It's not common for the show to deliver what I thought was the line of the night so soon, but Ygritte does it in the first five minutes. That one phrase covers a lot of ground for the show, both at the micro level in continuing her subtle defiance and torture of Jon from the "bum-wriggling" (as they say in the kingdom; no, the real kingdom), and at the macro level, as the show is essentially about not trusting anyone. Anyone might pull a knife on you at this or any other moment, albeit generally one they intend to kill you with... (If you haven't read Clash, the fact that you know nothing might be spoiled below.)
What it really highlights for the seventh episode of the season is the theme of maturity. Jon and many of his friends amongst the Watch are still boys playing at war. They're unaware of many of the ramifications of what they do and how driven the Wildings are to maintain their own way of life. As sexual maturity is often a sign of genuine maturity (not least the ability to understand when someone's blatantly spinning your head around for the purposes of escape), the subtext encouraging Jon to grow up and realize that he's involved in something that has a wider scope than simply the honorable vows of an ancient and somewhat outdated order is pretty evident to everyone except Jon until late in the hour.
By the same token, Ygritte's repeated claims of "freedom" are often no less hollow than the mission of the Watch. Claiming that being pushed into the most desolate corner of the world and engaged in a literal fight for survival on a daily basis is no more an expression of freedom than being a serf for whatever fancy lord will have you south of the Wall. So, like usual, everyone carries their own pet illusions to get through the day, some more prominent than others.
Dany's whole story for the first two books is largely about the casting off of childhood illusions and, thus, the acquisition of maturity. While her story has taken the most marked deviation from the books this season (the theft of the dragons, the death of 90% of her khalassar), I think the presumed reasoning behind much of it is both obvious and not altogether a bad thing. First off, the House of the Undying sequence and events around it are awfully acid trippy for a series that many seem to favor for its foundation in the brutal politics and maneuvers of "reality". Very little encourages Dany to go to the House other than simply not having many other avenues out of Qarth. There simply isn't time for her to dawdle into that with only 10 episodes to cover the book. Furthermore, the urgency created by her being separated not only from the three things that might actually win her the Iron Throne but from the beings that she considers closest to her of anything in the world is a proper motivation that new viewers and old readers should be able to relate to. Combine it with the palace coup created by Pyat Pree and XXD and it's actually even more interesting than the tale Martin originally told. Given a scenario (Dany continually wheedling with the reluctant Thirteen for their assistance) that took up very little of Clash because it was so tedious (and was just verging on that in the show in the coup scene), I'm kinda glad that Weiss and Benioff weren't afraid to cut to the chase, as it were.
Cut to: what is currently the best relationship of all of those various and sundry throughout the realm: Arya and Tywin. Again, our theme of maturity is emphasized, as Arya learns to not only stop being so impertinent and accept the grace of one's lord when it is given, but also to keep playing the game in a more appropriate manner, since Tywin knows damn well that she's not whom she pretends to be. Thankfully, for her sake, he appears tickled to be around someone so obviously intelligent and isn't concerned about the mild lies that she engages in for her own safety. Of course, if he knew how big those lies really were, things would be different. I've appreciated this deviation from the books more than I thought I would, largely based on the chance for two of the best characters and two of the best actors from the brilliant cast to spend some time together. This moment also was the opening salvo in an episode that would largely be driven by people standing around and talking to each other, which one hopes the audience possesses the maturity to appreciate (including the story of Harren the Black and the Targaryen conquest, as well as Arya's evident appreciation for Aegon's sisters was a nice touch, story-wise) in the same way that readers of Martin's work, which has a wealth of "action" embodied in conversation (much like Asimov), have been able to.
