What’s real, and what’s a performance?
The writing’s no good.
So change it.
With many of the show’s major players — Tyrion, Jon, Sansa — taking the week off, “Blood of My Blood,” written by Bryan Cogman, gave some of our oft-sidelined characters the chance to spread their wings, as it were. (Or in Drogon’s case, literally.) And while the episode was never going to generate the water cooler buzz of the last few weeks, it marked critical points in a few journeys that badly needed them.
Let’s begin in King’s Landing, where Queen Margaery, who we’ve only seen sporadically since the midpoint of last season, is showing the classic signs of High Sparrow brainwashing. Either that, or she’s putting on the performance of her life. The show has taken some heat lately (a very low boil, by the internet’s standards) for how it’s kept one of its strongest female characters locked away for nearly a full season, only allowing the other capital denizens to make moves around her and on her behalf, but the decision makes sense now: since we haven’t known what’s been going on in her head, we can’t yet know if her religious conversion is genuine, or if she’s playing a much longer game.
Right now my money is on the latter, knowing Margaery, but when Tommen goes to see her she lays the piety and repentance on thick for the impressionable young king: “I’ve had lots of time to think about how good I was at seeming good,” she tells him, which is a nice line and actually sounds self-reflective. The Sparrow thinks that the kindness she’s shown (publicly) to the poor will spare her the humiliation Cersei received on her walk, but Marg suggests she might deserve it anyway. Yet even considering her treatment, she gives the High Sparrow’s Dungeons of Atonement a positive Yelp review. “There’s something about him,” she says wistfully. “His way of looking at the world.” The question is, if this is a show, why put it on only for Tommen’s benefit?
That answer to that, if my hunch is right, is because she knows she can play her boy king like a lute. But even if Tommen is emotionally manipulated into allying with the Faith, therefore sparing his queen her walk of shame and thoroughly ruining his uncle-father’s plans (even Mace got armored up like a loon, and gave his troops a terrible speech), that doesn’t mean it was actually the wrong decision — and it still took courage to make it. Seemingly on cue, like it was planned all along, the High Sparrow brushes away Jamie’s threats as Tommen the Blessed trots out, flanked on all sides with guards bearing the seven-pointed star: “The Crown and the Faith are the twin pillars on which the world rests,” he proclaims, and you know his mother will be THRILLED to hear her words parroted back like this. The attack on the Sept is off, and Jamie and the Tyrells are stunned. “What is happening?” sputters Mace. The High Sparrow has beaten us, answers Olenna. “That’s what’s happening.” What, they didn’t count on Tommen actually making a power move?
There are consequences for Jamie, too, who threatened violence against the King’s new best friends. But instead of checking into the High Sparrow’s B&B, he’s just going to be sent away to Riverrun to deal with the newly resurfaced Blackfish. For once, Cersei is the voice of reason: “Better at the head of an army than in the dungeons,” she tells him. “Show them what Lannisters are…what we do to our enemies.” On the one hand, Jamie’s going to miss Cersei’s trial by combat, which she is a little too confident will go just fine. On the other hand — wait, Jamie has no other hand. But he’s heading toward a reunion with Brienne! (Somebody better warn Tormund…)
Yep, Littlefinger’s intel was accurate, as a quick visit to the Twins shows us. Walder Frey, still alive, still awful, can’t believe they lost an entire stronghold to a man who was supposed to be dead three seasons ago. “They’re laughing at us!” he sputters to his sad sons in their sad leather hoods. Well, yeah. Did he think the Red Wedding would make people LIKE them? Tully allies and even the Brotherhood Without Banners — better put a pin in that — will ensure that Riverrun will withstand any siege, but the Freys have one last trick to play, summoning Edmure up from
Starz his cell. “You’re going home,” Walder sneers. Terrific.
