“The Bear and the Maiden Fair” was written by George R.R. Martin and directed by Michelle MacLaren, who has also filmed some very popular episodes of Breaking Bad (including the amazing “One Minute,” which featured one of the best-directed action sequences on modern television). The direction is far more successful than the writing, which is surprising, given the fact that this whole series is Martin’s brainchild. His one episode credit from last year, “Blackwater,” was much better, but perhaps that was given the innate strength of the events. This episode is a stall piece that functions more to catch the characters up on things we already know as viewers, further preparing them for the inevitable climax in episode 9. Before that, the pieces not only need to be in the right place geographically, but also mentally and emotionally.
Still, we as viewers have gained so little from this episode that it difficult to analyze. There are several things we already know, and a few things we learn.
First, for what we already know:
1. Gendry is the bastard son of King Robert.
We’ve known this for what feels like ages, but Melisandre takes a moment to explain it to the blacksmith himself on their way back to Dragonstone, where Stannis remains. They’ve made it out of the Riverlands and are now launching ships from King’s Landing. It is pretty cool that Gendry ends up finding out who his true father is, since that part is not made clear in the books, but it’s also narratively insignificant compared to the amount of time we spend on it. “There is power in a king’s blood.” Yeah, yeah, we get it!
The one advantage of this scene is that we get a chance to see the visually stunning aftermath of the Battle of Blackwater. The ship ruins are still scattered about as monuments to last season’s best episode. I can’t help but feeling like nearly every storyline hasn’t come all that far from last year’s climax, except for Daenerys and Jaime/Brienne.
2. Sansa doesn’t want to marry Tyrion, and Tyrion doesn’t want to marry Sansa. Also, they are both afraid of having sex with each other.
This has been made pretty clear over the last couple of episodes. Also, if you know anything about either character’s sensibilities, then you would probably have guessed that this would be their reaction without so much precious screen time spent talking about it.
Sansa is clearly going to detest any Lannister she is set up with. Not only that, but the girl has had a hard time letting go of the innocence and desires of her youth. “Growing up at Winterfell, all I ever wanted was to escape, to come here, to the capital. To see the southern knights and their painted armor, King’s Landing after dark, all the candles burning in all those windows.” She is– or, at least was– the “maiden fair” in the title’s song, expecting a knight to save her. Reality (and Joffrey) beat those notions out of her until the Flowers wooed her once more with the promise of a shiny young warrior, Ser Loras. Reality once again has set in, and it is not the beautiful knight she is getting, but the “hairy bear.”
She acknowledges that she’s a “stupid little girl with stupid dreams” for wanting things like a suitable husband from a family that hasn’t abused her for the last couple of years. But still, she’s being more than a little judgmental of Tyrion’s physical abilities. Luckily, the scene-stealing Margaery is here to instruct Sansa in the mysteries of sex, and in the end, Sansa seems to come away feeling a little comforted by the fact that Tyrion is the nicest of the Lannisters*, their babies would be lords and ladies of Casterly Rock and– potentially– the North, and she might actually enjoy herself in the process.
*Even if we don’t, Sansa surely remembers that her mother accused Tyrion of attempting to have her younger brother, Bran, killed. The knife was supposedly traced back to the Lannister. This is what set off the whole storyline in the Vale, where Catelyn had Tyrion fight for his innocence in a trial by combat. Bronn won the fight in Tyrion’s stead, so a Stark should be forgiven for not considering Tyrion to be fully “innocent” (though we know better as viewers).
Tyrion, meanwhile, frets over bedding Sansa. Part of the problem with understanding Sansa and other characters’ reactions to her is the fact that Sophie Turner is so tall and pretty that it’s very, very easy to forget just how young her character is supposed to be. She only just “flowered” last year. The decisions she makes, and the way people react to her, should all be viewed through the lens of a very young teenage girl. We can therefore forgive her for being utterly naive about sex. (“Did your mother teach you?” she wonders to a bemused Margaery, who seems to know an awful lot about finding pleasure in many forms.) Also, it means Tyrion is noble to be squeamish about having to perform his marital duties with her, and not so silly as he may seem to Bronn. But, still, it is nothing new to learn that he is hesitant about this marriage, and any more time spent on it is wasted, beyond the simple enjoyment of seeing Bronn and Tyrion banter on screen.
