GAME OF THRONES: “High Sparrow”

Wait, we had a wedding and NOTHING TERRIBLE HAPPENED? Is this even Game of Thrones?

There’s no justice in the world — not unless we make it.

–Littlefinger

Well it took four seasons and change, but we finally had a nuptial ceremony between major characters that didn’t result in spilled blood or psychological devastation. That’s probably why we only spend a few fleeting moments on it, before jumping straight to Tommen and Margaery’s giddy consummation. (Third time’s the charm for that girl. And I think we can put the “was she even still a maiden?” question definitively to rest.) But before the young king — Dean-Charles Chapman is 17! Natalie Dormer is 33!!! — can ready himself for another go-round, Marg is already putting a different set of screws to him: hey, uh, do you think your mom is really happy here in King’s Landing? Do you think — and I’m just throwing this out there — she might be happier if she went home? What great idea, Marg! I’m sure you have no ulterior motive for asking that.

“High Sparrow,” written by Benioff & Weiss themselves, is full of little exchanges like this one, where one of Thrones’s many, many strong female characters put down stakes, often in direct conflict to the men in their lives. Margaery, Cersei, Arya, Sansa and Brienne (and Dany, who takes the week off but doesn’t go unreferenced) may have wildly different ideals and approaches, but their goals are similar: half these women are fighting tooth and nail to keep what they have, and the other half are seeking revenge against those who took it away.

If Margaery thinks that Cersei will just roll over defeated now that the Tyrell girl is officially Queen, she just doesn’t know Cersei like we do. Cersei might have been content simply to remain in the capital — and in her “baby boy’s” orbit — if she was still afforded the respect a woman of her pedigree deserved, but the smirking, catty Marg can’t even give her that. (“I wish we had some wine to offer, but it’s a bit early in the day for us.” Oh! The shade!) It’s all too easy to put the “Dowager Queen” — or is it the “Queen Mother?” — down, and then go back to wrapping the impressionable young king around her finger; the smallfolk will still chant Margaery’s name in the streets, like they once cheered for Cersei. But as the only Lannister left with any real authority — much less the desire to wield it — Cersei always has another trick up her dress sleeve.

It might have to do with the newest arrival to King’s Landing, the ragged, shoeless holy man known derisively as the “High Sparrow.” His disheveled men set upon the corrupt, lascivious High Septon in Littlefinger’s brothel, who is then made to take the walk of shame in the nude, as cries of “sinner” rain down upon him. (Welcome back gratuitous nudity, say the executives at HBO.) But rather than repent, the Septon simply runs his complaints up the chain, where Cersei (who’s still Hand, nominally) intervenes seemingly on his behalf. But when she meets the Sparrow, played with effortless grace by Jonathan Pryce, she’s surprised by his humility, frugality, and willingness to actually minister to the actual poor. (The Pope Francis of Westeros!) She’s so used to everyone around her playing some kind of game, she doesn’t know what do to with a man this…genuine. But rather than see that as a weakness, she decides to takes his side. “The Faith and the Crown are the two pillars that hold up the world,” she tells him. “If one collapses, so does the other.” Basically: my son’s in over his head, so there better be a strong church to keep the realm stable. But does she really believe that, or is this just the next move in her chess match with the Tyrells?

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Questions of faith hang over this season of Thrones. There are now as many gods in play as there were kings just a few seasons ago. The Seven, who up ’til now have only been represented by fat, dishonorable priests, haven’t done much for anyone. The fiery Red God of the East, whose passionate followers have been as effective (Beric Dondarrion back from the dead!) as hilariously wrong about his signs (Melisandre, who tries hard but is clearly backing the wrong horse in Stannis), may be propping up Dany as the new “savior.” Then there are the old gods of the North, as silent as they have ever been. And don’t forget the Drowned God of the Ironborn, who inspires fanatical devotion and bloodshed, but whose power seems, uh, limited to the sea. Whose gods will decide the fate of Westeros? Which religion is right?

According to Jaqen H’Ghar and his brethren at the dreary House of Black and White, they’re all right…and they’re all wrong.  Arya is learning the ways of the Many-Faced God, who appears in many guises to the disparate cultures of these continents, but only tallies as one being. And it is up to men to decide how to administer His “gift”: death. For all men must die. Arya didn’t come here to sweep floors, but Jaqen’s right to say she’s not yet ready to begin her Jedi training. She can’t yet shed all the vestiges of her old identity — toss her travel clothes into the canal, sure, but she can’t bring herself to part with Needle. It’s the only thing left that ties her to her past life. Before she can become a Faceless Man, she must become “no one,” cleaning the bodies of those who come to the House to receive the Many-Faced God’s gift. And getting smacked around by a waif girl who seems to be able to see straight into her soul.

As Arya adjusts to a new, banal life, her older sister is unexpectedly returning to their old one. Dark Sansa has done a fabulous job of keeping it together under difficult circumstances — including the Biden-esque leering of Uncle Littlefinger — but a marriage to the North’s least eligible bachelor, Ramsey Bolton, might be a bridge too far. When she realizes that Baelish is bringing her back to Winterfell, and for what purpose, she finally breaks down: “You can’t make me — I’ll starve myself!” she wails, a flash of the spoiled princess she used to be. It’s easy for Littlefinger and Roose to be pragmatic, well aware that nothing can tie the Boltons to the North — and vice versa — like a marriage to the Last Remaining Stark. It’s even easier for Ramsey to promise that he’ll “never hurt her,” while flaying her people over taxes and other minor annoyances. But for Sansa, it’s flying away from one monster and into the mouth of another. Littlefinger talks her off the ledge, appealing to her slow-burning sense of vengeance: “Stop being a bystander…stop running. You loved your family. Avenge them.” So Sansa steels herself, and greets the Boltons with all the regal diplomacy she can muster. Her reward comes on the way to her chambers, as an older woman welcomes her home: “The North remembers.” Between that, and a lingering shot on a group of servant girls, let’s keep an eye on the natives. (Also on Theon, who goes out of his way to avoid his former castlemate.)

