5.3 “High Sparrow”
Written by David Benioff & D.B. Weiss
Directed by Mark Mylod
This episode has a very unintentional central theme of getting the core characterization of nearly every single character it deals with so, so wrong. And also really gross sex stuff, gross even for this show, and they managed to pack at least three different instances of gross into a single episode, so . . . hooray for them?
Let’s totally arbitrarily start with Arya, who’s serving in the House of Black and White to show that she can serve. In order to become a Faceless assassin, she has to be able to completely lose herself—become No One, as they keep putting it—which requires complete self-abnegation. Arya struggles with this, because although she’s become many people in order to survive her travels across Westeros (we don’t get as deep a dive into her endless name-changing in the show as we do in the books), at her core she’s Arya Stark, a wolf, and she’s very grounded in that identity. It’s the last thing she has, and she has to work very hard to let go of it. But at the same time, she wants to continue what she started with Syrio Forel and Jaqen H’ghar. As she’s gotten further from home, she’s lost more and more power, going from a young girl who can order Gold Cloaks around to a nobody scrubbing floors. She saw Jaqen’s effortless murders as a kind of power that she could have, and fixates on Braavos because that’s where Syrio was from. She wants the power to get revenge on her enemies, and therein lies another struggle, because the Faceless Men are supposed to be completely dispassionate about their kills and not have any enemies because they are No One.
In order to prove that she is no longer Arya Stark, but ready to become No One, she takes all of her worldly possessions down to the harbor and throws them in—all but Needle. She can’t give up Needle, so she tucks it under some rocks where she can retrieve it later.
For the most part, the on-screen portrayal of Arya’s struggle to integrate into the House of Black and White and show her worthiness to be taken on as an actual acolyte to the Faceless Men is pretty good. The issue comes with Benioff & Weiss’ post-episode discussion of the Needle scene. According to them, Arya is vengeance personified, and Needle is the tool with which she will get her revenge back in Westeros once she’s done training. They claim that Needle symbolizes vengeance, and Arya can’t let go of her need for revenge.
This is just wrong on so many levels, and their belief that this is who Arya is explains a lot of the issues that creep into her characterization later, particularly in season six. (It also continues a theme of Benioff & Weiss adapting plot points and scenes while completely cutting them loose from the canon context that explains why they’re there and why they’re important.) In the books, Arya stands over the harbor with Needle in her hands:
Needle was Robb and Bran and Rickon, her mother and her father, even Sansa. Needle was Winterfell’s grey walls, and the laughter of its people. Needle was the summer snows, Old Nan’s stories, the heart tree with its red leaves and scary face, the warm earthy smell of the glass gardens, the sound of the north wind rattling the shutters of her room. Needle was Jon Snow’s smile. [. . .] The Many-Faced God can have the rest, she thought, but he can’t have this. (A Feast for Crows 22, Arya II)
Considering that they have all the symbolism of Needle and why Arya can’t throw it away laid out in such a clear, unmistakable, obvious fashion, there’s really no excuse for them to believe that Needle = revenge . . . except that they want to turn Arya into a little killing machine, because women can’t be powerful without being violent, and characters can’t have actual nuance and layers. Sentimental attachment to her past is a weakness (read: girly), and thus Arya can’t have it. So Needle isn’t the last remaining link she has to her family and her home, it’s her revenge-murder tool.
Cersei and Margaery are fighting over Tommen, and herein is another characterization problem. Between aging up both Margaery and Tommen (Tommen far past anything that makes sense, as I’ve discussed before) and apparently taking book-Cersei’s impressions of Margaery (since we never see Margaery from inside the way we see Cersei) entirely at face-value, we get a really awful person instead of a generally sweet, mostly innocent, just-learning-politics sixteen-year-old. In the books, Tommen is around eight or nine, while Margaery is sixteen. There’s no expectation that the marriage will be consummated for several years yet. This is the crux of why Cersei’s plan to unseat Margaery actually works before it backfires on her—if she can prove Margaery isn’t a virgin, she can get Margaery for treason, either for cheating on Tommen (which is what she’s desperately trying to prove) or at the least, lying to the crown about her virginity before marrying Joffrey. (Without this particular motivation, there’s all sorts of issues with the Inquisition later.)