This week we meet another Tyrell ally in Randyll Tarly, Father of the Year candidate. (It’s not a very long list.) Sam has brought Gilly and Lil’ Sam home to Horn Hill, a massive castle with lots of dope-looking arches, but there’s good reason to be nervous. His parents know that he met Gilly “in the North,” but how far north, exactly? At first, with only Sam’s mother and sister there to greet them, things seem fine. Good, even. “You are lovely,” says Mrs. Tarly to Gilly, who is wearing the same rags she wore at the Wall. But later at dinner, with Gilly dolled up for the first time in her life, Randyll can only grimace in his son’s direction. His younger son, Dickon (not to be confused with Rickon, because GRRM), is the model of a young lord: an expert hunter who looks dashing in his finery and eats in moderation. Sam, though…is Sam. “You’ve managed to stay soft and fat” is just the opening salvo. Becoming a Maester, burying his nose in books, isn’t going to make him a Real Man.
Sam takes all this abuse in silence, as his mother gasps and Dickon can’t even make eye contact, but Gilly sticks up for her guy: he can wield a sword, she says. He saved her life many a time, she says, like when he killed an actual White Walker on their way down to Castle Black. That gets Randyll’s attention.”Down to Castle Black?” NO, GILLY! SAY YOU MISSPOKE! DON’T LET HIM ENCYCLOPEDIA BROWN YOU! But it’s too late. Sam fathering a bastard on a Mole’s Town whore was one thing, apparently, but a Wildling girl is too much. He runs out the standard Bigoted Dad line about Sam “dishonoring” his family and never wants to see his son again, but okay, fine, Gilly and the baby can stay, because his wife will insist. (Wait, nothing about the White Walker? So Tarly believes it, and just doesn’t care?)
“I’m not angry at you,” Gilly tells Sam later. “I’m angry that horrible people can treat good people that way and get away with it.” (Have you ever seen this show, Gilly?) He gets ready to leave her, but, in his own moment of testicular fortitude — nicely directed by Jack Bender, letting the silence hang in the room — he abruptly changes plans. They’re leaving. “We belong together,” he says. “All of us.” And he swipes the family Valyrian blade, Heartsbane, on the way out. GO SAM.
Not terribly long ago in the books, as Sam and Gilly made that fateful journey south from Wildling country, they were aided by a mysterious man Sam nicknamed “Coldhands.” Not quite a man but not exactly a wight, the rumors have swirled ever since that Coldhands was actually the long-lost Benjen Stark, rumors that Martin himself has flatly denied. But as we learn this week, either Ol’ George is full of it, or the show is making another bold choice in streamlining its narrative: COLDHANDS IS BACK, YOU GUYS. AND IT’S M-FING BENJEN.
First, though, we have to watch Meera struggle for a while (as expected, now that Hodor went to hold the great door in the sky), dragging a lucid-dreaming Bran across the barren snowscape. The images that flash across the screen deserve to be analyzed Zapruder-style, and I’m sure you can find a site that has done that, but I just want to highlight a few: more shots of Young Ned; Jamie on the Iron Throne; the Mad King shouting “Burn them all!”; vials of neon-green wildfire. Finally, having binge-watched the entire series and then some, Bran returns to consciousness just in time for he and Meera to get swarmed by wights — also, just in time to be rescued by a Mysterious Rider with a flaming mace, dispatching enemies like Aragorn on Weathertop. His face is covered, but those eyes and that voice are the giveaway.
“The Three-Eyed Raven sent for me,” he tells them. The Raven is dead, Meera says. Uncle Benjen shrugs. “Now he lives again,” motioning to Bran. Turns out that Benjen did die, basically, but was brought back to half-life by the children of the forest. Apparently the dragonglass-to-the-heart trick can work for good, too? He also says some stuff about Bran’s destiny and his great power and great responsibility, like, we know, Benjen. You’re the one that’s been missing for five years.
