(Image Source: Awards Circuit)
Another tightly plotted grab for the throne that was as dramatically satisfying as it was hard to watch. Tonight’s episode was full of cringe, with some moments that are vaguely familiar to book readers but involving characters the novels have yet to screw over in such a dastardly way. Climaxing in a tense post-wedding scene, the only tragedy this episode has to offer is that it’s the first wedding in a long while that didn’t end in a bloodbath. These bastards of Bolton really deserve a comeuppance and while they win this round, the only victory in this episode is that these bad guys become even more despised. As the Lannisters die off, GOT is in need of strong villains and the Boltons are taking on that role.
Opening on Arya, we see she has yet to quit her day job washing corpses for the House of Black and White. And she still has her old questions: “what do we do after we wash them?” What brings these people to the temple? Are they all Braavosi? Arya decides to find out, finally going through the mystery door. In the books, the questions behind the Faceless Men seems like less of a big deal, but as the door keeps closing in her face (a la Kay in The Godfather), her curiosity is piqued. Which is, I’m sure, all part of Jaquen’s teaching method. Arya wants to play the game of faces while the House’s other employees play mind games. Her main problem here is her own strong personality. They want her to be no one, but her feistiness gets the better of her.
The Waif finally relates to Arya, opening up about her own past. As the daughter of a lord from Westeros, she lived under the abusive grip of an evil stepmother and sought out the Faceless Men. They took care of her wicked guardian and she repaid the favor by joining their brotherhood. Finally, Arya and the Waif are given common ground on which to relate, until the Waif reveals that this too may be a lie. It’s backstory that’s meant to remind Arya of the familiar aspects of her homeland while reinforcing the need for her to find comfort in the lies.
When a stranger drops a sick loved one off at the House of Black and White, he asks the order to end his love’s suffering. He goes to the first person he sees, Arya, to ask for help. Put on the spot, she is tasked with doing the work of the Many-Faced God, here she comforts the girl for death by making up her own story. It still fits in with Arya’s life, as she states, her father did bring her here; it was his death that ultimately drove her to this place. Having proven herself, Jaquen allows her to see beyond the door. Leading her down a dry, dark stairwell, he takes her into a cavernous room with walls and columns ascending into forever – lined with the faces of the dead. This is where the Faceless Men get their arsenal, and where Arya will be able to learn their ways. As unsettling and macabre as it is, this setting is a great finale for Arya’s arc this episode and sets up for the next step in her journey. This whole moment unfurls easily and we get the sense that Arya is learning from Jaquen by example. No tedious learning scenes with Jaquen as an Edgar Allan Poe-style Yoda, and we still get the sense that she’s on her way to becoming a great assassin. Although, it would be nice to see a rom-com style montage of Jaquen shaking his head “yes” or “no” as Arya tries on different faces before a date.
Tyrion and Jorah are still on their own journey, but they’ve stopped for some restful character development. We see Jorah’s inner demons at play here and he’s haunted by both his festering greyscale and his relationship with his dad. Tyrion lets slip that Jorah’s father, Jeor Mormont, the former Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch was betrayed by his men. Now unable to repent to his father, it solidifies his resolve to return to Daenerys – he needs forgiveness from someone.
The two of them also get poetic on the subject of belief. In a world full of religious fanatics, these two skeptics have each found something to follow. Tyrion’s seen the dragons of his imagination and Jorah’s seen Daenerys survive a burning fire. Arya, too, has become nihilistic from the brutality of her post-Winterfell life. But surrounded by actual magic, the Many-Faced God may become her true religion.
Unfortunately for Tyrion and Jorah, their philosophizing is cut short by the arrival of slavers. Captured, these two are spared worse fates thanks to Tyrion’s quick thinking. Tyrion pimps Mormont’s fighting ability, and sells him as a warrior worthy of Daenerys’ newly reopened fighting pits. He also saves himself by boasting about his own – er – undwarfish needle. These slavers want to barter with it, because a dwarf’s member is said to have magical powers. Since it’s above average the slavers will need to “…wait until [they]find a cock merchant.” I’m sure that job can survive even the worst recession!
