A review of tonight's “Game of Thrones” coming up just as soon as I've dreamed I was old…
“Bastards can rise high in the world.” -Ramsay
Before we get into “The Gift,” I should note that I had the bad timing (or maybe good timing) to be on “Mad Men” duty last week when “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken” generated as much controversy and pure fan anger as any episode of the series ever has. When it came to Ramsay's rape of Sansa on their wedding night, there seemed to be three objections: 1)This was a fate the books had assigned to a minor character, and it seemed cruel to instead inflict it upon Sansa; 2)This was “Game of Thrones” again wallowing in sadism, and particularly of Ramsay's one-note variety; and 3)At a certain point, the editing of the scene suggested the show was more concerned with its impact on Theon than on Sansa.
You know by now that I don't give a toss about the content of the books and the show's fidelity or lack thereof to them, but the other two complaints rang true. Ramsay's ongoing torture of Theon back in season 3 represented the very worst of the series' creative impulses and fascination with cruelty for its own sake, and where season 4 made some attempts at turning Ramsay into a more complicated character, his treatment of both Sansa and Theon this season has restored him to his grim, monotonous default settings. And while I heard some people argue that shifting the POV to Theon's anguish was meant to spare us from having to see too much of Sansa's suffering, the better way to have accomplished that would have been to simply end the scene much sooner, when the audience knew exactly what was coming and didn't need their noses rubbed in it. The series has had an unfortunate track record of using rape for shock value and not dealing with the emotional consequences to its victims, though at least “The Gift” doesn't try to shrug off the relentless evil of Sansa's current circumstances.
So that was unsettling, and that episode had other problems, like the limp choreography and overall staging of the fight between Jaime, Bronn and the Sand Snakes, which made it seem like Dorne is a kingdom with a population of about 12. And some of that trickled over into “The Gift,” where what was meant to be an impressive display of fighting prowess by Jorah in the fighting pits instead made him come across like Little Rabbit Foo scooping up the field mice and bopping them on the head.
But on the whole, “The Gift” was a far more satisfying and effective episode, and not just because Sam (with a big assist from Ghost) was able to spare Gilly from becoming the show's latest rape victim.
Where “Game of Thrones” seems primarily about the horrible things done by those in power, a secondary theme of the series – and one especially prominent throughout “The Gift” – has involved the way that the powerful tend to underestimate those they view too weak or otherwise insignificant to hurt them. Many of the show's classic hero and villain types are long dead, sometimes at the hands of the traditionally powerful (Ned being executed at the whim of King Joffrey), sometimes at the hands of someone they looked down their nose at (Tyrion wishing Tywin a painful Father's Day). And even some of the survivors, like Jaime, aren't exactly whole anymore.
So while someone like Samwell Tarly would seem to have no business still being alive after encounters with White Walkers, Thenns, and a whole bunch of Night's Watchmen who hate his ample guts, here he stands, nonetheless, in a manner very true to the title of last week's episode. At Aemon's funeral, Alliser mocks Sam for running out of friends – with his mentor lying on a funeral pyre and his best friend leading a controversial mission north of the Wall – yet still Sam fights for Gilly, making up in courage all that he lacks in fighting prowess. It's an excellent moment, even if he requires a massive direwolf assist to carry the moment and get rewarded (albeit in a way that violates his oath) by Gilly.
And while Sansa remains very much the tormented and bruised plaything of Ramsay (who is himself an underestimated figure rising to power), we also see that she has yet to be completely broken by him. She's able to at least momentarily break through to Theon, before he goes back to Reek-dom and scurries back to his master. That Ramsay tortures and kills Sansa's old friend from the North is a blow, for sure, but we know that Brienne (yet another underdog figure still standing long after the more traditional players have fallen) is keeping watch outside Winterfell, and there may come a point where she goes in looking for her charge, candle or no candle.
