Last night’s episode of Game of Thrones was brutal — and not just because it once again featured intense violence, much of it involving rape. It was also just insanely ruthless, in the sense of tearing through major plot points at a crazy pace. Spoilers ahead!
A huge part of “The Gift” involves three ladies in the North who are threatened with violence.
Up at Castle Black, Jon Snow leaves on his mission to make peace with the Wildlings, in spite of Ser Alliser’s gloomy warnings. And pretty much immediately afterwards, Maester Aemon dies, with his last words being all about his long-dead brother “Egg” (aka King Aegon Targaryen, star of the “Dunk and Egg” novellas.) But Aemon also gasps out a warning that Gillyflower should take her child, Little Sam, south before it’s too late.
As soon as Jon is gone and Aemon is dead, Samwell and Gilly are left alone in Castle Black with no allies, as Ser Alliser delights in reminding them. And soon enough, they see how precarious the position of a lone woman, on her own in a castle full of murderers and rapists, really is. With no functioning authority around them, Gilly appears an easy target.
This sets up a sequence where two Crows try to rape Gilly, and when Samwell intervenes, they beat him savagely. This leads to a moment of awesomeness for Samwell, where he gets up again after being beaten and reminds them that he killed a White Walker and a Thenn. But all Gilly gets to have, in that scenario, is resignation — she basically tells Sam that next time he sees her about to be raped, he should just walk away.
But Sam does get a reward for standing up for Gilly — the two of them have sex for the first time ever. (I worry that if the other Crows know that Samwell is breaking his vows with Gilly and she’s sexually available to one of them, her position will become even more precarious than it already is.)
Meanwhile in Winterfell, we discover that Sansa Stark has been not just raped, but beaten by her new husband, Ramsay Bolton. Her arms are covered with bruises, and she seems traumatized all over again — we’re basically back to the days of Sansa and Joffrey, except worse.
But, in one of the plots that proceeds at lightning speed this time around, Sansa enlists the aid of Theon “Reek” Greyjoy. She reminds him who he really is, and that he betrayed her family, and basically browbeats him into agreeing to light a candle in the broken tower for her — the signal for Brienne of Tarth to come in and rescue her.
I don’t think Theon intends to betray Sansa. He climbs up into the broken tower with the candle, and seems totally intent on lighting it. But when he finds Ramsay up there, his face falls. And soon, Ramsay knows all about Sansa’s escape plot, and has flayed the servant woman who acted as Sansa’s go-between. (Although the woman died without giving up Brienne.) Brienne watches from the snowy land beyond Winterfell, but no candle is ever lit.
[Edited to add: Lots of commenters are saying that it’s actually tricky editing, and Theon never goes to the Broken Tower or intends to help Sansa. It’s just a series of trick cuts to make you think he’s going to the Broken Tower, when he’s actually going to Ramsay’s room. If so, it may have backfired somewhat, since I watched this sequence a few times and was left with the impression that Theon went to the Broken Tower and found Ramsay there.]
At least, Sansa gets in one good moment with Ramsay, where she scores a palpable hit. Ramsay is leaning hard on the idea that he’s going to be the Lord of Winterfell and Warden of the North, with her at his side. (He keeps talking about “we Northerners.”) But Sansa points out that Ramsay’s unborn (potential) brother will have a stronger claim — and even though Ramsay is no longer a bastard by royal decree, the King who issued that decree was also a bastard, King Tommen. Oops.
Ramsay recovers by changing the subject and surprising Sansa with the news that her half-brother Jon Snow is now Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch — but that’s a diversion, not a riposte. Sansa has actually gotten under his skin, and maybe she’s planting the seeds that will lead to Ramsay doing something stupid, like trying to kill his new stepmom.
(Sansa also manages to steal a small building tool or knife, which she can use as a weapon. Maybe when she’s alone with Ramsay. Here’s hoping!)
And in the third brutal Northern plot, Stannis’ army is stuck in the snow, with horses dying and sellswords deserting them. Stannis cannot retreat to Castle Black, as Davos suggests, or he’ll be the King Who Ran, plus he risks being stuck at Castle Black all winter. So he needs to go forward, even if it means rushing toward defeat.
Luckily, Melisandre is pretty certain that Stannis will win this one — they’ve both seen a great battle in the snow in the flames, and she’s also seen visions of standing on the battlements of Winterfell, plus the Boltons’ “flayed man” banners coming down. (It occurs to me those visions could be interpreted a few ways, though.)
But to make victory even more certain, Melisandre needs more power. She tried to have sex with Jon Snow and make another smoke baby, but he turned her down. She can’t make another smoke baby with Stannis, maybe because she’s used up his power. So she needs royal blood — and luckily, Stannis’ daughter Shireen is full of it. Melisandre tells Stannis that sacrificing his daughter’s life is worthwhile, if it ensures that he becomes King before the Long Night begins, and with it the war between the living and the dead.
But Stannis, who’s been willing to contemplate all sorts of horrible acts for Melisandre in the past, isn’t willing to kill his own daughter, whom he moved mountains to cure from grayscale. So he sends her away. (Although what does Stannis think will happen if they lose the battle, and the Boltons get their hands on Shireen?)
