Stars: Peter Dinklage, Lena Headey, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Michelle Fairley, Emilia Clarke, Aidan Gillen, Iain Glen, Kit Harington, Ciaran Hinds, Isaac Hempstead-Wright, Richard Madden, Sophie Turner, Maisie Williams, Alfie Allen, Diana Rigg, John Bradley, Jack Gleeson, Charles Dance, Rory McCann, Stephen Dillane, Carice Van Houten, Conleth Hill, Sibel Kekilli, Liam Cunningham, Natalie Dormer, Gwendoline Christie, Finn Jones, Julian Glover, Joe Dempsie, Nicholas Blane, Oona Chaplin, Rose Leslie, Jerome Flynn, Ian McElhinnie, Thomas Sangster, Ellie Kendrick, Iwan Rheon, Daniel Portman, Nathalie Emmanuel, Richard Dormer, Noah Taylor, Michael McElhatton
Writer: George R. R. Martin, series created by David Benioff & D.B. Weiss, based on George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire”
Director: Michelle MacLaren
Network: HBO, Sundays @ 9 PM
Airdate: May 12, 2013

Gwendoline Christie as Brienne of Tarth in GAME OF THRONES "The Bear and the Maiden Fair" | (c) 2013 Helen Sloan/HBO

Gwendoline Christie as Brienne of Tarth in GAME OF THRONES "The Bear and the Maiden Fair" | (c) 2013 Helen Sloan/HBO

There is a song entitled “The Bear and the Maiden Fair” running throughout GAME OF THRONES, but this episode gets its title from an extremely tense sequence in which Brienne (Gwendoline Christie) is thrown into a pit, armed only with a wooden sword, to fight a bear. This is courtesy of the sadistic Locke (Noah Taylor), who has a hatred of the rich that would do credit to Robespierre. This situation comes about because Lord Roose Bolton (Michael McElhatton) agrees to free Jaime (Nicolaj Coster-Waldau) but not Brienne, and then leaves Harrenhal. When Jaime is told that Locke refused Brienne’s ransom from her father, he insists on turning around, returns to Harrenhal and jumps into the bear pit at risk of his own life. He and Brienne help each other clamber out (overcoming the bear is out of the question). When Locke objects, Jaime points out that Lord Bolton cares more about the goodwill of Jaime’s father than about Locke.

It’s a truly stirring sequence. By now, of course, what we’d like to see is Jaime – or Brienne – pitching Locke into the bear pit, but the characters are too sensible to antagonize Locke’s men.

“The Bear and the Maiden Fair” has the distinction of being scripted by George R.R. Martin, whose “A Song of Ice and Fire” novels are the basis for the GAME OF THRONES series. Martin commendably deals head-on with one area of growing discrepancy between his books and the HBO show, which is that, on the printed page, Tyrion Lannister is meant to be physically hideous, whereas half the viewers are swooning over the character as portrayed by Peter Dinklage (and eminently swoon-worthy he is). If Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner), who has been ordered to marry Tyrion, were to be as repulsed on screen as she is in the books, she’d frankly look like an idiot. Martin has crafted an entirely new scene where Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer), engaged to marry the horrible King Joffrey Baratheon (Jack Gleeson), takes Sansa for a walk to convince her to look on the bright side – Tyrion is not only rich and noble, but he’s experienced. The scene is very funny, with Margaery more amazed by Sansa’s genuine innocence than Sansa is by Margaery, mainly because Sansa is so unworldly that she doesn’t quite understand much of what Margaery is trying to tell her. One point Margaery makes that does hit home with Sansa is that Tyrion is bound to be a better husband than Joffrey.

As for Joffrey, he is fretting over rumors of dragons. The Hand of the King, Joffrey’s grandfather Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance), isn’t worried, convinced that if there is anything at all going on in Essos, it’s been exaggerated out of all proportion. (If only anyone knew that for once Joffrey is right about something …) Tywin does manage to put his young Majesty in his place. Dance couldn’t be more commanding and Gleeson does a marvelous job of balancing Joffrey’s arrogance and uncertainty – and understandable fear of Tywin.

Tyrion’s mistress Shae (Sibel Kekilli) is having a tantrum about Tyrion’s upcoming marriage, and nothing Tyrion says can soothe her.

Robb Stark’s (Richard Madden) uncle Edmure isn’t too happy about having to marry one of the daughters of Walder Frey, but it’s necessary if Robb is to secure Frey’s support and troops for the war. Meanwhile, Robb’s wife Talisa (Oona Chaplin) delights him by telling her husband she’s pregnant.

Sailing within view of King’s Landing, Melisandre (Carice Van Houten) reveals to Gendry (Joe Dempsie) that he is in fact the son of the late Robert Baratheon – a king’s blood flows in his veins. This doesn’t sound as ominous to Gendry as it does to us.

Arya (Maisie Williams) is so fed up with the Brotherhood Without Banners that she runs away – and, unfortunately, straight into Sandor Clegane (Rory McCann), who grabs her.

Meanwhile, back in Essos, Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) determines to free the 200,000 slaves in the walled city ofYunkai. When an emissary of Yunkai delivers boxes of gold and promises Daenerys a ship if she’ll just go away and let Yunkai continue its slaving ways in peace, Daenerys says she’ll give the man a gift – his life. With three dragons now almost the size of horses hissing at any threat to their “mother,” the emissary is forced to leave the gold behind.

Theon’s (Alfie Allen) mysterious tormentor (Iwan Rheon) first sends two women to quasi-seduce Theon, then steps in and castrates the poor guy.

Heading toward Castle Black, another wildling makes moves on the disinterested Ygritte (Rose Leslie), who demands that Jon Snow (Kit Harington) reaffirm his loyalty to her, if not the wildling cause.

On their way to the Wall, Jojen Reed (Thomas Sangster) suffers seizures while having visions. Wildling Osha (Natalia Tena) doesn’t want to go beyond the Wall, as when she was there, her lover came back from the dead and almost killed her.

The King’s Landing scenes all sparkle with intelligence, humor and energy. Williams is such a powerful actress that she makes scenes riveting simply by being in them – she makes us believe Arya Stark is a force of nature who may well be terrifying as she grows older. The relationship between Jaime and Brienne, which seems more bromance than romance despite their genders, continues to be engaging and even touching.

The scene with Theon seems to be there mainly to get more female nudity into the episode and to further establish that Theon is in the hands of a psychotic villain. This has been pretty well established over the previous two episodes. Given what happens in this episode, the scene needs to be there, but it feels cumulatively a bit much, not because the torture is over the top, but because we’ve got the point that Theon is pathetic and broken, his captor is a major sadist and now the situation just seems to be taking up screen time that could be given to something that propels the story forward.

The flip side of this is that, while the sequence with Daenerys and the Yunkai envoy echoes her earlier interactions with the Astapor slavers, these sequences are so much sheer fun that more are always welcome.

“The Bear and the Maiden Fair” is for the most part an episode that is both visceral and smart.

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