So, the good news about “High Sparrow” is that we’re finally starting to see some stories really moving along. The bad news is that the show is as hit-or-miss as ever.
My favorite thing about this episode is probably the wide shots of King’s Landing, Moat Cailin, Winterfell, and Volantis. The settings are absolutely stunning, and seeing these places this way really helps to bring the world of the show to life and help to make the viewer feel as if they could be real places. Least favorite thing? Well, I’ll elaborate more under the cut.
Spoilers under the cut for the episode and a bunch of book-related talk.
Trigger Warning: For discussion of sexual exploitation, sexual violence. and torture.
In Braavos, everything is dark and gloomy in the House of Black and White, where Arya has apparently been sweeping the floor for days. She’s impatient to start being a Faceless Man, even though she doesn’t seem to have any idea what that even means. On the one hand, this opening scene is a smart piece of exposition that explains to the viewer what this place is. On the other hand, I felt a little embarrassed for Arya here, as she really just doesn’t quite seem to understand what she’s gotten herself into. Frankly, I’m already finding myself a little bored with Arya’s storyline this season. She’s never been one of my favorite characters, and I’ve always felt like her chapters in Braavos were just a very elaborate way for her to cool her heels while all the interesting stuff in the books is happening elsewhere.
A gorgeous wide shot of King’s Landing and the ringing of bells herald the wedding of Margaery and Tommen. We hear the end of the couple’s vows, and then we cut straight from Margaery’s satisfied smirk to her and Tommen’s post coital chatting, which is awkward and something I was honestly blind-sided by. I know they’ve aged up Tommen for the show, and obviously teenagers are into sex, but damn. Natalie Dormer is my age (early 30s, although she might pass for late 20s), and Dean-Charles Chapman is a very young-looking 17 (although he would have been just 16 during filming). While we don’t actually see Tommen and Margaery do the deed, they totally did, and while the scene seemed to be going for sweetness (and succeeded to some degree), I am having a hard time not being skeeved out by it.
The thing is, people aren’t great at recognizing the sexual abuse and exploitation of teenage girls, but when adult women are having sex with teenage boys not only is it not generally seen as abuse or exploitation, it’s seen as something that should be a positive experience for boys–something they should be proud of or that makes them a man. And that’s exactly what is on display here. We’re shown explicitly that Margaery is exploiting Tommen’s naivete, that she’s manipulating him, that she’s subtly emasculating him to turn him against his own mother. But we also seem to be intended to see the sexual aspect of this manipulation as somehow not harmful to Tommen? And it feels like we’re being primed to really dislike Cersei this season, which makes it feel like we’re supposed to see Margaery’s manipulation as actually being for Tommen’s own good, when–really–I don’t see how Tommen will be any better off wrapped around Margaery’s finger than he would be under Cersei’s thumb. Cersei might not be mother of the year, but there’s never been any doubt of her commitment to protecting her children. Margaery, meanwhile, is on husband number three, and show!Margaery, as a mature woman with a seemingly large amount of agency, is very different from book!Margaery, a teenage girl who hasn’t even merited her own POV chapters so far.
I just don’t think this is okay. It’s not the worst thing this show has ever done, but it’s pretty messed up. We’re supposed to see Tommen as sweet and innocent and tractable, but we’re somehow not supposed to see Margaery’s use of sex to manipulate him as a violation? Oh, well, he’s enthusiastic about it? That’s supposed to make it okay, I guess. Having your youth and inexperience exploited by a woman old enough to be your mother can’t possibly be traumatic when she’s a total babe, apparently. And, see? Tommen’s standing up to his mother a little bit now, so Margaery really is making a man of him. Ugh. It’s just a gross example of a toxic and damaging ideal of masculinity, no matter what kind of veneer of sweetness and humor the show wants to slap on top of it.
And that’s all without even getting into the mess of the poisonous rivalry between Cersei and Margaery that is happening over and around Tommen. GRRM gets a lot of credit for subverting and upending ordinary fantasy tropes in his books, but the Cersei-Margaery competition in the books is a pretty straightforward young queen vs. old queen situation that is rooted in fairy tale traditions of women who conflict over sex and fertility. The show is playing this trope even straighter than GRRM ever did, kicking off this season with young Cersei being warned of a younger, more beautiful queen who will displace her. This is expounded upon in this episode as Cersei and Margaery take turns undermining each other in Tommen’s affections, Margaery hinting that Cersei might be happier away from King’s Landings and Cersei suggesting to Tommen that Margaery may not be as wonderful as she seems. Finally, Cersei goes to see Margaery herself, where she endures veiled insult after veiled insult about her age, her drinking, and her diminished role as Queen Mother. I’m not sure how much more I can handle of Cersei and Margaery trading barbs like this before it becomes completely insufferably silly.
