Game of Thrones' recap: 'High Sparrow'


  • Courtesy of HBO
  • IMP DESCENDING A STAIRCASE: Varys and Tyrion (Conleth Hill and Peter Dinklage).

As HBO’s “Game of Thrones” strays from George R.R. Martin’s original books, I find myself reminded of the ending of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. Spoiler alert: the titular team of Jewish-American commandos and French ally succeed in assassinating Adolph Hitler and the Nazi high command in Paris. It’s an outlandish, dislocating touch that messes with viewer expectations for historical drama.
When I see “Game of Thrones” go in a sharply different direction from the book, I have a similar response, that’s like “Hey! That’s not how it really happened!” It’s not as pronounced as in Basterds, of course — because the book and the show are both fictions, they’re both equally “real.” But Martin’s books prime you for one thing, and sometimes the show gives you something else.

So it was extremely disorienting this week when Sansa and Littlefinger looked over Moat Cailin, and he reveals his plans to strategically marry her to off the Bolton family. That’s not how it happened! Littlefinger argues that it’ll be a way for her, a Stark, to reclaim the family’s ancestral home of Winterfell. When she points out, reasonably, that her prospective father-in-law betrayed and murdered her brother, Littlefinger says, “You loved your family. Avenge them.”

We’d just seen the other side of this arranged marriage, with the Boltons busily rebuilding Winterfell. Theon/Reek looks with horror at the sight of a flayed man and woman, who failed to negotiate to Ramsay’s liking. Roose, as the Warden of the North, scolds his son for such grisly methods: “The best way of forging an alliance is not by peeling someone’s skin off.”

So, I guess that’s it for this subplot this week, right? Wrong! Later, we see Sansa arrive at Winterfell — she’s home already! Meeting the Boltons, she gives Roose a frosty but technically respectful greeting. Shown to a room — I have no idea if it was her old room or not — an elderly servant welcomes her and says, “The North remembers,” suggesting that Sansa might have allies in this haven of enemies.

I’m not sure what to think of this development: I like that it may give Sansa a more active role in the story, but the idea that she’s been betrothed to literally the two most vicious creeps in Westeros is hard to believe. The only thing that keeps Ramsay from being worse than Joffrey is that Ramsay hasn’t had much power. (Talk about an inglorious bastard.) Littlefinger even seems unaware that Ramsay’s a vicious psychopath, which undermines his heretofore impeccable network of spies. We’ll see how this plays out.

Meanwhile, King’s Landing sees a surprisingly murder-free wedding as Tommen ties the knot of Margaery: we see shots of the wedding and cut straight to the aftermath of the bedding. Tommen’s head over heels in love with his bride, and Margaery’s quite nice to him, and well aware of her ability to manipulate him. She even advises him to trust no one, although she, herself, is untrustworthy. So when she drops hints that her mother-in-law Cersei would be happier in Casterly Rock, it’s no surprise the next morning when Tommen asks mom, “Wouldn’t you be happier in Casterly Rock?”

A seething Cersei goes to Margaery, staring daggers at the new queen and her ladies-in-waiting, and stares daggers at them. Margaery smugly asks Cersei if she should now be called “The Queen Mother” or “The Dowager Queen.” (How about “The Widow Baratheon,” just to rub it in?) At one point, Cersei leans in quickly, like she’s about to claw Margaery’s eyes out, but she withdraws with uncharacteristic mildness. Cersei probably realizes that she can’t directly attack Margaery and without alienating her son, and needs a more subtle approach.

There’s nothing subtle about a latter scene in the brothel, with King’s Landing’s High Septon having sex with prostitutes dressed as the seven deities. Then the fundamentalist Sparrows come in, bust up the place and send the nude Septon on a literal walk of shame.

When the (dressed) Septon complains to the small council, Cersei takes a surprising interest and seeks their de facto leader, the “High Sparrow,” at a King’s Landing soup kitchen. A barefoot holy man, the High Sparrow speaks of the importance of helping the needy and tearing down hypocrisy, and Cersei suggests they protect each other. I doubt that Cersei’s having a sudden religious conversion.

Over in Braavos, Arya’s having trouble converting to the ways of the Faceless Men, and is probably disappointed that they’re not doing cool ninja tricks. So far, she’s just been sweeping up at the House of Black and White, which so far just looks like a hospice — although it’s not clear if they’re ministering to the terminally ill or helping the despondent commit suicide.

