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.