The question of “just what is Littlefinger getting out of this, exactly?” is a great one, and Roose quizzes him about it. When word of this new alliance gets back to the Lannisters, they’ll be pissed — but how much power do they have anymore? Tywin is dead, Jamie has one hand, Tommen is “a soft boy,” and the new Queen loves Sansa. Baelish, on the other hand, has the Vale, and is playing a much longer game here in the North than anyone can comprehend. “Every ambitious move is a gamble,” he tells Roose, who would know. The biggest mystery is what Cersei’s letter to him is about. (The second is what’s happening under the sheet in Qyburn’s evil scientist lab. Just kidding — we all know what’s happening there.)

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Meanwhile, up on the cliff, Brienne and Pod are still following. How they plan to storm the gates and take Sansa away (and to where?) is unclear, but we at least have the opportunity to get some long-awaited backstory on the mismatched, but increasingly loyal, couple. “I’m proud to be your squire,” says Pod, who had been sent to serve Tyrion as punishment for both of them. Brienne, touched, agrees to start training him in fighting (that’ll be fun, I’m sure); the ice has even thawed enough for her to open up about her own past, and how she ended up with Renly. Gwendoline Christie has spent so long on the receiving end of monologues, it’s about time she gets to deliver one of her own — letting down her armor to show the deep wells of heartache and simmering bitterness within. She loved Renly because he alone was kind to her at a ball, dancing with her when the other boys would only mock. And her driving force, since that fateful night in Renly’s tent, has been to make amends for her failure to protect him. Sansa Stark is a digression — her ultimate destination is Stannis…who’s heading her way.

Speaking of Stannis (I love it when Thrones connects ideas by directly cutting to half a world away), guess who takes the results of the Night’s Watch election better than expected? The self-proclaimed King respects Jon’s loyalty to his sworn brothers, as much as it disrupts his plans — and no one up there yet has any idea Sansa Stark is back in play. How much will Jon’s vows be tested then? “You’re as stubborn as your father, and as honorable,” Stannis tells Jon through gritted teeth. “I can imagine no higher praise.” “I didn’t mean it as praise.” BURN. Stannis is going to march on Winterfell within a fortnight, Jon or no Jon, and wildlings or no wildlings; he suggests that if they won’t kneel, Jon should execute them, and send his other threats (like Thorne) away to fill vacancies at Eastwatch-by-the-Sea and elsewhere. “I thought it was best to keep your enemies close,” Jon counters. “Whoever said that didn’t have many enemies.” Stannis drops the mic, but Davos is there to pick it up, telling Jon that Stannis “sees something” in him. But, consider this: you’re “the shield that guards THE REALMS of men,” right? Can you serve the people better out in the trenches, or holed up in your frozen fort?

Impressively, Jon has answers to all these questions. At his first staff meeting since being elected, he navigates a truly wise course: he assigns a young dude with a good sense of humor to latrine duty, when Thorne — and honestly, everyone — is sure that that will go to him out of petty revenge. Instead, to his surprise, Jon names Thorne First Ranger, a position of real respect, and the men all agree he deserves it. The craven Janos Slynt, on the other hand, is assigned to Greyguard. Shocking no one, Slynt pushes back in front of them all. Jon is unmoved: “You mistake me…that was a command, not an offer.” But when Slynt tells Jon where he can stick that, Jon throws down…like Ned would have. The quivering former City Watch commander is hauled out to a chopping block — even Thorne can’t help but suppress a thin smile — where, after some pathetic cries for mercy, he is beheaded. Slynt’s massive miscalculation was borne out of not just his arrogance but his ignorance; few institutions at Castle Black are more sacred than the authority of the Lord Commander. Thorne knew this, and was rewarded with Jon’s trust. Slynt was an idiot. Stannis, watching from his balcony, gives Jon a nod, which is the equivalent from a butt pat from Gregg Popovich. Nicely handled, Jon. Now, what’s wrong with Maester Aemon?

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Finally, we close this week back in Essos, where Tyrion’s cabin fever forces a rest stop against Varys’s instincts. At a market, they witness a red priestess street preaching about Daenerys’s virtue, even against the infamous Stone Men of the River Rhoyne. (Okay, that’s two greyscale references in as many weeks, so that’s definitely a thing. It’s not Chekhov’s gun…more like Chekhov’s disease.) The cynical Tyrion, especially after getting stared down by the priestess, quickly decides he’s had enough of that, and looks for the next thing his body needs — no, the other thing. But who else is there, lurking in a corner, licking his self-inflicted wounds? Yep, it’s Ser Friendzone himself, Jorah Mormont! And for the second time (at least!) in Tyrion’s life, he finds himself kidnapped at a tavern. “I’m taking you to the queen,” Jorah hisses. BUT WHICH QUEEN? (Wait, is that meant to be ambiguous? We all know, right?)

Purists may be seething with rage, but Thrones is coming out strong, making changes and additions that only make it better television. Next week, we finally meet those Sand Snakes we’ve heard so much about, so bring a cup. No, not the kind you drink out of.


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