Sunday, April 26, 2015

Game of Thrones 5.3: The High Sparrow

Beheadings, betrothals, and High Priests caught in brothels; kidnappings, self-abnegations, and a wedding.

Or, as they call it in Westeros, a Wednesday.

Yes, it's episode 3 of the fifth season of Game of Thrones, and with me as always to discuss the literary side of the show — as well as joining me in squeeing — is the Lord Commander himself, Christopher Lockett.

Nikki: Well, shockingly for Game of Thrones, one of the least notable moments of the episode was a wedding — ! — that didn’t involve any deaths of any kind — !!.

Unless, um, you count la petite mort that happens afterwards. #frenchhumour

Yes, the boudoir scene that follows the wedding — where one swears you can see Cersei two-fisting goblets of phantom wine just to take the sting off the fact that that whore has married yet ANOTHER ONE OF MY SONS — is uncomfortable, to say the least, mostly because Margaery appears to be much older than Tommen, who looks 12, and who giggles his way into the bed as if to say, “OMG, I’m gonna get some!” Afterwards, he doesn’t seem to know what hit him, while his more worldly wife tweaks his nose and commends him on doing a pretty good job. “It all happened so fast!” he says, and we know that that must have been a magical experience for Margaery.

Post-wedding, the gloves are off with Margaery when she sees Cersei the next day, and I admit that I actually felt rather sorry for Cersei in that moment, as Margaery’s ladies-in-waiting all titter around her as she first apologizes for not being able to offer some wine to Cersei, it’s just that the rest of them tend not to drink so early in the morning (ha!), before launching into details of the wedding night that NO mother wants to hear, not even one who used to bang her own brother. Then Margaery manages to manipulate her son little brother husband (I just can’t get used to this) into attempting to talk his mother into leaving King’s Landing and returning to Casterly Rock, where she’ll stop babying him and allow him to become a man once and for all. Or, you know, allow him to prepare to become a man... but dammit once that puberty arrives he will be SET.

But don’t cry for the Dowager Queen (ouch!) just yet, for she has quite the counter-move up her sleeve.

The main victim in all of this is poor Tommen himself. He doesn’t see it yet (I mean, how many other little boys have a woman who looks like THAT in their bed?), but Margaery condescends to him, manipulates him, and only married him as a power play, whereas Cersei will go to any lengths to bury his wife, emasculating him in the process when both women remind him of just how powerless he is.

You mentioned in our first week of season five, Chris, that you were looking forward to the arrival of the Sparrows, and this week we meet their leader, played by the inimitable Jonathan Pryce. What did you think of the introduction of the High Sparrow? 

Christopher: Well, as always, the casting is great. Pryce is an incredibly accomplished actor, and can do bombast (think of his scenery-chewing Rupert Murdoch-esque Bond villain in Tomorrow Never Dies) and subtlety with equal facility. Here, he’s doing subtlety, providing an understated and quiet performance in which he comes across as something of conflation of Jesus and Gandhi. And again, in casting Pryce, the showrunners have yet again given us an actor capable of communicating profound gravitas—like Tywin, Mance Rayder, the Queen of Thorns, and now Doran Martell, the show keeps giving us these amazing characters whose very presence on the screen radiates self-possession and innate strength.

The sparrows and their leader provide an interesting dimension to the novels, so I’m very happy they’re remaining faithful to them on the show. The squalor and want Cersei witnesses as she seeks out an audience with the High Sparrow reminds us of the devastation wrought by the wars between the great houses: with farmland burned and pillaged and villages razed, those common folk who survived find themselves homeless and starving and come to the capital in the hope of finding succor. The High Sparrow ministers to the people and wears the badges of humility—again like Gandhi or Jesus—but it is significant that the lead-in to his appearance is Lancel and a group of other sparrows invading Littlefinger’s brothel to beat and humiliate the High Septon. Lancel’s words to Cersei in the first episode were the first ominous indication that the sparrows have no interest in non-violence. However Gandhi-esque the High Sparrow appears, his rhetoric about lancing boils, however euphemistic, is violent.

And yet, Cersei seems to believe this is a man she can work with, refusing the High Septon’s demands for justice and instead incarcerating him for soiling his high office. Cersei has a track record of overestimating her own ability to scheme and play politics, though she’s mostly oblivious to her failures, as with the way in which Littlefinger gamed her so deftly (resulting in the death of her son). She wears the blinders of privilege, almost certainly seeing in this shoeless, filthy man someone she can easily bully and manipulate.

This will get interesting. The arrival of the sparrows is like a microcosmic allegory about religious extremism: how it arises, flourishes, and shocks the powerful with its force and tenacity. For four seasons, the great houses played the game of thrones with little concern for all of the common people being hurt, impoverished, and disenfranchised. The starving masses descend on King’s Landing in desperation, not just for physical sustenance but spiritual sustenance as well, something that the Lannisters and Tyrells are particularly ill-equipped to provide. The scene in the brothel with the High Septon dramatizes this dissonance in the way it very specifically echoes the kind of hedonism enjoyed by the upper echelons of the papacy on the eve of the Protestant Reformation. The faux-religious pantomime played out by the High Septon could easily be a scene from The Borgias.

There’s an interesting resonance in this episode between the High Sparrow’s denial of self (I have to add that his line “I tell them I’m nothing special … and they think that I’m special for telling them so” totally made me think of The Life of Brian) and what Arya learns at the House of Black and White. It too is a house of worship, and the god they worship is death. And in order to join their ranks, Arya is enjoined to lose all of the things that make her Arya Stark, to truly become “no one.” “A man wonders,” says Jaqen, “how ‘no one’ came to be surrounded by Arya Stark’s things?”

