Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Game of Thrones 5.7: The Gift

After last week's particularly emotional response to the final scene, this week some of the story lines felt like a bridge from one episode to the next, where others finally culminated in moments we've been waiting for all season. Without further ado, I shall let my esteemed co-writer, Christopher Lockett, begin! 

Christopher: We begin at the Wall, with Jon Snow releasing Tormund, giving command to Alliser Thorne in his absence, and departing for Hardhome in the hopes of recruiting the wildlings to his cause. And with his departure, attention shifts to Sam and Gilly: we feel very sharply how alone they are now that Jon is gone, especially as we see Maester Aemon on his deathbed, growing ever more delirious.

Storylines from the novels have been discarded of late like things that one is eager to throw away, and with the passing of Maester Aemon we lose yet another story thread that runs through A Feast For Crows. Our one glimpse of Jon Snow in that novel comes right at the beginning, when Jon sends Sam away with Gilly and Maester Aemon. He wants Sam to go to the Citadel in Oldtown, an entire continent away, and study to earn his maester’s chain. He also wants Aemon sent away for his health—both for the benefit of a warmer climate, but also because he is concerned that Melisandre might look at the ancient Targaryen and get some ideas about what she could do with the royal blood in his veins. As it happens, Aemon dies before they can arrive at Oldtown, but in his final delirium he has an epiphany: Melisandre, he says, has gotten it wrong. She has proclaimed Stannis the prophesied hero who will do battle with the forces of ice and darkness, but in reality the prophecy refers to Daenerys (duh).

I suppose that Sam might still be sent to the Citadel, but I have to imagine that is now a vanishing possibility. And with the passing of Maester Aemon, the Wall loses its single greatest storehouse of lore and wisdom. The scene is touching and poignant, especially with Aemon revisiting his memories of youth, seeing in Gilly’s baby his own little brother Aegon—or “Egg” as he was nicknamed. (I won’t go into the vagaries of Targaryen history, but the story of Aegon V before he was king is told in a series of novellas, The Hedge Knight, The Sworn Sword, and The Mystery Knight, that detail the adventures of Dunk and Egg, aka Aegon and his sworn sword Duncan the Tall). I must say I was a little disappointed: in the final stages of his delirium, I was expecting Aemon to gasp and have his epiphany about the prophecy … but no.

And again, Sam is more isolated, something that Alliser Thorne is grimly happy to remind him of: “You’re losing all your friends, Tarly.” The Wall has always been a hostile place to Sam, but up until this moment he has had the friendship and protection of Jon and Aemon—the absence of which is felt quite soon when two of his sworn brothers come upon Gilly alone and, when Sam attempts to intervene, beat him bloody.

On the heels of last week’s episode, this scene was particularly difficult to watch. What follows, however, was quite well done, in part because Sam wasn’t the heroic saviour. Ghost plays the unlikely deus ex machine (unlikely, because why the hells isn’t he with Jon Snow?), which makes the resolution unfortunately hackneyed, but that’s small beer (it would have been better, or at least more likely, for Sam and Gilly to have been saved by someone like Alliser Thorne coming on the scene). Sam and Gilly needed an exit, and Ghost was as useful a saviour as any. The point is that Sam was, for all intents and purposes, as unable to prevent what was happening as Gilly. But he doesn’t stay down. “I killed a White Walker,” he tells their assailants. “I killed a Thenn. I’ll take my chances with you.” Without Ghost’s intervention, it would almost certainly have played out as predicted: with Sam dead, and Gilly raped (and probably dead). And Sam knows that.

Later, as she tends to Sam’s wounds, Gilly upbraids him for it. “The next time you see something like that, you leave it alone,” she says. It is an interesting moment, a reminder of where Gilly comes from. She has lived a life of abuse and violence at the hands of her husband-father Craster, a life in which sexual violence was simply a basic fact of life. To her, Sam’s doomed efforts to protect her are foolishness, because getting himself killed means he won’t be around to protect her child. “Just promise me, whatever happens you’ll be there to take care of Little Sam,” she chides him. “But of course I will,” he replies. “And … I’ll take care of you too.”