The confusion about Tommen’s actual age makes the wedding night scene particularly gross and difficult. The Game of Thrones wiki has a pretty good breakdown of how Tommen might maybe be eighteen at this point in the show, but that’s never made explicitly clear. The one time his age is referred to, back in season one, he’s eight. Even Dean-Charles Chapman estimated Tommen’s age at around twelve and tried to act younger than his own seventeen years. Without someone actually saying that Tommen is sixteen or eighteen or whatever—in other words, without an obvious and explicit retcon of the already-stated age of the character—the wedding night scene is super gross. Even with it, it’s kind of gross because it once again puts Margaery in the position of a siren, gaining power by using sex; not until the marriage is actually consummated does she start to seriously try to manipulate Tommen into getting rid of Cersei. Not only that, she gossips to her ladies about Tommen’s performance in the bedroom, even giving Cersei a sly little dig about how much Tommen’s enjoying himself. This is part of the claws-out Margaery they’ve written this season, a Margaery who’s done being nice to Cersei because Cersei’s never been nice to her and has no power anymore, who makes shallow, catty comments about Cersei’s age, her drinking problem, and her lack of said power, and then gives her ladies a knowing eye-roll when Cersei leaves.
I really don’t like this Margaery. I don’t have strong feelings about book-Margaery because she’s so background she barely has a personality, but that unfortunately left the door open for Benioff and Weiss to inscribe a sex-crazed, manipulative, stereotypical woman onto her. The fact that we’re clearly supposed to be rooting for her to win and Put Cersei In Her Place is just offensive, especially since they’ve made Cersei and Margaery the same person, and they expect us to hate Cersei and love Margaery.
Not only are Benioff and Weiss bad at writing politics, they’re abysmal at writing women.
Up north, the foundation for the absolute worst part of this entire season (“Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken”) is being laid. Roose scolds Ramsay for flaying too many people, claiming that fear won’t hold the North for them. Ramsay disagrees, saying that it’s holding it pretty well right now. Roose says they need more than fear; they need alliances, and he’s got just the person for a marriage alliance in mind. Meanwhile, Petyr and Sansa have made it to Moat Cailin, and when Sansa figures out what Petyr’s plan is, she nearly has hysterics. He ostensibly leaves the decision to her, but really, what’s she going to do at this point? Petyr is the only protection she has. She’s trapped—again. So she goes to Winterfell, greets the Boltons with barely-disguised disdain, and an old serving-woman tells her that “the North remembers.” Except not really, because not a single person steps up to stop what’s coming.
Brienne and Pod are following Petyr and Sansa, and we get more morose-Brienne as she tells Pod about Renly being nice to her and how she’s going to kill Stannis one day in vengeance. I guess we needed this reminder because of how the season ends. The viewers can’t be expected to remember major events from three seasons ago that created central driving motivation for the characters, after all. The writers have to make sure we’re reminded constantly to set up the big revenge-killing.
Up at the Wall, Jon’s settling in as Lord Commander with Olly as his steward (for some reason). (My guess on that reason is we need him around for reaction shots and stink-eye to heavy-handedly set up the other murder at the end of the season.) Stannis asks if Jon’s thought about his offer, and Jon says he’s Lord Commander now and can’t forsake his vows for something as piddly as avenging his family and stabilizing the North. Stannis promises he’s leaving soon, but plans to leave the Wildlings with Jon, and warns him that his men might not like having them around. Jon agrees that the men don’t tend to like the “free folk” (cue a reaction shot from Olly because apparently Jon using the name the Wildlings call themselves rather than the slightly racist name everyone else calls them is a surprise). Davos tries to convince him that maybe protecting the realm means getting a bit dirty, like by taking out the Boltons, for example.
