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Game of Thrones Recap: Season 5, Episode 3 “High Sparrow”

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.

Game of Thrones Recap: Season 5, Episode 2 “The House of Black and White”

So, I wasn’t particularly impressed with this episode. “The House of Black and White” actually felt much more transitional than last week’s episode, and not really in a good way. While there were some things I liked, as there pretty much always are in this show, I kind of felt like the wheels on this episode were just spinning without really moving things along. As a book reader, I was also really disappointed by one of the few scenes so far this season that drew pretty directly from the source material. Finally, I just don’t think this episode was as thematically cohesive as “The Wars to Come.” I suppose it will work in the context of the entire season, but I can’t help feeling a little let down after last week’s promising beginning.

My full recap and analysis is under the cut, and there will be spoilers for the episode and for some book-related discussion.

The episode picks up with Arya Stark, who was absent from the season opener. Her entrance to Braavos feels a little anti-climactic, however. I liked the shot of the Titan of Braavos from Arya’s perspective, but I found myself a little confused about exactly what kind of mood they are trying to convey with the reintroduction of this setting. So far, all we’ve seen of Braavos is a bank and a brothel when Stannis and Davos were here last season, but now we get to see it through Arya’s eyes and the glimpses we’re given of the city are kind of a confused mess. The Titan is a gateway that Arya passes through on her way to a new life, but it also feels ominous and somewhat less than welcoming. The shots of the dockside market could be interesting, but aside from the oddly strung up watermelons (what even is going on with those?) everything is various shades of mud-colored. The sky is visibly overcast, but there still seems to be a bit more sun than we see anywhere else in the world of the show; however, this doesn’t feel cheery or hopeful, and every shot seems to have an undercurrent of gloomy malaise. This is reinforced when we finally see the House of Black and White which, while fairly close to how it’s described in the books, turns out to look bland as hell on screen. It’s tall and imposing, to be sure, and the wide shot of Arya (who is small to begin with) approaching the building gives us a nice sense of scale and offers an idea of the enormous role this place is going to play in Arya’s story this season, but it just seems a bit, well, blah. When Arya is turned away at the door, I wanted to laugh like she did when she learned her aunt Lysa was dead.

The big problem here, though, is that I never for a moment thought that she wasn’t going to get in eventually. I get the feeling that the writers tried to subvert audience expectations by making us wait a little for the payoff, but I think it was just a waste of precious screen time. By all means, don’t let her in right away; make her wait a little in the rain or whatever. By the time Arya is wandering the streets of Braavos killing pigeons, it just starts to feel like a retread of her experiences in King’s Landing back in season one, and, for me, it undermined the sense of Braavos as a unique or different setting. This might have been intentional–maybe we’re supposed to realise that all cities are essentially the same and maybe the pigeon-killing, confrontation with street kids, and fortuitous rescue are supposed to recall season one scenes–but it doesn’t feel insightful or interesting, and it doesn’t do much to actually move the story along. By the end of Arya’s scenes in this episode, we haven’t even gotten to see inside the doors of the House of Black and White, and this is a disappointment.

Back in Westeros, Brienne and Podrick have managed to wander their way to an inn. While Brienne sulks, Podrick looks around the room and sees Sansa Stark sitting with Peter Baelish in a back corner and surrounded by knights. Sending Podrick out to ready the horses (even though they only have one, which he points out only to have Brienne sneer at him like he’s an idiot), Brienne marches back to Baelish’s table to offer her service to Sansa. It’s been a while since the last time I was this embarrassed for a fictional character. Brienne is clearly out of her league here, and Baelish poisons the well for her pretty much as soon as she introduces herself. Interestingly, Sansa seems less swayed by Littlefinger’s mockery of Brienne than she is by her own memories of seeing Brienne bowing before Joffrey at the Purple Wedding. I liked seeing Sansa showing herself very capable of independent thought, but I hate what is being done with Brienne so far this season.

Last episode, Brienne was cruel and dismissive towards Podrick, and this episode she continues to treat him harshly. I truly despise this particular departure from the books, where Brienne was occasionally rough with Podrick but also felt some responsibility towards him. In the books, she teaches him and trains him to fight, but there is none of that in the show’s portrayal of their relationship.

