Dany exchanges gifts with a slave lord outside of Yunkai. As Sansa frets about her prospects, Shae chafes at Tyrion’s new situation. Tywin counsels the king, and Melisandre reveals a secret to Gendry. Brienne faces a formidable foe in Harrenhal.
“The Bear and the Maiden Fair” is the third episode penned by George R.R. Martin, writer of the A Song of Ice and Fire series upon which Game of Thrones is based. His two previous entries—the first season episode “The Pointy End” and the second season episode “Blackwater”—have been considered among the show’s best (with “Blackwater” being widely regarded as the very best episode to date), but it’s worth noting that these were all momentous episodes in their way. “The Pointy End” featured the Lannister coup, while “Blackwater” was tightly focused on King’s Landing and the battle that took place on and along the titular river and bay. “The Bear and the Maiden Fair”—which began life as “Autumn Storms” and then “Chains” before settling on this title—has a less eventful story to tell, a quieter one for the most part, and perhaps that’s one reason that it’s clearly not at the level of Martin’s prior episodes. Some scenes are quite strong, including one that I consider the best Jon Snow scene since the first season, but some touch on the well-worn topics of excessive time spent on the torture of Theon Greyjoy and nudity for the sake of nudity. Most disappointing of all is the titular sequence which proves to be underwhelming, though that’s not really the fault of anyone and simply the realities of production. In the end, it’s not only the least of Martin’s efforts on the show so far, but it’s not the best episode of the season to date, either (most would agree that that honor goes to “And Now His Watch is Ended”, though we’d spring for “Kissed by Fire”).
When Martin writes the characters on the show, it often feels as if they are nearer to the characters from the book, which is another way of saying that they seem richer and more complicated than the versions of the characters the show has managed. In some way there often seems to be more legitimacy to these depictions of the characters, and they enrich the experience of watching them on screen. Case in point: the scenes between Jon and Ygritte. Of particular note was Jon’s impassioned argument that the wildlings were doomed, and Ygritte’s refusal to accept it. “All of us,” she tells him before she pushes him back and kisses him, and then—perhaps as a way to meet him half way, and as a way to admit that life is always chancy—she tells him that they may die, but first they’ll live. It is, of course, drawn straight from the novel… but it gives Kit Harington and Rose Leslie something really meaty and emotional to play with, and they both rise to the challenge. I’ve noticed, lately, increasing concerns about Harington’s performance by viewers of the show, but I suspect this episode will quell them and reveal that it’s really a matter of material, not acting, that may have held the actor back. This season, Jon’s story has been quite underwritten by the writers, who have pared it down heavily by investing less time than A Storm of Swords gives him, and this has left the character aimless. This is the kind of romantic note, as well, that feels more in tune with the novels, rather than the saccharine final image from “The Climb”.
Similarly, Daenerys’s scene outside of Yunkai continues the streak of much stronger writing for the character that has made this season stand out in relation to last season’s woeful turn generated by the writers trying to force the character in front of the cameras more than the story dictated, and doing so with a poorly-contrived narrative that didn’t really suit her. The interaction with the slaver Grazdan (played by George Georgiou) captures Daenerys’s strength very well. Better yet, and an absolute testament to the show’s visual effects, the scene makes liberal use of the dragons (all three of them, this time!) to give it a strong visual flourish. It’s amazing to think how far special effects have gone thanks to computers. Being able to see the level of detail that goes into the dragon models—down to the “tubes” in Drogon’s mouth that are almost certainly supposed to be where he actually spits flame from—feels like something unprecedented for television, and for that we have to tip our hat to Pixomondo and the visual effects team that have put it together. It adds a great deal when the show actually embraces the fantasy, and does so by treating it as an example of the genuine experience of being in that world, in that place, in that time.
Other scenes stand out, as well. Tyrion’s conversation with Bronn is very well-acted by both actors, who can be seen to relish the byplay between them as Bronn puts “evil notions” in Tyrion’s head. These are two characters that Martin seems to have a special affinity for, because of the brand of humor that tends to come with them, and it shows through as Tyrion starts to get used to the idea of marrying the young, beautiful heiress even though the angels of his better nature know that it’s a terrible thing. The same might be said of the Joffrey and Tywin scene, pairing together two of the best performers on the show as it does, as we finally see how the two interact with one another directly. The staging of this was well-done, with Charles Dance using all of his impressive height (he is a very impressive physical presence in a room, if I may say so) to domineer his grandson. We know from trailers that we’ll have at least one more interaction between the two, one that sounds as if it’s drawn directly from the books, but this one is a great taste of what’s to come. We could have done without Dance choosing to smirk as he stepped down from the dais—it’s a bit too on-the-nose—and we suspect GRRM lost track of a bit of historical trivia in relation to the death date of Balerion the Black Dread (his death is much closer to 200 years ago than it is to 300 years ago), but otherwise it’s a pair of fine performances as we see the dynamic between the erstwhile king and the Hand who truly rules through him. Special note must also be made of Natalia Tena’s fine performance as she recounted Osha’s past tragedy that drove her to flee south in the first place, with its deliberate echo of the words Ygritte shares with Jon (“He was mine, and I was his”). Her terror of going beyond the Wall again has some distinct implications for their plans for the character going forward, and we’ll be interested to see what fellow book-readers make of it.