What did you think of the continuation of Arya’s Braavos adventure, Nikki?

Nikki: Life of Brian, ha! I totally agree. I knew that scene was reminding me of something, but couldn’t put my finger on it. You hit the nail on the head.

Jaqen’s assertion that in order to lose oneself, one must divest oneself of all personal possessions is something that most of us would be unable to do. But not only would I be throwing my hands up and saying, “Well, it’s been nice knowing you, my friends” as I run back home and surround myself with my books, promising them that I will never, EVER be rid of them, I found I was also attached to Arya’s belongings. I’ve watched many a character die on this show, and it was sad, yet the moment of Arya standing above the water and holding Needle out like she was going to throw it? I didn’t think I was going to make it. I watched this on my own first, then with friends, and their reaction was the same. “Don’t do it!” we were shouting at the television. One friend said, “Just bury it somewhere, he’ll never know!!!” Amazing how much attachment we have to this sword, but it’s the one physical thing Arya has left of her family, besides herself, of course. Every time we see Needle we’re reminded of Jon Snow giving her the sword in the first place, and now neither one knows that the other is still alive. No matter how strong and defiant Arya seems, in that one moment, as she looks out at the water while holding Needle, tears welling up in her eyes, she’s a little girl again. You can practically see her daddy standing next to her, his arm around her shoulder. In some ways, I believe she derives her self-confidence and power from that sword, the same way Samson derived it from his hair. I can’t tell you what a relief it was to see her putting it in the stone wall, even if I’m worried that Jaqen will know.

When Jaqen first revealed himself last week I thought to myself, Oh please let him still talk like Yoda. And he doesn’t disappoint in this episode. Very carefully avoiding any personal pronouns, he never says “I” or “you,” but instead “a man” and “a girl,” once again absolving him and Arya of any sense of self. My friend John was watching the episode with me, and he has read the books (sorry, Chris, I almost feel like I was cheating on you!) and he reminded me that Jaqen first claimed back in season 2 to be from Lorath. He later emailed me an excerpt from The World of Ice and Fire, the companion book to GRRM’s series, where he explained why this is significant:

The Free City of Lorath stands upon the western end of the largest in a cluster of low, stony islands in the Shivering Sea north of Essos...the isles were home to the mysterious race of men known as the mazemakers, who vanished long before the dawn of true history...Others followed the mazemakers on Lorath in the centuries that followed...a small, dark hairy people...[and] Andals...afterward the dragonlords flew onward, bringing blood and fire to the isles of Lorath...not a man, woman, or child survived the Scouring of Lorath...When men at last returned to the isles to live, they were...a sect of religious dissidents...worshippers of Boash, the Blind God....An essential part of their doctrine was an extreme abnegnation of self; only by freeing themselves of human vanity could men hope to become one with godhoods.  Accordingly, the Boash'i put aside even their own names, and spoke of themselves as "a man" or "a woman" rather than say "I" or "me" or "mine." Though the cult of the Blind God withered and died out more than a thousand years ago, certain of these habits of speech endure even now in Lorath, where men and women of the noble classes regard it as unutterably vulgar to speak of one's self directly.

Forgive me if you already laid this out in season two, Chris. But anyway, I found this fascinating, and it gives us some insight into this strange man. It also reminded me of Divergent, where, in a dystopian future, people must divide themselves into one of five factions based on social and personality-based features, and one of them is Abnegation (where our heroine finds herself at the beginning of the book). These people wear potato sacks, never look in a mirror, live to serve others and never themselves, and are made to believe it’s because they don’t exist as selves.

Meanwhile, back at John Locke’s house, the other girl — nameless, presumably — with Arya is particularly vile, but she also seems to endure Jaqen’s scorn at times. I must admit, however, that I wasn’t quite clear what happened to that man who drank the water. I’m assuming I’ve missed something. In any case — and I’ll try to write this the way Jaqen would — after a girl disposes of a girl’s belongings, a girl returns to the House, where a girl is washing a man, and a girl asks a girl what two girls should do after two girls wash a man. A girl simply glares at a girl, and a man or a woman, sitting and watching a man or a woman’s television at a man or woman’s house, watches and wonders, “What DO two girls do with a man after two girls wash a man?”

OK, seriously, I’m assuming there are no books in Lorath.

Last week, Chris, you speculated on where Brienne and Pod were following Sansa, and this week we discover it was Winterfell, containing bodies that look like Dark Willow had dealt with them (“Bored now...”) and an increasingly disturbed Reek. Now THAT adds an interesting wrench into the story! What did you think of everything happening there?

Christopher: I suspected I’m not the only follower of the novels who had a huge “HOLY SHIT HE’S MARRYING SANSA TO RAMSAY” moment. This is the moment for me where I had an image of Weiss and Benioff chucking all five of the novels out of the boat.

To clarify: in the novels, Roose Bolton schemes to solidify his hold on the North by marrying his now-legitimate psychotic son to a Stark girl. Except that he means to marry Ramsay to Arya. But Arya’s in Braavos, you protest? Well, the actual authenticity of the “Arya” in question isn’t really a major concern for the Boltons, who find a brown-haired girl with a vague resemblance and declare to the world that, look, Arya is alive! And she’s marrying Ramsay! As for Sansa’s narrative arc in the novels, Littlefinger does hatch a marriage scheme for her, but it involves a whole lot of labyrinthine genealogy that would have Sansa marrying a young man with a soupcon of Targaryen blood—an even more tenuous claim to the throne than Henry Tudor had when he deposed Richard III, but a claim that would have more force when he marries the heir to Winterfell.

