Far more than any other show on television, Game of Thrones uses what few hours it has each season to arrange characters and set events into motion that will become important somewhere down the line. And considering the vast majority of the storytelling comes from small actions and discussions of said events, the series has learned to make the most of this format and frequently comes away with entertaining bits of set-up like 'The Bear and the Maiden Fair'
By and large, the episode is a late-season de-cluttering, a shifting of the pieces to get them into the right position as the story winds its way toward the events that will likely shape and define season 3 far more than the various storylines, maimings and maneuverings have thus far.
It's another busy episode, but there's enough going on in most of the narratives that the audience has a better grasp of what's at stake for each character – though Theon's continued torment at the hands of his unnamed assailant is feeling rather tedious – to ensure the shuffling of plots can comfortably cruise along on the goodwill and momentum of the three superlative episodes which recently aired. (This is in contrast to earlier in the season when the reorganization of plots lumbered somewhat, as they collectively tried to pick up speed.)
And so, after the excitement that came from Dany's sacking of Astapor and the visual and symbolic treat that was the triumphant scaling of the Wall by Jon Snow and Ygritte (along with the others that didn't perish on the way up), 'The Bear and the Maiden Fair' slows things down a bit to more closely examine the idea of relationships and what, if anything, each individual manages to get from them.
Early on, Jon Snow's still a bit perturbed about Orell's selfish act of cutting the rope that held him and Ygritte in order to save his own life. Orell makes it clear to Snow that, in his experience, people act with their own best interests at heart, and sacrifice and loyalty only come into play when it "suits them."
Orell's line of thinking is reminiscent of Littlefinger's, who is willing to throw the whole realm into chaos if it means he can move up in the Westeros power rankings. It's a nihilistic approach that works for men like Orell and Littlefinger, as they seem motivated entirely by thoughts of possession (i.e., power over a certain red-headed Wildling). But it goes against the view of men like Jon Snow and, surprisingly, Jaime Lannister, who are - in this case, anyway - more compelled by loyalty (to a concept or to an individual) than they are by the acquisition of a thing.
But Jon's bound between two vows (the one he gave to the Night's Watch and the one he pledged to Ygritte) and soon, he'll likely be asked to choose one or the other. Meanwhile, Jaime winds up returning to Harrenhal to rescue Brienne (from a bear, mind you), even though she's released him from his debt to her.
The notion of loyalty (and especially vows) carries over to all corners of the realm as Cat Stark seems to be the only one amongst her son's entourage fearful of angering the "prickly" Walder Frey more than he already is over Robb's dishonorable shirking of his vow, while at King's Landing, Tyrion and Sansa wrestle with the notion of their pending nuptials. In Tyrion's case, Shae wants him to cut and run, but he claims loyalty to his family has bound him to this fate – especially since Tyrion's options outside the Lannister name and wealth are woefully few.
Clearly, loyalties are a fluid thing and may be given up at the first sign of a resurrected man. Look at how quickly the Brotherhood Without Banners sent Gendry off with Melisandre - and after all that talk about not being obliged to anyone, too.
Perhaps most striking is how Daenerys has managed to rise to such a powerful position in (what probably just feels like) a relatively short amount of time, and how much of that is due to the loyalty she's been granted by Ser Jorah, Barristan Selmy, the few Dothraki still in her party and now the legion of Unsullied at her command. She may be on the far side of the world, but at the rate she's going, Dany will be a threat to King's Landing long before Tywin decides she's worth taking seriously.
All in all, major shifts seem to be looming and 'The Bear and the Maiden Fair' does an admirable job of setting them in motion.
Game of Thrones continues next Sunday with 'Second Sons' @9pm on HBO. Check out a preview below: