Game of Thrones: The Bear and the Maiden Fair

“I have a gift for you as well: your life.”

It’s tempting to declare the theme of this episode in one simple word: genitalia. Male, female, treated well and treated…less well. But since I’m not sure a body part can be a theme, I’m going to stretch it a bit and say the theme is that people are selfish, rotten jerks most of the time, and the rest of the time they’re victims. That is, they’re either bears or metaphorical “maidens,” torturers or tortured—and sometimes the same person can be both.

Take Theon. His character in both the books and the films is polarizing: some of us are bored by him, some of us annoyed, and some really like him. The torturer’s decision to castrate Theon is undeniably awful (I’m glad they faded out before the deed was done), but it’s also crazy-gruesome and raises a rather important question: why? Not “why did the torturer do that?”—clearly, he’s a psychopath. But “why did George R.R. Martin go there?” And that question is particularly apt, since this episode, like last season’s “Blackwater,” was penned by him.

Perhaps Martin wants to emphasize that real life is full of low blows. You or I might not consider castration, or treachery, or sacking a city, but we aren’t participants in Westerosi culture. The torturer is, and he wants to cause as much psychological damage as he possibly can. In that way, he’s not much different from Locke, who cut off Jaime Lannister’s hand a few episodes ago.

Jaime is still formidable, although he continues to rely on his father’s power to get what he needs. In this case, what he needed was to rescue Brienne, which is a testament to how much their relationship has grown. I’d say that the turning point was their sword fight just before they were captured: we’ve seen before how lively Jaime becomes when discussing battles and jousts; he sees Brienne as a peer, albeit a non-normative one.

Many fans looked forward to Brienne’s fight with the bear, which is a key scene in the books and an undeniably horrifying one, since it shows the brutal side of a culture so familiar with violent death: death as pleasurable spectacle. It also picks up on one of the book’s songs, “The Bear and the Maiden Fair,” which we got a taste of a few times in the past couple episodes. But the way this episode juxtaposes sexual, genitalial, and romantic tensions emphasize that there are many bears (both male and female) and many “maidens fair” (of any gender). The world is fully of uncomfortable power dynamics.

As in the delightful Joffrey/Tywin scene. Joffrey is too little for his throne: Tywin loomed over him, mocked him, and made him feel infantile. I dislike Tywin Lannister as much as the next fan of the Starks (and of Tyrion), but I have to admit that Tywin would have been the one person to possibly have done a decent job raising Joffrey right. Obviously, it’s too late for that. Joffrey’s way past losing his metaphorical maidenhead.

And, obviously, so has Dany. Her transition from timid young sister traded by Viserys to powerful khalessi, mother of dragons, and sacker of cities has transformed her literally from a “maiden fair” to something of a bear—at least in the eyes of the slaveholders of Yunkai. I’m delighted by the way she abandoned any pretense of respecting diplomatic immunity (if anything like that exists in this world; it usually does). And I was delighted by the white dress—to most westerners, a white dress implies virginity and purity. Dany is pure in a different, powerful way.

Unlike Sansa, who is struggling with marrying a dwarf she’s not attracted to. Most of us think Sansa is a dull character, but her dullness covers the beauty of her inherent simplicity: she doesnn’t seem to really care if her future son is a lord of Casterly Rock and the North. She doesn’t seem to care that Tyrion might be a good lover (as Margaery seems to hint). She just wants safety, stability, and a bit of old-fashioned fairy-tale romance.

But while Sansa sees Tyrion as something of a bear, he sees himself—and we see him—as just as much a victim of this miserable arranged marriage. His relationship with Shae is real in this show in a way that it isn’t in the books, and I like that the writers show the reality of the relationship by emphasizing the conflicts. Tyrion Lannister can’t marry his “funny whore.” He can only give her golden chains—the symbolism of which Shae sees much more clearly than Tyrion does.

Is the Sansa/Tyrion misunderstanding similar to what Melissandre is doing? She has Gendry, and she’s told him about her own lowborn past, as well as his true parentage. She seems, at this point, to be the “bear” in the relationship: she has the mystical power of a remarkable god behind her, plus a few tricks of her own. But is she right, and is the Lord of Light really the “one true god” meant to save everyone? If so, is she justified in doing whatever she’s planning to do to Gendry?

The power dynamics are less ambiguous in one of this episode’s many tete-a-tetes: Arya, running from the Brotherhood, has been captured by the Hound. What on earth will he do to her?

Grumpkins and Snarks:

• Margaery: “He’s rather good-looking even with the scar. Especially with the scar.”

• Tywin: “We could arrange to have you carried.”

A few fun things I couldn’t work into my review:

• Qyburn performed experimental vivisection.
• Osha is unwilling to return to the North (and with good reason).
• How cool was it that both she and Orell the warg got little character moments?
• Margaery hinted that she’s had a lot of sexual experience.
• And Jon got some useful lovemaking advice. “Baby seal.” Ahem.

