Game of Thrones: The Sons of the Harpy Review

Violence boils over in King's Landing and Meereen. At least one of the two makes for riveting television on tonight's Game of Thrones...

This Game of Thrones review contains spoilers…

So, did Ser Barristan Selmy just die? Honestly, I have no idea…but I really, really hope that he didn’t—though not necessarily for the same reason as many others.

To be sure, Selmy is one of the only major likable supporting characters in Daenerys’ inner-circle. And while he may not be as up on the pragmatism as Jorah tended to be, he is refreshingly free of the creepy young girl crush. So losing Selmy’s calming voice (as well as the only other Westerosi one in Meereen) would be a blow to Dany and likely the audience’s entertainment. However, even more troubling is that if he dies, it was the result of a really poorly constructed moment, seemingly contrived to offer the purported “Game of Thrones unexpected death thrill” early in the season.

It’s probably not a spoiler to say that Barristan Selmy does not die in a Harpy attack at this point of A Dance with Dragons. But adaptive infidelity is not the issue for me—indeed I’ve written about how it should be generally welcome. Rather, this was one of the first hastily thrown together scenes that worries me more about the direction of the show as it veers down its own path. Divergence is not a bad thing, but the level of intricate detail involved in plotting any major death from the last four seasons came from the equally elaborate plotting of “A Song of Ice and Fire.” Readers and viewers alike got the sense that it was an earned outcome planned by the writer(s) years in advance. But the scene of Selmy getting slaughtered felt as vainglorious and artificial as a Frank Miller adaptation.

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After a relatively innocuous but amusing story about Rhaegar Targaryen proving again that he is more than the monster Robert Baratheon and the Stark children believed (hint, hint), Selmy is not only sent away by Daenerys while she is holding court with the son of a man she had executed, but he smiles at the prospect of leaving. For a bodyguard who crossed the expanse of the globe to be by Daenerys’ side, the idea that he would gladly prefer walking the streets of a strange and hostile city, as opposed to protecting his queen during a public event, is already a bit incredulous.

But things take a turn for the melodramatic when he happens to be walking along the exact same block that the Sons of the Harpy spring an attack on the Unsullied. I am not against this brazenly open warfare, which admittedly brings some excitement to the slowest location currently in the series (Meereen). But Selmy showing up to have the goofily telegraphed death scene where he saves Grey Worm by slaughtering 10 men before being taken himself? This is not Lord of the Rings, and such a hagiographic “die swinging” ending a la Boromir feels uncomfortably garish when juxtaposed with the tone of the series. Compare this to the slow, two-season long invisible noose slipping around Robb Stark’s neck or the tensely built 50/50 grudge match between the Red Viper and the Mountain, and it seems maudlin in comparison.

So again, I really hope Selmy didn’t die tonight. The character and the show deserve better.

At least the fighting pit subplot between Daenerys and Hizdahr zo Loraq is heating up to entertaining levels as her annoyance and disdain for this man only grows. It’s actually quite a good conflict for the Meereen side of things. But I’m still waiting for an explanation as to how this guy is on her small council again…

However, it was not all negative this evening. Indeed, while Game of Thrones made some narrative mishaps in Meereen, they were nothing compared to the well-executed ones orchestrated by an increasingly flippant Cersei. Tonight, Cersei Lannister deliciously enacted her vengeance on Margaery Tyrell and the rest of that House to scarily shortsighted results.

As a reminder, King Tommen’s government is in heavy debt to the Iron Bank. And thanks to the War of the Five Kings, the only way that the Lannisters can maintain solvency and (hopefully) lending with Braavos’ Iron Bank is by cozying up to the Tyrells. Instead, Cersei lets her pettiness war with Margaery leave the shadows and enter the light of day. A blessedly divine light.

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In addition to sending Margaery’s father away to the Iron Bank with one of her kingsguard stooges to watch (and kill?) him, Cersei makes her move by arming the Sept of Baelor and its new head clergyman, the High Sparrow, with militant capabilities not seen in 200 years. For anyone who has studied medieval history even in passing, supplanting the Church with secular power was a centuries-long quest for the crowns of Europe. In Westeros, it would appear that the Targaryens won that battle generations ago, and Cersei just invited that tension back to her doorstep, all so she can spite mean little Margaery and her smug bitch-face.

