It’s our first “NOOOOOO” moment of Season 5. RIP, character I will name after the jump.
I’ve had an exciting life. I’d want my death to be boring.
Barristan the Bold, once the best swordsman in Westeros and Lord Commander of the Kingsguard, went out like the baller he was, which is all you can really ask for. He had crafty old man game, putting up 20 and 10 well past his expiration date like Tim Duncan, only to ultimately — heroically — fall to a younger, faster opponent. (Again, like Tim Duncan. Sorry, that wound is still pretty fresh.) That this is a potentially catastrophic change from the books is a discussion for another time; today, we mourn the man we lost. Unlike Bronn, who has sold his sword and his honor time and again yet wishes for a peaceful, dignified death, Barristan only gave, and to causes greater than his own — however misguided. His charging into the back alley melee will not have any songs written about it. Now he’s dead (and Grey Worm is badly wounded), and Dany’s going to have to clean up the cluster-you-know-what that is Meereen without her most loyal man. What did he die for, if not to snap her back to reality?
What do any of these people do any of this for, really? Outside of Varys and Littlefinger, no one can see beyond their own sliver of the game board. Cersei will flip the table if things don’t go her way. Melisandre is getting pieces mixed up. And others, like Jorah Mormont, haven’t evolved past tic-tac-toe. He used to have Daenerys’s ear, but is launching a desperate gambit to re-enter into her good graces by bringing her the King’s Uncle — a prospect that Tyrion can’t help but laugh at. “What a waste of a good kidnapping,” he chortles. “It so happens I was heading there myself!” Within moments, he IDs Mormont Sherlock-style and lays out his entire history. “You think she’ll execute me and pardon you? I’d say the reverse is just as likely.” That earns him a punch to the head, because that’s what a man like Jorah does when you question his intellect.
Jamie Lannister, who’s on his way to Dorne with Babbling Bronn, doesn’t even have that luxury. (Welcome to the opening credits, Dorne!) The one-handed wonder is only on this trip because he feels he has no other choice; his niece is in danger — “your niece?” Bronn asks, incredulously — okay, his daughter is in danger, his father is dead, and it’s time for him to step up and do the right thing for his family. Bronn also guesses that he had something to do with Tyrion’s escape: “give him my regards,” he says. But Jamie’s brotherly affection is long gone: “If I ever see him, I’ll split in him two. And then I’ll give him your regards.”
When Bronn’s done poking Jamie about his illicit lover, secret children, and patricidal brother, they row ashore off the coast of Dorne, hoping to lay low of any Dornish patrol until they reach the Water Gardens. “The Dornish are crazy,” says Bronn, who is crazy. Everything about Dorne is dangerous: the boiling desert, the venomous snakes, the spicy food. So it’s only minutes before men ride up on horseback, and when the King’s Landingers fail to convince as shipwreck victims, it’s time for Jamie’s first real left-handed test. Surprisingly for everyone, it’s the fake one that saves him from a killing blow: “Nice move,” offers Bronn. “Luck,” responds Jamie, grimly. “Well, you had a wonderful teacher.” Heh.
But only a few miles away, the bastard daughters of Oberyn Martell are preparing for war. Meet the Sand Snakes: Obara, who has her father’s swagger and deadly aim with a spear; Nymeria, who’s handier with a whip than Indiana Jones, and Tyene, the softest and most good-natured (and daughter of Ellaria), and who is also probably concealing about fifty daggers in her dress. And now they know that Jamie Lannister is in the neighborhood, coming to spirit away the princess. He and Bronn have no clue what they’re in for.
Back in King’s Landing, Cersei is hoping to turn that kind of fanaticism to her advantage. You didn’t really think she was just going to roll over after Margaery smugly dismissed her, did you? It turns out that her alliance with the High Sparrow is just the beginning. The first domino to fall is the bumbling Mace Tyrell, who she sends off to Braavos to beg the Iron Bank for a loan extension. “Escorting” him is Meryn Trant, which means…worry about Mace Tyrell. (Though remember who’s also in Braavos, chanting Trant’s name every night?) Next, she grants approval– though she has no authority to do so, like that would stop her — to re-form the Faith Militant, an order within the church that is entirely about using violence to achieve religious purity. Lancel signs up for this immediately, getting their insignia knifed into his forehead, and the Sparrows head out to raid brothels, smash up the property of the wealthy, and generally create chaos in the streets on behalf of the Seven. Arming religious zealots, thinking they’ll be content just to further your own interests? When has that ever backfired?
But all Cersei can see is what’s right in front of her: the smirking Margaery, wrapping her claws around Cersei’s doormat of a son. The Dowager Queen is taking out all of Marge’s defenses, one piece at a time — first her father, and then her brother Loras, whose, ahem, “proclivities” he’s been careless in hiding. Cersei baits the trap, and he falls into it. Margaery quickly barges into Tommen’s chamber, demanding his release, but the King is in WAY over his head. (His meek “Aren’t you and mother getting along?” is a new low for him.) But he mans up, momentarily, getting carried over to the Sept to meet with the High Sparrow, but backs down rather than have his men engage with violence. Poor, poor Tommen. He’s way out of his depth, Margaery is picking her teeth with him, and people are calling him an “abomination” in the streets. The honeymoon is over.
