“Most women don’t know what they like until they’ve tried it,” worldly-wise Margaery explains to innocent Sansa. In season three we’re being presented with a myriad of mismatched couples, and we would do well to ponder the truth of Margaery’s words. George Martin’s third annual episode, deceptively titled “The Bear and the Maiden Fair,” is far more about these oddball pairings than it is about that final climatic scene featuring Bart the Bear (so the end credits name him) trying to gobble up that decidedly not-fair maiden, Brienne. Jon and Ygritte. Robb and Talisa. Tyrion and Sansa. Jaime and Brienne. Cersei and Loras. Littlefinger and Lysa. Dany and Jorah. Each of them are, in their own way, as unfit for each other as the beauty and beast of the title.
It’s interesting to look at the contrasts and similarities among these many couples, and kudos to Martin and the showrunners for never letting it devolve into overly soapish territory, which it very easily could given all of these seemingly random pairings. The political nature of the story’s plot justifies much of this. Whereas in another story we might scoff at the idea of pairing Tyrion with Sansa, in Game of Thrones it makes perfect sense: Tywin’s political maneuvering, however awful and manipulative, is actually horribly sensible. It also helps that Tyrion and Sansa are each as incredulous about the idea as any of the audience: They are allowed to voice our concerns and complaints for us. “He’s a dwarf,” Sansa complains, and although we recognize the shallowness and prejudice of this sentiment who among us can blame her? A sixteen year old raised on romantic stories of happily ever after, having her hopes of becoming a queen and lady of Highgarden crushed so brutally, Tyrion must seem as unattractive to her as the bear does to the maiden. More legitimately, she also worries about the disgusting family to which he belongs. “He’s a Lannister,” she whispers, to which Margaery responds, “Far from the worst Lannister,” and boy oh boy, does she have a good point. Perceptive Margaery, confident as she seems, definitely realizes that she is truly the one engaged to a wild, dangerous animal, not Sansa.
What further complicates this is that Tyrion is just as reluctant as Sansa, if not more so. Many of her objections are superficial, based on nothing more than her very limited understanding of Tyrion’s person. Tyrion is far more acutely aware of both the difficulties surrounding their union and the even more dangerous potentialities were he to refuse. Like the thoughtful, sensitive person he is, he worries about her youth, an issue not even on the radar of someone like Bronn. And unlike Sansa who, as Margaery correctly assesses, doesn’t really know what she wants, poor Tyrion knows exactly what he wants and is forced to actively put it aside in the name of familial loyalty and safety. Much as he loves Shae, Tyrion is too smart not to realize what will surely happen if he refuses the marriage.
Up in the riverlands we have Brienne and Jaime, two characters as equally mismatched as Tyrion and Sansa and yet are beginning to reconcile those differences, perhaps even to care for each other. Certainly Brienne (regardless of how much Jaime goes on about ways in which he saved the entire kingdom) is bringing out a selfless and chivalrous side in Jaime previously unseen. I can’t help but feel that the maester’s diagnosis that the “corruption has been stymied” in Jaime’s hand is significant of more than physical infection. Perhaps finally getting some distance from the poisonous atmosphere of King’s Landing and the twisted influence of his father and sister are similarly halting, if not beginning to heal, the corruption in Jaime’s character. The decision to turn back and rescue Brienne, who he so recently despised, is an incredible testament to how much his character has changed since losing his hand.
In fact, there is a running motif of our characters losing pieces of themselves, physical or otherwise, which they consider to be integral to their sense of identity: Jaime’s right hand (i.e. his sword hand), Bran’s ability to walk, the Stark family their patriarch, Dany her “sun and stars” Drogo, and in this episode Theon and (what else) his manhood, both figuratively and literally. Poor, poor Theon. It’s hard to see him recovering from that. I just don’t see him with the intelligence and determination to live that carried Varys through. If there’s any consolation for him (and I’m not at all sure that there is) it’s that the trend among these characters is positive. With the possible exception of the Stark family, each of the characters above have been improved, or at least strengthened, by the loss of this most precious part. Time will tell if Theon is the first to break tradition. I’m pulling for him, but it’s not looking good.
