If last week’s episode featured plenty of exciting new beginnings — Jon Snow becoming Lord Commander, Arya commencing her training, Sansa taking up her avenger mantle, a marriage and queenly power shift in King’s Landing — tonight’s episode, written by Dave Hill and directed, like last week, by Mark Mylod, showed characters scheming to recapture things that they’ve lost.
Jorah has kidnapped Tyrion as a peace offering to Daenerys, in the hopes that he can regain some measure of trust (and affection) — watch the way he grips the boat’s tiller, as if it’s a compass or talisman that will lead him home. Jaime tells Bronn that the mission to bring back Myrcella has to be accomplished by the two of them, and not an army, because he doesn’t want to start a war — but it’s also clear that he’s seeking a way back into Cersei’s good graces, which means he must complete the task with his own two hands (or his one hand and his one sword-stopping gold claw). Sansa finds herself back in the crypts below Winterfell, visiting her ancestors and contemplating what it might mean to retake her birthright as Wardeness of the North.
To reclaim her position as Westeros High’s Head Heather, Cersei revives the centuries-old order known as the Faith Militant. She’s already dispatched with one of Margaery’s family members, the bumbling paterfamilias Mace Tyrell, by packing him off to Braavos to negotiate new terms with the Iron Bank. Mace is tickled by this important mission (you can practically see his moustache stand up a little straighter at the thought of it), but when Cersei calls in the despicable Ser Meryn Trant to be his personal bodyguard, you know that this trip is not likely to end well for the new Master of Coin.
Cersei’s endgame with the Faith Militant is harder to suss out, but it seems to be a rather elaborate ploy to take down another of Margaery’s family members: her brother, Loras. Cersei brings the High Sparrow to the castle and expresses concern about all the violence being done to holy places and people across Westeros. (This is the first I can remember hearing about this — anyone else?) The High Sparrow’s fervor may come wrapped in humble folksiness — he doesn’t even like the taste of wine, aw shucks — but, like Mace, you can see him glow a bit when Cersei confers a measure of worldly prestige on him, naming him the representative of the Seven on Earth. She tells him her son is sure to authorize the reinstatement of the holy army, then offers to tell him of “a great sinner in our very midst” as the soundtrack revs up an insistent drumbeat.
Despite the hints that the High Sparrow may not be as humble as he seems, it’s hard to square the gentleness we’ve seen from him with the violence that erupts, seemingly instantaneously, in King’s Landing. The episode moves almost like a horror movie, intercutting scenes of market stalls being smashed, prostitutes being roughed up, and booze running down the streets like blood with shots of a man biting down on a cloth as a brand is carved into his forehead. It’s Lancel, being marked with the seven-pointed star that is the symbol of the Seven gods. Lancel’s inherent blankness is used to chilling effect here as he sits up from the surgery reeling, dead-eyed, like a holy Frankenstein. Earlier in the scene, we saw a pair of men get singled out in Littlefinger’s brothel for being “buggering filth”; when Lancel finds Loras, at the end of this disturbing sequence, he charges him with breaking the laws of gods and men. Joffrey once told Margaery that he thought homosexuality should be punishable by death, but it took his mother to actually set laws to that effect in motion.
Cersei may be a master plotter, but one wonders whether she’s really thought through what happens to the rest of your face when you cut off your nose. She may delight in the way Loras’s capture has knocked Margaery off her canary’s perch, but to get there she’s unleashed a dangerous force whose goals likely won’t align with hers forever. And if she truly cares for Tommen, she’s doing a terrible job of protecting him. By siccing the Faith Militant on Loras, she can semi-legitimately claim it wasn’t her that threw him in jail. But by telling Tommen to parlay with the High Sparrow himself, she’s not only setting her boy up for failure, she’s sending him into danger: When he climbs out of his litter (a symbol of his coddled, childlike status) and is barred from the sept by angry sparrows, the crowd yells out that he is a “bastard” and an “abomination.” Cersei’s love for her children has been one of the sturdiest through lines in a character who can waver between having a coherent, internal emotional logic and being a cipher who flaps about in the wind and reacts in cartoonishly villainous ways. So it’s hard to tell whether this lack of foresight, or compassion for her own son, is part of a character arc — a sign of Cersei becoming ever more unhinged and desperate — or simply a convenient way of moving the King’s Landing plot forward.
