At about 48 minutes from opening credits to closing ones, “Sons of the Harpy” is one of the shorter episodes Game of Thrones has ever had.
It is also, despite its runtime, perhaps the slowest episode of the season. And probably my least favorite.
Not that it’s bad – even the worst episodes of Game of Thrones are generally leaps and bounds better than most things on TV – but it just isn’t the strongest, and coming on the tails of several very good episodes, it stands out as particularly weak.
Spoilers for “Sons of the Harpy” follow after the jump.
1. This week’s episode is written by Dave Hill, whose only previous credits are as “assistant: David Benioff & D.B. Weiss, LA.” I hate to rag on a person’s first produced script, and it’s admirable that Benioff and Weiss are evidently grooming Mr. Hill to become a TV writer in his own right, but the script clearly lacks some of the polish that episodes credited to veteran writers have.
For one thing, this episode is very “speech-y.” There are several scenes of one character giving a monologue to another character, mostly uninterrupted. While Game of Thrones has had its share of speechiness throughout its run, and the more deliberately paced previous season had its share of scenes of two characters talking at one another, this episode’s speeches are generally less effective than those scenes.
For one thing, the majority of them are fixated on the past. While this season has largely thundered along and looked to the future, the characters spend a lot of time in this particular episode violating the “show don’t tell” rule and talking about things that have already happened.
Some of it is interesting, some of it seems to be providing key back story for things to come (more on that later), but any time characters are talking about the past, they’re pulling the audience out of the present. Last season’s speechy scenes revealed to us more about how the characters were experiencing the present (Cersei talking to Oberyn in the garden, or Tyrion and Jaime’s exchanges in the black cells). In this episode, the speechy scenes grind forward momentum to a bit of a halt.
It’s not to say this week’s script was bad — though it certainly had scenes that were weaker than others — but it was plagued with problems throughout that a more experienced screenwriter might have found ways to solve.
2. The episode starts with two different scenes of men on boats on journeys to smuggle someone into a place. Firstly, Jorah commandeering a boat to take Tyrion to Meereen. It’s a bit of an odd scene, since it doesn’t really show us anything that we don’t already know from the final scene of the last episode: Jorah is taking a captive Tyrion to Meereen, presumably to try to get in good with Daenerys. Got it.
It occurred to me after the fact that perhaps this scene would be more suspenseful and impactful if the audience had any reason to believe — as Tyrion evidently does, as he tries to cut his bindings free — that by “taking you to the queen,” Jorah meant Cersei. It becomes clear later on when we get a full (and speechy) scene between the two of them that Tyrion really did assume his captor was taking him to Cersei, but was there ever any doubt in the viewer’s mind who Jorah’s queen is?
Also, speaking of the second scene with these two,
is Jorah going to row them all the way from Volantis to Meereen? Wouldn’t that be like rowing from Miami to Nova Scotia? (Edit: Christopher Keelty rightly pointed out that this is a sailboat, not a rowboat. I guess I was conflating this with the Bronn scene? In either case, I hope they brought snacks.)
3. Elsewhere, on another boat, Jaime and Bronn are being smuggled into Dorne, and Bronn is curious about why Jaime himself is part of this secret rescue mission for his, ahem, “niece.”
So, Jaime does this thing whenever someone hints to him that they know about him and Cersei and the rumors of the royal kids’ parentage. He cocks his head, raises an eyebrow in admonishment, maybe snarls something like “careful,” and acts a little offended. As a defense mechanism, it’s an odd one, and as a tactic for not seeming like a guy with a secret, it’s a pretty bad one. Dude, you’re sleeping with your sister and it seems like basically everyone assumes as much. Either deny it full-throatedly, or don’t get mad at people for pointing it out.
Jaime’s at his most non-denial-denial-est with Bronn in this scene, answering Bronn’s question about why it has to be him that goes to rescue Myrcella by saying “it has to be me.”
Which brings me to another odd moment between the two of them later in the episode as they’re discussing the “shit ways to die” over a snake breakfast once they’ve arrived in Dorne:
Bronn: “I’ve had an exciting life. I want my death to be boring. How do you want to go?”
Jaime: “In the arms of the woman I love.”
Bronn: “She want the same thing?”
It seems a weird moment for Jaime to be opening up, especially since he got prickly about the subject the day before. If Jaime was just the day before annoyed with Bronn for obliquely referencing his relationship with Cersei, why does he reference it almost outright now? Unless the woman he loves isn’t Cersei. She’s certainly hasn’t been very kind to him lately, and the episode did make a point of letting us see Jaime looking out at Tarth, the home of the only other woman he’s had something approaching a loving relationship with since the show began.