So, Cersei leaks to the High Sparrow that Loras Tyrell enjoys the company of other men and quicker than you can say George Boleyn, he is rounded up by the Sparrows along with anything else they deem sinful, including the vices of alcohol and prostitution. Undoubtedly paintings and sculptures are next…

Cersei may sure be showing Margaery up, but assuming that she can even control the newly emboldened High Sparrow, she also is publicly weakening her son’s claim. Poor, poor sweet Tommen. All he wants to do is sail around the world with Margaery in his bed. Cersei has put an end to that honeymoon, but she also made her son look like a limp-wristed fool in front of all of King’s Landing too after he attempted to enter the Great Sept of Baelor (as per Cersei’s advice) and got turned away by the fanatics at the door.

Cersei is smugly happy to purr about shrinking the Small Council to Qyburn, but she is also insulating herself with her son without the strong arm of Kevan Lannister propping them up. And now the High Sparrow looks to be on a higher perch than her son in running things. Meanwhile, not only is winter coming, but so too is Stannis Baratheon. Not smart, Cersei—not that I’d expect anything less.

Speaking of Stannis, things at the Wall progressed by inches when Stannis continued to redeem his good name with a touching moment between himself and Shireen. There is not much to tell about this story other than it was a genuinely beautiful moment of reprieve from the usual grim ugliness in Martin’s world. Brittle Stannis was told by his advisors to banish his daughter to a horrible death with the “Stony Men” (lepers) in the ruins of Old Valyria, and the one true rightful heir refused to let her die. It took them four seasons, but Stannis Baratheon is finally the mercurial badass and enigma that some book fans love—and I at least respect.

But if Stannis is not careful, he might lose Melisandre to the next warm body of king’s blood. Continuing to prove that Melisandre needs at least one nude scene per season, the red priestess attempted to woo the Lord Commander, and honestly if she had not disparaged Ygritte’s memory, she probably would have succeeded. We already know that Lord Commander Snow has a specific type, and Melisandre has definitely been kissed more than once by fire. Aye, when he first protests he has a vow, her eye-roll almost sealed his fate to be an oath breaker forevermore.

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And he still might be since she seems to know more about Ned Stark’s bastard than she is letting on with her creepily familiar parting quip.

…But is he even really Ned Stark’s bastard? After tonight, the clues are being dropped too heavily to not discuss the well-worn R+L theory. Besides Selmy’s singing of Rhaegar Targaryen’s praises, we also get a wonderful scene between Sansa Stark and Littlefinger deep within the crypts of Winterfell.

It’s a touching moment with Sansa finally paying respect to the many, many dead Starks that reside within. While book fans were likely hoping for a confrontation with another face from her childhood down there before Ned Stark’s tomb—which I suspect we will still see this season—for the time being, we’re instead treated to a strangely bittersweet (and disturbingly perverted) moment between Sansa and her latest untrustworthy benefactor.

Creepy stolen kisses in the dark notwithstanding, it’s an important scene because Littlefinger lets slip that he still recalls the time he saw Rhaegar show favor to Lyanna Stark over his Martell wife. Sansa offers the usual condemnation over Rhaegar’s seeming lust for Lyanna, even kidnapping and raping her as Robert always brooded about. But Littlefinger’s face says it all: “Summer child, you know nothing of Targaryen-Stark romance.” Or for that matter, Jon Snow’s probable parentage…

The scene concludes with Littlefinger informing Sansa that he is leaving her to manipulate Ramsay Bolton (but ever a snow) while he attends to Cersei’s summon from King’s Landing. And honestly, I thought this was another weak moment to an otherwise great scene. Last week, I praised the change of Littlefinger taking Sansa to Winterfell and cementing for himself a piece of the North to go with his potentially temporary claim on the Vale. But this action is in direct defiance of Cersei Lannister because:

1)   He is counting on Stannis Baratheon to take the North, which would place him against the Lannisters in the coming second war between the Stag and the Lion.

