Sunday, May 03, 2015

Game of Thrones 5.4: Sons of the Harpy

Hello and welcome to week 4 of our season five Game of Thrones recaps. As always, I'm joined by Ser Christopher Lockett, whom I would expect to come into a hallway of angry golden-masked noblemen and take them out like the sword-wielding ninja that he is! Or, as he does on the blog every week, come to my rescue by explaining all of the literary references on the show that we viewers who haven't read GRRM might have missed.

This week saw the arrival of the Sand Snakes (YES!) and King's Landing and Meereen have something in common — the people rising up against the monarchy, daring to raise their fists and voices to them.

You're probably still reeling from the horrifying ending of this episode, so let's go back to the beginning and ease our way up to that incredible battle scene. Christopher, the floor is yours...

Christopher: Well, to start with, we finally get Dorne in the opening credits. Though if I can offer a geographical quibble, this is the first time the credits name an entire region rather than a specific castle or city. But I guess that’s neither here nor there.

We open this episode with a wordless scene picking up from where we left off: Ser Jorah knocking a hapless fisherman unconscious and stealing his boat. He leaves a couple of coins in the prone man’s body, though I somehow don’t think it’s quite enough for the poor guy to buy himself a new boat. And he unceremoniously—and rather callously—dumps a bound and gagged Tyrion in the bilges to start them on their quest to take him to the “queen.”

I read an article yesterday in which the author praised Game of Thrones for its dramatic use of editing, specifically its use of blunt cuts to drive the narrative forward: a great example from last week being the cut from Roose Bolton telling Ramsay that he’d found him an ideal bride who could solidify the North for him, to Littlefinger and Sansa riding along an escarpment under a gloomy sky. That gave us, the viewers, the heads up on the plot twist before Sansa twigged to it: a moment of shock for both those who have read the books and those who haven’t, one that heightens the dramatic tension of watching Littlefinger’s scheme dawn on Sansa.

Here we have a lovely transition that provides a certain thematic symmetry: the cut from Jorah’s stolen boat to a proper ship, which houses another Lannister. The brothers are both embarked on treacherous journeys (though Tyrion does so under protest), but away from each other—literally and figuratively, a fact emphasized by Jaime when he tells Bronn that Tyrion “murdered my father … if I ever see him, I’ll split him in two.”

Initially, the Jaime and Bronn road show is rather more moribund than Bronn’s travails with the shorter Lannister brother. Bronn doesn’t understand Jaime’s strategy, and Jaime is not inclined to spell it out for him. All he will say is “It has to be me”—from which Bronn deduces that it was Jaime who freed Tyrion. Jaime maintains that it was Varys, but it’s obvious Bronn knows he’s sniffed out the truth. Presumably he assumes that Jaime has embarked on this fool’s errand as a form of atonement for the act that led to the murder of Tywin … but of course we know it’s more complicated than that.

Once again, this is uncharted territory: Jaime makes no such journey in the novels. And while there is almost certainly a measure of atonement for Tywin here, there is also the fact of Mycella’s parentage, something he of course cannot divulge to Bronn. Not that I think Bronn would care one way or another, but it was obvious in the scene when Cersei shows him the intricately-packaged threat from Dorne that his necessary denial of his daughter and the distance he has had to put between himself and all his children weighs on him. Cersei’s accusation that he was never a father to his children was petty and disingenuous, but we begin to see in this episode the emotional damage it has done to Jaime. This is in itself something of a departure from the novels, though a subtler one: in Jaime’s POV chapters, he makes his relative indifference to his children clear, reflecting at points that the only person who has ever mattered to him—the only person he’s loved—is his twin sister. “It has to be me,” is atonement, yes, but also perhaps his vestigial paternal instincts asserting themselves.

Though the banter between Jaime and Bronn is tepid aboard ship, things get more interesting once they’re ashore … actually, before they get ashore, as we see what will almost certainly be one of the running jokes of their partnership: Bronn hauls laboriously at the oars, panting, and when he pauses to give Jaime a pointed look, Jaime just raises his false hand. “Sorry dude. Can’t very well row with this thing.”

What I’m enjoying about this partnership is the subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which the differences between Jaime and Bronn emerge. Bronn’s relationship with Tyrion was always far more cut-and-dried; even though it was obvious that Bronn had a great deal of affection for Tyrion (and vice versa), it was always clear that their main relationship was financial—in part because Tyrion’s stature necessitated the hiring of a bodyguard. Less his sword hand, Jaime Lannister is no longer the brilliant fighter he was, but there is at least (at first) the illusion of parity between these two. But their breakfast conversation begins to highlight the significant class differences between the two. With a pragmatism born of want, Bronn does not hesitate to chow down on his snake kebab; Jaime eyes his suspiciously and puts it aside. And he voices surprise that Bronn’s ideal death is “In my own keep, drinking my own wine, watching my sons grovel for my fortune.” Why not something more exciting, Jaime asks? “I’ve had an exciting life,” Bronn says. “I want my death to be boring.”