In any case, the show needs to settle on an answer to the question of whether or not Jaime trusts Bronn. Bronn’s the only person Jaime let see him fight lefthanded in their training sessions, and he’s the only person he brought along on this rescue mission, so clearly he trusts him at least a little.
4. That said, while I wasn’t crazy about the dialogue in Jaime and Bronn’s scenes, I did like the borderline-slapstick action in them. Jaime waving his gold hand to show he can’t row, Bronn killing the snake about to attack Jaime. Jaime’s reaction to the “slow enough” Dornish scout looming over him and the ensuing underdog swordfight gave me a real Indiana Jones vibe.
5. Speaking of Jaime’s beloved, Cersei Lannister continues to make bad choices.
In the scene where she tells the High Septon/Sparrow about the plans for the Faith Militant, she says:
“Too often the wicked are the wealthiest, beyond the reach of justice. The king himself cannot always punish those who deserve it most.
“What would you say if I told you we have a great sinner in our very midst? Shielded by gold and privilege.”
Glass houses, Cersei.
And so, with that whirlwind of foreshadowing, the Faith Militant are created, giving us the first of two sequences of a reactionary army causing havoc in a city.
The sequence spends a long time at Littlefinger’s brothel, with the Faith Militant abducting prostitutes and johns alike, building up with menace to the moment of Olyvar creeping toward the room where they are preparing to cut up a gay client. The world of the show has so far demonstrated a fairly lasseiz-faire attitude toward homosexuality. Sure, people giggled about Loras and Renly, but everyone seemed pretty chill about Oberyn being bi, and we had up until now not known about any institutionalized homophobia, much less that homosexuality could be considered a grave sin in the faith of the Seven.
I actually find myself a little annoyed by the way this was handled, as a gay man. The fact that we see this happen literally the moment before the Faith Militant put Loras under arrest suggests to me that the writers’ room realized that they hadn’t established that homosexuality could be a sin in the Faith, given that the show has done little to show the audience the beliefs or cosmology of the religion.
And so the show had to assume it could to tap into the show’s American audience’s present-day understanding of what a religious zealot might believe and give you a quick flash of menace beforehand to let you fill in the gaps. Implicit in this assumption is the further assumption that: Of course being gay is a sin in this completely fictional religion in a fantasy world.
Clearly the Faith of the Seven is a corollary for Christianity and specifically to the medieval Catholic Church and its place in political affairs, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that things that are true about Christian zealots must also be true about zealots in Westeros. Afterall, Melisandre is a religious nutjob and doesn’t exactly take a conservative approach to sexuality.
I get that the Faith Militant are supposed to be awful, and I guess there’s some silver lining in here about homophobia being used as a shorthand for “villain.” But the way the show expects the audience to just immediately accept that being gay is a sin in this fictitious faith without explaining why means that they’re taking for granted that in any religion being gay must be a sin, and a person living happily as a gay man must necessarily be living in conflict with the world’s dominant religion.
To seven hells with that.
6. However irritating the process by which we arrived at it, Loras’s abduction does set up some good drama between Cersei, Tommon and Margaery.
Margaery has up until now used her politesse as her best weapon. Now that her family is being threatened, she is dropping the pretense. Tommen, for his part, is in way over his head from the very beginning. And Cersei is at her wine-sipping best. There is also some parallelism here in what Margaery says as she’s leaving: “I need to be with my family, your grace.” Margaery tried to use Tommen to send Cersei back to her family’s holdfast, and now Cersei has succeeded in using the Faith Militant to drive Margaery back to hers.
Cersei seems to have won this round, but she’s playing with fire. Letting loose an army of nutjob monks on the people of King’s Landing just to irritate her daughter-in-law via her brother seems like overkill. Her Faith Militant obviously have some popular support, if the heckling at Tommen from the crowd outside the Great Sept is any indication, but it doesn’t bode well for her long-term sole life motivation to keep her children from being killed. While mobilizing the Faith Militant has paid off for her in the short term, it almost certainly is going to come back to bite her.
… Surely, right?
7. Mace Tyrell is basically the Gerry Gergich of the Red Keep, and I hope we get to go with him and Ser Meryn to Braavos. Unfortunately, I’m pretty sure the poor doof is going to come back to King’s Landing in a bag.
8. Speaking of “poor” people: it’s time for our weekly installment of “Poor Sansa.”
We find her in the crypts of Winterfell, which is actually a pretty effective bit of staging. Here, surrounded by centuries of dead Starks, is the only part of her family’s castle that still feels like her “home.” We don’t see Sansa interacting with anything going on above ground with the Boltons and Reek. This is the only part of Winterfell that they can’t control: it’s past.
This setting starts a conversation between her and Littlefinger — another of the episode’s “speeches about the past” — this one setting up a conversation that includes one of the episode’s several hints toward one of the shows’ and books’ widely-believed fan theories*.