Arya among the brotherhood is interesting, although it continues the trend of transforming the brotherhood as we now have them apparently avoiding the fulfillment of their promise. Seemingly for reasonable reasons, but given what happened last episode, and Arya’s accusations now, it seems pretty clear that viewers are getting a very different picture of the brotherhood than what Martin showed in the novels. Why, we cannot say for certain. Arya naming death her god, however, was a terrific bit—not least because it’s a call back to her lesson from Syrio , who spoke to her of what one says to the God of Death (“Not today”—wonderful line from the writers)—as well as Melisandre’s foretelling about her future. Arya’s subsequent capture by the Hound was a nice thrill as they move the plot forward neatly without too much complication… well, beyond the fact that this seems likely to be the last time we see the brotherhood this season, so we can’t suppose that they’re going to rectify some of the changes they’ve done.
But then we come across some clear-cut disappointments. If even Martin can’t write a scene in which Catelyn isn’t repeatedly interrupted and spoken over, the hope for the Catelyn Stark of the novels to appear in the third season has largely come to an end; the crude Blackfish rides over her repeatedly, and is more concerned with Talisa’s feelings over his language than he is with his niece’s over his rudeness. This then turns to a tender moment between Robb and Talisa, which I can’t say has ever been of interest (however beautiful both actors are), but it does present an interesting turn (from a reader’s perspective) when Talisa reveals she’s pregnant. It’s a fairly cliché scene, in the end, though the actors have obvious chemistry and do their best with what they’ve got, but we can’t say it sets us alight with anticipation for anything but seeing where they’re eventually going with this story. Viewers unfamiliar to the books, however, may take something more out of it.
One area where Martin would be hoped to excel is his Brienne and Jaime scenes, and the early scene with their parting is good, but because of its low-key content it cannot be compared to the amazing run of scenes in the prior episodes. One significant issue—and again, it’s no one’s fault—is the fact that the titular sequence (which was moved from episode 8, and so was written by Benioff and Weiss, not GRRM) simply doesn’t live up to what one might have hoped for. The problem, I think, lies with the fact that at the end of a day, a trained bear will simply look like a trained bear. Too many of the moments in that pit were obviously carefully choreographed and staged, with the animal simply acting on cue. That’s simply a limit to what can be done when working with a trained wild animal (which is, doubtless, the reason the direwolves have not been seen for many an episode at this point), and there’s nothing that can be done about it… but at the end of the day, all we have is what’s on screen, and it just doesn’t hold up very well. The sense of danger and threat simply can’t be generated, or at least it could not be with the direction; perhaps a different method of framing and cutting the scenes might have made it more visceral in appearance (one wonders how Dan Minahan would have handled it; his action sequences in the first season were terrific). As it is, it’s perfectly serviceable when one takes into account the reality of television production, and should help complicate the image of Jaime as he takes a selfless action for Brienne. But one could wish that the budget stretched to a CG bear, and one that was as convincing as the dragons. I might add, as well, that though it was expected—the writers have mostly eschewed dreams in the series (there’s one clear exception)—it remains a great shame to once again miss the importance of the past and a great insight into Jaime’s psyche by failing to have his dream from the novel, in which he dreams himself beneath Casterly Rock, abandoned by his family but joined by Brienne as he faces his ghosts. The language and imagery here, as always when Martin turns to the tragic past, is romantic, and it could have been richly depicted on the screen. But as the producers avoid it, so must Martin, alas.
But our biggest beef? Theon. Tortured, again. With added gratuitous nudity, shot in loving close-up for a mind-numbing length of time. With inane dialog for the prostitutes, and then their standing around in the background for no real reason except to be eye-candy for awhile longer. Which producer should we blame for this? The same one, we guess, who encouraged Neil Marshal to show as much nudity as possible during “Blackwater”, the same one who called himself a representative of the “pervert” members of the audience. It’s a shame that this scene has had to be in GRRM’s episode, when he could have been used so much more usefully elsewhere. Even he is unable to lift this material, as it repeats the torture and abuse that we’ve already seen for a number of episodes without any demonstrable purpose; Theon’s character growth has come to a halt since episode four, and now it’s all just pruning away at his physical being. It reminds us just a bit, and perversely, of the way episode 4 of last season marked the halt of Arya’s character development and marked the beginning of a repetitive sequence to mark time.
