Well, that could have been worse. A couple of interesting things happened in this episode, they skipped Arya (which is a nice break from that snoozefest), and a couple of plots moved along nicely, but there was another incident of gratuitous (though not particularly graphic) sexual violence, some truly nonsensical stuff happening in Dorne, and Sansa actually manages to end this episode worse off than she begins it. A mixed bag is still better than last week’s shit sandwich, though.
I expected “The Gift” to start right back at Winterfell, but it doesn’t. Instead, we begin at Castle Black where Jon Snow, a few loyal friends, and Tormund Giantsbane are departing for Hardhome. Alliser Thorne still thinks it’s a terrible idea, and Olly is angrily pouting at Jon the whole time as well.
Sam, at least, is sad to see Jon go, and he sends Jon off with a bag of dragon glass daggers and a hope that they won’t be necessary. Seeing these props in the light of what passes for day up at the Wall, I don’t think I like them. They’re supposed to be obsidian, which is a common material and well-known, but these look like they are made of smoky gray plastic–which I imagine they actually are. It’s a tiny thing, I suppose, but they don’t look real at all, which is distracting.
Meanwhile, Maester Aemon is not doing well. He’s not quite wandering in time, but he’s very weak, and he seems lost in reminisces of his youth. In a moment of clarity and presence, though, he warns Gilly to take her baby south “before it’s too late.”
We do make it to Winterfell early in the episode, at least, but Sansa isn’t doing well. As Theon brings her some food, we see her curled up in bed sobbing. When she stands up, she’s pale, tear-streaked, and covered in bruises. However, she doesn’t seem broken, just desperate as she begs Theon to help her. This is the scene that was teased in the trailer for this episode, and I had some hope that it might mean the writers weren’t going to completely screw Sansa over. However, instead of helping Sansa, Theon goes straight to Ramsay and rats her out. Before we leave Winterfell, we see Brienne of Tarth still watching from outside the keep as the tower stays dark.
While I’m more than a little frustrated with how this is going, there are some things I like about it. It’s nice to see Sansa being a little more forceful, and it’s nice to see them making some use of Sophie Turner’s imposing physique. She’s a strapping girl and can be physically intimidating when she wants to be, although she doesn’t quite match the stature of Gwendoline Christie. For the majority of the show, Sansa has been very passive, and her body language and actions have all backed up that perception of passivity, so I kind of like that we’ve gotten to see her do quite a lot more this season. That said, I’m not sure I trust the intentions of the writers, either, and I have a feeling that they are mistaking the appearance of physical power and strength for agency. When Sansa stops Theon from leaving her room and stands over him to make him listen to her, it feels like the writers and directors are trying to make us feel girl power where, really, there’s a desperate, abused woman with very few options.
Back at Castle Black, Maester Aemon dies what is perhaps the first natural death in the history of the show. I’m not sure exactly what could have been done better here, but I just didn’t have that many feelings about it. The severe truncation of the various Castle Black plots versus what was in the books has, I think, led to a sort of general glossing over of basically everything that is important. I think I just haven’t seen Maester Aemon enough on the show, especially in the last couple of seasons, to really get too broken up over his death. Which is too bad, because Aemon’s death in the books is really, really sad. On the show the sadness is also cut short by Alliser Thorne’s apparent need to menace Sam literally during Aemon’s funeral.
Later, at Winterfell, Ramsay has Sansa come out to walk around the castle with him while he explains all their defenses. You know, as supervillains do when they think the hero is really trapped. Because, obviously, spilling all your plans to your enemies always works out well. A+ job, Ramsay. As they walk, Sansa picks up some kind of sharp pointy thing off a worktable, and then she starts in on the same kind of passive aggressive commentary that she had some success manipulating Joffrey with, and which seems to get under Ramsay’s skin as well. Ramsay does manage to control his anger, although he lets slip that Jon Snow, Sansa’s half-brother, is now Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch–another big failure on Ramsay’s part to keep pertinent info away from the woman he apparently beats and rapes on a nightly basis. It also turns out that the real reason Ramsay wanted Sansa to walk with him is so he can show her the flayed corpse of the nice old lady Sansa met when she first returned to Winterfell.
