At first glimpse, the climb referred to in "The Climb" — the title of last night's excellent episode of Game of Thrones — seems fairly straightforward: The massive, breathtaking ascendance made by Jon Snow and his enemies/allies in the wildling army. The scene — in which these wildling fighters scale a 700-foot sheer ice wall to get into Westeros — is tense, and wonderfully staged by director Alik Sakharov. And we still don't really know if Jon has actually switched sides in the upcoming conflict between the Night's Watch and the wildlings. Ygritte, for one, makes a pretty convincing case to abandon both sides altogether. "We're just soldiers in their armies," she says. "It's you and me that matters to me and you. Don't ever betray me." If the lusty kiss Jon and Ygritte shared when they finally reached the top of the wall is any indication, her words have reached him.

But really, the climb of "The Climb" isn't just about the wildlings' vertical ascent. It's also metaphorical, as Littlefinger reveals in a speech to Varys. Littlefinger's words are undeniably and chillingly effective. "Chaos isn't a pit. Chaos is a ladder," he says. "Many who try to climb it fail. Never get to try again. The fall breaks them."

While Littlefinger's focus remains skyward, "The Climb" finds many of our heroes lamenting the pits that fate has dropped them into. "If you think this has a happy ending, you haven't been paying attention," says Theon Greyjoy's sadistic torturer as he makes Theon beg to have his own finger sliced off. "There is no other side. I have been to the darkness, my lady," says Beric Dondarrion, referring to his belief that none of the Westerosi gods — not even Melisandre's cultishly followed Lord of Light — is present in the endless nothingness of death. The irony, of course, is that all these people have made the choices Littlefinger is talking about. Theon may be utterly helpless at the hands of his tormentor, but that's only because his own attempt to climb the ladder failed so dramatically. Beric's multiple deaths and resurrection have brought him power, but left him with scars both physical and mental.

And then there's Robb Stark, whose selfish decision to break his marriage contract with the Freys has consequences that affect the fate of the entire realm. Representatives from the Freys arrive to greet Robb, agreeing to lend their army's support for a series of conditions: A formal apology from Robb; ownership of Harrenhal, the massive, foreboding fortress where Arya spent much of season two; and the hand of Robb's uncle Edmure, who will be married off to Walder Frey's daughter Roslyn.

In real life, a hand and a fortress are quite a price. But in Westeros, the terms of Walder's support are fairly reasonable, and I wonder if the series should have made them a little steeper. We've spent so little time with Edmure Tully that it's hard to feel much of anything about his impending nuptials. Wouldn't this whole situation have had more weight if Walder Frey had demanded the hand of someone we really care about — the newly widowed Catelyn would have been a logical choice — or even asked Robb to break his marriage to Talisa? For someone who's holding all the cards, Walder's demands seem eminently reasonable, and it's no surprise that Robb agrees to them so readily.

And with many of the characters in "The Climb" dangling like marionettes, who are the people holding the strings? The answer, unsurprisingly, is Tywin Lannister and Olenna Tyrell, who exchange a series of barbs before making a deal to wed Cersei to Ser Loras, which leaves Sansa Stark free to marry Tyrion. The fact that none of these people are even remotely enthused about their sudden, impending nuptials is irrelevant. The resulting political allegiance sews up all of Westeros for the Lannisters and the Tyrells. It's almost unfair to other TV shows for Game of Thrones to put Charles Dance and Diana Rigg in the same scene together; one has the sense that these characters, if given an hour or so together, could hash out the entire fate of Westeros together.

Unfortunately, the end of "The Climb" shows us just how dismal the fate of Westeros is looking, with King Joffrey comfortably seated on the Iron Throne. As the episode draws to a close, we learn that Littlefinger has given Joffrey a very special parting gift: Ros, a prostitute-turned-player who ended up as target practice for the sadistic king after she crossed Littlefinger. Ros' death carries a lot of weight for viewers, who have followed her since the very beginning. But it will go utterly ignored by the vast majority of Westeros (with the hopeful, possible exception of Tyrion, who holds her in a fair amount of esteem). It's an ugly reminder that the climb isn't for everyone, and that there are dramatic consequences for anyone who tries and fails to make it to the top.

Read more Game of Thrones recaps:

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'