What’s so touching and poignant about the blossoming love between these two—aside from the fact that there aren’t many other couples on this show at the moment genuinely in love—is the way each of them takes the other out of their assumptions about themselves and the world. Sam, in spite of his accidental heroism with the White Walker and the Thenn, is a coward—not someone who would otherwise choose to enter a fight. But he takes strength from Gilly, even though he knows he isn’t up to the task. And Gilly is stunned that he would choose to do so, that there are men in the world who aren’t brutal, violent, and selfish. Their sex is about the only genuine lovemaking we’ve seen since … what? I’m at a loss.

But of course, this is Game of Thrones, which means that these scenes are intercut with those of Sansa, Theon, and Ramsay. What did you think of the Winterfell segments, Nikki?

Nikki: It’s so funny you should ask when the last time we saw genuine lovemaking on this show, because I wondered the exact same thing. Jon and Ygritte, maybe? Yikes, that seems like so long ago. Tyrion was kind to Sansa but she wanted nothing to do with him, so there’s nothing there. Margaery is using Tommen, so while it was an amazing time for him, it wasn’t so much for her. And we don’t need to mention Sansa and Ramsay. The last time we saw Jaime and Cersei together it was a rape... oh wait, I have one: Daario and Daenerys. Although even that at times feels a little political.

But I digress. I must also admit that when Ghost suddenly appeared, my husband and I cheered (as we always do when one of those magnificent beasts appears) but right after I said, “Wait... why wasn’t Ghost with Jon?!” Glad I wasn’t the only one who wondered that.

The Winterfell segments were heartbreaking, especially in the midst of the bit of tiny glimmer of hope we had left after the scene last week. Sansa’s arms are now covered in bruises, and she spends her days curled up in a fetal position, locked in the room, waiting for Ramsay to come back and ravage her once again. There’s a very brief moment when she’s later speaking to Ramsay — and has the audacity to bring up the fact that he’s a bastard, and he’d been given his name by the authority of Tommen Baratheon, also a bastard — where I saw a flash of the Sansa that will not be kept down. And where I thought, in the right circumstance, could she bend him to her will the way Daenerys did Khal Drogo? After all, their wedding night consisted of her being married to a man against her will, and then being bent over and him having rough sex with her, yet we never referred to that as rape. She eventually takes over and brings him to her side, and makes him utterly devoted to her.

Then again, Khal Drogo might have been a merciless warrior, but he wasn’t a psychopath like Ramsay. I don’t think anyone will be able to bend that little bastard to their will, and Sansa seems to know that and doesn’t even try.

But earlier, when she cornered Theon and grabbed him by the arms, he looks terrified, and she says to him — clearly having no clue what he’s been through — that it couldn’t possibly be worse than this. Even though his eyes are wild and he looks like a raving lunatic half the time, there’s a spark of sanity still left there, and when he looks back at her and tells her to trust him, it really could be so, so much worse, she’s actually taken aback. I’m not sure she buys it (if she actually knew HOW much worse maybe she would) but she certainly takes pause. She recruits him to put the candle in the window of the Broken Tower, and while Theon is scared for his own life, he decides to go with it.

What happens next was probably what we all expected — Theon rushes across the grounds of Winterfell, looking like he has a purpose for the first time in years, and climbs the countless stairs to get to the top... where Ramsay is sitting in front of a feast, waiting to surprise him. Later Ramsay shows Sansa the bloodied, tortured corpse of the old woman who had promised to help Sansa, and tells her that Theon was the one who snitched. Had he already found the woman by the time Theon got up to the tower? Or did he just randomly choose that place to have his feast (how in hell did they get all that food, and a table and chair, up there, by the way?!) and when Theon got there, he immediately reverted back to Reek and fell upon the mercy of his master, telling him everything?

And if Brienne is standing in a nearby inn, watching that window for the glimmer of a candle, why didn’t she see the candlelight from Ramsay’s candles, which were all over the table, and take that as a sign?