In the last two episodes, Theon has occupied a significant chunk of screen time—five minutes or more an episode—and we still do not understand it. The acting is fine—Alfie Allen is good, Iwan Rheon is good—but there are so many fine actors, and so many underserved storylines. Yes, what happens is horrific—and it’s horrific, too, when we learn about it in the novels, because Martin knew how to underplay it. Benioff and Weiss do not seem to allow that the power of our imagination can create things far more terrifying and disturbing than what’s on the screen, instead descending into The Hostel-style torture pornography. At least they have the grace to cut away at the end, to not actually show the physical act, but the scene leaves no doubts, no real mystery, no chance at a slow reveal in a way that could shock in a much more visceral way if written properly.
This is overplayed, it’s tired, it’s returning to the well of something they seemed to think was really brilliant but has now become very much passé. I hope we have done with it, that the next Theon scene is the last for the season, and that we no longer need to revisit extended torture sequences (with or without added breasts) for the rest of the show’s run. It’s not a strength of the show—of any show, really—and it shouldn’t be. We have a great deal of difficulty with this material taking so much time at all, but at least the material could be non-repetitive. The repetitiveness of their Jon-Ygritte scenes and their Tywin-Arya scenes last season made us call into question the time they devoted to them, and we’re right back in the same boat with this.
“The Bear and the Maiden Fair” definitely has high points. It also definitely has low points. It’s not Martin’s best, and it’s not the season’s best, alas. Lets hope the final three improve on it, and climb to the heights of the first season’s denouement.
The episode covers the following chapters of A Storm of Swords: The beginning of Jon V, Catelyn V, part of Daenerys IV, Arya VIII, and Jaime VI.
Changes of note, chapter-by-chapter:
Robb and Talisa: Talisa is a new character, but the character she replaces as Robb’s queen—Jeyne Westerling—is specifically left at Riverrun in the novel. Despite theories to the contrary, it is certainly the case that Jeyne is not pregnant with Robb’s child at this time. This news also could well invalidate Robb legitimizing Jon Snow and naming him as his heir, now that his bride is with child.
Ygritte and Orell: There is no character like Orell in the novel, so there is no sub-plot of anyone attempting to dissuade Ygritte from her relationship with Jon.
Sansa and Margaery: Though Sansa and Margaery are friendly in the novels, Sansa is not in position to confide in her over Tyrion, nor is Margaery in the novels a sexually experienced woman as the rather older Margaery of the show appears to be. In the novels, Sansa is taken by surprise by the marriage—she learns of it the very morning of the wedding—and so really has no opportunity to speak to anyone about it.
Tyrion and Bronn: No similar scene exists in the novels, in part because Tyrion takes much less convincing therein to wed Sansa than he does on the television show.
Tywin and Joffrey: No similar scene exists in the novels, as they are restricted to showing only what point of view characters see. One detail that is wrong is the claim that the largest Targaryen dragon—Balerion the Black Dread—died three hundred years ago, as two hundred would be nearer the mark. It’s also claimed the smallest was no bigger than an apple, but in the novels they are compared to the heads of mastiffs. The other notable change is that at this point in the novels, neither Tywin nor Joffrey have any real knowledge of the dragons; Varys gives queer reports of the birth of a three-headed dragon in Qarth, which Tywin immediately dismisses as uninteresting and instead turns to more pressing matters.
Tyrion and Shae: In the novels, Shae is far more accepting of the marriage between Tyrion and Sansa, and is very pleased to receive gifts from Tyrion such as jewelry (as an aside, the specific choice of jewelry is quite interesting, and we suspect that we will not be seeing the last of that chain) and the promised home with guards and servants. She feels no rivalry nor jealousy with Sansa.
Melisandre and Gendry: No similar scene happens in the novels, but one item of note is the fact that Gendry does not learn of his paternity at this point, nor (to date) at any other point in the series. Melisandre’s claims to having been a slave, and the daughter of a slave, appear to be accurate to the novels.
Jaime and Brienne: Jaime’s last words to Brienne are not shown in the novel, and in fact Jaime’s initial attitude when leaving Harrenhal is more of “good riddance” when it comes to Brienne—he even judges she’ll be able to survive a few rapes well enough.
Theon: As previously noted, this scene dramatizes events only hinted at in the novels. Though it is subtle, it is definitely implied that Theon is castrated while a prisoner, though the exact details of the occasion are not offered.
Bran and Company: Although Bran and the Reeds do travel north with the intention of crossing the Wall, neither Osha nor Rickon accompany them in the novels, having taken a different path so as to improve the chances that at least of the Stark children would escape those who would mean them harm. Therefore, Osha’s refusal to go further than Castle Black is not accurate to the novels. The story of her background that explains why she crossed the Wall to enter the North in the first place is not drawn from the novels.