Mostly, though, I hate how foolish Brienne comes off in her interactions with Sansa and Littlefinger here. There’s not much here that makes sense. Obviously, Brienne isn’t exactly one for subtlety, but why would she just walk right over and introduce herself like this? After her encounter with Arya at the end of season four, why wouldn’t she at least suspect that things might not go smoothly with Sansa either? Especially when Sansa doesn’t exactly look like she’s being held against her will. And why would Brienne run? While Sansa and Littlefinger aren’t exactly traveling incognito, I can’t imagine their whereabouts or purpose are common knowledge, so it makes sense that they wouldn’t want to risk Brienne rushing off back to King’s Landing to rat them out to the queen, but Littlefinger is also not wasteful. If he’d wanted to have Brienne killed, I think he would have had it done outright. If he just wanted to keep Brienne where he could keep an eye on her, then it would have been in Brienne’s interest to join him and Sansa, and that would have given her an opportunity to earn Sansa’s trust through loyal service. It might not have been an ideal situation, but it would have at least put Brienne in a position to fulfill her oath to Catelyn. Instead of anything that makes sense, we get a chase scene as Brienne and Podrick flee. There’s an incongruously slap-sticky bit where Podrick’s horse tosses him off into the river, and Brienne kills some guys. Then she expresses a determination to follow Sansa and Littlefinger, who have resumed their journey.

Speaking of Sansa and Littlefinger’s journey, I’m convinced they are headed for Winterfell, which makes me incredibly worried for Sansa. Before Brienne rudely interrupted them, Littlefinger tells Sansa that his marriage proposal has been accepted, and all I can think of is that it’s Sansa’s marriage that he’s talking about and it’s a marriage to Ramsay Bolton. Iwan Rheon (Ramsay), Alfie Allen (Theon), and Sophie Turner (Sansa) have all teased a shocking scene later this season. Rheon and Allen have both hinted that it’s something so awful that Rheon didn’t even want to do it, and Allen recently said that it makes Theon as much of a villain as Ramsay. I’m increasingly certain that the scene they are talking about is Ramsay’s wedding night in A Dance With Dragons, where he has Theon prepare Jeyne Poole as fake!Sansa for the consummation of the marriage. All I can say is that I really, really hope that I’m wrong, because I will absolutely lose my shit if that happens.

In King’s Landing, Cersei and Jaime receive a threat from Dorne, where their daughter Myrcella is betrothed to Trystane Martell. Jaime decides he’s going to Dorne to bring Myrcella back, but he won’t be going alone.

Cut to Bronn walking along a beach with his betrothed, Lollys Stokeworth. Right as Bronn is hatching a plan to off Lollys’s older sister, Jaime shows up to throw a wrench in things. Bronn won’t be marrying Lollys after all. Instead, he’ll be accompanying Jaime “as far south as south goes.”

And, finally, we get our first view of Dorne. Black-clad Ellaria Sand, in a shot that recalls Cersei’s spying on Tommen and Margaery, is watching Myrcella and (presumably) Prince Trystane flirting in the Water Gardens. I love this parallel so much, and making these kinds of visual connections between characters and events is something that Game of Thrones sometimes does remarkably well. Unlike Cersei, however, Ellaria has someone to keep her in check: Oberyn’s brother, Prince Doran Martell. By the end of Ellaria and Doran’s conversation, no one is happy, but it also seems obvious that both Ellaria and Doran have plans. The question that will be answered over the rest of this season will be whose plans work first and best.

I was kind of devastated when I learned that the show wouldn’t be casting Arianne Martell, but the more I think about it the more I think that omitting Arianne and expanding Ellaria’s role is a smart move for the series. Including Dorne already means introducing several new characters–Doran, Trystane, new Myrcella, Areo Hotah, the Sand Snakes–and keeping Ellaria gives us a familiar face in the new setting. It also means making more use of the wonderful Indira Varma, who would have been wasted if she’d disappeared from the narrative on the show the way that Ellaria did in the books. Ellaria’s revenge motivation makes a lot more sense for the show as well, since it looks as if they are cutting most (if not all) of the Dorne-Targaryen marriage/alliance plot that appeared in the books. As fascinating as I found all that to be on the page, I think it would just have ended up being a convoluted mess if they’d tried it on the show. I would have loved to see Arianne on the show, but at this point I’m content to see how things play out with Ellaria filling that role in the story.

