This year, Martin's contribution is The Bear and the Maiden Fair. Does it live up to the previous offerings? Uhhh ... nope. In fact, far from providing the most action/plot/character building episode of the year, what this episode does is kind of paddle in place.
Come on in, let's hash it out anyway.
Not so far up north as before they scaled the wall, Jon Snow and the wildlings are walking among actual trees. Ygritte charmingly mistakes a windmill for a castle and Jon teases her about the wonders of Winterfell. He'd probably be boasting a bit less if he'd been home lately. It's Ygritte's turn to laugh when Jon has to explain to her the delicate sensibilities of some women, though I'm not sure we seen many examples of swoon-ish women in Game of Thrones. Maybe Sansa (poor Sansa). Hawk whisperer Orell declares his loves to Ygritte and his hate to Jon. Then goes on to plant seeds of doubt in Ygritte's mind about Jon Snow's ability to ever really be anything but the straightest of straight arrows.
Next up, Robb Stark takes a rain delay. Literally. Robb and Talisa roll around their well-appointed traveling bed while half the Stark company complains of the rain and the other half repeat eleventeen variations on "Walder Frey is already mad as hell, and he's not going to like us being late." Nice as it is to see that Robb and Talisa genuinely care for each other, most of the scene accomplishes little but to keep Talisa's bare backside maximally exposed for a lengthy period before revealing that Robb's new wife has a wolf pup in the oven (ick, sorry for the badly mixed metaphor). The scene does remind you that Robb is perhaps the nicest guy left on the playing field, but honestly this late in the season a lengthy "let's pause here because the roads are wet" scene just feels like deliberate stalling.
And down to King's Landing to see Sansa. Poor future Lady Lannister. Sansa sighs over her childhood dreams (from just two seasons ago) in which she couldn't wait to see all the beautiful knights and ladies of the capital. Surprise! Margaery does a good job of offering a comforting shoulder. In fact, Margaery's praise of Tyrion is so fullsome it makes you wonder if the queen-to-be wouldn't rather wed a different Lannister. And Margaery is right. Tyrion is by far the most attractive of the golden horde, mostly because he comes with actual motivations beyond "what's in it for me" and combines a sharp mind and a tender heart. Though I'm not too sure of Margaery's declaration that in marrying Tyrion, Sansa will become the lady of Casterly Rock. Papa Tywin has already indicated that Tyrion's chances of getting the ancestral home are slim and none. In any case, marry him, Sansa, go off to someplace away from the fighting and talk to the man. Loras' curly hair isn't everything.
Meanwhile, husband to be Tyrion is feeling more than a little embarrassed, not to say squeamish, about bedding a child (book Sansa is still short of her 15th birthday, though TV Sansa is... taller). Besides, Tyrion is genuinely in love with the spicy Shae. Convincing Shae to stick around while Tyrion marries the little auburn-haired beauty isn't going to be easy. And probably shouldn't be. Still, Tyrion is putting a big effort into keeping Shae content, even if that does mean he puts his foot in his mouth more than once.
Completing our King's Landing tour, we see Joffery summoning Granpa Tywin into the throne room. Having recently given a smack-down to his mother (and aunt) Cersei, Joffery is feeling his oats as he demands more involvement in running the realm. But, as we've seen several times, Tywin suffers no fools. Not gladly. Not at all. Within thirty seconds, you can see the boy king wondering just why he ever asked to see his Hand. Tywin eventually tells Joffery that he will tell him everything that Tywin thinks he needs to know and solicit his advice on everything that doesn't matter. In other words, nothing changes. Tywin runs the kingdom, Joffery gets to sit on his uncomfortable chair. And kill the occasional ex-prostitute.
We leave King's Landing without every seeing Cersei, which may be a first, and without ever getting to see what kind of dialog Martin could provide to Dame Diana Hepburn Eleanor Queen of Thorns Rigg, which is a shame.
Cross the ocean, Daenerys pulls up at the next slave city, Yunkai, and gives the slave owners of this rather large city the kind of ultimatum that's designed to generate a good deal of friction. The Yunkai try to buy the mother of dragons off. It doesn't work. So more war is a'coming. For those who are waiting for Dany to charge on over to Westeros and put Joffery's head on a (dragon-roasted) spit, this episode is more than a bit disappointing. Having freed the Unsullied, Dany has apparently decided that on her way to the Iron Throne she might as well save a city, or two, or... One thing about this scene: the dragons look fabulous. I mean, gorgeous in both movement and detail. All those little frills and spines. I loves me some beasties. It's no wonder everyone wants one. Still, I agree with Jorah -- taking this place won't get us any closer to Westeros. Move, girl, move!
In a brief shipboard interlude, Melisandre informs Gendry of his royal-bastardhood as they sail past King's Landing. I suppose we had to make this point clear (and for book readers this confirms that Gendry has taken on the role formerly held by Sir Not Appearing In This Series, Edric Storm), but how did we end up sailing down the Blackwater? Weren't we in the Riverlands last week? Is this really the fastest route back to Dragonstone? And don't the Lannisters keep at least a nominal watch over the river that, not so long ago, an attacking navy swarmed down to attack the city? Hmmm.
Meanwhile, Arya is pissed. Good for Arya. I love Arya. Did you know that Arya is trending as one of the most popular names for girls? Just wait till those kids are in grade school. Anyway, the Brotherhood blames their jerkwad treatment of Gendry on the Red God. Asked who she worships, Arya answers simply "death." Did I mention I love Arya? No sixth grader on the planet can deliver this line with such patent menace. When Arya makes a break for it, she's snatched out of the woods by the guy at the top of her hate list, The Hound. See you next week, Arya.
One thing I really did not expect from Martin was a Theon torture interval. In the book, all the torture is off screen. But here it is again. On screen. And just as pointless as every other Theon torture scene. Moving on.
Up north again when Bran get's his dreams explained by fellow dream-afflicted Jojen. Osha takes this opportunity to tell a scary story (actually it is pretty scary) about the wight encounter that got her moving south. Which explains a good deal of Osha's concerns about how they keep moving north.
And finally I've saved the back and forth of Jaime and Brienne scenes for one end-of-the-recap lump. Having been marched out of the castle without his big protector, one-handed Jaime insists that they march back by threatening to lie about how he lost his hand. He then threatens to lie some more. Which, if I was guarding Jaime, would make me think there's a good chance he's going to lie no matter what. But they do march back and find Brienne fending off a very (very) big bear with a wooden sword. A BIG bear. Jaime rushes to her aid and both escape the bear pit just ahead of large slavering jaws. Even so, the scene comes off as much shorter and less tense than it did in the book. As the centerpiece of the episode, it falls a little flat. However, this isn't a CGI bear, and I suppose there are only so many times you can wave pointy sticks its way and put tasty actors in its beary grip before it gets that "screw the bear chow, I'm having Danish" idea.
So there you have it. A lot happened, but not many story lines really advanced. What's your take?