Game of Thrones Recap: New Identities

Photo: Helen Sloan/HBO
Game of Thrones
Episode Title
The High Sparrow
Editor’s Rating

There was a great, evocative shot in Sunday night’s episode — written by David Benioff and D. B. Weiss and directed by Mark Mylod — that finds Jon Snow sitting alone in the Castle Black mess hall/meeting room. He’s just demonstrated some masterful HR maneuvering, defusing his rivalry with Alliser Thorne by naming the older man first ranger (though not before teasing that he might be named latrine captain) and cutting down Janos Slynt by putting the bald, angry weasel in charge of crumbling castle Greyguard. Janos (predictably, stupidly, vociferously) refuses, calling Lord Commander Pretty Hair “boy” and telling him to stick his order up his “bastard’s ass.” Dramatic pause. Jon orders him taken to the yard (to which Alliser Thorne is all like, "Sorry, bro") and calls for his sword. As the Night’s Watchmen swirl into action and the music begins to mount, Jon stays behind, just sipping his tea.

Suddenly the mess hall has become a green room, a set-apart space where Jon Snow can prepare for the performance that will truly seal his authority as lord commander. When he finally does stand up, the camera lingers for a second on the dark shadows in the empty room, calling our attention to the space — and identity? — Jon is leaving behind. As Jon moves out into the yard to dispense his terrible justice, it’s as if he’s propelling the whole film machine forward: The pacing of the cuts pick up, the music swells, and the actual shot of the beheading comes fast, with the audience positioned right in front of the swinging blade.

I think we can say Jon passed Ned Stark’s “Are You a Legit Ruler?” beheading test quite successfully — like Robb before him, and unlike Theon three seasons ago or Daenerys last week. Stannis plays the father-figure role here, nodding grimly at the young man’s act — which, for those with long memories, feels doubly appropriate since Janos was one of the men responsible for Ned’s death. (Though of course, as Ned himself shows us, passing the beheading test is not any kind of guarantee that one will pass the Big Test, i.e., staying not-dead.) But the performance also worked on a meta-level, in that its momentum got me more excited about the Jon Snow story line than I have been in a long time.

Lots of big changes for the Stark children in this episode. Just as Jon had to leave his chance at a Stark name — the thing he’s wanted all his life — on the table, Arya and Sansa have to discard essential parts of themselves.

Arya was so pumped to be accepted into the House of Black and White, but all she’s doing now is sweeping floors in the dank, stony Faceless Men frat house. Not-Jaqen reminds her that valar dohaeris, “All men must serve,” isn’t just a password. In this place where people learn to change their faces, they serve the Many-Faced God, which is to say, a divinity that connects the statues Arya names in the temple: the Stranger, the Drowned God, the weirwood face. (All of which starts to tickle the dorm-room philosophy itch quite pleasurably: Is there some Supergod out there, of whom all the other GoT deities are simply avatars? Or are they each a discrete thing that share an essential God-something? Do the many identities of an individual Faceless Man have a common root, or is the original Self truly sublimated in the temple hazing process? Etc., etc., etc.) Not-Jaqen tells Arya that she knows the Many-Faced God’s name, and that he has a “gift” that “all men know” — right before the camera cuts to a dead man to whom Not-Jaqen had just given a bowl of fountain water. If death is “the gift” of the Many-Faced God, well, Arya certainly knows about that — she’s been worshiping that gift for many seasons now.

But before Arya can truly become a novitiate of the Faceless Men, she has to do more than just repeat that she is “no one” and actually cast off the physical trappings of Arya Stark. Against a mournful, beautiful shot of a richly glowing Braavosi waterfront, Arya wraps a stone in her clothes and, after a moment’s pause, tosses the bundle over the pier. Her silver follows. And then, how easy is it to toss the coin that got her here — the little plink feels like nothing. But she can’t quite toss Needle, the sword ties her so strongly to a beloved past: to Syrio Forel, her Braavosi waterdancing teacher, and Jon Snow, her brother. I loved the focus on Maisie Williams as she contemplates the sword; her face softening in and out of determination; the quiet little breath; her thumb gently caressing the hilt. You can see the character waver between childhood and adulthood, like the shifting reflections in the water. Eventually she strikes a compromise and hides Needle in a rock hollow, piling the stones back gently as if building a cairn.