While, as I said last week, I’m glad Brienne didn’t swoop in to save the scene because it would have been disingenuous, I must say I’m a little disappointed that she’s yet to make a move. Sansa has arrived at Winterfell, met the Boltons, Baelish has left, she’s been betrothed, has dined with them, walked around Winterfell some more, reunited herself with Theon and some old servants, got married, got raped, and then has been repeated beaten and raped every night... how long has Brienne been standing at that window, exactly? And what the hell sign is she WAITING for? I’m a little frustrated by the inaction. I know the Brienne bit — and the Sansa bit, for that matter — are not from the books, but I’m worried they’ve added them in and now don’t know what to do with them.

The other thing they don’t seem to know what to do with would be the Sand Snakes. As I was saying on Facebook on Monday, in last week’s recap I said I enjoyed the fight scene with the Sand Snakes. To be honest, the fight scene was exciting for the 40 seconds it actually lasted, but then it all fizzled out like a dying firecracker and didn’t amount to anything. I was undaunted, however, assuming that the Snakes had something more up their sleeves. Instead, they’re stuck in a dungeon listening to Bronn sing bawdy songs about Dornishmen while Tyene is flashing her breasts at him. I don’t know what to make of this trio anymore, but I’m really hoping this isn’t it. Tell me there’s a lot more awesomeness to come with the Sand Snakes, Chris, please?

Christopher: Wait—did Theon go up to the broken tower? My sense was that they made it seem as though he might be, but instead simply went straight to Ramsay’s rooms. Certainly, the room in which Ramsay is eating looks far more well-appointed than the room in which we first saw Jaime and Cersei having sex. That would make a difference: if he went to the tower with all best intentions of lighting the candle, that means there’s more of a vestige of Theon there than we had hoped … only to have it squashed by Ramsay being clever. My read, however, was that the camera did a bait-and-switch—having Theon look at the tower, seeing Theon from the window through which Jaime pushed Bran, but in the end he went right to his master. In which case he’s farther gone (or just as far gone) as we suspected.

I like that they leave that ambiguous. I’d be interested to hear what our readers think on this.

But to get to the Sand Snakes: I honestly don’t know how much we’ll be seeing of the Sand Snakes, or whether what we see will include awesomeness. Both the Sand Snakes and the High Sparrow initially seemed determined to prove my complaints in my supplemental comments wrong, in both cases giving us a more nuanced sense of these characters. But to me, at least as far as the Sand Snakes are concerned (the High Sparrow is another story), it’s a case of closing the barn door. One of the complaints I’ve been reading a lot in various reactions to this episode is the superfluousness of the scene between the Snakes and Bronn: what does it add to the story? How does it move the plot forward? Why are we wasting time on this interlude when there’s so much else to attend to? Was this any more than just an excuse for Tyene to show us her breasts?

I don’t think the scene was superfluous so much as mistimed. What we did get out of the scene was a better sense of who these women are, and how they interact with each other—for me the highlight was Nymeria rolling her eyes the moment she realized what Tyene was doing, a nanosecond of face acting that spoke volumes about the personalities involved. This scene would have been brilliant if it—or something approximating it—had come as a function of the Snakes suborning some man or men to their plot. Instead, it is wasted as a bit of after-the-fact sexposition that offers no exposition. I suppose if, going forward, the Snakes have a more substantive role to play (as you and I dearly hope, Nikki), then this moment contributes to our understanding of them; failing that, I am so far underwhelmed by the writers’ treatment of a trio of women who could have been, and indeed deserve to be, awesome.

On the other hand, the other Dornish scene was quite well done. Poor Bronn … the lowly underling gets to spend his sojourn in a dank cell, while the nobleman has the gentleman prisoner’s arrangement of a comfortable and well-lit room. That being said, I think Jaime has the harder time of it—even taking into account the fact that Bronn nearly dies of poison. “I’ve come to take you home,” Jaime tells Myrcella. “This is my home,” she snaps. “This has been my home for years! I didn’t want to come here, but I did as she said. I did my duty, and now she’s forcing me to go back?” She then proceeds to tell him she’s in love with Trystane, and that they will be married. “I don’t understand,” says Jaime. “Of course you don’t!” is the retort, and then the body blow: “You don’t know me.”