Jaime, raised in a castle as the golden son of Westeros’ richest and most powerful family, thinks nothing of the comforts Bronn desires. Bronn however, who has probably spent his life impoverished more often than not, is far more practical. He is, to paraphrase Liam Neeson, a man with a specific set of skills—and unlike those who would seek glory, he employs his talents as a means to an end. Which shortly after breakfast is simple survival: in yet another amazing fight scene, he dispatches three out of their four attackers, while the formerly fearsome Jaime Lannister is humiliated by a mere guardsman, saved only by chance by that which nearly doomed him—his false hand. And once again Bronn is reminded that he is as much servant as partner, as Jaime’s false hand means the burying of the bodies is left to him.

And then another nice piece of editing: after Bronn extols the virtures of Dornish stallions, we see a veiled rider galloping through the surf. As it turns out it is Ellaria, meeting up with Oberyn’s bastard daughters to plot against both the Lannisters and their own prince.

What did you think of our first encounter with the Sand Snakes, Nikki?

Nikki: They were everything I’d hoped they would be. As I know by pinging it on the Google, “Sand” is the surname given to noble-born bastard children in the south, much as “Snow” is the name given in the north. If I understand correctly (and you can correct me if I’m wrong, Chris), the Sand Snakes are all Oberyn’s daughters, and there are actually eight of them. The one with the short brown hair — Tyene — is Ellaria’s daughter with Oberyn. Ellaria has also mothered several of the others who aren’t shown. But perhaps on the show the Sand Snakes will consist of only the three, and the other five will remain literary characters only.

For years before I had children, I used to attend the Toronto International Film Festival with my best friend. We would take the week off work and attend 30 films, sending long emails to friends who had signed up for our email list, in an early version of blogging that predated actual blogs. In 2002, our top film of TIFF was Whale Rider, starring a then-12-year-old Keisha Castle-Hughes. She was transcendent in the film, at one point having to deliver a stirring speech in a school play on the verge of tears, and the entire audience was bawling. It was the world premiere of the film, and afterwards Castle-Hughes and several other cast members got up in front of the room. She was so young, so sweet, grinning the entire time (this was her first time watching that movie, and first time seeing an audience’s reaction to her work), and yet there was a fierceness to her even then, a toughness that made you think this is going to be one of those child stars who transcends child stardom.

And she has. While she’s mostly taken small parts, you can see what a fantastic actress she is in everything she does. And it’s no different here, where, as Obara Sand, the eldest of the Sand Snakes, she is very devoted to her father, and will stop at nothing to avenge his death. Ellaria explains to the Snakes that their uncle, Prince Doran, will not start a war to avenge his brother’s death. So, she concludes, they must do it themselves. They have Myrcella, and that’s a major bargaining chip against the Lannisters. Nymeria explains that they have a problem, and with one crack of her whip, she flips a nearby cannister up in the air to reveal a man’s head. He’s alive, but has been buried up to his neck in the sand, and has three giant scorpions crawling on his face. He had approached Obara and told her that he had information (seeing his current predicament, methinks he should have kept his mouth shut). He told the girls that he had brought Jaime Lannister over from King’s Landing. This puts a new wrench in the plan. Ellaria says, matter-of-factly, that the girls must make a choice: “Doran’s way and peace, or my way, and war.” Tyene immediately joins her mother, while Nym nods a quiet agreement. Ellaria turns to Obara, and in a magnificent speech, where she tells of her father taking her from her mother at an early age and telling her she had to choose between one of two weapons — the “manly” spear, or her mother’s “womanly” tears. And with that, she picks up a spear, and in one throw lands it directly in the centre of the skull of the man in the sand. Looking back at Ellaria, she says, “I made my choice long ago.”

As we’ve said many times while talking about this show, this is a series where women are not subservient to men. Yes, Daenerys was taken by her vicious brother and married to the terrifying Khal Drogo, but she stepped up, took over, made him love her, and then became the Khaleesi. Her brother? Dead. Brienne is every bit the knight that any man is, if not more. Sansa might be manipulated at every turn, but despite that, she is stepping into a new role now as vengeance for her family, and something tells me she’s got this. Arya is embarking on a life where she has almost always been in complete control. Gilly was raped and impregnated by her father, yet now she lives confidently within a town of all men, and shows no fear. Stannis makes his decisions based on what Melisandre tells him to do. His daughter is brilliant. Robert Baratheon, Ned, Tywin, and Joffrey are all dead: Cersei and Margaery are still standing, and hold all the power.

