If the first episode of this season of Game of Thrones was about showing us where the various pieces are on the chessboard, and the second episode was about starting them in motion, the third episode, “High Sparrow,” saw some of those pieces finally being pushed into one another.
The episode also reduces the number of characters that get featured compared to previous weeks, giving us more time with each of the stories that are featured.
What we end up with is an episode that does more with less than the two that came before it, and is the strongest episode so far this season.
Spoilers follow, as always:
1. The title of this week’s episode is “High Sparrow,” and I struggled at first, as with last week, to see how that very specific title reflected what happens beyond the one story in which it literally appears. But something that the High Sparrow says in the scene where Cersei meets him stands out and reflects a theme that appears in all of the stories featured this week:
“We’re often stuck with the names our enemies give to us.”
While this is more literally true for some characters than others (especially Reek, who hangs around the edges of the scenes at Winterfell* like a ghost), all of the stories featured in this week’s episode involve characters dealing with the power – and baggage – that comes from others connecting them with their respective names and titles.
Jon Snow has to make a decision about whether he’ll take the name “Jon Stark,” while Arya is told that she can’t become “nobody” until she loses the trappings of “Arya Stark.” The dung-shovelers, builders and whores of Volantis are identified only by the brands on their cheeks, “lest they forget,” but on both sides of the Narrow Sea, prostitutes take on the roles of powerful figures for the fantasies of wealthy men. Cersei struggles to find herself in her new identity of “Dowager Queen,” as Tommen and Margaery play with how their new titles – “queen,” “king,” “husband,” “wife,” – feel coming out of one another’s mouths. Sansa once again becomes “Sansa Stark,” because, as Roose Bolton tells Littlefinger, “it’s her name I need.” Littlefinger then tells Bolton that “the Lannister name doesn’t mean what it once did,” while Tyrion, who should be more cautious, can’t help but throw around the Lannister words to impress people.
The connecting theme throughout all of the stories in this week’s episode is how the names we take on (or are given to us) define who we are to the people around us. And in a show like Game of Thrones, with its many characters, shifting allegiances, and sneaking about, the fairly generic “what’s in a name?” question is actually a pretty rich mine for character and conflict.
2. Of the stories we visit in this week’s episode, Arya’s is perhaps the most disappointing. As with Tyrion’s moping in the two previous episodes, the show’s format just doesn’t make spending a week with a character being frustrated that nothing’s happening interesting – it just makes the audience frustrated that nothing’s happening, too.
Still, Arya getting the wax-on-wax-off treatment at the House of Black and White does offer a few interesting moments, including the first of three explorations into the various religions of this world. The very first line spoken in the episode is “valar morghulis,” and just before we see the man who drank the well water lying dead on the floor, Not Jaqen H’ghar tells Arya:
“There is only one god. A girl knows his name. And all men know his gift.”
Arya is confused by this, but it connects to what another Braavosi told Arya in the first season:
Arya doesn’t realize it, but it seems she was just told that the many-faced God worshiped at the House of Black and White is the Death that Syrio Forel first told her about.**
Also, the scene of Arya throwing her “Arya Stark” possessions into the harbor was beautiful. Maisie Williams plays the moment brilliantly (the show really lucked out with her), and the shot from behind Arya with her cradling Needle in her hands as the camera slowly pans up to show the expanse of the eerily still gray-green harbor beneath the golden sunset sky had the haunting, ethereal beauty of a great Renaissance Dutch painting.
3. Meanwhile, across the Narrow Sea, the people of King’s Landing are celebrating the least murder-y royal wedding ever. Margaery goes straight to work in the honeymoon suite demonstrating what she meant when she told Loras that she’d only “perhaps” have to share the Red Keep with Cersei, as she starts working to turn the young king against his mother.
It helps her cause that Tommen does not seem especially bright, but then there’s a limited number of possible good outcomes when you’re rolling the particular pair genetic dice that Cersei and Jaime did. As Tywin demonstrated on Tommen at his brother’s funeral, it doesn’t exactly take a subtle hand to push Tommen into thinking what you want him to think.
When Cersei comes to confront Margaery after Tommen floats the idea of sending her off to King’s Landing, she seems rocked back. For perhaps the first time in as long as the show has been on, she seems unsure of herself.
Margaery smells blood and activates her Regina George R. R. Martin setting.