Margaery, meanwhile, responds to the situation by closing ranks, telling Tommen that she needs to be with her family now — pointedly alerting him to the fact that, despite her sweet talk and their new marital status, she doesn’t consider him family, and therefore, not likely to be worthy of protection if and when Lady Olenna (who’s already taken down one Baratheon boy) scenery-chews her way back into the picture.
Tommen’s sister is also in danger, and, as with her brother, her parents are mostly to blame. Tonight’s episode introduces us, briefly, to the three eldest Sand Snakes, the bastard daughters of Oberyn Martell. The scene opens with a gorgeous shot of a black-robed woman, her face shrouded, riding a horse through the surf. It’s Ellaria Sand, who has come to ask the Snakes whether they will choose her war or Prince Doran’s peace. The nature of that war is unclear as of yet, but it involves some danger against Myrcella, whom Ellaria claims will be their bargaining chip against the Lannisters due to Cersei’s love for her (though on that, see above). When Ellaria learns that Jaime is in Dorne — thanks to the ship captain who brought him and who’s currently buried in the sand and covered in scorpions (because #YOLO) — it only heightens her urgency, putting Myrcella more firmly in her crosshairs.
We’ve met plenty of warrior women in Game of Thrones, from Brienne to Yara Greyjoy, but this is the first time we’ve met a whole clan of them, and it’s a pretty exciting prospect. I love the way the four of them look as a quartet, with Indira Varma’s Ellaria so tall and lithe in her sleeved black gown, like a greyhound; the clingy yellow silk on Nymeria and Tyene (Jessica Henwick and Rosabell Laurenti Sanders), revealing flesh and curves; the way Keisha Castle-Hughes’s Obara — the eldest Sand Snake — carries herself so square-shouldered and hard-faced in her more masculine attire. (And those curly shoes!)
Over in Meereen, riots in the streets echo the unrest in King’s Landing. A contingent of the Sons of the Harpy descend on a tavern square and slay the soldiers they find there. When an Unsullied patrol comes to investigate the noise, the prostitute who got White Rat murdered fakes tears and points them toward a covered passageway, where the Sons are waiting to ambush them. A melee ensues, with the highly stylized color palette — the soldiers’ black armor and helmets; the Sons’ gold masks — contrasting with the squelchy, fleshy sounds of bodies getting sliced and gored. There’s some beautiful staging here: an aerial shot of two freshly killed, black-clad Unsullied in the center of a white, stone atrium; sunlight slashing into the passageway. The huge, red blood spatters on the wall recall the “Kill the Masters” graffiti that we’ve seen splashed across the city.
Ser Barristan Selmy hears the commotion and winds his way to the center of the fighting. He gets a properly badass entrance — the fighting pauses for a moment and one of the Sons falls down dead, to reveal Barristan and his sword — and for a few moments, as the music goes all war-movie triumphal, it seems as if he might actually defeat the dozen or so Sons. But then he’s brutally stabbed through. He’s spared a throat-slitting by a similarly wounded Grey Worm, but then they both collapse to the floor. As the camera pulls up to reveal a tangle of gold, blue, and black bodies, we can hear bells tolling.
Are these two gone forever? I suppose we’ll have to wait till the show’s next visit to Meereen to find out, though I don’t recall any maesters in Daenerys’s entourage who might be able to save them. It would pain me to lose them, but it might make it easier for Tyrion to take a spot on Dany’s council, or for Jorah to, for that matter.
