Thrones rebounds from last week’s debacle with a few electrifying table turns.
Everyone has a choice. Even slaves have a choice: death, or slavery.
With the pieces finally maneuvered into place for whatever mystery box Season 5 is building to, “The Gift” saw long-awaited moments on a minimum of four separate storylines — hairpin turns that we’ve seen coming for a while now, yet as the episode unfolded and each successive trap door opened, it was so flawlessly executed that readers and non-readers alike had to pump their fists. This episode (written by Benioff and Weiss themselves) did more than bounce back from last week’s controversy — it rewarded us for patience stretching back years. Now Westeros’s balance of power is tilting on its axis; Cersei’s chickens have come home to roost, and in the night’s most thrilling moment, Tyrion and Daenerys Targaryen actually, finally, share a scene together.
But first the snowbound North, where we check in on the subject of a thousand thinkpieces: the long-suffering Sansa Stark. She may be bruised, but this girl’s not yet broken, appealing directly to Theon when he slinks in to bring her breakfast, hoping to avoid her gaze. “He hurts me every night,” she tells him, digging for whatever empathy he has left. “It can always be worse,” he mumbles. Then Sansa goes after his guilt: “You betrayed my family — you have to help me!” She reminds him of his true name, gives him a candle, and tells him to go place it in the broken tower so someone — Brienne, though she doesn’t know that — can get her the seven hells out of here.
But this, like everything else on Thrones, won’t be that easy. Sansa may have gotten a nod and actual eye contact from Theon, but he is broken, and does exactly what he’s been trained to do: go straight to Ramsey. It’s a bait-and-switch the way the scene is edited, and worst of all, we have to endure yet another rug-pulling at the hands of the one-and-a-half-note Ramsey Bolton. But it makes sense that there’s still too much “Reek” in Theon. Now the old woman is dead, and Sansa’s going to have to create her own salvation. Ramsey’s sadistic enough to tell Sansa “You’ve made me very happy” and genuinely mean it; Sansa’s clever enough to grab a pointy thing (though she doesn’t get to use it) and needle Ramsey about possibly losing his inheritance to a new half-brother. “Bastards can rise high in the world,” he counters. “Like your brother Jon.” Sansa is flabbergasted at the news that Jon is now Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch — is she thinking about a possible escape route, or just impressed? In any case, we’re all going to be stuck with the Boltons for a while longer.
And it might be longer still, unless Stannis’s army can navigate out of the snowblind they’re currently stuck in. Davos argues for returning to Castle Black (nooooo!), but Stannis is right to shoot that down. Winter is practically here — the Starks are always right about that, people seem eager to observe — and “if we march to Castle Black, we winter at Castle Black.” They could be marching into victory or defeat, but they have to keep marching forward. “Only forward.” Sometimes, Stannis’s stubbornness is a nice quality to have. Like when Melisandre drops the bomb we’ve been dreading — hey, so remember your daughter, who you recently had a nice moment with? We’re going to need to sacrifice her. (Nooooooooo!) “You must become king before the Long Night begins,” she warns him, ominously. Stannis, who’s staking his future on a couple of Melisandre’s visions, brusquely kicks her out of his tent, but now he’s forced to think about it. Would the show — even this show — really go there, even to serve some vaguely “good” purpose? Surely a seasoned military man like Stannis can figure something else out?
Stannis’s mantra — “only forward” — would serve Sansa well, and a quagmired Daenerys best of all. But Thrones has no bigger underdog (sorry) than Samwell Tarly, who has one by one watched all of his friends leave. Jon and Edd are heading for Hardhome with Tormund, and Sam gives Jon a bundle of dragonglass as a parting gift. “I hope you don’t need them,” he says, which means Jon almost certainly will. Then, in a candlelit bedroom, Aemon Targaryen dies. The Maester spends his final moments calling for “Egg,” or his younger brother Aegon (who became “Aegon the Unlikely” when Aemon turned down the throne): his heartbreaking last words are “I dreamed that I was old.” Now, except for Gilly, Sam is utterly alone at Castle Black. Thorne, who Jon has left in charge, is quick to remind him of that.
Things are changing in Jon’s absence, and not for the better. A couple of the nastier Brothers, for example, seize an opportunity to make Gilly Thrones‘s latest rape victim, but they don’t count on Sam arriving in time to intervene. Though he gets beaten bloody and knocked down, he gets up again — you ain’t ever going to keep him down (sorry again) — and next time, he’s got Ghost in his corner. Smart move by Jon to leave the direwolf behind. The would-be rapists are run off, and a woozy Sam collapses like Westley in The Princess Bride. Later, Gilly admonishes him, figuring he can’t protect her forever — he needs to focus on “Little Sam,” no matter what happens. But Sam, though he can’t bring himself to say it, is in love. He begs Gilly to stay with him, and the Wildling girl — who to this point in her life has no experience with real romance — gives him a kiss, then more. Congratulations, Sam.
To some in Westeros, “Love” is a useless concept, or a weakness. Just look at Cersei Lannister’s face when her precious, noodle-brained son tells her how much he loves his queen, and how her imprisonment makes him want to commit some very un-Tommen-like atrocities. Cersei may be quick to mock the hold Margaery has over her son, but her own love has made her just as blind. In her ever-destructive attempts to keep her children happy and safe, she’s planted the seeds for her own downfall, which would undo all of that anyway. Even Littlefinger, who we learn is the one who had the line on Olyvar, has turned on her.