Once again, we see significant changes being made here in the name of expediency: eliminating Littlefinger’s byzantine plot in the novel, and by the same token giving the faux-Arya’s story more pitch and moment, as it now involves not a peripheral character but a central one (and, if I may venture, a well-loved character—Sansa started out as everyone’s annoyance, but I think it’s safe to say that Sophie Turner’s portrayal of her has earned our respect and affection). And it also means that faux-Arya’s storyline (which I’m obviously not about to spoil here) will have way more tension and drama.

I absolutely loved the scene between Sansa and Littlefinger when she realizes what he has planned, both for the power of Sophie Turner’s performance, but also as yet another example of Littlefinger’s vile cunning. I suppose we can give him the benefit of the doubt and grant that perhaps he has no idea just what a psychopath Ramsay is (though I find it hard to believe that he wouldn’t know), but he’s still planning to marry Sansa into the family that betrayed and murdered hers. And as his little speech to her makes clear, he’s maneuvered her into a position where she quite simply has no other choice. He might genuinely care for her, but as has been made clear over the previous seasons, he is a man willing to sacrifice anything and anyone on the altar of his own ambition—or as Varys astutely said of him, he’d burn the realm to the ground so he could be king over the ashes.

“Every ambitious move is a gamble,” he tells Roose Bolton when Bolton (rather sensibly) questions his motives. But he has moved his pieces with consummate skill, placing himself out of reach of the ever-weaker Lannisters, and (it seems) gearing up to repeat history. “The last time the lords of the Eyrie formed an alliance with the lords of the North,” he reminds Roose, “they brought down the greatest dynasty the world has ever known.” Is he really proposing a new war? If so, who does he imagine sitting on the Iron Throne? Himself?

We’re in uncharted territory here. I honestly have no idea what his plans are.

But for all of his gamesmanship, the flaws in his plan become ever more apparent. His ignorance of Ramsay’s sociopathy will almost certainly come around to undermine his well-laid plans; and when Ramsay greets Sansa and kisses her hand, the camera pans around to show us the jealous face of his erstwhile girlfriend. Even if Ramsay manages to keep his worse tendencies in check (not holding my breath), I can’t imagine that woman will be at all inclined to make Sansa’s life easier. And there is also the reminder that while the Boltons won the North and hold it with an iron fist, there are many people who see their rule as illegitimate. “The North remembers,” Sansa’s chambermaid says feelingly, a simple mantra that resonates back through everything Sansa has endured.

There is also, of course, that blonde woman on the other side of the world who, if she ever gets her dragons back in line, could be something of a spoiler for Littlefinger’s dreams of power. The “greatest dynasty the world has ever known” isn’t quite dead.

But more immediately, there is a sword hanging above Winterfell’s head at the Wall. Stannis informs Jon Snow that he means to march on Winterfell within a fortnight, so Roose and Littlefinger might have a little discomfort in the short term. And once again, Jon respectfully declines Stannis’ offer to make him Lord Stark of Winterfell, embracing instead his new position as Lord Commander. And … well, he doesn’t waste time in asserting his authority. What did you think of our first taste of Lord Commander Snow, Nikki?

Nikki: Whew. What a scene. Every episode of the season thus far has ended with an execution: Mance Rayder by Stannis; Mossador by Daenerys, and now Janos by Jon. And what a powerful scene it is.

But let’s back up. I loved the scene between Jon and Stannis, where Stannis is offering him for the last time the name Jon Stark, a name Jon has wanted his entire life. But he already went through the agony of choosing to decline in the previous episode, and here he resolutely — and, as you point out, Chris, respectfully — says no. He has a new purpose as the Lord Commander, and it’s a title he earned, not one that was just bestowed upon him by someone who wants to use Jon to help him avenge the Baratheon name. What is interesting is that, like Sansa, Jon is being asked to accept a new name in order to help another man gain power, with the carrot of Winterfell being dangled before him. Similarly, Sansa is being told to help take back Winterfell by changing her name and doing Petyr’s bidding. It’s a fantastic parallel scene.

His first job as Lord Commander is to let Stannis know that they don’t have enough supplies to keep feeding both Stannis’s men and the wildling prisoners — “Winter is coming,” after all... an apparently perpetual state in Westeros that has been going on for five years now — and Stannis assures him they’ll be gone within a couple of weeks. As for the wildlings themselves, though, he says he’ll leave it up to Jon to decide what to do with them.

Jon shows deference and respect for Stannis, but he doesn’t listen to him. Davos, on the other hand, has always been a reasonable man, and he hangs back as Stannis leaves, telling Jon that Stannis isn’t just blowing smoke; he actually believes in Jon Snow and knows what a powerful man he could be. He reminds him of his pledge as a man of the Night’s Watch, that he is “the shield that guards the realms of men.” And he explains to him that sitting up here at the Wall, away from the politics and bloodshed that’s happening in the Seven Kingdoms, might not be the most effective use of his talents, nor the most helpful he could be here. As he leaves, he says forebodingly that “as long as the Boltons rule the North, the North will suffer.”

Later, at the first Council meeting — where Maester Aemon is noticeably absent, which worries me — Jon immediately shows that he will be a fair ruler, and one the men will follow. When he assigns a man to oversee the rebuilding the latrines — “seems like a good job for a ginger — the man simply laughs along with everyone else, but does so without argument. Ser Alliser has a look on his face as if he thought that was going to be the task Jon would assign him. But Jon isn’t looking for revenge; he wants the most effective team of men he could possibly have. Instead, Jon makes him First Ranger, telling everyone that he’s proved his worth and valour. Alliser looks surprised, but immediately chuffed. Jon has made a cunning move — in one swoop, he puts the best man on the job, but also pulls that man over to his side by praising him before all the other men.