At dinner, Jon passes out assignments, giving Alliser the post of First Ranger and sending Janos to Greyguard to start rebuilding and repopulating. Janos says nope, no way, shove it up your bastard arse, and Jon has him taken outside and beheads him. This is another example of hitting a plot point while losing all context; in the books, Jon has endured months of Janos undermining his authority, after sending Jon (rather than Jon electing to go) to treat with/kill/get killed by Mance. This Janos is just a blustery coward, not one of the leaders of an active resistance to Jon’s leadership. Also, we don’t get to see Jon actively decide to follow Ned’s example; in the books, he first tells the men to hang Janos, then remembers his duty and sends for his sword and a block. (This causes some issues in the next season, as well.) Benioff and Weiss believe Jon had to kill Janos to keep and show his authority, but given the changed context, it looks like a serious overreaction to a single incident rather than a final ending of a months-long insurgency. (Or what’s intended to be; it actually ramps up a bit after Janos’ death.)
Over in Volantis, Tyrion is bored out of his mind and insists on seeing the city, against Varys’ advice. They take the time to inform the viewer and Tyrion about slave tattoos and their meanings (this will be important for how they treat slavery later), and see a Red Priestess giving her sermon praising Daenerys for freeing slaves. At the brothel, the most popular slave is a woman in a blonde wig with a blue dress open at the back to show her butt; she’s apparently cosplaying as Daenerys and everyone wants to bed the faux-dragon queen. Tyrion wanders over to talk to a slave sitting by herself; she immediately pegs that he’s completely broke, but talks to him anyway because everyone likes the blonde and nobody’s interested in her. Tyrion assures her that he thinks she’s pretty and would hire her if he had money, at which point she decides to go ahead and have sex with him anyway, as long as he has a bath first. He takes her hand, but then realizes that he “can’t do this” and goes out to pee in the river.
There’s a lot to unpack in this short scene, and it’s gross on a number of levels. First of all, they’ve attempted to establish that slavery is bad. They’ve said slavery is bad, and we’ve seen slaves not wanting to be slaves (understandably). What they haven’t done is show that slavery is bad beyond the abstract idea of being owned and traded. There’s a bit of it with the introduction of the Unsullied, but after that we’re just supposed to accept that slavery = bad and therefore Daenerys’ crusade is the right thing to do. (Please note that I’m not saying slavery isn’t bad—it definitely is—but the way it’s portrayed/used in the show is a problem.) Theoretically, this slave’s owner/boss is way worse than Petyr, since he owns his prostitutes, and look how Petyr treated his women. And yet this young woman offers to have sex with Tyrion, for free, because he seems nice. She doesn’t seem at all concerned that this might lead to some sort of punishment, even though in the language of slavery, she’s giving away her master’s property by not charging Tyrion for the services she’s about to render. What this does, ultimately, is imply that slavery isn’t all that bad, that it’s not much different than the type of voluntary prostitution they have in Westeros (remember when no less than three prostitutes didn’t charge Pod for their services?). So, if this is what slavery, specifically sex slavery, which you could easily argue is the worst kind, is like, and if that one old guy actually wanted to be a slave again, then what’s so bad? Why is Daenerys overturning the economy of an entire region? How is she the good guy in this scenario? Essentially, Benioff and Weiss have established a cultural issue, then completely ignored the implications of it and that it’s even an issue when it doesn’t immediately serve their story. They actually do this kind of a lot.
Second, here’s yet another example of sanctifying Tyrion because we can’t possibly have an actually grey or problematic “hero” (Martin has referred to Tyrion as the “villain”). As mentioned in the previous post, they already skipped his bad behavior at Illyrio’s manse, but this is another, more obvious way they’ve cleaned up his act for the show. This sequence does happen in the books—and Tyrion brutally rapes the slave, who doesn’t speak Westerosi, twice. The narrative makes no apologies for it, either; it’s wrong, Tyrion knows it’s wrong, the reader is supposed to know it’s wrong, and it’s where Tyrion hits rock-bottom, where he stays for several months before starting to get his shit together. Book-Tyrion is a drunk, a murderer, and a rapist. Book-Tyrion is not a nice person, and I think the reader is supposed to be a bit conflicted about liking him because he’s smarter than everyone else and always has a ready quip.