To return to our dominant theme of mismatched couples, we are also given two pairs that are incompatible due to circumstance rather than character: Jon & Ygritte and Rob & Talisa. Each of these eldest Stark brothers has, unfortunately, fallen irrevocably for the worst of all possible choices. It’s hard to fault them, since true happiness in Westeros is such a rare and precious thing. Robb and Talisa are touchingly affectionate, and seem eager to learn about each other’s families and cultures. And of course there’s the revelation of the pregnancy. However, Martin gives us that scene in which Talisa distracts Robb from his strategical planning, and I couldn’t help remembering the words of the departed Lord Karstark: “You lost this war when you married her.” She is a literal distraction, and beautiful and lovely and compassionate though she may be Robb has had to choose his love for her at the cost of his ability to win. After languishing in indecision for much of the season, even nature seems set against Robb as the weather delays their progress to the Twins, something which Catelyn seems sure Walder Frey “will take as a slight,” intended or not.
Robb’s brother Jon is in much the same position, with the Wildlings also chastising him and Ygritte for their defiant choice to be together. And just as with Robb, you must admit that the nay-sayers have a point. Perhaps Jon and Ygritte are truly in love, but anyone can see that their loyalty to each other is going to cause some awkward decisions down the road. Like Robb, Jon will have to choose between loyalty to his lover and loyalty to the cause he has sworn to uphold. Both Jon and Ygritte are starting to become aware of this fact. Their relationship has always been more than a little antagonistic, but in the last couple of episodes even their intimate love scenes have become angry and threatening. “You can’t win. All of you will die if you attack the Wall!” Jon tries to explain. “All of us will die,” Ygritte counters, coldly. Despite their many declarations of loyalty, this moment reveals that they are not at all on the same page.
Lurking in the background is that almost literal embodiment of the bear and the maiden fair: Khaleesi Danaerys Stormborn and her devoted Ser Jorah Mormont. After all, the bear is the symbol of house Mormont and he has got his eyes on the fair Dany. This episode focuses less on their relationship and Jorahs’ unrequited feelings, and moreso on Dany’s confidence and ruthlessness which seem to grow exponentially which each new episode. However, the theme is present and central to their characters, especially with the introduction of rival middle-aged knight and all around third wheel, Ser Barristan Selmy in the first episode. You can bet that Dany and Jorah are also being set up for some difficult choices before too long.
Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t end with the crowning jewel of the episode one of the best scenes in the history of the show: Tywin’s smack-down of Joffrey. We’ve seen Tywin exert his formidable influence over lots of strong personalities this season: Cersei, Tyrion, the Queen of Thorns. The question has lingered, however: In a steel-cage death match between Daddy Lannister and his psychotic grandson, who would come out on top? The question still isn’t entirely settled, but once again it’s point one to Tywin. That scene was just perfect, from writing to direction to acting. The way Joffrey transforms from lounging on the iron throne as arrogantly as ever into a child cowering beneath a terrifying authority figure, all done through Tywin’s slow progression up the steps until he literally looms over Joffrey, was just beautifully done. Tywin also gets some of the best one-liners, too. I know I shouldn’t enjoy seeing Tywin get the upper hand over anyone, but it’s hard not to smile when it’s Joffrey on the receiving end. When Joffrey complains that he can’t be expected to travel all the way to the Tower of the Hand for Small Council Meetings (correctly guessing that Tywin’s motivation for moving the meetings was to increase his own power), Tywin offers to “arrange to have [him] carried.” This has exactly the intended effect, and Joffrey lets that one go. He instead tries to assert some of his own authority. He rebukes his grandfather for not informing him of Dany’s movements. “You’re supposed to counsel me!” he scolds. “You are being counseled at this very moment,” Tywin coolly responds. By the end of the scene, it has been made perfectly clear to Joffrey that he is merely a figurehead. Tywin, the true power behind the throne, will only bother him with the merest trivialities: All important decision-making will be left to the grownups.
My apologies for the lateness of this review. My schedule prevented me from getting to it earlier, and it was (yet again) such a rich episode that I find myself with so much to say. I plan to have a review of “Second Sons” completed this weekend, if at all possible before “The Rains of Castamere” premiers Sunday night, an event for which I am already bracing myself.