In Meereen, Grey Worm and Daario are hunting Sons of the Harpy. They bring him to Daenerys, which triggers… an argument between her counselors. The freed slave, Mossador, argues that they should simply execute the man and continue to root out the Sons of the Harpy. Daario seems to share this opinion. Hizdahr is disingenuous about the whole situation–”I don’t know this, and I’m the head of a great family” is his response when Mossador insists that “everyone knows” the great families pay poor men to do their dirty work. Ser Barristan argues that they should do nothing with the man until he is given a trial. Daenerys paces back and forth, uncertain of how to please everyone. Finally she gives up and dismisses them all, but Barristan stays behind to tell her about her father, the Mad King. When Daenerys insists that the stories of her father are lies told by her enemies, Barristan disabuses her of this notion, warning her of the dangers of ruling too brutally and reminding her of the value of following a rule of law even when it may seem inconvenient. This, finally, convinces her to hold a trial for the captured man.

Elsewhere, Tyrion and Varys are on their way to Meereen via Volantis. Tyrion is really sticking to his liquid diet, and he’s chafing at staying holed up in another “fucking box,” but Varys informs him that Cersei has offered a lordship to the man who brings her Tyrion’s head. We get a singularly ugly moment as Tyrion suggests that Cersei “ought to offer her cunt,” a line that I, personally could have done without, especially since the writers don’t seem to intend that we’re supposed to think badly of Tyrion for this little piece of misogyny. That said, this scene does contain this season’s (so far) funniest joke. When Varys asks Tyrion if they are “really going to spend the entire ride to Volantis talking about the futility of everything,” Tyrion replies, “You’re right, no point.” Very clever, writers.

Back in King’s Landing, Cersei is receiving dwarf heads. Apparently, if Cersei doesn’t want them, Qyburn will take them for use in his “work.” Creepy Qyburn.

And now it’s off to a Small Council meeting. It’s been a while since we’ve had one of these, and I must say they suffer in the absence of Varys and Littlefinger. Cersei seems determined to arrange the council to suit her own ends, without regard for anything that makes sense. Without Tywin to keep her in line, Cersei is already fucking up left, right and center, and here we see her alienate her uncle, Kevan Lannister, who ought to be a powerful ally for herself and Tommen.

Up at the Wall, Shireen Baratheon is teaching Gilly to read. Apparently, Shireen is a much more patient teacher than Sam, and Gilly is making some progress. We get to learn a little more about the greyscale that has left Shireen disfigured, but I can’t tell if this means that it’s going to be important later on in the show or if the writers just included it to explain what was up with Shireen’s face for people who haven’t read the books. This nice scene is interrupted by Shireen’s mother, Selyse, who has come to warn Shireen away from Gilly, who Selyse suggests could be harboring a vendetta against Stannis for his execution of Mance Rayder. As happy as I am to see more of Shireen, and as delightful as Selyse is in all her Lady Macbeth-ian glory, I’m not sure I see where things are going with this pair. Without Val and the “Wildling prince” and with Mance Rayder already dead for real, it seems like there isn’t a whole lot for Selyse to do at the Wall this season. I’m curious to see where things go, though. I’m wondering if Gilly is going to step into some of the role that Val played in A Dance With Dragons, although with Tormund and some Wildlings already at the Wall, I don’t know what that would look like. It could be that we’re still going to get Sam and Gilly’s journey with Maester Aemon to Braavos and Oldtown, but that doesn’t seem entirely likely, either.

Elsewhere at Castle Black, Stannis is not pleased that Jon Snow killed Mance instead of letting him burn to death. Stannis argues that fear is useful in getting people to follow one. Stannis is far more self-assured than most of the other rulers on the show, and he seems convinced that he has found a balance between acting rightly and lawfully and instilling the right amount and right kind of fear in his followers. With Cersei blundering all over the place in King’s Landing and Daenerys floundering after losing control of her dragons, Stannis’s confidence makes him an attractive prospect as a ruler. All he needs, he informs Jon, is the North, and he offers to legitimize Jon as Jon Stark, Lord of Winterfell, in exchange for Jon’s help in retaking the Seven Kingdoms.

I liked this scene, but I think this is one place where, even when sticking fairly close to the source material, the show suffers due to its visual format. While Kit Harington is quite a bit more emotive this season than he has been in the past, I don’t think it’s really possible to convey in this medium what Stannis’s offer means to Jon, who as a boy wanted nothing more than to be a legitimate Stark. Even Jon’s admission to Sam that he intends to refuse Stannis’s offer doesn’t really quite get the point across, although I think it comes as close as it could.

