Before diving into the details, let’s just be honest and say that this week’s episode felt like part two of the season premiere. Not exactly as exciting as one can hope for from a show known for beheadings and torrid sex, but it was certainly a step up in terms of character development, dialogue and acting.

Many of the characters that were left out in the premiere make their first appearance of the season in “Dark Wings, Dark Words.” The Best Scene Award goes to Jamie Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau of “Mama”) and Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie) for their long-overdue single sword combat on the bridge. Christie has been a longtime fan favorite to play the part of the physically intimidating and masculine Brienne. Jaime and Brienne are easily one of the most popular pairings in the series; as one-half of Tywin Lannister’s “golden twins,” Jamie is a born warrior, arrogant with undeniable handsome looks, whereas Brienne is humorless, no-nonsense and as ugly as a woman can be. What makes them work is that they’re the exact opposites, especially when it comes to the notion of knighthood.

Behind Jamie’s devil-may-care attitude is an extremely conflicted and disillusioned knight, brought upon by his slaying of Aerys II, the last Targaryen on the throne and the king he was sworn to protect, which earned him the derogatory nickname, “Kingslayer.” Ironically, Brienne still holds the notion of kinghood to the highest honor despite being mocked by other members of Renly Baratheon’s Kingsguard. Even though Renly is dead, Brienne is still loyal to him, just as she is fiercely loyal to Catelyn and is hell-bent on retrieving the Stark girls at whatever cost necessary. The two have a ways to go before reaching the level of grudging respect they developed for each other in the books, but if last night was any indication, the writers are definitely moving in the right direction for the Kingslayer and his captor.

The New Favorite Character title goes to Diana Rigg (“On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”), who made quite the entrance as the cunning Lady Olenna Redwyne, matriarch of House Tyrell. Widely known as “The Queen of Thorns” for her sharp tongue and wicked wit (“Once the cow’s been milked there’s no squirting the cream back up the udder”), she never shies away from speaking her mind. It is immediately apparent where Margaery inherited her shrewd political skills. At 17 years old, Sophie Turner held her own as Sansa; against seasoned actors Rigg and Dormer, Turner displayed conflicting emotions of fear, bravery and relief at exposing Joffrey as a monster. The quick eyebrow exchange between Margaery and her grandmother speaks volumes, not just to their wits, but also about who they are: survivors. Olenna cares for her granddaughter more than power, and Margaery is smart and strong enough to ensure her family doesn’t meet the same fate as the Starks.

This leads to one of the more interesting scenes concocted by the writers that was not in the novel: the tense exchange between Joffrey and Margaery. Always the spoiled, cowardly brat, it has become apparent that Cersei is losing control over her son––and her power. Margaery, the social chameleon, molds herself to appease Joffrey’s violent temperaments. Ever her grandmother’s sly protégé, Margaery wiggled herself out of a situation that would have normally ended in violent beatings for Sansa. Joffrey can wave his crossbow around all he likes, but it was Margaery who was holding the weapon at the end, speaking Joffrey’s lingo, subtly and tactfully replacing Cersei’s influence in his life.

Arya Stark, arguably one of the most beloved characters, is finally seen in the Riverlands with Hot Pie and Gendry. One of the more interesting dialogues comes from Gendry scolding Arya for picking the wrong names for Jaqen H’gar to kill. In the books, Gendry never questioned Arya about her choices, but Gendry’s acknowledgment of her mistake in the show is a direct reflection of the audience’s reaction––a nice nod to the fans from the writers.

They stumble across the Brotherhood Without Banners, an outlaw group formed to fight Lannister forces and protect the smallfolk of the area. Red Priest Thoros of Myr (British comedian Paul Kaye) is introduced this episode, and he in turn re-introduces us to Sandor Clegane, “The Hound.” It appears that Thoros is the acting head of BWB, instead of Lord Beric Dondarrion, but many other characters are still intact, including Anguy (Philip McGinley), the archer with jaw-dropping precision. Maisie Williams, a year younger than Turner, absolutely shines as the courageous and resourceful Arya; her “oh shit” look upon being recognized by the Hound is nothing short of damn good acting.

The most foreboding line is spoken by Rickard Karstark, who claims that Robb lost the war the moment he broke his oath to the Freys and married Talisa, a noble woman from across the Narrow Sea who is a nobody in the Westeros and has no wealth or army to offer.

Continuing the trend of strong female characters and performances this episode, Michelle Fairley pulled an unexpectedly heartbreaking scene as Catelyn Stark, a woman who has lost everything and reflects on what she believes to be the biggest mistake in her life: showing not an ounce of acceptance for her late husband’s bastard son. There was great creative liberty in this scene, and it paid off because Catelyn is a solid character that is often forgotten.

One of the most challenging things for HBO to deal with is Bran’s storyline, which translates much better on page than on screen. Dealing with visions, warging (explained through Jon Snow) and mystical influences isn’t as satisfying as feisty dialogues and heavy action, but it’s easy to forget that Bran is an incredibly important Stark with the most powerful skinchanging powers. Series author George R. R. Martin created Bran for a reason, and he’s here to stay.

After holding my breath for a whole season, afraid that HBO had cut out the Reed siblings, we’re finally introduced to Jojen (Thomas Brodie-Sangster, “Nowhere Boy”) and Meera (Ellie Kendrick, “An Education”). The Reeds play a vital role in Bran’s storyline, essentially introducing him to his true powers and accompanying him to the three-eyed crow. Jojen is a greenseer (the ability to have prophetic dreams), which results in his maturity and unnaturally calm demeanor. The writers can’t put off Bran’s story forever, and now is a good time as any to really develop his abilities and his relationship with the Reeds––and Jojen in particular.

Fans that are obsessed with following casting announcements over the past year will have immediately spotted Ramsay Snow (Iwan Rheon of “Misfits”), the bastard son of Roose Bolton, in the room while Theon Greyjoy was noisily tortured. Though his part lasted less than a minute, it was a nice preview of what’s to come for Theon and Winterfell.

It’s not “Game of Thrones” unless Tyrion Lannister is involved, but this episode’s scene between him and Shae was horribly scripted and out of place. Worried for her Lady, Shae tries to elicit help from Tyrion to protect her, and the imp offhandedly stated that Sansa comes from a very old name and has a pretty face, both of which should land her a proper marriage. This causes some unreasonable jealousy from Shae, who drops the playful façade like a hot potato. As a reader of the books on which the show is based, I can see where the writers are coming from with this particular scene, but it is overdone and uncomfortable; surely there is more than one way to foreshadow future conflicts than the mess that was presented to us on Sunday.

“Dark Wings, Dark Words” closely resembled the season premiere, and while an episode like this would not have worked for any other TV series, it was understandably necessary for “Game of Thrones.” With several major plots, more than a handful of subplots and a plethora of characters being introduced every few episodes, it’s hard not to become frustrated with the pace and the complexity of the series. The books were more like tomes, and it’s not easy trying to touch on every character in less than an hour. Perhaps now that everyone’s been introduced, the show will instead focus on two or three characters per episode instead rather than jumping around every few minutes.

 Rating: 4.5 stars