Spoilers for Game of Thrones, “The Bear and the Maiden Fair,” below:
“That they’ll work together when it suits them, that they’re loyal when it suits them, love each other when it suits them, and they kill each other when it suits them.”
Everyone on Game of Thrones is an animal. Usually it’s figurative: our major characters are mostly nobles, their houses represented by wolves, lions, kraken, stags, and whatnot. This is a quasi-medieval society, still close enough to its primitive roots to carry over the animistic idea that people can ally with animals and, thereby, take on their strength. Sometimes it’s more than figurative: Danaerys is not only a “dragon,” figuratively, she has dragons and is in all but strict biology their mother.
And then there are the characters who, at least when they choose to be, literally are animals. Our enigmatic friend Jojen has told Bran that he is a warg–a mystic able to enter the minds of animals–and, complicating matters, that the three-eyed crow in Bran’s dreams is Bran himself. Adding to our bestiary, “crow” is a term for members of the Night’s Watch, and our favorite one, Jon Snow, has recently gotten a glimpse of a warg in action: Orell, who performs wildling reconnaissance by bonding with an eagle. The eagle, it seems, does not care for the crow: implicit in Orell’s speech, about what wisdom he has learned from the birds, is that Orell understands the wild, close-to-nature ways of his people (and thus Ygritte) in a way that Jon never will.
“The Bear and the Maiden Fair” opens literally from the vantage point of that eagle, whose cry is the first thing we hear. And this eagle-eyed perspective is a fitting one for the episode, which takes a wide, sweeping view of the wide swath of Game of Thrones’ stories, and–as ably directed by Michelle MacLaren–looks fantastic doing it.
It’s interesting that this is the one episode of season three written by George R. R. Martin, author of the Song of Ice and Fire source novels, who has written a single episode each of the past two seasons as well. It’s as different as imaginable from his season two “Blackwater,” the best of that season and (unusually for Game of Thrones) mainly focused on a single story and location, the battle for King’s Landing.
For Martin’s one visit to his mythical land this year, he apparently opted to take the round-the-world tour, with stops in essentially every location and storyline currently in play. Even the handful of regulars who don’t appear have their plots represented. (As usual in these reviews, I’m not going to recap everything that happened or analyze every story–life’s too short.)
Here and there, especially if you’re a reader of the books, you can detect the author’s hand in the dialogue. There’s a little more attention to the social structure of Westeros (the workings of maesters in the Citadel, still unseen; the septas, who are both the “nuns” of the Faith of the Seven and a crucial part of Westeros’s healthcare infrastructure; the history of failed Wildling attacks on the North). And–not to turn this into a books-vs.-TV session–it’s interesting to see him take a turn at several storylines that depart from his novels. The scene of Melisandre and Gendry sailing past the wreckage of The Blackwater–Martin returning to his scene of destruction–is both visually stunning and narratively dramatic, clueing Gendry in to his unwitting role in this game.
But back to the animals. This episode is a virtual zoo of them, from the very beginning to the very end–as metaphors, as metonyms (“Anyone for a lion hunt?”), as idioms (“don’t jam it in like you’re spearing a pig!”), as weapons, and as tests. Notably, of course, there’s the last sequence, in which Brienne is dropped by her captors into a pit with a wooden sword to fight a bear–and let’s take a pause to appreciate that Brienne fought a freaking bear–as a cruel, dehumanizing, and into-the-bargain-misogynist twist on the Westeros folk song of the title, which the men at Harrenhal sing while they wait to watch her mauled.
It’s a mockery of a test of strength for her, a test of character for Jaime. He has no sword hand, but he had his wits; using himself as a hostage, he buys time for Brienne’s escape, and cows her captors into letting her go, leaving with a “Sorry about the sapphires.” (Jaime, gradually, is becoming Game of Thrones’ highborn answer to Sawyer from Lost.)
Elsewhere, Ygritte shows her strength by slaying a deer, and Dany, by displaying her dragons. The scene in which she meets and rejects the emissary from Yunkai–whose slaves she has decided to emancipate–is spectacular without a single fireball. It’s not just the menace that the three ever-growing dragons represent. It’s a stunningly composed scene, Dany looking not just regal but semi-divine in repose with three fantastical creatures, tossing them sweet meats to fight for.
And it makes a key thematic point, as the Yunkai delegate protests that Dany promised him safe conduct: “I did. But my dragons made no promises. And you threatened their mother.” It’s a not-so-veiled message, made to a slave trader by a queen leading an army of freed slaves: that she rules her subjects but does not own them, and that makes her more dangerous than anyone with a whip.
There’s so much functional piece-moving in “The Bear and the Maiden Fair,” but it does a great job servicing all those pieces without ever feeling perfunctory. In fact, this may be the one time all season that Theon’s torture scene felt worth mentioning.
There’s sex here, but it’s not sexposition, and it’s certainly not sexy; beginning to end, it’s menacing, even before the blare of the horn and the unsheathing of the knife. What we’re seeing here, it’s becoming clear, is something more than punishment (for what?) or even physical torture. It’s a series of systematic reminders to Theon that he has no control, no will, no volition, no independence or value any more as a human individual. He has no power in the situation—not even the power to rationalize why this is happening.
The torture scenes have been relentless and repetitive and awful—and yet, while I feel like Game of Thrones could be better using valuable time, I can at least see a point to them beyond giving Alfie Allen screen time. Theon is being methodically broken, and this scene of sexualized imprisonment is chilling. The pain alone is not the point. The sexual degradation is not the point. The pointlessness is the point.
Everyone in Game of Thrones, as I said, is an animal. And Theon is being turned into one.
Now for the hail of bullets:
* Let me repeat: I am not going to get into details of how the series departs from the books, nor do I want you to get into any specifics in the comments. But one side benefit of the increasing number of changes in this season is that I go into every episode, as a reader, believing I can be genuinely surprised.
* “Bart the Bear.” Best acting credit ever?
* Tywin’s big-footing of his snotty grandson Joffrey is delightful–”We could arrange to have you carried”–but give Joff credit for this: he disagrees with Tywin about Dany’s dragons, and (though they’re still young) it looks like he’s right for once.
* There’s been a lot of attention in this season to the wildness of the Wildlings and how it contrasts with regimented society south of the Wall. But Jon’s history lesson to Ygritte is a sobering reminder that being a ragtag group of rebels doesn’t mean you’ll win.
* I’m glad that there’s been more equal opportunity nudity in this season, and we got it again in the Robb-Talisa scene (congrats, parents-to-be!), but Oona Chaplin’s butt got so much screen time I’m pretty sure it now has its own SAG card.