Game of Thrones: The Gift Review

Worlds collide in this hour of Game of Thrones, and several characters face a long overdue reckoning...

Often with Game of Thrones, there is one scene in any given installment that defines the night—that was certainly the case with last week’s controversial hour—but this time, showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss (who also wrote this particular hour) went for a change of pace. Instead of relying on one major moment to play out the closing moments before the credits, this week’s episode “The Gift” said goodbye to a long-lasting supporting character and had what felt like several pennies dropping all over Westeros and Meereen.

This trick of narrative speed-ramping is important for two reasons. The first is that after a more deliberate pace for the last two or three weeks, Game of Thrones is finally accelerating the pedal (or would that be horse canter?) as we approach the final three adventures of the season. Second of all, and much more directly important, it provided a scattershot of great moments to help buoy the dreadful ones. Aye, because if this really is a “gift,” then the uneven wrapping is the first thing to be noticed.

The troubling aspects of this hour were most immediately visible with how Game of Thrones followed up on last week’s stomach turning cliffhanger. Sansa Stark, one of the most sympathetic characters on the series, and who had finally come into her own last year after seasons of victimhood and abuse, was brutally raped on her wedding night by the son of her brother’s murderer.

In my review for that episode, I could only guess at what the online backlash would be (which was even bigger than imaginable), yet I maintained that it was a legitimate development of that narrative thread. By making Sansa go north and become the Stark trophy wife for the Boltons, she was on a collision course with a Ramsay Bolton wedding night that couldn’t end in any other way. Besides the fact that Jeyne Poole (literary Sansa’s childhood friend in George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire”) suffered the same fate, it more importantly represents the same blunt cynicism that made both the book series and the show so stunning upon their introduction. Just as there is no savior for Ned Stark on the chopping block, nor would there be a hero for Sansa (or Jeyne) on her wedding night. What matters just as much as the horror of this abuse is how Sansa, who is now ostensibly a gameplayer, overcomes that monstrosity and avenges herself in Bolton blood—proving that she is not the victim who was so helpless as a child in Joffrey’s clutches.

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Unfortunately, this hour had none of that. Nor did we see Reek develop the spine he even grew at this point in A Dance with Dragons. Rather, Sansa Stark finds herself locked away in a tower and betrayed—again—by the Man Formerly Known as Theon Greyjoy. After revealing that she has suffered Ramsay’s affections for several nights since last week, her one moment of “strength” is when she commands Reek to remember his Greyjoy heritage and light a candle that can save her.

Reek responds by passing it off to Ramsay, providing the bastard with a good laugh at Sansa’s expense as he reveals that he’s flayed her chamber woman. Also, he’s locking her in her room, so he can get extra rapey in the nights to come.

Now, there are still three hours left to Game of Thrones season five, so I will reserve final judgment on how this plot thread unravels until then, but what the flames are showing me in the current fire are far from good. I wrote last week that this storyline was unavoidable by having Sansa go north to reclaim her home, which she covets as much as being Wardeness of the North. However, I am not bearing witness to gameplaying Sansa; I am seeing the same helpless girl that was forced by Joffrey to stare at the severed heads of her father and septa at the end of season one.

I am well aware of how this story plays out in the book, and exactly what function Jeyne Poole serves in it. But the moment Jeyne became Sansa for the series, certain expectations were added. In “A Song of Ice and Fire,” Jeyne’s torments at the hands of her Bolton bastard husband are in service to Theon’s arc, pushing the readers to believe that there is some sliver of redemption buried underneath all that pathetic tragedy. However, this is no longer Reek/Theon’s story; it is also Sansa’s. And if she is to spend the rest of season five as essentially a princess in a tower to be rescued by Theon or otherwise while she is being raped on a nightly basis, this series is in trouble. Granted, I did see Sansa also steal a knife in this episode while Ramsay was monologuing, and who is to say what the next three weeks hold. But if they are anything like tonight, I fear that all my cheerleading early this season about welcomed book changes might have been grossly premature, and Game of Thrones’ legacy as a series for strong female characters could be squandered to the wind.

Similarly, we were treated to rape as another rote plot point this week when two men of the Night’s Watch attempted to take Gilly against her will until Sam the Slayer intervened. Much like last week, this plot development did not feel unnatural given the circumstances, but as a second consecutive episode where rape was used as a plot device, that growing sense of nausea only expanded. At least this time, it was not carried out, but only because Sam (or really Ghost) appeared.

It was nice seeing Ghost onscreen once more, as well as to see Sam and Gilly consummate their relationship’s unspoken tension, which has burned since season two—even if it completely overshadowed the death of Maester Aemon. But as nice as it is for these two kids, I just wish a different plot point brought them together.