Speaking of little fingers, he’s back and his plotting actually starts making sense. Returning to King’s Landing, Littlefinger bargains with Cersei and faces off against Lancel. It’s hard to decide who to root for – Cersei’s a bitter, foolish woman; Lancel’s a fanatical idiot; and Littlefinger’s a selfish prick. My money’s with Littlefinger this round – usually he just seems too omnipotent in his planning and too impotent in his performance, but here it finally seems like his plotting could unfold in a satisfying way. As a character whose loyalties are less obvious and personality is more colorful in the books, his portrayal is pretty disappointing in the show as a dastardly, all-knowing villain. But it’s fun to watch him outsmart the remaining jerks in King’s Landing. As Cersei questions the loyalty of Littlefinger and House Arryn, he reveals he’s found Sansa Stark, makes her think the Bolton/Stark union is the flayers’ idea, and arranges for the Knights of the Vale to go to Winterfell with the support of Lannister force. All of this would end in him becoming Warden of the North. It’s a more complex rendering of the upcoming Battle of Winterfell than what’s presented in the books, it streamlines several events and brings together multiple storylines, and it’s a welcome addition. While it throws Sansa Stark’s fate in the air and makes us question whether Littlefinger actually cares what happens to her, it sets up for a satisfying finish to this season.
In Dorne, which is more of a dead weight when compared to other storylines this season, Prince Trystane flirts with Myrcella as Doran and his guard, Areo, watch from above. They know Myrcella symbolizes everything the Dornish hate and they need to protect her. Jaime and Bronn quickly enter the scene disguised as Dornish guards and rush to save Myrcella. Besides the initial shock of seeing her uncle (dad), she doesn’t seem to want to leave. At this moment, the Sand Snakes arrive in all their over-the-top glory. They prove themselves as strong, sassy fighters subduing Jaime and inflicting a scratch on Bronn. Knowing their taste for poison, things don’t look too good for Bronn, but we’ll see what happens. The shot of his wound is so throwaway, but knowing this show, it will probably play out in the next few episodes.
Before the Sand Snakes can inflict any killing strikes, Areo shows up with his entourage and imprisons both parties. GOT often likes to show us the good and the bad in both sides, but I found myself rooting heavily against the Sand Snakes here. While I pity the fact that many of their loved ones were murdered by Lannisters, they’ve been so one-note and pompous up to this point, I hope they get some sort of putdown.
As far as thorny bedside manners go, nothing beats the Queen of Thorns herself. She’s back with a quick quip about the shit-smell of King’s Landing, and we’re reminded that the Cersei storyline has sorely missed her wit. With Loras imprisoned, Olenna Tyrell meets with Cersei who Ebenezer Scrooges her way through the reunion – writing in what looks like a ledger and giving Olenna the cold shoulder. The Queen of Thorns threatens to remove Tyrell funding from the crown’s bank account but still can’t get Cersei’s attention (“We both know you’re not writing anything”).
At the pre-trial hearing, which involves the heads of Tyrell, Lannister, and Faith Militant clans, Margaery is called to the stand to defend her brother. Stating that Loras has never engaged in sexual acts with another man, her words are used against her when they bring out Cersei’s star witness, Loras’ latest lover. After he incriminates Margaery – she walked in on them getting jiggy before – both Loras and Margaery are doomed to the cells below the Sept of Baelor. With a weak King unable to stop the faithful, Olenna Tryrell looks to be left to her own devices if she’s to free her grandchildren.
In the book, the charges were leveled against Margaery alone, and she was accused of throwing something like a Medieval Times-themed orgy. By adding Loras to the mix and accusing her of perjury instead, it raises the stakes while keeping Margaery’s image intact. This seems like a successful adaptation change.
