“The Bear and the Maiden Fair”
May 12th, 2013
“How do the men holding the banners fight?”
I’m always interested by what online conversation refers to as “Filler” episodes. By all accounts, “The Bear and the Maiden Fair” fits the bill as far as I understand it: no major events take place, a lot of storylines are merely ways of reminding us of what’s about to happen and the stakes for those involved, and there’s not that big triumphant moment that takes the story in a new direction.
As a result, “The Bear and the Maiden Fair” never evolves into a particularly exciting hour of television, content mostly to sketch out the boundaries of the season’s storylines in preparation for the oncoming climax. In the hands of A Song of Ice and Fire author George R.R. Martin, the hour functions not unlike the dominant narratives of his books: a lot of people talking about doing something or going somewhere or being someone. At times cheeky in its references to future book material, the episode mostly settles for a sort of muddled clarity, a promise that there is a future even while acknowledging it to be a dark and complicated one.
It’s the equivalent of Arya running out into the dark on her own. She wants to leave the Brotherhood behind because they betrayed Gendry by sending him off with Melisandre, and mean to betray her by straying from their course to Riverrun (where her family isn’t even at, of course), but she’s running out into a night that is dark and full of Cleganes. Arya wants control over her future, and so she abandons the muddled uncertainty of the Brotherhood’s hunt for gold and glory in favor of her own muddled certainty of running off on her own. It’s a large part of her independent streak, an unwillingness to accept the position that has been afforded her and a desire to prove herself capable in other ways. Those other ways are no less complicated than becoming a lady and marrying a prince; in many ways, they are even more dangerous should she have gotten her wish and fought on the battlefield with her Needle. However, they are also much more certain, her fate within her own hands as opposed to those of others.
That’s the one thread that’s really holding this hour together, and the point that Martin’s script seeks to make: in the Game of Thrones, your fate is only your own if you’re in a position to claim it. Power is not just about status or title, but rather about psychology and circumstance. Sansa has status and title, but that is actually what strips her of her power as her circumstance makes her an easy target for the Lannisters in their quest to solidify their claim to Westeros. Robb Stark has named himself King of the North, but he’s also in the process of marching to bow at the feet of a man who has the troops necessary to win his war. Jon Snow has status and title, but he’s given it up to join the Night’s Watch, and given that up to become a Wildling where such status means nothing. There, it’s just about the trust you have in another human being, a trust that Ygritte doesn’t find in the gods or the realm but rather in Jon Snow and, more importantly, herself.
“The Bear and the Maiden Fair” almost makes the argument that if you want to survive this game, you need to be willing to abandon the established social order in circumstances where it will no longer serve your interest. Jon Snow is perhaps right that the Wildlings are too unregimented to successfully claim Westeros as their own, but at the same time they’ve learned not to put their trust in anything but one another. It’s a lesson that Jaime took to heart as he returns to Harrenhal once he realizes that trusting Locke and the system of hostage negotiations to bring her safely home to Tarth would prove unwise. At first he believes he was responsible for her death, his attempt to save her from being raped convincing Locke that there was a greater bounty to be had than the gold dragons offered, but when he arrives he discovers that it wasn’t about money: it was about pride. Locke simply wanted the pleasure of seeing a bear maul her to death, something Jaime protects by putting his own life—more valuable than Brienne’s—at risk. It’s a selfless act, and gives the episode its most explicitly heroic sequence as Jaime asserts his own social power to protect someone who lacks it.
It’s also a sequence where Brienne is handicapped by her circumstance. That’s the situation Theon Greyjoy has been in all season, even before he realized it, and tonight’s bit of mind games from his captors served as a critique of his power. On the one hand, the sequence explored what power Theon has over his own impulses, his abject fear eventually overcome by his sexual desire; however, on the other hand, the sexual foreplay simultaneously reinforced that what Theon once used as a source of power with women is also able to be taken away from him. Not content to simply confine Theon through circumstance—you don’t have much power when you’re tied up like that—his captors instead want to take away that which gives him power in the real world. The choice to dramatize Theon’s castration creates symmetry with the loss of Jaime’s hand, in the process laying out a fairly strong critique of Theon’s person if his penis was his more treasured body part.
It’s also a sequence, though, that raises questions about the degree to which Game of Thrones can actually critique other forms of social power within Westeros. I saw at least a few tweets that referred to its objectification, and I certainly cringed at the same kind of blunt sexual dialogue that often plagued the books (this is not only the show’s problem). The two female characters position themselves as objects, assert their agency only in the name of their male superior, and are pushed to the background once the guards come in to perform their castration duties. They may be asserting their power over Theon, but only because they have been ordered to do so. Much like the infamous scene that launched a now infamous term, where Littlefinger helped train two of his girls how to hold power over their clients through submissive performance, does this give the women agency or simply circumscribe their agency within the power of the men who own them? And how do we understand this critique operating when the show, although presenting this as a larger point about social power and sexuality, is lingering on their naked bodies in a way that does little to undermine such hierarchies?