At one point, an older girl confronts Arya in her room, asking her who she is. Arya’s a quick enough of a study to say “No one,” but the girl doesn’t believe her, and Arya goes for Needle. Jaqen shows up and wonders how she can claim to be “no one” but still cling to the mementos of her past identity. Arya then throws her old clothes and keepsakes into the bay, and for a minute, seems about to toss Needle, too. Rather than set up a moment like Arthur returning Excalibur to the Lady of the Lake, Arya hides her sword in a pile of rocks. Later, she gets invited to one of the House of Black and White’s hidden rooms, where she and the other girl quietly and reverently wash a recently-deceased corpse.

In the North, Pod gets his own chance to expand his knowledge, as Brienne realizes that she hasn’t been rewarding his loyalty, and offers to train him how to fight like a knight. She also harks back to how she became a fangirl of Renly Baratheon: when she was a rich young woman in Tarth, her father had a coming-out ball for her, and she realized that all the eligible bachelors asking her to dance were only pretending to be nice to her. (It’s like Cinderella at the ball discovered she’s Carrie at the prom.) Renly was the only one who was truly nice to her, earning her loyalty even after his death. And she finds a new motivation: if she can’t fulfill her oath to Catelyn Stark, she can avenge Renly by killing Stannis.

Stannis remains at the Wall, but may leave soon to try to take Winterfell from the Boltons. He asks for newly-minted Lord Commander Jon Snow to join him and will legitimize him as Jon Stark, heir to Winterfell. (It’s like a mirror of the Littlefinger/Sansa scene, only Jon has a choice.) Jon admits that he’s wanted that his whole life, but refuses to break his oath to the Night’s Watch and turns him down. Stannis leaves Jon in charge of the Wildlings and advises him to ship Allisher Thorne elsewhere. Jon: “I’ve heard it’s best to keep your enemies close.” Stannis: “Whoever said that didn’t have many enemies.”

Jon does a fair job of running a Night’s Watch meeting, joshing around about digging latrines. He names Thorne “First Ranger,” which I suspect is a great honor that’ll keep him out of Jon’s hair. But Janos Slynt objects to Jon’s assignment and insults him, expecting Thorne to have his back. Bad move, Slynt. The sworn brothers drag him outside and put his head on a block and Jon, like a boss, waits to finish his drink before coming. Slynt begs for mercy and Jon seems on the verge of granting it — then lops his head right off. (It’s a great moment for Kit Harrington.) Harking back to how Ned Stark decapitated a Night Watch deserter in “Game of Thrones”’ first episode, Jon proves himself to be a real Stark in need if not name.

En route to Volantis, Tyrion’s getting stir-crazed in a horse-drawn coach (which he calls a “wheelhouse"), and convinces Varys that they should do some sightseeing, despite the price on his head. They visit a Volantis shanty-town, built atop a huge bridge, and see a red priestess preaching a la Melisandre, and singling out Danaerys for mention. In an equally telling sign of Dany’s national renown, a prostitute imitating her hairstyle is wildly popular at the brothel Tyrion and Varys visit. Tyrion chats up a prostitute and scarcely tries to hide his identity (mentioning that he “always pays his debts” — he might as well wear a sandwich board that says “I Am Tyrion Lannister”). But he finds himself unable to go off with her, too heartbroken after his experience with Shae.

And when he goes to console himself with a good pee in the river, he gets captured — by Jorah Mormont, of all people, who vows to take him to “The Queen.” But which one?

Offstage this week: Danaerys in Mereen; Jamie in Dorne

This episode seemed about 10 minutes longer than usual.

With the red priestess, the Sparrows, the Septons and the various sacred statues at the House of Black and White, this episode name-checks multiple religions in and around Westeros. The political and social unrest seems to be spawning religious unrest, too. And this doesn’t even include the supernatural basis for the White Walkers. I wonder if we’ll see any of them this season.

I’m sure it’s a complete coincidence, but something about Jonathan Pryce’s humble smile reminds me of Pope Francis. It’s also a coincidence that he’s playing another holy man, Cardinal Wolsey, in the BBC “Wolf Hall” miniseries, which is like “Game of Thrones” with all courtly intrigue and no dragons and whatnot.

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