himself embroiled in a love triangle, as well, as his arranged marriage to Sansa Stark looms ahead despite his objections and Shae’s outrage. Thanks to his demotion from King of the Hand, Tyrion hasn’t had much to do this season other than lament his castrated position and upcoming nuptials. At this point, it goes without saying that Dinklage is always a pleasure to watch, but it does feel like he’s being wasted this season with very few displays of his wit and political intellect. While the scene between the two offered an illuminating glimpse into Tyrion’s torn loyalties between his family name and his beloved, it’s still a shame that a good chunk of the limited Tyrion time we’re given is spent with Shae, since actress Sibel Kekilli is easily the series’ weakest cast member with a range limited to just two modes — whining and naked. On the other hand, I enjoyed the Sansa side of this story, as any screen time spent with one of the clever Tyrell women is a pleasure. Natalie Dormer continues to shine as Margaery, who’s no doubt clever and shrewd, but also genuinely compassionate and sisterly towards the somehow still ridiculously naïve Sansa. I’ve mentioned before that Margaery is not a fleshed out character in the novels, so the rich character the show writers have created for her here is a welcome surprise.

Over in Harrenhal, the other Lannister brother also grapples with issues of loyalty and honor, as Jaime first promises Brienne to return the Stark girls to their mother (despite his father’s assured objections) and then, overcome with a sense of duty to his unlikely travel companion, returns to Harrenhal to rescue her from a rather grizzly fate. Over the course of the season, Jaime’s been portrayed as less and less of a villain and increasingly heroic, an anti-Ned Stark in the sense that he’s someone for whom oaths and vows aren’t as important as loyalty to family, love, and often simply doing what’s right. When he points out to Maester Qyburn that the incident which earned him his Kingslayer sobriquet served to save half a million lives in Kings Landing, its clear that Jaime’s sick of playing the villain, too. His courageous and bold rescue of Brienne was the highlight of the episode and was yet another example of the show’s often amazing special effects, as the bear Brienne was forced to fight was perfectly huge and terrifying.

The special effects team didn’t disappoint with Khaleesi’s dragons either, who are growing larger and more ferocious every time we see them. I love when we get to see the three dragons in action together and the way the casually, yet protectively and menacingly lounged around Daenerys while she intimidated the Yunkai lord was pretty terrific. As her dragons grow more fearsome, so too does Daenerys, who, emboldened by her stunning attack on Astapor and the acquisition of her Unsullied army, is suddenly appearing very much the confident, ruthless, and powerful rightful heir to the Iron Throne. Emilia Clarke has done some excellent work this season, portraying a convincing maturation from unsure Dothraki bride to icily regal boss lady.

Elsewhere, Arya runs away from The Brotherhood and is captured by the Hound. Like Tyrion, everyone’s favorite Stark girl has been languishing a bit this season, so this turn of events is promising as, like her turn as Tywin’s cupbearer last season, it will allow the feisty Arya to play off another charismatic character. Bran, the Reeds, Osha, and Hodor (“Hodor.”) will set off to venture beyond the wall in search of the three-eyed crow from Bran’s dreams. Meanwhile, locked away in a dungeon, poor Theon is starring in his very own torture porn featuring an increasingly sadistic captor. Honestly, I’m not sure why the show keeps coming back to Theon at this point. The book skips over the nitty gritty of his torture and I don’t find the increased focus to be adding anything to the show beyond a few cringe-worthy moments. We get it – his captor is a sick fuck, but the whole subplot is inching at a glacial pace and it feels like time that could be better spent with other characters, like perhaps Tywin Lannister. As always, Charles Dance owns the screen as Tywin and his scene with Joffrey was a fantastic moment of barely-concealed contempt and a display of who’s really the boss in King’s Landing.

Despite being relatively light on action, “The Bear and the Maiden Fair” covered a lot of ground and was yet another solid George R.R. Martin-penned installment of the series. With only three episodes left this season and a lot more ground to cover, I can’t wait to see how the next few weeks play out.

All photos credit: HBO