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You might remember that I called last week’s episode the best of the season. Well, in terms of excitement, I was right. In terms of depth and emotional punch…I may have been wrong.

Last week Game of Thrones reminded us just how quickly it can ramp up into full-on epic mode with a fiery and exhilarating finish. It was an exclamation point of an episode, a jolt to all our systems after nearly four hours of television that have very often been much more about dialogue than dragons. The great challenge after an episode like that, especially when it falls in the middle of a season, is lowering the adrenaline while keeping everything compelling at the same time. “Kissed By Fire” is a textbook example of how to do this, and it does with wit, intrigue and a bit of steam.

Note: No spoilers in the first part of this review, but there will be some at the end. I’ll give you an extra warning when we get there.

Among the Brotherhood, Arya (Maisie Williams) watches as The Hound (Rory McCann) has his trial by combat, and learns a startling secret. Beyond the Wall, Ygritte (Rose Leslie) gives Jon (Kit Harington) a new challenge. In Riverrun, Robb (Richard Madden) must contend with a new kind of battle. At Dragonstone, we get a closer look at the family of Stannis (Stephen Dillane). At Harrenhal, Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) opens up to Brienne (Gwendoline Christie). Across the Narrow Sea, Dany (Emilia Clarke) gets closer to her new army. And in King’s Landing, Cersei (Lena Headey) makes a move against the Tyrells, while Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) asks Lady Olenna (Diana Rigg) for help and Tywin (Charles Dance) announces a plan that will change everything for Sansa (Sophie Turner).

“Kissed By Fire” packs quite a bit of its runtime with scenes that will obviously set up future climactic events, particularly in the King’s Landing and Riverrun stuff. That’s tricky, because you have to do those scenes, but it’s so easy to make them all about “Hey audience, we’re doing this next” and leave out any real character building. The show’s fallen prey to that before (a little bit just a couple of weeks ago, in fact), but these scenes are surprisingly good at concealing the clockwork. We care more about Olenna’s venom and Tywin’s cunning, about Robb’s fire and Catelyn’s fear, and yet at the same time we care just as much about what will happen next. It’s a well-walked tightrope this time around.

This episode also did a good job, for me, of showcasing one of the series’ most prevalent recurring themes: compromise vs. determination. Every single character on this show deals with it in a big, bad way. Most of them are confined to the former. We saw it in a big way with Sansa last season, Catelyn is a major victim of it this season, and Tyrion seems to be an unceasing victim of it. In many ways these characters are among the show’s strongest, not in spite of but because of their ability to bend but never break. Then there are the characters who, in one way or another, just plow ahead to get what they want, even if it will take them forever. Dany is the strongest example of this, yes, but you see it a lot in Arya too, and Brienne (I don’t think it’s a coincidence that these are all women I’m talking about). And then there are those who refuse (or are unable) to choose, who try to walk the line between winning and not losing (yes, those are different things). This episode highlighted three of those characters: Jaime, Cersei and Robb. They’re all being forced into corners of one kind or another, they’re all missing something, they’re all looking for the right escape hatch, and in some ways the rest of the season could hinge on where each of them heads next. Keep in mind that I classified all the characters above according to my own perception of events, and you might see things entirely differently. The point is that all these characters are dealing with these things in ways that fantasy television (or cinema, for that matter) often doesn’t present us with, and it never stops being refreshing.

Though it’s not as jam-packed with big plot moments as “And Now His Watch Is Ended” was last week, “Kissed By Fire” is another very strong, ultimately satisfying episode. It takes the momentum of last week and rides it through to some really compelling stuff, and sets the stage for some things that will definitely play a part in the season three endgame.

Random Thoughts – SPOILERS AHEAD

Yup, Jon and Ygritte finally did it, and launched a thousand more fanfics in the process.

Seriously, how damn great is Diana Rigg? She stole a scene from Dinklage, which I didn’t think was possible. Give her the Emmy now.

Because I’ve read the books, I got a big lump in my throat when Robb dropped the reference to the Freys. That, plus some episode titles later on, means I’m 99% sure I know how this season will end. Get ready for some brutality, kids.

I really like the work the writers are doing with the Tyrells, particularly how each Lannister has a different reaction to them. It’s an element that I didn’t find as interesting in the books, and it’s filling a political intrigue void that was left when Tyrion lost his job as Hand at the end of last season. Thanks to the Tyrells, King’s Landing is still a sexy place full of whispers, and that’s as it should be if the show is to keep its more glamorous side.

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