And so commences the election of a new Lord Commander for the Night’s Watch. Janos Slynt speaks for Alliser Thorne, which I don’t think does Thorne any favors. Next up, some dude speaks to nominate the elderly Lord Mallister from the Shadow Tower. As Maester Aemon begins to explain the voting process, Sam stands to put forward Jon’s name as well. It’s pretty obvious that the contest is going to be between Jon and Thorne, and Thorne himself stands up to fear monger about Jon Snow’s ties to the Wildlings. When the votes are tallied, they are tied, and Maester Aemon casts the deciding vote in favor of Jon Snow. Although Jon didn’t seem to want the job when Sam first nominated him, he looks gratified when he wins. Thorne and his faction aren’t happy, though.

Even after watching this scene three times, I still can’t help feeling disappointed with it. In the books, this is Sam Tarly’s crowning achievement and a major sign of his growth as a character, and it’s a pretty big deal as he manipulates the men of the Night’s Watch to support Jon Snow as a compromise candidate. I understand the need to truncate this storyline, but I think it ends up really anti-climactic here. While the show did mention the upcoming election a couple of times before this episode, I don’t think they really managed to convey the enormity of the event and what it means for Jon and for the Night’s Watch. That said, I’m also not sure how they could have done it better. All the backrooms politicking and build-up that we got in the books would have been boring and frustrating in a tv show without the benefit of the close 3rd person point of views in Sam and Jon’s chapters. Also, while this sequence might have been disappointing in comparison to the books, it did a better job of moving along the actually story than most of the other stuff that happened in this episode.

The episode ends back in Meereen, where Mossador has taken it upon himself to kill the imprisoned Son of the Harpy before Daenerys can bring him to trial. This puts her in the position of having to punish a respected community leader instead of simply dealing with a terrorist, and she fucks up bad. After Mossador confesses to murdering the prisoner, Daenerys has him executed in front of the whole city, even as an enormous crowd pleads for her to have mercy. In her desire to look strong, she succeeds not in making her new people fear her but in making them angry as hell.

After a rough day of causing fighting in the streets of her city, Daenerys goes out on the balcony of her pyramid, where she finds Drogon, who is now enormous. Just as she seems to think he has returned to her, though, he flies away again and she’s left alone to ponder the consequences of her enormous fuck-up.

Game of Thrones Recap: Season 5, Episode 1 “The Wars to Come”


So, anyone who read my posts on last year’s Game of Thrones probably knows that I didn’t love season four. By the time that shitshow was over, I wasn’t even certain I was going to watch season five at all. Of course, absence really does sometimes make the heart grow fonder, and there were a few things about season four that I liked, so by the time winter arrived (get it?!) and season five promo season began, I was ready to be interested again. And the season five promos were excellent! By the beginning of March, I was really excited about season five, although still skeptical, especially as I know the show is getting into some real uncharted waters this year.

And now, Game of Thrones is finally back, and “The Wars to Come” did not disappoint. I won’t say I was completely blown away by last night’s episode, but I am thoroughly pleased with it and I’m very much looking forward to the rest of the season if this first episode is any indicator of the quality we can expect. That said, probably my biggest complain about last season was that it was uneven–for every sequence I loved, there was another that I despised, and I felt like they really dropped the ball on a handful of storylines–so we’ll see what happens this year. I’m cautiously optimistic, however.

A full recap and analysis is under the cut. There will be spoilers for last night episode and some book-related stuff.

We open with the show’s first ever flashback scene, and this is probably my only sort-of-complaint about the episode. In the books, GRRM avoids flashbacks entirely, although we do get some characters remembering or talking about events that happened before the beginning of the series. The show, so far, has stuck to this rule, so this is new. The problem is, I don’t know what they are trying to communicate here.

Two girls, one of whom we find out at the end of the scene is young Cersei, are walking through the woods to visit a witch. Young Cersei wants to know her future, and the witch lets her ask three questions, although she warns that Cersei will not like the answers. The prophecy of Maggy the Frog (who is much younger than I envisioned her when I read the books) is pretty much what Cersei was told in the books, although the show omits the reference to the valonqar (”little brother” in High Valyrian). Maggy ends with “gold will be their crowns and gold will be their shrouds,” referring to Cerseis’ three children, and then we are taken to the present-day King’s Landing, where Cersei is on her way to Tywin’s funeral.

