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Game of Thrones Watch: Dragons and Eagles and Bears, Oh, My!

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HBO

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.

17 comments
GrantJones
GrantJones

Unlike some characters, Oona Chaplin's butt actually deserves all the screen time it gets.

rednightrain
rednightrain

Who says women don't like Game of Throns?  I love this show, and have watched it from the beginning. It is different and exciting.  I will watch it for as long as it is on.

drakarys
drakarys

@jponiewozik nice write up! In one hilarious scene, when Sansa asks Margery how does she know about Tyrion's 'chivalry' in bed in particular or men's sexual habits in general, whether Margery was taught by her mother, Margery gives a brief pause (i guess she was in dilemma, whether to tell Sansa about her 'experiences' or thinking is Sansa THAT dumb???) and then says Yes...!

WechooseNoFate
WechooseNoFate

I'm enjoying these extended scenes that depart from the novels. It's an opportunity to really offer us an in depth look at events otherwise missed in the novels. And now, because of it I feel like the show and novels are intertwined. Indispensable to each other instead of simply repetitive. By the way, your reviews are rapidly becoming, to me, nearly as essential as the show. You are revealing depths and connections I didn't see before. All of which is making Game of Thrones a truly epic multi media experience

TrevorPatrick3
TrevorPatrick3

In regards to Jon Snow's history lesson, it's possible that history was... massaged a bit over the years.  History's written by the victors and it's possible that the wildlings came closer to victory than the Westerosi would like to record. 

krithz
krithz

"Jaime, gradually, is becoming Game of Thrones’ highborn answer to Sawyer from Lost."

Well said. I couldn't agree more. Happy go lucky Casanovas whose sudden situational hardships bring about idealism and courage they never admit to having.


cinemaparker
cinemaparker

We're seeing Theon now because he essentially disappears in the books for a while. If they were to follow the plotting of the books to the tee, we'd get whole seasons where we wouldn't see various fan favorites for unacceptable lengths. I appreciate what they're doing with the slight changes from the books that they've made so far.

geoff.clarke
geoff.clarke

Question: do you think the writers are eager to get beyond the story told so far in the books (for the reason you cite, James, and it's spoiler corollary) or are they reluctant to head into the great unknown without at least the skeleton of the books' plot lines to guide them? 

ThatDonnaBrown
ThatDonnaBrown

Margaery should have said she was married before to explain her learning of things. Duh. I know he was gay but Sansa doesn't know that.

jponiewozik
jponiewozik moderator

@TrevorPatrick3 It's possible. Certainly we have seen that the southerners have rewritten history as regards the nature of Wildling culture (and, maybe, as regards the Wall being in part a barrier to keep the have-nots away from the haves). But they did have to become victors in order to write that history.

lauriedtmann
lauriedtmann

@krithz And, the grimier Jaime stays, the more he looks like Sawyer, too!  Though I can't imagine Jaime saying "Hello, Freckles!" to Brienne or Cersei...

Lucelucy
Lucelucy

@krithz Have I told anybody here about this great idea for an opera I have called The Redemption of Jaime Lannister?  Well, I'm not going to now, either (unless I already did), but a repeating aria will be "The Things I Do For Love."  With different shades of meaning.  And I don't even know if he will actually be redeemed as yet, but what a great story that will - or would - be.

KateD
KateD

@cinemaparker What we're seeing now is what we get in the books through Theon's memories of his torture, when we see him again in the late stages of it. A book can fill in those gaps in a way the show can't; the show can only show events, while the book can reveal internal dialogue. 

jponiewozik
jponiewozik moderator

@geoff.clarke I don't think the writers have any intention of departing from the books' master framework; I think it's more of a matter of how they get from A to B (and in some cases, what happens to which character en route). 

Z4BS
Z4BS

I've not read the books but i imagine HBO priority will be to tell a great story rather than be faithful to the source material. If something does not work for television i suspect they would be more than willing to change it.

KateD
KateD

@lauriedtmann @Z4BS Hm, I think more is different. Not on the level of new characters, but in terms of tone and subtle choices. For example, in the books Sansa is helped by a knight (Florian?) who it turns out is in Littlefinger's service. It's a somewhat small difference, but I think it changes the tone of what is happening to Sansa quite a bit. 

lauriedtmann
lauriedtmann

@Z4BS While I don't have the books memorized, I think they've been remarkably close to the books.  The main character created for the show was Ros, and she was PERFECT.  Martin referenced prostitutes here and there, so it was good to have one who was a character (other than Shay).