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2)   Even if the Boltons win, and Baelish cements his claim for power in the North through Sansa and Ramsay’s marriage, he still will reveal himself as a conspirator in Joffrey’s death since Sansa was rushed out of King’s Landing within moments of the murder and is still wanted dead or dead but with torture by Cersei.

3)   He is leaving the fruition of his plan all on Sansa’s shoulders when he admitted last week that Ramsay Bolton is an unknown variable for him.

All in all, having Littlefinger return south to humor and/or manipulate Cersei feels like an uncharacteristic misstep on his part, and again a bit of television contrivance. Now, Sansa must circumvent the Boltons all on her own in a scenario that Littlefinger could not predict since he has no knowledge of Ramsay’s sadism. The mere fact that Ramsay is a question mark should cause Littlefinger to want to stay in the North to engrave his claim one way or the other with the impending Battle for Winterfell. This is doubly true since the moment Cersei finds out where Sansa is—which is inevitable after the Boltons sing their Stark wedding to the skies—Littlefinger’s head will be in danger.

It is another plotting incongruity that rarely occurs in the show and never in the books, but at the very least this one is couched in a great scene, especially as Littlefinger has clearly succeeded at seducing Sansa if not into his bed then definitely into his power hungry worldview. At first, she is horrified about being left alone with the Boltons. But as soon as Littlefinger uses the words “Wardeness of the North,” Sansa is hooked. And I honestly, think along with Cersei versus Margaery, these female-driven storylines are going to be what propels the rest of season five to its most curious and intriguing ends.

But there was one more major storyline tonight that was also female-driven of sorts though to lesser effect. Far to the south Jaime and Bronn make landfall in Dorne.

The actual Jaime and Bronn parts were quite strong. Once again, bringing Bronn back into the fold on Game of Thrones is one of the show’s most astute changes from the books as he offers a great counterbalance to either Lannister brother. And while Jaime is brooding about how much he hates Tyrion, Bronn and the audience know that Jaime doth protest too much. Indeed, Jaime creates a lot of half-truths and self-deceptions that Bronn joyously cuts right through.

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For example, when they are on the beach, Jaime insists that he is not saving Myrcella as some form of redemption for his own lack of honor. “Two knights off to rescue a princess? Sounds like a good song to me,” muses Bronn. Jaime dodges the implication by saying, “Sounds like all the rest.” Sure, Jaime. He did not become a kingsguard—choosing a white cloak above all the gold in Casterly Rock and his father’s title—just for a lark. Jaime craves redemption and honor, and might even have it if he can keep his promise to Cersei while Brienne keeps her own to him and Catelyn Stark. Jaime covets redemptions above all other things, including his sister.

read more: Game of Thrones Season 8 Predictions and Theories

I do not know if he earned it tonight, but that swordfight that concludes with Jaime winning because he accidentally catches a Dornishman’s blade with his golden hand was an applause worthy moment. The only thing that could have made it better is if Bronn remarked, “I’d like to give you a hand.”

Unfortunately, one bit that again felt a bit off was our introduction to the Sand Snakes. After much fanfare in the press, their desert debut seemed very anti-climactic, not least of which because once more the scene felt like it was attempting to squeeze in some shaky exposition. I do not mind that Tyene Sand is now Ellaria’s daughter (she was the daughter of a septa who dared to taste forbidden Red Viper fruit in the books) or that their weapons had been changed. It just felt as flat as any of the Ironborn scenes in previous seasons (or again that dreadful cliffhanger from tonight).

Overall, this is the weakest of the first four hours of Game of Thrones season five, and it features far too many contrivances and lapses in character motivation for my taste. Still, it has a number of great moments when its gaze was focused on Cersei, Margaery, and the Sparrows between them, as well as Sansa or Stannis. So overall, it is still a solid hour of the best show on television. But the thing about being the best is the bar is so much higher than simply “solid.”

Nevertheless, next week’s episode should be very, very interesting as things boil over in King’s Landing and Winterfell. And with any luck, we’ll skip Meereen too.

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read more: Game of Thrones Season 8 – Everything We Know


3 out of 5