Lord Janos, on the other hand, doesn’t fare so well. And again, it’s because Jon is honest: he wants the men on his side, but not at the cost of the Night’s Watch. And he knows that Janos is a snivelling coward, unable to take on anything but the most menial of tasks. While he doesn’t put him as captain of the latrines, he does place him as Commander of Greyguard. This is a castle located further along the Wall that has been largely abandoned, and is falling apart. In other words, the perfect fortress for a coward.

Unlike the ginger, Janos is not going to go quietly into that good night. Jon calmly and reasonably explains to him, as if he’s a toddler, that he is the Lord Commander, and that was an order. “I will not have it!” says Janos. “Do you hear me, boy? I will NOT have it!!” Jon, once again calmly, asks him if he’s refusing to obey an order. And Janos, much to the delight of the viewers — because who doesn’t want to see bad things happen to Janos? — tells Jon to stick that order “up your bastard ass.” Ser Alliser smilingly looks in the direction of Jon, waiting to see what the boy will actually do. Does he have the stones to be the Lord Commander? Is he willing to do what it takes? Jon tells his men to get Janos outside and to grab his sword. The men do so willingly. For one moment, Ser Alliser stands between Janos and the men, but then steps aside. He’s on Jon’s side, and will, for now, follow the Lord Commander who has given him this new honour.

Jon walks meaningfully to the executioner’s block outside, as Stannis watches from the balcony, and stands before Janos, both hands folded on the handle of his sword.

The very scene reminds the viewer of our first scene with Ned Stark, all the way back in the pilot episode. A deserter from the Night’s Watch is brought before Ned, and pleads with him that he really did see white walkers, something that Ned and every other sane man of the North believes is a lie. As the man is put on the executioner’s block, Ned pulls Ice from its sheath (held by Theon Greyjoy) and says he is doing this is the name of King Robert. Jon Snow leans over to Bran, and tells him not to look away, because Father will know if he does. Robb stands silently, watching intently, and Bran very carefully does not close his eyes.

All these years later, so much has changed from that now-quiet scene, and Jon knows that Ned was wrong in his assessment. The white walkers are real, and that man wasn’t a deserter, but was telling the truth. Janos, on the other hand, is not innocent, and Jon must do this to earn the respect and fear of his men.

Earlier, when Stannis made his offer for Jon to take the Stark name, take back Winterfell, and rule the North, he says in response to Jon’s refusal: “You’re as stubborn as your father. And as honorable.” Jon replies, “I can imagine no higher praise.” Stannis replies tersely, “I didn’t mean it as praise — honour got your father killed.”

Now, unlike the deserter a lifetime ago, who refuses to back down on his story, Janos immediately takes back everything, apologizes, says he was wrong and that he’ll do Jon’s bidding. But Jon knows better: if he lets him go, Janos will see how weak he is. He pulls back the sword, and Janos begs for mercy — in a way Mance Rayder refused to do two episodes ago. Jon pauses as Janos snivels that he’s afraid, and has always been afraid. Jon’s face is a complicated mix of sympathy and loathing. He’s disgusted by Janos, and yet Janos is begging for mercy. Does he grant him that mercy, and banish him in disgrace? The problem is, the Night’s Watch is, in itself, a banishment. And so he does the only thing he believes he can: he chops off Janos’s head in a MUCH more graphic close-up than the one Eddard had four seasons ago. Stannis, standing on the balcony, nods almost imperceptibly, but Jon sees it. He showed no mercy, just as Joffrey showed none for his father when Ned lied and took back everything on the executioner’s block. Just like Daenerys showed no mercy to Mossador. Just as Stannis showed none to Mance (not that Mance was asking for it). Jon has now shown that he has what it takes to be a leader in Westeros, for better or worse. And you can tell just by looking at his face, that having Stannis’s approval makes him wary of whether or not he did the right thing.

And finally, the Varys and Tyrion road show disembarks and Tyrion gets to see real humans with hair once again as he dresses in an Obi Wan Kenobi robe to blend in. Do you think Tyrion took a chance he shouldn’t have taken, Chris?

Christopher:  That’s a difficult question to answer, in part because we sort of meet up with the novels’ storyline here again: Tyrion’s journey to Volantis is dramatically abbreviated, but his abduction by Ser Jorah is consistent with GRRM’s version. So to answer your question: well, yes … given that he ends the episode with a hood over his head and a noose around his neck, perhaps it would have been better to stay in the wheelhouse. On the other hand, of all the possible problems of which they might have run afoul, being recognized by a disgraced Westerosi knight in his cups at the brothel they just happen to choose seems like something of an infinitesimal eventuality.

Whatever else one thinks of the Volantis interlude, once again the designers have outdone themselves. That long bridge stretching across the bay, piled high with buildings, is a magnificent rendering of how GRRM describes it in A Dance with Dragons. I remember that last season you commented about the odd dearth of high-end CGI in the first two-thirds of the season, which was seemingly explained by the massive expenditure that must have gone into the creation of the battle at the Wall. They’re not being so parsimonious in the early stages of this season … I wonder if the powers that be at HBO have just decided to give Weiss and Benioff whatever toys they desire.

There are several notable moments during this sequence aside from the sudden re-appearance of Lord Friendzone. The view of the massive bridge encrusted with precariously tall structures is one. Another is Varys’ exposition on the way in which the Volantines brand and organize their slaves, by the small but unavoidable tattoos they all have on their cheeks. We begin to see something that has not yet made its way to Westeros, namely the spread of the Daenerys legend. Until this moment, we have either known her as a rumour, a gnat in the ear of people like Tywin Lannister—who, half a world away, can’t bring themselves to take her seriously—or we have been immersed in her story. We haven’t had this halfway experience: far enough away that she is more legendary than real, but close enough that people take her seriously. The tales of her conquests, we realize, must be so very tantalizing to the huge slave population of Volantis, and rumours of her beauty are palpable enough that a prostitute with white-blonde hair can style herself reasonably well as Daenerys, and be in great demand by the brothel’s clientele. The street sermon by the red priestess reminds us that the reappearance of dragons in the world must be quite the thrill for those who worship the “Lord of Light,” but there’s also the added dimension here that she was obviously herself once a slave—the appearance of an abolitionist queen with dragons must be like the signs of the End Times.