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But what is truly interesting about the Wall is how all of the characters we appreciated on the Night’s Watch are gone, save for Jon, Sam, and the occasional cameo by Dolorous Edd. All that’s left with Aemon’s death is Thorne and wildling-haters, such as Jon’s own squire (the same lad who put an arrow through Ygritte’s heart). That kid even watches Jon with nothing short of hate as he rides for Hardhome. Even if Jon succeeds, he may not find many friends willing to open the gate or lift a sword for him. Plus, we all know how well discord helped Lord Commander Mormont’s reign.

Fortunately, it was not all grim news in the North, as Stannis Baratheon had one of the most quiet but great moments of the season. After forcing Davos to prepare for battle by rejecting the notion that they will wait any more seasons to continue the nigh defunct “War of the Five Kings,” he also gives Melisandre the cold shoulder when she suggests that they should feed his daughter to the flames. Until that very moment, no matter how much audiences liked Stannis, his beguilement for the red witch stood as a huge obstacle for both audience love, as well as his claim to the throne. Consider that he let this woman talk him into murdering his brother in the dark and would have had him slay his bastard nephew if Davos had not intervened. Thus it’s great to see that despite wanting to hold Melisandre’s coal only seconds earlier, there is a limit to her sway.

At this rate, I wouldn’t be surprised if he sends her back to the Wall, which can only be for the best; she clearly has plans for Jon Snow that are not done, and Stannis is always more interesting when she is far off-screen. Hell, we will finally have a battle where we want one side to eviscerate the others by the time Stannis walks (or slushes) on Winterfell…

But lest we get too cozy here, just as one element worked, another scattered to the sand. In what is hands down the most inexplicable scene of the season, eagle-eyed audience members who spotted Bronn’s poisoning last week (including DoG reader JohnB!) were both vindicated and robbed of their sharpness by our return to Dorne. Ignoring the lameness of Jaime’s near “teenagers” shrug with daughter Myrcella, the Dorne detour subsisted of Bronn discovering that he was indeed poisoned by Tyene Sand—and that in his last gasp of life she would taunt him by…undressing for his visual stimulation and then hand him the antidote.

Did the youngest Sand Snake miss the part where she tried to kill him last week or the bit where his interference is why they sit in a cell with ambition thwarted? To be sure, actress Rosabell Laurenti Sellers is undeniably lovely, but did this scene serve any other purpose than audience titillation? If that’s all that matters, there was absolutely no need then for the dippy poison/antidote subplot.

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I’m happy as the next lover of wisecracks and sardonic badassery that Jerome Flynn’s Bronn ain’t going anywhere. And Tyene is not wrong to suggest that real-life former pop star Flynn has a lovely singing voice—I’d even go so far as to say that hearing Bronn finally sing the punch line to “The Dornishman’s Wife” has been the highlight of this whole Dorne misadventure—but it reaches the point where the absurdity of skin-bearing theatrics eventually resembles True Blood. I wrote earlier that I will reserve judgment on the “Winterfell” subplot for season five, which is still categorically riveting television no matter what. However, I think seven episodes is more than enough to call Dorne a complete bust this year.

In fact, “The Gift” was so helter skelter, I considered the almost unthinkable two-thirds through the episode: that the time had come to give an episode of Game of Thrones less than three stars. Fortunately, the two storylines that really carried the hour also concluded so wonderfully that they again delayed such a sentence indefinitely.

The first of these was the long-awaited meeting of Daenerys Targaryen and Tyrion Lannister. It’s a meeting that’s been built up over such a long stretch that book fans read about 1,500 pages of A Dance with Dragons and were still left in the dark as to if the two’s paths shall ever cross. But not on Game of Thrones where the natural progression of each’s narrative finally had major catharsis occur when Daenerys visited the essentially “pre-season” fighting pit training grounds.

Disgusted and halfway out the door at only the first gladiatorial slaughter, Dany could barely stay seated for long enough when Ser Jorah Mormont seized upon a natural opportunity that George R.R. Martin also inexplicably denied the bear knight and readers who covet natural storytelling tension. Knowing his Silver Queen all too well, Jorah breaks protocol in the guise of a countenance-hiding helmet and wins his monarch’s favor by desolating his opponents without taking a single life. Kicking all kinds of ass, Daenerys would have given this “nobody dies” gladiator a thumb up just for being awesome if he had not taken his helm off so soon. Whereas Russell Crowe had an epic pseudo-poem prepared for his unmasking about being a “Father to a murdered son…” all Jorah can squeak out is some variation of “Khaleesi!”