Or in other words, you know nothing, Jaime Lannister. He loses so much in that moment, as he (presumably) realizes what a fool’s errand this was, and how wrong he was when he repeatedly said to Bronn “It has to be me.” As it turns out, he’s more or less irrelevant to the young woman he’s obliged to call his niece.

More and more, Jaime is becoming one of this show’s tragic characters, even as he becomes more sympathetic. Two things have defined him in the past: his skill with a sword and his love for his sister. Those were all that mattered to him. The loss of his sword hand has made him at best an encumbrance to men like Bronn, and as their family fortunes sink, Cersei is becoming more and more distant, grieving for her dead son and spiraling down into a series of plots to keep her living son close to her. Jaime embarks on this quest to regain what they once had, but finds that an increasingly impossible task.

Meanwhile, back in King’s Landing, Cersei thinks she has won. But we’ll come to that in a moment. In the meantime, I’m interested to know what you thought of the meeting between The Queen of Thorns and the High Sparrow, Nikki. Did you feel the same thrill as me at watching two brilliant actors showing the young ‘uns how it’s done?

Nikki: First, I can’t believe I fell for a bait and switch! You must be right, because I remember the Broken Tower as being, well, broken, and Ramsay is in this bright room with candles, and then the camera cuts to Brienne watching a dark, unlit tower, and I couldn’t put the two together. Oh Theon... maybe you’re gone after all. That would explain why he simply hangs his head in shame before Sansa rather than shaking his head.

But on to the Queen of Thorns and the High Sparrow. What a brilliant scene that was, and for exactly the reason you say above. Here we have two magnificent British theatre veterans, going toe to toe on the screen and just showing what remarkable talents they both are. Lady Olenna has crushed everyone who has tried to verbally parry with her, especially Cersei. Tywin seemed to have an upper hand in parts of their conversations, but she would always dominate by the end... and in the very end, she killed his grandson. Now she spars with the High Sparrow, who remains calm before her insults, then pulls them to similar ground as they compare elderly aches and pains, before holding up a mirror to exactly who she is. She’s there to argue for her grandchildren, and he simply waves her off, telling her they’re degenerates and they will be punished. She similarly waves him off, offering him gold, and he waves her off, saying he serves the gods, and can’t be bought. He proceeds to quote from the Seven-Pointed Star, and she waves him off again (the constant dismissal each has to the other kept this conversation sparkling from beginning to end) and says of course she’s read that book, and that’s when he turns everything on her, asking, if the Tyrells are known for their agriculture, how many fields has she tilled? How much back-breaking work has she actually done? When you think about the various Houses, the Targaryens fight in battles, as did the Baratheons, and the Lannisters, the Martells... the Tyrells, on the other hand, are the ones who provide food to the other kingdoms, and where the heads of the other Houses have actually earned their spots, Lady Olenna just sits around doing nothing and throwing coins at any situation that gets in her way. But if that’s all she can do, and she’s suddenly faced with a situation where coins aren’t accepted... what will she do? “You are the few,” he tells her, lumping her in with all the other wealthy rarities who have no idea how the majority of people actually live, “and we are the many, and when the many stop fearing the few...” And he just lets that thought trail off as he picks up his bucket and goes off to scrub another floor.

It’s a glorious scene.

Later we see Olenna with Baelish, another man famous for his words, and he’s back seeing his brothel for the first time, its former glory now a ravaged hall of shredded sheets and broken glass. Baelish tries to also jockey for verbal dominance in this scene, but Olenna’s not about to be beaten twice in one day. She tells him that their fates are joined. “Together we killed a king,” she declares, and implies that should anything happen to her or the people of the House Tyrell, he’ll get dragged down with them. Where it looked like there was no way out for Margaery and Loras, Littlefinger might be it.

