George R. R. Martin is back in town, and he’s got romance on his mind…well, kind of.

It’s well-known among fans of Game of Thrones that Martin – who created this world we all visit every Sunday night – is committed to writing one episode per season for Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss. His season one episode, “The Pointy End,” kicked of The War of Five Kings as Robb Stark marched south to do battle with the Lannisters. His season two episode, “Blackwater,” brought that war to a thrilling climax, and may just be the most epic hour of television ever conceived (as well as, for me, this show’s best episode so far). For season three he chose the smaller-scale “The Bear and the Maiden Fair,” an episode packed with scenes about coupling throughout the realm, and about how what we love can doom us.

Warning: Spoilers ahead, particularly at the end

In the North, Jon (Kit Harington), Ygritte (Rose Leslie) and the rest of the Wildling party have crossed the Wall. As Jon educates Ygritte in the ways of the North, which she’s happy to mock, Orell (Mackenzie Crook) has strong words for both of them. Meanwhile Theon (Alfie Allen) gets two very unexpected visitors, and Bran (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) and Jojen (Thomas Brodie Sangster) hear a terrifying story from Osha (Natalia Tena). At King’s Landing, Sansa (Sophie Turner) and Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) both struggle with their impending marriage, while Tywin (Charles Dance) struggles with his nephew, King Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) and Gendry (Joe Dempsie) learns who he really is. In the Riverlands, Robb (Richard Madden) prepares to mend a broken marriage alliance with the Freys, and gets good news from Talisa (Oona Chaplin), while Arya (Maisie Williams) grows more frustrated with the Brotherhood after Melisandre’s visit. Across the Narrow Sea, Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) sets her sights on another city to conquer. And at Harrenhal, Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) prepares to finally go home, while Brienne (Gwendoline Christie) must fight an entirely new battle.

Though there are some very interesting things for single characters to do in this episode (more on that in a moment), the episode really does take the time to lovingly focus on the various couples that have come front and center on the show this season (and last). The title is a reference to the final scene (as well as a song sung by the bannermen of House Bolton), but it’s also a reference to couples laced with dangerous elements. Talisa faces danger even as her marriage to Robb grows stronger. Sansa faces even more danger as she is forced to marry into the Lannister family. Ygritte and Jon each face their own dangers as they try to simultaneously be autonomous and part of the Wildling cause. And then we come to Jaime and Brienne. They aren’t a couple in the romantic sense, but this episode proved once and for all that there is a kind of love between them, even if they’re both a bit grudging about it at times. They owe each other, they survive through one another, and they’re even confidants at this point. Their relationship is also interesting because it’s one of the few couplings on the show (of the male/female persuasion, anyway) where you can’t actually tell who is more dangerous to the other. Will Brienne eventually fall victim to Lannister scheming, or will she someday overcome Jaime’s charm and wealth and power with the force of her own will. Or will it ever even come to that? Martin expertly probes the layers of this relationship with hardly any dialogue, and by the end of the episode they’re the most interesting duo on the show (until another steps up, that is).

Meanwhile, Dany has added a new moniker to her list of titles. Somewhere between “Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea,” “Queen of the Andals and the First Men” and “Mother of Dragons,” she added “Breaker of Chains.” We just saw her free an army of slaves and ask them to serve her of their own free will, so that’s not surprising, but it is vital to the character’s future. It signals that her efforts to loose the Unsullied and get them to act like humans and not property was not simply a shrewd play to win loyalty and command an army that she never had to actually pay for. This has become a quest for her, this breaking of chains, as we see very clearly in this episode. Jorah makes it clear to her that she doesn’t need to conquer this particular Eastern city in order to gain the strength to take Westeros, but when she hears there are 200,000 slaves in Yunkai, she declares that she has “200,000 reasons” to take the city. Over the first two seasons of this show we grew to love Dany because of her willpower and her determination and her strength in the face of absolute, desperate loss. She was someone whose power lay inside her. Now she has real, external, military power, and it’s very important that we get to see how she wields it. This could get boring if she just coasts through the show with a flawless record of freeing slaves and wielding dragons, but we all know that’s not what will happen. She will be tested again, and there we’ll see how she really wields the might of a queen.

And hey, what about Theon? I’ve resisted talking about him for most of the season because, well, for most of the season he’s done nothing but scream. He does a lot of screaming in this episode, too, but it’s what causes it that got me really fascinated. Last season we saw Theon become the second most-hated man in Westeros (behind Joffrey) through his conflicted but ultimately horrible acts at Winterfell. Now he’s getting his just desserts, but how long will that keep being interesting? How long before we start to feel sorry for poor Theon and his endless suffering? This episode draws that question out, as his torturers pay particular attention to his well-known and often foolhardy sexual prowess. Alfie Allen plays that scene perfectly. He starts with the absolute fear that’s permeated his character this season, and it’s only when a naked girl starts grinding on top of him that he finally feels comfortable to enjoy himself for a moment. Then it’s over, and he’s back to absolute horror. We get to see just a glimpse of the old Theon, the cocksure Theon, if you will. It’s enough to remind us of what he did and how he did it, but then he’s put through something that could end up worse than anything else he’s dealt with so far. How long can we keep enjoying his torture?

And lastly, I have to once again talk about the wonder that is Charles Dance. He’s added new dimensions and new life to Tywin, but this might end up being my favorite scene of his ever. In Martin’s hands the power and the calculating coolness of the character are once again front and center, and we get to see the Lord of Lannister stare down and shake down the King. Go back and watch that scene again, just that scene, if you get a chance (I just did). Everything about the performance is perfect. Tywin approaches the Iron Throne and, instead of bowing, barely nods his head in the direction of his nephew. Gleeson delivers his usual excellent theatricality as Joffrey, while Dance plays the impatience of a man who’s busy trying to save his idiot nephew’s neck. Then he walks up the stairs, right to the Throne, and just looms over Gleeson. If there was ever any doubt, even in Joffrey’s mind, as to who was really running this kingdom, it’s gone now. It’s a perfect, perfect scene, and it’s got Martin’s characteristic bite.

“The Bear and the Maiden Fair” is an episode that moves fast, jumps around a lot, and never gives us too much of one character. Yet it’s also one of the best-conceived and emotionally dense episodes of the season so far. George R. R. Martin swooped in and put all these characters in a very refined perspective for us, perfectly setting up the season endgame.

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