In the latest episode of Game of Thrones, High Sparrow, Pope Francis comes to Westeros. Jonathan Pryce looks a lot like the Pope, so it’s only fitting that he’d play the pious leader of George R. R. Martin’s fantasy Catholicism. This High Sparrow is a man of the people who feels more at peace with the poor and decries the vices of the Seven Kingdoms. Just as Diana Rigg spices up the kingdom’s table-talk like a Golden Girl doing color commentary on a medieval soft core, Jonathan Pryce is sure to purify this cast of deviants with a selfless performance.
From Cersei’s perspective, he’s the connection to the common man she needs in order to upend Margaery’s hold on popular opinion. The episode goes to great lengths to make Margaery into the most popular girl at school and Cersei into the has-been. As her man-drawn carriage tails Margaery’s on the way to her and Tommen’s wedding, Cersei can’t help but hear King’s Landing’s love of their new and improved queen. When she visits Margaery’s private quarters following their wedding night, Cersei gamely listens to the new Queen’s double entendres about her own son’s escapades – on her exit, we stay on Cersei as the giggling of Margaery’s ladies-in-waiting follows her out the door. Cersei tolerates a lot this episode, and she doesn’t show her hand as quickly as usual. There are no outward threats, just some quick reassurances with that mad scientist Qyburn and some slow-building alliances with the High Sparrow. This time, Margaery does all the manipulating, playing with Tommen, convincing him that what’s best for his mother is happiness, and that her happy place may be Casterly Rock aka AS FAR AWAY AS POSSIBLE. Her sweet words are much more palatable than any dish Cersei can muster. Margaery must be the queen from Cersei’s prophecy, she’s certainly younger and more cunning.
Arya is another cunning young lady, but her storyline is stuck in a house of riddles that have yet to pay off. I know we all want to see her go Kill Bill on the capital already, but she’s still got to finish her training with Jaqen H’ghar and his Yoda School of English. He stays detached; preferring to let her learn her lessons herself (it’s the kind of new age school where she gets graded on feelings). After opening on atmospheric images of stone faces and ancient statues, we find ourselves sweeping with Arya in a sept of the House of Black and White. Lighting-wise it feels like the Stark crypt in Winterfell, which works since there are so many nods to the northern stronghold in this episode. Even as Arya is tasked with giving up her possessions to eventually become a Faceless Man, she can’t leave everything behind. Winterfell haunts her, and while she can drop her clothes to the bottom of a local canal, she can’t fully part with her sword Needle. She hides that under a rock. Although, I’m sure psychic Jaqen H’ghar knows about this one, maybe he’s just letting it slide.
The episode’s use of the Winterfell theme, one of the most mournful and nostalgic pieces of GOT score, remind us of all the characters who’ve been removed from show. No wonder the Lannisters are the richest in the land, they’re the actors with the steadiest paychecks. Anyway, it’s nice to hear the above theme so frequently in this episode, and aside from the Gladiator-esque Lannister theme at Tommen’s wedding, this one northern theme foreshadows Sansa’s next steps pretty nicely.
The other Stark girl is seemingly on the fast-track to success. It’s too bad Sansa gets the rug pulled out from under her. That rug’s replaced by a flayed-skin-blanket, the kind that’s hanging around Winterfell these days. Littlefinger, after meandering around the Eyrie, marrying stir-crazy women and pushing them out of ironic doorways, has finally revealed the next phase of his relationship with Lolita Stark. You know, marry her off to that bastard of Bolton, Ramsay: the only guy who would be banned from Reddit and son of the man who killed her brother and mother and ended the North’s role in the War of the Five Kings. It’s a great twist, and a satisfying reveal for those book-readers not sure of where this Sansa storyline is going. And while Sansa threatens to leave, she eventually puts on her game (OF THRONES) face and gets in on the deed, like any complicated girl who has nowhere to go and really wants an Emmy. Sophie Turner, who’s growing from a pawn to player, shines through her expressions while going from one familiar Winterfell corridor to another, and switching from vulnerable to guarded. The possibilities for her storyline, Theon’s, and the ever-dedicated Brienne and Podrick are what I’m most looking forward to. When Roose questions Littlefinger’s role in this betrothal: “The Lannisters made you one of the great Lords of Westeros. Why gamble with their position?” Littlefinger responds, “every ambitious move is a gamble.” Here, the writers take a big gamble with the Sansa storyline that will almost certainly pay off.
The knight and her bumbling servant, on the other hand, are given a bit of a break this week. As they settle on the road to Winterfell, Podrick and Brienne relax into some backstory – Pod’s humble beginnings as a no-good squire (rather than kill him for his terrible failures on the job, Tywin got wind of his family name and thought a better punishment would be to assign him to the dwarf, Tyrion). Brienne, finding Podrick more worthwhile, flashes back on her own quinceanera in which the only man to take her hulking stature seriously was Renly. Sure, she knew he was gay, but who didn’t! This bit of common knowledge, in which all of the free folk – from your camp followers to your tavern drunks – know who’s bumping who in the Red Keep is a little too on the nose for me. I find it hard to believe that everyone would know every scrap of gossip about all these high-born people, but it gives Brienne more dimension in her relationship with Renly and shows that even the knights of a fantasy Middle Ages can have a progressive streak. The important thing is, he treated her with respect and dignity and she loved him for it. And once she’s done following the shadow of the Stark girls, she’s going avenge Renly, track down the shadow of Stannis, and put it out for good.
