This episode played, as more and more Game of Thrones episodes are wont nowadays, as five vignettes, concerning Arya, the King’s Landing ruckus, Tyrion & Jorah, the Dornish happenings, and another good ole fashioned Westerosi wedding, this time at Winterfell.
Believe it or not, the show is actually a lighter, more hopeful version of the books. Stuff like Varys speech to Tyrion in the premiere bemoaning the fate of their home country and search for a truly decent ruler is entirably absent and when crafting new material (like the stuff detailed below concerning Loras’ arrest for homosexuality as the impetus for the Tyrell trouble this year instead of Margaery’s maidenhood) they tend to do it in ways that simplify or eliminate ulterior motives, making character decisions easier to follow.
Following the above example, Varys is nowhere near as patriotic or altruistic as he tries to sound nor is Tyrion an unabashed hero character. For example, his murders of his father and mistress and motivations for doing so are also played much, much darker. But that was before Dinklage took the role and made it his bitch, so the changes were unavoidable.
Arya’s training at “Secret-Assassin-warts” continues. This week, she gets to play the character of the audience and wonder: what the hell is up with these bodies she’s been cleaning since we saw her two weeks ago in 5.3: High Sparrow? Her training straight out of an Eastern monk’s monastery.
Also like the audience, Arya is pissed that her “training” amounts to a Karate Kid “wax on, wax off” routine. She badgers her mortician-mate, who convincingly tells her a backstory a la The Dark Knight‘s Joker, following it “How much of that did you believe?” Jaqen plays the “Game of Faces” with her later and whips her Arya cannot convincingly lie about her past, including her own mixed feelings for the Hound. There’s a great exchange here:
Arya: “I don’t want to play the game anymore!”
Jaqen: “We never stop playing the game.”
Later, while doing her chores, Arya is approached by a weeping father who has taken his sickly daughter to the temple. He begs for help. Maisie Williams kills it, delivering a convincingly false monologue about the Many-Faced God. echoing the actions of the premiere, scooping water into a cup and getting the young girl to drink. Giving her “the gift” as it were. Jaqen watches inscrutably.
At night, he takes her to the bottom of the temple and reveals the Hall of Faces, giant pillars acting as the foundation of the temple. Each lined with thousands of faces. These shots were beautiful and Williams’ really sells the wonder. She’s reached the next phase of her journey: not to be “no one,” but to first be “someone else.” By the way, if there was an Emmy for Enigmatic Mentor, Tom Wlacihaha would win it.
The Road to Meereen: Tyrion & Jorah
Tyrion the Exiled Patricidal Dwarf and Jorah the Exile Secretly-Greyscale-Afflicted Knight are among the best in the series-long tradition of pairing interesting characters on long journeys. It’s a trick the show learned from the books and are using to great effect this season, uniting characters who don’t meet in the books and combining roles to intriguing effect. Ironically, the Tyrion & Jorah Show is a book idea.
They chat about their pasts, Tyrion’s murder of Tywin and Jorah learns of his father’s death – killed in a mutiny of the Night’s Watch way back in Season 3. It’s a nice moment where we remember despite how big the world is, it’s held together by these relationships that the writers never forget. A lesser show would have let the thread drop. This one, takes a scene to allow the wonderful Iain Glen to process this loss. Stunning.
Tyrion needles Jorah on his faith in Daenerys, reminding us what a clever dwarf he is until they both spot a ship moored in a bay. Unfortunately, they spotted too late – the slavers have surrounded them. This gives Tyrion an opportunity to showoff his second cleverest trait – talking his way out of certain death.
The slavers’ leader is none other than Mr. Eko a.k.a. Adewale Akinnouye-Agbaje a.k.a. a slaver named Malko. What follows may be the greatest exchange put on screen. Malko wants Tyrion’s cock, because “dwarf cock’s have magical powers.” Somehow, he convinces them that a cock attached to a dwarf is more valuable than a dismembered cock. And, also, his friend Jorah the Knight is a great warrior, well-suited for the newly re-opened fighting pits of Meereen. Tyrion’s face when Jorah plays along with his story is priceless. I love this duo and wish the rest of the season would have been just them wandering Essos getting into shenanigans.