Yes, this is still a show where women have to “overcome” being women to show they’re strong, and yet it feels like that’s more for us, as an audience, and less for the people in this world, who accept that Daenerys, Cersei, Ellaria, and Melisandre are in charge.

I adored this scene, where the women basically shrug and say, “All right, if the menfolk aren’t up to it, I guess WE have to do it,” as if they assumed that was going to be the way the entire time. I also loved the outfits, the shoes with the upturned toes, the way the horse was dressed, the simple tent — everything about that scene was perfection. These sisters are doin’ it for themselves.

But now let’s move away from the warm climes of Dorne and back to the land of the ice and snow, where Melisandre — whom I think is absolutely gorgeous, regardless of how evil she is — discovers that Jon Snow might not be into all redheads. What did you think of the seduction scene, Chris?

Christopher:  Before I answer that question, Nikki, I just want to address your excellent point about the women of Game of Thrones. In many ways the depiction of women on this show is a bit fraught, largely because it has taken advantage of HBO’s now-signature freedom to show full frontal female nudity. Last week’s scene with the High Septon in the brothel was a case in point: yet more sexposition, with nothing like parity for male nudity (lots of asses, no dongs). I wish they’d either tone down the former or ratchet up the latter for the simple reason that it detracts from what you’ve pointed out: this is a show that depicts any number of nuanced, complex, ambitious, and capable female characters—you can see I’m trying to avoid using the clich√© “strong,” which has effectively become meaningless—who, despite their pseudo-medieval environment have as much as (if not more) agency than many of the key male characters.

This, I must say, is one of the things I love about HBO in general. I’m teaching a graduate seminar this fall titled “Difficult Men,” which looks at prestige television’s tendency to create dramas centering around mercurial, brilliant, and, well, difficult men: The Sopranos, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Sons of Anarchy, Deadwood, and so forth. One of the questions to be asked is: why this masculinist turn in television so loved by the intelligentsia? But of course what makes so many of these shows notable is not so much the masculine center as the female counter-narratives that provide dramatic and narrative tension and undercut the logic of what are unavoidably masculine economies of power (whether it’s the mafia, 1960s Madison Avenue, the drug trade, and so forth).

Game of Thrones is a bit too much of an ensemble piece to make it onto my syllabus, but this dynamic is baked into its DNA.

To return to your question about Melissandre: we sort of knew a moment like this was coming since her flirtatious elevator ride with Jon Snow in episode one. Melissandre is quite literally a femme fatale—she possesses enormous power, and much of it is bound up in her sexuality. The Lord of Light does not seem to preside over a particularly austere or prudish church: Melissandre’s attempted seduction employs the rhetoric of free love and the naturalness of sex. “The Lord of Light made us male and female,” she purrs, “Two parts of a greater whole. In our joining, this power—the power to make life, power to make light, the power to cast shadows …” Given the persecution of Ser Loras by the sparrows in this episode, to say nothing of the serendipitous coincidence of this episode airing while the Supreme Court of the U.S. hears a case on marriage equality, one wonders what Melissandre thinks about sexual coupling that falls outside the male-female paradigm?

Of course, her whole point is to tempt Jon away from Castle Black, first by showing him how tenuous his oath to the Night’s Watch is, and second by reminding him of the pleasures he could enjoy as a free man and a Stark. And if her quarry were almost anyone else in the world, she’d likely have succeeded. The beautiful little irony in this scene is that, in the end, it’s not so much his vow as a Night’s Watchman that makes him hold firm as the memory of the time he’d broken that vow. He remains true to Ygritte. “I swore a vow,” he protests, and follows that with “I loved another.” “The dead don’t need lovers, only the living,” Melissandre responds. “I know,” he says, with finality. “But I still love her.” To that Melissandre has no riposte, and abandons her seduction attempt. But as she exits, she echoes Ygritte’s favourite mantra: “You know nothing, Jon Snow.”

Coincidence? Or does Melissandre know more about Ygritte than she lets on? One way or another, the comment devastates Jon, and he sits behind his desk with a distraught expression. It was a moment that gave me pause, as I reflected that Jon Snow, more than anyone else on this show, has what he “knows” derided. But it occurred to me that, whatever his real parentage, he really is Ned’s son in this respect: “as stubborn as he is honourable,” as Stannis said last week, which the would-be king did not mean as a compliment. Eddard Stark knew nothing, or rather he knew just enough to underestimate Cersei and let himself be betrayed by Littlefinger. But then, Ned was unwise enough to take on the role as Hand of the King, which requires a shrewder political mind than he possessed. As Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, Jon Snow has found his level.