The final major setting tonight was Castle Black, where Melisandre is casting her long, red shadow everywhere. Her hungry looks at Jon Snow come to (almost) fruition when she comes to the Lord Commander’s office and asks him to ride to Winterfell with her and Stannis. You know all of its hidden tunnels, its weaknesses, she purrs, making storming a castle sound very much like a metaphor for something else altogether. Let me show you what we’re fighting for, she tells him, before opening her robe, revealing herself naked underneath, and straddling him, not-very-metaphorically. As a political argument for joining Stannis’s war, it’s kind of a shaky one — are the Boltons threatening to outlaw sex? — but it’s very effective at shaking Jon up. He stops her, effort-fully, and tells her that not only did he swear a vow, he loved, and still loves, another. Melisandre walks away, but then turns and knocks him down again by repeating his wildling love Ygritte’s favorite refrain: “You know nothing, Jon Snow.”
Exactly what sort of threat — or offer — that line holds, we don’t know. But we do know that Melisandre can play a long game, whether or not we believe her visions of the future, and that’s what made my favorite scene of the episode — maybe one of my favorites in the whole series — so scary. Young Shireen sidles into her father’s study. She’s sassy enough to banter a little with her stern, gruff father, but then she inches her way toward the real point of her visit: She wants to know whether her father is ashamed of her, the way her mother is. Stannis responds by telling her the story of how she came to be infected with greyscale. Everyone advised him to send her away, but Stannis brought all the stubborn intensity he brings to warfare (remember the crushingly long siege he endured back in Robert’s Rebellion) to his daughter’s treatment, hailing every maester and healer in the Seven Kingdoms until she was cured. I loved how Stephen Dillane plays this scene. Shireen has always been his soft spot, but even so, he doesn’t speak or look softly at the girl, despite her huge adorable eyes and the way her little bottom lip quivers. (Uch, my heart, my heart.) In fact, he doesn’t really look at her at all until he turns and names her Princess Shireen of House Baratheon, claiming her, with his gaze and his words, as his daughter. This would be powerful stuff for anyone in Westeros, what with its intense focus on lineage and parentage. But to Shireen, it really means the world.
As the girl rushes to embrace her father — her hands not quite reaching all the way around him — Stannis bows his head thoughtfully. I’m terrified of what that look might portend. Last season, Melisandre insisted to Selyse that Shireen be brought along because the lord needed her, hinting at some “harsh truth” ahead. Earlier in tonight’s episode, Selyse looked at her daughter disdainfully and called out her “weakness” and “deformity” — but Melisandre intervened, saying that her father’s blood runs through her veins. We’ve already seen the Red Priestess use king’s blood (leeched from Gendry) for a ritual in which Stannis named three enemies he wanted dead: Robb, Joffrey, and Balon Greyjoy. What sinister fate lies ahead for the cutest little button-face in all of the North? I’m dreading finding out.
A few parting notes:
- Last week, Brienne repeated her oath to kill Stannis, to avenge Renly’s assassination. This week, Jaime enacts his own killing vow, telling Bronn that if he ever sees Tyrion again, he’ll split him in two for the murder of their father. Speaking of Brienne and Jaime — I loved the little moment where he spies the coast of Tarth and smiles.
- This episode featured two separate characters reminiscing about Rhaegar, which makes me believe we’re gearing up to hear more about him. As a reminder, Rhaeger Targaryen was the elder brother of Viserys and Daenerys. He abducted Ned Stark’s sister Lyanna — who was betrothed to Robert Baratheon at the time — kicking off the conflict known as Robert’s Rebellion, which ended with Robert on the throne, Rhaegar and Lyanna dead, and the rest of the Targaryens in exile.
Barristan Selmy tells Daenerys a sweet tale, of how Rhaegar loved to disguise himself as a minstrel and sing for the people in the streets of King’s Landing. Littlefinger, meanwhile, tells Sansa the story of seeing Rhaegar at a tourney, and how he rode right past his wife, Elia Martell, and laid a crown of roses in Lyanna’s lap. (Elia Martell was the sister of Prince Oberyn of Dorne, and it was her death that Oberyn wanted to avenge.) How many tens of thousands had to die because Rhaegar chose Lyanna, Littlefinger muses. Yes, he chose her, Sansa says — and then he kidnapped and raped her.
The feather that Sansa picks up from Lyanna’s statue, by the way, was left there by Robert in season one.