On a side note, this also kind of cleans up Jorah, who’s also in this brothel, because in the books, he’s here with a Daenerys look-alike on his knee. Since he can’t have actual-Dany, he’s opted for sex-slave fake-Dany, because that’s a) healthy; and b) a sign of true love. But the show narrative treats Jorah as a tragic, heroic figure who just has to prove himself to Daenerys so she’ll take him back and maybe even love him. (Gross.)
Finally, this gets back to a problem with the portrayal of prostitution that I’ve had since the beginning of the show—they’re always so happy to be doing their jobs. That these prostitutes are actually slaves makes it even worse. The only prostitute we’ve ever seen not particularly wanting to immediately offer her services is Ros, after the death of the baby. Otherwise, every single prostitute—and now sex slave—loves being a prostitute/sex slave so much that this particular one is actually sad because none of the men want to have sex with her. If this were a ploy to draw in a certain type of customer—it worked on Tyrion, after all—then I could almost see it, but that she then turns around and offers Tyrion free sex indicates that it’s not a ploy and she’s actually lonely because everyone’s ignoring her. That’s a serious problem. Benioff and Weiss had such an opportunity here to show the difference between Westeros and Essos, between voluntary prostitution and sex slavery, and they throw it away to heroize Tyrion and show that he’s Changed™ and won’t just go around randomly having sex with strangers after he had to kill his former lover/concubine for betraying him and sleeping with his father.
At this point, Jorah sneaks up behind Tyrion, grabs him, ties him up, and says he’s taking him to the queen. All suspense is lost here, because book-Tyrion doesn’t immediately recognize Jorah and naturally thinks he’s being hauled back to Westeros for Cersei. The viewer, on the other hand, knows exactly who Jorah is and who he’d refer to as a queen, so Tyrion’s fate isn’t exactly sealed.
Last but not least, the incident that gives this episode its name goes on in King’s Landing, where the High Septon is at a brothel (because of course he is), doing some sort of roleplay thing where the prostitutes are (barely) dressed up as the gods, and he gets to pick which two he wants to “worship” today. The camerawork in this scene is particularly egregious; not only is the Septon on his knees, so any shot of his face includes naked female crotch, there’s a couple of seconds where the “Maiden” walks toward the camera and we get a centered close-up of her ladybits. A bunch of Sparrows, including Lancel, come in and grab the High Septon and tell him he’s going to be punished. What follows is an abbreviated walk of shame that foreshadows Cersei’s later but also shows the serious discrepancies between how men and women are treated on this show. The Septon is shown briefly from behind and he’s smacked every time he tries to cover himself with his hands, but his scene lasts maybe a minute and the camera never pans below his belly in the front. Cersei’s walk, later in the season, involves extended, constant full-body nudity that lasts for an uncomfortably long time. The thing is, this juxtaposition isn’t even necessary, since the High Septon in the books (this is the third one) is murdered by Osney Kettleblack on Cersei’s orders because he was appointed by Tyrion and Cersei doesn’t trust him. The murder of a High Septon is one of the charges laid at Cersei’s feet during the Inquisition, one of the more serious ones. But this adaptation has taken away all of that and left the Sparrows only really concerned with sexual sin. The High Sparrow seems to be an early socialist, but the people getting punished aren’t greedy or mean to the smallfolk; they’re “sexual deviants” in some way. We’ll definitely get to all of that later in the season.
Cersei goes to make friends with the High Sparrow, already starting to weave him into her plans to get rid of Margaery. Spoiler alert: it goes very badly.
Next week: Loras goes to jail. Melisandre isn’t wearing underwear. Jaime and Bronn arrive in “Dorne.” A death in Meereen makes me really angry.
RIP: Janos Slynt
A worshipper at the House of Black and White
Number of times I used the word “gross” in this post: 8
All images from screencapped.net