One wonders what Melissandre would think.

One thing I found interesting in the brothel scene was Tyrion’s sudden, surprising inability to hire the whore he’d been chatting up. The show has gone out of its way to make Tyrion an appealing character, starting from the casting of Peter Dinklage. The Tyirion of the novels is far more repulsive in appearance than the handsome Dinklage, especially after his wounding at the Battle of the Blackwater (which leaves Dinklage-Tyrion with a fetching scar as opposed to losing most of his nose). By the same token, the Tyrion of the novels, while charming, is also given to more repulsive behavior at times, never more than when he arrives in Volantis. Rather than suddenly suffering from uncharacteristic inhibition, he gets blind drunk, and has sex with a prostitute with whom he is verbally and borderline physically abusive.

I’m not saying the Dinklage-Tyrion isn’t preferable, just that it looks as though the series is keen to sanitize his behaviour rather a lot—right down to his reason for preferring the brunette to the faux-Daenerys, because she has a “skeptical mind.”

Which of course leads us to the moment where his series storyline merges again with the novels. We see Ser Jorah briefly before the final moment, obviously drinking away his misery as best he can … and presumably not succeeding as he watches faux-Daenerys flirting with a bunch of drunken louts. One wonders if he’d paid for the trade of this particular prostitute; as he watches her basically giving a guy a lap dance, I was wondering if he would go over and pick a fight with the louts, or possibly drag her away for his own pleasure.

But of course he does neither, having instead spotted Tyrion and recognized him. And we end with his snarled promise that he will bring him to the queen.

But … which queen?

Well, for that answer, check in with us next week … for now, on behalf of Nikki and myself, I say: stay warm, make sure to feed your direwolves, and be wary in strange brothels.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Game of Thrones 5.2: The House of Black and White

Welcome back to week 2 of our season 5 Game of Thrones recaps. And if I'm ever part of a road trip comedy duo, my other half would be Christopher Lockett, who joins me once again to fill us in on the links between HBO and GRRM. This week we manage to reference LostThe Odd Couple, Deep Space Nine, Downton Abbey, and even Sherlock, because that's the way we roll in Westeros. This week, I'll let Chris begin things. 

Christopher: I just want to begin by saying: wow, they weren’t kidding when they said this season was going to diverge far more significantly from the books. We have a number of crucial changes here, ones that very likely can’t be mere narrative side-trips that then link up with the main story again (such as Jon Snow’s raid on Craster’s last season). Sansa and Littlefinger’s departure from the Vale, their encounter with Brienne at the inn—which effectively obviates Brienne’s narrative through A Feast for Crows, as she now has no mission—Jaime’s mission to Dorne with Bronn in tow, all of these plot points open up uncharted territory for anyone who has read the books.

I think it’s safe to say that the message boards and discussion threads will become very heated as fans argue themselves hoarse. For myself, I am cautiously optimistic, but also somewhat realistic about where we’ve arrived in the show versus the novels. When A Dance With Dragons first came out, I tore through it in a day and a half, reading it like a starving man at a Vegas buffet. When I reread it some time later, taking my time, it was a much more ambivalent experience: it became, as a friend of mine said, like pulling taffy. There were still a lot of amazing sequences, but the overall feeling was that GRRM had let the story get away from him. ADwD boasts no fewer that sixteen POV characters, which is double that of A Game of Thrones. So I think it’s not just fair, but necessary, that Weiss and Benioff venture off on their own, presumably with GRRM’s blessing.

But I’ll speak more to the divergences as they come up in this post. For now, let’s begin at the beginning with something that, until its final moment, falls out roughly in line with the novels: Arya’s arrival in Braavos, and her induction into the House of Black and White. We’ve seen Braavos before, though mostly from the perspective of the inside of Mycroft’s Tycho Nestoris’ impressive bank. Now we get something more of a street—or canal—view, and see more clearly the specifically Venice-like quality with which GRRM has imbued this city. I halfway expect to see Salerio and Salanio hailing Arya with “What news on the Rialto?”

Arya, in spite of her assertion that she’s not afraid, is obviously at the least rather trepidatious, startling when the Titan hails her ship’s arrival with a massive horn blast. The ship captain ferries her to the House of Black and White, waving off Arya’s thanks with “Any man of Braavos would have done the same.” That being said, he is by no means inclined to hang around and make sure everything works out for her, immediately rowing off as soon as he’s said his goodbyes. It’s made a little clearer in the book that the captain has fulfilled something resembling a sacred obligation, but that, his duty done, wants nothing more to do with Arya or her destination. Which makes sense: if this is indeed a house of assassins, I certainly wouldn’t want to linger.

And … Arya is rather coldly turned away. “I have nowhere else to go!” she protests to creepy robed man. “You have everywhere else to go,” he responds cryptically, and closes the door in her face.

What is Arya to do? Well, besides camp out in front of the House of Black and White, fingering Jaqen’s coin and reciting her kill list? After an indeterminate amount of time, which seems to be at least a day or two, she despairs and throws the coin in the canal. Exit, stage left … and when we next see her, she is quite deftly decapitating pigeons in the narrow streets of Braavos because, well, holding a several day vigil culminating in despair makes a girl hungry. But she runs afoul of a bunch of local thugs—and we see just how fearless Arya has become, telling them to walk away without flinching or any hint of nervousness. Traveling across half of Westeros in the company of the Hound makes a few street louts small beer, apparently. It would have been interesting to see how the fight proceeded, and whether Arya was justified in her bravado; but she is saved by the reappearance of creepy robed guy, whose very presence makes the thugs run away (not like little girls though, as it’s the little girl who has the stones to hold her ground).

