If there's one thing this season of "Game of Thrones" has needed, it's some breathing room. Last week was a mild episode, plot-wise, but it was still exasperating as far as character screen-time goes. And a few clunky monologues kept things especially heavy. But last night's episode, "Walk of Punishment," was the first time season three found its footing. Most of the big introductions are over now, and it's time to start remembering who our old friends are and what makes them tick.
There was also room for another thing this season has been lacking: comedy. From that hilarious musical chair scenes in the small council at King's Landing, to Talisa's joking werewolf comments to the Lannister boys, to Pod's time in the brothel, this was the first truly funny episode so far this year. That balance of light with the darkness of Lord Tully's funeral and the official start to the war beyond the Wall, to the episode's momentous final scene (more on that in a bit), gave "Walk of Punishment" an air of gravitas. This is the episode we've been waiting for: the one that stopped dolling cards and started playing the game.
Keeping with last week's format, let's check in with each of last night's main players.
Catelyn: The funeral of her father, Lord Hoster Tully, was the episode's opening, and while dour for the character, it, too, was momentarily funny – Cat's brother, Edmure's, inability to light his father's pyre with a flaming arrow was just light enough to keep the scene from goopy sentimentality. That sentimentality came later, as Catelyn sat at the window of her old room and recalled the old days of war, when she'd sit at that same window and wonder when her father was coming home. She's with her uncle, Blackfish Tully, a new face to us but an old and welcomed one to Cat. They remark about the odd state of the Tully household and the countryside they look upon. "It often comforts me to think that even in war's darkest days, in most places in the world absolutely nothing is happening," says Blackfish.
That war state isn't far from Robb's mind, however. While Catelyn wonders if Bran and Rickon were waiting for her the way she waited for her father, Robb is all strategy. He bemoans his uncle Edmure for freeing the Mountain, since he was another tactical approach to getting his sister's back. With him lost, the chance for Stark victory is growing more and more wane. Their once nearly indestructible force is coming apart at the seams. They're in need of a win, and fast.
Tyrion: Back in King's Landing, Tyrion is facing his own set of hurdles. Littlefinger is off to the Eyrie to woo Lysa Stark, so Tyrion is named master of coin in his place. Turns out, a lifetime of spending his father's money hasn't made Tyrion any better about handling it practically. He learns the realm is in deep debt to his father and the Free City of Braavos, and that the longer they go without paying those debts, the more doomed they are.
Despite his monetary grumblings, Tyrion still finds time to treat his trusty squire, Pod, to a slew of whores in Littlefinger's brothel. Pod returns to Tyrion's quarters after his time with the ladies with his pouch of coins still in tact. Tyrion and Bronn are confused - was Pod as good as he claimed he was in bed? Is that the true reason they refused his money? What's going on?
Jon: North of the Wall, things are as messy as ever. The Wildlings find a Night's Watch camp full of slaughtered horses (arranged in a circular pattern - "always the artists," Mance remarks). The men are all gone, presumably turned to wights by the White Walkers. Mance is disgruntled by what he sees and orders Tormund Giantsbane to cross the Wall and wage war, since their time is running short. He instructs Giantsbane to bring Jon with him, as a true testament to his new allegiance. Will Jon actually be willing to wage a war against his sworn brothers? He better, since Mance swears to "light the bigger fire the north has ever seen."
Arya: We only get a short moment with Arya, but it's a sweet one - she and Gendry are moving on with the Brotherhood Without Banners (who still have the Hound as their prisoner), but Hot Pie is staying behind at the inn they were staying at to help in the kitchen. Their goodbyes are pretty heartbreaking - Hot Pie bakes Arya a loaf of bread in the shape of a wolf as a send-off present, and she's visibly touched by the gesture. Gendry's goodbye is slightly less sentimental ("Don't get stabbed," says Hot Pie. "Don't… burn you finger," Gendry replies). It's sad to see this division of teams. Hot Pie has never been a reliable sidekick, but he grounded their little troupe and his absence will be well noted.
Theon: Theon's story remains elusive. This time, he's released by his new "ally," the mysterious boy who swore to set him free and actually did. This all seems a little too good to be true, and for a moment it is - just when Theon thinks he's in the clear, his captors appear over a hill on horseback and ride him down, throwing him off his own horse and threatening to rape him. But just as they're about to strike, Theon's new friend appears and scares them away. And so he's safe again… for now.
Daenerys: Dany makes a frustrating decision this episode - so determined is she to amass her army, she decides to sell one of her dragons in exchanged for the entire fleet of Unsullied soldiers. Are 8,000 men really worth the price of one believed to be extinct dragon, perhaps the most precious resource in all the world? It certainly doesn't seem so, and it'll be intriguing to see how that hand-off eventually goes. Her faithful friends sure think it's a bad idea; Barristan and Jorah don't agree on much, but they're both aghast when she makes the bargain. But she strikes them down, embarrassed that they questioned her in front of others. Dany is a girl with a plan, it would seem, and she's unfazed by this choice. They should know better than to doubt her.
Jaime: The really meat of this episode rests in Jaime and Brienne's travels. As captives of Bolton's men, they're seen as precious cargo. Well, Jaime is, at least. His safety is tantamount to a trade-off with Tywin, and though he's tied to Brienne and stuck on a horse, he seems in good graces with his captors. He even convinces them, in the episode's final scene, not to rape Brienne, as they'd planned, since her wealthy father will also have a prize should she be returned unscathed. Jaime's growing fondness of Brienne is a treat, but his cockiness catches up with him. Like everyone else in his family, he has a way with words, a natural charm that leads him out of every dark nook he falls into. But these captors aren't the hinged sort, and when they offer to sit down with Jaime for a drink, it's a rouse - what they're really interested in is reminding him that mind games and daddy's money aren't how you win. "Your nothing without your daddy, and your daddy ain't here. Never forget that. Here, this should help," says the Bolton man Jaime joked with, before chopping off Jaime's sword hand and sending the episode to a screeching end. It's the sort of gut-punch ending that works great as an ending, particularly when set to an awesome fast rock version of "The Bear and the Maiden Fair" by the Hold Steady, the sort of credit music you'd never expect to hear on a show like "Game of Thrones." But that's part of what makes this episode so fun - the power of those moments leave you gasping for more. Next week couldn't come soon enough.