Jumping from a introduction-heavy episode into a thick plot, no pandering required, is one of 'Game of Thrones'' riskiest habits. It isn't about making sure everyone is on board. It's about throwing some names at the audience, hoping they stick, and moving on. If last night's episode, "The Night Lands," has one thing going for it, it's that it isolates the non-dedicated from the extremely invested, no questions asked.
The episode opens with Robert Baratheon's only living bastard son, Gendry, fleeing to the north with Arya and crew. He quickly learns, thanks to a band of Lannisters, that his death is at high command. Higher, perhaps, than Arya's safety, which is on Cersei's back-burner until her current mission (to maintain Joffrey's place on the throne) is seen through. Gendry also learns that Arya is a girl, not the boy she's been playing, and a Stark at that. The two now realize they're on a similar ground: they must protect their identities if they want to stay alive. Loren shoos the Lannister men away and buys them both some time, but Gendry's importance as Robert's biological descendant and Arya's importance as Ned Stark's runaway daughter should come back to play as the season moves forward.
We're also introduced to Pyke, where Theon Greyjoy's father, Balon, reigns. Theon returns to Pyke after years in Winterfell as Ned Stark's ward, and expects to re-enter his father's good graces. Instead, he's led home by a woman named Yara, who he feels up on their horse ride to the castle, only to discover that she's actually his sister and that she's inherited everything Theon was meant to before he left. She's not only taken his place in their father's eyes, but she's also a naval hero, having seen years of combat, belittling Theon's brief experience with Robb's army. Their dynamic will be an interesting one, with both vying for power, and both under Balon's watchful eye.
In the Red Waste, we see that one of the men Daenerys sent out last week to scan the land has been returned by his horse, his severed head in a bag on his saddle. We're beginning to see the stakes raised in Dany's name: not only is she a newbie Dothraki queen, mostly unaccustomed to their long-standing traditions, but she's also a woman, a definite threat of honor to the armies of men that surround her. How she'll finagle this power and show its worth remains to be seen, although I'm betting her baby dragons will help her cause.
And what's "Game of Thrones" without a little promiscuity? Stannis, who now sees himself as some sort of divine answer to the prayers of Westeros' fallen, is grappling with his newly realized worth. He's no longer intent to take up with Renly or Robb - at the insistence of his priestess, Melisandre - but his next step is murky. But Melisandre isn't worried. She convinces him to seduce her, in spite of his sickly wife locked away somewhere, the ultimate proof of his dedication to the mission at hand. The two knock knees on a small-scale model of Westeros, sending tiny ships and toy soldiers to the floor in their lust.
The biggest treat of the episode is a touching scene between Cersei and Tyrion, who we're reminded are actually rather close. It's easy to hate Cersei, with her mighty stead and cold heart. But it's the fierce determination to uphold her family's power that makes her oddly sympathetic, and it takes a little reassurance from Tyrion to remind the audience that, at her core, Cersei is a vulnerable mother at odds with her relevancy.
Beyond the Wall, Jon and pal Sam are learning more about Craster, the daughter-marrying creep whose baby boys are mysteriously absent. Sam warms up to one of Craster's girls, Gilly (played by Hannah Murray, aka Cassie from "Skins"), and means to save her when he finds out she's pregnant. Jon refuses, knowing full well that he's already on Craster's bad side and that this means an almost certain death for all of them if caught. But when, by episode's end, he sees that Craster's sons are left in the cold wood for whatever it is that dwells that (the White Walkers, most likely), it looks like he might start playing along. That is, until he's caught by Craster himself, right before the credits roll.