Our theme finally clubs us over the head with the arrival of Sansa's literal sexual maturity, even though the character, just as in the books, stays fairly static in her ways. She's used as a jumping off point for a deeper look at Sandor Clegane, who rebuffs her thanks for saving her life, and at Cersei, who begins to acknowledge the fact that her son has long since passed her control, even while Sansa continues to provide her wooden reassurances of her emotional fealty to him. Cersei, of course, experienced the same emotion (or lack thereof) while attached to Robert, so the ice queen does show a bit of sympathy here. This is further enhanced by the rueful conversation between Cersei and Tyrion, as they not only ruminate on Joffrey's madness but also the magnitude of responsibility weighing upon their shoulders. And this is my one real note of disappointment with this episode.
At several points, some of the most important secrets of the story (Cersei and Jaime's relationship, Arya's identity) are somewhat trivialized by how open they've become. As much as I liked the seeming level of confidence displayed by Tywin in dealing with his cup-bearer's identity, it brings to question why a man so careful would be so cavalier with what may be a significant tactical advantage. He knows she's a northerner. He knows she's of the nobility. That's a captive for ransom or potential capitulation, not someone to serve you wine. Considering that he was hanging people left and right after Amory Lorch's assassination (which he mistakes for an attempt on his own life), it's more than a bit careless to have the daughter of an enemy having access to the food and drink that you're consuming on a daily basis. I suppose one could read his insistence that she eat the mutton as a way of testing for poison, but it certainly wasn't dramatically presented in that way.
Even worse is the handling of the incest. It's now being presented as common knowledge and the ramifications of said relationship (Bran's crippling) are treated as an openly leveled charge. It seems like the ripples from this would be larger. In the books, while most seem to acknowledge the likelihood of the situation, the stories are still presented as rumors spread by a rival (Stannis) or the rantings of a bereaved mother (Catelyn.) While the moment of Cersei suggesting that Joffrey looks like Jaime "in a certain light" and Tyrion's consequent eye roll is an excellent one, they then dispel that moment by openly discussing the fact that Jaime has fathered all of her children. I suppose that some would begin to consider it a bit trite to keep dancing around that topic, but there would seem to be smoother ways to handle it. Is it really likely that the most common epithet for Jaime would be "Kingslayer" if the fact that he was screwing his sister was so readily discussed? Compounding that is Cersei's acknowledging that Jaime was far more important (and better filled the role of husband during her labor) than Robert when talking about the role of a queen with Sansa. Again, the limited amount of camera time may be a factor here but it strikes me as a bit ham-handed.
- Rose Leslie as Ygritte is nothing short of spectacular. "You know nothing, Jon Snow." is one of the most iconic lines of the story and it was delivered with real impact by Leslie. But even better is her evident mastery of the one-sided conversation throughout the episode.
- Emilia Clarke's performance as Daenerys. Her rather desperate attempts to still be "queenly" in the midst of a situation where she lacks the foundation to be so are a delight to watch.
- Theon coming into his own with his men. Once again maintaining the maturity theme, as Theon grows in the estimation of his crew in true Ironborn fashion: by beating the crap out of them.
- "Most girls are idiots." Maisie Williams continues to be a treat.
- Jaime still taking shots at Ned Stark, even after the latter's death. That's either a sign of true dedication in hatred for one's enemies (and personal rivals) or an excellent way to divert attention from one's own deeply felt shortcomings. Probably both, and Nikolai Coster-Waldau plays it well.
- The incredibly awkward moment where Tyrion is about to comfort Cersei in her moment of grief and the two of them try to find some way out of it. Again, the actors' personal chemistry is put to good use here.
- Using Jaime's attempted escape as the foundation of the venom which Rickard Karstark holds for him. I was wondering how they were going to pull that off, given their reluctance to show mass battles and the fact that Jaime was captured in season 1. But it was a bit on the typical melodrama side and one wonders why the son of one of Robb's most powerful bannermen would be reduced to guarding prisoners...
- "I beg pardon, ser." I was waiting for yet another "I'm no ser." and they missed it. Bummer.
Overall, I think the pacing of this episode was solid and it was clearly the beginning of the bujld-up to episode nine, even if it wobbled a bit in its intensity at points because of the continued switches to set-piece conversations. Got a glimpse of Rattleshirt in the "coming scenes" bit, too. Woo hoo!