"It's all a just game," says a grinning Theon Greyjoy near the beginning of a storyline that starts with him waking up from post-coital slumber on a lord's bed and ends with him hanging the burned corpses of two little boys from the walls of Winterfell. Like Theon's whirlwind 24 hours as depicted in the past couple of episodes – he gets laid, loses his most valuable prisoners, beats up an insubordinate soldier who actually deserved it, laughs his way through the beginning of the hunt, and murders children to end it – "A Man Without Honor" (written by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss and directed by David Nutter) was a riot of wildly varied sensation and emotion. The game of thrones has never been more unpredictable.
Let's start with the eye candy. Game of Thrones prefers subtle effects shots to sit-and-stare knockouts, but the panoramic view of the ruins of Harrenhal quite literally made my jaw drop. After spending so much time over the past few weeks in just one corner or another, to see the whole thing sprawl across the screen like a half-melted labyrinth designed by a demented architecture student was breathtaking. But even that played second fiddle to the preposterously gorgeous, totally real location footage from Iceland that serves as the show's "north of the Wall" setting, a seemingly neverending parade of the most impossibly alien, barren, and beautiful places on the planet. Give that location scout a knighthood, by gods.
But the show was at its most brutal as well as its most beautiful. In particular, the final scene of Theon's triumph over the escaped lordlings was absolutely horrific. Each time we were given a glimpse of one of the little burned bodies I physically recoiled from the screen. It was only in this context that Jaime Lannister's cold-blooded execution of his starstruck poorer cousin and hapless jailor earned the silver medal in bastardry this week, pounding the former's head to a pulp and choking the latter with his handcuffs like some There Will Be Blood/No Country for Old Men mash-up from hell.
The massacre of the Thirteen (or the Eleven, I suppose) in Qarth fell somewhere in between the two poles. The impeccably polite manner in which the warlock Pyat Pree and the mega-rich merchang Xaro Xhoan Daxos unveiled their alliance, admitted their guilt in kidnapping Daenerys's dragons and killing her people, and announced that they'd unilaterally crowned Xaro the King of Qarth somehow sounded more chilling and bloodthirsty than if they'd been growling and shouting, Khal Drogo-style. But the weirdness of it, the way they acted like this was just another day at the office, made it haunting as well as harrowing. And that's even before we get to Pree's ability to make copies of himself – now revealed to be much more than a parlor trick, unless he's very good with a knife – or the strange scene involving Ser Jorah Mormont and the masked woman Qaithe, who rains "I've got a bad feeling about this" vibes down all over the screen every time she appears.
Beyond the spectacles of scenery and slaughter, some of the show's best character work got done here. I was most impressed with the Sansa scenes. As played by Sophie Turner she's become one of my favorite characters in the show, since she's forced to draw from an entirely different kind of strength than anyone else. The show was admirably direct in addressing the trauma of her assault, and tying it to her discovery of her first period, itself a one-way ticket to a likely lifetime of assaults with only the dubious protection of the Hound to fall back on, was a masterful move. Sansa's out-out-damned-spot routine with her bloodstained mattress is all the more powerful for how pathetic it is – it's her at her most vulnerable and least calculated to please, and witnessing it appears to have unlocked the true character of both Shae and The Hound and even Cersei, who each try to protect her in their own way. (Interesting that not even his loyal bodyguard and doting mother are blind to what King Joffrey really is.)
While the smile on Jaime Lannister's face as he gets dragged through a screaming crowd told us everything we need to know about him, his heart-to-heart with cousin Alton gave us some strong supplementary materials to work with. "It's a good thing I am who I am," says the Kingslayer. "I'd have been useless at anything else." There's no reason to doubt that his story about squiring for Ser Barristan Selmy (last seen getting fired from the Kingsguard by Joffrey and Cersei and storming off in disgust at the end of Season One) is anything but legit – the tale of a kid discovering what he enjoys most in the world is also what he's best at. Pity it's killing people.
Jaime's admiration for Barristan the Bold is echoed, oddly enough, by his father Tywin Lannister's fondness for the whip-smart cupbearer formerly known as Arya Stark. Tywin lets her get away with saying and doing stuff that'd be a hanging offense for anyone else simply because he's a smart person who finds it pleasurable to be around smart people, even a smart maybe-fake-peasant tween girl. It made me wish he could have seen past his son Tyrion's traumatic birth and deformity – this was the child he could really have done something with, instead of trying to wring blood from the stones of angry Cersei and arrogant Jaime. Instead he shaped them all into emotional cripples: Jaime unable to display any emotion except swaggering cruelty – not a good look when protective mother Catelyn Stark is your antagonist; Tyrion and Cersei almost physically unable to comfort each other, despite them both knowing they need it.
The one core conversation that left me cold was Ygritte's incessant torrent of dick jokes and dirty talk. I understand that wedged between her morning wood references and the if-I-do-say-so-myself vagina salesmanship was an indictment of the arbitrary rules Jon Snow not only lives for but has sworn to kill and die for – her marvelous catchphrase "You know nothing, Jon Snow" (how many other book-readers cheered when she said it?) sums that angle up nicely. But at a certain point, I just wanted Jon to say to her "No, I'm not a prude, you're just being gross." It was like trudging through the tundra with a living Twitter porn spambot.
But she was right about Jon knowing nothing, and Jon's not alone in that. Daenerys, the Thirteen, Alton Lannister, Theon, Maester Luwin, Jaime – they all discover that the way they thought things worked just stopped working. By the time Theon hoists up his grisly trophies, his earlier smile has long since been wiped off his traitorous face, but he was more right than he realized when he declared it all a game. It's a game, alright – Calvinball. The rules can change at any moment, and the penalties are always strictly enforced.