That being said, I loved the poignancy of the scene preceding Melissandre’s seduction attempt. We’d just watch Stannis et al watching Jon training men to fight—and listened to Queen Selyse’s blinkered prejudices against bastards and cripples—but here we see him playing the tedious role that every administrator knows: paperwork. Sending out requests for men to a legion of petty lords, few of whom Jon has heard of. But he balks at sending a letter to Roose Bolton in a moment that ironically parallels Sansa’s anguish of last episode. There was little in the series to hint at Jon and Sansa’s relationship; in the novels, when Sansa thinks of him, it’s in dismissive terms. He’s just the bastard. Arya of course loves Jon, because she does not care about the social niceties that preoccupied pre-King’s Landing Sansa. But Sansa had basically a milder version of her mother’s antipathy. So it makes for an interesting twist that they’re both in a position of needing to kowtow to the new Warden of the North, and that both of them do so with murder in their hearts.

Speaking of Sansa, she’s being left alone at Winterfell by the only person who qualifies as a friend. Littlefinger apologizes, but fills her (and us) in on his larger plans. So remember that time, last week, when I speculated about how Baelish had miscalculated? Turns out I was wrong. Turns out he wasn’t forgetting about Stannis, he was counting on Stannis marching on Winterfell. Huh.

What did you think of the Sansa scene, Nikki?

Nikki: Your excellent analysis of Melisandre as one with a single-minded purpose, pulling people over to her dark side by brainwashing them but at the same time probably not accepting of the idea of same-sex coupling just made me realize something I hadn’t before: she’s the Michele Bachman of Westeros. Now I’m looking forward to the inevitable scene, when her empire crumbles and she’s standing in the ashes, looking upwards, shaking her fist and angrily yelling, “This is your fault, Obama!”

Also, you and I should do a post on the treatment of women on TV. And I need to come out and audit your course.

Before we leave the Wall, I just wanted to add that I loved the scene between Stannis and his daughter. Yet another thing I constantly love about this show is that they make these characters so complicated. There are characters whom we’d love to see as evil, but with almost no exceptions (let’s just set Joffrey, Ramsay, and Craster aside for the moment), they are still human, and capable of earning our sympathy. Stannis is someone who claims to have the blood right to the throne, and frankly, he’s not wrong. If his brother died, and Robert had no legitimate children of his own, then the succession should have been the same as before Robert was married — it automatically goes to the brother (one need look no further than the current royal family and what happened when Edward VIII abdicated to see evidence of that). On the other hand, his devotion to Melisandre and the Lord of Light makes his judgement suspect. In this scene with his daughter, he’s a loving father, devoted even more to her than to anything else — I feel like he’d throw this entire “heir to the throne” thing to the direwolves if he thought it would rid his daughter of the greyscale on her face. In a moving story, he admits that it was he who caused it, by buying a little doll for her that had been infected with it. His act of love had gone awry, and infected the one person he loved more than anyone. Everyone told him that she was a goner — just think of Gilly’s sad story in last week’s episode, where she told of two of her sisters getting greyscale, and how her horrible father put them outside to separate them from everyone else, rather than attempting to treat the condition. (Considering his daughters were nothing more than sex toys to him, one is unsurprised.) Last week’s story was in there to show viewers just how horrible the greyscale could have gotten for Shereen, but for her father’s relentless belief that he could make her better and save her life.

And he did. He put his mind to it, gathered up everyone he could, and managed to stave off the spreading of the disease on her face. She will forever be marred by it — and her repugnant mother reminds her of her ugliness at every turn — but he doesn’t see the greyscale. He sees only the way in which he failed his beloved daughter. His similarly relentless pursuit of the Iron Throne seems to have been fueled by this failure: if he can attain that Throne and rule the Seven Kingdoms, he will have made his daughter a princess. “You are the princess Shereen of the House Baratheon,” he says to her. “And you are my daughter.” In this moment, I was willing to burn my Targaryen sigil and follow him into battle.

Stephen Dillane has always played Stannis with such solemnity and sadness that I can’t help but sympathize with him. Even when he was burning Mance Rayder at the stake, I saw that as something he 100% believed in at the moment. It’s that sense of conviction that makes him such a dangerous foe, but also an invaluable ally. What a mesmerizing character.

But back to Winterfell. Sansa is in the crypt below the castle, paying her respects to the dead. She’s painfully aware that both of her parents and her brother Robb (and his wife) should also be buried there, but they aren’t. She lights the candles, ending with the one she puts in the hand of the statue of Lyanna — her aunt, her father’s sister, and the woman whom Robert Baratheon loved so much he never recovered from losing her. I squealed out loud when Sansa reaches down and finds a dusty feather sitting on the ground next to Lyanna’s feet. This hearkens back to a scene way back in season one, when Robert and Ned go to the crypts to pay their respects:

How fantastic that they reminded us of how much had changed in so short a time. Just holding that feather in her hand links her to that earlier discussion, where Robert Baratheon places the feather on the hand of the statue and tells Ned, “In my dreams I kill him every night.” He is king because he swore a vengeance that Rhaegar Targaryen would die for what happened to Lyanna. And she, similarly, is about to help Baelish wreak vengeance on the House Bolton for killing her family.

