Airdate: April 26, 2015
Directed by: Mark Mylod
Showrunners: David Benioff and D.B. Weiss
Written by: David Benioff & D.B. Weiss (creators); George R.R. Martin (“A Song of Ice and Fire” by); David Benioff & D.B. Weiss (written for television by)
Three episodes into the new season, and tonight we see a definite ramping up of tension across several storylines. While last week gave us successes for some fan-favorite characters – Dany reuniting with Drogon, Jon gaining rank and authority – tonight we begin to see what the result and cost of new power can be, in at least one of these two cases. Another strong episode – the strongest of the season so far – and a more focused, integrated approach, means a rapt hour passed by far quicker than most. Click through for my full review and synopsis.
<<Spoiler Alert: The following review will discuss at length plot points of Game of Thrones S05E03, “High Sparrow.” In discussing events, I will be quoting some lines with colorful language – read more at your own risk.>>
We begin in the House of Black and White, where Arya is sweeping floors in a desultory fashion – this is not exactly what she signed up for. She watches as a man is led to an interior fountain by Jaqen H’Ghar, and is given a glass of clear fluid to drink. Arya approaches Jaqen, demanding that she be taught how to be an assassin, and he tells her, “Valar dohaeris: all men must serve. Faceless Men most of all.” He walks away, and Arya notes that the man who came in with Jaqen now lies still on the floor, eyes and mouth open in a death rictus. Two Faceless Men take the body away, through a door that is closed to Arya. From the look on her face, she isn’t satisfied with his non-answer, or the idea that she has to wait for doors to be opened.
We jump back across the Narrow Sea to King’s Landing, where the Royal Wedding v2.0 is taking place (v3.0 in Margaery’s case). Margaery and Tommen look radiantly happy, and Cersei is nicely framed in the background between them, looking almost ill as she watches her second son make his vows. Her sourness was stirred up by the cries of the crowd heading into the Great Sept, who kept up calls of “King Tommen” and “Queen Margaery” – but no calls of “Queen Cersei.” She is not a person to give up power willingly or gracefully.
Following the wedding, we have a scene that is sure to stir up some controversy. We hear Tommen and Margaery consumating their marriage, and then have a shot of the two in bed. While Tommen is seen from the waist-up, Margaery is obviously naked, though semi-cloaked in a blanket. The controversy may arise in that the actor playing Tommen, Dean-Charles Chapman, is only 17 (16 when the scene was filmed); however, in the show’s defense, the entire thing is shot tastefully and with a clear sense of playfulness between the two characters.
Margaery is clearly trying to steer Tommen toward moving his mother out of the capital, a move that would help secure Margaery’s power-base. But poor Tommen, all he wants to talk about is sex, and he’s as eager as a puppy with a new toy. Margaery takes it in stride, laughing and teasing, but all the while working on him, saying things like, “She’ll never let you out of her sight,” implying that he won’t be able to enjoy his married life as a man with his mother there all the time. This bears the hint of some fruit a bit later in the episode.
Cersei and Tommen are walking along the seawall, and she’s using the opportunity to subtly bad-mouth Margaery. Tommen has no ears for it, however, as he’s focused on his own thoughts – “Do you ever miss Casterly Rock?” She keeps trying to steer the conversation back to not trusting anyone but her, and he keeps bringing it back to how much happier she’d be back “home.” She is not pleased.
She goes – presumably immediately – to see Margaery, who is regaling her ladies-in-waiting about the prowess of her young husband. As she tells Cersei with a knowing smirk, “After all, he is half lion, half stag.” Cersei tries to maintain her composure, but her face is starting to show the cracks. This is especially evident as Margaery, testing her newfound power, throws barbs at her opponent, saying things like, “I wish we had wine for you. It’s a bit early in the day for us,” pointing out Cersei’s incipient alcoholism. Cersei can’t get past saying, “If there’s anything I can do. Anything I can do,” over and over again like a broken record. She’s on the verge of a massive breakdown, and we all have court-side seats. If it weren’t for the fact that she’s managed to alienate just about everyone, she might be due a little sympathy here; but instead, I suspect that most fans are rubbing their hands together with barely suppressed glee, just like me.
We move on to colder climes, as we visit Winterfell and the Bolton resurgence. They’re rebuilding the keep and castle, ruined by the Ironborn attacks led by Theon Greyjoy. And speak of the devil, there he is, running around in his new guise as Reek, errand boy and toady to the psychopathic Ramsay Bolton (remember, he’s been given his name by royal decree – no longer a bastard Snow). He watches with a few twitches and ticks as a couple of bodies are hung up, fully flayed of all their flesh.
