Alik Sakharov, known for directing other television hits such as “Dexter” and “Boardwalk Empire,” takes the helm for the first time this week for “Game of Thrones.” The nausea-and-sweaty-palm-inducing cinematography of Jon’s long-awaited ascent of the Wall served as the backbone to an episode that saw some major players get played and many pawns rearranged and tossed aside. It’s a pessimistic episode, and one that’s sure to leave an uneasy feeling in the audience’s stomachs.

We open with Sam and Gilly as they take shelter around a fire. Some idle chatter occurs that further reinstates Sam’s lack of survival skills and emphasizes the Wall’s majestic appearance. It was a nice little reprieve to see the innocence of their bond, and we get a glimpse of Sam’s “treasure”––a weapon whose full nature will undoubtedly be revealed soon. Somewhere south of the Wall, Meera and Osha get catty with each other. For all intents and purposes, they are the men of the group, hunting for and protecting the Stark boys, Jojen and even Hodor. The two would be quite formidable if they got along, but that’s just not the case. They only come to a grudging truce when Bran demands it by stating that they need to work together to stay alive.

Another interesting element was Jojen’s visions, which give him epileptic seizures in his sleep. Meera, clearly used to this, says the visions take a toll on her brother, and there is a shot of Bran’s face filled with apprehension at his own future prospects. Up until now, Bran’s powers have remained a mystery, but through Jojen we get a feeling that being a warg is much more difficult and risky than we first thought. If Bran is supposed to be more gifted than his young mentor, will he suffer from the same fate as the Reed boy or will he have the power to overcome it?

Speaking of truces, there are plenty of tense alliances going around this week. Though not a fan of the Tyrells, I have always rooted for the levelheaded Queen of Thorns––more so now that Diana Rigg has been doing such a phenomenal job. In what has got to be one of the most triumphant strategic meetings of his career, Tywin manages to outmaneuver Olenna and secure both the Reach and the North for his house. There were some great jabs and not-so-subtle insults civilly exchanged  between the two, and between Olenna’s playful nature and Tywin’s severe demeanor, I was chuckling the whole way through.

Admitting that her grandson is a “sword swallower through and through,” she doesn’t miss a beat and deflects back at Tywin that incest is a much greater stain than homosexuality. Plus, Cersei is old, and Olenna doesn’t want to risk her going infertile before being able to produce an heir. Not even batting an eye, the Hand (with what appears to be a hint of a deadly smile on his face) calmly suggests that he might as well make Loras a member of the Kingsguard––and bam: Tywin wins the round. Unwilling to let Highgarden be robbed of their only heir, Queen of Thorns gracefully concedes, but not without a rather backhanded compliment: “It’s a rare enough thing, a man who lives up to his reputation.”

Learning a thing or two from their father, Tyrion and Cersei share a rare, civilized moment alone together. Understanding that their fate and plight is the same, Cersei admits––albeit without real gratitude––that Tyrion is the true hero of Blackwater. When plied by Tyrion as to who ordered his murder, Cersei only quietly affirms that his life may still be in danger. They are united, temporarily, by their father’s merciless ambition and by their common concern for the still missing Jamie.

Though Ygritte didn’t stand out much to me in the novels, Rose Leslie has gone above and beyond her role as the wildling spearwife. Leslie gave Ygritte dimension and depth, and it’s hard to not root for the new, young lovebirds. Ygritte reveals that she knows Jon Snow isn’t a turncloak, but she will keep his secret because she’s his woman now and “you’re going to be loyal to your woman.” There is a bittersweet quality to this statement because Jon Snow is nothing if not honorable and loyal––but it’s unfortunate because he already swore that honor and loyalty elsewhere. But this is something Jon never expected to account for: love, or something very close to that. He gave his word to the Nights Watch, and Ygritte says with conviction that they won’t care if he dies, just as how she means nothing to Mance Rayder. They’re both expendable, but not to each other, because they’re all they’ve got. This was proven true during their perilous and heart stopping 700-foot ascent to the Wall, where in order to preserve himself, Orell cuts Jon and Ygritte lose. Though Jon saves them in time, this will only deepen Jon’s mistrust of the wildlings, introducing a direct conflict with his feelings for his new paramour.

There hasn’t been much word on Melisandre since her departure from Dragonstone, but we now see that she has traveled far to see Thoros, a fellow priest and worshipper of R’hllor, the Lord of Light. The two never interact in the books, but their confrontation here was well constructed. It allowed great insight into Thoros’s history and highlights the differences between him and Melisandre. It would seem as though the Lord of Light has favored Thoros over the more fanatical Red Woman, choosing to shed light on the drunken, faithless priest instead of casting it on the overtly devout Melisandre. She has come to see Thoros’s miracle: Beric. What’s unsettling here is that the Lord of Light’s mystical existence is basically confirmed, and to know that such a formidable being has the power to bring people back from the dead can only stir up more chaos for all those fighting for the throne.

Seeing Beric not only satisfied whatever Melisandre had in mind, but also fueled the fire to her already over-zealous support of her god. She comes to an agreement with the BWB, and takes Gendy in exchange for a couple sacks of gold. Arya, sensing that the Red Woman’s presence isn’t all kosher, protests the exchange and accuses the BWB of betraying Gendry. In retrospect, it isn’t truly a betrayal; Melisandre and all of BWB serve the Lord of Light, and believe they must do his bidding regardless of what is asked. In typical fearless Arya fashion, she confronts Melisandre, who instead gives the young Stark girl an ominous premonition that Arya will get her wish and shut many eyes forever, though it will not bring her happiness, and that the two will meet again. It’s an eerie confrontation, because despite her fiery personality, Arya is only a 10-year-old girl, and Melisandre’s eyes were a bit too penetrating for her to be lying.