Still, this was probably the weakest Sansa sequence yet. George R.R. Martin is probably the worst scriptwriter for Sansa out of the whole bunch, which is odd if not unsurprising. Sophie Turner’s performance has been able to win more viewers than readers to her cause, though it’s episodes like this one that fuel the flames of irritation with her. Like Theon, there’s nothing left to learn of her strife and despair. Until she chooses to do something about it, if she chooses to do anything at all, it’d be best to avoid more pointless scenes of her being upset, no matter how justified those emotions may be.
3. Daenerys is using the intimidation of her dragons to free slaves from their oppressive overlords along the coast of Slaver’s Bay.
Daenerys once again flexes her new muscles, the Unsullied. On a high from successfully freeing the slaves from Astapor, Dany takes it upon herself to try the same with Yunkai. “We have 200,000 reasons to take that city,” she tells Ser Jorah after learning about how many slaves they own.
She meets with a wealthy Yunkai’i slaveowner, Grazdan, who offers her gifts of gold and ships in return for her promise not to attack. Daenerys, meanwhile, is much more concerned about the slaves that bore the weight of Grazdan’s litter up to her camp. This scene only further proves that Dany is on a spiritual quest to free the oppressed from bondage. “You will release every slave in Yunkai. Every man, woman, and child shall be given as much food, clothing, and property as they can carry as payment for their years of servitude. Reject this gift and I shall show you no mercy.”
Her new adversary reminds her that this mission is a sidetrack from her ultimate goal, and it’s hard not to agree. Certainly, she is no closer to Westeros than she was a season ago, and in fact seems to be drifting further away as she makes enemies in the East. Ser Jorah is concerned about getting mired in an attack on the walled city. However, the sooner she begins an actual siege on Yunkai, the sooner we’ll forgive her the distraction, because… dragons!
As for the friends Grazdan refers to, there are a couple of different theories. They may simply be other cities involved or invested in the slave trade. Or, since Yunkai is one of the biggest cities in Slaver’s Bay and unlikely to get much more aid from anyone else, especially after the fall of Astapor, there may be another group involved that is yet unknown to us.
4. There are wights beyond the Wall, and they’re dangerous.
Osha refuses to go beyond the Wall, as Bran intends to do. She tells Bran and the Reeds about how, when she was once above the Wall, her lover disappeared only to show up again as an undead creature with crystal blue eyes. (“He was mine, and I was his,” she says, a callback to how Ygritte describes her relationship with Jon.) When he attacked her, not even her blade could stop him. Only fire managed to put him down for good, as we saw when Jon Snow saved Lord Commander Mormont from a wight in season 1’s “The Pointy End” (also written by George R.R. Martin). This scene served almost no purpose. If anything, it only proved to Bran that the stories his former servant Old Nan used to tell him about winter and all its terrible creatures may be true, but it looks unlikely that it will affect his decision-making. Osha insists that she will take him to Castle Black to find his half brother, but no further.
5. Ygritte loves Jon, and Jon loves Ygritte.
Orell continues to be suspicious of Jon Snow, and now even seems to have some jealousy issues over his relationship with Ygritte. Orell and Ygritte both realize that Jon is not a true wildling at heart, only Ygritte doesn’t seem to care. Instead, she reminds him of his pledge to her over all else. We are also reminded that they are having sex, and how.
For one thing, we do get a little more insight into their relationship. It’s always nice (and rare) to see a couple in this series growing together with their clothes on. Ygritte has some great lines here, especially as she marvels over a simple windmill (“Who built it? Some king?”) and defies gender stereotypes (“What’s swooning?”). But Jon grows genuinely concerned that Ygritte is not being realistic when she imagines her band of wildlings conquering the North. He is clearly worried for her life, as there have been six wildling attacks in the last 1,000 years, all of which have failed. His honesty is open treason against the wildling cause, but Ygritte cares only that he is loyal to her, and he shows her as much with his heartfelt concern. She pulls him into a close embrace. “If we die, we die. But first we’ll live.”