Prophecy notwithstanding, it always seemed to me that Cersei and Margaery in the books would have been better allies than enemies, although the much younger Margaery in the books may not have seemed like a viable friend to Cersei. In the show, however, with both women so much closer in age and stature, it seems even more obvious that they would be a formidable team and even more irrational of both of them to be so constantly at each other’s throats. By playing up their conflict as being a petty one over beauty and sex, the show’s writers are diminishing and trivializing these characters even more than GRRM did and insulting women in general while they’re at it.
This episode gives us our first view of Winterfell this season, introducing it with a lovely–if slightly dour-looking–shot of it from afar. Ramsay has been out collecting taxes and flaying some guys alive, which he’s brought back to Winterfell for display, much to his father’s mild displeasure. The Boltons don’t have enough men to hold the North through might of arms, Roose informs his son, so they need to think smarter about how to maintain their new position in the wake of Tywin Lannister’s death. A good marriage is the key to holding the North, obviously, and Roose has found the perfect girl for Ramsay.
Cut to Sansa and Littlefinger, cresting a hill before Moat Cailin (another lovely scenery shot, although a little too reminiscent for me of Weathertop in The Fellowship of the Rings). It finally dawns on Sansa that they are heading towards Winterfell, which Littlefinger confirms. Suddenly she realizes that the marriage proposal he talked about back at the Vale wasn’t his marriage but hers. In a “twist” straight out of my worst nightmares of what this season could bring for Sansa, she’s meant to marry Ramsay Bolton. Even without knowing about Ramsay’s nastier traits, Sansa has good reasons to refuse this scheme, and she tries, only to be manipulated by Littlefinger into going along with it.
Littlefinger’s speech to Sansa about refusing to be a bystander and taking control of her life and getting revenge might be the most disgusting bit of abusive manipulation we’ve ever seen on screen in this show, and the worst part about it is that I don’t think this is what was intended by the writers. In a very sick and condescending way, I think this is intended to be an empowering moment for Sansa, but it also has the effect of making Sansa herself at least partly responsible for anything that might happen to her after this point. Because she’s now chosen to go to Winterfell, chosen to marry Ramsay Bolton, chosen to endure whatever indignities or abuses she might suffer going forwards. And this is presented as a noble decision, or at least as a brave one. But it’s not. It’s just infuriating, because the truth is that Sansa doesn’t really have a choice, and even if she did, she doesn’t have anywhere near enough information to make an informed decision.
On another hill, not far away, Brienne and Podrick are still tailing Sansa and Littlefinger, but their scene in this episode is not about anything in particular happening. Instead, it’s about learning more of who these characters are–about where they’ve been rather than where they’re going–and I mostly love it. I haven’t been very happy so far with the portrayal of Brienne and Pod’s relationship, but this scene actually rights a lot of the problems I’ve had with them up to this point. I don’t like that Brienne sort of minimizes her treatment of Pod as “always snapping at [him],” but it’s good to see their relationship actually evolving and in a positive way. After weeks and weeks of Brienne being so hard and cold, it’s nice to see that she does have a softer side. Her determination to avenge Renly’s death also gives her storyline a little more purpose, as we are about to find out that she and Stannis are soon to be on a collision course. They’re both on their way to Winterfell.
At the Wall, Jon Snow has to break the news to Stannis that he won’t be accepting Stannis’s offer of Lordship over Winterfell. A pragmatic man, Stannis forbears from criticizing or debating Jon, instead just advising (quite sensibly) that Jon send Alliser Thorne away from Castle Black. After Stannis leaves the room, Davos hangs back to plant the idea in Jon’s mind that maybe guarding the realms of men will mean leaving the Wall, one way or another.
Back at the House of Black and White, Arya is struggling to find her place. To become a Faceless Man, she must become “no one,” and this is sharply at odds with her dreams of revenge for the wrongs she and her family have endured. To get her revenge, she thinks she needs to become Faceless, but to do that she has to give up being the girl who has wanted nothing but revenge for the last three seasons of the show. So Arya gets rid of all her things, except for Needle, which she hides in some rocks down by the sea, and returns to the House of Black and White to begin her training in earnest. Except, actually, this just means washing dead bodies in some dank corner of the temple, which is super boring.
Sansa arrives at Winterfell, where she seems almost overcome with emotion at first, but she manages to put on a smile as she meets Roose and Ramsay Bolton, which reinforces that we are supposed to see Sansa as actively choosing this, even though she is in no way prepared for this shit.
