If you have ever wondered what could possibly upstage a gladiatorial stand-off with a huge, angry bear, the gladiator in question armed only with a wooden sword, the most recent episode of “Game of Thrones” has an answer: sexposition hastily followed by a penectomy.
What has been happening to Theon Greyjoy this season is off book. In the novels, Theon is brutally tortured, but not on the page. The details of his ordeal are coming entirely from David Benioff, D.B. Weiss and their writers— and they are ghastly. In this episode— titled “The Bear and the Maiden Fair,” which you’ll recall is the folk song the Hold Steady sang over the end credits of this season’s third episode — a brutalized Theon is untied, given water, and then groped and mounted by two beautiful young and eventually naked women until, even in his half-living state, he becomes aroused. The whole encounter is so surreal and perverse it seems like a dream, but it’s not. As Theon starts to writhe, his sociopathic torturer re-emerges, remarks on Theon’s known cocksmanship, and then, as the camera cuts away, presumably cuts off his penis.
The two naked women immediately tie this scene to “Game of Thrones” most infamous moment of sexposition, when Littlefinger lectured and lectured while two of his whores practiced faking it. What is that callback meant to communicate? Is it the “Game of Thrones’” writers flipping off the prudes who complain about sexposition? The writers encouraging the audience to expect one thing— something salacious and frisky— therefore making what follows all the more horrifying? The writers giving the audience a version of Theon’s own arc, something unexpectedly titillating followed by something unexpectedly sickening?
I find what’s happening to Theon thoroughly horrifying, but a woman didn’t need to strip down to her Brazilian to make it so. Gratuitous nudity does not make debatably less gratuitous violence “better,” more real, horrible, felt etc . It’s an act of meta-debasement— here are two chicks with unclear motivations who will doff their clothes and play the part of medieval hookers for a few minutes— followed by a moment of character debasement. Theon, even self-involved, jealous, petty Theon, deserves better treatment and so do these women.
A different kind of sexposition — exposition about sex, not exposition accompanied by people having sex— is all over this episode. Jon Snow gets a wilding’s advice on how to be a good lover — “Don’t jam it in like you’re spearing a baby pig”— which it continues to look like he doesn’t need. Orell (it is very hard for me not to call him Gareth) is convinced that Ygritte and Jon are a bad match, and tries to convince them of the same. He thinks Ygritte doesn’t see Jon for what he is and only likes him because he’s so pretty. (“You love his pretty hair and his pretty eyes,” he says, in what is most definitely a shout out to Kit Harrington fans.) And he tells Jon that Ygritte understands what he does not, that “people are loyal when it suits ‘em, love each other when it suits ‘em, kill each other when it suits ‘em” and his failure to grok this means “you’ll never hold on to her.”
But Jon and Yrgitte are much more sophisticated than Orell knows, closer in comprehension than they appear from the outside. Jon is more canny than his pretty eyes make him appear: he is loyal and loving because, among other things, it suits him. Ygritte knows Jon’s loyalties are compromised, but she is not as mercenary as Orell thinks she is. Her eyes are wide open, but she still thinks a windmill is a castle. She hears Jon’s real meaning when he says “if you attack the wall, you’ll die, all of you,” but she can accept his otherness for now: “You’re mine, as I am yours. If we die we’ll die. But first we’ll live.” The two of them are working out how to be together, with different loyalties, in a mutable situation. They are also just working out how to be together: you can hear Jon learning how to talk dirty to her, being the kind of macho flirt she likes, the one who wants to tear off her silk dress, not just look at her in it.
Not learning things nearly fast enough is Sansa Stark, who excoriates herself as a “stupid, stupid little girl with stupid dreams, who never learns.” She is right. Sansa talks with Margaery about how repulsive she finds Tyrion, and not just because he’s a Lannister. Margaery patiently explains that “women in our position, must make the best of our circumstances” and then acts as the audience stand in, pointing out Tyrion’s merits: good guy, cute, sexually experienced. Sansa, however, is fixated on one detail: “He’s a dwarf.” Even after her experience with Joffrey, she still judges a man by his trappings, still has a bias towards the Tiger Beat.
Margaery, who is showing real kindness here — if Sansa must marry Tyrion, she’s not strategically valuable to the Tyrells anymore — continues to give Sansa a sex positive perspective on Tyrion’s virtues. “Most women don’t know what they like, until they’ve tried it. And sadly so much of us get to try so little until we’re old and grey… You know we’re very complicated. It takes practice.” Sansa’s reaction to Margaery’s speech — “did you mother teach you this?” — is both a great and a sad joke. Sansa just is not scaling the learning curve fast enough. She is not cut out for this world, she is too naïve, too slow on the uptake. Margaery, having done all she can, pats Sansa on the arm and let’s her go on thinking the sweet, innocent, unhelpful thoughts in her head.
Margaery says something else important to Sansa, which she probably barely hears: “Sons learn from their mothers — and I plan to teach mine a great deal.” Maternal influence comes up over and over again on “Games,” and not always in the fairest way. Cersei, for example, is seen as being solely responsible for Joffrey’s rotten, uncontrollable personality, and neither of his fathers, Robert or Jaime, take much blame. In this episode, Robb promises Talissa they will go visit her mother when the war is over. He may be a king, but he does respect his baby mama’s wishes. Dany continues to wield her own maternal power: when her dragons intervene to take gold from a slaveholder she explains, “you threatened their mother.”
Maternal influence expands in the presence of fatherly absence, and missing dads are a theme of this episodes. Tyrion tries to convince Shae that they can be together even if he marries Sansa. He’ll buy her a nice house, he’ll support her, they’ll have children. (Anytime a man offers to buy a prostitute a home I think of “Pretty Woman.” “Come on, baby, I’ll put you up in a great condo,” is not, as Julia Roberts pointed out, the correct ending for a fairy tale.) But Shae doesn’t want children who will never know their father. And she knows much better than Tyrion— or Jon or Ygritte— that “people love when it suits them.” Tyrion tells her she’s his lady, and she replies “I’m you’re whore, and when you are tired of fucking me, I will be nothing.”
Meanwhile, Melisandre is explaining to Gendry that even though he never knew his father— like Shae and Tyrion’s theoretical children— his paternity is of huge import. He may be a bastard, but he’s also an heir. Sons may learn from their mothers, but even absentee dads have influence. (Also grandfathers. See the scene of Tywin putting Joffrey in his place so firmly, it almost made me like Tywin.) Just the notion of Tywin, an all powerful papa, is enough to get Jaime freed by the Boltons, to whom he returns convinced that Brienne is going to be raped. Instead, she is in a pit with a bear.
This scene looks great. That’s one scary, huge grizzly. And it’s a very well-executed action sequence, made even more suspenseful because of Jaime and Brienne’s friendship and the ongoing stutter step of learning to accept help from one another. Even as Jaime is rescuing Brienne, she is rescuing Jaime: that he is able to help her and get himself out of the bear arena without his hand immediately buoys his confidence. Some of his swag comes back immediately. “Sorry about those sapphires” he says, his hand gone, but the twinkle in his eye returning.