We move into the Stark Great Hall, where Ramsay and his father Roose dine alone. Roose is talking about how to best consolidate the Bolton hold on the North. He’s particularly concerned with Ramsay’s willingness to pull out the nuclear option immediately, flaying those who refuse to bend knee or pay taxes. Roose is concerned that this will, in fact, create more enemies. Ramsay, however, has little interest in listening to his father, gorging down his meal like a starving man until Roose shouts at him to stop. This scene serves to focus us on the fact that, although a traitor and an evil bastard (figuratively), Roose still knows a thing or two about politics. Ramsay, however, does not, and his actions will alienate the minor lords their prospective stewardship of the North will depend on. Sound familiar? This theme of alienating the base is recurrent through these two storylines, and has resonance throughout the episode.
The key moment of this father-son tete-a-tete is when Roose tells his son that he feels diplomacy, and more particularly strategic marriages, will be what solidifies their position. He tells him that he has, “found a perfect girl to solidify our hold on the North.” Who, praytell, could this be?
Cut to Sansa riding beside Littlefinger. They top a rise, and below them is Moat Cailin, which Sansa immediately recognizes. Littlefinger lays out his plan to her (although one suspects that he’s still playing a few cards close to the vest), telling her that he intends for her to marry Ramsay (she thought he intended her to marry Roose, which would never have worked), and that he sees this as her route to revenge. He’s obsessed with her – we know this from his actions at the Aerie – but he’s willing to give up her virtue in order to promote his cause – and, ultimately, perhaps hers as well. He says, “There’s no justice in the world, not unless we make it.” He tells her that at her word, he’ll back out of the deal, but she decides to ride forth. She likes the taste of agency and vengeance that he’s offering to her.
Continuing with the fluidity of this section of the episode, we now cut to Brienne and Pod, as the observe Sansa’s party approaching Moat Cailin. Brienne states they’ll have to go around in order to pick up the trail, and when Pod worries that they’ll lose it, Brienne tells him that she knows where they’re going. She’s written off by just about everyone, but Brienne is no slouch. She understands the basics of Littlefinger’s plan, and she intends to follow through on her promise to Caitlin Stark.
In a moment of openness, Pod then Brienne share stories with each other, he about how he became Tyrion’s squire, she about how she became a King’s Guard to Renly. She has a hugely revelatory line, telling Pod that, “Nothing’s more hateful than failing to protect the one you love.” And she knows how to avenge Renly – the shadow she saw kill him had Stannis’s face, and as she tells Pod, Stannis is a man, and can be killed. The uptake of this particular scene on a more immediate level, however, is that she apologizes to Pod for her aggressive and snappish nature, and she promises to begin training him in swordsmanship and horsemanship. A tougher, more capable Pod would be a good thing, especially working in conjunction with the amazing Brienne of Tarth.
Speaking of targets for vengeance, we next turn to Stannis as he meets the newly anointed Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, Jon Snow. Jon graciously refuses Stannis’s offer of legitimacy, using his new command as Lord Commander as reason (it would have been interesting to see what excuse he would have offered had he not won the election – after all, he’d already told Sam he wasn’t going to accept it prior to the vote). Stannis recognizes Jon’s traits of stubbornness and honor, traits he’s inherited from Eddard Stark, but doesn’t find them to be complimentary. He informs Jon – after the latter’s prodding – that he and his men intend to move on Winterfell within the fortnight (two weeks to us non-medieval types), thus removing the strain on Castle Black’s resources. He suggests that Tormund Giant’s Bane might be more amenable to conversation than Mance, but he heavily implies that either way, he’d appreciate Jon’s intervention. After Stannis leaves, Ser Davos plays good cop, telling Jon that Stannis “Sees something” in him, and tries to use the language of the Night’s Watch oath – particularly the line pertaining to their being “The shield that guards the realms of men” – to prove that Jon does, in fact, need to take sides in the coming struggle.
This isn’t entirely off-side, and not just because I think Ser Davos kicks ethical ass all over the place. He’s definitely one of the best, in the sense of good and compassionate, characters in the entirety of Westeros, and he’s not lying to Jon when he tells him that taking sides may very well be necessary. The winter that is, indeed, coming, is going to be long and hard, and having a solid and cohesive defense will be necessary.