Here’s the thing: I don’t think this flashback, at this point in the show, gives us any new information or insight into Cersei or the story. We already know what Cersei is like as a grown woman, so seeing that she was kind of a nightmare as a girl doesn’t really expand our understanding of her character. We already know that she married King Robert Baratheon, and people who have not read the books will probably not know who “the prince” is that Cersei is promised to (Rhaegar Targaryen). Although the “younger, more beautiful” queen bit might help to explain Cersei’s jealousy and hatred of Margaery, it feels redundant since the relationship between these two women has already been shown really effectively in the show, and it fits into classic fantasy and fairy tale traditions where older women are threatened by younger ones (think Snow White et al.). “Gold will be their crowns and gold will be their shrouds” might help explain Cersei’s protectiveness over her children, but I feel if that’s the point of the scene it would have been better placed in an earlier season, probably before Margaery arrived in King’s Landing.

Basically, I think everything we learn in this scene has already been shown, and effectively, in previous seasons of the show. I don’t dislike the scene–Young Cersei is wonderfully awful, and I like witches any way I can get them in stories. I just don’t think it fits here, and I’m not sure it was a wise use of four minutes of show time when there’s so much other material that could have been included instead. The valonqar line from the books is a major part of several reader theories about the future of the series, so it seems like a missed opportunity to leave that out. We also didn’t get to see the death of Cersei’s friend, which was significant in the books because it “proved” Maggy’s prophecies. I just don’t know about this. At this point, I think the only way it works is if this flashback is going to be split up and spread out over several episodes, used as a sort of framing for Cersei’s story over the course of the season. And maybe that’s what will happen; I guess we’ll find out over the next few weeks. So, not really a complaint I guess, but just a thing I’m not completely sold on and am trying to reserve judgment on until I see how it plays out.

In King’s Landing, as I mentioned above, we’ve skipped over the finding of Tywin’s body and we’re going straight into Tywin’s funeral. Cersei arrives and has to walk past Margaery on her way to the Sept, and Margaery gives her a look and a half. Natalie Dormer has the most amazing smug face I’ve ever seen, and it’s pretty clear that Cersei and Margaery won’t be burying the hatchet anytime soon.

In the Sept, Jaime is standing vigil over his father’s body when Cersei walks in. He suggests to Cersei that their enemies are going to try and take away everything Tywin has left for them, but Cersei isn’t here to bond with Jaime. She points out that Jaime murdered Tywin as much as Tyrion did, and although we do get an inkling of her hatred for Tyrion, Cersei manages to come off as the more rational twin in this scene. In A Feast for Crows, GRRM wrote Cersei as increasingly bizarre and insane, but this scene gives me a little hope that maybe the show is going to dial that down a little. Here, she’s furious at Jaime, but her fear of Tyrion seems entirely justified rather than irrationally paranoid, and her rejection of Jaime made me want to cheer.

Apparently Varys shipped Tyrion all the way to Pentos in a [fucking] crate, and Tyrion is not happy about it at all. In fact, Tyrion isn’t very happy about anything right now. Varys wants give an impassioned speech about the value of patriotism and the future of their country, but Tyrion responds by gulping down some wine and promptly vomiting it back up. “The future is shit, just like the past.”

In Meereen, the Unsullied are overseeing the toppling of one of the enormous harpy statues that crown the city’s pyramids. Afterwards, one unfortunate young man named White Rat goes to a brothel for some cuddling, only to be murdered by a mysterious figure in a golden mask. We learn that this group of masked rebels calls themselves the Sons of the Harpy, and Daenerys orders that these men be found and brought to her. Next, Missandei goes to speak with Grey Worm to ask why an Unsullied would be in a brothel to begin with. She doesn’t get the answer she was perhaps hoping for, but it does look like we might be getting more Grey Worm/Missandei romance this year.

At Castle Black, Jon Snow is training the boy who killed Ygritte to fight. Gilly is worried about what might happen to her and her baby if Alliser Thorne is elected Lord Commander, and Sam tries to reassure her. I suspect this means that we’ll be getting to see Sam politicking to get Jon elected instead as in the books, but I’m still curious to see how they handle the other major part of that storyline, where Jon sends Sam, Gilly, and Maester Aemon away from the Wall.

Melisandre comes to fetch Jon to speak with Stannis, and she seems to be taking a creepy interest in Jon as they ride up to the top of the Wall in the lift. Stannis wants Jon to convince Mance Rayder to bend the knee and bring the Wildlings to fight for Stannis’s cause. Jon isn’t confident that Mance will do it, but he agrees to give it a try. He has until nightfall, which isn’t very long at all.

Elsewhere, Sansa and Littlefinger are watching the young Lord Arryn trying to learn to fight. They leave Robin with Lord Royce, who promises only that the boy will be safe.

