Clearly, the theme of this week’s Game of Thrones, “The Bear and the Maiden Fair,”is the Kierkegaardian paradox of faith: the notion that absolute belief in the divine requires an inexplicable renunciation of duty in the rational, objective, ethical sense—which is to say, a denial of Kant’s categorical imperative—and an elevation of the individual above the realm of the universal. As we see in the confounding, divine purity of Hodor’s infinite resignation to constant repetition of the single phrase Hodor, this teleological suspension cannot be mediated in ethical terms, but must be recognized—
Nah, I’m just yankin’ your chain. Actually, this week’s episode is all about fucking.
You’ll have to forgive me if I amuse myself with digressions, but—for really the first time since the series began—I find myself somewhat unexcited about discussing an episode of Game of Thrones. A weak episode of this show is still better than most everything else on television, but this was a weaker episode, alternating frustratingly between the tedious and the gratuitous (and occasionally managing to be both simultaneously). It had its brighter moments—dragons!—but the majority of the episode featured too much skin and sex advice, and not enough character development or forward momentum. In a 10-episode season, it’s hard not to resent an episode more interested in butts and boobies than people and plot.
Alas, the blame for this must fall squarely on the shoulders of the same man from whom all good things flow, George R. R. Martin himself. Martin—who apparently doesn’t have enough writing to keep him occupied—is contributing one episode to every season of the show, and they’ve been a mixed bag so far. Season One’s “The Pointy End”—though not bad—was my nominee for weakest episode of that run, while last year’s “Blackwater” was perhaps the best episode of the year. Now, with “The Bear and the Maiden Fair,” Martin has contributed one of the weakest episodes of the entire series.
And the sad thing is, the ideas behind this episode weren’t bad ones: “The Bear and the Maiden Fair,” fittingly, has a more novelistic pace than the show can usually afford, but I don’t think it’s a bad idea to slow down a few times during a frenzied season and spend some quality time with the characters. (Last season’s “A Man Without Honor,” which occupied the same slot in the schedule, did this very effectively, deepening our understanding of key players and their motivations before we plunged into the end game.) Nor is doing an episode that’s largely concerned with sex a horrible idea: it’s a topic seldom explored in any serious way on serialized television, and this R-rated drama could do some interesting things if it decided to take an intelligent look at gender roles, how sex is approached differently in different parts of this world (beyond the Wall, for example), and how lust for flesh can sometimes drive politics as much as lust for power or wealth. (“Such, my angels, is the role of sex in history,” as Eleanor of Aquitaine says in The Lion in Winter.)
But alas, that’s not the episode we got here. We hear philosophies of fucking from a number of different experts, we see how sex threatens to complicate relationships (and plans) between a few couples, and we see that one lustful gentleman may have been cured of his sexual addiction the hard way. We just don’t get much insight, new information, or plot development.
On the other hand, we get dragons and bears, so it seems churlish to complain too much.
“Oh, I’m a maid, so pure and fair, I’ll never dance with a hairy bear.”
The song “The Bear and the Maiden Fair” has been wafting through this entire season of Game of Thrones, but I admit I’d never really paid any attention to the lyrics until now. The song is about a bear who goes to a fair, and ends up dancing with a pretty maid after catching the scent of “honey in her hair.” The maid protests at first, but is soon won over. The lyrics are not complicated—it has a fairly repetitive, nursery rhyme structure—and it doesn’t take more than a cursory look at them to figure out that the fable is a paper-thin metaphor for sex, and specifically for cunnilingus.
She kicked and wailed,
The maid so fair,
But he licked the honey,
From her hair!
Her hair! Her hair!
He licked the honey,
From her hair!
Then she sighed and squealed,
And kicked the air,
She sang: My bear so fair,
And off they went,
The bear! The bear!
And the maiden fair!
But this bawdy ditty has a few other elements that make it an interesting frame through which to view this episode, and indeed the entire season. I called for a knight, but you’re a bear! the maiden sings in alarm, which fits in nicely with the theme of fairy tale disillusionment that we talked about last week. I said last week that Sansa (Sophie Turner) keeps getting promised the prince, but she keeps ending up with the troll; another way to put it is, she keeps calling for a knight, and she keeps ending up dancing with a bear. She’s finally realizing the futility of the fairy tale now, as she refers to herself this week as “a stupid little girl, with stupid dreams, who never learns.”