Tyrion has, like Sam, survived one battle after another he has no business fighting in. He's often had a champion at his side like Bronn or Jaime or, here, Jorah, but he's also been smart enough to frequently seize his opportunities when they present themselves. At the fighting pit, he recognizes he has a much better chance of talking himself out of death with the Mother of Dragons than he does in staying to fight in the next match, and he takes it. I had feared the show would drag out Tyrion's journey to Meereen over the entire season, but instead we'll get at least a few episodes of him with Dany (assuming she doesn't simply feed him to her dragons) before the next hiatus. And she needs all the strategic help she can get, even if Daario's advice to her about killing all the masters seems sound.
And then there is the High Sparrow, who finally reveals himself to be every bit the threat to Cersei that Cersei was too naive and power-mad to recognize when she elevated him to his current station. She thought she could turn a religious fanatic into a weapon against her enemies, when he was only ever interested in being a weapon for his own cause. Their interests aligned briefly, but Cersei is just as much of an abomination in the eyes of the Sparrow's deities as any of the Tyrells, and the only surprise of her ending up in a Black Cell is that it happened so quickly.
What's interesting about the Sparrow – beyond the sheer force and magnetism of Jonathan Pryce's performance – is the way he represents a very different sort of authority from what we're used to on this show. He has amassed power, but not in service to fortune or nobility or any of the motivations that seem to drive the other power-seekers (Stannis is motivated by his own god, but only to the extent that worship of said god will make Stannis a king in reality as well as self-proclaimed title). He represents the interests of his people – not all the people, given the many religions and degrees of faithfulness to them we've seen represented on this show, but many people, and people of far lower station than the woman who put him in this job to begin with. And now he has used that job to lock away the current queen, the former queen and another son of the Tyrell family. If Tywin were still around… well, if Tywin were still around, he wouldn't have been stupid enough to give any authority to this unwashed man, but if it happened when he wasn't looking, he would surely send an entire army into that place to clean out these fundamentalist loons. Will Tommen?
We know that Winter Is Coming(*), even if the storm that has currently entangled Stannis' army seems of the lowercase w variety. As the weather gets colder, and more and more characters converge – whether Tyrion and Dany, or Stannis preparing to fight the Boltons – harder decisions will have to be made. For all that Dany resists Daario's advice about the masters, he's not exactly wrong when he tells her, “All rulers are either butchers or meat.”
(*) I'm not clear on whether Winter Comes to the entire world or just the Westerosi continent. Maybe Dany and Tyrion will only have to deal with some mildly overcast weather?
When Winter Gets Here and all the fighting's done, will the rulers left standing be of the traditional variety? Or will the survivors be drawn from among the show's freaks, imps and other unlikely heroes and villains?
Whatever happens by the end, I'm really hoping we're not still dealing with Ramsay when we get there.
Some other thoughts:
* I'm thankful this episode gave us yet another example of Bronn's lovely singing voice, since my biggest regret about not being able to review last week's show was not being able to link to one of the many fine example's of Jerome Flynn's pop music career.
* The Sand Snake's naked mind game with Bronn obviously doesn't qualify as sexposition, and I don't think you could call it sextortion, so for now we'll treat it as yet another example of one “GoT” character taking pleasure in another's suffering, albeit only briefly, and with the other benefits of a traditional sexposition scene.
* Stannis arguably lost the fight at Blackwater because he didn't listen to Melisandre's advice and bring her along. Will he again ignore her when it comes to sacrificing his daughter for the sake of some extra king's blood? Or was that scene a few weeks ago reminding us of how much he cares for her mainly there so it will sting even more when he lets his lover cut her open? (And wouldn't they perhaps be better off trying to track down wherever Gendry has laid his head of late?)
* I'm hoping this isn't the last we've seen of Malko the slave trader, not because he seemed like a particularly interesting character, but because it seems like a terrible waste of putting Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje on “Game of Thrones” if that's all they were going to use him for.
As usual (though this may be the last season in which we have to do it, as the show has begun significantly deviating from and/or passing the books), all comments will be moderated to prevent book spoilers from slipping in. We are here to talk about “Game of Thrones” as a television show, not do constant comparing and contrasting of the show and the books. There are plenty of other places online to do that, and if your comment discusses the books, it won't be approved.
With that in mind, what did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org