6. Theon is being tortured, and we still don’t know why.
This is just too aggravating to discuss. We all understand that Theon is under extreme physical, and now psychological, distress. This scene was dangerously inane, from the nudity to the dialogue, and should have never happened. We learn nothing, and the writers are now at risk of making us numb to sympathizing with Theon. Any more of this and I feel the storyline is in serious jeopardy. This might be the show’s most problematic adaptation of the book’s material yet. Clearly, the producers have no faith in the power of our imagination with regards to this storyline, which was revealed in an entirely different (and more successful) way in the books.
Still, there were a handful of new developments in the episode:
1. Out of the fying pan and into the fire: Arya has been captured by the Hound.
Arya’s growing discontent with the Brotherhood Without Banners comes to a head when she realizes that they are not going to bring her to her mother and brother for ransom. When added to their selling Gendry to the Red Priestess, Arya can no longer suffer their hypocrisy. They have no honor and are not men of their word, which is surprising for such a religious group. When Beric Dondarrion preaches once more about the “One True God,” Arya retorts, “He’s not my one true god.” Beric is not surprised. “No? Who’s yours?” In homage to her old swordsmanship teacher Syrio Florel, she replies, simply: “Death.”
Syrio: “Do you pray to the gods?”
Arya: “The old and the new.”
Syrio: “There is only one God and his name is Death, and there is only one thing we say to Death: ‘Not today.'”
She can bear to wait for the group no longer, and takes advantage of their distraction over news of a group of Lannister bannermen nearby. As she flees them, their torches lit in the distance, she is caught among the trees by a tall creature we know instantly as the Hound.
2. Tyrion and Shae are on the rocks.
“I’m not your lady. I’m your whore.” Shae is heartbroken and jealous over the news of Tyrion’s impending marriage to Sansa. While supportive in the past, it appears that she cannot abide by disloyalty, and it’s hard to blame her, though it’s surprising for someone of her profession. In past outings, the show has done a good job building a genuine love between the two. Tyrion tries to coax her with verbal reminders of this affection, but only after he attempts to ply her forgiveness with an expensive gift, a move we’ve seen from many a scumbag in the past (i.e. the supposed “apology ring,” among countless others). He spends as much time describing the home and servants he’ll give her as he does on his actual feelings for her. We know that Tyrion has the best of intentions, but for once his silver tongue and sharp wits have failed him, and he’s unable to convince Shae of his love as easily as he should. While, in theory, Shae should be more understanding of this eventuality as a woman of her circumstance loving a man of his, it doesn’t necessarily mean that she has to be happy about it. And boy, is she not.
The scene ends when Shae leaves the room. As she goes, she leaves the door open, with the camera staring through at a forlorn Tyrion. She has not yet shut the door between them, but it is hard to see how a positive ending could come from this.
3. Talisa is pregnant with Robb’s baby.
There’s not much more to it than that, really. In my opinion, this couple is the least convincing of their love for one another. While both actors do a fine enough job, and are rather gorgeous to boot, this scene relies too heavily on Oona Chaplin’s butt and Richard Madden’s abs.
Aside from a very few couples in the history of Game of Thrones, most of the development of love between characters occurs because they have sex. They get closer by having more sex, or by talking after having sex– still naked, of course. This is not unique to the show, either, and is a favorite technique of George R.R. Martin in the books. The most compelling “love stories” in the TV series either haven’t happened at all (i.e. Jaime and Brienne; Arya and Gendry; Sansa and The Hound, to go off “The Bear and the Maiden Fair” theme) or are enriched by a shared experience that does not involve sex (i.e. Jon Snow saving Ygritte’s life on the Wall). I can’t help but feel that Robb and Talisa have been forced upon us through shots of these beautiful actors’ bodies entwined on many a bear skin rug.