I hate that Fat Walda never gets any lines. I feel like she’s basically a sight gag–”oh, that Roose is so suave and evil-sexy, but look at his tubby wife.” Since the show is going so far away from the books this season, it would be nice if they would give Walda a lot more dignity and a bit more to do. I’d love to see her and Sansa become friends. I want to learn that Fat Walda has hidden depths.
And going back to my earlier complaint about the show’s bullshit treatment of woman on woman conflict, I hate the way this shot pans over to Ramsay’s girlfriend, who is staring daggers at Sansa. I am going to be incredibly angry if the show somehow tries to make Myranda more of a villain than Ramsay is, but that would be pretty par for the course.
I do like that Sansa seems to have at least some allies in Winterfell. The old serving woman who says “The North Remembers” is a tiny little beacon of hope that at least someone is looking out for Sansa’s best interests.
Back at the Wall, Jon Snow is giving his first orders as Lord Commander. As Jon talks about the need for a new latrine pit, Alliser Thorne looks like he’s absolutely certain of what his new job will be, but he needn’t have worried. That appointment goes to a ginger, and Ser Alliser gets to be the new First Ranger. Janos Slynt, however, isn’t happy to be told that he’s getting sent off to work on rebuilding another castle, and he refuses the order and insults the new Lord Commander to his face. Jon ends up chopping off Janos’s head, making it very clear that, while Jon might be young, he doesn’t intend to rule the Night’s Watch gently. While Thorne pointedly refuses to support Janos, moving out of the way of the men who take Janos to the block, I don’t think we can be ready any time soon to celebrate anything like a friendship between Thorne and Snow. Stannis, however, seems to approve of Jon’s firm hand. Overall, I really liked this sequence. It was very true to the books, and it does a good job of both establishing Jon’s authority as Lord Commander and hinting at what his challenges will be in the future.
If anyone thought the boob count so far in this season was disappointingly low, it seems that the show is making up for lost time in the next scene, where the High Septon is engaging in some religious-themed sex play at Littlefinger’s brothel. Just as he’s picking which of the “Seven” he wants to “worship,” however, Lancel and some other Sparrow cult members burst in to ruin his fun. The High Septon gets marched into the streets naked and is beaten as punishment for his sins, as he recounts to Cersei and the Small Council in the next scene. He insists that Cersei simply must do something about these religious whackos, but instead she tosses the High Septon in prison and seizes the opportunity to ingratiate herself to the “High Sparrow.” When she returns to the Red Keep, Cersei pops in to see how Qyburn’s “work” is coming along and to have him send a message to Littlefinger, and as she walks out we see whatever it is that Qyburn’s working on spasm under a sheet on the table behind him. Qyburn is such a wonderfully creepy dude, and he’s quickly becoming one of my favorite minor characters.
Back at Winterfell one more time, Sansa is walking around and Theon is avoiding her. Meanwhile, Littlefinger is trying to get to know Ramsay a little, although I’m a little confused at how someone as generally well-informed as Petyr Baelish could really have heard nothing about Ramsay so far. In the books, literally everyone knows about what a monster Ramsay is, and it doesn’t make sense that Littlefinger hasn’t even heard rumors about it on the show. Roose interrupts Ramsay and Littlefinger to let Baelish know that Roose doesn’t trust him. Baelish is a little upset that Roose is reading his mail, but he assures Bolton that they’re on the same side, at least for now.
I honestly can’t say enough just how much I absolutely hate what the show is doing with Sansa this season. It doesn’t even make sense. In the books, Sansa is still in the Vale, keeping her identity a secret and posing as Alayne Stone. The story she’s now being shoehorned into is actually Theon’s story, and Sansa is being forced into the role of Jeyne Poole, whose rape and torture at the hands of Ramsay Bolton is used as a catalyst for Theon to have a sort of redemption arc.
In spite of all the praise GRRM gets for creating complex, dynamic characters, Ramsay is a character that doesn’t grow or change at all in the books, to the point that he’s almost a caricature of evil who represents every single bad trait that a man in a patriarchal feudal society could have. He’s cruel, misogynistic, selfish, a serial rapist and a torturer of men and women who is only kept (slightly) in check by his powerful father, Roose. In the books, this is useful (although still harrowing to read), as we know Ramsay almost entirely from Theon’s POV chapters, where the point of the story is Theon’s character development (such as it is). It makes sense, in the books, for Ramsay to be a demon and for poor Jeyne Poole to be a damsel in distress, because this is that story that Theon is telling about himself, the story where Theon eventually manages to get his shit together to try and rescue Jeyne from Ramsay’s clutches.