I really have mixed feelings about the Sansa stuff in this episode. On the one hand, I’m not sure how I feel about the way they are portraying Ramsay’s sustained abuse, and I feel like the writers are really trying to get us to believe that this is all somehow part of Sansa’s plan, which completely disregards how few options the character has actually had so far. On the other hand, I think that Sansa and Ramsay’s interaction in this episode was really compelling, and I thought they did a really nice job of capturing Sansa’s own mixed feelings about her situation as well as showing that even though things are pretty dire for her right now, she’s still an intelligent and resourceful person. That said, I also feel like they’re showing Ramsay to be so stupid that he couldn’t organize a secret trip to the bathroom, much less run a castle during a war, so even if Sansa does somehow triumph here it’s not exactly some great achievement? It’s not that hard to outwit someone who is constantly feeding you all the information you need to outwit them and who is so lax in their supervision of you that you can easily arm yourself with sharp objects that are just laying around in plain sight.
Anyway. I didn’t hate the Winterfell scenes in “The Gift,” but I’m also not completely sold on the way things are going. Like some of the other story lines in the show, I feel like this one is suffering from being dumbed down so much that a not particularly clever dog could see its plot twists coming from a mile away. Still better than last week’s Winterfell scenes, though.
Somewhere between Winterfell and the Wall, Team Stannis is bogged down in snow already. They’re losing dozens of horses every day, there are sick men in the camp, and a group of five hundred mercenaries have deserted in the night. Davos advises that they should turn back to Castle Black and wait out the winter there, but Stannis is determined to press on to Winterfell. After Davos leaves, Stannis turns to Melisandre for reassurance, which she gives. However, she also has a recommendation: sacrifice Shireen in order to ensure their victory in the upcoming battle. This is Stannis’s hard limit, though, at least right now, and he actually sends Melisandre away because he’s that upset by her suggestion.
I liked the scene a lot, but I’m really curious to see where Team Stannis is going. I think it’s actually unlikely that we will see the battle in the snow before next season, as I feel like there’s still a lot of ground to cover in the next three episodes of season five. I also think it’s unlikely that Stannis will actually give in and sacrifice his daughter, as that would make him so monstrous that I’m not sure anyone would want to watch him at all anymore. Stannis’s greatest strength on the show has always been that he’s a sensible man with a pretty strong and steady moral compass, and him sacrificing his daughter would be incredibly out of character. What does seem likely is that Jon Snow will be “killed” at the end of this season as he was at the end of A Dance With Dragons, and some popular fan theories require that Melisandre is there when that happens. My best guess at that the conflict over Shireen is going to break up Stannis and Melisandre and she will go back to the Wall by herself before the end of this season.
Back at Castle Black, again, we get a nice bit of absolutely gratuitous and nonsensical sexual violence, apparently as a reason for Gilly to pity fuck Sam. This is the part of last night’s episode that made me angry when I saw it and angrier the more I think about it. Basically, Gilly is moving some wet blobs of cloth around like she’s an extra in Monty Python and the Holy Grail when a couple of Night’s Watch guys come in and start harassing her, pretty obviously with the intention of raping her. She’s unarmed and alone with them, and when she resists they get physically violent with her. Then Sam comes in and tries to rescue her, but the other two men just beat the shit out of him. He manages to stand up and threaten them again, and then Jon Snow’s dire wolf, Ghost, pops in to scare the rapists away. Later, while Gilly is tending to Sam’s beaten up face, she straddles him and they do it. I pretty much hate everything about this whole bit, because:
- We already know that Gilly is not exactly safe at Castle Black. She’s been sent away once (to Mole’s Town) and just in this episode Maester Aemon warned her to take the baby and go. There’s really no need to reiterate that again.
