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One complaint I’ve brought up about Game of Thrones is the way each episode often feels more like a collection of greatest hits moment than a full-fledged narrative. The last two episodes made some strides in addressing the problem, what with “The Climb” structuring itself around Jon and Ygritte’s, well, climb up the Wall, and “The Bear and the Maiden Fair” concentrating on the narrative oomph from Jaime’s rescue of Brienne and the ongoing discoveries of Jon and Ygritte’s opposite-sides-of-the-tracks romance.

But last night’s “Second Sons” was the biggest improvement yet. The two extended riffs on Tyrion’s marriage to Sansa, and Daenarys’ efforts to recruit the sell swords known as the Second Sons to her cause, allowed for an unusually rich assortment of character pieces, plot pay-offs, and even an inside joke.

It doesn’t exactly speak well of Jorah and Barristan’s security that the sellsword Dario was able to slip into Daenarys’ bathchamber and put a knife to her attendant’s throat. But Daenarys certainly handled the situation with aplomb. If she’s attracted to Dario, she hid it well, and was happy to use her own nudity to drive home the extent of her self-containment, aloofness, and capacity for regal bearing under any circumstances.

Give us an entire scene of just Dario and his fellow sell swords illustrated how similar he is in temperament and nature to Khal Drogo. It’s hard to imagine the similarity failed to cross Daenarys’ mind. Then there was the revelation that her Dothraki isn’t as good as she thought; a metaphorical reminder of the distance that now lies between her and Drogo’s death, and the inevitable loosening of old emotional connections. Certainly, Dario’s interest in her can’t be denied, as evidenced by the heads of the fellow sellsword captains he dropped at her feet.

Meanwhile, you can’t really blame Tyrion for drowning his cynicism and discomfort in wine at the marriage ceremony. And Lord knows it gave Peter Dinklage a marvelously wide-ranging opportunity for physical comedy. But it also left Sansa to fend for herself during the proceedings, which was a bit of a letdown after Tyrion’s earnest attempts to reassure the poor girl that, however disappointing their forced nuptials might be, he is not the monster that Joffrey is.

Of course, the intoxication also gave Tyrion the wherewithal to do what everyone in Kings’ Landing most likely  wants to do, but no one has the courage to attempt: namely, threaten to chop Joffrey’s manhood off should he take his cruelty and bullying one inch further. The medium of television allowed the character moment the attention it deserves: in A Storm of Swords, Tyrion’s threat and its significance gets a bit lost in the hubbub of George R.R. Martin’s workmanlike descriptions. But here, Tyrion’s outburst brought the party to a dead halt, and both the social horror and thrill of it was palpable. In fact, was that a look of barely repressed respect on Tywin’s face as he talked Joffrey down from his own ragingly petulant response?

Continuing the plot thread into the bedchamber was an opportunity to see Tyrion stick to his moral guns, and refuse to sleep with Sansa until/if she wishes it. His final, wine sloshing declaration of “So my watch begins!” was the first time I can recall the show pulling a joke out of a reference to the culture of its own narrative world. And we even got a breakthrough of sorts in Tyrion’s relationship to Shae, when she noticed the lack of a bloodstain on the sheets, intuited its meaning, and made the instant decision to cover up for Tyrion by washing the linens anyway.

Some of Game of Thrones’ other marginalized males also rose to the occasion this time out. The Hound proved himself once again capable of a baseline of decency, whatever his wounds, with his decision to bring Arya to the Twins to reunite with her mother and Robb. Sure, he cites the money as a reason, but the half smile on Arya’s face implies she didn’t quite buy that explanation anymore than we should. And the well-meaning, ever put-upon Sam just defended Gilly by killing a White Walker, surely a move any warrior in Westeros would envy. (That said, did he drop the dragon glass knife afterwards?)

In fairness, with a canvass this big, it’s probably inevitable that the storytelling will be bite-sized and scattershot for the earlier portions of the season, followed by bigger and more flesh-out helpings of plot as the various climaxes arrive. The pattern has the disadvantage of making a season’s initial episodes a slog, but it also delivers a gathering sense of momentum and cascading pay-offs. So maybe my initial frustration, and my current sense of growing catharsis and excitement/dread were all part of Benioff and Weiss’ plan.

Two more episodes left. Next week’s episode is entitled “The Rains of Castamere,” and Cersei’s little speech to Margaery last night gave us the dark portents wrapped up in that title. Gird yourselves, people.