While some of Margaery’s burns were hilarious (“I wish we had some wine for you, it’s a bit early in the day for us!”), and Cersei has no response for them, the most interesting thing to me about this scene was how it ended. After letting Margaery go for a little while, she just takes one step toward her and that stops Margaery in her tracks. Cersei doesn’t even zing her back, she just steps forward, politely tells her if she needs anything to let her know, and that’s all it takes it takes to flatten out Margaery’s smile and silence her.
Margaery’s won this battle, but she knows the war isn’t over, and that it’s better not to overplay your hand against someone like Cersei.
4. So Cersei is in reactive mode, scrabbling to find some foothold that will help her maintain the kind of power that she’s become so used to wielding. So, she makes the choice that any leader looking for long-term security and stability and definitely no downside does and casts her lot with religious extremists.
Not that she has a lot of choice in the matter. The High Septon demanding punishment for the Sparrows forces her hand to choose to side with or against them, and with her former-side-piece cousin (or, wait, is he her nephew? Or is he both? Lannisters, dude.) leading the Sparrows’ raid on and shaming of the High Septon, she can hardly throw them under the bus without risking them exposing her own “sins.”
Also, connecting back to theme of the power that comes with taking on a name, the scene with the Septon in Littlefinger’s brothel is one of two scenes in which prostitutes are roleplaying as figures of power for the fantasies of their johns. There’s a whole lot to unpack there, but I’ll let you work that out on your own in your masters thesis on gender, sex and power in Game of Thrones.
5. The streak continues: Poor Sansa.
So Sansa has to marry terrifying monster Ramsay Bolton for whatever Littlefinger’s long-game plan is (which, by the way, mysterious motives are all good and well up to a point, but for a guy that has had a hand [finger?] in basically every scheme and subterfuge rippling across the continent, it sure would be nice to know what exactly he’s playing at). The way he got her to agree to it, though, literally made Elliot and me gasp out loud.
“Stop being a bystander, you hear me? Stop running.
There’s no justice in the world. Not unless we make it.
You loved your family. Avenge them.”
So Sansa is going to play the gracious lady in yet another politically-arranged marriage, but this time instead of just a pawn, she’s an agent herself. And she might just have some help: what would Roose think of the help at Winterfell saying “The North remembers?”
Still, she’s got her work cut out for her. Ramsay tells Littlefinger he’ll “never hurt her.” Yeah, okay buddy. Also, when Sansa and Littlefinger arrive at Winterfell, there was a shot of three women, one of them glowering at Sansa. I didn’t recognize her at first – this show has too many characters. Turns out it was Ramsay’s, ahem, hunting partner. She’s going to be trouble for Sansa.
Poor, poor Sansa.
6. Can we talk about how great it is that this show has a straight-up mad scientist on it?
I was hoping the show would take Qyburn in a weird, classic horror direction ever since we first heard him tell Cersei that his treatments on the Mountain would change him while Pycelle warned that his dark curiosity and experiments made him too dangerous to be a Maester.
This week we first got him cutting open a live rat all nasty-like, then we got Mountainstein on the slab behind him twitching with undead life.
Seriously, if this season doesn’t end with a neck-bolted Gregor Clegane choking the life out of Qyburn who cries out with his last breath, “what horror hath science wrought?” then why am I even still watching this show?
7. Also, it’s nice that Brienne is finally warming up to Pod. The Road Adventures of Brienne and Pod have been fun, but her grumpiness with him is getting tiresome – Pod’s too likeable a character for us to spend too long with Brienne, another likeable character, constantly treating him like garbage.
Her reflecting on how she met Renly makes her realize something about how she’s treating Pod:
“He didn’t love me, he didn’t want me, he danced with me because he was kind and he wouldn’t see me hurt. He saved me from being a joke.”
She’s been treating Pod like a joke, and that’s about to change. Good.
Also, if she’s seeking a chance to get revenge on Stannis, she’s heading in the right direction.
8. Speaking of Stannis, I want to send a copy of this episode back to HBO with a big circle around everything that happens at Castle Black and a hand-written note: “Yes. More like this.”
Big battles aside, this was the most interesting story of the men of the Night’s Watch in a long time. Jon seems to have taken pretty nicely to his new job as Lord Commander, wearing a nice new puffy tunic, hanging out in his big office, and letting that strange “not sulking” feeling involuntarily turn up the corners of his mouth again.