And that brings us to Cersei herself. A few weeks ago we were discussing how she keeps putting things in place that backfire, and boy do they backfire in this episode. What did you think of the handling of her story?

Christopher: Well, this is one of those moments that line up more or less nicely with the novel. In A Feast for Crows, Cersei’s attempt to defame Margaery fails when the sparrows actually interrogate her false witnesses rather than accepting their sworn testimony. And by “interrogate,” I mean torture and beat bloody, until they give Cersei up. So they’ve changed things around here, but the result is the same: Cersei, blithely arrogant until the end, finds herself thrown in a filthy cell. And we might have felt a wee bit of sympathy had she not just been visiting Margaery in a similar cell, all the while wearing an insufferably smug expression.

Her conversation with the High Sparrow was also a work of art, at least as far as Jonathan Pryce’s monologue went. In this scene Cersei plays unwitting foil to his lengthy disquisition on the history of the chapel and the simple beauty of its spartan interior. She is oblivious to the significance of his words, impatient for him to finish. Lady Olenna, by contrast, however much she dismissed everything the High Sparrow had to say, was at least shrewd enough to realize this was not an ordinary man she could manipulate.

I find it rather amusing that my complaints in my supplemental comments about the development of the Sand Snakes and the sparrows were both met in this episode with scenes that I would have loved to have seen earlier. As with the Snakes, the High Sparrow’s scenes lend a greater understanding of who he is, and what the motivations of his movement are. In this case, however, the after-the fact exposition works somewhat better. His final words to Olenna—“you are the few; we are the many”—remind us that, however religiously inspired, the sparrows are a populist movement. But unlike the Occupy movement, however, they have divine law on their side, which makes them the final arbiter in moral matters. Which wouldn’t matter nearly as much if they WEREN’T ARMED.

I bet Cersei’s really wishing for a separation of church and state right now.

The High Sparrow’s speech about the simplicity of the chapel cites above all else the philosophy of the Protestant Reformation. His sentiments would be familiar to anyone who has ever been in a church of one of the more austere Presbyterian sects:

“The people who built this place didn’t inflict their vanity on those that came after them, the way Baelor did with that great gilded monstrosity up there. Their faith was clean. Strip away the gold, and the ornaments, knock down the statues and the pillars, and this is what remains. Something simple. Solid. And true.”

I’d like to say this is one of those lovely moments of creative anachronism that fantasy often engages in—and it is—but it could also be read as an alternative history of the Roman church in which the Franciscan Order somehow became ascendant and pulled down the gilded edifices of the papacy. One way or another, however, this final scene is one of the most beautiful bits of schadenfreude we have yet seen on this show. As creeped out as I am by the High Sparrow’s absolutism and the fanaticism of his followers, it is still so deeply satisfying to see Cersei hoisted on her own petard.

Which brings us to our final bit of business, namely the new careers of Tyrion and Jorah, which apparently is to be extras on the set of Gladiator. Seriously. Was anyone else quoting from that film as Yezzan gave his new slaves their pep talk? “Thrust this into another man’s flesh, and they will applaud and love you for that!” I said as Yezzan declared that “This is the day your lives actually start to mean something!”

But I suppose that when gladiatorial combat is the spectacle of the day, such comparisons are inevitable. What did you think of the Jorah/Tyrion storyline in this episode, Nikki?

Nikki: The scene of Tyrion striding out onto the battlefield to meet Daenerys is the one I’ve been hoping for all season, and it didn’t disappoint. One thing we can’t forget is that Daenerys stands apart in this series as the one character who never encounters any of the others. The major characters were mostly split up — Stannis and Melisandre; Jon Snow at the Wall; Cersei and Tyrion in King’s Landing; Daenerys in Meereen; Jaime and Brienne wherever; Arya in Braavos; Sansa in various places: Baelish wherever the action is. But with the exception of Daenerys, they’ve all crossed paths. Back in the first episode, the Lannisters and Baratheons descended on Winterfell, bringing all of those characters together, and then the entire gang went to King’s Landing for a spell. Stannis and Melisandre came to King’s Landing in the Battle of Blackwater, and then ended up at the Wall. But Daenerys stands apart from everyone... until now.  