But the tale can turn again, as it does in the song, and as Margaery (Natalie Dormer) explains to her this week: sometimes the bear turns out not to be so bad. Margaery acknowledges that TV-Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) is actually quite good looking—something that was not true in the books—and points out correctly that he is has been kind to Sansa and is “far from the worst Lannister.” She also notes that producing an heir with Tyrion might not be unpleasant, as he has considerable experience with sex. (“That’s a good thing?” Sansa asks.) It’s a rare acknowledgement from a character of the difference between reality and illusion, between finding happiness in the fairy tale and seeking it in real life. Joffrey is a handsome prince, but turned out to be a psychopath; Loras is a handsome knight, but (as Margaery knows, but Sansa doesn’t) Loras is actually gay: neither of them were likely to make Sansa happy, in life or in the sack. Besides, she says, some women like bears: “Some women like tall men, some like short men, some like hairy men, some like bald men, gentle men, rough men, ugly men, pretty men, pretty girls: most women don’t know what they like until they try it.” Women are complicated, Margaery says, and it’s hard to predict what’s going to give them pleasure. (“How do you know all this?” innocent Sansa asks. “Did your mother teach you?” Yes, sweet girl, Margaery replies, her mother taught her.)
“You want to fuck that Stark girl: you just don’t want to admit it.”
Meanwhile, Tyrion and Bronn (Jerome Flynn) are discussing the same topic, in a characteristically less delicate manner. “You’re a lord, she’s a lady, and a beauty at that,” Bronn says. “I don’t see the problem.” Tyrion protests that Sansa is a child, and that he doesn’t pay Bronn to put evil notions in his head, because he already has enough. (“You pay me to kill people who bother you,” Bronn says. “Evil notions come free.”) Tyrion knows he’s no one’s dream of a husband—he’s no handsome knight—but he wants to think of himself as honorable and not “evil.” But Bronn, one of the great tellers of truth in Westeros, cuts through the bullshit: “You want to fuck that Stark girl: you just don’t want to admit it.” What he essentially says to Tyrion is, You can pretend all you want, but you’re just like me: you’re a bear at heart, and you’re drawn to the scent of honey.
The larger problem, however, is Shae (Sibel Kekilli). “Shae isn’t going to like it,” Tyrion says, which turns out to be something of an understatement. Shae begged Tyrion to leave the Seven Kingdoms with her last season—to enjoy a simpler life where they could “eat, drink, fuck, live”—and now she asks him again. But Tyrion, understandably, refuses: here he’s a Lannister of Casterly Rock—a member of the most powerful family in the Seven Kingdoms—and anywhere else he’d be just a dwarf. It’s an honest recognition of his status: reflecting the necklace he tries to give to her—at which she scoffs—he’s bound with “golden chains,” chains of privilege and wealth. But Shae understands what that means for her status as well: however much he cares for her, sex defines their relationship, and she is incapable of having any life here except as his secret plaything. “I’m your whore,” she says, cruelly but accurately. “And when you are tired of fucking me, I will be nothing.”
“How am I supposed to sit here planning a war when you’re over there looking like that?”
Lannisters of Casterly Rock do not have the luxury of making matches based on love or lust. Neither, for that matter, does the King of the North—but he made one all the same. Robb (Richard Madden) broke a vow to Walder Frey when he married Talisa (Oona Chaplin), and now he has to try to make things right (by offering the Freys his uncle Edmure instead) and try keep his splintering army together. “He’s getting the wedding he wanted,” Robb says dismissively of Walder Frey, but Catelyn (Michelle Fairley) is more concerned: “He’s getting a wedding,” she says. “It’s a king he wanted.”
The foreshadowing in the following scene—in which Robb neglects his military duties to canoodle with his shapely (and, as it turns out, pregnant) wife—is a little heavy-handed, and the constant, gratuitous framing of Oona Chaplin’s perfect ass is as distracting to the scene as it is to Robb, but the meaning is clear: the Little Wolf may be doing too much of the thinking for the Big Wolf. “I think you lost this war the day you married her,” the late Rickard Karstark (John Stahl) told Robb, back in “Dark Wings, Dark Words,” and the sound of thunder that accompanies this scene make us suspect he might have been right. (I want to take a line from Deadwood and tell Robb: Listen to the thunder.)
“You won’t love him so much when you find out what he really is.”
Everything is different north of the Wall, and, typically, Jon Snow (Kit Harrington) finds himself in a strange reversal of roles. In my discussion of “Valar Doeharis” I talked about how Jon—because he’s undercover with the wildlings—found the first freedom he’d ever known in the process of fulfilling his duty. Now we have a similarly ironic twist of this episodes’s overall theme here: Jon is a knight, pretending to be a bear.
“You won’t love him so much when you find out what he really is,” a jealous Orell (Mackenzie Crook) tells Ygritte (Rose Leslie). Anywhere else in the world, a character saying that would mean, “He’s a beast, he’s a scoundrel, he’s not honorable.” But that’s not what Orell means, because, with the wildlings, honor is no virtue. Their view of the world is more cynical and pragmatic, as he tells Jon:
“People work together when it suits ’em, they’re loyal when it suits ’em, they love each other when it suits ’em, and they kill each other when it suits ’em. She knows it, you don’t, which is why you’ll never hold onto her.”