Back in Winterfell awaiting her wedding, Sansa gets a bath drawn by Myranda. Threatening, Myranda recounts Ramsay’s old relationships and how none seemed to end well. Sansa doesn’t hold back and lays some much needed smack down to put Myranda in her place. Once Myranda leaves, Sansa loses composure. It’s an intimate moment, showing she knows she’s heading into dangerous territory.
Soon after, the wedding happens. Sansa refuses to take Theon’s arm as he escorts her to the godswood. But they eventually take the walk down the aisle and it’s moody and nostalgic. The godswood, once a safe setting from season one, is now a foreboding place populated by enemies. While the wedding party survives, this wedding night is no exception and ends in sickening fashion.
Now, about that final moment:
This is a world of fantasy, but it hews closely to the brutality of the Middle Ages. To pick and choose which type of violence is more acceptable after we’ve been given almost five seasons of explicit death and destruction is disingenuous. Rape is wrong, repugnant, evil, we can write a whole damn book of negative adjectives and it still wouldn’t be enough. But it is still on the table for any character, as is betrayal, torture, murder, etc. Of course we don’t want it to happen to anyone, least of all Sansa, but to spare her of something when she has been placed in this situation, by marriage, and when other characters have not been given the same mercy – it doesn’t fit with the nature of the show. It’s a rough scene to watch, it’s a terrible moment in the show’s history, but it drives the story forward. If she’s strong enough to survive it (she is), it will fuel her resolve. Many victims of sexual assault go on to heal, advocate, and prosper. As a character who’s grown so much over the past several seasons, why shouldn’t we believe that she’ll overcome this horror and become more of a hero because of it.
I’ve also heard complaints over the rape transitioning from Sansa’s point of view to Theon’s “manpain.” Here, this term is used to criticize the director’s choice of focusing on Theon as the sexual assault is occurring, as if his pain is more important than Sansa’s. Obviously, we know this is not the case. While the creative team muddled the moment between with Jaime and Cersei at Joffrey’s funeral, this is different. Through abuse, Theon has been ruined by the Boltons. Now, Sansa is their next subject. Theon has the power to stop Ramsay, and through the usual conventions of popular entertainment (I’m thinking of George McFly punching out Biff while he’s attacking Lorraine in Back to the Future), we’re conditioned to expect the little man to muster all his courage and rescue the damsel in distress. David defeats Goliath. This time, Theon plays up the tension – he’s someone with the power to act, but has lost all will to resist through his years of imprisonment. For a long moment, we wait for him to do something, anything. But instead we cut to black.
More importantly, he acts as the audience surrogate, wincing in pain, watching this wretched thing happen, but unable to do anything. Some people have argued that it’s callous for us to focus on Theon’s face and not Sansa’s – but would that be any better? Do you really want to see that? Personally, I saw more than I needed to see. I got the point. And while the Sansa of the books remains abuse-free in the Eyrie (thankfully), the Sansa of the show has been taken to Winterfell. Her storyline has replaced that of a lesser character’s from the novel. While she may be in dire straights, the tension, the stakes, the motivations, and our hatred of the villains are stronger because of it.
These events are horrible. Thankfully, they’re all made up.
Taking the name from the Dornish words of House Martell, “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken” ironically sees all of our protagonists at the bottom rung of the power ladder. Sansa is a prisoner in Winterfell; Tyrion and Jorah are captured by slavers; Jaime, Bronn, and the Sand Snakes get arrested by Areo and the Dornish guards; and Arya is stuck cleaning bodies for the Braavosi version of the Salvation Army. The most important takeaway is this: these characters may be oppressed, they may be downtrodden, but they will not give up until a sword goes through their heart. It may end on a note of sadistic evil, but if we’ve all been watching the same show, we should be able to infer that these people are survivors and this is definitely not the end of their journey.