The problem I see with this on the show is that putting Sansa in Jeyne’s place seems like it will basically destroy all the character growth Sansa has had over the last four seasons. Because what Ramsay does to Jeyne in the books is systematic degradation and abuse. Poor Jeyne was just a girl in the books who had been groomed for this by Littlefinger, and she never had any power whatsoever. For Sansa in the show, however, who has grown into a young woman who is brave and clever and manipulative and who has at least some small semblance of agency, putting her through marriage to Ramsay won’t just be degradation and abuse–it will be a systematic disempowerment, presumably ending with her being reduced to the same kind of damsel in distress that Jeyne was in the books, in need of rescue by Theon (or possibly Brienne/Pod, who have still been following her). The only way this could even possibly be salvaged, I think, is if Sansa also fills the role that Wyman Manderly had in the books, weakening the Boltons’ hold on Winterfell from the inside, making them a softer target for Stannis, but even this isn’t really a satisfactory outcome for me.
Even if Sansa were to kill the Boltons and Theon with her bare hands and take the North in her own name, it’s not worth it to me if we have to watch her be raped and tortured. And, sadly, I don’t think that’s what we’re going to see this season. Sansa’s story is already being twisted and subordinated in service of those of Ramsay and Theon, and I fully expect that whatever suffering she endures this season will be to further their character growth rather than her own. The fact that the show’s writers seem determined, most notably by framing this all as Sansa’s choice, to make us think that this is Sansa being a Strong Female Character makes me absolutely sick. Sansa’s story in the Vale isn’t particularly thrilling in the books so far, but GRRM gives her something that Benioff and Weiss have denied her–room and time to grow, without being under constant threat of rape and torture.
The episode ends by visiting Tyrion and Varys, who are arriving at Volantis. We get to see a gorgeous view of the city before we are taken on a short tour of it. They watch a Red Priestess giving a sermon heralding Daenerys as a savior. There’s another mention of greyscale, which (in combination with the exposition about it with Shireen and Gilly last week) makes me think that this illness is going to be important later in the season. Perhaps this will be the plague in Meereen instead of the Pale Mare? In any case, they make themselves to a brothel, where there is a Daenerys look-alike, and Jorah is lurking around in the background. Tyrion tries romancing one of the women, only to find out that he just doesn’t have the heart for banging whores like he used to. When he goes for a piss, Jorah grabs him and tells Tyrion that he’s taking him to “the Queen.”
I actually found this whole brothel scene to be an illustrative example of the way the show pulls its punches when it comes to making its male characters look villainous. The writers almost never shy away from torturing the show’s female characters (all in the name of character development, of course, because obviously women must be abused and raped to grow strong), but they seem loathe to explore the men’s most negative moments.
In the books, Tyrion arrives at a brothel in Selhorys still in a misogynistic rage after killing his father and Shae and ostensibly looking for his lost wife, Tysha. Amid tedious repetitions of “where do whores go?” Tyrion rapes a red-headed whore repeatedly, stumbles out drunk, and is promptly kidnapped by Ser Jorah. Ser Jorah, of course, has been banished by his queen, and he’s made his way to the brothel so he can pay to bang a girl who looks vaguely like Daenerys. He only comes across Tyrion by luck, and if he hadn’t he’d probably still be sad-fucking silver-haired girls all over Essos. In A Dance With Dragons, both of these men are shown as pathetic, but GRRM also isn’t afraid to show them being brutal, even evil. Although GRRM still manages to preserve some sympathy for the characters, I think the reader is meant to see their actions as parts of them as whole men who are capable of some pretty dark shit.
The show, on the other hand, mocks the Dany look-alike whore, having her flounce around in a silly manner and no where near Jorah, who seems awful disinterested in being in a brothel, despite being in a brothel. Tyrion approaches another girl, seemingly attracted to her disdain for the Dany look-alike, but he actually finds himself having an attack of conscience and unable to go through with fucking a girl who is charmed by him (in spite of his being such a sad sack) and clearly willing. Not only does Tyrion not rape this girl, he’s kind to her, and has apparently lost his taste for whores entirely.
Way to go, show. Sansa is all set to spend the next half season of the show probably being raped and tortured by Ramsay Bolton so Theon can redeem himself. And Tyrion straight up strangled his girlfriend to death but gets to be redeemed just three episodes later because he’s nice to one sad whore, even though he’s only nice to her because he wants to fuck her and then nice some more because he can’t get a boner. Excellent job, Benioff and Weiss. Fuck you very much.