Orell’s accusation about Jon is that Jon is not like that: Jon is not one of them, and Ygritte is beginning to suspect Orell is right. They don’t talk explicitly about sex here, but Tormund Giantsbane (Kristofer Hivju) does: “Most men fuck like dogs,” he lectures Jon. “No grace, no skill, a few dozen thrusts and done.” But the amused look that passes between Ygritte and Jon reminds us that Jon doesn’t need the lecture. “You’re a proper lover, Jon Snow,” Ygritte told him last week, and after their first coupling she asked him if what he did is “what lords do to their ladies in the south.” Jon doesn’t make love like a dog, and he doesn’t make love like a wildling.
This week, the conversation about the ways of southern men versus the ways of the wildlings takes different forms. It starts out playful, as Ygritte teases Jon about how “southern lords” go to war, with their ridiculous banners and their marching to drums. But the topic becomes more serious when Jon finally can’t help but explain that the wildlings can’t possibly win south of the Wall. “I know your people are brave, no one denies that,” he says, but that’s not enough. “You don’t have the discipline, you don’t have the training. Your army is no army. You don’t know how to fight together.” All the things she mocks about “southerners”—the discipline, tradition, and honor—are the very reasons why the southerners will win. The wildlings are brave, but they’re so unsophisticated that Ygritte mistakes a windmill for a palace, and marvels at the skills of the men who could stack stones so high. “If you attack the Wall, you’ll die, all of you,” Jon says, and Ygritte notices that he says you instead of us. Ygritte—who is no swooning maiden fair, even if she likes the way he licks her honey—loves him, but she’s beginning to understand that he’ll never be a bear: he’s a knight at heart.
“What happens to things that don’t bend?”
On the surface, the scenes across the Narrow Sea have the least connection to this week’s throughline: Dany (Emilia Clarke) hasn’t shown any interest in sex since Drogo (Jason Mamoa) died, and the show doesn’t make the obvious choice of using this episode to explore the fact that Dany’s bear-knight Jorah (Iain Glen) is in love with her.
But there’s a broader view in which I think it does fit in, if only tenuously. Because the question of sex is not just the question of sex: it’s part of a theme that has run through the entire series about the tension between civilization and nature, and how all the rules and customs and codes of honor are designed, in part, to contain our baser, more primal instincts. The animal sigils attached to all the characters are not just corporate logos: they’re an expression of the animal that lives within all of us, and a reminder of the constant tension between the niceties of civilization and the inner call of the wild. (I discussed this in my review of “The Old Gods and the New,” which—coincidentally—is the episode in which Jon met Ygritte, Robb started putting the moves on Talisa, and Theon [Alfie Allen] committed his most heinous crimes.)
Now we have a glorious manifestation of that dichotomy, as Dany has an audience with Razdal (George Georgiou), a representative of the slave city of Yunkai. The meeting is full of ceremony and the trappings of civilization—like the sort of absurd marching to drums that Ygritte mocked—but it’s also conducted with Dany’s fucking dragons loose in the tent. Dany is all cool courtesy and diplomacy, but her snarling, snapping children express her true inner nature in no uncertain terms: Screw with me and I will go dracarys on your ass. “You promised me safe-conduct,” Razdal says, and Dany agrees that yes, she did. “But my dragons made no promises, and you threatened their mother.”
(Note to self: arrange to have unruly dragons as backup for next business meeting.)
After treading water a bit last year, Dany continues to absolutely rule this season of Game of Thrones. I’ve been hearing some criticism of Clarke’s performance—including an absurd article by Willa Paskin in Salon—but I think she’s fantastic. It is extremely difficult to play the sort of tentative overconfidence she’s playing here—or the nervous bravado of a character trying to project more strength and confidence than she perhaps has—and Clarke nails it in every single scene. It’s a deft, delicate performance.
As far as where this storyline is going, it will be interesting to see: is Dany overplaying her hand? We notice that she’s added a new title to her long chain of honorifics: “Danaerys Stormborn of House Targaryan, Queen of the Andals and the First Men, Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, Breaker of Chains, and the Mother of Dragons.” Breaker of chains: she has everything she thought she wanted—including an army, gold, and ships to return to Westeros—but now she’s decided that it is her mission to set free all the slaves of the world as well. Is she developing a dangerous messianic complex?
“I called for a knight, but you’re a bear!”
Metaphor is all well and good, but—as Freud may well have said—sometimes a bear is just a bear.