He formally declines Stannis’ offer to become a Stark and lord of Winterfell in a scene where he tells Stannis that he needs to shore up his men’s resources because, ahem, “winter is coming” (kudos to Elliot for pointing out that Jon uses the Starks’ words in a scene where he declines to take their name)***.
And speaking of Jon’s Starkiness, his execution of Janos Slynt brought a lot of things about Ned and Jon full circle. First of all, it was Janos Slynt who attacked Ned’s men and arrested him in the Red Keep, setting him up for execution, like, a million years ago, so Jon’s indirectly getting some revenge for that.
Also, Jon, as leader of the Night’s Watch, executing a man for defying his orders calls back to the very first episode, when Ned was demonstrating to Bran and his brothers that “the man who passes the sentence should swing the sword.”
Warden of the North or no, Stannis seems impressed with a very Ned Stark move by Jon. I am too. Yes. More like this.
Also, I’m excited to learn more about the budding filial relationship Jon has with Olly, the kid he’s taken on as his Steward. They both have pretty complicated reasons not to exactly like one another (Olly’s family was killed by raiding Wildlings, including Ygritte, who Jon is openly criticized for having had a relationship with, and Olly killed Ygritte, which, again, Jon was into her), but Jon seems to have taken it on himself to care for him. It’s unclear if that’s out of guilt or obligation, or, hell, as he tells Stannis, keeping his enemies close, but it is a curious choice.
9. How awesome was it to finally see the world that Daenerys is creating from someone’s perspective other than Daenerys and her coterie?
Tyrion and Varys’ arrival at Volantis starts with a gorgeous CGI flying establishing shot – one of two in the episode (the first being at King’s Landing on the way to Margaery and Tommen’s wedding). It’s the kind of indulgence the show was denied in its earlier, tighter-budgeted seasons, and goes a long way to showing us the full scope of the world these characters inhabit.
Part of my problem in the past with Daenerys’ story is that it has seemed so completely separate from the action in Westeros. Sure, long-term she’s going to come across the Narrow Sea, but so far, we’ve almost exclusively seen her story from the perspective of her folks. Finally, through Tyrion and Varys, we start to see the world of Daenerys Targaryen through other characters’ eyes.
Firstly, the scene with Tyrion watching the Red Priestess is very interesting, because with the exception of the one guy from the Brotherhood without Banners, the only Red Priest/ess we’ve met is Melisandre. As far as we, as the audience, know, the fact that she’s conflated her faith with the political motives of Stannis Baratheon reflects the views of the whole faith. But here, we have another Red Priestess naming Daenerys the true ruler and savior. This scene actually tells us as much about Melisandre as it does about Tyrion and the nameless priestess – she doesn’t speak for the faith as a whole.
Then, in the brothel, we see a whore dressed as Daenerys, echoing the earlier scene with the High Septon. Daenerys has clearly made an impact on the world, “inspiring priests and whores,” as Varys points out. Finally being granted a glimpse of that world from a perspective other than the command of an army or the top of a pyramid or a council chamber somewhere — and connecting Daenerys’s story to the other characters, is so rewarding.
Speaking of the brothel… I mean, come on Tyrion. Yes, we know he’s been stuck in a box and is sick of Varys’ admonishments, but come on. Tyrion Lannister is supposed to be the smartest person on this show, and here he is in a brothel crowded with strangers saying out loud that he was “one of the richest men in the world,” that he’s “met a queen,” and he “always pays [his] debts.” Come on!
His incaution is what sets up Ser Jorah kidnapping him at the very end of the episode, and while I do think it would have been just as likely (and spoken better of Jorah) if he’d figured out who he was without Tyrion being so obvious, it was still a great ending.
*- It is Winterfell, right? As I was watching the episode, I assumed all of these scenes were still at Moat Cailin, but I realized after the fact that it was probably Winterfell. Where the rest of the world has a lot of contrasting design, every place in the North is just “dreary mud sad castle.” ^
**- Wait. Is it possible that Not Jaquen H’ghar is Syrio Forel? Syrio’s off-screen death was pretty conspicuously… off-screen. ^
*** – Finally, some idea of what we mean when we say “winter is coming!” Stannis says the snows in a fortnight will be too heavy for his men to leave Castle Black. Winter is actually, finally, after all this time, coming! ^