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Game of Thrones' recap: 'The Gift'

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Last week’s episode of “Game of Thrones” practically blew up the Internet, like the show does once or twice a season. Shocking scenes like the Red Wedding or the Viper vs. the Mountain duel set off flabbergasting tweets and endless water-cooler conversations in previous years. But last week, Sansa and Ramsay’s horrific wedding night inspired genuine anger, with U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) and the website the Mary Sue announcing that they were giving up “Game of Thrones” entirely over its depiction of rape.
I doubt that this weeks’ episode, “The Gift,” will coax those angry viewers back, but it’s interesting to view the show in light of last week’s on-line arguments. A big objection to last week’s plot development was, not surprisingly, the treatment of Sansa, a young woman who’s spent most of the show as a victim with no agency. Just when it seemed like she was about to take charge of her life, choosing of her own free will to marry Ramsay Bolton, she was more brutally victimized than ever. “The Gift” includes a running motif of women whose agency is gone or threatened, with some figurative in chains, others literally imprisoned. It’s like a series of riffs on the “princess in the tower” cliché.

Some critics of the Ramsay-Sansa scene predicted that it was using a woman’s rape to motivate a male character: specifically Theon, forced by Ramsay to watch the brutality. At first, “The Gift” makes that criticism seem well-founded. Theon visits Sansa, who Ramsay keeps locked away by day and sexually assaults at night. (She has an ugly bruise on her arm, which hints at worse injuries.) Sansa tries to convince him that he’s not “Reek,” and should help her out, mentioning that if he lights a candle in the broken tower, the Stark loyalists will come to her rescue. Does Theon defy Ramsay? Nope, he betrays her to him. So maybe Sansa and the rest of us shouldn’t be betting on Theon.

The next day, Ramsay takes Sansa for a stroll, and we see that, despite her predicament, Sansa’s not being a passive victim. I thought I saw her pick up something sharp (A lockpick? A potential weapon?), but she also tries to mess with Ramsay’s head, pointing out how tenuous his claim at legitimacy is. It’s clearly a sore spot with Ramsay, but he’s the champion at messing with people’s heads, and shows that they caught the old Stark loyalist and flayed her.

The button on the Winterfell sequence was a shot of Brienne in a distant attic, looking at the castle and waiting for a sign. (Had she connected with the Stark loyalists? Her contact seemed independent of them.) While Brienne has her freedom, she feels bound to be available to protect Sansa, and is thus a kind of a self-imposed prisoner. If Sansa’s a prisoner in a tower, is it still sexist if she’s rescued by Brienne, a woman?

Another rape scene almost happens a little further north. At Castle Black, Jon Snow departs for Hardhome on a Wildling mission with Thormund, and old Maester Aemon Targaryen finally dies. At Aemon’s funeral, Thorne points out to Samwell that he’s losing all his allies. In a sign that Castle Black’s discipline is breaking down, two unsavory members of the Night’s Watch harass Gilly and rape seems inevitable. Samwell intercedes and gets the crap beaten out of him, but he doesn’t give up, and fortunately Ghost shows up to save the day.

Afterwards, Gilly tends to Sam’s wounds and deflowers him (something that I kind of thought had already happened). It seems justified that Gilly would choose to use her sexuality this way, but the near-rape seems more about developing Sam’s character than developing hers.

Between the Wall and Winterfell, Stannis’ army suffers from the onset of winter, and Davos reports of horses dying by the dozens and mercenaries deserting them. He suggests they fall back to Castle Black, and Stannis insists, “We go forward, only forward.” (It’s reminiscent of Napoleon and Hitler’s doomed campaigns against Russia.) Melisandre suggests a sacrifice with royal blood will ensure victory, alluding to Stannis’s daughter Shireen. Stannis, horrified, rejects the idea, but I can’t see this ending well for Shireen, who’s a captive, threatened princess, and doesn’t know it (and isn’t even onscreen this week).

In Dorne, Myrcella appears to be another unwitting captive princess. She tells her uncle-dad Jaime that she’s in love with Trystane and sees Dorne as her home now. I suspect that if Myrcella tried to leave, she’d find Dorne less hospitable. But we barely check in on them.

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While Jaime’s kept in a luxury suite (probably under guard), Bronn sings in a crummy cell on the opposite side of a corridor from the three Sand Snakes. Bronn and Tyene spar with words about their earlier fight, and Tyene asks him who’s the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen, exposing her body through the bars. Bronn finds his answer difficult, because he begins suffering from the effects of the poison on the blade Tyene stabbed him with. She informs him that she has the cure in hand, and Bronn says that she’s the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen, and she tosses him an antidote. Even imprisoned, Tyene shows she can exert power over a man.