Littlefinger is leaving Sansa to her own devices — and quite possibly to Ramsay’s actual devices — to ride back to King’s Landing where, presumably, he’s going to be a little miffed about the state his place of business is in thanks to the marauding self-mutilators. Before he leaves, he gives Sansa one last Creepy Uncle Petyr mouth kiss.
9. Back up at the wall, Stannis, Melisandre and Selyse discuss Jon’s utility in their coming campaign**. After a bit of sparring in the yard (which the Lord Commander should surely be able to delegate to someone else), Jon and Sam get to the real important work of a Lord Commander: signing documents.
Here’s where the smaller production scale of the first season creeps in on creative choices of the current show: Sam reminds Jon that they “can’t watch the Wall with 50 men.” I’ve just started reading the books, and we find out in the literary Westeros that the Night’s Watch is sorely short-staffed at 1,000. With its success, the show has gotten the means to wrangle and/or render much bigger crowds since its first season, and now that we know a little more about the world, the idea that a cadre in the double-digits could be holding off the coming apocalypse (or something?) that is the ominous Winter is seeming a bit ludicrous.
Truthfully, the Watch as it stands is such a non-entity that Stannis could just as easily force Jon to go to Winterfell with him under threat of killing or capturing any Watchmen loyal to him and install in their place loyal men from his army who would do at least as good a job as the rapers and sheep thieves that make up the current Watch.
…God, what has this show done to me?
Anyway, instead of that, Melisandre goes into Jon’s office (do they call them offices?), seemingly to seduce him, but her choice of words hints at her real motive:
“The Lord of Light made us male and female. Two parts of a greater whole.
In our joining, there is power. Power to make life, power to make light, and power to cast shadows.”
She’s already mentioned that nobody in Stannis’s army knows Winterfell and its tunnels and weaknesses better than Jon. She doesn’t just want to stay warm with the new Lord Commander, she wants to make a shadow with the face of Jon Snow.
So, incapable of smiling.
10. Elsewhere, in another they-probably-don’t-call-it-an-office at Castle Black, Stannis is barely tolerating his daughter.
This scene was another very speech-y one, again about the past, but I think it was the only one that really worked. A speech seems like about the only way that Stannis knows how to relate to someone other than snapping at them or running them through with a sword, so the means seems true to the character, and the ultimate message is exactly what the kid needed to hear.
We learned something important in this scene about a character who, it’s easy to forget, actually has the legitimate claim to the throne: that he really does, after all, love his daughter.
11. Okay, the Sand Snakes.
I really wanted to like the Sand Snakes. From what little I knew about them, I thought, great, some more badass women on the show, related to Oberyn, wanting revenge, sounds great.
What we got was, as Sarah Mesle for the LA Review of Books put it, “a little WB.” Uninspired costumes, corny acting, and more awkward, unnecessary speech-ing (again from the LARB: “is there any possible chance that the other Sand Snakes would not have heard this story before?”).
I’m hopeful that as the Jaime/Myrcella/Sand Snakes story goes on they get more interesting but for now? Kind of a let down.
12. In Meereen, Barristan Selmy is giving us our final bit of speechiness*** and in so doing, committing the mortal sin of any dramatic, death-filled show and having a nice moment of reminiscing about the past. Seriously,from the moment Daenerys told him “sing a song for me,” it was pretty clear that he was toast.
Finally we get to the episode’s titular Sons of the Harpy, who give us the second scene of domestic mayhem that roughly bookmark the episode. It’s interesting that, unlike the Faith Militant, the Sons of the Harpy seem to be working in concert with their city’s prostitutes to plan their attacks.
It is also interesting that the best warriors in the world keep getting killed en masse in close-quarters combat by hired goons with no peripheral vision.
The action and the fight choreography in the final scenes are pretty excellent. I spend a lot of time in these write-ups focusing on the writing and some of the visual choices, but really, as action TV goes, it seldom gets much better than the sword fights on Game of Thrones with its luxe budget and the freedom from having a Standards and Practices office looming over every decision-maker’s shoulder.
While I am pretty sure that Barristan bit it — his arrival to save the day was just a bit too heroic not to be a heroic sacrifice — I do hope that Grey Worm makes it out alright.
**- And also give our second wink of the episode toward the above with Stannis saying that having a bastard by some tavern wench “wasn’t Ned Stark’s way.”^
***- And the third hint, directly undercutting what we were told about Rhaegar in Sansa’s scene: here, he’s painted as a lovable, fun, happy prince. Also, I saw that HBO is sharing a link to a story on “Who is Rhaegar Targaryen” on their social media accounts. I’m not saying “confirmed,” I’m just saying…^