There are theories out there about Talisa that I won’t mention here, though they are simply speculation at this point. Remember, Talisa is an invention of the show and is not a character from the books, so her pregnancy (and very existence) is a surprise even to book readers. Still, if you are curious about the theory, click here.
The interesting twist regarding the baby Stark is how it potentially affects the marriage of Sansa and Tyrion. After all, besides being a thorn in the Tyrell’s side, Tywin Lannister is hoping to secure the North by killing Robb and using Sansa to open it to him. With this pregnancy, Talisa now carries the potential heir to Winterfell, which would make Robb (and his cause) immortal. With an heir, Robb achieves immortality in the natural world; even if he is brought down on the battlefield, his line will live on through his child.
4. Joffrey is right, for once, but he’s still an insignificant joke compared to his grandfather.
In one of the best scenes of the episode, Tywin Lannister arrives as summoned (and begrudgingly escorted by the Kingsguard) to the throne room. The room is large an empty, though Joffrey took the time to have the large torches lit around the columns and sits in casual indifference at the other end. This act is quickly thwarted by an impatient Tywin, who is brought there to hear Joffrey’s complaints about being left out of the Small Council. Tywin has been conducting meetings in the Tower of the Hand, which is obviously closer to home. However, this location means that the king would have to travel quite a distance (and up a lot of stairs) to attend the meetings: a grievance for which Joffrey will not tolerate. That is, until Tywin mounts the dais. Suddenly, brought to his great height over his slouching grandson, the two once again assume their hierarchical roles, determined not by rank but by age. Joffrey is once again the little boy in his grandfather’s presence, and he backs down on his demands almost immediately.
When he changes the subject to Daenerys and the word of her dragons to the East, Tywin is unmoved, as always. He, too, has heard the news of the dragons (likely from Varys), but believes that the biggest race of these mystical creatures died out centuries ago. Joffrey, for once, is perhaps more correct in his caution over the threat, supposing that these dragons are of a race that will once again bring “the whole world to heel.” George R.R. Martin is of course having a bit of fun with us, letting us in on the secret that Joffrey is probably right in this instance; however, it’s just too irresistible to see him be verbally smacked around by his grandfather to give him much credit for foresight.
5. Jaime is amazing.
It’s official. It is now perfectly acceptable to openly and unabashedly proclaim my love for Jaime Lannister. As a character, Jaime has proved to be one of the most interesting of the series. He has gone from a smarmy sister-lover who pushes innocent children out of windows to a heroic rogue turned good guy. In the great tradition of Sawyer (Lost) or Han Solo (Star Wars), Jaime has proven himself to be a bad boy with a heart. Over the course of the last season or so, Jaime’s character has developed through a rich and multi-layered storyline. Ultimately, he has become one of the most successful characterizations in the entire series, and someone truly worth rooting for.
When he visits Brienne, who is locked up as a prisoner in Harrenhal, he finds her attempting to retain her dignity as she asks, cautiously, “Have they told you want they plan to do with me?” She tries to hold her chin high, but the utter stillness in her pink-garbed body belies her inner fears. Jaime can give her no comfort, as Locke has been left in charge of her. Certainly now, without the meddling and infinitely more valuable Kingslayer, there will be little chance of her escaping abuse. When she looks upset over this news, Jaime rushes to tell her that he owes her a debt, for when she kept him alive on the road when he had all but given up. In her infinite capacity for honor, Brienne asks not for herself, but for Jaime to aid in the fulfillment of her vow to Catelyn Stark, and to return Arya and Sansa to the North.
When Jaime agrees without reservations, Brienne calls him “Ser Jaime” for the first time, after he had been only “Kingslayer” for so long. This is the ultimate show of the faith they have placed in each other: Jaime takes on Brienne’s oath as his own, even though it will inevitably go against his family’s wishes; and Brienne, an expert on a dying breed of honor, finds enough honor in Jaime to see him as he wants to be seen, as a true knight and not, simply, a dishonorable Kingslayer. Jaime appears to be so moved that starts to say something, but is unable to continue. He leaves without saying goodbye.
