This Game of Thrones review contains spoilers.
For the second time in a season, a Game of Thrones wedding went off without a hitch…which might just make this Stark-Bolton union the most depressing one in all of Westerosi history.
Displaying a certain brazenness a year later by continuing to put central characters into sexually violent situations that did not occur on the page, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss ended the sixth hour of Game of Thrones season five on the harrowing image of Sansa Stark and Ramsay Bolton consummating their oaths before the old gods in a stomach churning moment of sadism that has us swearing to all old and new deities alike to smite that smiling little bastard.
Yet, while I can only guess at the scale of the impending blogosphere firestorm that is about to make landfall, I must state that unlike season four’s woefully gratuitous transgressions, this grotesque nightmare serves a purpose, whether as a book change or otherwise.
Indeed, just days after “A Song of Ice and Fire” editor Jane Johnson took to Twitter to lament the changes made on Game of Thrones, this week’s hour mostly—with one glaring exception—stood as a testament to the benefits of the show going its own way since almost every scene organically and satisfyingly built on the complexities of familiar faces, offering some new perspectives on familiar journeys that was quite welcome. This could arguably include the heinous act of Ramsay Bolton perpetrated upon [takes deep breath] Sansa Bolton, but it also occurred in beautifully transcendent moments, such as just about every time Tyrion Lannister and Ser Jorah Mormont were onscreen together.
I don’t know what it is about pairing off old favorites for a weeks-long jaunt, but the secret to making audience members love the series’ darlings even more is to couple them for the most unlikely of road trip companions. For ample proof, I could point to Jaime Lannister and Brienne of Tarth or to Arya Stark and the Hound’s mini-buddy movie through the grassy riverlands. Both of these were strong relationships in the novels, but the latter was arguably expanded upon as the Hound acted as a bit of a mentor to Arya, fanning the nascent flame from grief to a budding psychopathy.
It is in this vein that Tyrion and Jorah journey towards Meereen and the fabled Mother of Dragons. Whereas it’s quite a tight-lipped slog in A Dance with Dragons, where Tyrion spends more time with a young dwarf girl named Penny (don’t ask), in Game of Thrones both characters are richly drawn by their contrasts and surprising similarities in spite of the captor/captive riff yawning between them.
Last week, this unexpected camaraderie manifested in a beautifully wordless moment when they traversed the ruins of Old Valyria together. Despite being the brutish bear of his sigil before that moment, Jorah let down his armor to show just as much awe at this Roman-like lost civilization that was buried under volcanic ash (a la Pompeii). He even shared a moment with Tyrion as a fellow westerner of education that knew of the ancient poems based upon Valyria’s desolation.
Likewise, the contrasting bewilderments both men shared at the sight of Drogon—the first visage of a dragon for one and a reminder of a love lost for another—brought them more together in an instant than they ever were in what seemed like hundreds of pages of shared company in the books.
That continued this week when Tyrion revealed to Jorah that his father, Lord Commander Mormont of the Night’s Watch, was killed by mutineers at Craster’s Keep. As the father-and-son Northerners never featured in a scene together in the entire TV show, it is easy to forget that they are related. In fact, I suspect that Jorah has forced himself to forget a great many things about his youth and homeland before he disgraced himself and fled into exile—which quizzically was not the last time he would know the taste of banishment.
Yet, despite this chasm for the viewers between the unseen past and televised present, Iain Glen is able to bridge the distances in an expressive moment of silence. Jorah is a man of few or any words, and he sure as the Seven Hells is not going to share them with Tyrion Lannister, yet his face articulates the depths of sorrow that have no bottom upon the revelation of the death of a parent…particularly one that died in such an ignominiously violent way. Even Tyrion keeps his mouth shut.