Nearby, Brienne is in a mood and just wants Podrick to leave her alone. This is a storyline that I’m really unsure about this season, as without Lady Stoneheart I’m not sure what this pair has to do now.

Sansa and Littlefinger, amusingly, drive past in a carriage, not a hundred yards from Brienne and Pod. They have a nice little chat about trust, in which it’s made obvious that Sansa has elevated herself (at least somewhat) from pawn of Littlefinger to partner in (probably) crime. I can’t wait to see where they’re going. Somewhere where “Cersei Lannister can’t even get her hands on [Sansa]” could honestly mean just about anywhere at this point. As long as it’s not Winterfell. I will absolutely lose my shit if Sansa ends up anywhere near Ramsay Bolton.

Still at Tywin’s funeral, Cersei looks ready to murder someone. Probably Loras, who is close at hand and struggles to find the words to express his condolences. This scene is the first one of the season that really surprised me. Lancel and Kevan Lannister are back! Lancel has joined the Sparrows cult, but I think it’s debatable how sincere his conversion is. Cersei treats Lancel with disdain, but his reminders to her of how much he knows about her sins seem like a warning that she would probably be wise to heed. This Lancel isn’t the feckless child we’ve met before. He’s very potentially dangerous, and this might be Cersei’s first huge mistake of the season.

Later, Loras is in bed with Littlefinger’s agent Olyvar when Margaery walks in. She’s not surprised; she’s just hungry and they’re late for dinner with the King. As Olyvar gets up to leave, Margaery watches appreciatively as he walks past her. (Me too, girl.) She suggests that Loras might be more discreet, but Loras rather naively points out that there are no secrets in King’s Landing, at least not about his sexual proclivities. She also reminds him of his engagement to Cersei, to which he responds that he doesn’t think there’s any way Cersei will marry him now that Tywin is dead, which is bad luck for Margaery since it means Cersei won’t be going away with Loras to Highgarden. To this, Margaery simply replies, “Perhaps.” I have a feeling that we’re going to see some changes to Margaery and Cersei’s AFFC storyline, with Margaery being more the aggressor than in the books. I can’t wait to see that “perhaps” play out over the next few weeks.

Back in Pentos, Tyrion is cleaned up but in no better a mood than he was earlier. Varys continues his pitch about patriotism and the responsibility of good men to participate in politics. It looks like these two are going together to Meereen and Daenerys.

Meanwhile, already in Meereen, Daario and Hizdahr have returned successful from their mission to Yunkai. However, Hizdahr brings the request for the reopening of the fighting pits of Meereen, which Daenerys rejects entirely. Later, in bed with Daario (who’s got a lovely ass), Dany gets a story about Daario’s youth as a fighter in the pits himself. He advises her to reopen the pits. He also reminds her of the importance of her dragons, but she admits that she can no longer control the dragons.

Daenerys goes down to the pit where Rhaegal and Viserion are kept, but they aren’t very happy about being imprisoned, and she leaves, frightened. This was a little bit of a sour note for me, to be honest. In the books, while she does struggle to control the dragons and doesn’t know exactly what to do with them, she’s never afraid of them like she is here and while they are angry about being locked away they never attack her. To be fair, they don’t exactly attack her here, either, but that almost makes her fear of them even more inexplicable. Really, though, I don’t like this scene, but I also don’t know a better way to convey the seriousness of the trouble she has with the dragons. It just rubbed me the wrong way to see her so scared by them.

Back at the Wall, a stake is being erected while Jon Snow goes to appeal to Mance Rayder. Mance refuses to kneel to Stannis, although he admits that Stannis seems like an admirable man. Jon tries to reason with Mance, but is unsuccessful. Even the threat of burning alive, while it obviously terrifies Mance, isn’t enough to make him sign his people over to what he considers a foreign war. Jon leaves, disappointed, and Mance is consigned to the fire at the end of the episode. Before Mance starts screaming, however, Jon grabs a bow and shoots him, giving him a more merciful death.

There was a lot of talk leading into the season about a “shocking” death of a character who is still alive in the books, and I suppose this might be it. There’s no evidence that Melisandre switched Mance for Rattleshirt like in the books, and Ciaran Hinds is only credited as a guest star for this episode. I don’t find this very shocking at all, however. It makes a lot of sense, since they didn’t include Dalla, Val, or Mance’s son. It makes sense to simplify something that ends up being a pretty convoluted plot later on. And it makes sense to let the character go this way. It feels like an honest end for the character, and I think it’s a fitting end to this episode.