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.
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.
What is perhaps most peculiar of all is that, for all its deviations from Martin's text, this episode was written (like "The Pointy End" in Season One and "Blackwater" in Season Two) by Martin himself. On one level, I suppose this is commendable: Rather than take the easy route and transcribe the relevant portions of his oeuvre into a screenplay, he's bought into, and even expanded upon, Benioff and Weiss's alternative version. Perhaps more relevant though, is that this adds to the accumulating evidence that Martin is never going to finish the remaining novels. Not to put too fine a point on it, but given the thousands of pages he still has ahead of him, perhaps rewriting parts of the story he already wrote more than a decade ago is not the most practical application of his time. Add to this his heavy convention schedule, his other side projects (the possible Dunk & Egg prequel, The Wit and Wisdom of Tyrion Lannister), and his vague assertions regarding a target date for The Winds of Winter, and it seems that even if Martin eventually does manage to complete the final two (or maybe three?) books of A Song of Ice and Fire, it won't be until long after Game of Thrones has completed its run.
Which means that bringing this epic to its finale will likely be up to Benioff and Weiss—a prospect made slightly more tolerable by the fact that they wrote last week's (excellent) episode and Martin wrote this week's (disappointing) one.
Assuming, that is, that this week's episode was as disappointing as I found it to be. What do you guys think? Was I missing anything?
Kornhaber: Nope, I think you hit everything. That was a boring, frustrating episode, probably the worst of the season.
Time was, I would have chalked up my dissatisfaction to a paucity of plot, the feeling of wheels spinning, time whiled, fat chewed, etc.—a leisureliness that's galling to see in an adaptation of a supposedly rich, eventful book. But last week's episode was about as slow-moving as this one, and it was, as you noted Chris, mostly great.
The real problem: Martin's TV writing doesn't rock. His dialogues this hour packed few quotables (Jaime's parting quip—"Sorry about the sapphires"—wasn't much of a quip at all) and tended towards monologue over dialogue. The result, perhaps combined with MacLaren's directing style: scenes that should be crisp and zippy just aren't. For the first time ever, for example, I felt unriveted by a Tywin Lannister browbeating.
From your description, Chris, the bear fight does sound like it was cleverer in the book. The show's version doesn't really make sense, right? Jaime's presence gets the Bolton man to crossbow the beast, but then the spectators who moments earlier cheered for Brienne's evisceration help her out of the arena. It's Jaime who needed to be pulled out to prevent reprisals from Roose and Tywin—why would these sadists see fit to save the Lady of Tarth all of a sudden? What's more, Locke's retreat from his "the bitch stays" hardline didn't compute. Jaime declares he's not leaving alive without Brienne, but why does he get a say? Manacle the Kingslayer, throw him on a cart to King's Landing, keep the towhead at Harrenhal. Of course, I'm beyond glad that the fabulously dutiful Brienne gets to live another episode, but in a show all about the hard trades people make to get what they want, it's jarring to see her passage so implausibly secured.
OK, enough griping. One thing I liked: DRAGONS. Daenerys's summit with the (slightly Woody Allen accented? Was I imagining that?) Yunkai emissary offered the Stormborn badassery we've been missing for a few episodes. Emilia Clark was in fine form, radiating with the confidence of recent conquest, and the characters around her reacted accordingly. A+ to Thrones' FX team, who have made her maturing kids quite frightening to the eye and ear, which in turn allowed us buy the Master of Men and Speaker to Savages's quite-palpable skittishness. And Dany's line, "what happens to things that don't bend?," was great, but greater was the shot of Barristan and Jorah stymying a chortle at it.
Another thing worth appreciating: After an episode about the virtues of betrayal and an episode about circumstantial couplings, the show spent some time with unions forged less by necessity than by affection—a Westerosi force seemingly even more rare than magic. Orell's "when-it-suits-them" spiel to Jon established the conventional, cynical reading of how Thrones' relationships work. But the cuddlings between Jon and Ygritte and between Robb and Talisa offer hope that a mushier vision of love can exist as well. (One cool, true-to-life note about those scenes was that they presented the strengthening of affinity as a process of mutual discovery—about Valyrian vocab, about windmills and silk dresses, about a baby on the way.) Meanwhile, the Margaery/Sansa, Tyrion/Bronn Sex in the Seven Kingdoms gabfests hinted that duty and desire sometimes coincide.
