One of the key challenges of Game of Thrones is that seems to be almost constantly expanding. We’ve now reached the third episode of the season, and we’re still without any real stability in the storytelling. It’s impossible. There are too many characters we haven’t met, too many places we haven’t seen, too many threads from last season we haven’t picked up yet. This show has no choice but to juggle all those threads and weave them into place on the fly, and something like that could result in colossal failure. “What Is Dead May Never Die” is the strongest episode of the season so far, in no small part because – this time at least – the show makes that juggling act look easy.

Warning: this review contains spoilers for the season so far. If you’re not caught up yet, proceed at your own risk.

Beyond the Wall: After his nighttime run-in with Craster (Robert Pugh), Jon (Kit Harington) is left to be punished by Lord Commander Mormont (James Cosmo), while Sam (John Bradley) continues his efforts to rescue Craster’s daughter/wife Gilly (Hannah Murray).

In the Stormlands: Catelyn Stark (Michelle Fairley) visits self-proclaimed King Renly Baratheon (Gethin Anthony making his season two return) in attempt to broker a deal between their two factions. Renly, commanding a huge army and celebrating a powerful strategic marriage to Margaery Tyrell of Highgarden (Natalie Dormer in her series debut), holds a tournament to entertain his supporters and finds a powerful new ally in the warrior woman Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie in her series debut).

In King’s Landing: Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) hatches a plot to out a disloyal member of the small council. It could be Varys (Conleth Hill), or Baelish (Aidan Gillen) or Grand Maester Pycelle (Julian Glover), but whatever the outcome Tyrion will still have to deal with the wrath of Cersei (Lena Headey) and keep his mistress Shae (Sibel Kekilli) safe from prying eyes in the capital.

On the Kingsroad: Arya (Maisie Williams) and Gendry (Joe Dempsie) continue heading north with the party of Night’s Watch recruits, even as Lannister soldiers try to hunt them down.

In the Iron Islands: Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen) struggles between his allegiance to Robb Stark (Richard Madden) and his desire to please his hardened, grim father Balon (Patrick Malahide) with a conversion from the life of a Northerner back to the rough ways of the Ironborn.

Remember when season two started, and I said power would be more important than ever? This is the episode where that really, really hits home. Those Varys speeches you heard in the trailers? They’re here. Both the Tyrion and Theon plot threads are very, very concerned with the application of will and wisdom to finding the right path, to finding their individual power. Both men go about it in different ways, but it’s clear both are out to consolidate what power they have into something they can wield. They emerge with varying degrees of success, and of course the season is far from over, but it never stops being fascinating to watch.

Part of the fascination, for me, stems from how series creators David Benioff and D. B. Weiss are managing to ratchet up all of these conflicts – both the external and the very, very prevalent internal – without massive tangles of violence and waving banners. We were promised that “War Is Coming,” and trust me, it is, but for now I don’t care that it’s not here yet. The Game of Thrones creative team faces both the practical problem of telling the story of a war with a limited budget and the storytelling problem of making the characters compelling beyond all the blood and steel. They succeed on both counts.

The scene in which Varys relates his theories of power to Tyrion is among the more masterful things the series has ever produced, because it’s both all about war and not about war at all. Varys is compelling because he has his own mysterious agenda. Tyrion is compelling because, outside of all his finely honed wit, he’s trying to rise above both his physical size and his own insecurities. It’s not just about winning the war for him. It’s about proving his strength for the sake of being strong. Dinklage is brilliant in those moments, and that’s why he’s proving so capable of carrying this show.

But that’s a predictably great scene. What was less predictable is how compelling this episode managed to make Theon. Until now, he’s been Robb Stark’s cocky best friend and little else. In the span of this hour he broadens and deepens, becoming a man searching for who he is genuinely, rather than simply searching for the advantage. I’ve never been a Theon fan, but now I really want to know where he goes next.

All these threads work independently and together like clockwork in a perfectly paced, plot-heavy episode that surpasses the previous two of the season in both ambition and pure storytelling bite. Game of Thrones has hit its stride with “What Is Dead May Never Die.”

Next Week: Episode 4 – “Garden of Bones”

Thanks to our friends at HBO for the chance to screen the episode in advance.

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