It’s commendable that “Game of Thrones” has learned to be frugal in its casting and has been condensing and/or replacing certain characters to save the hassle of introducing new people every week. In the novels, Edric Storm is the bastard that Melisandre wants, not Gendry, and I have to admit that I rather like the change. Audiences already have an emotional tie with Gendry, and the switch adds to the episode’s tension as well as creating a bigger impact. It’s obvious that Melisandre doesn’t have very kind plans for the smith.

“The Climb” is a contrast between the political intellect and the visceral. Though low on violence, there were some extremely excruciating scenes of torture. Theon gets the worst of the worst thanks to his tormentor. Ramsay’s identity still remains a mystery to Theon, but the cruel mind game Ramsay plays on the last Greyjoy heir makes me pity the once self-assured and cocky ward of Ned Stark. Just when Theon thought he has won the game, Ramsay informs him with a crazed look in his eyes, “If you think this has a happy ending, you haven’t been paying attention,” essentially sealing Theon’s fate. It’s also an interesting reference to “Game of Thrones” as a whole––brutal, sickening and evoking a sense of foreboding and grimness in its viewers.

Speaking of the Boltons, Roose takes audience with Jamie and Brienne. In an otherwise dark setting, there’s slight humor in Brienne’s fuzzy clothing––a mockery to her lack of femininity. Things are not looking good for our favorite lady knight as she’s informed that while Jamie will be allowed travel back to Kingslanding, provided he clears the Bolton name in his lack of a swordhand. She will be charged with treason and Bolton makes it clear that the Kingslayer doesn’t have the right or the means to bargain for her this time. This is a true test for Jamie; with his newfound conscience and respect for his companion comes responsibilities and tough choices. He can either choose to be shipped off to the comfort of King’s Landing and the waiting arms of his family, or do whatever needs to be done to ensure Brienne’s safety.

Tensions are still high in Robb’s camp, where he parlays with two of Walder Frey’s sons for their support. Clearly unappreciative of Robb’s violation of their contract, the Freys waste no time in grinding out their requirements, one of which is that Edmure Tully has to wed one of the Frey girls instead. It’s terrible to know that you’re going to pay for your nephew’s mistake for the rest of your life, and Robb acknowledges this. After being reminded that this will make up for the costly mistake he made at stone mill and being roughly coerced by Brynden, Edmure accepts, and he is to wed within a fortnight’s time after the Frey men’s departure. As the Frey boys leave the room, it’s revealed that one of them is a cripple, a fact that can be seen as an insult to Robb, and is a bad omen of what’s to come.

Lots of craziness this week in King’s Landing. In addition to the Olenna Tywin face-off, we also get a hilarious scene of Loras feigning heterosexual interest in his bride-to-be, gushing about how much he loves gold and green brocade and weddings to a completely oblivious Sansa. Also made evident is Sansa’s complete trust in Shae, her handmaiden who once told her she couldn’t be trusted. The Starks really have an appetite for trusting people that warn them they can’t be trusted––a glaring and costly flaw that runs deep in the family. Tyrion is ridden with the burden of informing Sansa of their impending marriage with a stubborn Shae present.

The most disturbing and brilliant scene of this episode goes to the fabricated exchange between Littlefinger and Varys. Never this frightening in the books, Littlefinger shows his true colors this episode, gloating at his victory over the eunuch for trumping the Tyrell plot to bring Sansa into their family. It was particularly memorable because the madness that is Littlefinger has been unleashed full force. Once again, we get a contrast between the minds and goals of Varys and Littlefinger. The former balks at chaos, while the latter preaches, “Chaos is not a pit, it’s a ladder.” His whole spiel was like a lightning bolt to the heart, sending shivers down my spine and goosebumps on my body because it’s chilling just how much of a monster Littlefinger truly is.

It’s always the quiet ones––the ones that started with nothing and stand to gain everything that become the true menace in the end. Just how bad? Take a look at poor Ros. Beautiful, resilient, and crafty Ros who came so far from who she once was, only to end up as a practicing post for Joffrey. She fell from the ladder, in accordance to Littlefinger, and the fall broke her––permanently. On the other hand, “The Climb” ends with Jon and Ygritte miraculously making it to the top of the Wall. In a touching and tender moment, Jon takes Ygritte to gaze over the other side. It’s a great divide between a place where Jon Snow knew nothing and a place where he knows everything.

This has been a finely crafted episode. The transitions were smooth and the pace consistent. There was also a nice frame: We open with an uncomplicated and untainted relationship between Gilly and Sam, and end with the passionate kiss between Jon and Ygritte. It’s a nice way to start and end an otherwise heartless episode and I appreciate the injection of several grim foreshadowing made by certain characters.  Poor Sansa is also left behind, sobbing as she watches Littlefinger depart for the Eryie. This is a huge departure from the novels, and does screw with certain timelines, but I’m eager to see where the writers are taking Sansa in the future. The show has definitely developed its own distinct personality apart from the books and it works well into its favor.

 Rating: 4 stars

Correction: A past version of this article incorrectly identified Michelle MacLaren as the director of this episode.