“A Man Without Honor” might seem at first glance to be rather tame and dull compared to the plot-heavy Game of Thrones episodes we’ve seen the last few weeks, but looks can be deceiving. With a few exceptions, the hour is a string of extended, emotive conversations between key characters. They chronicle realizations, denials, shattered dreams and ambitions, and they do it (mostly) without the benefit of a high-fantasy plot device to propel things along. And yet it’s still compelling, so compelling that it’s proof that even if the dragons are absent, Game of Thrones continues to fascinate.

WARNING: Spoilers ahead

In King’s Landing: Sansa (Sophie Turner) must face a startling new life change, and gets some unexpected advice from Cersei (Lena Headey). Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) and Cersei confront the horrors of an oncoming assault on the capital.

In the Stark Camp: Robb (Richard Madden) continues to pursue a new romantic interest even as he prepares for important peace negotiations. Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) finally gets something to do. Catelyn (Michelle Fairley) must grapple with an unexpected uproar in her son’s absence.

Beyond the Wall: Jon (Kit Harrington) continues to struggle with his Wildling captive Ygritte (Rose Leslie).

In Harrenhal: Arya (Maisie Williams) and Tywin (Charles Dance) grow closer, even as Tywin tries to root out who she really is.

In Qarth: Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) continues the search for her stolen dragons, finds herself in the middle of a Qarthian power struggle, and again confronts the mysterious representatives of the House of the Undying.

The most noticeable thing about this episode is the re-emergence (at long last) of Jaime Lannister as a major player in the game. He’s been tied to a post in Robb Stark’s camp since the end of last season, and apart from a devilish little appearance in the season premiere, we haven’t really seen him. Well, he’s still tied to a post, but this time he’s got more to do than just taunt the King in the North. This time he’s got a plan, but in the end you’re left wondering if his plan was to get away, or to simply disrupt the system of loyalty that Robb’s set up for himself, a system that was rather flimsy back when the King in the North first claimed his crown. The other half of the equation this time is not Robb, but Catelyn, who again proves herself strong under this kind of pressure. She’s a character with a lot more to her than principles, and it seems like we’ll see just what some of those things are next episode.

I said this last week, but I’ll say it again: the most compelling scenes of the season remain those in that little Harrenhal room between Tywin and Arya. The lost girl and the high lord, their families sworn enemies, bonding in spite of themselves. We know what Arya’s thinking, we know (mostly) what’s she’s aiming for, and it’s easy to empathize with her on the basis of that alone, but Williams continues to turn in startlingly deep performances. Scene after scene she goes toe-to-toe with the towering Charles Dance, capturing all the confusion and terror and shocking tenderness of their moments together.

It was a week for strong women all around, it seems. In the capital, Cersei and Sansa must face terrifying new realities in their life. For Sansa, the reality is that she’s now irrevocably a woman capable of being a mother, and thus a queen to a boy king she’s come to despise. Her realization, and the subsequent fear, was predictable, but that doesn’t make Turner’s performance any less effective. Cersei’s epiphany, on the other hand, was a less predictable one, and it’s something that further deepens her character in ways that we might never have predicted last season. She’s ashamed of her son. She hates him in a way she can’t stand to admit. She even fears him. In a stirring and often heartbreaking confessional to Tyrion, she realizes that he’s the second coming of the Mad King, the one her late husband, her father and her lover/brother fought to overthrow. Others realized it already, and it seems Cersei’s known for too long without admitting it. It’s crushing her, and it makes you wonder if she’ll ever pursue some new avenue of redemption.

The result of all these elements (combined with the thrilling escape scene in the Stark Camp and the stunning hostile takeover in Qarth) is an episode that proves once again that this show has the deepest bench in television. Every character finds a place, every actor carves out territory to shine, and the series continues to prove that it can reach out beyond what the source material gives it and deliver something compelling, original and still decidedly loyal. If you’re really into these characters, this episode will give you goosebumps. If you’re just waiting for more blood, it will at the very least get you stoked for the oncoming season two endgame.

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