Winterfell: Sansa, the Boltons & Theon / Reek
Myranda bathes Sansa prior to her wedding and fills the air with tales of Ramsay’s former girls who were killed in gruesome ways by Ramsay, including Tansy, the girl torn apart by dogs in 4.2: The Lion and the Rose. Sansa, having already been a victim of psychopath- in -ower shows some badass backbone.
“I am Sansa Stark of Winterfell. This is my home and you will not frighten me.”
Theon arrives, cleaned up to impersonate his former, non-Stockholm’ed self and deliver her on his arm to Ramsay. Sansa wants none of it, still believing he had killed her brothers.
Of course a Bolton wedding would be creepy as shit. Lit by lanterns, set in the Godswood awash in wilting snow, it’s another beautiful shot. It’s like walking into Narnia by way of H.P. Lovecraft. Theon hands Sansa to Ramsay in a ceremony presided over by Roose. Fat Walda, Myranda, and all watch. Sansa, to her credit, takes the step herself and says the words, “I take this man.”
What follows is the awful Let’s-Talk-About-It moment, otherwise known as the Last-Scene-To-Leave-The-Viewer-Feeling-Like-A-Rape-Spectator but, thankfully, it was still somehow not as awful as the books where
SPOILERS BEGIN . . . .
Theon is forced to perform preliminary oral sex on Ramsay’s wife (who, remember, is not Sansa here) while Ramsay prepares to rape her. Later, she makes reference to sexual encounters with Ramsay’s dogs as well.
. . . . . SPOILERS END.
It’s a work of pragmatic adaptation. By making Theon stay and watch, he is put in the position of the audience, forced to endure this horrific sight where Ramsay unveils his inner monster to Sansa for the first time. Alfie Allen’s acting has gotten better and better each year and through editing we don’t see Sansa’s loss of virginity, instead just her and Theon’s deeply abused faces. And that’s about as tastefully as Thrones could have shot the scene.
While Sansa is no doubt a victim of rape at Ramsay’s hand, somehow I didn’t feel it was gratuitous. Indeed, it seems organic to Sansa’s storyline which, like her sister Arya, is extremely dark and soul-crushing. It’s the George R.R. Martin School of Growing Up: take an already-difficult time and make it harder with rape, torture, and beheadings.
As a guy who was extremely wary of retreading the “Sansa-gets-engaged-to-a-psychopath” for a jaw-dropping SECOND time, Sophie Turner’s evolution of the character combined with writing and direction made it work. Kudos.
King’s Landing: Cersei & Tommen, Margaery & Olenna, Littlefinger
Littlefinger arrives in King’s Landing to remind everyone including us that he is the best player in the game of thrones. I’ve been excited to see his storyline extend beyond the novels and have him enact his plan further.
After being stopped by Lancel with veiled threats from the Faith Militant, he plays Cersei like a fiddle. Cersei for her part tries her best to maneuver (she actually comes across pretty competent for once this episode, more below), but Littlefinger is a master of Xanatos Speed Chess – he’s rigged the game in his favor.
Littlefinger is by his nature the most interesting character to me. By secretly instigating the War of the Five Kings (savvy viewers remember last season’s reveal that he talked his dear-departed wife Lysa Tully into murdering her then-husband Jon Arryn, which is what drew the Starks to King’s Landing in the first place), he set it up so the Great Houses would collapse like dominoes, crushing each other, betraying the Starks, the Lannisters, and, now, the Boltons in turn.
