Or should that be "old plots and new?" This episode deviates so sharply from George R. R. Martin's books that fans were reeling, with some upset by this turn of events.
But others are feeling just fine, and count me in the latter camp. From what I can see, the showrunners are doing some wonderful things that only make the story better. My only gripe, and it's a small one, is that Dany's Dothraki keep getting killed, which undermines her credibility as Khaleesi. At this rate, I wouldn't follow Daenerys if I were Dothraki any more than I'd wear a red shirt on board the Enterprise.
The humanizing of Theon Greyjoy that began in the first season, where he is a loyal brother to Robb, reaches a crescendo in this episode. Instead of indiscriminately killing everyone in sight and displaying pure hatred toward the Starks as he does in the Song of Ice and Fire books, on the show Theon is torn between proving himself to his dreadful father and his innate humanity. Lacking the self-confidence that is Robb Stark's birthright, mocked by his father's men, Theon experiences an internal crisis that is utterly believable. That Ned Stark killed his brothers is emphasized here, and intensifies Theon's sense of being an outsider. He can never fully belong among the Starks -- but his own father mocks him outright. And all these conflicting agonies ultimately come together in the swordstroke that kills Ser Rodrik.
That's a lot of complexity and conflict, and the writers and actor pull it off without a hitch. I never would have thought it possible to feel for Theon, but here we are.
Arya's interaction with Lord Tywin is another significant difference from the books, where Harrenhal is actually occupied by an ally of Robb Stark. The change is inspired: by putting Arya into the house of the enemy, we get a lot more tension even if the fallout is the same. And bizarrely, Lord Tywin becomes a character who seems to actually have something resembling a heart. I don't know if I'm comfortable feeling anything but utter disgust for Lord Tywin... but that's what's great about this show.
Then there's Jon Snow. This plotline becomes a bit odd: why did he offer to kill Ygritte in the first place? Why would Qhorin Halfhand leave them alone? Oh, never mind. The result is that they're thrown together under circumstances that are much different than in the books--he chases after her in a scene reminiscent of The Princess Bride. What is similar to the books is that Ygritte looks to be just as irritating here as there. I'm just hoping she will never utter the words, "You know nothing, Jon Snow." Pretty please? (One thing this show has spared us so far, and that is George R. R. Martin's character catchphrases, which are sometimes a too-convenient shorthand for character development. "You know nothing, Jon Snow," "If I look back, I am lost," "Reek, rhymes with... " Argh. Just no.)
The grand finish to the episode is the most glaring plot deviation of all -- the theft of Daenerys's dragons. In light of future plot developments -- which I won't spoil -- this makes sense to me, as it gives Daenerys a clear motivation for what she will do next.
For the most part, every divergence of the show from the books just serves to enrich the plot. Robb's falling in love is going to be important, so it's only right that we see it happen onscreen. Xaro Xhaon Daxos has a vital role to play in Daenerys's life, so we should get a sense of who he is beyond the façade of a leering pirate. This episode, like the previous one, solidified my conviction that the books are in good hands, with writers who are dedicated to making the story work on multiple levels.
Too bad that won't save any of the hapless characters from what's to come.