And then Baelish suddenly shows up, like the Oirish Batman he is, lurking in the shadows, and takes us back even further, to when he was a child and he got to see a tournament at Harrenhal, where Robert Baratheon and Rhaegar Targaryen and several other men were jousting. He tells the story of how, when Rhaegar won, he rode past his own wife, Elia Martell — for those keeping score at home, she was the sister of Prince Doran and Oberyn Martell, and the sister-in-law of Daenerys — and instead laid the crown of winter roses in Lyanna’s lap, as a hush fell over the crowd. Baelish looks back at the statue: “How many tens of thousands had to die because Rhaegar chose your aunt?”

Sansa reminds Petyr that he did choose her . . . right before he kidnapped and raped her. He smiles knowingly. They then begin walking away from the tombs and he explains his plan to her. He’s heading to King’s Landing, leaving her at Winterfell (I would panic if I didn’t know that Brienne was waiting in the hills outside the castle), but he knows that Stannis and his army are headed south. First, he explains, they have to take Winterfell, and his army is stronger than Bolton’s. Once he wins, he’ll have the north behind him and will take the Iron Throne. “A betting man would put his money on Stannis,” he says. “As it happens, I am a betting man.” Then, if all goes to plan, Baelish says Stannis will rescue Sansa from the clutches of the Boltons, and to repay her father for having supported his claim to the throne, he will name her Wardenness of the North. If, by chance, the Boltons are victorious, Baelish tells Sansa to simply make Ramsay hers, in much the same way Daenerys did with Khal Drogo. Ramsay’s attracted to her already, and Petyr reminds her that she learned political maneuvering from the best of them — i.e., him. And then he stands on his tippy-toes and kisses her because he’s a foot shorter than she is, reassuring her, “The North will be yours. Do you believe me?” She nods, and reminds him she’ll be a married woman the next time she sees him.

It’s a lovely fairy tale, but will any of it come true? Does Baelish actually believe any of it? I noticed in this scene one slip that he made, something he said that differed from the previous episode. When he’s reassuring Sansa that this will all work out in her favour, he says, “You’re the last surviving Stark.” But in the previous episode he’d said, “You’re the eldest surviving Stark,” as if he somehow knew about Bran and Arya being out there somewhere. Did he slip then? Is he slipping now? Is he playing her? One must always remember that with Baelish, no matter what, he never puts another person before his own political maneuverings. She’s right: she did learn from the best of them. But will her learning be enough to win over Ramsay Bolton? He, after all, is inhuman.

It’s not just Baelish I’m beginning to wonder about, but Reek. Last season I was pretty convinced that Theon Greyjoy was 100% gone, and that Reek was now here. But in the past couple of episodes, the way he appears to be listening to Ramsay and Roose as they talk, and the way he seems to be a little less shaky and more focused — while hiding himself from Sansa, as if remembering that he was raised almost like a brother of hers, something Reek shouldn’t have remembered — is making me wonder what’s up with him. He could turn out to be a wild card we didn’t see coming.

But now, as Baelish heads to King’s Landing, let’s go there, too. The Sparrows have become a malicious army that is wreaking havoc in the city. Cersei has given the High Sparrow full power, but in doing so, she’s allowed her own son’s power to be undercut, since her single-minded purpose at this point is to imprison Loras to punish Margaery. Last week I said that poor Tommen is caught in the crossfire between these two, and is being emasculated in the process, and that was clearly evident in this episode, as Margaery demands that he DO something, and Cersei makes it impossible for him to perform. Freud would be having a field day with this plotline.

What did you think of the way the Sparrows are taking over King’s Landing, Chris?

Christopher:  There’s an old saying about reaping and sowing. I forget how it goes.

I think it’s safe to say that Cersei is playing with fire. Absent her father or for that matter any competent allies besides Dr. Frankenstein Qyburn, she’s making a power play by arming the Sparrows, assuming that their leader will adopt a quid pro quo attitude in exchange for this alliance. It becomes pretty obvious that this is a dangerous assumption when Tommen is refused entrance to the Sept. He’s just a boy, and has little idea how to properly exercise his royal power (his one lesson in governance from Tywin being “do everything I tell you”). But more important than this is the reminder that the Lannisters aren’t exactly loved in King’s Landing—and that the pervasive rumours that the Queen’s children were born of incest have not gone away. “Bastard!” the crowd shouts at Tommen. “Abomination!” What before were salacious rumours that gave the commons license to mock the Lannisters in secret are something dramatically different in the hands of a mob of religious fanatics. They feel completely comfortable shouting out in public what was previously whispered in private.