Stannis, his eyes also on Winterfell, resolves to get Jon Snow’s support, but Snow is equally stubborn. As much as he’s dreamed of becoming a Stark, he will remain in his newly elected post of Lord Commander at the Wall. Stannis plays like a broken record of “Melisandre’s Greatest Hits.” Enemies are everywhere and Jon Snow has no one to trust. If the Baratheon brothers were a boy band, Stannis would be “the self-righteous one,” but he still seems to care an awful lot about this Jon Snow – even this king has his favorites. He encourages Jon to send his dangerous rival, Alliser Thorne, away. Jon refuses, citing he should keep his enemies close. “Whoever said that must not have had many enemies,” Stannis replies. Davos sticks behind and invokes the Night’s Watch oath, stating that if their duty is to protect the realm, better that they fight with Stannis rather than freeze on top of a wall. Jon stays by his word, and solidifies his icy resolve when Janos Slynt refuses Snow’s order to set up shop at another outpost on the Wall. When Slynt openly insults the Lord Commander, Jon takes him outside, asks for his sword and has Slynt set up for a public beheading. Slynt, always the closet whimperer, breaks his bravado, and cries, admitting he’s afraid – he’s always been afraid. Jon freezes for a moment, but soon twists his face into a mix of anger and resolve – he’s a man of his word, and if justice must be done, it’s got to be done his way. He beheads Janos, and across the courtyard Stannis seemingly nods in approval.
With the drop of a sword, Jon solidifies his hold as Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, and as a High Sparrow leads a path to salvation in the South, Jon is leading the path to survival in the North. Interestingly, when each eldest Stark has been tasked with leadership on this show, they’ve been bound by duty to commit a beheading – Jon and Janos Slynt, Robb and Lord Karstark, and Ned and the deserter from the pilot. These men have followed a code of honor, and with Robb and Ned it has lead to their destruction. Hopefully Jon will be able to find a just path, while keeping his own head.
Tyrion, seemingly the only dwarf in the world who still has a head, finally gets Varys to allow him a walk outside. He’s getting a little too comfortable, and he himself senses it when they get some unwarranted attention on the road to Volantis. Passing by a Red Priestess’ gathering, they hear familiar intonations of nights being dark and full of terrors. For such a rapidly growing religion, you’d think the people of R’hllor would come up with more catchphrases. Here this beautiful, former slave has become a red priestess, like Melisandre before her. For the people that gather round her, at the bottom rung of society, this has to be an attractive speaker – she represents a place of power that maybe they could attain.
Once the group starts to stare at Tyrion and Varys, they move onto the local brothel. There are a lot of sights in this brothel but the employee with the biggest salary is the whore who dresses like the Khaleesi herself. Wearing a similar costume to Daenerys from last season, only with more to reveal, this is another example of the creative team making the world feel smaller than it should. But it’s a fun nod and it brings us to the dragon queen’s old and ostracized friend, Jorah Mormont. It seems like a coincidence, but if you’re on the lookout for Tyrion (or any character on this show for that matter), follow the brothel smell and you’ll know where to find him. As Tyrion pees off the edge of a precipice, Jorah comes up behind him, ties him up – one loop of rope after another, and promises to take him to “the queen.” Now which queen are we talking about is left up to the viewer’s imagination, but I have a good feeling that more worlds are about to converge. Overall, it works as a cliffhanger, a successful moment from the books that serves as just enough of an appetizer to leave us wanting more. Yet, it played out so matter-of-factly on screen, I just wish it came off a bit more forceful. Maybe that’s the way book-readers are forced to react to moments they see coming, but as someone “in the know” it lacked a sense of power or urgency that could have given this ending more of a punch. Again, a fine moment, just disappointing because it could had more.
Overall, this adaptation borrows liberally from George R. R. Martin’s A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons, and does a great job of elevating the source material. My only wish is that it was equally adept at keeping the trivial moments like Arya’s trials in the House of Black and White as interesting as the fates of those in the North of Westeros. Still, the performances are consistent, the direction finds simple ways to drive the parallel stories forward, and the writers continue to balance all of the journeys without overcompensating. This is another setup episode that is most exciting for the liberties it takes with its source material. As an adaptation, it does so with such consistent success that I’ll give it 6 out of 7 kingdoms.
(Image source: Entertainment Weekly)
The big moments don't feel big enough and the lesser moments need to feel more purposeful, but these are minor complaints. High Sparrow is another strong episode for the season, and feels more eventful than the previous two.