It most certainly would not have been enough to sway her vitriol in that moment—and it still may not be next week!—yet it was more than enough to prepare the stage for Tyrion Lannister’s entrance. Finally, we have the titular gift!

Tyrion may not be something that she wanted, however the last time that a Lannister bent the knee to a Targaryen, they ruled over Westeros together for many prosperous years. Granted, that Targaryen was Mad King Aerys, and the said Lannister was Tywin, who after being dismissed as Hand of the King ultimately led the forces of Casterly Rock into sacking Aerys’ Capitol while his son Jaime stabbed the Mad King in the back. And let’s not even get into what Tywin’s Mountain Who Rides did once he entered the Red Keep.

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Still, there is just as much cooperation as bad blood between the Targaryens and Lannisters’ shared history. So much so that I honestly have no idea how next week will play out, but either direction already creates giddy excitement, and in the meantime, we can enjoy the prospect of finally seeing the franchise faces of Peter Dinklage and Emilia Clarke on the same screen together. East has met west.

And better still was the courtly intrigue in King’s Landing. Aye, this week’s trip to the Capitol could also have been subtitled the unexpected virtue of ignorance too since the fanatic dogma of the High Sparrow turned out to not be all bad. For starters, it allowed two great actors like Jonathan Pryce and Diana Rigg to finally share the same space in a scene wholly invented for this privilege. And how fortunate we were to have the Queen of Thorns square off with the demagogue of Baelor. He even sounded downright democratic (or perhaps socialist?) with his cries for the many’s needs outweighing the aristocratic few. If the Queen of Thorns is not careful, her choice to starve out King’s Landing might lead to beheadings in the streets. Then again, if Loras and Margaery are punished for their “sins,” I’m sure Olenna would be all too fine with Cersei’s head going into the Westerosi equivalent of a guillotine. But first, Olenna will have to get in line.

So it was when the chickens came home to roost for the Queen Mother that walked around all night with an excrement-eating grin. I’m not sure if this show will ever fully recover from losing a villain as richly loathsome as Joffrey, but Cersei reached those glorious levels pretty closely tonight when she visited her daughter-in-law to wallow in her squalor and misery. Only the day before, she had earned herself this victory lap of schadenfreude by promising the perennially weak Tommen that she’d look after his wife’s interests. I hesitate to call Tommen stupid, but if this green boy so glaringly fails to notice that the only pang of true sadness Cersei showed in their meeting was when Tommen professed that he truly loves Margaery, then he is just asking for the headsman. Don’t get me wrong; Tommen is a good kid. But there is no version of this story that ends with him keeping his head or the throne, and it is all but ready to be ripped away from him if he is so blind to how his mother will threaten an entire realm to get back at that pretty young Tyrell thing.

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But Cersei need not worry about destroying the Seven Kingdoms at the moment since she already has more or less destroyed herself. Investing more and more power into the Sparrows has finally led to an unruly flock that is going all Tippi Hedren on her. Tywin once said to his daughter, “I distrust you because you’re not as smart as you think you are.” These are words that could be written on Cersei’s tombstone since she is getting awfully close to filling the plot beside it.

With Lancel Lannister confessing his sins to the High Sparrow, the Church now knows at the very least that Cersei slept with her cousin multiple times after Robert’s death. They might even know about Robert’s true death if Lancel wished to disclose his party to kingslaying…something I think he might just be wise enough to withhold. In any event, Cersei finds herself in a cell next to Margaery…and with charges far more damning than those of her loving “sister.” Only seconds earlier, Cersei all but kissed the moldy air of Margaery’s sorrows, savoring every breath of the younger queen’s despair while bringing her literal leftovers from the Red Keep. Now, they might share the same executioner if things keep heading in this direction.

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How marvelous.

It was a wonderful ending to an episode that is the very definition of hit-or-miss. Yet, in the end, Game of Thrones delivered another addictively fascinating and engrossing hour of television. So, for the time being, it is hard to focus only on the many missteps this episode has made. Still, winter is coming (and looking at the Winterfell sets, it’s essentially here). As Benioff and Weiss stretch farther and farther away from the safety of Martin’s looming literary Wall, they will need to tread very carefully, lest they find themselves standing on wispy, thin ice about to crack. Because at the moment, it’s at least making creaking sounds beneath their feet.

Nevertheless, I could watch Cersei’s imprisonment a thousand times. Now, if only they’d also let Jerome Flynn sing us out of an end credits with a full, appropriate version to “The Dornishman’s Wife” this season…

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3 out of 5