Game of Thrones rarely does as much running in place as it did in last night's "The Bear and the Maiden Fair" — an episode that has the ignominious distinction of having both the weakest material and the least amount of forward momentum of the third season.
"The Bear and the Maiden Fair" — which was, surprisingly, written by series creator George R.R. Martin — had a lot of scenes in which characters told other characters about things that we, as an audience, have already known about for several episodes (and in some cases, seasons). Melisandre tells Gendry he's the bastard son of Robert Baratheon. Sansa and Tyrion have doubts about their wedding. Daenerys threatens somebody who underestimates her dragons. Osha tells Bran and the Reeds about wights. Ygritte reaffirms that she and Jon Snow are inextricably tied to one another, regardless of what happens in the battle they're about to fight.
There was some minor forward momentum along the way — Arya was kidnapped by the Hound, and Tyrion and Shae seem to have broken up for good — but at the end of "The Bear and the Maiden Fair," everyone was more or less where we left them at the end of last week's installment.
Most egregious of all the rehashed stories was the torture inflicted, yet again, on Theon Greyjoy, in the season's most gruesome and maddeningly repetitive storyline. I'm beginning to suspect that Game of Thrones' writers have been coming up with this season's Theon scenes using Mad Libs. You can do it, too: Just pick a torture method. Then describe the unconvincing hope that Theon will escape somehow. Then insert the appearance of his sadistic captor with an even worse torture prepared. And repeat.
And really: Game of Thrones has been unfairly criticized at times for its allegedly gratuitous content, but the show is much harder to defend as a whole after an episode in which two women strip down to have sex with a befuddled prisoner before the Westerosi equivalent of the Jigsaw killer shows up to castrate him. (He really should have announced his arrival with a sad trombone.)
Despite its many flaws, "The Bear and the Maiden Fair" wasn't a total loss. Fortunately, the episode was bookended by one major revelation and one major action scene, and both were far more effective than anything else the episode had to offer.
Let's start with the revelation: Talisa is pregnant with Robb Stark's child, which means there's a Prince or Princess of the North on the way. It's a logical development for the series, but a bold one, and it makes the politics of the upcoming Tyrion Lannister-Sansa Stark union far more complicated. In "The Bear and the Maiden Fair," Margaery tells Sansa that the child she has with Tyrion will be heir to both the North and Casterly Rock, but that's only if both Robb and his unborn heir both die first — and as Arya, Bran, and Rickon have demonstrated, the Starks have an uncanny knack for surviving far longer than anyone could expect.
And then there's the set piece, which gives the episode its title, as Jaime Lannister returns to Harrenhal to rescue Brienne of Tarth from a doomed fight with a bear, which she's been subjected to at the hands of Locke and his cronies. This isn't the subtlest of moments in the season-long redemption of Jaime Lannister, but it's undeniably effective: Jaime throws himself into the bear pit, helps Brienne escape, and stares down Locke until he and Brienne are allowed to leave unencumbered. He even manages a final kiss-off line, snarking, "I'm sorry about the sapphires" as he and Brienne walk away.
But despite Jaime's brief foray into Arnold Schwarzenegger-level action heroics, it's an earlier comment from Locke that really stands out. "All you lords and ladies still think that the only thing that matters is gold," says Locke. "Well, this makes me happier than all your gold ever could. And that makes me happier than all her sapphires."
More often than not, Game of Thrones is concerned with rewards: Who gets gold, who gets titles, who gets land, and who gets to sit on the Iron Throne. But we're spending more and more time with people who are content to throw away the rules of high society and honor by which our heroes are still seemingly bound. With just three episodes left in the season, the question remains: Is there any room left for honor in Westeros, or did it die with Ned Stark at the end of season one? We may be playing the game of thrones, but there are plenty of people who are clearly unafraid to break its rules.
Read more Game of Thrones recaps:
* Game of Thrones recap: 'The Climb'
* Game of Thrones recap: The high price of honor
* Game of Thrones recap: Revenge is a dish best served hot
* Game of Thrones recap: 'Walk of Punishment'
* Game of Thrones recap: The women of Westeros
* Game of Thrones recap: 'Valar Dohaeris'