Basically, it’s all horrible and grueling and intensely misanthropic. And those of you who were wearing “Winter Is Coming” T-shirts back in 2011, this is what your T-shirts were talking about. As winter arrives, life gets a lot harsher and people grow both more desperate and nastier. You can debate whether the show needs to push these things as far as it does, but it’s definitely a theme in Martin’s books and a key feature of this world with its years-long seasons. Winter is a time when everybody starves and people abandon common decency.
Here’s another storyline that moves at incredible speed — Tyrion and Jorah Mormont, who were only just captured by slavers last week, get sold into slavery. And within minutes, they’re in Meereen, preparing for a starring role in the newly reopened fighting pits.
(This storyline involves a bit of suspension of disbelief — Tyrion “proves” that he’s a great fighter by beating up one of the slave overseers, and thus is allowed to be sold with Jorah. I do not think a slave who beat up an overseer in front of a lot of people would be rewarded, to put it mildly.)
It’s sort of amazing how quickly things move, actually. Tyrion and Jorah barely have any time to experience what it’s like to be a slave (and for Jorah, who was banished from Westeros for selling people into slavery, this could be a poignant moment.) More, they’re sold to the most incompetent slave-owner in Essos, who barely bothers to keep any kind of order among his (heavily armed) fighting slaves.
Meanwhile, Daenerys is sleeping with Daario Naharis, while preparing to marry Hizdahr zo Loraq. And Daario, who was the one who advised her to reopen the fighting pits and make a sort of peace with the traditions of Meereen, now wants her to slaughter all of the former slave masters that she can find, on the first day that the fighting pits reopen. (He also wants Daenerys to marry him instead of Hizdahr, but whatever.) Daario suggests that maybe the terrorist Sons of the Harpy have stopped killing people because Daenerys is marrying their leader — an idea that she seems not to be too worried by.
In fact, Daenerys’ “reopen the fighting pits” initiative is already a disaster, because we see first-hand that slaves are fighting in the pits. And she has slaves paraded before her, and forced to kill each other right in front of her, the very thing she said she didn’t want. So this, on top of executing a former slave who killed a Harpy, is probably going to weaken her position fatally.
As Daario helpfully tells her, a ruler is either a butcher or meat — advice he might not have offered when Ser Barristan was still around to argue with him.
That said, the information that the Sons of the Harpy have stopped killing is something that could have used a beat or two, and perhaps it could have been useful to see some reactions from ex-slaves like Grey Worm and Missandei to her idea of marrying Hizdahr, the ex-master.
In any case, Daenerys and Hizdahr go to see a pre-qualifying round in the fighting pits palooza. And as soon as Jorah hears that the Queen is there in person, he goes nuts and runs out into the arena early, beating up his master and all of the other slaves. He basically wipes the floor with all of the fighters, without killing any of them. And then when Daenerys sees who it is... she says she wants him out of her sight.
But then Jorah’s “gift” to Daenerys presents himself, having been randomly freed by one of the other slaves. Tyrion walks out into the arena and tells Daenerys who he is — and we’re finally going to get to see Daenerys talking to someone with a modicum of sense.
On the one hand, the haste with which Tyrion gets brought to meet Daenerys is sort of whiplash-inducing. On the other hand, this is hopefully going to lead to some brilliant scenes of “let me get this straight” dialogue. (Tyrion’s reactions to Daenerys’ theories of statecraft should prove eminently gif-able.)
The “Dorne” subplot continues to be kind of an odd afterthought, even with the fun of watching Jaime and Bronn team up. This week, Jaime gets an all-too-brief conversation with Myrcella, who’s determined to marry Prince Trystane and doesn’t want to be rescued. She doesn’t understand why she was sent to Dorne against her will, and now that she wants to stay, she has to leave against her will. Jaime doesn’t even get a chance to explain before she storms out.
Meanwhile, Bronn is locked up with the Sand Snakes, and Tyene Sand is enjoying watching him slowly and unwittingly die of the poison from the dagger she nicked him with. But then she decides she likes him, so she flirts with him and gives him a striptease and the antidote to the poison. All he has to do, to save his own life, is tell her that she’s the most beautiful woman in Westeros. (Apparently this was Tyene’s audition scene.)
I need a gif of someone saying, “Well, that de-escalated quickly.” The “Bronn gets poisoned” subplot is over before it begins, even though some poisons can linger for quite a while before they kill you. At the very least, I’m not sure why this peril needed to be introduced, only to be resolved so easily. But at least the episode had its moment of sexytimes.
Lady Olenna is still trying to sort out the terrible situation that her grandkids have gotten themselves into. Both Queen Margaery and her brother Loras are locked up in the dungeons of the High Sept by the Sparrows, a fanatical religious group of radical ascetics. And Olenna is not making any headway in getting them freed, because she jumps to the wrong conclusion about the High Sparrow.
