This episode had a recurring theme dear to my heart: Women being awesome. And by "awesome" I don't just mean brave and heroic, though that's here to some degree, too. I mean interesting, and forging independent paths for themselves to the extent that they can in a stratified and brutal world like this one.
Sure, men did things in this episode too -- Tyrion investigated a weapon that we just know is going to have revolting consequences in later episodes, what with all the talk of "melting flesh" (surely this is not a spoiler). Jon tramped the wood beyond the Wall looking depressed, and I must admit that the most I got from these bits was: 1) No matter how freezing these men get, they never pull up their hoods and 2) The black cloaks of the Night's Watch set against the glistening white landscape make for some lovely camera shots. There's no witty dialogue here, no emotional complexity (unless you consider abject terror to be a complex emotion). I don't blame George R. R. Martin for this -- the wood beyond the Wall is the horror movie aspect of this story -- but that's why I personally have more fun with the courtly snake pit of King's Landing.
So, back to the women. Michelle Fairley as Catelyn Stark is a goddess, and most likely an underappreciated one. Like Walt Whitman, she contains multitudes -- vulnerability, shrewd statesmanship, steely resolve, and an all-encompassing love for her children. And she never once wields a sword. In this show even more than in the books, Catelyn is both a parallel and a contrast to Cersei Lannister. Both women self-identify as mothers, first and foremost. Their eldest sons are at war with each other. The difference between them is the difference between Stark and Lannister -- ethical conduct against treachery, humility against the kind of lust for power that leads to the slaying of babies (which Cersei likens to "pulling weeds").
Then there is Brienne of Tarth, played to perfection by Gwendoline Christie. I love that although Christie is stunning in real life, in this show she is unmistakably Brienne. In the world of fantasy novels I'm not sure this matters so much... but in the world of TV and movies, a character like Brienne fulfills a vital function. I am so completely over the stunningly beautiful kickass heroine. I am so tired of the implication from TV that women are supposed to be able to beat up the bad guys while wearing full makeup and stiletto heels. It's idiotic and insulting, male-targeted titillation masquerading as feminism. And here we have Brienne, who is not thin (horrors!), not pretty, and who actually wears armor that makes sense -- which is never sexy. I doubt any guys are watching this and drooling over the scenes with Brienne. And I want to be her. And that's as it should be.
Arya's exchange with Lord Tywin is priceless, and a TV original -- in the books, Harrenhal is occupied by someone else entirely, so this Arya/Tywin dynamic is surprising. And now I'm going to incense about 80 percent of the readership by admitting that as a reader, I never cared much for Arya. In the first book, I thought she was the kind of brat I'd rather do a hundred pushups than have to babysit, and more like someone's idea of a kid than an actual one. Later, I just thought the grimdark nature of her plotline was tedious. But Maisie Williams is irresistible, making Arya a standout character in the TV series. She's brave and adorable and clearly destined for greatness. It helps that the TV series has cut out all the stuff from the books about how much Arya resembles the beautiful Lyanna... it's like, OK, we get it, she's going to be a beeeeeyoooooteeefool woman, an obvious indicator of how special she is. On the show, her looks are irrelevant. What actually matters are her resourcefulness, compassion, and totally awesome ability to stare down Tywin Lannister.
More: Daenerys has an adult conversation with Ser Jorah about strategy, and enforces diplomacy in the ranks of the Dothraki. Margaery Tyrell displays a steely ambition which as readers, we never got to see. I had thought her a pawn of House Tyrell, but apparently all along, it's been Margaery pulling the strings. That's going to make the third season, which I'm not spoiling, even more awesome.