Tyrion rightly prods his escort to Meereen about the pointlessness of following a messiah, dragons or no dragons, and incidentally makes a strong argument against governance by divine right. If Tyrion wasn’t so cynical or drunk all the time, he might even realize that a government by the people should be in order! However, no amount of poking the bear prevents him from building a mutual respect that comes in handy when they meet slavers. Together, they are able to talk their way out of respective slavery and decapitation into, well, still slavery. But now they are being sent to Meereen instead of Volantis. And in Meereen there is the fire-kissed messiah both covet, if only for her to break two more pair of chains.
Similarly, Arya’s very faithfully recreated arc from the novels is provided an uncomfortably visceral new texture when she welcomes a young girl sick with an unknown disease into the arms of the Many Faced God of Death. Arya will never be a Faceless Man. The Man Who Was Jaqen H’ghar knows that—though I wonder the extent since he lets her into the basement while she secretly still keeps Needle (and thus Arya Stark) in a very safe place. But that doesn’t mean she cannot mimic them.
When she pretends to be a young girl who was gifted a new life by tasting of the Faceless Men’s poisonous water, she becomes more than a child assassin; she is also a murderer of innocents. Viewers can rationalize this as euthanasia or in any other way, but everyone’s favorite character just convinced a child to commit suicide via false promises of salvation and resurrection. This isn’t Hit-Girl; it’s something much sadder. To quench her taste for revenge, which will likely never leave, Arya will do anything, including impress the Faceless Men with lies. There are the lies she tells herself—such as insisting far too much that she “hated” the Hound—and then there are those that she tells the Faceless Men with more success, such as that she can be an indiscriminate murderer.
Oh she’ll murder indiscriminately, but only if it takes her one step closer to Walder Frey or Cersei Lannister.
It certainly did tonight as Jaqen revealed to his new protégé the Faceless Men’s grisly secret. They don’t “change” their faces with magic. No, they mask them with the dead flesh of those who have tasted from their waters. It is a viscerally surreal sequence that even takes the hallowed out Arya Stark’s breath away. It also sets her on the next path of her quest, which blessedly did not include any detours of temporary blindness (again, don’t ask!). Rather, it is time for the Girl Who Will Always Remember Her Name to prowl Braavos’ canals. Like a cat.
Yet, not all changes from this week’s episode are winners. In fact, despite all the pre-season hype and build up for Dorne and the Sand Snakes, I’d dare say that this is turning into the series’ worst detour this side of Qarth.
While I liked the concept of having Ellaria Sand lead the Sand Snakes to revenge upon Myrcella Lannister in the series, and I have been at least open to Jaime heading south into Dorne as opposed to his very admirable adventures in the novels’ riverlands, both subplots came to a head tonight. And the inside of that head echoes like a deafening thud.
Perhaps under the limits of time constraints, the Sand Snakes are the biggest anti-climax in Game of Thrones history. Sold as a triumvirate of female badassery, their Dornish pledge before Ellaria even carries the hour’s title, yet they quickly and painfully are dispatched by Prince Doran’s guards after offering Jaime and Bronn a little requisite fighting. Worse still, Jaime and Bronn see a very happy and smitten Myrcella in love with her equally young suitor, and their first instinct is to smack a Dornish prince while revealing themselves and their plan in his presence?
It all comes across as very rushed because that is exactly what it is. Bryan Cogman has written many of Game of Thrones’ greatest episodes, and indeed penned last week’s wonderfully paced hour that somehow even made the Meereen sequences highly entertaining. But being asked to give a satisfying culmination to this five-minute conflict is a herculean task, and one-handed Jaime Lannister—as great as he truly is—cannot carry it all himself.
Fortunately, his sister fared better even as she blunders from one horrible decision as a ruler to the next.
If it wasn’t obvious before, it is abundantly clear by the time that Petyr Baelish comes strolling into King’s Landing just how bad her stewardship has quickly become. Inside of a Capitol-Minute he is brushing off meek Lancel Lannister’s threats (and bemusing rejections of title and fortune) with a smug smile and a hint of blasphemy. But he saves his greatest condescension for the Queen Mother.