She follows him back to the House, and gets back her coin—which considering that it was last seen sinking to the silt of the canal, is an impressive piece of prestidigitation. And then comes the moment that, as I watched it, the disturbance I felt in the Force was presumably Nikki squeezing.

What do you think of the return of your favourite assassin, Nikki?

Nikki: Your premonition was correct, sir. My notes reflect it with the “JAQEN!!!!!!” that’s written in huge letters across the bottom of one page. Oh, how I have missed him. Or, should I say, oh how a woman has missed a man.

I must add that the Lostie in me couldn’t help but snicker when Arya walked up to the doorway. Watching with a group of friends, I said, “Two doors, two sides: one is white, one is black.” I was convinced John Locke was going to be on the other side of that door.

The special effects they used to show us Braavos were magnificent. I did wonder why, in Arya’s kill list, she’d left off Ilyn Payne. He was always one of the ones she was after. Or why she hasn’t added Roose Bolton to the list. Joffrey’s gone, so clearly word has leaked to her that he’s dead, so one would think that she’d hear little voices giving her other updates.

Meanwhile, in the north, Brienne has caught up with Sansa and Baelish, as you pointed out, and she is totally badass, as I love my Brienne being. She has lost her purpose when Arya turned down her offer of protection, and now she’s two for two with being rejected by Stark girls. Unlike with Arya, however, Brienne intuits that Sansa isn’t acting of her own volition, and she cuts loose the horses of Baelish’s men, races through the forest with them on her heels, gets separated from poor Pod, turns around, and still manages to save Pod, take out a knight or two, and get back on the trail of Baelish’s men. She is amazing. Gwendoline Christie continues to up her game every year with this character. She’s meant to be this lumbering giant of a woman, who is unattractive yet exceedingly loyal, and Christie — who is gorgeous outside of the character — pulls it off, giving Brienne this stubborn resolution that when she makes a promise, she damn well keeps it. Her loyalty to Catelyn Stark is unyielding, and in a show where every character switches sides several times an episode, Brienne’s allegiance never wavers. It’s hard to tell if Sansa is scared of Baelish, as Brienne believes she is, or if she’s just made yet another wrong decision in a long line of wrong decisions by turning her down, but in any case, Brienne isn’t giving up this mission.

Meanwhile, way over in Dorne, Ellaria, Oberyn’s lover, is super pissed at what has happened to him. She appeals to the Prince of Dorne that they torture Myrcella in retaliation, and she is clearly the one behind the threatening pendant that gets sent to Cersei. Also, she mentions the Sand Snakes; thanks to Entertainment Weekly, I not only know who they are, but I’m ca-RAY-zee excited to see their debut. What did you think of our glimpse of Dorne?

Christopher: As with Braavos, they’re not scrimping on the sets and effects budgets. The Water Gardens, Prince Doran Martell’s favourite place to hang, has been rendered in nothing less than exquisite detail. Dorne is one of the more interesting places in the Seven Kingdoms, not least because it is the one region that does not conform to the typical fantasy convention, bequeathed by Tolkien, of an alternative world that bears a striking resemblance to medieval northern Europe. Sad to say that GRRM does indulge in some typical clichés: the hotter climes are inhabited by similarly hot people, both in terms of their looks and temperaments, but even so it makes for a welcome change from the usual mail-clad Saxons that have pervaded the story so far. Oberyn and Ellaria added depth and complexity to season four—I look forward to seeing what their broader families bring to season five.

I’m delighted that Indira Varma is reprising her role as Oberyn’s paramour, and not just because I think she’s one of the most beautiful women ever. Her rage and intensity in her scene with Prince Doran was a great bit of almost-but-not-quite scenery chewing, and wonderfully offset by the prince’s steely calm.

And if I may nerd out for a moment: GoT continues with its spectacular casting with Alexander Siddig as Doran Martell. The all-caps in my notes when he first appears are “DR. BASHIR!” I was a big fan of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, which I think is my sentimental favourite of all the Star Treks, and I always loved his character on that show.

He is himself a pretty extraordinary actor, and you see that in his understated performance in this brief scene, playing against the cliché: he is all icy restraint in the face of Ellaria’s simmering rage, and his expression communicates to the audience that which Ellaria is apparently, in her rage, blind to: that he too desires revenge against the Lannisters, but is too smart to take his vengeance in the most obvious and immediate way. “We do not mutilate little girls for vengeance,” he says, “Not here. Not while I rule.” When he said this, I immediately remembered Oberyn’s conversation with Cersei in the previous season, when he assured her that in Dorne they do not hurt little girls. “Everywhere in the world,” Cersei replied bitterly, “they hurt little girls.” But not, apparently, on Prince Doran’s watch; and his admonition to Ellaria is just one of the myriad little signals of the similarities between brothers.

I too am excited to see the Sand Snakes. I think the only thing I’ve ever seen Keisha Castle-Hughes in was her Oscar-winning performance in Whale Rider; I loved that film, and was utterly blown away that a thirteen-year-old girl could pull off such a powerful performance. And her she is, all grown up, and the publicity shots HBO has circulated make it clear she is every inch her father’s daughter and the undisputed leader of the Sand Snakes.

There is a lot more I could say about these characters apropos of the novels, but I will resist until they have actually appeared on the show. But wow, do I want to talk about them.

