Every week for the third season of HBO's fantasy series Game of Thrones, our roundtable of Ross Douthat (columnist, The New York Times), Spencer Kornhaber (entertainment editor, TheAtlantic.com), and Christopher Orr (senior editor and film critic, The Atlantic) will discuss the latest happenings in Westeros.
Orr: Last week, I applauded how nicely showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss were putting their own mark on George R. R. Martin's source material. This week, alas, I'm forced to contemplate the flip side of that coin.
The pace of Game of Thrones, episode to episode, continues to be perplexing. Two weeks ago we received an installment crammed thick with developments and hewing very closely to Martin's books. Last week and this week, by contrast, the show has slowed to a crawl and repeatedly veered in non-canonical directions. The difference is that last week's episode was good (among the best, in my assessment), and this week's, "The Bear and the Maiden Fair," was probably the worst of the season so far.
Let's begin with the obvious: the titillation and (presumed) mutilation of Theon Greyjoy. Last week, Ross, you noted that all too often when Benioff and Weiss insert their own material it tends toward exploitation, and they could hardly have proven your point more emphatically than they did with this scene. Nameless female extras show up and immediately disrobe, arouse Theon with a combination of anatomical flattery and straightforward friction, and then—toooot!—in a twist sure to surprise no one (least of all Theon), Mad Mr. "Have You Guessed My Name Yet?" shows up with a silly horn and a wicked blade, like the infernal offspring of Harpo Marx and Jack the Ripper.
Did we learn anything at all from this scene other than that our well-advertised sicko might be infinitesimally more sick than we realized? It seems Benioff and Weiss are committed to dragging out this particular storyline—which occurs offstage in Martin's novel, and is mentioned in just a few sentences—as long as they can, perhaps by featuring the removal of a new organ with each installment. (This week, ladies and gentlemen: the pancreas!) What a waste. This may finally have wrested the hard-won title of worst scene in the series from the I invoke sumai! encounter at the gates of Qarth in Season Two.
It seems Benioff and Weiss are committed to dragging out Theon's torture—which occurs offstage in Martin's novel—as long as they can, perhaps by featuring the removal of a new organ with each installment.
In comparison, the rest of the episode was merely disappointing. The time spent in the company of Jon Snow and Ygritte was not particularly compelling, but Rose Leslie is so damnably good in the latter role that I hardly care. (I think I could have gotten by, however, without Tormund's Tips for Being a Better Lover.) And it was great to see Bronn again after an absence of an episode or two: Like Leslie, Jerome Flynn consistently elevates every bit of material he's given.
On the other hand, the scenes featuring Shae (with Tyrion) and Melisandre (with Gendry) served as reminders that these may be the two characters who've made the clumsiest transition from page to screen. The Melisandre-Gendry scene was also just weird. I guess we're supposed to understand that they're in King's Landing merely to catch a boat to Dragonstone (though this is not much in keeping with my sense of Westerosian geography), but it felt as though the city was there mostly as a prop for Melisandre's revelation of Gendry's parentage. Regardless, the scene felt profoundly unnecessary.
So, too, did the scene of Osha again bickering with Meera and Jojen, which appeared to be shoehorned in—it's not in the book—for two purposes. First, like the Melisandre scene, it gives Osha a tedious bit of backstory. (Does she really need a reason not to want to go back above the Wall? Wouldn't "it's really cold there" suffice?) Second, and more worryingly, it seems like an effort to inject some drama, any drama, into the Bran & Co. Go North storyline. Now, it's true that this is a dull subplot in the books as well, but we've been down this road before with Daenerys and Qarth, and I think the clear lesson from that experience was that, when in doubt, it's better to condense than expand.
The scene between Joffrey and Tywin, meanwhile, was not bad per se, but it certainly didn't live up to the expectations set by the latter's imperious "I will" when Cersei dared him to curb her son's monstrous appetites back in episode four. Yes, yes, Joffrey's the king and all, but I still expected the Hand to take him more firmly in hand. Points, though, for the ironic reversal of having obnoxious Joffrey be right and cunning Tywin wrong on the subject at hand: i.e., the relevance of those pubescent dragons, whose value as a negotiating tool we witness in the very next scene.
I was underwhelmed, too, by the segments with both Stark girls. Sansa will be Sansa, of course, but is even she so dim that it only now occurs to her that she'll be expected to have sex with her husband-to-be? (As usual, though, I enjoyed Natalie Dormer's Margaery. Perhaps she and Tormund should get together and teach a seminar on Advanced Sexual Technique...) The Arya scene felt clunky as well. I mean, here she is, an invaluable hostage in a camp full of armed men, and when she stomps her foot and storms off no one moves to stop her until after she's escaped? This was one of several scenes that seemed to suffer from poor direction—which is potentially unfortunate given that this episode's director (Michelle MacLaren, a veteran of Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, and other series) is taking the helm again next week.
In other news, Robb joined the recent parade of dude-ity in a lengthy post-canoodling scene with Talisa that seemed to me to point, alternatingly, toward two different (and mutually exclusive) deviations from the novel. I can't really describe them without resorting to spoilers for the non-book-readers in the audience—including you, Spencer—so I'll link to them on another page. Caveats first: Don't click on the link if you haven't read the books, and don't click on it if you'd prefer to avoid spoiler-y speculation (but only speculation: I have no inside knowledge) about where this storyline might be headed. Also, to those who do click through, please keep your comments on the questions raised there to that page. (What happens in Vegas, etc., etc.) Anyway, it's here.
A few thoughts, finally, on the episode's concluding scene, from which it takes its title. To put it succinctly: They really screwed this up. In the book, Jaime leaps into the pit with Brienne and, just as the bear is about to mangle them both, it's preemptively snuffed by a volley of crossbow bolts from Bolton's men. When Jaime is subsequently asked how in the world he could possibly have thought he could save Brienne—what with his being unarmed and one-handed and all—his response is essentially: I didn't need to keep Brienne from being killed; I merely needed to get between her and the bear so you guys would keep me from being killed. It's a nice little variation on the old I don't need to run faster than the bear, I only need to run faster than you gag, and it speaks not only to Jaime's courage but to his intelligence as well. Why they altered it is beyond me—was this version supposed to be more exciting? were they afraid of a PETA boycott?—but it made the conclusion of the episode as disappointing as most of what came before.