As soon as he lays eyes on Cersei Lannister his verdict is clear: “I’ve been gone for 15 minutes and look at what you’ve done to the place!” Hellbent on her desire to humiliate and depose the Tyrell family because everyone thinks Queen Margaery is just so adorable, Cersei has allowed the fanatical Sparrows to take over her city through demagoguery and violence—which we have found George R.R. Martin’s real world inspirations for right here—and worse still she is alienating the best allied House she currently has.
It is a situation fraught with so much needless peril that Littlefinger can barely hide his contempt for a Queen he once described as “those with the most power sometimes have the least grace.” He also fascinatingly reveals that Sansa Stark is in Winterfell, ready to wed Ramsay Bolton. Several weeks ago, I scolded the decision to have Littlefinger return to King’s Landing before he’d seen the events of Winterfell through so that he’d know who he was allying with via Sansa Stark. Now, I realize that Benioff and Weiss were as cunning as the old pervert himself in this regard since this was part of his plan all along. Why play the Baratheons and Boltons off each other when he can throw the Lannisters into the mix too?
Given the all-too trusting command from Cersei to move a much more noticeable and fully stocked Vale army into the North (clearly she forgot what happened to the equally trusting Ned Stark!), Littlefinger will be able to ally himself with whomever wins Winterfell and further legitimize his claim North, whether that is Warden or something else. Perhaps, he plans to marry a soon-to-be widowed Sansa Stark for himself?
I just know one thing: he isn’t siding with Cersei any longer than that meeting lasted. He knows a sinking ship when he sees one, and he won’t kill his own auburn haired darling for a Queen oblivious to the knee-deep water she is currently residing in.
That danger grew only higher this week when she snapped the last thread between the Lannisters and the Tyrells for good and all. When the Queen of Thorns comes to town, you should give her your most undivided attention. The first reason is because Diana Rigg is television royalty and will always be doing something interesting, especially when given mean-spirited zingers to dispense. But further, she is the matriarch of the second richest family in Westeros, and is also the only significant military power standing side-by-side with the Lannisters. Nonetheless, Cersei insults her by not even looking up from her parchment while feigning interest in Loras Tyrell’s fate, suggesting that she thinks he’ll be freed after a cursory hearing before the faithful.
Instead, she finalizes her engineered trap to spring around Margaery Tyrell, bringing her dangerously close to ruin.
Loras Tyrell of course denies that he has ever laid with other men (an act that churches of any fictional or real stripe denounce in their own sense of barbarism). But then, Cersei cannot suppress her smile when Loras’ latest male conquest appears to charge that Loras Tyrell did indeed know him in the biblical sense. In fact, Margaery walked in upon them without ever batting an eye. The High Sparrow seems especially pleased by this last bit of information since he had just allowed Margaery to take the stand and commit perjury when she denied any knowledge to Loras’ sexual predictions.
It’s a disgusting moment when both are hauled off and arrested, which is made all the more stunning as King Tommen is timidly stopped from mounting the faintest protest on his wife’s behalf by simply the firm grasp of his mother’s arm. And with that, it appears that Natalie Dormer will once more play Queen Anne Boleyn’s final days. Aye, the show actually downplays the similarities since in the novel A Feast for Crows, Cersei gets several men to falsely swear that they took Margaery to bed and that they witnessed her also carry out an incestuous relationship with Loras (much like the accusations laid at the historic Anne Boleyn’s feet when English King Henry VIII grew tired of his spirited second wife and the Elizabethan daughter she birthed).
Cersei may have won this momentary battle, but the if the High Sparrow is arresting queens, she is then stupidly creating a check against her own power in a capitol that now does not play by secular rules. Meanwhile, the Tyrells are going to want blood. Increasingly, it appears likely that Tommen will not be king long enough to dispose of his motherly regent.