Jaime (Nikolaj Coster Waldau) has gotten what he wanted, too: his freedom, and safe escort back to King’s Landing. But Roose Bolton (Michael McElhatton) won’t let Brienne (Gwendoline Christie) go with him, leaving her instead in the hands of the odious Locke (Noah Taylor). Their parting is touching: they both know Brienne is not likely to have a pleasant time, but she bravely says that the debt he owes her will be paid if he keeps his word about setting free the Stark girls once he’s home. In her parting words, she calls him not “Kingslayer” but “Ser Jaime,” both acknowledging the extraordinary confession he made to her in “Kissed by Fire” and calling upon him to live up to all that the title implies.
He gets another reminder on the road, as Qyburn (Anton Lesser) reminds him of both the good and bad within him. “How many men have you killed, my lord?” the ex-maester asks him, and they finally agree that “countless” is the best approximation. “And how many lives have you saved?” Jaime’s answer is quick and decisive: half a million, the population of King’s Landing. He has done monstrous things, but he was a hero once, and perhaps he can be again: when he learns that Locke has refused to give Brienne back to her father, and will instead use her for “entertainment,” Jaime turns the entire entourage around and races back to save her.
“Entertainment” turns out to be a live-action staging of “The Bear and the Maiden Fair,” with a real bear, and with Brienne as the maiden, armed only with a wooden sword. (“We’ve only got one bear,” Locke explains.) On the road, Jaime looked at his stump and absently pondered the philosophical question, “What’s the purpose of an arm with no hand?” What, in other words, is his purpose now? He has a choice to make, and he makes it, jumping into the pit to save Brienne, forcing Bolton’s men to save them both.
Jaime has been a monster: we do not forget that he pushed Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) from a window, or that he plotted to murder Jon Arryn (the original sin that began the story), or that he gleefully shoved a knife through the eye of Ned’s man Jory (Jamie Sives) back in Season One. We do not forget that all his crimes stem from an unnatural lust for his sister, a sexual, animalistic need so powerful that he was willing to protect it even if, as he once said, it meant killing “the whole bloody lot of them” until he and his sister were the last people on earth.
But no one is just one thing, and, in the war between our animal natures and our better angels, sometimes the angels prevail. Once, Cersei was the only person Jaime cared about, but that’s no longer true. Once, he was just the “Kingslayer,” but that’s no longer true either.
Sometimes, the bear turns out to be a knight after all.
Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits:
- I sadly skipped over one of the best scenes in the episode, the one in which Tywin (Charles Dance) puts Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) in his place. (“We could arrange to have you carried,” Tywin says, dripping venom, when Joffrey complains about how he’d have to go all the way up to the Tower of the Hand for Small Council meetings.) I don’t really have anything to say about this scene except that Charles Dance is a scary, magnificent bastard.
- I also gladly skipped over the most odious scene in the episode, the nearly six minutes we spend with Theon Greyjoy, beginning with his seduction by two naked succubi and ending with his apparent castration. It’s rare that I feel either the nudity or the violence on this show are gratuitous, but this scene was absurd on both measures. It felt sadistic, it felt masturbatory, and it felt completely unnecessary. Theon’s entire storyline this season has been an unwelcome and unpleasant distraction, the sole effect of which has been to do the impossible and almost make me feel sorry for the little weasel.
- Speaking of distractions: it is no reflection on any of the actors involved—and I like seeing Natalia Tena get a monologue to work with—but I’m beginning to wish Jaime had dropped Bran from a higher floor back in Episode One. I skip Bran’s story every week because it is eminently, ridiculously skippable. Perhaps the show should have just let us think—as others do—that Bran and Rickon were dead: then we could have caught up with them later when there was something interesting to do with them.
- Another example of what I felt was retreading the same ground this episode: the final scene between Jon and Ygritte. “You’re mine, and I’m yours,” she tells him. “And if we die, we die, but first we’ll live.” It should have been a nice moment, but since we just had the “It’s you and me that matters to me and you” exchange last episode, this felt redundant and unmoving here. The same is true of the scene between Arya (Maisie Williams) and Beric Dondarrian (Richard Dormer), and the scene between Gendry (Joe Dempsie) and Melisandre (Carice van Houten). None of these scenes really told us anything we didn’t know before.
- On the other hand, Arya is now in the clutches of the Hound (Rory McCann). Two of my favorites characters, together at last.
- Someone should make a collection of the best insults offered by characters on Game of Thrones. This week’s winner comes from the Blackfish (Clive Russell): “I’ve seen wet shits I like better than Walder Frey.”
- Bear trivia: the bear here is played (brilliantly) by an Alaskan Kodiak named Bart the Bear. (He gets a whole screen in the end credits to himself: that bear has a good agent.) This is, for the record, “Little Bart,” the Second of His Name. His late predecessor—also called Bart, and trained by the same handler—was the more familiar veteran of films like Clan of the Cave Bear, The Bear, and The Edge.