After last week’s Seven Kingdoms-hopping jaunt, where characters like Sansa moved great distances in a very short space of time, this episode decided to opt for a more settled, sequenced aproach. This was an element that worked well last season, though generally they’d save the longer sequences for the end of episodes, whereas here they’re threaded throughout the entire runtime.
With only a couple of exceptions, most storylines were given several scenes without break, starting with Cersei in King’s Landing. We moved from a Small Council meeting, to a conversation with the High Sparrow, to the Faith Militant’s rounding up of the usual suspects, and ending with Tommen and Margaery.
It’s bold in its approach, as there’s a lot of information that needs to be doled out to the audience – both book readers and TV watches are in the same boat now – but they do so while showing a strong level of cause and effect between them all, and threading a line between Cersei’s fear of losing control, and Margaery’s realisation that Cersei will not go gentle to Casterly Rock.
Along the way, Mace Tyrell is bundled off on a long boat to the Iron Bank of Braavos to shore up some money, but he takes Ser Meryn Trant with him, and little hope of returning in one piece. Loras is arrested by the Faith Militant, and suddenly Margaery is as alone as Cersei, with only a battle of wits left to decide who between the two will emerge on top.
Cersei does have her own brownshirts now – the Faith Militant – unleashed by the High Sparrow’s religious fundamentalism, and while they’re taking their zeal out on Littlefinger and Loras, Cersei must be rather wilfully blind to think that the Sparrows will sniff out sin in every corner of King’s Landing, but excuse her own. They showed their indifference to kowtowing to Tommen during this episode, so she must really over-estimate her power at this point.
Next we have the North, firstly stopping by the Wall for yet another occasion for Jon Snow to refuse Stannis’ wish to come to Winterfell. That’s four times now, in four episodes. This really does start to feel like treading water, waiting for all the other plots to align before Stannis marches on Winterfell.
But, there is something rather interesting in this: Selyse initially derides Jon as yet another bastard, but Stannis comments that it would have been extremely unlikely for Ned Stark to father a bastard. More on this later.
And, just in case the audience were wondering why we should care about Stannis launching an attack on Winterfell (and the Iron Throne), the showrunners give us a lovely scene between him and Shireen, prompted by her asking if he’s ashamed of her. According to Stannis, she is only alive because of him, the greyscale she suffered as an infant would have killed her had he not intervened, or abandoned her as others requested. How do we humanise Stannis? Show him having human emotions, apparently.
Over at Winterfell, Sansa is hanging around the family crypt, and it gets a bit creepier when Littlefinger turns up. Despite his assurances to Roose Bolton last week, he’s banking on Stannis taking Winterfell, leaving Sansa to be wardeness of the North. But before then, she’s on her own, left to Ramsay and his inclinations.
Oh but wait, Littlefinger just also happened to mention during his chat about how Sansa’s aunt Lyanna was favoured by Rhaegar Targaryen, leading to a conflict that started the rebellion that left Robert Baratheon on the throne (remember?). Sansa says it was a kidnapping, when Rhaegar took Lyanna, but there’s something in Littlefinger that shows he perhaps doesn’t believe this version of the story. More on this later.
After a trip on a merchant ship, Jaime and Bronn arrive in Dorne. They make interesting bedfellows, Bronn more than happy to question Myrcella’s parentage in front of Jaime without fear of reprisal, but Jaime more than happy to lump all the heavy lifting with Bronn.
Jaime believes they are there to rescue Myrcella, but Bronn sees it more as a kidnapping. This and the talk of Lyanna Stark earlier certainly allows us to wonder just what this path Jaime has taken will lead to for the Seven Kingdoms. But does anyone actually think they can resuce Myrcella successfully? Barely are they off the beach before they’re set upon by four Dornish soldiers, and Jaime only just gets away with his life after discovering the wonders of a metal hand in close combat.
Nearby, Ellaria Sand is meeting up with the Sand Snakes – Oberyn Martell’s bastard daughters who are all keen on a bit of revenge. It’s really a scene of introductions, allowing Ellaria to speak to Obara, Nymeria and Tyene about each of their reasons for avenging their father’s death. And along with this comes the revelation that Jaime’s presence in Dorne is no secret.
On the way to Meereen, Ser Jorah Mormont has stolen a boat to transport Tyrion as his prisoner for Daenerys, and hopeful payment for his return to her service. Tyrion finds this all rather funny, as he was headed there anyway.
Daenerys meanwhile is still trying to insist to Hizdahr zo Loraq (please don’t make me write that again) that she doesn’t want the fighting pits open. It is customary, he says, for people to gather together and spectate in a visual display of blood and gore, probably on a regular weekly schedule, though I imagine it’s harder to download in Meereen.
Like Jon and Stannis, we’ve had several of these scenes as well, where really the same request is offered and refused. More delaying of the eventual conflict.
But down on the streets, the Sons of the Harpy have conspired to ambush a group of Unsullied, including Grey Worm. There’s a nice bookend between this and the Faith Militant’s uprising earlier in the episode, though this has rather more disastrous consequences.
Grey Worm holds fast, but only just, saved at the last minute by Barristan Selmy, who joins the fray and reminds everyone that he’s been doing this sword swinging stuff for a long time. But no longer. A magnificently bloody and final stand, and one clearly designed by the Sons of the Harpy (and the showrunners) to remove Daenerys’ base of support and force her hand.
But, without wanting to detract from Barristan Selmy’s final moments, it’s worth going back just a bit to the conversation he had with Daenerys before all the fighting and the killing. In this, he got a bit nostalgic and started reminiscing about the good old days, especially Rhaegar Targaryen.
Hang on just a minute: two characters completely unconnected to each other by plot or geography just happen to mention the same long dead character? And in that tie it to that character’s connection to a long dead Stark? For those playing along, it’s hard to not pay attention to this coincidence, and the sly remark of Stannis’ that he never believed Ned Stark would father a bastard. This is not a case of bringing up a spoiler from the books, but rather noticing that the show is totally embracing the likelihood that Jon Snow’s parentage is not what we’ve been told. More on this here, for those that want to read up on it.
By the end of this episode, it’s clear that we’re on track for a mid-season clash of rather large proportions, and in three different locations: Winterfell, Dorne and Meereen. In each the attraction is the potential of major storylines colliding, and major characters. The board is set, with a few random pieces floating around like Arya, Varys and Brienne. Watch all these spaces.
- Valar Morghulis: a briefly rich Pentosi merchant, speared through the head by Obara Sand, and Ser Barristan Selmy, unexpectedly ahead of time. This also confirms the identity of the actor surprised by their early exit, interviewed here.
- Tommen clearly is not Joffrey, and has no taste for violence. But at the same point, he’s definitely not aware of how at risk his own neck is.
- Isn’t it fascinating how at home Stannis appears in the cold? Lord of Light indeed.
- Melisandre apparently sees something in Jon, much as she did once in Stannis, and then Gendry. Nothing mysterious here (shadow demon aside), she’s clearly just trying to pick the right horse to the Iron Throne.
- Littlefinger reminds us that very few people know Arya and Bran are both still alive.
- Next week: full blown fantasy! Tyrion sees dragons, and Jon Snow mentions that winter is coming (still), but so are the White Walkers.