Still, the biggest stunner of the night comes, again, with Sansa Stark’s marriage to Ramsay Bolton.
The build up to the wintry ceremony is actually quite lovely. Barren and cold, it felt suitably stark (pardon the pun) in the godswood. Everyone can still talk about how winter is coming all they like, but the snows are already falling in Winterfell, and a familiar set from the first two seasons is revived in a picturesque blanket of white. But lest you actually think this looks as appealing as the newly fallen snow, the ceremony is held at night, and the awkwardness between Sansa and Reek, who “gives” her to Ramsay, is a mirror for how we too feel. Sansa also intriguingly returns to her mother’s red hair for the wedding but wears it up, like the Southron girls she learned to despise in King’s Landing. A quiet form of protest, mayhaps?
I have written much already about how Sansa seems to really know how to pick them between Joffrey and Ramsay—making Tyrion look all the more appealing—but this moment also belongs just as much to Alfie Allen. Barely more than mute these days, his character formerly known as Theon speaks volumes in his eyes as he sorrowfully fights with every miniscule remanent of will at giving this girl he knew as a child away to such a wicked man. But alas, he is Reek, which rhymes with weak.
This brings us back to that closing scene where it is again on Reek’s horrified face that we find a glassy reflection of our own impulse to vomit at the nastiness inflicted upon Sansa. For the unsullied who had not read the books, the moment where Ramsay tells Reek to stay should have sent you crawling up the walls. Sadly though, while demonstrably unforgivable, this rape was also nigh inescapable. Any time someone as pure or innocent as Sansa is wedded to such a monster as Ramsay, it seems this is the unavoidable wedding night destination. Viewers tend to reward the show for not shying away from killing off characters who put themselves in unwinnable scenarios. This is a repellant extension of that logic that has made George R.R. Martin’s world both fascinating and nihilistic in its ugliness. There are no heroes or last minute rescues on Game of Thrones, be it for Ned Stark while facing the King’s Justice…or for Sansa Stark alone in Ramsay’s bedroom.
As I’ve mentioned, Sansa was never raped in the novels by Ramsay…but her childhood friend Jeyne Poole was. Jeyne Poole, a character excised from the series, grew up with Sansa as a lesser lord’s daughter and friend, but the Boltons passed her off as Arya Stark when they needed to legitimize their claim to the North. It was Jeyne who Reek reluctantly gave away to Ramsay Bolton (crying inside how she didn’t even look like Arya), and it was she who also suffered Ramsay’s affections, which believe me were even more depraved in the book. Without going into the details (they’re out there if you’re so inclined), he forces at knifepoint Reek to join the festivities.
So, remarkably Game of Thrones reserved some modicum of restraint by not going so far as “A Song of Ice and Fire” did, but the scene is no less horrifying and damnable on Reek’s behalf. Again, I was pained to root, beg, and even verbally shout for Theon Greyjoy to remember his last trace of humanity and to save this girl. And again, he let me down as he cowered in inaction at Ramsay’s bark. However, unlike the time where Cersei was given unwanted brotherly love in the series, Sansa’s tragic wedding likely could not end in any other way. And it’s not over; Sansa took on the part of Ramsay Bolton’s bride to secure power that Littlefinger has taught her to covet and to obtain vengeance that she seeks all on her own.
Her wedding is finished. Her role in this game is just beginning, and my guess is that she too would like to see her husband resemble the emblem of her new sigil. Still, it’s the son of the man who murdered her brother and participated in the murder of her mother. Sansa deserves better, and Ramsay surely deserves a death worse than flaying.
Thus ended this hour of Game of Thrones. On a personal aside, I’d like to thank Ron Hogan for providing a review in my absence last week, as well to all the commenters and tweeters who asked about my vacation. But it appears I arrived just in time for our first taste of bitter winter on the series. At least the snow looked nice?
You can follow this Lord Commander Crow on his watch via Twitter.