Either the Faceless Men accept this compromise or they don’t notice, because soon Arya is being summoned to help the House Mean Girl wash one of those dead bodies that are always being carried around on stretchers. It’s the gentlest, most loving treatment of a corpse I can remember on the show (it could be an outtake from Call the Midwife), but what does it mean that when Arya asks what happens to the bodies after they wash them, she gets no response?

Meanwhile, up in the North, it’s as if destiny (or Littlefinger) is leading Sansa to take up mantles her siblings have had to drop. Stannis told Jon that by accepting his offer to be named a Stark, he could avenge his family and take back the castle he grew up in. I suspect that by joining the Faceless Men, Arya may have to abandon her personal death list as part of shedding her Stark-ness. But when Littlefinger betroths her to Ramsay Bolton, Sansa has to pull off the difficult trick of forgetting while not-forgetting. It’s her Stark name that brings her within slashing distance of the Boltons, while it’s her Stark blood that makes the prospect of that closeness so horrifying. She has to swallow her thirst for vengeance to slake it later. As Arya and Jon do, Sansa wears a kind of uniform — black cape, black dress, black hair — and it’s as if she takes strength from the private gap between her outside appearance and her inner reality. “The North remembers,” as a castle serving woman says to Sansa as she welcomes her home. 

Littlefinger steels her to the task by reminding her, forcefully, of her name and her parentage. I found his speech thrilling — I loved the way he framed her task as trading her identity as a “bystander” who weeps alone in dark rooms for another, more active self — but it was unnerving the way his body filled the frame when he grabbed her, or how prominent his large, ringed hand was against her face. I so want to see him as a bulwark that Sansa can build her strength against, but we know him well enough to be worried that his looming presence portends something different. After all, what kind of good father figure parlays with the Boltons and trades raven messages with Cersei? Does his love for Cat really extend that far out to the horizon? (Don’t forget, he’s the one who betrayed Ned way back in the day.) At the very least, the scene ends with Sansa alone on the bluffs over Moat Cailin, making her decision, and it’s she who rides off first.

Speaking of Cersei: She’s locking horns in King’s Landing with an increasingly brazen Margaery, who has (temporarily) gained the upper hand by marrying and presumably deflowering young Tommen. There’s a long discussion about Tommen’s age in the Game of Thrones wiki, but the show doesn’t try to hide the uncomfortableness of the pairing, what with its emphasis on Dean-Charles Chapman’s skinny arms and chest against the curve of Natalie Dormer’s hips and the way he asks her if she wants some cake once they’re done. (Cake!) Or, for that matter, the way the little puppy asks if “Queen Margaery” sounds strange to her — forgetting, as neither we nor Margaery have, that this is actually Go-Round No. 3 for her on the Queen Carousel.

Margaery wages the undermining war against Cersei on several psychosexual fronts — hinting to Tommen that he’ll never be a man until he kicks Mother Hen out of the nest; telling Cersei how exhausted her randy little lion-stag has made her before sweetly asking whether court etiquette dictates that she be called Queen Mother, Dowager Queen, or Hey You Old Crone. Is there anything scarier (or better) than Lena Headey’s fake-Cersei smile? It’s like she just pulls the edges of her mouth back and bares those chompers in order to distract you from her dead, cold, eyes. It’s a masterful face performance. But Cersei being Cersei, her face reverts to battle mode as soon as she marches away from Margaery and her twittering court birds, flanked by her armored guards.

