As this season of "Game of Thrones" hits its midpoint, we're finally knees-deep in a war so brutal and unflinching that nothing seems off-limits. Take for instance the opening scenes of this week's episode, which finds an almost hilariously inept Theon Greyjoy taking command of his former home. The unassuming people of Winterfell are invaded by Theon's skeleton crew, who sneak in and wreak havoc amongst a group of people who know him as the puny ward of their dead lord. When Theon rouses Bran from sleep to let him know he's infiltrated and is the new Lord of Winterfell, Bran practically yawns in his face. Yeah right.
Unfortunately, Theon isn't joking. After the townspeople laugh down at him and Rodrik Cassel spits in his face, things take a nasty spin towards the gruesome. Theon's first mate lets him know that he'll never gain any respect if he lets people disrespect him, and so, with a blunt sword, he decapitates Cassel in front of the people, despite Bran's tear-fueled protests. It takes a few hacks, but the bloody deed is done. That it isn't a clean or easy killing is symbolic of Theon's new path. He hasn't stepped into his lordly role with any definition, and his nearly mournful display of cruelty shows that he's not cut from the same cloth as his brother in arms, Robb.
Theon also has the misfortune of thinking with his penis instead of his brain. He's dimwitted enough to let Bran's friend, Osha, into his bed later that evening. As he snores away post-coitus, she sneaks Bran, Rickon and Hodor out of Winterfell. Score one for the Wildlings.
Score two comes over the Wall, where Jon Snow finally gets a shining moment after a season of blowing snow and incest babies. He and his ranger team find a group of Wildlings on the side of a mountain and slay them pretty hastily. The final survivor is a woman – a pretty redheaded woman named Ygritte, to be precise – and Jon is tasked with finishing her off while his men go ahead to make camp. Turns out, Jon isn't much of a lady killer. He slams his sword into a nearby rock instead of chopping her head, and she flees. He catches her again and takes her prisoner, but loses his men in the process. Now he's alone in a foreign wilderness, freezing to death, with nothing but the warm body of a woman to keep him safe. I think we can all see where this one's going.
Back in King's Landing, things aren't going well for Joffrey and the Lannisters. After Myrcella is sent to Dorne, leaving her family heartbroken, an angry crowd starts rioting the streets, throwing cow dung in Joffrey's face and unleashing retribution for the war he started. Turns out, a king's word means little these days, since a true king Joffrey is not. It's nice to see the people finally recognizing this and lashing out. What's not nice is the way a few of the men chase poor Sansa into a corner and try to rape her, or the way bystanders are grabbed from the streets and ripped to shreds. As the chaos goes from shouts and throws to an all-out rampage, we see Tyrion truly lose his cool. He slaps Joffrey and reminds him that this is his mess, and a cow pie in the face is a small price to pay for his misdeeds.
Luckily, the Hound is able to stop Sansa's attackers before they can carry out their deed. When Tyrion thanks him for protecting Joffrey's bethrothed, the Hound lets him know "I didn't do it for you," which shows his love for the "Little Bird" is growing. A fascinating development, since Sansa's own hubby-to-be (and the Hound's master) wanted to leave her to die.
We also check in with Arya over in Harrenhaal. Arya's learning more and more about her captor, Tywin, including his backstory as the son of an old, weak father. The dynamic between these two is the most interesting thread the show is weaving this season. Are they forging an unusual alliance, or is Tywin playing her, saving her reveal for the right moment? It's difficult to say at this point, but her anonymity is a fun game for now. Watching her avoid a visiting Littlefinger was great, and seeing her employ Jaquen for another gifted death before Tywin's right-hand man can turn her in was a nice touch.
Another nice touch is the burgeoning romance between Robb Stark and his lady nurse, which seems to amuse Catelyn. But those soft moments are underscored with the news of Theon's attack and the disappearance of Bran and Rickon. One step forward and two steps back for the Starks, it would appear.
Meanwhile in Qarth, Dany continues to have difficulty securing boats that will allow her to cross the Narrow Sea and reclaim her throne. Not that it was ever truly her throne, as she is reminded by the Spice King, who sets up a grand procession of his people before denying her his fleet. Dany tries to prove her specialness – she isn't like other women because her "dreams come true" – but the gift of magic isn't interesting in Qarth, where magic seems as commonplace as stone and rubies.
The episode ends on another cliffhanger: Dany returns to her spot in the city to find her men slain and her dragons missing. After all the chatting she's done about her pets, it was only a matter of time before they were taken from her. But will the loyalty of dragons prove a mightier force than we've seen yet? So far, the dragons have been nothing but cute little toys. It's about time for some fire-breathing action.