If I can just return for a moment to Brienne’s encounter with Sansa: I can’t emphasize how much of a change this is from the novels, not least because it completely obviates her entire storyline in A Feast for Crows. She’s now found and been rejected by both of the girls she was sworn to protect. In the novels so far she finds neither of them, but has a road-trip tragicomedy with Pod. Now … what? presumably she tries to follow Sansa, as seems to be her intention at the end of this episode, but that doesn’t seem wise. I think I know where she’s heading, however, based on a split second image in one of the trailers. Speculating might seem a bit spoilery, so I’ll just show you the screen cap.

From Dorne … wait, one more point. We went to Dorne in this episode, but it wasn’t in the credits! What’s up with that?

Ahem. From Dorne, we go to Mereen, where Daario schools Grey Worm on the finer points of undercover investigation. And what transpires can really only be called a clusterfuck. What do you make of the Mother of Dragons’ increasing difficulties in managing her provisional kingdom, Nikki?

Nikki: I was surprised not only that Dorne wasn’t in the credits, as you point out, but that the golden harpy continues to be on the top of the palace of Meereen in the opening credits, despite it being taken out in quite astonishing fashion in the previous episode. Usually they’re really good with keeping the credits in line with the episodes themselves. Maybe that’ll be corrected before the end of the season.

But oh, Daenerys. I said in last week’s post that Tyrion could be the perfect advisor for her, but at this point, the problem isn’t who advises her — it’s how she interprets that advice. Earlier in the episode Ser Barristan tells her about the Mad King — her father — who was so ruthless, so brutal, that he more than earned the negative name by which he’s now known. After listing off the tortures that Aerys imposed on people — and the pleasure he derived from it — Ser Barristan says, “His efforts to stem dissent led to a rebellion that killed every Targaryen... except two.” Daenerys listens to every word, her chin falling as her eyes remain on Ser Barristan, almost looking like a little girl again for a moment, and you see her take a nervous swallow at one point as she processes everything he’s telling her. “I’m not my father,” she says. He agrees, but adds that the Mad King “gave his enemies the justice he thought they deserved,” and despite it making him feel more powerful, his reign came to a bloody end.

Ser Barristan delivers his speech immediately following a Council session, where Daenerys and her advisors discuss what to do with the man who killed White Rat. The table is split down the middle between those who want him killed, and those who want a fair trial. Mossador, the former slave, argues that this is Meereen, and here, when he was a slave, he worked under people who showed no mercy. Anyone who kills should be shown the same, he says. This man does not deserve a trial, and should be killed to teach a lesson.

Oh, how prophetic his words will become.

In the previous episode, when Mossador asked why Daenerys would annoy the nobility to search out who had killed White Rat, she replied that when angry snakes are bothered and lash out, it’s easier to cut off their heads. And so, in this episode, even when he finds out that Daenerys has decided to offer a fair trial to the murderer, Mossador goes down to his jail cell. The man is rude, tells him Daenerys doesn’t deserve to be there, that she will never be his mother no matter how many times they call her “Mhysa.” With the help of the Unsullied, Mossador kills him and stands him up in the street for all to see. He believes that he’s doing what Daenerys wants, that she’s being pushed to offer a fair trial when what she really wants is justice for her children.

But Daenerys is furious. He tells her that he did it for her, that the masters will never allow the slaves to rise up into positions of power. Daenerys, naive as always, says there are no more masters or slaves, as if people’s very ideology can be changed overnight. He argues that the Golden Harpy is killing her children. We cannot forget that when Daenerys first came to Meereen, Mossador was the slave who stood up and argued for the other slaves to join her, to rise up against their masters and fight. He reminds her of this, and that he lost his own father in the fight that he helped lead to allow Daenerys her victory. But despite everything he says, despite his pleas, she resolutely states, “The law is the law.” The look on Mossador’s face is one of utter disbelief: how could the woman who was there to free him offer a trial to the murderer, but execute one of her “children” in front of all the others?

The Mad King acted out of sadism; Daenerys acts out of a sense of teaching discipline. Despite their different intentions, the end result is the same. Daenerys stands as the mother before her children, explaining that Mossador acted wrongly. The people have accepted her as their Mhysa, and they call Mossador their “Brother” as he kneels before Daenerys. They assume they’re here to see a whoopin’, but when Daarios pulls out a scythe dagger and holds it next to Mossador’s neck, their adoration suddenly turns to horror. They beg her, they cry, they hold out their arms and plead with her. Mossador quietly pleads for his own life, but it’s too late. With one swipe, Daenerys commits infanticide in the eyes of her people, and they begin hissing at her.

She’s provoked the angry snakes, all right, but they turned out to be her own children.

The Unsullied are no longer there to protect her people against those who would oppress them, but are now there to protect her against her people, who see her as a turncoat who promised one thing and turned out to be quite another. Just as her two dragons — her other children — attacked her when she went to check on them in the previous episode, now these people who see her as their mother have turned on her. As their Mhysa, she freed them from their chains. In order to keep them safe, she had to chain up her other children. But in trying to teach them a lesson, she’s taken things too far. At the end of the episode, when Drogon returns and leans down to her, she smiles in surprise, and reaches up — tentatively — to his face. Drogon was always her favourite dragon, but he’s also the most dangerous. He’s wreaked more havoc than anything or anyone else who has pledged fealty to her. Will he turn out to be an asset, or more of a detriment? Can she get out of this one?

Meanwhile, up in the land of the ice and snow, Gilly is learning to read thanks to Shireen, and the Happy Lords of the Night’s Watch are choosing a new leader. Was the vote for Jon (which is, no doubt, a Vote for Change) consistent with the novels, Chris?