Heading next to Essos, we end up with Arya again. She’s in her cell, playing with the coin Jaqen gave her, when another apprentice enters – a young person of indeterminate gender she’s seen in the main hall. “Who are you?” the other child asks, and when Arya doesn’t answer satisfactorily, she is switched across the face. “Who are you?” again, and another lashing out of the switch. “Who are you?” and a switch to the midsection. Suddenly, Jaqen enters the cell, and tells the apprentice that Arya is not ready for the test. When Arya protests, Jaqen says, “A man wonders how ‘no-one’ came to be surrounded by Arya Stark’s things?” He and the apprentice leave, and we cut to a scene with Arya, on a dock, discarding her worldly possessions. She gets rid of everything, but when she gets to Needle, she can’t throw it away, instead placing it inside a hollow in the stone surge wall surrounding the harbor.
This has almost immediate results, as she is silently invited at the next suicide to participate in the preparation of the body. Again, she makes a mistake, speaking aloud a question to the other apprentice instead of watching and learning. But afterward she is silent, scrubbing down the naked body.
Once more back in the North, Sansa and Littlefinger arrive at Winterfell. Roose and Ramsay greet Sansa, and although she hesitates momentarily when greeting the murderer of her brother, she shows grace and agility in recognizing them. This does not assuage a group of women hanging back, who all look angry at the new arrival – I wonder who they are?
Further north yet, Jon is facing his first meal as Lord Commander. Maester Aemon is ill, so it is him alone with Sam and Olly at his side. He needs a new latrine dug, so he appoints a captain in charge, much to the delight and amusement of the other men. Next he names Ser Alliser, perhaps his greatest personal enemy here, as First Ranger, so that his expertise will pay dividends. Lastly, he commands Janos Slynt to go and command Grey Guard (an abandoned, ruined castle along the Wall), a command that Janos openly mocks. Jon gives him chances, finally asking if Janos is refusing the command. Janos tells him to stuff his command, and a civil war nearly breaks out within the Night’s Watch. Alliser stands in front of Janos as Jon’s men come to take him, but he moves, letting them take him. Jon calls for his sword, and Janos is taken outside to the gibbet. Janos talks big about Jon trying to scare him, but when he sees the new Lord Commander approaching, sword in hand, Janos has a change of heart. He drops to his knees and claims that he’s only afraid, that he’s “always been afraid”. This is not, however, a bluff, and Jon raises and drops the sword while Janos is begging for mercy – he doesn’t even realize the sword is dropping as he continues to sob and mumble. His head is in the basket before he realizes it. Command is proving to be a difficult thing.
From the requisite gore, we head (pardon the pun) to the requisite nudity. We’re back in Littlefinger’s brothel in King’s Landing, Oliver dressed in robe and a fake beard, playing the role of the Maker as seven naked women play the roles of the gods. The customer is the High Septon himself, kind of Westeros’s equivalent of the Pope. He requests two of the “gods” (Oliver reminds him that two is extra), and just as he’s licking his lips in anticipation, the door shudders open. Lancel, Cersei’s young cousin, and his Sparrow friends come rushing in, grabbing the High Septon as they go on about sin and blasphemy. They drag the old man outside, and make him walk the street naked, as the crowds hiss and throw things at him.
He goes immediately after to the Small Council, demanding justice – he wants the Sparrows arrested, and their leader – the High Sparrow – executed. Cersei goes into the slums of King’s Landing (that’d be Flea Bottom, for those that recall Arya’s initial flight from the Lannister attack back in Season 1), holding a scented handkerchief to her nose and barely concealing her disgust. She passes dozens of sick and desperate, stopping at a shoe-less man giving out bowls of a putrid looking gruel. This is, in fact, the High Sparrow [played by the inestimable Jonathon Pryce, who you’ll remember from Brazil and the Pirates of the Caribbean movies (as Governor Swann)], living the life of an aesthete as he helps and ministers to the poor. When Cersei asks why he isn’t wearing shoes, he tells her that someone else needed them more. In this she weighs and judges him, seeing someone she can use; her assessment couldn’t be further from the truth.
Rather than having him arrested and executed – something she makes clear to him that she has been asked to do – she attempts to ally herself with the High Sparrow. Cersei’s desperate, and she recognizes that her power has been eroded. She sees in this religious leader someone with the power of numbers behind him, and, she hopes, the naivete that his lack of formalism would seem to indicate. In this, she is badly miscalculating, something that is indicated subtly when the High Sparrow looks up at her with a smile and says, “Hypocrisy is a boil. Lancing a boil is never pleasant.” He’s telling her that he sees right through her machinations, but she is so far gone into her own narcissistic worldview that she can’t see it. She’s been untouchable for so long that she can’t imagine a world where things are otherwise.