My view on the issue is that their sexual performance was not incidental to the sequence, but rather central to its psychosexual assault on Theon. We could have a larger discussion about why the psychosexual assault was necessary, and indeed one could discuss whether it has been “necessary” for Theon’s torture to become such a consistent throughline of the season at all. However, I do think it helps illustrate that despite being the only character who is actually being tortured and slowly cut down, other characters are in similar positions. Sansa and Margaery’s conversation in this episode is all about what they can do from within positions of subjugation, while Shae might try to figure out her place in Tyrion’s life now that his duty has been forced to outweigh his desire. While it is unfortunate that the show never gave us a true glimpse into the specificity of prostitutes within the series, and that their one attempt to do so—Ros—ended in such a violent, horrific way so as to strip the thread of any nuance (if consistent with the social hierarchies of the novels and their setting), at the same time they offer a thematic window into the ways in which no single character stands outside of those hierarchies, or rather how no single character can stand outside of those hierarchies for very long.
One could argue there are two exceptions at the moment. The first is Tywin Lannister, who is undoubtedly in control of Westeros if anyone is at this stage. His scene with Joffrey stands out in the episode because of the fluidity of the power dynamics, Tywin beginning the scene in service of his king and ending the scene in control of his grandson. It’s a simple bit of staging (Tywin moving from the bottom of the stairs to the top), but it’s also a tremendous piece of acting by both Charles Dance and Jack Gleeson, and a sequence that demonstrates the degree to which Joffrey’s title means little compared to Tywin’s larger sense of control. It’s also a reaffirmation of patriarchal control, the same kind of control that Margaery can only imagine stamping out by trying to do her best to influence her son in a way Cersei has failed to influence her own.
However, Daernerys is another story. She also holds control of her own destiny, an army who is devoted to her and who will follow her to the end of the earth. But despite a level of autonomy and freedom, and despite being offered the tools necessary to cross the sea to Westeros, Dany isn’t capable of overlooking the social inequality right in front of her. Her efforts to free the Unsullied may have given her an army with which she could take Westeros, but those efforts were never about Westeros. They were about fighting a slaver’s hubris and chauvinism, and about waging a war against cruelty and injustice. None of the people who want to lay claim to the throne of Westeros are doing so for the sake of social justice: part of this is because there is no longer outright slavery in Westeros, but part of it is also because their claims to power are dependent on the social order and the security it offers. Dany’s power may derive in part from her dragons and her title, but they are not what drive her to make the decisions she makes. Of the show’s characters, she is the one who has stood up most consistently against cultures of rape and slavery in which she feels complicit; however, she’s also one of the few characters who has the luxury of independence and isolation.
What an episode like “The Bear and the Maiden Fair” helps with is keeping that position from being isolated and independent. Although this is an episode that bounces across nearly every storyline, leaving out only a few characters (Cersei most prominent among them), it was also an episode that did a nice job of building a world in which these characters co-exist as opposed to a collection of worlds that happen to be connected. Tywin’s long walk down the empty hall of the throne room represents the hollowness of Joffrey’s power just as the long procession of Unsullied that the Yunkai leader is forced to ride past is representative of the solidity of Dany’s. Even the romantic pairings, never the show’s strong suit, felt stronger when we got to see moments of intimacy from both Robb/Talisa and Jon/Ygritte in which their differences and similarities rose to the surface. While technically not the most eventful episode, these series of isolated sequences nonetheless put a mirror up to the show, creating a series of potential connections that I found more interesting the more I started writing about them, a good sign for the culmination of those connections in the weeks to come.
- Orell’s sudden interest in Ygritte didn’t make a whole lot of sense until he suggested that Ygritte won’t like Jon so much when she knows what he really is. I’m interested to see where they go with that, something that they’ve been building into this season but actually haven’t explore to the degree they could.
- “You waste time trying to get people to love you, you’ll end up the most popular dead guy in town.” Bronn isn’t wrong, but I’m wondering how we contrast this with Margaery’s strategy for taking over control of the kingdom, even with Sansa and Lora both married to Lannisters. Does this statement apply equally to men and women?
- “What would I do there? Juggle?” No comment on this one, GRRM.
- I’m not sure if Melisandre laying out Gendry’s paternity was all that subtle a sequence, but I really loved the visual of the wreckage-strewn Blackwater with the Red Keep in the background. CGI-dependent, certainly, but striking.
- My favorite punchline in the episode was easily Osha complaining about Bran’s closeness with Jojen, and then her attempt to look to Hodor for affirmation. Brilliance.