And if this is the reception the king gets … what will they have to say about the woman who birthed these “abominations”? How inclined will the High Sparrow be to play Cersei’s game then? After all, in giving them Ser Loras, Cersei has essentially given them license to beat, punish, and imprison anyone they suspect of sexual deviance—or, really, anyone they suspect of sinning against the Seven, and the Jesus-in-the-Temple sequence shows that they’re casting a pretty wide net.

And Cersei isn’t doing herself any favours in her attempts to consolidate her power. She alienates her uncle Kevan, who decamps to Casterly Rock; and in this episode she denudes the power of the Tyrells at court by sending Margaery’s father away on the pretext of making him an emissary to the Iron Bank. Mace Tyrell is a fool and a buffoon, absurdly honoured by the mission rather than seeing it for the ploy it is. Whatever she has planned for Margaery can now happen without her father to stand in front of her. And the fact that she has sent Meryn Trant along to “guard” him might well mean he’s not meant to return from the trip.

I can't be the only one who thinks Mace Tyrell looks like the Mayor
of Munchkinland, right?

But in the process, Cersei has managed to isolate herself. “The Small Council grows smaller and smaller,” Grand Maester Pycelle observes. “Not small enough,” Cersei retorts, making it obvious that she wants to shoulder the old man out too.

It is plain that she hopes to win her son back to her influence. And in the short term at least she has made progress: whatever havoc ensues from the now-armed Sparrows, in having Ser Loras taken she has driven a wedge between Tommen and Margaery. How quickly the worm turns … just last episode he was ecstatic about his new bride, and with the enthusiasm (and randiness) of adolescence imagined things would always be the sexy romp of their wedding night.

Poor Tommen. So oblivious, and so utterly confused when Margaery deserts his bed. How long before he returns to his mother for help?

The maneuvering between Cersei and Margaery reminds me a great deal of the war between Caesar’s niece Atia and his lover Servilia on Rome. That show did a wonderful job of undermining the whole “great man theory of history,” in part because it depicted those groups marginalized by history—the underclasses and women—as actually being the people who shaped history’s course. Male and female power is even more complex on Game of Thrones because there isn’t such a clear distinction between the two. Daenerys is as powerful and competent as any of the male kings or would-be kings, but is an explicitly matriarchal figure. With the symbolic emasculation of Jaime when he lost his hand, it is now clear that the single greatest fighter on the show is Brienne, a woman who has chosen to embody all the trappings of traditionally male power. Arya has also chosen the route of eschewing traditional female roles, and at this point has gone farther than anyone else in agreeing to divest herself of (almost) all the trappings of her previous identity. And if Cersei, Margaery, and Sansa seek agency within their circumscribed roles as highborn women, our sojourns this season to Dorne and our introduction to the Sand Snakes open new possibilities entirely.

But whatever other small victories Cersei might be savouring in the short term, mounting Tyrion’s head on a pike won’t be one of them. “You’re going the wrong way,” he tells Ser Jorah. “My sister is in Westeros.” But instead of taking Tyrion west for the certainty of a pardon and a lordship, he’s taking him east, gambling that handing Daenerys a scion of the Lannisters will atone for his sins. “A risky scheme,” Tyrion observes. “One might even say desperate.”

Suffice to say, Jorah is not happy with Tyrion’s observations.

But it raises the question: Lannister or not, Tyrion made Daenerys’ life easier by taking one of her most formidable foes off the board when he killed Tywin. Why would she exact her revenge on someone who did that, and was furthermore just a child during the war that killed her family and exiled her?

One way or another, the Jorah/Tyrion road show promises to be a whole lot less entertaining than the one with Varys. One suspects that Tyrion’s wit will be lost on Lord Friendzone, and will probably result in a few more beatings.

Which brings us to our rather dramatic conclusion … what did you think of the Rise of the Harpies, Nikki?

Nikki: What I find so interesting about the Jorah/Tyrion debacle is that at the end of the third episode, when Jorah said that he was taking him to the queen, my husband immediately said, “Well, he’s about to see his sister a lot sooner than he expected to.” And I looked at him, baffled, and said, “No, he’s going to Daenerys; she’s the only person Jorah would ever refer to as queen.” And neither of us had even considered there was more than one “queen.” It’s amazing that, again, the show is so complicated it would elicit two completely different responses. (This is also me relaying that story to boast that I WAS RIGHT. Hehe...)