Christopher: Vaguely consistent, but carried out (mercifully) with far more brevity. In A Storm of Swords, the voting is a protracted affair that proceeds like a presidential primary: a multitude of candidates, some popular and some not, an interminable series of ballots, some candidates pulling out of the running and throwing their support behind someone else, and so forth … all while Stannis fumes at how long it’s taking.

One of the key differences is that Janos Slynt is the key antagonist here, with Ser Alliser backing him, as opposed to vice versa as they have it on the show. In terms of differences from the novels, I should point out here that Janos was actually a much bigger antagonist in the book: he arrived at Castle Black just as Jon made his way back from his sojourn with the Wildlings. Taking provisional command of the Night Watch, Janos threw Jon in a cell, branding him a traitor. And he remained Jon’s implacable enemy from that day forward, even after Jon was exonerated and released.

The whole voting process (which, though protracted, wasn’t actually that tedious) unfolds mostly from Sam’s perspective, and he manages to work behind the scenes to convince some of the major players to endorse Jon Snow. When the final vote happens, it is overwhelmingly in his favour.

That being said, I appreciate how they’ve tightened it up here; I loved Sam’s speech about Jon; and I loved even more that it was Maester Aemon who cast the deciding vote.

All of which takes place while Jon has to decide whether or not to accept Stannis’ offer to legitimize him as a Stark and give him Winterfell. Which on one hand is of course a betrayal of his vows; on the other, it’s everything he’s ever wanted. His decision in the novel is more agonized, and effectively decided by his elevation to Lord Commander. There’s also the added dimension that, in the novels, Mance Rayder has a wife and a sister-in-law. His wife dies in childbirth as Stannis’ forces descend on the Wildlings, but the child lives. Gilly becomes wet nurse to the King-Beyond-the-Wall’s heir. And the sister-in-law is a strikingly beautiful blonde woman named Val. Given that she is Wildling “nobility” (and gorgeous besides), a not-insignificant number of Stannis’ knights start to imagine that she would make a good and profitable marriage. But to sweeten his offer to Jon Snow, Stannis says that he would give him Val as a wife, thus cementing by marriage an alliance between the North and the Farther North.

Of course, Jon turns Stannis down. He is his father’s son, after all (or is he?). Honour and duty define his actions, whatever his previous dreams and desires.

Which I believe brings us to Tyrion and Varys, who have wasted no time in getting on the road to Volantis. And at the risk of repeating myself: thank the gods. Way too much time was spent in A Dance with Dragons with Tyrion moping about Illyrio’s mansion, getting really drunk and feeling sorry for himself. He’s still feeling sorry for himself, but at least he’s doing it on the road, and being quite funny at the same time. One of the things I’ve loved about this series is the way it always manages to give us at least one odd couple per season, paired characters whose personalities provide tension comic, dramatic, or both: Varys and Littlefinger, Jaime and Brienne, Brienne and Podrick, Arya and the Hound, Tyrion and Bronn.

What do you think of the comic potential for the Varys and Tyrion roadshow, Nikki?

Nikki: Every season I’ve said I would absolutely watch a spinoff of one of the roadshows, all ones that you’ve mentioned above. And Varys and Tyrion are no different. You have Varys, who always remains eerily calm — we have never seen him lose him temper or even raise his voice — even when prying the lid off a box containing the whimpering man who had castrated him so long ago. Tyrion, on the other hand — much like his sister — is looking for some sort of solace at the bottom of a bottle, and he’s a mess. Put them together, and you have the Imp being as obnoxious as he possibly can be, whining and stomping his feet that he wants out of the box (and, by the way, understandably so, since he just crossed the sea while crammed into one), and Varys, rolling his eyes and putting up with everything Tyrion does; the Felix to Tyrion’s Oscar. You mentioned last week that Tyrion spends far too long in the books feeling sorry for himself, and it seems they’ll definitely be truncating that for the show, though what we’ve seen is no doubt entertaining.

Also entertaining is the new Bronn/Jaime pairing, which as you’ve said above, doesn’t take place in the books. As viewers will recall, in season 4 Bronn was going to be Tyrion’s champion against the Mountain, but Cersei bribed him with a marriage offer that would raise his station. The price? He wasn’t allowed to help Tyrion. He took the bribe, but was up front with Tyrion that he did so. Tyrion, sitting in his cell, assured Bronn that there were no hard feelings, because Bronn had never hidden the fact that he was an opportunist, and that that quality is what Tyrion liked about him.

And so now we see Bronn with his new lady love, Lollys Stokeworth, or as I like to think of her, the Lady Edith of Stokeworth Abbey. She’s plain, and the barely-thought-of second daughter, though this one seems to be a bit of an idiot, blubbering about how her sister is so mean to her but that she’ll never inherit the castle (which seems to come as some surprise to Bronn, since Cersei had reassured him the sister would never lay claim to the castle and instead it would fall to him). When Jaime shows up, she’s like a 12-year-old at a One Direction meet and greet, fawning all over him, flirting, giggling, and generally acting like even more of an idiot than she had been before. Jaime tells him that Bronn is coming on a mission with him to rescue Myrcella from Dorne, and in return he’ll give him an even better marriage. Like the guy selling Christmas trees in A Christmas Story, who, after praising the virtues of a scrawny tree suddenly looks at it, says, “Hell, this ain’t no tree!” and tosses it aside, Bronn leaves without a second thought. And, just like her poor Downton counterpart, Lady Lollys is left alone once again, dealing with her awful sister.

Next week: Jon Snow is the new commander, Jaime and Bronn begin their own road trip, Tyrion continues his journey inside a box (or goes crazy enough that he finally breaks out of it), and Daenerys deals with the fallout of the execution of Mossandor. Or, as we like to think of it, just another day in Westeros!