Reminder: book spoilers happen here.

Three out of four bears and maidens fair.

Josie Kafka reviews The Vampire Diaries, True Detective, Game of Thrones, and various other things that take her fancy. She is a full-time cat servant and part-time rogue demon hunter. (What's a rogue demon?)


celticmarc said...

Ahhh, now I know what people meant with THE bear ! Some very difficult moments to watch. Still glad that I live is THIS realm.

Mark Greig said...

Anchorman has ruined the bear scene for me. I can't watch it without hearing Ron Burgundy say "I Immediately Regret This Decision".

Freeman said...

I got a real kick outta the Tywin/Joffrey scene. He really made Joffrey look so insignificant like a little boy being scolded.

Every time Jaime does something risky i feel like a limb's gonna pop off now. He's gotta be more careful haha. Speaking of horrible disfigurement, it was only a matter of time before Theon got the snip snip. Dreadful, but compelling.

Josie Kafka said...

Mark, is there a Game of Thrones reference in Anchorman?!

Unknown said...

No but there is a bear and a 'maiden' fair.

Anonymous said...

I've really really had it with the Theon torture scenes. It's almost making me feel sorry for him, and I didn't think that was possible. As well as revolting, it's just boring going over the same ground over and over. He's being tortured, we get it.

I've never found Sansa to be a boring character. I think all of the Starks fight with what they have: Sansa isn't ready with the violence like her sister, but she's been dealt a terrible hand being trapped in that nest ofvipers in King's Landing and she's playing it with all th eweapons at her disposal, such as they are. I think ths is maybe more evident in the book - TV Sansa does seem a little bit weak and silly, whereas book Sansa might be naive, but she's no fool and learns quickly.


Jess Lynde said...

Yes, I agree that I've had enough with the Theon torture. At first, I thought it was good to establish what a sick, sick man his torturer was, and to give us an idea of what was happening to Theon. But, at this point, I would prefer the abuse happen off screen, then they can later show us the effect. We've gotten enough to know what's happening to him and there's little reason to keep showing the actual breaking of Theon.

This week, I quite liked Dany's sequence and the scene between Tywin and Joffrey. But I was rather underwhelmed by the bear scene. I'm not sure what I was expecting, but this felt a little under baked to me. I did like the initial parting scene between Jaime and Brienne though. Very well done.

Overall, not the best episode for me. Probably my least favorite thus far, this season.

Gus Brunetti said...

I was disappointed by the bear scene too, Jess. The moment I was waiting for the most was the dialogue that closes the chapter:

"Why did you come back?"
"I dreamed of you"

It's a pity the show doesn't explore the unconscious of the characters so much. Many decisions that are in fact made on a whim come off as deliberate and scheming. Case in point: Bran, in the show, is a boring character and his storyline seems pointless. In the books, I confess, he's not the most fascinating of characters, but the Reeds are intriguing and the journey he goes on is interesting. And Hodor is adorable.

The books have a fatal flaw, though: we never see Joffrey cowering before Tywin. Josie, I not only think he'd have raised a better Joffrey, I sometimes think he'd be the best king for Westeros. Well, not the best, but certainly better than Aeris, Robert or Joffrey.

Mark Greig said...

Since Anchorman came out 4 years after A Storm of Swords, it is entirely possible that the climatic bear scene is a shout out to GRRM.

Juliette said...

I felt like this episode didn't hang together as well as the last two (though I love your suggested theme Josie!). It was very doom-laden too - showing Robb and Talisa together right after Orell insisted that people only love each other when it suits them was particularly interesting and made me wonder for the first time if Talisa is trustworthy, or if there's something going on with her (which I enjoyed in a way, since she's not a book character so I genuinely don't know!)

I hated the Theon scene, which went on far too long, and I would have preferred more Jaime, less Jon. But I liked the bear scene - though I'd really hoped Jaime would shove Locke into the pit at the end!

Sooze said...

Gus, I agree. I liked the way Jaime came about the rescue in the book better than here. There are many dreams in the book that I guess can't be portrayed as well here. Arya has one in particular that I am thinking of.

The_Wanderer said...

There was a lot of relationship checkups in this episode, but they really hadn't checked up on the state of the various romantic relationships in quite some time. The way the Jaime/Brienne situation played out seemed like a parody of the damsel in distress situation, which was clever. I wrote a blog article that goes more into detail about all of the relationships that were explored in this Game of Thrones episode, its linked below if you're interested in reading it.

I liked the extra added history and other minor details that could have only come in from GRRM. I ended up appreciating the episode a lot more when I watched it a second time.

Julia said...

I really like what you wrote about Sansa. I've never found her to be dull, on the contrary. She has been a pawn for so long, and yet it's as if she still refuses to play the game, and instead holds on to her own values, naive as they may be - love, beauty, loyalty. In the midst of all the lies and scheming of Kings Landing, it's kind of refreshing.