- We know that Sam’s position is precarious and that he’s not really capable of physically protecting Gilly on his own. Even in this episode, we’ve seen Alliser Thorne threaten Sam, and we’ve also seen the other men of the Watch stare at Sam like they want to kill him (again, in this very episode). This was not new information that we needed to have shown to us.
- While Sam’s refusal to back down from the fight could be considered to show some character growth on his part, this could have been shown in some other way than having Gilly almost raped. Again on this show a woman is subjected to sexual violence in service of a man’s story. Why not just have Sam harassed and attacked on his own and then go to Gilly for treatment afterwards?
- If they really wanted these two characters to have sex, why not just have them driven together by their shared grief for Maester Aemon? This would have been more true to the spirit of how things went down in the books, and it could have been a genuinely sweet and romantic moment that was untainted by the specter of rape that the show’s writers seem to want to keep hanging over their female characters.
Finally, where did Ghost even come from? What is the point of Jon Snow having a wolf at all if the thing only shows up as plot convenience demands? I mean, a huge white wolf looks pretty cool, but the show seems to use Ghost in only the silliest possible ways.
- Oh, and ALSO Sam is like “I don’t know what [those attempted rape guys] would have done.” Really? REALLY. This sort of danger has literally only been talked about ever since the first time Gilly arrived at Castle Black, but okay.
A scene that in the book was about mutual love, shared grief, and healing (especially for Gilly, for whom this is her first consensual sexual experience) becomes something very different on screen, and it’s very disappointing.
On the other side of the world, Jorah and Tyrion are being sold at a slave auction actually in sight of the walls of Meereen. Tyrion manages to get himself bought by the same man who buys Jorah, and they are led off to their new life.
Within Meereen, Daenerys is busy enjoying herself with Daario, who is full of advice. First he suggests that the Sons of the Harpy have only stopped their attacks (apparently that has happened) because Dany is marrying their leader. Then he tells Daenerys that she should marry him instead of Hizdahr, and he seems a little hurt when she says that she has no choice. He insists that everyone has a choice, but she disagrees. His final bit of advice is to round up all of the masters and slaughter them, but she rejects this as well–she’s a queen, not a butcher. “All rulers are either butchers or meat,” Daario replies, and then we’re off to King’s Landing.
Lady Olenna has come to speak with the High Sparrow about Loras and Margaery, and she’s prepared for everything but what she finds. Like Cersei, Olenna can’t quite seem to wrap her head around this man’s honestly and deeply-held beliefs. I’m glad to see the show add this context for Cersei’s actions, to be honest. It’s easy, I think, for people to just think Cersei is stupid or that she’s making amateur mistakes, but I think the truth is that, while Cersei is not always entirely rational, her biggest mistake so far has been one that even the legendary Queen of Thorns makes. Both women are laboring under the assumption that anyone can be bought. As Olenna leaves the Sept, frustrated, she’s stopped by someone carrying a message marked with a mockingbird seal.
At the Red Keep, Tommen is furious that he can’t do more to help Margaery, and Cersei is there to comfort him. Some things, she says, are just entirely outside of their control, and probably this is all just fate. Tommen rages a little more, even threatens to go to war with the Faith, but Cersei talks him down and offers to go talk to the High Sparrow herself. Placated, Tommen finally relaxes, and Cersei gives a lovely speech about how much she loves him and how dedicated she is to doing whatever it takes to protect him and make him happy. I’m not always thrilled with the writing for Cersei, but I like this. This fierce love for her children is perhaps the only truly authentic emotion that Cersei has, and I never doubt Lena Headey’s performances of these scenes.
In Dorne, Jaime meets with Myrcella, who stomps her foot and declares her intention to marry Trystane and stay there forever. She’s been there for years, she reasons, so why the hurry to bring her back to King’s Landing now? I didn’t love Myrcella’s scenes with Trystane last week, but I kind of like the new actress here. Her tossing a “you don’t know me!” at Jaime and flouncing out is so wonderfully full of teenage temper and angst (and, honestly, perfectly sound reasoning on her part), it’s great.