In Mereen, Dany enjoys another night with Daario, but reiterates her intention to marry noble Hizdahr and hopefully pacify the city-state. Dany says she can’t do what she wants, and Daario says, “Then you are the only person in Mereen who is not free.” Dany theoretically has unlimited agency, but is constrained by her desire to be a just ruler of a free, peaceful state.

Jorah and Tyrion keep working their way back to Dany, even though they’re held by the slavers and put up for auction. As a prospective gladiator who “killed the great Khal Drogo in single combat!” (Dany would hate that), Jorah fetches a good price at a slave auction. Tyrion argues that he should go too, proving that he’s a good fighter — he gets the drop on a captor and flails away at him — and that he’s also “funny.”

Jorah gets a chance to fight at gladiator tryouts, and unexpectedly, Dany and Hizdahr are there watching the action. Jorah puts on a helmet and, like a masked knight from a chivalric tale, defeats all his opponents in the arena and reveals his identity to Dany. (It’s a far cry from the Viper vs. the Mountain, though.) Dany is about to send him away — she's still the Khaleesi, and don't you forget it — when Jorah says he’s brought a gift, and Tyrion introduces himself. Danaerys Targaryen, meet Tyrion Lannister.

In King’s Landing, the rightful Queen of Westeros is held in a cell, with Margaery awaiting a religious trial for perjury. Olenna, the so-called Queen of Thorns, tries to pressure the High Sparrow to release Margaery and Loras: “Spare me the homilies: I can smell a fraud a mile away.” Olenna may be the richest woman in Westeros, but she can’t budge the High Sparrow, who seems only motivated by religious faith. Olenna later meets with Littlefinger at his closed, trashed brothel, a reunion of the conspirators who killed Joffrey. Olenna points out that their fates are joined, and Littlefinger says he has a gift for Olenna alluding to, “a young man.”

Queen mother Cersei is apparently the strongest woman in Westeros as the Seven Kingdom’s de facto ruler. She comforts a distraught Tommen about Margaery’s imprisonment. “I’ll start a war if I have to!” he vows. “You know as well as myself who the first casualty would be,” she replies, implying that Margaery would be killed as a hostage — which may not be true, but convinces the young king. Cersei tears up when she speaks of her love for her son in a great moment for Lena Headey. In the book A Feast for Crows, the King’s Landing scenes unfold from Cersei’s point of view and really conveys what makes her tick. In the show, Cersei seldom gets a chance to honestly express herself aloud, so she remains a bit opaque.

Cersei visits Margaery in her cell to gloat in the guise of showing concern. “Get out of here, you hateful bitch!” Margaery answers. Cersei then goes to meet the High Sparrow to discuss what’ll happen next, and he reveals his wish to exact sacred justice on everyone, no matter how high they are. Then Lancel Lannister steps out — perhaps he’s “the gift” to which Littlefinger referred — and the High Sparrow reveals that they know all about Cersei’s crimes and sins. The episode ends with Cersei, protesting, “I am the Queen! Let me go!” as female jailers toss her into a cell just like Margaery’s. She should’ve seen that one coming.

Notes

- Offstage this week: Arya, who always has a ton of agency.

- While dying, Aemon Targaryen mentions “Egg,” his brother Aegon. George R.R. Martin has several prequel novellas that involve young Egg playing squire to a youthful “hedge knight,” Ser Duncan the Tall. The “Dunk and Egg” stories are highly enjoyable, and not nearly as grim as main sequence of novels.

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- Melisandre claims that, in visions, she’s walked the battlements of Winterfell and seen the Bolton flag lowered. Let’s remember this later.

- Myrcella tells Jamie that Dorne has been her home “for years,” which begs the question, just how much time has passed on this show? Myrcella was shipped off to Dorne in the second season — have three years also passed for the characters? If that’s how time works on “Game of Thrones,” that would explain how the child actors have aged.

- After the fact, I realized that the scene with Ramsay, Sansa and the flayed loyalist was basically a mirror to the scene, I think from the first season finale, in which Joffrey gloatingly showed Sansa the severed head of Ned Stark, her father. This whole plotline isn’t just punishing to watch, it’s derivative of earlier plotlines.



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