Outside the walls of Harrenhal, as the maester Qyburn tends to his wounded arm, they discuss destroying lives in order to save them. For one, Qyburn has performed experiments on living sick men in order to better understand disease and ailments. When Jaime gives him a hard time for the morality of this, Qyburn asks how many people Jaime has killed. “Countless” is the answer. But, when asked how many lives he has saved, Jaime has a number immediately at the ready: “Half a million. The population of King’s Landing,” which he saved from the Mad King’s attempted chemical warfare by killing the man and betraying his oath as Kingsguard. Apparently, he makes Qyburn’s point, and both men move on to discussing Brienne and her father’s ransom.
Brienne’s father offers 300 dragons for her safe return, which is seen as an insult to Locke, who has somehow got it in his head that Tarth is full of sapphires. Therefore, Brienne is all but worthless as a ransom and, according to Qyburn, will be used by Locke and his men in ways that will turn the supposed insult around on Brienne’s father. Jaime appears horrified, because it was his story that put the idea of sapphires into Locke’s head, so he demands to go back to Harrenhal.
In the books, this decision is considered a little differently, and I think that it’s worth looking at, because it perfectly illustrates their relationship. It’s not a spoiler, but an added detail that works better in the book’s medium than on television. In the book, Jaime decides to return to Harrenhal after having a fever dream that he is trapped with Brienne in the caves under Casterly Rock. He dreams that the shadowy forms of the old Kingsguard and Prince Rhaegar Targaryen have come to pass judgment on him for slaying the Mad King Aerys and betraying his oath. He battles them with a lit sword, but it goes out. Only Brienne’s bright sword continues to fight the shadows for him.
When he returns for her in this episode, he finds a tragic imagining of “The Bear and the Maiden Fair,” as the pink-suited Brienne has been tossed into a ring with a menacing bear. Her pleased audience sings the song as she fights desperately to ward off each of the animal’s attacks. Jaime’s first reaction is horror, but not simply at her presence in the ring. He yells, “You gave her a wooden sword?” because, to him, that is the most egregious detail of this whole tragic performance. He believes in Brienne so much that he would expect her to defeat the creature if given the dignity of a fighting chance (and a real sword); the practice sword is not only a death sentence, but an insult to her honor, and that Jaime cannot abide.
Jaime jumps into the ring to help save Brienne, and his new Bolton protectors are all too happy to aid him if it means greater glory with Tywin Lannister. Jaime and Brienne are both pulled from the gruesome theater and released to continue their journey south, together.
The episode’s title comes from a popular bawdy song about thwarted expectations. A beautiful maiden attends a fair and hopes to be rescued by a handsome knight. A bear, attracted to her honey gold hair, saves her instead. At first, she is fearful and disappointed, but by the end of the song she’s singing “My bear so fair.”
Overall, the song is representative of a couple of popular motifs on Game of Thrones. For one, fair maidens are not often rescued by handsome knights, outside of fairy tales (Game of Thrones loves to remind us that it is not, in fact, one of them). It also shows how, for the most part, humans have a great capacity for coming to terms with their own realities, and even to find a sort of happiness in them.
Just as the girl is eventually able to find something in the bear, Jaime and Brienne are able to find something in each other. At the start, they are both the bear to the other’s fair maiden: alien, unattractive creatures unworthy of loyalty or love, because they did not fit either person’s fairy tale ideal. By song’s end, they have both not only come to terms with each other, but have found something to love and respect. “My bear so fair.”
Other thoughts on “The Bear and the Maiden Fair”:
- Not many more thoughts, since I still spent so much time on an episode I found to be relatively underwhelming.
- Ygritte’s observations about the ridiculousness of swooning and fainting females are perfect: “Girls see more blood than boys.” I love her gender non-conformity, and I love Jon Snow for also loving her for it.
- Jaime Lannister: “Tell Robb Stark I’m sorry I couldn’t make his uncle’s wedding. The Lannisters send their regards.”