In the episode’s standout scene, Diana Rigg gets to play off Jonathan Pryce, and Lady Olenna realizes too late that her usually infallible bullshit detector has failed. She assumed that the High Sparrow was a charlatan and a fake, putting on a “man of the people” facade to get money or power. But in fact, the High Sparrow believes his own rhetoric, which makes him much more dangerous.
He really believes that everybody is equal in the eyes of the gods, and that the mighty should face the gods’ justice for their sins. And when Lady Olenna tries to play her trump card — that her family controls the supply of food to King’s Landing, and they can starve the entire city if their heirs aren’t returned, the High Sparrow turns this threat on its head. The Tyrells don’t work the soil or do the gardening themselves, he points out — the common people do. The same common people who are being oppressed by the noble families all over Westeros.
And the High Sparrow argues that when the Many stop fearing the Few, things will change. He actually doesn’t finish that sentence, but he doesn’t need to — you can’t rule without the support of the common people (as Daenerys is learning), and his “man of the people” schtick is effective because it is sincere.
Meanwhile, Tommen is freaking out because his beloved wife is imprisoned and there’s nothing he, the King, can do about it. (Actually, there’s an obvious solution: blockade the Great Sept of Baelor, and don’t let anyone in or out until the Tyrells are released.) Cersei offers Tommen the same advice she gave Joffrey back in season one: sometimes there are situations you can’t do anything about, and a strong ruler learns to live with that. She also insists that she loves Tommen and Myrcella, and would do anything to keep them safe. (Even get Tommen’s manipulative wife locked up by religious fanatics.)
But Lady Olenna isn’t done yet — she meets up with Littlefinger, who explains that he did in fact give Cersei the information about Loras’ boyfriend Olyvar. (This makes sense, since Olyvar is Littlefinger’s brothel-keeper and was originally sent to spy on Loras.) Littlefinger insists that he had no choice but to give Cersei what she wanted. But now, especially after his lovely brothel has been trashed, Littlefinger is happy to do the same for Olenna.
In fact, Littlefinger’s gift for Olenna is a tad perplexing. Cersei’s cousin Lancel Lannister, who murdered King Robert at her behest and was sleeping with her for a while, is now one of the Sparrows. And it was heavily foreshadowed early in this season that he fiercely repents the sins that he committed with Cersei, which is one reason he became a Sparrow. So it’s not clear why the High Septon needs Lady Olenna to come and tell him that one of his own Sparrows has damning information about Cersei — couldn’t this already have come up in the Sparrow rap sessions?
(Also, why didn’t Cersei think about Lancel before deciding it was a good idea to turn the Sparrows into an army that rounds up high-born sinners? I’m pretty sure she doesn’t know that Lancel is a Sparrow until much later on, in the books.)
Anyway, Lancel finally dishes the dirt on Cersei, and when she comes back to the Great Sept to gloat over the imprisoned Margaery, she gets a nasty surprise. The High Sparrow gives her a long (and beautiful) speech about stripping away all of the finery and fakery, to reveal the truth of things — just the same way that the Great Sept of Baelor is built around a small, modest place of worship whose maker didn’t even sign their name. And then the High Sparrow has Cersei seized and put into another cell like Margaery’s. The very same accomodations that Cersei had just said were more than sufficient for her rival.
A few weeks ago, I said that season five of Game of Thrones felt very much of a piece with previous seasons, even though the book source material was so drastically different — but I’m starting to revise that opinion. Purely in terms of pacing and structure, the show is starting to feel a little bit more like it’s rushing headlong.
We’ve always had lightning-fast reversals and developments — chart Tyrion’s storyline in season one, and you’ll see an incredible number of events compressed into just ten episodes. (He goes to Winterfell, he goes to the Wall, he gets captured by Catelyn Stark, he’s in a sky cell, he’s saved through trial by combat, he convinces the Hill Tribes to change sides, they fight in a battle, he meets Shae, he becomes Hand of the King. It’s a lot.)
But events like Aemon’s death, Bronn’s near-death experience, Theon deciding to help Sansa, Tyrion being auctioned as a slave, Daenerys announcing she’s marrying Hizdahr, Melisandre suddenly deciding they need to sacrifice Shireen, and a bunch of others feel a bit too rushed over. (And I increasingly think Sansa’s decision to go with Littlefinger, once she realizes they’re going to Winterfell to marry Ramsay, needed a little more time and struggle, in order to have weight.)
Vague book spoilers ahead...
I’m pretty sure I know why this show is in such a tearing hurry. Readers of Martin’s books will know that neither A Feast For Crows nor A Dance With Dragons contains a big battle scene, at all. Two big battles are apparently coming at the start of the next book, The Winds of Winter. But the makers of Game of Thrones apparently didn’t feel they could end this season without some big battle scenes — and that means that the show needs to move quickly enough to get through books four and five, and into the start of book six.
To get the pieces into position for some glorious carnage, we’re having to ramp up some situations (and heighten the stakes) in a bit of a hurry. The alternative might have been a season of the show in which things feel purely like a slow, awful grind and all the characters suffered, without any big payoff. But it’s still starting to feel a little bit careless, by this show’s usual standards.