Lady Olenna, for her part, still doesn’t buy the High Sparrow’s piety; she goes to bargain and to threaten him, but comes away empty-handed. “A man of the people? Is that your game? Dull and unconvincing.” But once again, the High Sparrow’s true motivations are even scarier: “I serve the Gods. The Gods demand justice.” You can’t reason with a man like that, because he has no scruples to exploit. Olenna can’t threaten to starve the city, because the smallfolk will just revolt. “You are the few, and we are the many,” says the Sparrow. When the many stop fearing the few… well, he doesn’t finish that thought, but I think the point is made. Wise rulers recognize that they need the peasants as much as the peasants need them. Between Cersei’s default “burn everything” and Olenna disingenuously using them as bait, they both have room to learn. It’s an electrifying scene for both Diana Rigg and Jonathan Pryce, and hopefully not their last. More commiserating about being old, please!
But what Olenna learns in a few lines takes almost the full hour to dawn on Cersei; first she just has to pull a Terrell Owens, spiking the ball in the middle of the seven-pointed star, and gloat in Margaery’s cell. “I know you did this,” a rag-clad Margaery seethes. Cersei doesn’t cop to anything, but her smugness could cut glass, and she practically skips over to the High Sparrow’s office like the mean girl she once was. And he’s happy to keep puffing her up: “The Tyrells’ finery will be stripped away,” he says. “So it will be for all of us.” Then, the final heel turn: “What will we find when we strip away your finery?” Cersei’s smirk melts away, a cold realization finally seeping into her tunnel vision: he’s known all along. Lancel told them everything. YOU SHOULD HAVE SEEN THIS COMING, CERSEI. But alas — for the second time in as many episodes, a woman shouts “I am the Queen!’ as the High Sparrow has her hauled away. Threats won’t save you now. Are the accommodations still “sufficient?”
Cersei’s hoisting via her own petard is no shock, but the suddenness of it is. The whole business has been a slow-motion trainwreck for so long that when the impact finally comes, it’s like we’re suddenly on fast-forward. But it’s undeniably satisfying; the only sequence this week that just doesn’t work is in Dorne, which is quickly becoming one of the bigger misfires in the show’s history. Okay, so Myrcella goes to Jamie and tells him she doesn’t want to leave — we knew that already. So Bronn is dying from a poisoned blade, but a brazenly naked Tyene tosses him an antidote, and for what? For her own amusement? Do the Sand Snakes think they can make use of him, or do they just like his singing voice? WHAT IS THE POINT? (I did like the beat where Tyene’s sisters roll their eyes, like she does this all the time. That wordless exchange told us more about their characters than literally anything else they’ve done.)
It’s not just that the Snakes are clumsily written. Or that the fight choreography is weak sauce. Or that the production team is wasting a stunning location by populating it with so few people. In a noble effort to streamline George R. R. Martin’s unwieldy narrative by combining characters and plot strands, Benioff and Weiss have accidentally neutered them. So many other changes have worked like gangbusters, and have even been improvements — so what went wrong here? Instead of the progressive, alluring destination we were promised, Dorne’s been more like that commercial where the family realizes too late that they’ve booked the wrong hotel.
But we can forgive Dorne this week, because the biggest bombshell, the longest-awaited development, came at the end of the episode. And for a hot minute, it looked like we weren’t going to get it. When Dany got up to leave after seeing one evisceration too many, I was ready to get mad — another close call? Really? — but Jorah seemed to have the same thought, and swaggered out there like a man with nothing to lose. Which, come to think of it, is true. He’s dying of greyscale, he’s been sold into slavery (is that all we’re going to get of Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje? I only get to type his name twice?), and now he’s trapped in a deleted scene from Gladiator, ignoring his new owner’s attempts at a pre-game pep talk. The unexpected arrival of the Queen of Dragons to this craphole “lower” fighting pit — more like a crater, really — is a shock to his system.
No one is more surprised than Tyrion, who gets out of his chains just in time to see the result, after Jorah has strutted out into the melee and cooly knocked everyone out like the professional he is. (Nice to remind us that Jorah can be a total badass when he wants to.) Dany is stunned when the late-arriving victor removes his helmet: “Get him out of my sight,” she urges with barely-veiled fury. But wait! Jorah has brought a gift! Cue the dwarf: “I am the gift. My name is Tyrion Lannister.” OH YES YES YES. FINALLY. THANK YOU, BASED PRODUCERS. You see, this moment hasn’t happened yet in the books. We’re still f-ing waiting for Tyrion and Dany to meet. And now we’re here, with three episodes still to go.
That, of course, begs the question: what now? Dany’s already struggling with her decision to marry Hizdahr and Give the People What They Want — Daario, who’s gonna enjoy every remaining night he can spend in her bed, suggests that the day of the games, she kill all the masters. “All rulers are either butchers, or meat,” he tells her. Now, in Tyrion, she’s got a man who’s been both. His political acumen and wit are unparalleled; no one has more dirt on Westeros, or is more willing to see its current powers dethroned. For the first time ever, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, Meereen is the most interesting place to be.
Next week: Jon pays the Wildlings a house call; Cersei tries to fabricate some remorse.