Over in Bolton-controlled Winterfell, Sansa Stark is staring down the the barrel of her own shotgun wedding. While she’s visiting the family crypts below the castle, Littlefinger swings by. He’s off to King’s Landing; that letter from Cersei was a summons, but what about? Is he about to re-take his place as Master of Coin? What happens when the news that Sansa Stark is alive and ruling from the family homestead reaches Cersei? WHAT IS LITTLEFINGER DOING? In any case, Stannis is coming, and that means one of two things for Sansa: best case, he takes Winterfell, rescues Sansa, and makes her Wardeness of the North. Worst case, Ramsey beats him, and she’s still stuck…but still wife to the Heir to the Warden of the North. “Make Ramsey yours,” Littlefinger advises. “Even the most dangerous man can be out-maneuvered.” Before she can ask what that says about him, he leaves her with a not-at-all-avuncular kiss. Yikes.
I’m kind of burying the lede here, because the dialogue that pinged book readers’ radar came at the very beginning. Not for the only time this episode, we dug up and examined a particular piece of ancient history: Rheagar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark, or the reason this whole thing kind of started in the first place. In a nutshell: Lyanna, Ned’s sister, was the love of Robert Baratheon’s life. Prince Rheagar was married to Elia of Dorne, but that didn’t stop him from naming Lyanna “the queen of love and beauty” at a great tournament at Harrenhall, where he awarded her a crown of blue roses. Later, as the story goes, he kidnapped and raped her, forcing a stricken Robert to raise an army in rebellion. As Sansa tells that part of the tale, Littlefinger makes an odd face, as if he might know a bit more than what’s been revealed up to now. Later in Meereen, in Barristan’s last scene with Daenerys, he tells her what he remembers about her brother: a dashing romantic, kind, with a gift for music and charity for the poor. He was a good man. Barristan can’t reconcile the Rheagar he knew with the Rheagar who supposedly stole and violated a woman against her will. So…what is the truth, and why is it important now?
The answer to both these questions may be found at the Wall, where Stannis Baratheon watches Jon Snow train in the yard, and wonders aloud how the honorable Ned Stark could have ever fathered a bastard. At this point, even many non-readers know about “R+L=J,” essentially the series’s Theory of Everything. The question of Jon’s parentage has hung in the air since the very beginning, and Benioff & Weiss’s prediction in their initial meeting with George R. R. Martin is what got them the job. And now, they might be getting ready to answer it once and for all.
But first, the Lord Commander is in the middle of every leader’s favorite pastime: paperwork. The Night’s Watch desperately needs men, and Jon’s got to send off letters asking every lord in Westeros for whoever they can spare. Including, agonizingly, the Boltons. Then Melisandre appears in his doorway. She had just come from sharing a long, meaningful glance with the brittle Selyse Baratheon about the future of the princess Shireen — nothing good, you can be sure — but now has something else on her mind. “There is only one war: life against death,” she purrs. Stannis is still hoping Jon will join him on his campaign south, but is that why she’s here? Or does she have an almost magnetic attraction to… king’s blood? (I’ll give you a moment, in case you STILL haven’t put the pieces together.) Obviously aware of Jon’s weakness for redheads, she lays her best moves on him, but Jon stays firm. (Now I’ll give you a moment to laugh at my joke.) “I swore a vow,” Jon pleads, and then: “I loved another.” These two thoughts are enough to help him push the sorceress away, for now. But she can’t leave without a parting shot: “You know nothing, Jon Snow.”
But it’s Stannis himself who is this week’s biggest winner, and not for a military victory or political maneuvering. All this time, he’s been cold and emotionless, distant and inaccessible. He lets Melisandre push his buttons, has no affection for his wife, and believes in rights and justice to a fault. Yet there was once a time when that was not so, when Shireen first caught greyscale thanks to a contaminated stuffed animal from across the sea. The maesters said that she would die, but Stannis didn’t give up, moving heaven and earth to find the right people who would keep her alive. Even then, he was told to send her away, and let her live out the remainder of her miserable life with the Stone Men on the Rhoyne, but he refused.
In wintry Castle Black, Shireen asks her father if he’s ashamed of her. Not at all, honey. “You are the princess Shireen of the House Baratheon… and you are my daughter.” Aww! It’s a genuinely sweet moment for Thrones, even if there’s horror looming just ahead. It’s these fleeting moments of normalcy — father-daughter bonding, or the sleepover talk of Jamie and Bronn, or Hot Pie, somewhere in the Riverlands, just baking pies — that ground the story, and remind us that there are still things worth fighting for. Game of Thrones may be growing ever more complicated and morally murky, but in this stellar fifth season it hasn’t lost sight of its greatest power: the recognizable humanity of its characters. Except for Ramsey. Screw that guy.
Next week: Winter is still coming, and Tyrion sees his first dragon.