While I agree with you that watching Cersei finally gets hers was infinitely satisfying, as an editor I would have put the Tyrion scene at the very end of the episode to finish it off spectacularly. The battle scene itself was fantastic, and everything the Sand Snakes battle wasn’t. It was gory, and watching Daenerys turn her head in horror was interesting — on the one hand, this is the very thing she didn’t want. On the other hand, many thousands of people have been slaughtered at the hands of her own army, and she never flinched once. But that, as far as she was concerned, was for the betterment of people who desperately needed her help, whereas here it’s for sport. The whole time I kept thinking, “Oh my god she’s going to get up and leave, and we’ll have to wait until NEXT season for Jorah and Tyrion to cross paths with her.” Thank the gods that didn’t happen.

The auction scene with Tyrion and Jorah was interesting, because we saw Tyrion’s exaggeration of Jorah’s prowess when he was trying to avoid having his penis lopped off, and now the slave trader exaggerates his powers even more. And yet, the moment Jorah enters the ring, it’s like every single word both men said was 100% true. Jorah mows down every warrior in the ring as if they were toddlers holding Nerf swords. She looks impressed — this isn’t a man who seems to revel in the pain of others, but who quickly and cleanly deals with everyone in his path as he moves towards her. She looks at him with awe and respect... until he removes his mask. And the disgust that washes over her face in that moment is devastating. Remember, in season 4 she banished him because she found out that he had been hired by Robert Baratheon to spy on Daenerys and report back to Varys, telling Baratheon everything he needs to know about the surviving member of the Targaryens. He had told Baratheon about Daenerys’s pregnancy by Khal Drogo, leading her to almost be poisoned. Of course, if it weren’t for Jorah knocking away the cup and warning her of it, she would have died, but she argued that if he hadn’t spied on her, she wouldn’t have been in danger at all. She could no longer trust the one person she trusted above everyone else.

And so now, many months later, he’s back, calling her Khaleesi, a memory of the worst betrayal she’d ever endured, and she wants him out of her sight. But just as Tyrion had talked himself quickly out of the situation with the slavers last week, Jorah tells Daenerys that he’s brought her a gift... and out walks Tyrion. For me this was the single best moment of the series so far. The look on her face was priceless — “A dwarf? Are you kidding me?” — but it only got better. Because no sooner does Tyrion stride out on the battlefield than he says, “I am the gift. My name is Tyrion Lannister.” And hearing those five words, she is utterly, deeply confused.

After all, the Lannisters are her sworn enemies. They were in bed — literally — with the Baratheons. Tyrion’s brother killed her father. Robert Baratheon led the charge to slaughter her entire family. Her brother Rhaegar and his son Aegon were brutally murdered by The Mountain, who works for the Lannisters. Why the hell would he be a gift?!

I cannot WAIT for the scene that follows this one. I’m confident Tyrion will be able to convince her — he’s the man with the golden tongue, after all — and putting these two together will strengthen her claim, and infuriate everyone at King’s Landing, more than I could have possibly dreamed. (This is my fantasy way of how this plays out, so if instead she simply feeds him to the dragons, don’t tell me!) ;)
Bits and Bobs:
-I just realized that we completely forgot to mention Stannis and Melisandre’s discussion in this episode, so for the record I’ll say that I hope that scene we saw a couple of weeks ago, where we see just how much Shireen means to Stannis, will be the one thing that will strengthen him against the Red Woman. Could this be the one request that just goes too far for him?
-Also, despite all the terrible things Cersei has done, I felt she was being 100% sincere in the scene where she told Tommen she would do anything for him. Despite her hatred for Tyrion, her despicable treatment of Margaery, and her general booziness, this is a mother who loves her children more than anything.

And on that note, we shall see you all again next week! Thanks for reading.