The end of the episode, where we see the Harpies rise up against the Unsullied, is a heartstopping scene. It’s preceded by Ser Barristan regaling Daenerys with the story of her brother Rhaegar, whom she’d always been told was a vicious killer — the one who, as we were reminded at the beginning of this episode, loved Lyanna Stark only to kidnap, rape, and kill her. But now, after hearing that story, the audience hears Ser Barristan tell a very different one. Rhaegar had a beautiful singing voice, he loved singing, and hated the killing. People lavished money on him, which he gave to charities and orphanages. Daenerys sits and listens to Ser Barristan with a starry look in her eye, as amused and thrilled by this story as she was revolted and ashamed of the story that Ser Barristan told her in the second episode of this season about her father. We’re reminded in this scene of how loyal Ser Barristan has been to the Targaryens, and how long he has served her. When she’s called away by Daario, Daenerys smiles at the aged knight. “Go, Ser Barristan,” she says. “Sing a song for me.”

We didn’t know she meant swansong.

As Daenerys sits and listens to another plea by nobleman Hizdahr Zo Loraq, once again arguing that she should allow the fighting pits, we see what the Harpies are doing out on her streets. With the help of the same prostitute who helped kill White Rat, the Unsullied run after the Harpies as the latter embark on their killing spree, only to be cornered in a stone hallway on both sides. Grey Worm is a brilliant fighter, as are all the Unsullieds, but they’re outnumbered.

I have to say that, at first, I felt a little betrayed by this scene. The Unsullied are the most experienced and adept army in the Seven Kingdoms. From the moment they are toddlers, they are taught to focus on absolutely nothing but fighting. Ten thousand Unsullied, we have been led to believe, could take on an army 10 times their size. So a bunch of men — whom I suspect, though I could be wrong, are the noblemen who are angry with Daenerys for unseating them — corner them in an alleyway and they somehow manage to beat them? Shouldn’t 15 Unsullied be able to fell 100 noblemen? Perhaps these men aren’t who I think they are. If the scene is introduced by the words of Hizdahr Zo Loraq talking about how badly they want the fighting pits back, perhaps the Harpies are in fact the men who have achieved champion status fighting in those pits. And if that’s, in fact, who they are, then I can believe they are a mighty force. But even that shouldn’t rival an army of men with one single-minded purpose in life, I thought.

However, the one thing we need to remember is that the Unsullied are taught to fight like an army. And the Harpies aren’t fighting with any sort of order or training, but ambushing them. And that’s a VERY different fighting style. You have men stabbing you in the side with daggers, rather than forming a line and coming straight at you on the battlefield. And every time they kill one, two more seem to run into the room.

The fight itself is awesome. Grey Worm is a formidable foe, taking down as many as four men at a time, sustaining serious stab wounds and continuing to fight with the focus of a true warrior. Blood is splattered all over the walls, heads are rolling, but it’s still too much. There are 15 men bearing down on him and he can’t take them all on.

And then Ser Barristan finally shows up to sing his song — and what an epic, glorious aria it is. He comes flying into the room like Obi Wan Kenobi, unsheathes his sword and effortlessly begins making a Harpy shishkebob with it. He stabs one in the back, then takes out NINE men in a row before splitting the tenth one right up the middle (ew). Meanwhile, Grey Worm hasn’t gone down, and now sees his chance, as several Harpies run over to take on Ser Barristan instead. But then Ser Barristan is stabbed. He swings and takes out a man. He’s stabbed again, in the leg. He takes out another. He’s stabbed in the shoulder. He kills that guy. And then he’s stabbed in the abdomen, and he falls forward. As that man runs around behind him and is about to give him the Catelyn Stark treatment, Grey Worm stabs that man in the back. Ser Barristan falls, and Grey Worm falls to lie beside him.

Noooooooooooooo!!! Daenerys’s strength just dwindled considerably if they’re actually dead. Maybe they’re not dead, I’m thinking... but this is Game of Thrones. George RR Martin isn’t exactly known for his generosity when it comes to NOT letting characters die. Ahem.

I should probably mention to everyone here that TV critics everywhere were given the first four episodes, and we watched them a month ago and have been hanging on that cliffhanger ever since. It feels like such an inordinately long time since that episode already — let’s just say next week’s episode cannot come soon enough.

Just a note that this will be the last episode recap that will appear immediately following the end of an episode. As of next week, Christopher and I will be watching live with everyone else, and our recap will probably go live on Tuesdays. Thanks for reading what might be the longest recap we’ve done yet!! See you next week...


Anonymous said...

Great episode - I have two observations-

1) Why do people always see Melisandre as "evil"? Sure her methods are rough but isn't she the only one (except John Snow) who is focusing on the real threat of the White Walkers? She's trying to save all of Westeros.

2) Does Cersei know that Littlefinger has Sansa yet? I don't remember her finding out but that should be a VERY interesting conversation if he actually shows up in King's Landing. Has he been summoned to serve again on the small council or does she want to take him out?

As always thank you for the recap.

-Tim Alan

Rad said...

Chris, I had the same thoughts about the Unsullied getting taken out by a bunch of thugs essentially. I hadn't thought it in terms of expected battle practices vs. chaos raining down on you. I feel less aggravated by the scene now.