But other developments—Osha's good-man-gone-zombie sob story, Shae's blowup with the Imp—showed just how cruelly the world can sunder soul mates. And the only point I can discern from Theon's odious, gratuitous bait-and-snip scene was to elevate the idea of lust as liability to ghoulish extremes.
All of which makes me worry about the two elder Stark boys. Romance has brought their personal happiness to record highs, but signs point towards the possibility that reality may soon wreck their honeymoons. Jon's convinced he's on a kamikaze mission with the Wildlings, and Robb and his advisers' dismissal of Catelyn's concerns about further slighting Walder Frey seemed all too conspicuous. The past seasons climaxed in a beheading and a battle; this one seems to be lurching towards a battle and a wedding. Only in Thrones would I be unable to speculate on which will be uglier.
Ross, as Chris mentioned, this episode doubled down on most of the things you've disliked about Benioff and Weiss's methods. Are you even grumpier about "The Bear and the Maiden Fair" than we are?
Douthat: Well, since you guys were so tough on this episode, I suppose it falls to me to say something positive about. So here's what I've got:
1) Charles Dance is a very good actor.
2) Brienne's "escapee from Valhalla" look was, if possible, even more awesome than usual when she was fighting the bear in that dress.
3) I, too, am a big fan of Rose Leslie as Ygritte.
4) Dragons! Everybody likes dragons.
5) It made last week's episode, which at the time I found moderately disappointing, seem brilliant by comparison.
And ... that's all I've got. I suppose I should feel vindicated, having complained about Benioff and Weiss's taste for exploitation just one episode before they decided to roll out the old "two girls and a castration" gimmick. But mostly I just felt, well, exploited. That scene wasn't just a dramatic low point; it was a moral low point—an Eli Roth-meets-Skinemax foray that made me feel gross for watching. (By the time this show is done, B&W will be able to cast a Broadway revue with their "nude female extras.") And to your point about pacing and compression, Chris, riddle me this: The showrunners decided that there simply wasn't space or time enough to introduce Mad Mr. "Have You Guessed My Name Yet?" during last season's Winterfell sequence, which is where he first appears (to devastating effect) in the books, yet they found what feels like hours of precious screen time (yes, I know it's actually less) to show him peeling and slicing Theon Greyjoy in the dark. I don't think that trade-off speaks particularly well of their dramatic instincts.
What's more, the fact that they had Martin himself as a collaborator for this episode fills me with a twofold dread: I share your anxiety, Chris, that GRRM's endless dabbling suggests he'll never finish the books, but I'm also increasingly doubtful that Benioff and Weiss will rise to the necessary task of compressing and reshaping the fourth and fifth book into something tighter, more dramatically effective, and television-ready than what's there on the page. Instead, I'm suddenly anticipating a worst-of-both-worlds scenario, where subsequent seasons give us all of Martin's longueurs and digressions, seasoned with all the "Fifty Shades of Yunkai" kinkiness that Benioff and Weiss can dream up.
But let me try to conclude with some optimism. The first two seasons both dragged in places—Season One in the first half, Season Two in the middle—and it was probably too much to expect the show to sustain the riveting excellence of this year's episodes three through five. You can't have pay-offs without set-ups: Pieces have to be maneuvered, journeys have to be made, plots given time to ripen. (I hadn't really contemplated the scenario your spoiler sets out, Chris, until I saw that letter—but I hope it's right, because it would justify a character I've found intensely irritating.) In the next two episodes, King Robb will reach the Twins, Daenerys will go to war, the various northern strands will (hopefully) intersect—at which point the show promises to get much more interesting again. There's a sense in which occasional dullsville episodes like this one are the price to be paid for trying to put a big epic on screen in one-hour increments, and my hope is that once we reach this season's destination, we will be able to forgive the boring moments, dramatic missteps and failed subplots along the way.
Except for Theon in the torture chamber. For that, there is no forgiveness.