We finally get to hear the end of “The Dornishman’s Wife.” While Jaime is dealing with Myrcella, Bronn is sitting in a prison cell right across from the Sand Snakes. I guess because the show wanted to meet their boob quota or whatever, we get to see Tyene strip down in order to get Bronn to tell her she’s the most beautiful woman in the world, which gets her to give him the antidote to the poison that she cut him with last week. This all gets big eye rolls from Obara and Nym, and I concur. What an anti-climax. All that meaningful lingering on Bronn’s injury in last week’s terribly done fight scene, and Tyene just gives him the antidote because she kind of likes him? Ugh.
Back in King’s Landing, Littlefinger is moping about his destroyed brothel when Lady Olenna shows up for a talk. She’s furious, believing that Baelish sold Loras out to Cersei, which is apparently true. Olenna reminds Littlefinger that his fortunes and those of the Tyrells are deeply intertwined, what with them having killed a king together and all. Littlefinger replies that, though he did have to cooperate with Cersei, he has brought Olenna a gift as well–of the same kind that he gave Cersei.
Returning again to Tyrion and Jorah, the pair are now at a sort of gladiatorial school, still outside Meereen proper. There is going to be a fight staged, the winners of which will have the honor of fighting at the Pit of Daznak in Meereen, in front of Queen Daenerys herself. Unfortunately, Jorah and Tyrion are both being left out of this particular fight–until Daenerys shows up with Hizdahr on a date–because nothing is more romantic than blood sports. Jorah rushes out to fight, soon followed by the rest of the gladiators that are still down in their little dugout thing, but Tyrion is left chained to the stone benches. Jorah wins the melee, and without killing anyone since he knows Dany’s distaste for violence, but Daenerys isn’t happy to see him. Tyrion manages to get himself freed, and introduces himself to Daenerys as Jorah’s gift to her right as she’s about to send Jorah away again.
In some ways, this is the worst sort of plot convenience theater, and the guard inexplicably chopping Tyrion’s chain was downright silly, but this actually worked for me. I think that, partly, I’m just bored with Tyrion and Jorah together, and I hated their stuff last week, so this seems good by comparison. And, partly, I’m just happy to see this story line moving along at this sort of clip. I loved ADWD, personally, but if the show really tried to capture all that stuff, it would run for like ten seasons at least. Between the Tyrion/Jorah show and boring Daario/Dany scenes, it would have been just excruciating if they’d put this meeting off any longer. While it’s not the last scene of the episode, it also works as a nice little cliffhanger and gives us something to look forward to next week.
The show instead ends in King’s Landing, where Cersei arrives at the Sept to gloat at Margaery, who looks absolutely miserable in the dank cell she’s being kept in. As Cersei stands over her, smirking, Margaery gets the excellent and thematically important line:
“Lies come easily to you; everyone knows that. But innocence, decency, concern…you’re not very good at those, I’m afraid.”
I know we haven’t even reached the end of ADWD content for this storyline yet, but I kind of can’t wait to see what happens with these two queens next season. Certainly, neither of them will be killed (although poor Loras may not be so lucky), but with the end of ADWD bringing so many changes, there’s really no telling what these ladies will be up to after this mess clears. In the meantime, Natalie Dormer and Lena Headey really are consistently amazing in their roles, especially in their scenes together, of which this may be the most important to date.
Cersei walks away from Margaery’s cell with an absolute spring in her step, she’s so pleased by how things are going, and she goes next to speak with the High Sparrow.
This scene is honestly magnificent, and I’m really not sure it could have been done any better. Probably my favorite thing about it, aside from Jonathan Pryce’s absolutely chilling performance, is getting to see such a wide range of Lena Headey’s smirks. We see Cersei go from self-satisfied, to bored, to mildly concerned, to completely terrified/angry, and her expression can reasonably be described as a smirk for about 95% of her time on screen. It’s a pretty great end to the episode, and I hope the show can maintain this pace over the next couple weeks.