Do either of you believe Littlefinger knows he's going to King's Landing to face trial/death (He's been gone since Joffrey's death and Cersei must know he's up to something).

Does he knowingly accept death or does he have something up his sleeve to prevent Cersei from moving forward with any of her plans.

Nikki Stafford said...

Tim: Excellent observation about Melisandre. You're right: "evil" isn't the right word for her, but she's certainly not good. She has a single-minded purpose; her entire life is governed by her steadfast belief in a divinity that many people don't believe in at all, making her a fundamentalist (which is always dangerous); she brainwashed Stannis and several others over to her side, and seduced him knowing that he has a wife who would just go along with it; she gave birth to some smoke monster creature that was up to no good; she kills anyone who gets in her way and feels no remorse for doing so. So I think these are all the reasons that people tend to think of her as evil. But to your point, she also believes she's doing the right thing, that she is trying to save Westeros and bring it into the light. (That said, Hitler thought he was doing the right thing and saving the Aryan race, so I guess there's that comparison...) I think, like all characters on the show, she's very complicated, and I'm really glad you brought this up because I think her character needs to have a focus to really look at all of the sides of her.

I don't think that Cersei knows Littlefinger has Sansa, and I agree with you: I'm really looking forward to seeing their conversation when he returns! :)

Nikki Stafford said...

Rad: It was actually my comment about the oddness of the Unsullied battle, and I'm glad to see that I wasn't the only one who felt that way! And honestly, I had to watch the scene three times before I was less aggravated. That little bit I wrote about the ambush vs. being in a proper battle was added later; originally it was just me ranting about the scene. ;)

In the comment above yours, Tim asked about Littlefinger's trip back to King's Landing as well, and when he first got the note from Cersei to come I assumed she was laying a trap of some sort. But Baelish is just too cunning for that. As you say, he disappeared immediately after Joffrey died, and I don't know if she's connected any dots yet to figure out if he had helped orchestrate it. She so single-mindedly put the blame on her brother that I'm not sure she's spread it out to Littlefinger yet. I wonder if she hasn't realized he has anything to do with that yet, but just knows he's a snake and she wants him over on her side to help counsel her, not knowing that he's worked against her in the past. He helped her nail Ned Stark, so maybe she assumes he'll help her again.

Or, as you suggest might be the case, he's walking back to his execution. Either way, I think his return to King's Landing will make for a great scene.

Suzanne said...

I sure hope that Sansa is able to handle herself well with Ramsey. I am dreading the thought of what might happen to her if she can't! I still wonder if Littlefinger is aware of how twisted Ramsey is. Luckily, Brienne is nearby in case Sansa hasn't become strong enough yet to handle Ramsey on her own. I am so glad to see how far Sansa has come from the beginning; I just hope it is enough.

Great recap and review as usual!

Austin 'Teebore' Gorton said...

This is also me relaying that story to boast that I WAS RIGHT. Hehe...

My wife and I had a similar exchange. Like your husband, my immediate response was that he'd take Tyrion to Cersei. Mainly because that seems like the most knife-twisting and least fun move possible (dropping Tyrion so quickly at the mercy of his sister), which is pretty much what GRRM traffics in.

Really liked the stories about Rhaegar in this one. Hopefully it means the show will be touching on that part of its history again soon.

Austin 'Teebore' Gorton said...

Jedi business, nothing to see here...

Blam said...

I’m sorry I haven’t been around to comment on the past couple of episodes. Quick thoughts of mine own:

Jamie’s release of Tyrion isn’t the only thing that clicks into place for Bronn. He must’ve heard rumors of Mycella and her brothers’ parentage, like everyone, whether he believed them or not — and whether he cared is still an open question — but the way he skeptically asks/repeats to Jamie, “Your 'niece',” suggests to me he understands that dimension of Jamie’s mission.

Melisandre is gorgeous, but still not as pretty as Jamie. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is a seriously handsome man and somehow getting better-looking with age.

Keisha Castle-Hughes’ performance in Whale Rider is one of the most powerful, moving experiences I have ever had in a theater. We got more of her just in this episode than we did during her throwaway guest spot on The Walking Dead, and I look forward to some cool bits with all of the Sand Snakes.

Nikki’s thoughts on Stannis in particular echo my own and demonstrate why it’s so impressively difficult to fully embrace or dismiss nearly any character on this show. I’d love to audit that class of Christopher’s, too.

I had a problem with the Unsullied vs. the Sons of the Harpy battle as well, and rationalized it similarly. Also, I was glad to see Barristan acquit himself so well in battle — although it helps when your opponents follow the courtesy of largely attacking by ones and twos in succession rather than all at once, which the narrowness of the corridor didn’t appear to entirely obviate as an option.

Thanks for another long but meaty analysis!