For the final round we head east, where Arya finally — FINALLY — shows her hand. She may have convinced the supposedly omnipotent Jaqen that she shed her old identity, but her reactions watching the re-enactment of her dumb dad’s betrayal and execution gave the lie to that. She’s still on her mission, however, returning yet again to watch the troupe depict the Purple Wedding in their smash sequel. Now this is comedy, even if it’s only funny to Arya — the crowd boos as “Tyrion” poisons the king, but why do they care? — as “Joffrey” chokes and spasms like my daughter when presented with a vegetable she doesn’t like. As “Cersei,” Lady Crane — Arya’s mark, playing a woman still on her real-life List– rushes to his side and delivers a heartfelt monologue that Arya can spot her rival mouthing in the wings. (Could she be more obvious?)
Slinking backstage during “Tywin’s” death scene, Arya drops some poison into Crane’s wine bottle, but gets caught just before exiting. Lady Crane, though, has no reason to suspect foul play, and assumes Arya has been hanging around because she wants to be an actress. Of course our little assassin can’t be totally honest, but her admiration of Crane is genuine enough, and before long they’ve swapped acting tips and formed a bond: “Do you like pretending to be other people?” Crane asks Arya, who says her name is “Mercy.” A little on the nose, but I’ll allow it.
Whether it’s Crane’s kindness, how the actress herself is mistreated (troupe leader Richard E. Grant is a Class-A jerkwad), or just the fact that this isn’t what she signed up for, it’s enough for Arya to give up on her entire reason for coming to Braavos in the first place; she intercedes just as Crane is about to drink the poisoned wine, throws shade at her rival, and dashes out to retrieve Needle from the rock pile she buried it in last season. Of course, the Waif was there, too, and goes straight to tattle on her to Jaqen. “A shame,” he sighs, while in the middle of peeling off a dead guy’s face. “A girl had many gifts.” Now, as apparently was promised, the Waif gets to kill her. She’s probably not banking on her having a sword, though.
So, with Arya’s time at the House of Black & White clearly at an end, what has she gotten out of this little sidequest other than an upgrade in fighting skills? Of course, we never wanted Arya to truly become “no one,” and therefore lose her identity or her spunk. But while she has every reason to be even more bitter than she was when she got here, now that the illustrious Jaqen H’ghar turned out be little more than a goofy mystic with a maddening speech pattern, her interaction with Lady Crane showed one skill that the Faceless Men could never teach her: empathy, even for the hated Cersei Lannister.
Dany, ever the conqueror, is still figuring out what empathy means. She has swung wildly between violence and people-pleasing ever since her first rebirth in the flames, and since her second, she has seemed to value unquestioned loyalty over love, laser-focused on putting her new followers to use. Now it’s Daario asking the pragmatic questions: uh, what happens when we get to Westeros? “I take what is mine,” she responds imperiously. (I could use that adverb for every Dany line these past couple episodes.) Uh, okay. But before Daario can press the issue further, Dany spots something up ahead and rides off, leaving her khalasar awkwardly twisting in the wind.
It’s Drogon, of course, having had another growth spurt between seasons. The Dothraki are stunned, and even Daario quakes a little. The dragon is bloody MASSIVE, and truly terrifying, and Dany looks every bit in control as she sits astride his back. Time for another rousing speech: you get to be a bloodrider! And YOU get to be a bloodrider! And YOU! Her khalasar, understandably, are much more responsive to her TED talk in this format, and start deliriously cheering and spinning their mounts in circles. Will you get on those wooden horses no matter how afraid you are of the water? Okay! Will you bathe in the blood of my enemies? Sounds great! Will you hear the lamentations of their women? Absolutely! Will you deliver me the Seven Kingdoms? Oh, without question!
But seriously, does she actually have a plan for getting there, or does she figure her sheer force of will is enough? Heck, maybe it is. Who needs trifling details when you can just Get Stuff Done and delegate the cleanup? Daenerys Stormborn: Vision-Caster, Inspiring Speech-Giver, Questionable Management Skills. Well, nobody’s perfect.
Next week: The Blackfish returns; the Greyjoys make plans; the Dead are coming.