In a smart move, he plays the Sansa Stark card first to Cersei, revealing her marriage to the Boltons. He tries to convince her of what happens when Stannis marches on Winterfell. While he told Sansa Stannis is likely to win, what he didn’t say is that regardless of the outcome of the coming Stannis vs. Bolton Battle of Winterfell, he would come crashing down on with the knights of the Vale, securing the North “in the name of” hapless Cersei and her boy-king. Cersei – and us – want to know what he wants for his “service.” He wants to be Warden of the North.
All of this happens while the show and Aidan Gillen play him as the slimy, selfish guy he is. In the books, he’s painted as a bit more discreet. The show seems to know this fundamental difference and slots Littlefinger in as literally the last man standing. With the Vale and Dorne the only two kingdoms to survive the War of the Five Kings, Littlefinger is the only lord with the forces Cersei needs to enforce rule in the North now that he’s incited her against the Boltons.
Speaking of the game’s best players, the Queen of Thorns returns to King’s Landing to deal with Loras’ arrest. Her return is welcomed, with King’s Landing being pretty dull now that it’s controlled by religious fanatics and boring characters. She spars with Cersei who remains resistant to the idea of working with the Tyrells.
At the hearing later, Loras denies all his charges. To the surprise of all (except perhaps Cersei) Margaery too is called to testify. She swears to the High Sparrow that Loras is, indeed, straight. And in a glorious symmetrical Chekov’s Gun that Thrones excels at, the scene from the premiere when Margaery walks in Loras in bed with the prostitute Olyvar comes back to play when he arrives, shockingly smug and openly admits to his relationship with Loras. He is arrested immedieately as is Margaery for perjury. King Tommen watches, speechless while his mother smirks at the Queen of Thorns.
I can’t wait to see Diana Rigg tear up the screen in the next four episodes trying to take down Cersei, mostly because I felt a lot of the King’s Landing stuff got short-changed. Why was Olyvar so eager to betray Loras? Even in the books, Cersei’s lovers needed to get tortured first before they betrayed their powerful ally. In any case, he should have been arrested as well for the same crime as Loras – lying with a man. On a positive note, this actually reminds us that Cersei can be a credible threat now that she’s cornered the Tyrells. It’ll make the coming fight between Olenna and her all the more satisfying.
Dorne: Jaime & Bronn, the Martells
Trystane and Myrcella have a cute relationship and, it turns out, personalities. The one betrothal on this show that actually seems to have worked out. Which means, of course, they are in the greatest danger of all. Doran Martell and his loyal bodyguard Areo Hotah watch over them, worrying about the deepening of this Lannister/Martell bond. Again.
Jaime & Bronn arrive at the Water Gardens garbed in disguises pulled from their deadly encounter with the Dornish scouts last week. Ellaria dramatically namedrops the title and sends the Sand Snakes to put their plan into motion. The dynamic duo reach the young betrothed, but their genunine affection makes it hard for Jamie to convince her to leave. Before he can, the Sand Snakes set upon them.
As they fight in a poorly-filmed manner, Myrcella is taken by Tyene. Areo Hotah arrives with a contingent of Dornish soldiers to break up the scrap. He arrests them all, the Snakes and Ellaria included. Gotta say, this too was lackluster in the episode. The Sand Snakes are not nearly as cool as they should be and apparently not as smart as they think they are. For a second I was hoping the show zigged to the books zag and flat-out killed Myrcella. But alas, in an episode named after their motto, the Dornish got the short shrift.
MISSING THIS WEEK: We took a break from the Wall and Jon Snow for a bit, Stannis also (don’t worry, previews say next week is heavy on both). Meereen too was a distant memory. Brienne is still waiting for Sansa’s word at Winterfell (speculation pegs her filling the Mance Rayder role now that he is nice and crispy)
Till next Sunday! Game of Thrones 5.7: The Gift will air May 24 at 9pm EST on HBO. The official synopsis:
“Jon prepares for conflict. Sansa tries to talk to Theon. Brienne waits for a sign. Stannis (Stephen Dillane) remains stubborn. Jaime attempts to reconnect with family.”