In the bowels of the Red Keep, we next see Qyburn working on his experiments, slicing the head off of a rat and making notes. Ominously, there is a large covered object on a table behind him, looking distinctly body-like. Cersei enters, and asks that a message be sent to Littlefinger, which Qyburn agrees to do. She glances around the room, and asks how his work is going – “Well,” Qyburn replies, and she leaves, barely concealed disgust on her face. In fact, this is her default face for the entire episode, as pretty much nothing is going her way lately. After she leaves, the covered body suddenly begins to spasm violently. Qyburn looks up as though this is normal, and says, “Quiet, friend.” I think I’ll start calling Qyburn “Victor.”
Things at Winterfell are getting a bit more complicated. Cersei’s message has found its way there, via the Eyrie, and Roose has already opened and read it – insurance, he tells Littefinger. Littlefinger assures Bolton that their agreement stands, and that the Lannisters are done as a power with Tywin’s death. When Littlefinger asks to borrow a raven to send a reply, Bolton accedes – but he wants to read the reply as well.
The episode ends on Tyrion and Varys. They’re at Volantis, but still stuck inside the carriage. Tyrion keeps repeating “I have to get out of this wheelhouse” over and over as Varys tells him no. Finally, Tyrion gets up and leaves. The two make their way along the Long Bridge, a bazaar of merchants, businesses, and brothels. Along the way, they see a Red Priestess (someone who worships R’hllor, as does Melisandre) drumming up a crowd, speaking of how the “night is long and dark.” She turns and stares right at Tyrion, and he decides it’s time to leave – to a brothel, of course.
In the brother, the most popular prostitute is wearing a bad blonde wig and a bottom-less blue dress. She’s supposed to look like Daenerys, and as she walks around getting attention, we see one man sighing heavily and sinking his face into his drink – it’s Ser Jorah Mormont, late of Meereen and exiled by his “Khaleesi.” Tyrion doesn’t see him, nor does he seem to see Tyrion. The Imp is disgusted by the prostitute’s appearance – an odd reaction from him – and it gets odder. He speaks to a shy appearing prostitute, who is obviously jealous of the attention the other woman is getting. He tells her that he wouldn’t touch the other, but that if he could have anyone, it would be her. She grabs his hand and goes to take him to the rooms, and he suddenly hesitates. He realizes he can’t go through with it – shades of Shae still covering his heart, perhaps?
Instead, he gets up and goes to a nearby hallway leading out to an opening over the river so he can relieve himself. Varys notes he is gone, and gets up with a worried look. We cut back to Tyrion, urinating, and he hears a noise behind him. He assumes it’s Varys and begins to talk, but a noose is placed over his neck and a gag in his mouth. It’s Ser Jorah – he did notice Tyrion – and he tells him sotto voce, “I’m taking you to the queen.” But which queen does he mean?
This is an important question to answer. It might seem on the surface that it is Cersei he means – after all, what better way to recoup his name and lands than to please the queen in King’s Landing? But just as likely is Daenerys. He’s in love with her, and he sees Tyrion as an opportunity to regain her favor – what better than to bring her one of her key enemies on a silver platter? Either way, Jorah has just seen his prospects get brighter. It will be interesting to see how Varys reacts, and if he finds the two men before they leave the city.
This was the strongest episode so far this season. Stakes are getting higher, people are consolidating their power (Jon Snow and Queen Margaery) as others lose theirs (Cersei and Tyrion), and one minor – but regular – character lost his head. The Sansa/Littlefinger storyline which crossed the Brienne/Pod one last week, is now consolidating with the Bolton/Reek story, which in turn is likely to be joined by Stannis/Melisandre as he makes his proposed attack on Winterfell. Meanwhile, there is definitely going to be movement for Tyrion, although it is uncertain in which direction as of yet. I’ll miss the banter between he and Varys, although it was something of a one note chorus.
There was no Dany tonight – not necessarily a bad thing – and no Melisandre, which was a little surprising. I wonder what she’s up to? Next week should show the fallout from Jon’s decision to execute Slynt, as well as the High Sparrow’s reactions to Cersei’s attempt to manipulate him. Arya is finally going to start getting some real knowledge in Braavos, and Ser Jorah has a goal once again.
The greatest strength of the episode was how things were tied together. One group would begin alluding to something involving others and boom, we’re seeing those others, also plotting. As widely separated stories begin to show how they’re all connected, the show is bound to get stronger, moving out of the doldrums that occasionally hurt narrative flow back in Seasons 3 and 4 (particularly the former). Game of Thrones keeps moving from strength to strength, and I can’t wait to see where this season takes us.
Steve’s Grade: A
A slick, tightly focused episode that clearly shows how several of the disparate storylines are beginning to move toward each other. With seven more episodes to go this season (plus two more seasons proposed at present), it’ll be very interesting to see how things come together.