The two remaining subplots can be placed somewhere on the Venn diagram of sex and humiliation, too. The High Septon is found to be enjoying a very special kind of worship service in Littlefinger’s brothel. (The Stranger with the braid in front of her face? Haunting my dreams, now and forever.) The sparrows find him and force him, his nakedness, and his mutton chops to parade through the streets. Cersei decides to trade the High Septon for the High Sparrow, a barefoot man in a filthy robe whom she finds serving soup to the dust of life in Flea Bottom. (Is it too much to hope Jonathan Pryce gets a power ballad at some point?) Faith and the crown are the two pillars of the nation, says Cersei, whom I’m pretty sure I’ve never heard say anything about her faith so far. They have to protect each other, she says — leaving us to wonder what sort of tool the High Sparrow might be.

And finally, like a little plot bonbon, we have a lovely — if sad — moment between Brienne and Podrick, two of Game of Thrones’ easiest-to-love characters. I’m guessing Podrick’s real secret with the ladies is that he’s just the sweetheart of the Seven Kingdoms. He gets past Brienne’s armor (pun intended) by convincing her that he really does respect and admire her, despite the potentially ridiculous figure she cuts. Brienne returns the favor by telling him a story from her past — her origin story, as it were — which involves a ball her father threw, a happy young woman, a crushing Carrie-ish realization, and the King’s brother who came to her rescue. I thought the story of Brienne’s youthful humiliation was a little too on-the-nose, personally: We already know everything we need to about Brienne’s complicated relationship with her body and looks through Gwendoline Christie’s fantastically layered physicality — by the powerful, slightly stiff way she carries herself sometimes, or the labored steeliness of her expression. We haven’t exactly missed those references to Brienne the Beauty or the pointed way she insists to people that she’s “not a lady.” But still, it was worth it to spend a minute or two listening to Christie tell the story, in that rich, sweet voice of hers. And if it ended with a somewhat too-pointed reminder that Brienne is not just on a knightly quest but a vengeful one, well, I can live with that.

See you back here next week. Don’t fall asleep with the ham bone.

Not-quite closing thoughts:

  • Sorry to shove you in the bullet-point section, Tyrion, but maybe if you stop making dumb mistakes you’ll move back up where you belong! Tyrion is going slightly Yellow Wallpaper and makes Varys let him out of the box in Volantis, which feels a little like a reused location from Firefly, but is cool-looking and has a teeming, teetering bridge-slum and what I think is the first East Asian face I’ve seen on GoT, which is very exciting to me. Tyrion and Varys traipse off to a brothel, where one very popular girl is dressed as Daenerys (except for the butt-less pants). Tyrion successfully sweet-talks another girl but finds that he can’t even face heading off with her. Whether it’s due to his continued affections for Shae or the effect of months of self-induced alcohol-blood transfusions goes unsaid, but Tyrion goes to piss off a rampart when — surprise! — Jorah Mormont sneaks up behind him, ties him up, and announces that he is taking him “to the queen.”
  • Is it just me, or is Game of Thrones being more pointed about dropping what seem to be explicit moments of foreshadowing? This week’s Chekov’s gun rundown: the camera pan to an angry-looking Myranda, Ramsay’s girlfriend and fellow torture hound, during Sansa’s presentation at Winterfell; the Mountain (I assume it’s the Mountain; maybe it’s a “Pink Elephants on Parade”-style villain made up of not-Tyrion dwarf heads) jolting under Qyburn’s Frankenstein sheet; the Volantis street preacher’s mention of “Stone Men” and Tyrion’s slightly random “good luck getting rid of greyscale, guys!” rejoinder.
  • I love how Cersei thinks so little of Tommen’s intellect that she can be so blatant about the shade she’s flinging at his lady love: “She smiles quite a lot. Do you think she’s intelligent? I can’t quite tell.”
  • Right after Jon names Alliser first ranger, and all the rangers start mumbling, you can actually hear one say, “Strong leadership!” This is still cracking me up.